‘Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson’ is a powerful book that encompasses decades of civil rights struggles and discrimination

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“Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson” is a very powerful book. Not only is the story of Katherine Johnson’s life inspiring, but the story she tells is filled with emotion and facts and history, and the way she combines them all into this middle grade book is superb.

From the age of four, Katherine was a prodigy. Of course, it helped that her parents valued education and taught their children at home even before they started school. But when Katherine’s older brother had a hard time in math, her mother sent her to school with him to help him. The teachers at the small, segregated school were amazed at Katherine’s abilities, and she began to attend school in her own right.

Readers will cringe when, in spite of a college degree in mathematics, Katherine and her college-educated husband had to take jobs as housekeeper and handyman for a wealthy white couple because those were the best-paying jobs they could get. Johnson paints a picture of a segregated South, and she doesn’t mince words when she describes the unwillingness and downright refusal of the Southern states to follow federal law after the Supreme Court held in Brown v Board of Education that segregation was unconstitutional.

In fact, adult readers might just learn something about the history of segregation. Even after reading many books and novels about segregation, I had never heard the term massive resistance. That was when many Southern states passed state laws declaring that any public school that integrated its students would not receive state funding. That effectively stopped any schools that might have considered integrating from doing so. In fact, Johnson points out that her brother and sister benefitted from something that many Southern colleges and universities did during that time to avoid integration — they provided scholarships so that students of color would attend other universities and not integrate their institutions.

But Johnson doesn’t just provide a history of segregation and discrimination in the 20th century. She writes about her love of math and teaching math, and she writes about NASA and the contributions she and other women of color made to the space program.

Johnson’s love of mathematics shines through the story. Often she counts things and uses numbers to tell the story. It’s what she says about the teaching of math that strikes home with this teacher, me, who teaches math to elementary-age students. Johnson writes:

“Back then, just as today, some teachers merely taught right and wrong answers. I don’t agree with that approach. I taught students to understand the background of what they were working on, how to figure out what the problem was and then how to attack it. Because if you approach any problem properly, you’ll get the answer. If you don’t get it the first time, you’ll get it the second time. Int he meantime, you’ll experience the joy of learning and have the tremendous satisfaction that comes with figuring something out on your own. That is much better than just solving the question on a test.”

In fact, Johnson loved teaching math because she felt that often teachers didn’t have any passion for math, and sometimes their students ended up intimidated by the subject. She notess, “If you want to know the answer to something, you have to ask a question. Always remember that there’s no such thing as a dumb question except if it goes unasked.” Teachers like me will love seeing this statement, something we tell students over and over, written by a famous mathematician. Maybe finally students will believe it.

Space aficionados will love learning the fact that John Glenn demanded that Johnson go through the data from the computer and check it for accuracy before he got into the rocket and orbited the Earth three times. That fact was in the movie “Hidden Figures, based, in part, on Johnson’s life.” The story of the evolution of the space program is fascinating, but every part of Johnson’s story is equally gripping.

Johnson offers us her personal stories throughout the book, sharing details about her siblings, her parents, her children, and her first and second husband. Readers will cry along with Johnson when her first husband gets sick, and they will get angry at the instances of discrimination that occur regularly and all-too often throughout Johnson’s life.

But the tale of determination and love that shines through this autobiography makes it one that will stand out as an extremely readable and relatable nonfiction book for middle grade readers. It’s a nonfiction book that reads like fiction, and it would be a great read aloud.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, for review purposes.

 

‘Betrayal in Time’ by Julie McElwain is a wonderful mystery/scifi/historical fiction novel

betrayal in time

“Betrayal in Time” by Julie McElwain is the fourth novel in which Kendra Donovan, a 21st century FBI agent, is unwittingly sent to the past while trying to avenge the deaths of  most of her team. Her goal is to kill the culprit in England. When someone beats her to the kill, she escapes up a staircase and ends up in 1815, in England.

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‘Spin the Dawn’ by Elizabeth Lim is an engrossing fantasy about a young girl whose ambition proves world-changing

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In a fictional world reminiscent of ancient China, Elizabeth Lim creates “Spin the Dawn,” the story of Maia, daughter of a tailor who is as skilled as any tailor but who is barred from the profession because of her gender. Her father has lost his ambition since the death of Maia’s mother, and two of her brothers were killed in the Emperor’s war. Now, it’s just Maia supporting the family.

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‘Storm Blown’ by Nick Courage is a middle grade adventure during a terrible hurricane

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In “Storm Blown,” author Nick Courage writes about a fictional hurricane and two of the children whose lives are affected by that storm. He’s not writing about just any storm, though. This is a once-in-a-lifetime storm, a storm that is fickle and doesn’t behave as storm experts expect. Because the story is told from many perspectives, including that of a storm expert, readers get the benefit of learning about not only storms, but human behavior.

Alejo lives with his grandfather in Puerto Rico while his mother tries to earn enough money in the United States to bring him to live with her. He’s content on the island, though, and he helps his grandfather at the resort where his grandfather works. At the start of the story, his grandfather has gone home, leaving Alejo to watch the excitement at the resort as most guests check out while a few intrepid visitors decide to brave the storm. He’s watching the news reporters as they brave the wild surf to film the storm.

Emily lives with her parents and brother in New Orleans. Her brother has been very ill, and her mother worries so much about germs that Emily’s not allowed to visit with her brother Elliot in his room. So instead of hanging out with her brother and wandering the zoo and parks in New Orleans, Emily decides to go out alone. She ends up on a small island that is accessed by a shallow lake, and she befriends an injured Canada goose and a turtle. She has no idea that New Orleans is about to be hit with the huge storm, and her phone quickly loses its charge, so her family can’t get through to her.

Other points of view include that of Silas, Emily’s father, who works on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico; a petrel caught up in the storm; and Joy, who works at the National Climatic Research Center. It’s through Joy’s eyes that we learn about hurricanes and national disasters. Joy reports that there are at least ten natural disasters in the United States each year that cause over a billion dollars’ worth of damage. Those are called BDDs – Billion Dollar Disasters.

The points of view from diverse characters in diverse locations makes it impossible to predict how their lives will intersect, but with unpredictable storms and unpredictable children, anything is possible. Young readers will enjoy the edge-of-your-seat excitement, wondering what will happen during Hurricane Valerie. Older readers might remember Hurricane Katrina and other hurricanes that caused terrific damage in lives and dollars. Everyone will enjoy the story.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Delacorte Press, for review purposes.

Part I: Volunteers feed and save abandoned, scared dogs — big and small — in Redland, Florida

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Please note: This article was originally published on ShelterMe.tv in 2016.

The Problem:

Redland, Florida; it’s a rural area southwest of Miami. A place that is haunted with the despair from the many animals who are abandoned there every week. Daily, cars and trucks stop on one of the streets or highways, open a door, shove out a confused animal, then drive away quickly.

The Redland area is not a safe place for the animals who are left there. Most are dogs, and while some learn quickly to stay away from humans, others are shot, poisoned, hit (on purpose) by cars, stolen by dog fighters; or they die from starvation and dehydration in the Florida heat. The lucky ones hide during the day, coming out as the sun goes down as a group of dedicated volunteers bring the food and water they need to survive. Join the volunteers, Jessie, Yleana, and Ramsey, on a hot July evening as they bring me along to witness the sad situation.

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Part II: The Solution to “The abandoned, scared dogs — big and small — in Redland, Florida”

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Please note: This article was originally published on ShelterMe.tv in 2016.

The Solution (Part II to “Volunteers feed and save abandoned, scared dogs — big and small — in Redland, Florida”):

It appears that any solutions to the huge problem of stray and abandoned animals in the rural areas of Miami-Dade County, like Redland and the Rock Pit Quarry, will have to be addressed by the volunteers. Rescues have approached the shelter, asking if there is a process for pulling stray dogs from the county (not the shelter, the stray dogs). According to Jennie Nicholas of Pennsylvania, the shelter never responded to her email. She said that when she wrote Miami-Dade Animal Services (MDAS), “I got zero response. I wrote an email asking if I needed any special permission to take the dogs and the email went unanswered.”

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‘P is for Pterodactyl: The WORST Alphabet Book Ever (All the letters that misbehave and make words nearly impossible to pronounce’ is an EXTREMELY

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“P Is for Pterodactyl: The WORST Alphabet Book Ever (All the letters that misbehave and make words nearly impossible to pronounce)” is truly the BEST book ever! First of all, it’s brilliant — from the choice of alphabet words and for the text that explains what the words mean, and the words and text and illustrations combined make it really humorous, as well.

For example, “B is for Bdellium. We doubt that anyone knows what bdellium is, but it’s the only word dumb enough to begin with a silent B.

As is the case throughout the book, the authors use words containing the silent letter (or letter that is not pronounced “properly,” in the text that defines the alphabet word. So for the letter “B,” they use “doubt” and “dumb.” Certainly these authors are anything but “dumb.”

Other brilliant letters include “G is for Gnocchi. The gnome yells, “Waiter! There’s a bright white gnat nibbling on my gnocchi!”

And “F is not for Photo, phlegm, phooey, or phone. F is only for “foto” when you speak fluent Spanish at home.” The letter K was relatively simple with, “K is for Knight. The noble knight’s knife nicked the knave’s knee.”

The Glossary is touted as “And now… The Worst Glossary Ever!” It’s not.

This is definitely a fabulous choice for the home or school library and classroom. Teachers, pick a silent letter (or vowel with a different sound) and challenge the kids to find as many words as they can!

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, the publisher, for review purposes.

‘The First Mistake’ by Sandie Jones — riveting and suspenseful

 

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“The First Mistake” by Sandie Jones is a truly suspenseful mystery with two female protagonists and a plot that is masterfully planned and executed. Alice finally seems to have her life together. After her first husband, Tom, died, she went to pieces. But for the sake of their daughter, she put her life together, relying on Nathan, whom she met and married less than a year after Tom died.

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Five animal-themed picture books kids will love

 

Animals and kids go together like hot summer days and ice cream or long sunlit days with reading lots and lots of books to kids before bedtime. And there’s nothing most kids like better than books about animals. Whether it’s a silly book or a book filled with adventure, kids love reading about animal antics.

pinky got outKids will LOVE “Pinky Got Out!” by Michael Portis, about a group of school children visiting the zoo when a flamingo gets out of the flamingo enclosure. The kids keep seeing Pinky, the flamingo, everywhere they go. Kids will love trying to spot Pinky on each page, and they’ll love what happens at the end. They will also learn a few facts about animals while searching each page for sightings of the pink escapee. You can tell them that the real-life Pinky is named Flamingo 492 and escaped from a Wichita, Kansas zoo and ended up in Texas on the coast where, fourteen years later, the bird is living happily. (Crown Books for Young Readers)

“Big Cat” by Emma Lazell is another humorous picture book, this one about a mix-up between a big catdomestic cat and a large cat, in this case a tiger. The action begins on the page before the title page, which features newspapers with partial headings like “missing” and “Mystery sightings” and pictures of tigers. Grandma lost her glasses, and she and her granddaughter are looking for them in a yard filled with cats when the young narrator tells Grandma that she’s found a cat. Grandma goes through all the adorable names of their cats. “Is it Ruby? Gertrude? Twinklywhiskers?Hufflystink?” They take the stray cat to the neighbors to see if she belongs to them, but the neighbors all “were not cat people.” Kids will LOVE identifying all the pets the neighbors do have! Although their new cat does eat a lot of cat food, they love him, but when a couple looking for their missing son find Grandma’s glasses and return them, she realizes that the new cat is not a cat at all! Be assured that no humans are harmed in the reading of this book, and there is a delightful twist (of course) at the end. (Pavilion Books)

In “Nelly Takes New York: A Little Girl’s Adventure in the Big Apple,” authors Allison nelly takes nyPataki and Marya Myers feature an adorable duo as they search the New York determined to find the Big Apple. Nelly and her beagle, Bagel, stop for a bagel (of the edible variety) in West Village, then go to the farmers market at Union Square. Each time they mention their quest, they are sent to another place. New Yorkers will enjoy reading about all the sights to visit as will those planning a trip to NYC. For students reading the book, a great activity would be to have a map of New York City handy to have children plot Nelly and Bagel’s journey across the city. This book could be used as a travel brochure praising the different New York City tourist sites and the “friendly New Yorkers.” The illustrations by  Kristi Valiant are worthy of mention. They are bright and colorful, but Valiant manages to make Nelly the center of attention, with her bright red jacket and curly black hair. (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

In “The Peculiar Pig” by Joy Steuerwald, a dachshund puppy somehow ends up in the pig peculiar pigpen one morning. Mama Pig, like most mothers, loves all her piglets the same, even the new, strange-looking, brown one. But when the other piglets push the little brown “piglet” away, she patiently waits her turn. The babies get bigger and bigger, only Penny, the dachshund, gets longer and longer. Mama Pig just tells her, “It doesn’t matter, Penny. I love all my little piglets the same.” More differences emerge when Penny barks instead of oinking. And while proper pigs dig with their snouts, Penny uses her paws. In spite of her diminutive size, Penny can outrun her piggy brothers and sisters. When danger threatens, though, Penny saves the day, proving that peculiar might just be perfect. Kids will love the idea that while someone might be very different from those around them, they might just be able to save the day sometime. (Nancy Paulsen Books)

one shoe two shoesIn a lovely take-off of Dr. Seuss, “One Shoe Two Shoes” by Caryl Hart is a simple but humorous book that kids will quickly memorize. They will love reciting the rhyming text along with the reader as the dog and the mice and the colorful shoes are enumerated and counted. While there are no cats (remember Thing One and Thing Two?), there is little mouse one and little mouse two. Like any self-respecting mouse, these also multiply. Between the shoes and the mice and the adorable dog, all illustrated by Edward Underwood in bright blocks of mostly primary colors, this one is definitely a treat for both the eye and the ear. (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes.

‘The Summer Country’ by Lauren Willig is an ambitious tale of prejudice and plantations in Barbados during Victorian times

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“The Summer Country” by Lauren Willig refers to the island of Barbados, where it is summer all year long. The story is about three women, and from the beginning it alternates between 1812 and 1854. The story begins in 1854, when Emily Dawson and her cousin Adam travel to Barbados for different reasons. Adam is representing the family business now that his grandfather, Jonathan Fenty, has died, while Emily is traveling to visit Peverills, the sugar cane plantation that her grandfather left her in his will.

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Four picture books (2 fiction and 2 nonfiction) about animals and compassion — should not be missed

Summer is a wonderful time to spend outdoors with children, showing them the beauty of nature and the beauty of the animals in nature. It’s a wonderful time to play with dogs and visit forest preserves. At night, reading books about nature and about animals is an excellent way to drive home lessons about respecting nature and treating animals — whether pets or wild animals — with love and compassion.

Two of these books are new releases, and two are simply picture books that deserve to be shared and widely read. Two are about domestic animals, dogs, and the two nonfiction picture books are about wild animals and how two brave, resourceful people became determined to help them. All are fabulous choices for every home and school library.

Two nonfiction picture books that should become classics are “Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears” by Jill Robinson and Marc Bekoff and the semi-autobiographical “A Boy and a Jaguar” by Alan Rabinowitz. Both books are about brave people dedicating their lives to helping animals, and both are fascinating to children of all ages. I’ve read these books with first graders and fourth graders, and each child appreciated each book on a different level.

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