Digging for Mummies

January 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

The 5,000-Year-Old PuzzleWhile my son and I were on the subject of excavating fossils, it seemed it might be logical to jump from paleontology to archaeology. It didn’t hurt that, over winter break, JP’s teacher had emailed me about tracking down some good books about Ancient Egypt (see list at the end). And so, one snowy night, JP and I sat down on the couch to read the Treasure Trove that is The 5,000-Year-Puzzle-Old Puzzle: Solving a Mystery of Ancient Egypt (Ages 6-12), by Claudia Logan, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.

An hour later, we were still reading it, my daughter and husband had joined us, and I almost couldn’t tear myself away to meet my girlfriends for a scheduled drink. Almost. I can’t think of a better introduction, not only to Ancient Egypt, but also to the painstaking role that archaeologists play in unearthing clues about ancient life. While the American boy and his father in the book are fictitious, they join an actual historic dig, led by a Harvard team of scientists, which occurred in 1924 at the Egyptian site of Giza 7000X, where a secret and unusually well-preserved tomb was discovered. Through a combination of actual historic records and the young boy’s first-person narrative, we learn about the team’s efforts to excavate this ancient site over the course of a year—including their continual revisions to hypotheses over whose tomb it was and why it was constructed in such a way. « Read the rest of this entry »

Learning from the Big Thinkers (Summer School Continues!)

June 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

On a Beam of LightAlbert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Then by this account, should we embrace the endless string of questions by our children throughout the day? A recent British study found that children ask on average 300 questions a day. I’m pretty sure that my almost six year old has this daily average beat by the thousands; and while there are many moments when I relish his curiosity, there are also times when I long for an “off” button. These last instances most frequently occur when we’re in the car, because there’s nothing like being locked in a metal box with your children to bring out their obsessions with a full, unadulterated intensity. “Why are the clouds moving that way? Is there going to be a storm? How do the weather people know there’s going to be a storm? What happens if lightning hits our car? Why does red have to mean stop?” (This last one as we pull up to a stoplight and I realize that I can’t expect his brain to pause just because the car does.)

I was driving back from the pool the other day (having been turned away by the threat of storm clouds), and I may or may not have erupted with “I can’t take it anymore!” But then, I had a rare flash of brilliance, and I declared, “It’s Mommy’s turn to ask questions.” I began my own litany of questions, only to discover that JP had answers waiting just as quickly as I could rattle them off. ‘”What are clouds made of?” (“Water droplets!”) “Why does a ball fall if you drop if in the air?” (“Gravity!”) “Why am I not hungry?” (“Because you probably ate enough lunch!”) “Wow,” I said, “you are just as good as answering questions as you are at asking them.” “That’s because I ask so many questions!” he roared, and he and his sister laughed their heads off for the next two minutes (I’ll take my breaks where I can get them).

I recently posted about the value of sharing picture book biographies with children, and I included a list focused on true stories of the Ordinary Doing Extraordinary. But, of course, we mustn’t neglect the born geniuses, the legendary minds, the Great Thinkers that are responsible for shaping our very understanding of the world. In recent years, a slew of exceptional artistic and richly informative picture books have emerged (see my list at the end of this post) to celebrate such minds as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and, most recently, Mr. Curiosity Himself: Albert Einstein.

Jennifer Berne’s On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (Ages 5-10) is the kind of book you’ll want to share with your kids when they’re five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Berne’s highly approachable narrative voice speaks directly to children (she first won me over in Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau). In Einstein’s case, she brings to life, not only Albert’s awe at the mysteries of the world, but also his many personality quirks—from his disruptive questioning in elementary school to the saggy, baggy clothes he always wore as an adult (“My feet are happier without socks!”). These quirks are further emphasized by Vladimir Radunksky’s loosely drawn pen, ink, and gouache drawings, at once frenetic and playful, serene and innocent, like little windows into Albert’s own ever-shifting imagination. In JP’s favorite spread, Albert imagines what it would be like to ride his bike up the beam of sunlight that’s shining down on the sidewalk in front of him. “And in his mind, right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road…he was racing through space on a beam of light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.”

I’m no physicist. In fact, I somehow managed to avoid taking a Physics class in both high school and college (I regret this now). I have never felt terribly confident talking about energy and heat and magnetism and motion with my children, and goodness knows what I’ll do when I have to help them with equations involving E = mc2. But here I am, reading this book—this beautiful literary depiction of these scientific concepts—and I think, “Why have I never realized that physics is everything?!” Like the searching, wondering eyes of our little ones, Albert sees everything as a question. How could “a lump of sugar dissolve and disappear into his hot tea?” How could the “smoke from his pipe…disappear into the air?” And, of course, what would happen if he traveled near the speed of light? (The answer: “Only minutes would pass for Albert, while years and years went by for the rest of us!”)

Albert “asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamt before.” Because of him, we were able to build spaceships and travel to the moon (there’s a great afterward that gets into more detail about the repercussions of Einstein’s discoveries, along with a list of additional reading material). Naturally, there are many questions still at large about how the universe works—and, fittingly, the book’s dedication reads, “To the next Einstein, who is probably a child now.” If my son and his peers are any indication, there’s likely a whole crop of future Big Thinkers out there. Children who won’t let a mere stoplight slow them down from asking their questions, questions, questions.

Here, kids are introduced to the idea that everything is made up of “teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—little bits called ‘atoms'" In a perfect marriage of text and illustration, Radunksky’s corresponding picture is broken up into hundreds of tiny dots ("Even this book is made of atoms!”).

Here, kids are introduced to the idea that everything is made up of “teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—little bits called ‘atoms'” In a perfect marriage of text and illustration, Radunksky’s corresponding picture is broken up into hundreds of tiny dots (“Even this book is made of atoms!”).

Other Favorite Picture Books About Great Scientific Minds:
Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein, by Don Brown (Ages 5-10)
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd (Ages 6-12)
Noah Webster and His Words, by Jeri Chase Ferris (Ages 6-10)
I, Galileo, by Bonnie Christensen (Ages 7-12)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer, by Robert Byrd (Ages 8-12)
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, by Peter Sis (Ages 8-12)

May’s Birthday Pick (A Story to Grow Up On)

May 7, 2013 Comments Off on May’s Birthday Pick (A Story to Grow Up On)

Miss Maple's SeedsIf you’re big into symbolism (or if you, like me, tear up when inscribing books for gifts), then you’re going to want to give Miss Maple’s Seeds to all the young seedlings celebrating birthdays this spring. There are lots of wonderful picture books about seeds (Jean Richards’ A Fruit is a Suitcase for Seeds and Bonnie Christensen’s Plant a Little Seed are two favorites), but none have the magical realism of Miss Maple’s Seeds (Ages 3-7), written and illustrated by newcomer Eliza Wheeler.

Miss Maple is an eccentric, not-quite-of-this-world sort (a bit like my neighbor, who converses with the chipmunks in her backyard). Out of her home inside a hundred-year-old Maple tree, she runs a kind of orphanage for lost seeds, dividing her time between searching for “seeds that got lost during the spring planting” and caring for those seeds until they’re strong enough to lay down roots of their own. “‘Take care, my little ones…for the world is big and you are small,’” she continually reminds her seeds—while bathing them, taking them on educational outings to learn about different soil types, reading to them at bedtime “by firefly light,” and giving them chances to practice “burrowing down into the muddy ground” during thunderstorms. “She’s taking care of them like they’re her babies!” my son was quick to point out, an observation that quickly captured the attention of his younger, doll-obsessed sister.

The story’s prose is unquestionably beautiful: lyrical, concise, and easy to connect back to our own children and the heroes (parents, relatives, teachers) that so lovingly and carefully nurture their growth. But it is Wheeler’s ink-and-watercolor illustrations, light and airy and with just a touch of whimsy, that make this gem soar. Sporting a willow weed hat, pointed nose, and delicate slit eyes, Miss Maple epitomizes tenderness in all that she does, whether sweeping her hearth to welcome the new seeds to her home or bidding each one farewell as she sends them down the river in lantern-lit leaf boats to find new homes.

One of the most enticing illustrations looks like something out of a naturalist’s guide, depicting 20 seeds with their species names captioned below in cursive writing (presumably from the hand of Miss Maple). From the fat acorn to the oval pumpkin seed to the single grain of wild rice, the page exhibits not only the visual diversity of nature’s seeds but also the magic that seems to lie within (a giant sunflower grows out of THAT?).

On the left, the page mentioned above with the seed pictures and  names. On the right, Miss Maple tenderly scrubbing the orphaned seeds.

On the left, the page mentioned above with the seed pictures and names. On the right, Miss Maple tenderly scrubbing the orphaned seeds.

We all need a little bit of Miss Maple’s tenderness in our own relationship with the earth, just like our own children need the reassurance that “even the grandest of trees once had to grow up from the smallest of seeds.” I dare you not to tear up when you copy that quote inside the cover of this book for your next gift.

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