Monday, March 29, 2010

Classic Monday: How to Eat Fried Worms

How to Eat Fried Worms, by Thomas Rockwell, was first published in 1953. You might think that a book this old just wouldn't translate well for modern kids, but the premise -- a bet between some boys that one of them will eat fifteen worms in fifteen days -- possesses just enough of that gross-out factor to still be attractive to kids everywhere.

Billy accepts the challenge from his friends Joe and Alan. On the line is Alan's savings -- $50. Most of the book is consumed with Billy eating worms and Alan and Joe trying to trick or otherwise prevent him from doing it so they won't lose the bet.

This isn't a long book, only about 145 pages, and in some ways not a lot happens. A full chapter is devoted to the first worm Billy manages to eat, and it's mainly description of him chewing and swallowing with great determination. Other chapters are similarly devoted to Alan and Joe's tactics -- sometimes straightforward, sometimes underhanded -- as they try to keep Billy from eating his worms. Worms are boiled, fried, slathered in horseradish sauce, buried in ice cream -- whatever necessary for Billy to get them down. And he can't just swallow them: he has to chew them up.

I read this one aloud to my 6 year old about a month ago and he really liked it. Our edition had the original illustrations in it, line drawings of some of the events, and that helped him stay on track with the story. He was particularly fascinated with the idea of eating the worms and we talked quite a bit about whether or not we would be willing to eat a worm to win a bet, what we'd need to put on it to eat it, how it should be cooked, etc. It's revolting stuff like this that just reels boys in and my kid was no exception.

This one worked well as a read-aloud, although Rockwell sometimes tends to write in loose fragmentary sentences that can get kind of confusing as you're reading along. I probably wouldn't go much younger than 6 for read aloud. Accelerated reader puts this one at a 3.5 for grade level and that seems about right for independent reading. It is a book often recommended for boys since all the characters are boys and the subject matter is one that appeals to boys, but my 8 year old daughter read it last summer and liked it too. There's no swearing, no violence, nobody gets killed or blown up and yet it's still a good book. Go figure.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa

I have a pony lover at my house. Because of that, I have endured countless hours of My Little Pony books and videos. As books go, My Little Pony isn't going to win the Caldecott Medal any time soon. It might win the Fast Pass to a Headache Award, or maybe the Crushingly Boring Medal, but great literature it ain't.

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa, by Erica Silverman, has been a lifesaver in a world otherwise populated with pink and purple ponies that all have hair like Pamela Anderson.

This is a nice little series that works well as either read-aloud books or as early chapter books for emerging readers. It's on a par with Henry and Mudge or Mr. Putter and Tabby -- short line lengths, easier but not babyish vocabulary, lots of colorful pictures. Each book is broken into 4 chapters and the situations the characters deal with are on a fairly simple order.

What I like about these books is the character of Cocoa, Cowgirl Kate's horse. He's miffy, a little selfish, always hungry, prone to misunderstanding and just generally kind of a pill. My 3 year old daughter loves him and even my 6 year old son laughed at some of his antics when I was reading aloud one day (he says he didn't but I heard him giggle).

The illustrations are so nice -- bright and fun. You may recognize the style: Betsy Lewin has also illustrated Click Clack Moo: Cows that Type and the Duck books that it spawned (Giggle Giggle Quack, Duck for President, etc.) She lends a nice touch of whimsy to the books.

The situations have a nice balance of friendship and humor and respect. In Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Partners, Cocoa doesn't want new horseshoes. He'd rather have cowboy boots like Cowgirl Kate. She patiently lets him try on one of her boots until he admits it doesn't fit. Later in the same book, Cowgirl Kate has to coax Cocoa (say that three times fast!) into doing their chores, reminding them that they are partners and must stick together. When he splashes into the pond with her after their work is done, she says "Couldn't you go swimming without me?" and he reminds her that they are partners "through wet and dry." It's sweet, but with a light touch.

It's a lovely series that makes a welcome change from the sugary world of the pastel ponies. The stories have actual content, rather than mindless activity (read enough MLP books and you will know what I mean). This one is good as a read-aloud from about age 3 and up, though I think you could go younger if you had a real horse lover. It should be good as an early chapter book through age 6 and possibly through age 7 (Second Grade) depending on your reader. It should be readily available at your library or in paperback through your favorite bookseller.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Scientists in the Field

Every so often, I run across a series that just wows me. Scientists in the Field is just such a series. These are rich books -- full of scientific and natural information, as well as information about scientific process.

The series, which is published by Houghten Mifflin Harcourt, has about 15 books in it. It's hard to get an exact number because Houghten Mifflin Harcourt's website doesn't list all their titles and a search by series title on Barnes and Noble or Amazon doesn't bring up all the titles. But, suffice it to say that there are quite a few of them and they are diverse enough to appeal to a wide range of interests.

There were so many possiblilities for us to check out. Tree Kangaroos --so sweet! This was a nice one about the difficulties in tracking this very shy and elusive animal. Stunning photography, too.

Like frogs? Here's one for you that will tell you tons of cool stuff about frogs and how scientists study them.

Here's one for older kids. It's a little more abstract, but highly interesting. If you have an 8-12 year old who is studying pollution or the ocean, this would be a good one.

Now, you may be wondering whether Bookivore has read all of these. The answer is no. I let my children pick one from the library and the one they picked was this:

They did this on purpose because they know I hate spiders and they think it's funny to make me read books to them about spiders. ESPECIALLY books with pictures like this:
Oh my. What I have to do when I read stuff like this is keep my eyes on the text and pretend the other stuff just isn't there. BUT, I will say that the scientific information was so interesting, and so well presented, that I was completely reeled in, in spite of my severe arachnophobia.

The book profiled an Arachnologist from Hiram University in Ohio as he traveled through French Guiana in search of Goliath Birdeater Tarantulas. Not just spiders -- big, hairy spiders. There was lots of detail about how scientists ask questions and frame experiments and I found myself kind of fascinated. I didn't know that spiders molt -- shed their skins -- and that this is kind of a delicate and dangerous procedure for them. Do I enjoy looking at molted spider skins as pictured in the book? No. But it was interesting to learn about it.

If spiders aren't your thing, there are thankfully many other options. Whales, for example. Whales I can really get into.

Or maybe the Great Apes. Love Gorillas.

Yikes! More bugs. Why do people let them crawl on their faces? Makes me shiver. However, this is just the kind of gross-out factor that appeals to my almost-7-year-old son, so this one will be coming home with us soon.

I am not particularly freaked out by snakes, but some people are. These books are loaded with photographs, many of them close ups, so if you tend to flip around snakes, you might want to avoid this one.

It's got pictures in it like this:

The range of interests and habitats is impressive -- there are even books about searching for extra terrestrials and anthropology -- the study of human groups. I find the whole idea of learning about what specific scientists do a refreshing change from all the books we've read about animal species.

The age range for this series is listed as 8-12, and it would be that for independent reading, but my 6 and a half year old was riveted by the tarantula book, which I read aloud. My 8 year old could have read it easily herself.

We borrowed the hardcovers, but they are available in paperback. The hardcovers are $15, the paperbacks are $8. I think they'd be a valuable supplement to a homeschool science curriculum.

They are anywhere from 60-80 pages in length and at the back they include glossaries of the terms used (waaaaayy more spider terms and factoids than I ever wanted to know. I now know what pedipalps are and that spider fangs are white like walrus tusks after they molt --bleah).

These could also be used in the summer as a way to keep those little brain cells working. The way the information is presented really gives kids a model to follow in testing their own hypotheses. They could be used in conjunction with nature hikes or other outdoor experiences. If you're brave, you could let them study spiders in a jar. Or snakes. Or frogs.

We will continue to check these out of our library (because why would I want to own a huge, hairy spider book?). A truly wonderful series -- go give 'em a try.
All pictures courtesy of

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Wonder of the World

My eldest daughter has been reading a book called The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs for her guided reading group at school. As a part of her "enrichment" for this book, she has been required to come up with her own wonders -- the Wonders of Our Town, as it were. The first wonder she decided on -- entirely without my prompting, I swear -- was our local library.

She wrote it all up with an explanation of why it was a wonder, included a couple images from the web, and turned it in. Her teacher told her she would accept the assignment but -- here's the kicker -- "a library isn't really a wonder."

Excuse me?

Now, you're all going to have to sit back while Bookivore gets on her soapbox a bit. A library isn't a wonder? It most certainly is, sister, and I'm going to tell you why.

Notwithstanding the fact that lists of the Wonders of the Ancient World are somewhat fluid, and that the Great Library at Alexandria was one of the most famous scholarly attainments of the ancient world, the modern library stands as one of the most amazing social institutions humans have ever come up with.

Trinity Library

Libraries back in the day were the privilege of the wealthy. If you had money, you could buy books, which because they were hand copied and hand bound were quite expensive. If you had a lot of money, you could buy a lot of books. Ten books in the time of say, the Venerable Bede (around 700 AD), for an average citizen (i.e., not a monk) was a massive collection. Only monasteries and kings had true libraries.

Atheneaum Club Library, London

Even after the invention of the printing press began to put more books in the hands of the lower classes, libraries were not for the masses. Some libraries were housed by gentlemen's clubs. A lending library, of the kind mentioned in Jane Austen's books, was enjoyed by subscription only -- you paid a fee for the luxury of borrowing books and newspapers.

Contrast that with today's libraries, where anyone, regardless of income, class, race or political leaning can obtain a card for free and borrow books, DVDs, CDs, and audiobooks, as well as access newspapers, magazines and reference materials.

According to NPR, about 100 million Americans don't have access to the Internet. Well, at the library they do. And for that, you don't even need a card.

Children's Library, Japan

Children's libraries, which are very much a thing of the last century or so, are even more wonderful. They are about the business of putting books into the hands of children, which we all know is a springboard to improved achievement in school.

They provide sunny, creative places for children to enjoy reading and explore literature. And beyond that, they often offer a multitude of programs to introduce children to books and encourage them to use the library.

Central Lakes College Children's Library, Minnesota

All my children went to story time at the library, which in our community is available for children from birth through the preschool years. As they get older, there are book clubs, bedtime story activities (come to the library in your jammies -- cool!) and a host of other awesome programs.

Bridgeport Children's Library, West Virginia

Today, during our Spring Break, we went to the library and saw a magician. Not only did he do magic for the kids, but he spent a good portion of the hour teaching them tricks. Each child got a magic kit to take home with props for 5 tricks they learned this morning and a booklet detailing 20 more they could teach themselves. There was a cart at the back of the room full of books about magic -- stories about magicians and magic shows and how-to books for those who wanted to learn more sleight of hand tricks. About 60 kids were there, ranging in age from 3 to 10. And the whole thing was free.


Princeton Children's Library

Over the last few years, my children have heard professional storytellers, touched animals from the zoo, and made any number of crafts on Drop In Craft Day. They love the library, and with good reason.

Forest Library, Seoul, Korea

A hundred years ago, such a place would have been unthinkable. Nowhere else have education and literature and history and achievement and encouragement and information and technology come together in such a fantastic display of democratic spirit. And all for free. A library absolutely is a wonder.

And don't you forget it.

Images from,,,, National Diet Library, Fairfield CT Children's Library, Central Lakes College Library (MN), Bridgeport West Virginia Library, Princeton Children's LIbrary from; Forest Library in Korea courtesy of Seoul Forest

Monday, March 8, 2010


Fire, labeled as a companion to Graceling, by Kristin Cashore, is every bit as strong as Cashore's debut novel, and a darn good read. Unfortunately, it is once again targeted to an audience for whom some of its subject matter is just not going to be appropriate.

Fire is a monster, which in the fictional kingdom of the Dells means she possesses unnatural coloring (her hair is flaming red -- poppy, vermillion, fuschia), unnatural beauty, and the unnatural power to control others with her mind. The Dells are home to many kinds of monsters -- royal blue leopards, chartreuse birds of prey, lavender mice -- all of whom have this power to control with the mind, though in varying degrees. Oddly enough, the food they crave the most is other monsters, so Fire is constantly in danger of being monster lunch.

Human monsters are rare and their lives are deeply complicated. Either loathed for their abilities or over-loved for their eerie beauty, they are perpetually in danger. The book is very clear that one danger Fire faces wherever she goes is rape -- some men simply can't control themselves around a monster woman.

Fire is caught up in the royal family's attempt to thwart an overthrow of the kingdom by a pair of rebel lords. The reason the kingdom is in such a sorry, vulnerable state is because Fire's father, also a monster, helped run it into the ground with the previous king. Fire is trying as hard as she can to be different from her pleasure-loving, thoughlessly cruel father. And she is, but many assume the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. There is a second plot involving a character from Graceling where Fire becomes the target of a monster-collector.

This book is listed as "grade 9 and up" but to me, that's far too young. Right from the beginning, it's made clear that Fire, who is 17, has a lover. The book does not describe their encounters explicitly at all, but their relationship is casual and Fire has no desire to make it permanent by marrying Archer. Archer, her childhood friend and lover, is not faithful to Fire. He has a number of casual rolls in the hay, two of which result in pregnancies. Cansrel, Fire's father, is portrayed as extremely cruel. He almost certainly kills a dog of Fire's that nips her accidentally. Likewise the book tells us he has compelled women to sleep with him, then killed the women who became pregnant, not wishing to share his world with any monster children, even his own. He is a drug addict and a sadist and he feels that his mind power entitles him to control others. The former king punishes one of his lords by having his wife raped. He punishes his Queen's lover by having his legs crushed. Many people get killed in this book, mostly minor characters, but one or two major ones. And their deaths have emotional repercussions -- these aren't comic book deaths. In fact, Cansrel's death (and life) continue to have far-reaching consequences for Fire and the royal family.

If you read my earlier review of Graceling, you'll know I like Kristin Cashore's books. I just can't figure out why publishers think these books are for kids 14 and up. Infidelity, rape, casual sex, sadistic cruelty, murder...I don't know. It just doesn't scream "Kid Book" to me. I enjoyed this book -- in fact, I could hardly put it down -- but it's a book for adults.