‘Which One Doesn’t Belong? Playing with Shapes’ by Christopher Danielson is a great picture book to encourage young kids’ confidence in math

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“Which One Doesn’t Belong? Playing with Shapes” by math teacher Christopher Danielson is an amazing picture book sure to make those who read it feel great about their math abilities. It’s a no-brainer, because in this wonderful and creative book of math problems, there are no wrong answers!

Many adults grew up playing the game “What doesn’t belong?” There would be a goose, a blue bird, an eagle, and a horse. Obviously, the horse didn’t belong because all the others were birds, or could fly, or had wings. There was one right answer and that was that. I remember doing that with my children and thinking, “There could be other right answers so long as the child can explain why their “wrong” answer is right.” Well, now there is a book that does just that — there are NO wrong answers, so long as the readers can explain why they made their choices.

Each set of problems asks the reader to pick which figure doesn’t belong. For the first set, the author explains why the reader might have picked one shape over another. “Did you choose the shape in the lower left? If you did, maybe it’s because this shape isn’t colored in.” And on another page, “Or maybe you said that this shape doesn’t belong because it has three sides, and the others have four.” And then, at the end, “The important thing is to have a reason why.”

The rest of the set of problems do not have explanations. The reader or readers get to do the explaining themselves. At the end of the small book, there’s a letter from the author. He tells readers not to worry about being “right.” He explains that “the properties are more important than the words you use to describe them.” So words like “smooshed” and “stretched” work just fine!

Math today is all about helping students learn their strengths in math. It’s not about the students who can compute the fastest, indicating, of course, that they are the best at math. In fact, some students who can’t memorize their math facts might still be wonderful mathematicians. They might be able to figure out creative ways to problem solve and love working on complex problems. It’s all about thinking great math thoughts, and there are many ways that can happen.

The third graders I teach who read this book had many positive comments to share. “I like that there are many different ways to solve it.” Another student thought that “… it’s difficult and it makes you think.” One astute student commented, “It’s a new idea. Lots of books have the same idea, but here all responses are right. I haven’t seen one like this.” High praise indeed from a student who reads four to five books a night! They all loved that there are no wrong answers.

This is an important addition to the home library where parents can start math conversations with kids of all ages. In fact, a great activity would be to think of how many different ways each shape may differ from all the others. “The square is different because…” it’s a different color, it’s a different size, it had 90 degree angles, it has equal length sides, it looks like a table, or whatever clever reason the readers might come up with. When kids are playing games that involve mathematical thinking, everyone’s a winner. And that’s not to say that this wouldn’t be a great addition to classroom libraries as well.

This little gem encourages creative math thinking — out-of-the-box thinking — and that’s a marvelous thing.

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

‘The Girl from Berlin’ by Ronald H. Balson is another legal mystery/historical fiction fabulous novel

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“The Girl from Berlin” is another wonderful novel by Ronald H. Balson in which he continues with Catherine and Liam, his attorney/detective main character couple, who take cases in which the reader gets to travel back in time to see the background of those cases, as Catherine and Liam are learning about those events. The stories are especially riveting because of Balson’s ability to create the dual story, cutting off each story at a cliffhanger moment, making the reader continue reading to find out what happens next, until before the reader looks up, the day has gone by and the book is read.

When Catherine and Liam are approached by Tony, a friend of theirs who asks them to travel to Tuscany, Italy, to help his aunt who is in danger of losing her home and her vineyard, they are skeptical. But when they arrive and start researching what is happening to Tony’s Aunt Gabi, they become determined to help her. The road is tricky, and at first it appears hopeless. But Gabi sends Catherine a translated memoir from Ada Baumgartner, who has written about her life during the Holocaust.

Through Ada’s memoir, Balson takes readers not just back to Berlin in the middle of World War II, but also into the heart of Ada, a violinist whose most fervent desire, heart and soul, is to be a famous player with a major symphony orchestra. That’s difficult in the 1930s when women, no matter how accomplished and talented, were not given seats in major orchestras. They might play solos, but were not ever permanent members of the symphony. And Ada Baumgarten is not just the wrong gender, she’s Jewish.

Her talent is undeniable. Her father, a famous concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, has taught her everything he knows. Ada’s playing is brilliant, and those around her recognize it. Ada’s path takes her to Bologna, Italy, where she plays with the symphony orchestra there, as one of the first women to play with a prominent orchestra.

All of the action takes place in present-day Tuscany and WWII Germany and Italy. It’s really more Ada’s story than Gabi’s, or even Catherine and Liam’s. And Ada’s story is riveting. The reader will laugh, sympathize, and weep with what happens in Ada’s life. And for much of the story, the reader will be frantically turning pages to make sure that Ada is all right.

As with many stories about the Holocaust and those who didn’t leave Germany until it was too late, the reader will, with hindsight, get frustrated that more Jews didn’t leave  when they had the chance. But reading books such as this one gives a more nuanced reality of life then. Not all Jews had someone to sponsor them in America. There were quotas, and going to a surrounding country wouldn’t help at all. In fact, those who went to France or Italy often just postponed their fate.

One of the ironies in the story is that many of the Nazis who hated the Jews loved classical music. While they attended symphony performances, they also sent Jewish performers to concentration camps. And when Ada stands up to one Nazi, she gains a life-long enemy.

Balson’s writing is masterful. His plot and believable dialogue are just part of what makes this book a gripping read. The emotions he is able to elicit through the plight of the characters in the story, the joys and the sorrows, are universal. And especially in this story, Balson reaches into the heart of a musician and realistically expresses the feelings that a true musician feels and experiences when talking music and playing on a great stage with other superb players.  Music lovers and opera lovers will get additional pleasure reading about Ada’s performances and her thoughts about music. His first person narrative in the form of Ada’s memoir is superb writing.

And although the characters of Catherine and Liam are continuing characters, each of Balson’s books can be read as a stand alone novel. The main story is the historical one, and Catherine and Liam are the conduits through which those stories can be told. That being said, the current-day mystery that they solve is a fascinating one as well. But the emotional part of the present-day story is the love of Gabi for her land — all she has left of her family — and Ada’s love for her family and her music. The twists and the turns and the webs of corruption that end up reaching from Nazi Germany to vineyards in Italy make this a novel not to be missed.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for review purposes.

‘Freefall’ by Jessica Barry is a thriller about the hidden strength in a mother and daughter


“Freefall” by Jessica Barry is an action-filled thriller that is about a daughter who has left home, lost her job, lost her compass, and in the process of becoming a hero is also in huge danger. While Ally is literally running for her life, her mother, halfway across the country, is mourning her daughter’s supposed death and also investigating who her estranged daughter had somehow become.

Between Ally and Maggie’s alternating first-person narratives, the reader learns the story of the past and what happened to estrange the mother and daughter, and the present. The present is that Ally is supposedly dead in a plane crash that killed her and her fiancé, but the reader knows Ally is really on the run after surviving the plane crash. Through Ally’s narrative, the reader learns about Ally’s inner strength and her determination to survive.

At the same time, Maggie, Ally’s mom, is refusing to believe her daughter is dead. No body was found, so she begins to try to trace her daughter’s life since they stopped speaking two years before when Charlie, Maggie’s husband and Ally’s father, died.

An interesting part of the story is that Ally’s fiancé, Ben, is the CEO of a drug company that has made a fortune with an antidepressant specifically designed for postpartum mothers. (Spoiler alert!) This drug had terrible side effects which Ben and the executives hid by shortening the study and bribing officials at the FDA. In the news right now is “FDA approves first drug for postpartum depression” about a real drug for new mothers. Truth can be stranger than fiction.

The story is written to slowly, very slowly, unravel not just the story of the two years, but also the story of the relationship between the two women, why it was destroyed suddenly, and why none of that ultimately matters. Maggie is a determined mother — she will find out what really happened to her daughter no matter what. And Ally is her mother’s daughter — she will make it back to her mother’s house at all costs.

The story and it’s gradual release of information, the details released bit by bit, perfectly doled out by the clever writing, keep the pages turning. It’s a nail-biting, heart-wrenching, lovely story from start to finish.

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

‘Me for You’ by Lolly Winston takes readers through stages of loss beginning with grief and guilt


As published in Bookreporter.com:

In “Me for You” by Lolly Winston, there is no lead-in to the death of Rudy Knowles’ wife. The first sentence acts as both a hook and a warning — this book is about death and loss. “Like a fool, Rudy spoke to his wife Bethany for probably ten minutes before he realized she was dead.” The reader then is taken through the next horrifying time when Rudy realizes that she is dead, calls 911, tries to revive her, and fails.

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‘Stand on the Sky’ by Erin Bow is a tale of a girl’s nomadic life and her love for a young eagle

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“Stand on the Sky” by Erin Bow is a book that stands out from many other middle grade reads. The setting and the plot are an introduction into another culture — one that seems to be another world from a life where cold food is nuked in a microwave and there’s a Starbucks on every corner. Aisulu is the twelve-year-old main character who lives with her family in Mongolia.

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‘New Kid’ by Jerry Craft is a graphic novel that is perfect for middle grade and young adult readers who are finding their place in the world


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In “New Kid,” Jerry Craft introduces Jordan Banks, a wanna-be artist and seventh grader who is starting at a new school, a fancy private school. It’s called Riverdale Academy Day School (RAD) and it’s exclusive, prestigious, and filled with mostly rich white kids, all of which Jordan is not. Each new student gets a “guide,” and Jordan is lucky — his guide is  Liam, a kid who, while rich and white, really needs a friend.

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6 Nonfiction Picture Books are perfect for Women’s History Month

Books about historical figures are wonderful to read to young and older children at any time, but March is Women’s History Month, so it’s a perfect time to learn about new picture books featuring important famous — and not-so-famous — women from around the world. Each of the six books listed here is powerful in its own right. Each one deserves a special place on a classroom. library, or home bookshelf.

“The A-Z of Wonder Women” by Yvonne Lin is literally an alphabet of women, current and past, some household names and others unknown to most, who have wonder womanhelped create the world we live in. “A” is for Ada Lovelace, who lived in the nineteenth century. She was an English mathematician who “wrote the first punch-card algorithm a century before the modern computer age.” She was the first computer programmer. The alphabet figures continue through Bhutto, the first democratically elected female leader of a Muslim country; J.K. Rowling; Lyda Conley, the first Native American woman to bring a case to the US Supreme Court; Oprah; Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Tina Fey; author Ursula Le Guin; and to Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-British architect known for her brilliant curved buildings. In addition to the 26 women in the body of the book, there are 22 additional “wonder women” at the end of the book, including Ching Shih, a woman who was the most successful pirate of all time! It’s a fascinating book that kids will love to peruse. (Little, Brown and Company Books for Young Readers)

“Priscilla and the Hollyhocks” by Anne Broyles is based on a true story about a girl, priscilla hollyhocksPriscilla, born into slavery, who was sold as a child to a Cherokee family. One of the few things known about her was that she carried hollyhock seeds with her from home to home. In fact, the Author’s Note at the back says her hollyhocks are now knows as Priscilla’s hollyhocks and have been shared by gardeners since 1839. This picture book would be a great choice for starting a conversation or unit on the “Trail of Tears” or the history of Native Americans in our country. Most people don’t know that the Cherokees did their utmost to assimilate into the Anglo way of life. They farmed, had schools, and even had a newspaper. They also had slaves. In this story, Priscilla was born in Georgia, and her mother was sold when Priscilla was still very young. She happened to meet a visitor, Basil Silkwood, who told her about schools and expressed his sadness about her condition as a slave. Shortly thereafter, she was sold to a Cherokee family and lived with them until their way of life was uprooted because of President Jackson’s order to force the relocation of the Cherokee from their ancestral land. However, during the march, in Jonesboro, Illinois, by pure chance, Priscilla saw Basil Silkwood at a hotel and approached him. He bought Priscilla from her Cherokee owners and he and his wife set her free. She lived with his family, became part of his family, and planted her hollyhocks. And while she never forgot her mother, she was happy and free. (Charlesbridge)

“Wilma’s Way Home: The Live of Wilma Mankiller” by Doreen Rappaport is a picture book for older readers that shares the life of a remarkable woman. This reviewer was not familiar with Wilma Mankiller, but she should be an inspiration to people wilmaeverywhere. She was born to a mother of Dutch Irish descent, Irene, and her mother’s family disapproved when Irene married Native American Charley Mankiller. Irene and Charley and their family did not have much money, and they survived by growing their own food, hunting and fishing. When the government wanted to relocate the Indians from their land to cities, and promised good jobs and better housing, her father was resistant. He remembered what had happened in 1838, when the government forced the Cherokee at gunpoint to leave their land. More than four thousand Cherokees died on that forced march. He was also worried that the separation from the tribe would result in the destruction of their culture and way of life. And while there is too much information in this fact-filled book to summarize, Wilma’s life is remarkable for her determination to help others. In spite of physical problems, in spite of those who didn’t want a woman to be Chief of her tribe, she persevered. Her story is truly inspirational. The illustrations by Linda Kukuk are powerful and bright. The images help to bring this wonderful story to life. (Disney-Hyperion)

“Away with Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird” by Lori Mortensen and illustrated away with wordsby Kristy Caldwell is the story of a woman who was the first female member of the Royal Geographic Society in England. She traveled the world at a time when women were expected to stay at home. Isabella began life as a sickly child. But when a doctor suggested that fresh air might help, her father began to take her with him on his trips. She was fascinated by the countryside, the plants, the animals, the crops. She longed to travel to other places that she learned about but was trapped by the fact that young ladies wore dresses, didn’t go to school, and didn’t travel. When another doctor suggested a sea voyage, Isabella sprang to life. She traveled to Nova Scotia and then to America, keeping meticulous notes in her red journal. She wrote about everything she saw, and then wrote a book about it on her return to England, “The Englishwoman in America.” She then made a second voyage to write a second book, but her father’s death made Isabella reconsider her traveling for a bit, but when her health began to decline, she set out again. She continued to travel the rest of her life. This book carefully shows through descriptive text and illuminating illustrations what her life was like — it’s fabulous. At the end are Author’s Note, Timeline of her life, sources for quotes, and a bibliography. (Peachtree)

There are two new releases about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor that are both worthy of inclusion in any classroom or library. “I Am Sonia Sotomayor” by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos is part of the “Ordinary People Change the World” series that includes biographies of many famous and inspirational historical figures. i am soniaThe illustrations are quite appealing. As in earlier books in the series, Eliopoulos draws the protagonist with a large head on a small body, and the grown-up head and small body don’t change over the course of the book. The story is told in first person, and Meltzer creates voices that really sound like she’s telling us her story. The narrative is real and invites close attention to detail. We learn that when she was nine, Sotomayor experienced two blows. First, she was diagnosed with diabetes, and then later in the year, her father died. But her mother valued education and worked extra hours to support her family. While the neighborhood they lived in wasn’t great, Sotomayor loved to read. Fiction, nonfiction — she loved learning. She devoured Nancy Drew books and was devastated that because of her diabetes, she wouldn’t be able to be a police officer and solve crimes. She quickly found a new role model in Perry Mason. It’s a wonderful story of her life and how she continued to be inspired by those around her — her mother, teachers, even Perry Mason. In each book in this wonderful series, there’s a message for readers at the end. Sotomayor counsels kids to “… Read. Study. Do right by people. No matter where you are born, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish.” Just like her. (Dial Books for Young Readers)

“Turning Pages: My Life Story” is an autobiography by Sonia Sotomayor, and while the information in the story is very similar to Meltzer’s book, the tone and illustrations are turning pagequite different. The bright colors and creative collage elements help shape the story, as do the photographs on both endpapers. The theme that she uses to tell the story is that her life is like a puzzle. She writes, “At each step in my life, I would put together the answer like pieces to a puzzle.” It’s also about her her love for her family and her love for books. After her mother bought a set of encyclopedias, she was immersed in learning. “Every time I opened a volume, I learned new words and ideas. There were miracles of life taking place in our bodies and outside in the world around us, and I started to think more about my place in it.” All along the way in her life, books taught her important lessons. She writes, “Books were teachers, helping me sort out right from wrong.” And she continues explaining about the importance of books in her life through the end of the book. “Like flagstones on a path, every book I ever read took me the next step I needed to go in school and in life, even if I didn’t know exactly where the trail would lead.” This book is inspiring and beautifully created from the cover, with its illustration of Sotomayor walking up the steps to the Supreme Court Building on steps with book text for risers, to the back cover showing a library and young Sotomayor in a paper folded boat looking ahead to the river that will be her incredible life. (Philomel Books)

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

‘Outwalkers’ by Fiona Shaw is a powerful book about the love of a boy for his dog in a bleak dystopian future


“The Outwalkers” by Fiona Shaw is a tough read, but not because it’s not a fabulous story. In fact, the book is intriguing from the first page and emotionally heartrending to the last. It’s dark and depressing, but at the same time it’s filled with hope and the promise of a better world. My heart beat a bit faster from the beginning to the end of the book — I was that worried about the main character, Jake, and his incredibly loyal and wonderful dog Jet.

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