A Fantastic Non-Fiction Series for Readers

A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to review Kid Artists… by David Stabler. I was so excited to find a captivating non-fiction chapter book for upper elementary and middle school aged readers. I was even more delighted to learn that there were more books in the series which includes Kid Presidents* and Kid Athletes*. 

Each book features true tales from a famous person’s childhood making it easy for readers to relate to them and deeply humanizing these important figures who would go on to become famous athletes of presidents. Readers do not need to know much about the person before reading the chapters. Instead of being grouped chronologically, they are grouped by a theme that connects them.

For example, read about Barack Obama’s experience being the new kid in town. He left his home in Hawaii as a young boy to live in Indonesia with his family. There he had a pet gibbon, a type of ape, that ate peanuts from his hand. As a kid, he had to adjust to many changes living in his new home in Indonesia and he faced a significant amount of bullying for looking different and not speaking the language. The chapter teaches about overcoming obstacles, standing up for yourself and encourages kids to become resilient.

  Though I am not a huge sports enthusiast, there are certain times that I am absolutely captivated by sports, including the Summer Olympics. I have a big fan of gymnastics and always amazed by the focus and dedication of the youngest athletes to their sport and art. Kid Athletes is perfect for readers who love sports and for those who have specific athletes they admire. I was obviously drawn to the chapter about Gabby Douglass, the first African American gymnast to win an individual all-around gold medal during the 2012 Olympics.

Her chapter is featured in the section of the book called Family Matters, which explores the important role family played in the childhoods of a group of athletes. As a young child, Gabby demonstrated an early aptitude for gymnastics which led to her joining a gymnastics gym with rigorous instruction and training. Here she encountered bullying due to discrimination and faced many racist remarks from her peers.

Gabby struggled to keep this to herself and it ended up impacting her performances. Meanwhile, her coaches accepted mediocrity at best from her and did not push her to excel in the way that she was fully capable. When she finally was able to connect with a coach who believed in her, she gained the courage to stand up for herself and her gymnastics career skyrocketed.

Each chapter of David Stabler’s books is carefully crafted in a way that is engaging and informative. Each has an important lesson that the readers can take away and apply to his or her own life. Doogie Horner’s illustrations add an element of comedy and help the reader envision what is happening in the text. The partnership between author and illustrator is perfect and I can’t wait to see what else this series has in store!

Click here to purchase a copy of Kid Presidents and Kid Athletes (affiliate links).

*I received complimentary copies of these books in exchange for my honest review.

 

Dustin Hansen and his Microsaurs

Microsaurs: Follow That Tiny-Dactyl is the first book in a series about tiny dinosaurs living in a top-secret laboratory. The main characters are best friends Danny and Lin who stumble upon the existence of the Microsaurs when they follow a tiny pterodactyl home from a skateboarding competition. They track it back to a mysterious house that reveals a fascination with these prehistoric creatures. The reader learns quickly that Danny is brave and Lin is braver, so the duo decides to dig deeper and find out more about the mysterious creature.

Throughout the story the characters learn the importance of teamwork and making sacrifices for friendship. This is a fast-paced story that is engaging for readers ages 7-10 with an interest in science, dinosaurs and adventure.

The Caterpillar corner had the awesome opportunity to interview Dustin Hansen about his writing process for Microsaurs: Follow That Tiny-Dactyl.  We hope you find Dustin Hansen’s responses to our questions as delightful as we did!

How did you come up with the idea for Microsaurs? 

Ideas are magic.

They arrive in the most random, strange, unexpected ways imaginable. For example, I’ve had ideas come to me while eating Fruit Loops. Once I was on the phone with my boss and BLAMO, right there in the middle of the conversation a totally unrelated idea blipped into my brainbox. (Thanks brainbox, could you pick a better time?). They show up while mowing the lawn, watching TV, sleeping – seriously, it is the most unpredictable thing in the world for me, and I’m probably not alone in this experience.

For Microsaurs, I was in the hospital and I’d been there for nearly a week. Long story, I’ll keep the details to myself. But I was BORED TO TEARS and I started daydreaming. No TV, no books, nothing else there to distract me. I was minding my own bored business, when a little question pop into my thought-noggin. What if the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct? What if they shrunk so small that we sort of forgot about them? What if they were still alive today? Then the title Microsaurs drifted by and I GRABBED IT!

I guess what all of these idea things have in common is that they are present a lot in our mind-melons. We just need to know when to listen and recognize when a good one floats by so we can be ready to snatch up the good ones.

What kind of research did you have to do, and how long did you spend researching before beginning this book?

 

I love research. I do it all the time. Sure, some people might think it’s just me buzzing through YouTube watching “Who Would Win Animal Battle” videos and “How To Cook With Peanut Butter” clips, but there is something great about filling the idea vault with loads of cool stuff. I call this filling the well, and it really is an important part of my writing process.

For Microsaurs, I did a lot of free form well filling, but I also studied about different types of dinosaurs, dinosaur anatomy (for the illustrations), the science of evolution, the concept of shrinking items in a lab. All kinds of nerdy and neat facts. But I also read a LOT of other books that were similar to Microsaurs. You know, fun, adventurous books like Mo O’Hara’s Zombie Goldfish books. Studying other writers that are super smart and funny is the best way to learn how to write a good book.

So, yeah. Hard to tell how much time I spent. Somewhere between 44 years (I don’t really remember much from my first 3 years on the planet) and 44 hours.

Are you characters Danny and Lin inspired by real people? 

 

YES! Danny, well I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t a little Marty McFly and a little bit Jerry Seinfeld. So, yeah, he’s not really based on a real person, but I like how Marty kind of falls into the right situation in the middle of a whole lot of bad situations, and how Jerry is funny, but still the most normal guy on the Seinfeld show.

But Lin, she’s totally based on my daughter, Malorie. Mal is full of whacky ideas, has no idea what fear is, and is generally good at everything she tries to do. Lin (and Malorie) both love critters of all kinds, especially critters that pack a punch, have teeth and stingers, and are probably venomous. But even spiny, scratchy, stingy creatures need love, Am I Right?

How much time did you spend writing, revising and editing Microsaurs?

More time than I did writing it, that’s for sure. I think the first draft of the Microsaurs: Follow That Tiny-Dactyl, took about 1 month to write. Then I threw it away and started over from scratch. The 2nd attempt was much better because I knew the characters better, but that meant it took longer, probably 2 months. Then the big revisions started. Another 2 or 3 months of back and forth with my writing group, my wife, my editor, my agent. And then another couple of weeks after the story was complete just tweaking words and fixing grammar and spelling errors. I’d say about six months total, give or take a few forgotten days.

Oh, and yeah, the illustrations went through basically the same process. It’s amazing how similar drawing is to writing when it comes down to it.

How does your experience working in the video game industry influence your writing?

Video game storytelling is VERY different than writing a book. One major difference is that in video games, the player (reader) is usually the main character in the game and they get to make a lot of choices that the game designer (or author) can’t control.

However, making video games taught me so much about writing in so many ways too. I learned how important it was to challenge your game player and put him or her in tough situations. This is exactly what you should do in writing too, put your main character in the worst possible predicament and let him or her figure their way out.

But perhaps the most important experience I gained from working in video games was how to work with a big team to make one creative project together. Sure, my name is on the cover of Microsaurs, but it takes a lot more than just me for a book to make it on the shelves. A whole puppy pile of creative minds rolled around in the land of the Microsaurs over the year it took me to put it all together, and each one brought a special voice, idea, or direction to the book.

What type of books did you enjoy reading as a kid? Did you have a favorite children’s author or book?

I loved non-fiction books about science, mechanics, cooking (I know, I’m strange), and facts. I once fell in love with a book about small engine repair so much that I pretended to lose it so I didn’t have to return it to the book-mobile. (sorry). I loved the cut away drawings of the engines and reading about how they worked. Good stuff.

But I also loved reading stories about struggle and imagination. The BFG is a great example of this kind of book. As was Robison Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. I adored all of those books, but perhaps the most influential book I read when I was young was Shel Silverstein’s Where The Sidewalk Ends. Every illustration was a masterpiece and the poems were not only clever, but smart. Still to this day I consider it one of my all-time favorite books.

If you could tell your younger self anything about being a writer, what would it be?

First of all, that I’d actually be a writer. My younger self would probably be very shocked, and perhaps a little disappointed to not be a cowboy.

Reading was VERY hard for me. I’m dyslexic, so I came to reading very slowly. Probably why I loved non-fiction tech books if I’m being honest. They were step by step, good slow digesters.

But, I was always a storyteller. I loved a big grandiose tale, and if I were going to go back and have a chat with wiggly little Dustin, I guess I’d read him this poem, because it wouldn’t have been written yet, but it is exactly the kind of dreamery I wish I would have known long ago.

“The Bridge”

This bridge will only take you halfway there 
To those mysterious lands you long to see: 
Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fairs 
And moonlit woods where unicorns run free. 
So come and walk awhile with me and share 
The twisting trails and wondrous worlds I’ve known. 
But this bridge will only take you halfway there- 
The last few steps you’ll have to take alone.

  • Shel Silverstein – 2010

At the end of the book, Professor Penrod leaves a super secret video message for Danny and Lin, suggesting that their encounters with the Microsaurs are far from over!

Click here to purchase a copy of Microsaurs: Follow That Tiny-Dactyl (affiliate link). 

 

 

A Must-Have Non-Fiction Chapter Book

As an upper elementary school teacher, it’s hard to find interesting and well-written non-fiction texts for kids ages 8-12. Non-fiction books for younger readers are easy to find, with amazing authors like Seymour Simon and Gail Gibbons. For middle-school-aged students, there are plenty of narrative non-fiction chapter books that are engaging. But for the middle-level reader, there seems to be an absence of rich, substantive non-fiction books for them to grow their skills as readers of this genre.

That’s why I get SO very excited when I discover a non-fiction book that is not only interesting and well-written, but perfect for this age group. Kid Artists: True Tales of Childhood From Creative Legends is one of these books.

Kid Artists… by David Stabler focuses on the childhoods of the most well-known artists, their lives before they became famous. The reader does not even need to know who the artist is in order to appreciate their experiences growing up. This book humanizes the legends, from Dr. Seuss to Keith Haring.

Each chapter features a different artist and the book is organized into three different sections: Call of the Wild, It’s a Hard-Knock Life, and Practice Makes Perfect.

For example, Georgia O’Keefe’s chapter is in the section Call of the Wild because she grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and drew so much of her inspiration from nature and the world around her. In her childhood, Georgia O’Keefe challenged gender norms, from her favorite pastimes to her preferred clothing. Readers can easily relate to the competitive dynamic among siblings as well as receiving and responding to academic criticism. For Georgia O’Keefe, art became a way of expressing herself and communicating with others.

 

Kids will be delighted to read the chapter about Ted Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss. Ted Geisel grew up near a zoo and he spent a lot of time as a child studying and drawing animals, though his drawings did not resemble the real living ones. His animals were imaginary and wonderful. Word-play was also a big part of his upbringing, which contributed to his interest in language.

When the U.S. went to war with Germany, Ted Geisel became the target of teasing for being a German-American. He stood up to the bullying and became determined to demonstrate his patriotism. Kids will learn about the importance of advocating for social justice and how Ted Geisel’s own experiences with discrimination and intolerance influenced his work as a children’s book creator.

There are so many aspects of Kid Artists that make it a strong non-fiction book. It is ideal in that it is organized into sections and chapters. Kids can examine why the author made the decision to arrange the book this way and how each chapter connects to the greater section. Within each chapter, readers can be challenged to examine the cause and effect relationships, how events or experiences in each artist’s childhood impacted his/her later work. Not to mention, readers do not have to read this book from beginning to end, they can use the table of contents to decide what chapters are interesting to them and read just those sections.

Doogie Horner’s illustrations are peppered throughout each chapter. They support the text, helping the reader envision elements of the text, while adding elements of humor to keep the reader engaged.

*I received a complimentary copy of Kid Artists: True Tales of Childhood From Creative Legends in exchange for my honest review.

 

Click here to purchase a copy of this book (affiliate link).

 

 

The Perfect Chapter Book for Friday the 13th

Warren the 13th is a peculiar 12-year-old boy and heir to the Warren Hotel. Saying he is hardworking is an understatement as he is the hotel’s bellhop, waiter, groundskeeper, and chimney sweep, among his huge list of other responsibilities. His father, Warren the 12th, passed away years ago and since he was too young to be in charge his uncle Rupert came to run things. Sadly for Warren, his uncle is rather lazy and at times exhibits evidence of narcolepsy, which led the hotel to fall quickly into disrepair.

One day a mysterious and unexpected guest arrives. His face is wrapped in bandages and he communicates by using a deck of picture cards. Despite how overwhelmingly strange this guest is, Warren does his best to be a great bellhop, welcoming him even though he seems unappreciative and impatient. Warren gives him the not so original nickname of Paleface.

When Warren’s wicked step-aunt Annaconda learns of the new guest’s arrival, she becomes irritated and paranoid. She asks many many questions and then starts asking if he mentioned the All-Seeing Eye, a mysterious treasure that is rumored to be hidden inside the hotel. We quickly learn that Annaconda is cruel, reminiscent of many of Roald Dahl’s evil characters, including the Twit and Miss Trunchbull. And thus begins the search for the All-Seeing Eye, each character trying to find it faster than the other.

Warren the 13th* is a clever and quirky book that fuses adventure and humor. The reader must pay close attention to small clues and keep track of details throughout this fast-paced chapter book. The Edward Gorey-esque illustrations by Will Staehle are really captivating and add to the emotion of the text.

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye is perfect for kids ages 8-14. This book would be a huge hit in my 4th grade class as a read aloud, and my 5th graders would have loved to read it independently. Click here to purchase a copy of the book (affiliate link). 

*I received a complimentary copy of Warren the 13th in exchange for my honest review.

 

Saving Mr. Terupt

Saving Mr. Terupt is the 3rd book in this series by Rob Buyea. Each chapter of the book is written from the point of view of one of the seven different narrators. As this is the third book with the same characters, I began to feel very familiar with the characters as if I’m seeing them grow up before my eyes.

In the first book, Because of Mr. Terupt, the characters are in 5th grade. I’d recommend that book for use in 4th-5th grade classes. In the sequel Mr. Terupt Falls Again, the students are now in 6th grade and the content of the story becomes more mature. In this third book, Mr. Terupt’s crew has moved on to 7th grade at the local middle school. The content becomes more serious, dealing with bullying, health issues and school budgets. But once again, this is a story about friendship and perseverance.

I am a big fan of the Mr. Terupt series. I think the characters and the issues they face are realistic. I would recommend the 1st book to upper elementary aged students. This book may even make a great whole-class read aloud that taught into different points of view and the importance of empathy in life. In the past, I’ve had 4th and 5th graders devour the first book and then ask to read the next two. I usually check in with their parents, give them a heads up about the content and get the okay from them before lending out my copies. I would recommend the entire series for 6th grade and up.

Click here to purchase a copies of Because of Mr. TeruptMr. Terupt Falls Again, and  Saving Mr. Terupt (affiliate links). 

A Remarkable Book About Starting Over

Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan was a popular book in my 5th grade class last year. It was one of those books that students asked to read even though it was above most of their reading levels.

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Intended for students in grade 5 and up, Counting By 7s is the remarkable story about Willow Chance, a 12-year-old genius whose adoptive parents are killed in a car accident at the very beginning of the story. Though Willow is highly intelligent, she has a difficult time navigating social interactions. To say that she is misunderstood is an understatement. For example, she aces a school test, and is then recommended for counseling because the administration thinks she cheated. At the same time, Willow is unusual. She learns Vietnamese in order to impress a new friend, Mai. She is an expert botanist, with an unprecedented appreciation for plants.

Through the story the reader is challenged to examine the little things, or perhaps the more subtle things, in life.

“Open your eyes, people. This is amazing. If plants made sounds, it would all be different. But they communicate with color and shape and size and texture. They don’t meow or bark or tweet. We think they don’t have eyes, but they see the angle of the sun and the rise of the moon. They don’t just feel the wind; they change because of it. Before you think I’m crazy (which is always a possibility), look outside. Right now. I’m hoping that your view isn’t of a parking lot or the side of a building.”

(As I read Counting By 7s, I found myself literally laughing out loud many times. This was just one of them.)

Willow moves in with Mai, her mother Pattie and her brother Quang-ha. Pattie is a strong woman who owns her own nail salon. She wishes the only color nail polish they used was red, since it symbolizes luck. Pattie shows us that sometimes you have to take a chance and open your heart, and in this case home, to someone in need. Throughout the story, she provides the voice of reason. She responds to challenges quickly and with confidence. Pattie says, “What we expect rarely occurs; what we don’t expect is what happens,” which summarizes not only what is happening in the story, but what happens in our lives.

For many of the characters, Willow brings about positive changes, not before forcing them to take a hard look at their lives and take responsibility for their actions. One by one, the characters confront their obstacles and they gain the courage to move forward. At one point, Mai’s brother Quang-ha, with whom Willow has had a strained relationship, says, “I don’t want to know how you did it. I want to believe that you’re magic.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review about The Book Thief and I said, if you read just one more book…, well now I’m revising that to say, please read two more books. Holly Goldberg Sloan brings to life several complex characters in this heartbreaking then heart-mending story. This is a story about life and loss, friendship and love, and having the strength and courage to move forward.