Fuzzy Mud

There’s a lot packed into this short intermediate/middle grade novel from Louis Sachar. In 181 pages, Sachar creates a plausible biohazard mystery that is focused on a well-developed central character, tackles tough topics such as divorce, bullying, environmental issues, and Hobson’s Choice, having to choose between two bad options.

Chapter book, fiction, suspense, mystery, environment
Interest level: grades 4-7; Reading level: 5.0
4 out of 5 stars

Tamaya is a fifth grader at a private school in Pennsylvania. She is dealing with her parents’ divorce, and with the hard parts of moving from childhood into preadolescence. Tamaya isn’t allowed to walk home from school alone, but her older friend Marshall isn’t thrilled with her tagging along with him.

One day, Marshall takes a shortcut through the woods behind the school. He is trying to avoid a fight with the school bully, Chad. Tamaya is worried because they are not supposed to go into the woods, but she follows along. This detour sets into play a series of events that puts Tamaya, Marshall, and Chad in serious danger.

The kids stumble across fuzzy mud puddles in the woods. Strangely, even though it is getting colder and the trees are shedding their leaves, no leaves lie on top of the fuzzy mud. After Tamaya gets home that evening, she realizes that where some of the strange mud got on her hand, she has a tingling sensation and rash. When Chad is missing from school the next day, the story picks up tempo and pulls the reader into the intrigue and suspense that seems to surround the strange mud.

Fuzzy Mud features short chapters that alternate between Tamaya’s story and testimony from a U.S. Senate inquiry into a form of alternative energy called Biolene. The testimony portion of the novel may be slightly confusing to some young readers, but they should get the gist. Scientists, looking for a clean form of energy to power the planet, developed man-made microorganisms that can be burned as clean fuel. But is it safe?

What I really liked about Fuzzy Mud was that Sachar didn’t hold back in providing difficult topics or positions for his young readers to tackle. He presents the idea that science, even sometimes with the best intentions, can sometimes be bad for people or the environment, and lawmakers need to determine if some bad is okay for the greater good of society. Hobson’s Choice.

He also crafts multi-dimensional characters that are very real. Chad, the bully in the story, is
not a sympathetic character in the beginning, yet Sachar thrusts him into a role that shows his vulnerabilities. His victims have to decide whether they will help him at a time when he is showing his ugliest side. Again, Sachar puts his characters in difficult positions that require young readers to think about how they might react.

This book would be good for students who like suspense or mysteries, or who are interested in environmental issues. Its shorter length makes it appealing to a wide audience. The length and tough questions that readers encounter make this an optimal class read-aloud for 5th grade and up.

Fuzzy Mud
by Louis Sachar
Delacorte Press, 2015
ISBN 978-0-385-74378-5

The Bear Report

A young girl undertakes a magical journey as she is working on a school report about polar bears.

Picture book, fiction
Interest level: K-3; Reading level: 1.2
YHBA picture book nominee, 2017-2018
5 out of 5 stars

The book opens with a young girl who is hurries through a book report on polar bears so she can watch TV. She writes three things: they are big; they eat things; they are mean.
Suddenly, a polar bear is crowded onto a chair in her living room. He informs her, “We’re not all mean.” Thus begins a wonderful excursion where Sophie visits Olafur’s environment and begins to learn that there’s a lot more beauty, excitement, and interesting facts about polar bears than she originally thought.
With sparse text and stunning watercolor and pencil illustrations, Thyra Heder provides a few facts about polar bears, but more importantly she inspires a wonder for more knowledge. The story ends with Sophie actively researching and creating tons of notes and illustrations about polar bears, but I believe that the true magic of this book is that it could be read to young children as an engagement activity to get them interested in their own arctic animal research.

There is a brief Author’s Note in the back that talks about the author’s trip to Iceland and what inspiration she found there. Additionally, many kudos to Abrams for responsibly sourcing the paper for the book!

The Bear Report
by Thyra Heder
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015
ISBN 978-1-4197-0783-4

Animal Ark: Celebrating our wild world in poetry and pictures

Animal Ark is a visual treat that combines animal photographs with haiku poetry.

Picture book, nonfiction, poetry
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 4.3
4 out of 5 stars

This is a very interesting picture book collaboration between Joel Sartore, founder of the National Geographic Photo Ark, and Kwame Alexander, the Newbery medal winning poet. While I was first interested in reading this book because of my love for all things Kwame Alexander writes, I must admit that I think the photographs steal the spotlight.
All of the animals are shown with either a white or black background. This lets the reader really focus on some of the details that can be noticed in the close-up photographs. The other thing the lack of background does is renders each animal at roughly the same size. Frogs, birds, tigers, millipedes all appear the same size. This was intentional on the photographer’s part as he didn’t want any animal to appear larger or more important than the others. It reflects the idea that all creatures are equally important to the world.

In the Note from the Photographer at the back of the book, Sartore states:

By introducing the entire world to thousands of photographs of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and even insects, I hope we can get everyone following, liking, texting, tweeting, and even talking about this wondrous world of ours…I want people around the world to look these animals in the eye, and then fall in love with creatures as dazzling as a pheasant or as odd as an octopus. And once we love something, won’t we do anything to save it?

Alexander has provided the poetry to narrate the story of the different animals. This is not a picture book that is meant to educate about the animals that we see, but is instead meant to make us feel and connect us to them. For most of the book, each animal has a three-line, haiku-style poem that captures the essence of the animal. In the Note from the Writer, Alexander makes a connection between poetry and photographs:

Both have the ability to bypass the skin and enter through the heart, transforming what is often difficult to convey into something universal.

Located roughly in the middle of the book is a longer narrative style poem, surrounded by small photos of more animals. This poem is meant to connect the reader, a human, with the world of the animals and implores us to “take care of our home.”

Animal Ark is a young reader companion book to the larger work, Photo Ark. Children will love to look at the stunning photographs, where they will notice new details about even the most familiar of animals. The short poems that accompany each photograph enhance the mood of the animal image and sound wonderful when read aloud. The longer poem on the full-page gatefold might be over the heads of very young children, but could be used with older children to open conversations about extinct and endangered animals.

A funny, blooper-style outtakes video showing the photographer at work can be found here: https://shop.nationalgeographic.com/product/books/books/animals-and-nature/the-photo-ark. This would be a hit at a read aloud of the story!

More information about the Photo Ark project can be found on the National Geographic website: http://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/photo-ark/

Animal Ark: Celebrating our wild world in poetry and pictures
Photographs by Joel Sartore; Words by Kwame Alexander
National Geographic, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4263-2767-4

Seeds of Change; 4 out of 5 stars #bookaday

by Jen Cullerton Johnson; illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler
Lee & Low Books, New York, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-60060-367-9
Description: 40 p. : col. ill. ; 26 cm.
Dewey: 333.72
Subject: Narrative nonfiction; biography; Kenya; conservation; environment; women’s rights
Interest Level: 3-6; Reading Level: 4.8
Lexile measure: 820
Awards: Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent in Illustrations; YHBA nominee
4 out of 5 stars
Summary from the publisher: “A picture book biography of scientist Wangari Maathai, the first African woman – and first environnmentalist – to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for planting trees in her native Kenya. Detailed narrative and vibrant images paint a robust portrait of this inspiring champion of women’s rights and the environment and engagingly capture the people, clothing and landscape of Kenya.”

Evaluation: This biography not only tells the story of Wangari Maathai, but also provides information about the culture of the Kikuyu people. The text flows chronologically and reads like narrative fiction. Children will be interested to learn that most women are not sent to school and that big corporations at one time were destroying the Kenyan landscape.

The scratchboard and oil illustrations are visually captivating and match the tone and style of the text. They invoke images of a green and colorful country. The illustration style resembles quilts and will keep the read-aloud listeners engaged.

The author’s sources are listed in the back of the book, along with a brief update on Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. I recommend this book for both independent reading as well as read-alouds.