A Year of Borrowed Men

Barker, Michelle. A Year of Borrowed Men. Toronto: Pajama Press, 2015.
Another brilliantly written story by the award-winning Michelle Barker. Set in World War 2 and based on her mother’s childhood, this picture book tells the story of three French prisoners of war sent to help on a farm in Germany. Despite the dangers from spying neighbours and stern policemen, the family treats the prisoners with care and kindness until the end of the war. Told from the point of view of a seven-year-old girl, there are bits of ironic humour that only older readers will notice: the village police officer is known for having become someone to fear; the invading Russians open all the barn doors and set even the animals free, leaving the family without any cows for milk and butter. The flowing language, the font of the text, and the design of the pages combine to create a story ideal for reading aloud. Tenderly illustrated in water colour and coloured pencils by the award-winning artist Renné Benoit and supplemented by an afterword and five black-and-white photographs, this picture book is highly recommended for readers 7 years old and up.

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My Long List of Impossible Things

Barker, Michelle. My Long List of Impossible Things. Toronto: Annick Press, 2020.
The second world war is ending in Germany, but that does not mean safety for Katja’s family. The Soviets are invading. Katja’s father has already been long gone, killed in the war, so Katya, her older sister Hilde, and their mother are on their own, travelling by foot through forests and along dangerous roads, seeking refuge farther west.
Told from the first person point of view of Katya, a teenager who tends to speak impulsively and frequently unwisely, this extraordinary story provides a glimpse of life after the war. All the complexities, all the dangers, are vividly portrayed by an award-winning Canadian writer. Due to some of the language and some of the scenes, this novel is most suitable for readers 13 years of age and older. Highly recommended for adult readers, as well as teenagers.

Teachers: this is an excellent novel for analyzing character development. It would also be greatly enjoyed as a small group novel as it would be sure to provoke discussion.

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Arthur Who Wrote Sherlock

Bailey, Linda. Arthur Who Wrote Sherlock. Toronto: Tundra, 2022.
Everyone knows the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. But who is Arthur Conan Doyle? A quiet man who lives alone and stays indoors writing stories? No. Definitely not. Arthur Doyle loves sports – all sports – and is a superb storyteller. When he completes his schooling, he travels the world as a ship’s medical officer before coming back to Scotland to open his own practice. While he waits for patients to arrive, he writes stories, all of which are rejected by publishers. No one wants them. Until he writes about a detective, and Sherlock Holmes is born! (Arthur also marries twice, has five children, does more travelling, and does all he can to make sure people are not mistreated.) This biography – written in present tense – is a delight to read! It flows beautifully: perfect for reading aloud to younger students, excellent for teaching style to older students. And the liveliness of the writing and the humour of the illustrations (by Isabelle Follath) make it fun for any age. Outstanding!

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Just Like Beverly

Conrad, Vicki. Just Like Beverly. Seattle, Washington: Little Bigfoot, an imprint of Sasquatch Books, 2019.
Runaway Ralph. Ramona the Pest. Henry and Ribsy. Most readers know these characters so well that they almost seem like real people in our memories. But who was their creator? Who was Beverly Cleary? A little farm girl who didn’t like reading and wasn’t good at it until her second grade teacher kindly helped her learn. Then her mother gave her a book with characters who were funny and had adventures, who reminded her of her own life, and she finally discovered the joy of reading. But how did she become a writer? This picture book biography – appended with six pages of additional information and a timeline – is cheerfully recommended for everyone who has enjoyed Cleary’s wonderful classics of children’s literature.

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A Life Electric

Westergaard, Azadeh. A Life Electric: The Story of Nikola Tesla. New York: Viking, 2021.
When people think of a Tesla, they think of a car that is very expensive. But who was the real Tesla? Was he wealthy?
Born in 1856 in a small village high in the mountains of what is now Croatia, young Nikola loved animals and books and coming up with inventions. When he was twenty-six, he he had a new idea: a motor that could send electric currents forward and backward along a wire. We now know that as alternating current and Nikola Tesla was the person who invented the AC induction motor. But even though he moved to America and patented many electrical inventions, he never became wealthy. Why? This picture book biography – with extensive additional information and a bibliography – provides the answer. It tells the story of a man with an incredible mind who became known for his kindness towards all living creatures. Highly recommended for readers 7 years old and up.

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The Crayon Man

Biebow, Natascha. The Crayon Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.
Coloured oil pastel pencils were invented in 1834 by the Staedtler company. Coloured art pencils were invented in 1924 by Faber-Castell and Caran d’Ache. In between those two dates – in 1903 – coloured wax crayons were invented by Edwin Binney, a man who loved colour. Binney had already invented an inexpensive gray slate pencil and a white chalk pencil that wasn’t dusty. He’d invented a wax crayon, but it was black and he wanted colour. So he and a team experimented using ground up rocks and minerals. They tried adding clay and wax. They tried heating the mixtures and letting them slowly cool. Finally, they were ready with a box of eight: blue, brown, green, orange, red, violet, yellow, and – of course – black. Crayola crayons became famous!
Supplemented by a two-page illustrated step-by-step explanation of how crayons are still made in Pennsylvania, a one-page biography of additional information about Binney, and a bibliography for curious readers, this picture book is happily recommended for readers six to eleven years old. 

P.S. As a source of information for students doing research to expand their general knowledge, this book is great. As a read-aloud for young children, it will still be interesting but the small boxes of additional information in a smaller font on six of the pages disrupt the flow of the story. I wish that the author had found a way to either include the information in the main text or put it in an appendix. I also wish the designer of the book had chosen a more cheerful font for the story. But otherwise, this is a wonderful biography to encourage readers to be curious about the everyday objects all around them. 

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A way to use picture books with students in grades 6 to 8

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Do You Remember?

Smith, Sydney. Do You Remember? Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2023.
How do we hold on to the ones we love once they are gone? By remembering them. By sharing our memories with the people who are still with us. By recalling events that once seemed insignificant but now have become precious. This deeply touching picture book by an award-winning author and illustrator tells the story of a young boy remembering his father. Snuggled up together with his mother in a new apartment, the two of them quietly recall a picnic, a birthday, a move to a new city. Softly coloured illustrations – sometimes with no words – help to tell a story of loss and resilience for readers five years old and up. Most highly recommended.

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