Review: Papa’s Mechanical Fish

Papa's Mechanical Fish coverPapa’s Mechanical Fish

Written by: Candice Fleming

Illustrated By: Boris Kulikov

Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2013, Hardcover

Target Audience: Ages 3-8

Genre: Fiction

Theme: Creativity, Persistence

How We Discovered This Book: This is another fiction book based on a real person’s story. You can read my previous review for a book of the same type, called Building Our House.


Papa loves to invent things and solve problems, so one day when his daughter asks, “What would it be like to be a fish?” he goes into his work shop and doesn’t come out until he has a prototype. He tests idea after idea, until finally one works.

What I Liked:

I liked that Papa has not invented anything that works, but he still sticks with it. The story is told in a rhythm similar to a song- there is plot, and then a “refrain.” In the refrain, each family member comments on the events. The manner in which each person talks tells us so much about each character. In most cases, it is the only way we find out what the characters are like.

What Did My Kids Think?

They liked Papa’s creativity, and that his family was so willing to support him even when his solutions seemed silly. Similarly to Building Our House, there is a page in the back that describes the real man that inspired the story- my kids love this kind of real life reference. An inventor named Lodner Phillips created his own submarine in 1951, which made significant improvements on existing submarine designs including steering, an air purifying system, and a boiler than generated steam underwater to run the engine. His family actually went out into Lake Michigan with him in his invention.


As suggested on Celeste Reads, you could have children brainstorm their interests, talents, passions, or hobbies in a journal. They can then set a realistic goal (with help), set a timeline, and when the time has passed you can have a presentation day to see what they did and what they learned.

Sit down with some art supplies and paper, and brainstorm some things you’d like to see be invented. And then draw as many as you can!

Summer Here We Come!

It’s officially summer in our house: the weather’s warmer, the pool’s open, the kids are out of school, and the grill is fully operational. We’re working on some summer projects here that I thought I would share with you.

Summer Reading:

My kids love the reading program at our local library, and we have already stocked up our shelves with tons of books we are planning to read. I was inspired by a reading challenge that a fellow blogger does with her daughter, so I have challenged my son as well. I gave him a list of about 35 books, and I challenged him to read 20 of them this summer. I gave him a few weeks head start before school got out to get the momentum rolling. If he finishes all 20 this summer, he will earn a prize (likely a day out together – still to be decided by Aidan).

Aidan is stuck in a Geronimo Stilton rut (not a bad rut to be in, but still), so I designed the list to encourage him to read more high quality books and continue to advance his vocabulary and reading skills. Most of the books on the list are either books I loved as a kid or books I somehow missed, so we will likely be reading most of the books together. Having each of us read alternate chapter aloud seems to work well for us.

In case you’re interested, here’s the list (targeted to a soon-to-be third grader who loves to read and has a good vocabulary)

A Wrinkle in Time
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
The Phantom Tollbooth
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Secret Garden
The Hobbit
Anne of Green Gables
The Mysterious Benedict Society
The Tale of Despereaux
Because of Winn-Dixie
Alice in Wonderland
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
James and the Giant Peach
The Lightning Thief
Black Beauty
The Adventure of Tom Sawyer
Little House on the Prairie
The Neverending Story
The Wind in the Willows
Stuart Little
The Boxcar Children
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
The Indian in the Cupboard
Pippi Longstocking
Treasure Island
The Borrowers 
Charlotte’s Web 
The Little Prince 
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Velveteen Rabbit 
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
The 7 books at the bottom are the ones Aidan has already read during this challenge, including Mrs. Frisby which we will likely finish tonight. The bonus in the challenge is that most of these books also have decent movies, so as we finish each book we reward ourselves with the corresponding movie. We have had some lively discussions about the differences in the storytelling between movies and books, why movies leave certain things out, and whether movie characters match what we have created in our heads.
I’ll keep you posted on how this challenge works out.
Summer Project
I am working on a project for the blog that will hopefully add another dimension and keep things interesting for you readers. I won’t spoil the surprise just yet, but hopefully we will have a periodic visitor who will share their thoughts with us on children’s books. Stay tuned – they may be ready to join us by the fall.
Summer Blog Schedule
Originally, I thought we would just plow through on the regular schedule, but now summer is underway and I am late posting for the second week in a row. A more realistic schedule is probably in order. Starting with today’s post, we will be moving to twice a month for new posts until the end of August. So we’ll see you again in 2 weeks!

Connections Across the Miles

I believe that technology can be an amazing resource for a writer. It certainly can have its downsides, but used properly it can make information and support much more readily available.

In my writing, I often have questions about certain details. For example, I am writing a picture book about a boy in Venice. As I was writing, I wondered: What type of boats do your average Venetians own? If the main character went out into the Adriatic Sea, would he be able to see land? How do you say “my boy” in Italian? Thanks to Google, YouTube, and other Internet resources, I had my answer quickly and could focus on the story telling. Just 10-20 years ago, I would have needed to make a list of my questions, go to my local library, and search for the answers in reference books. And if I still had questions, I might need to write letters to experts, or travel to other libraries.

Technology such as video chatting, email, online courses, and file sharing sites help us stay connected as writers. I began my formal writing journey years ago with an online course with Gotham Writer’s Workshop. I took several courses with other aspiring writers from all over the United States, and the world. As a result of that class, several of us formed a critique group that met virtually – first by email and Google Docs, and then by video chatting.

Over 3-1/2 years later, our critique group endures. Its members have ebbed and flowed, and we have added other tools to help us better support each other’s writing. The constant has been Joanna and me, and our writing partnership.

Prior to this week, Joanna and I had only met once before in person at an SCBWI conference 2 years ago. I need to often remind myself of this, since I talk to her frequently by email and video chats every few weeks. This week, Joanna travelled all the way from Wyoming to the East Coast for her MFA residency. She spared a few days before school began to visit with me and my family.

Joanna was only here for less than 24 hours, but connecting with her in person was such a blessing. We hiked, we talked, I showed her my town, and my children totally fell in love with her. When she got on the train and waved goodbye, my daughter cried and I couldn’t help feeling a little sad too. She has had such a positive impact on my writing, and has supported me through all the ups and downs of new projects, rejections, and becoming a better writer.

So technology has brought me wonderful resources, feedback, support, and friends. It sustains me through the long writing process. But it could never replace how it feels to connect with another person, walking beside you. We got a little lost on our hike, but as always, we found our way out together.

Review: Building Our House

Building Our House Cover PageBuilding Our House

Written and Illustrated by: Jonathan Bean

Farrar Straus Giroux Books, 2013, Hardcover Edition

Target Audience: Ages 3-8

Genre: Fiction

Theme: Creativity/Family

How We Discovered This Book: This book was in the new books bin at our library, and it looked like good choice for my kids who are very much interested in how things are made.


A girl and her family pack up their belongings and move from town out into an empty field. They live in a trailer for 1-1/2 years as they build their own home from scratch. Every member of the family has a part to play in the hard work and love it takes to build a home.

What I Liked:

Given the increased focus on non-fiction books in our schools, I’m very interested in books that take a non-fiction topic and put a twist on it. This is a fiction book, but is factually based on real events and a real building process. Rather than make it a dry book about construction, the author intertwines the family story with all of the work they did to build their own home. Kids will learn, without really being aware they are learning.

What Did My Kids Think?

Both of my kids enjoyed this book, and I think they now have a slightly better appreciation for what it has taken for us to renovate our own house. They had lots of questions that extended the discussion into other books and videos. The whimsical illustrations pair nicely with the story. The author includes some of his parents’  photographs from their house building at the end, which is an extra treat.


PBS has a fun activity where kids can measure and build a house for some of their favorite storybook characters.

Scholastic has an activity focused on the business process from plans to completion.

Improvise, and see what other kinds of houses you can build: birdhouses, gingerbread houses, or even a house for your guinea pig.

Our Responsibility to Share

This morning, I took my 7 year old son running with me for the first time. I’m usually very private and protective of my running. As a busy mom of two young kids, my runs are my only true alone time. I use the time to clear my head, reset my mood, and push myself physically.

But I figured out a compromise – I completed my 3 mile run alone, and then I met my son at the bottom of the driveway. We ran almost a mile together, and then walked and ran the mile back. He ran 3/4 of a mile without stopping, which was pretty good for his first run of any distance. He loves to sprint, but he adapted to pacing himself well.

I loved spending the one-on-one time with him. Running is something on my mental list of things I’d like to share with my children, and I enjoyed sharing my love for running with him. My dad has many interests, and he always shared those interests with my brother and me when we were young. We could try whatever we wanted – some things stuck, and some things didn’t. The best part of trying new things was trying them along with Dad, who fostered a sense of curiosity, self-drive, and life long learning.

Some of the things I’d like to share with my kids are big- how to care for others, how to figure out what you love to do, and how to dream. Some are smaller but still important – how to ride a bike, play cards, or make a hand puppet.

As a writer of children’s books, I feel it is my responsibility and privilege to share these same things with child readers. My challenge is sharing without being preachy or didactic. Children (including mine) can smell a “lesson” coming. It has to be put out there, like cherry to be picked. And then if you can make the cherry seem tantalizing and tasty, they will pluck it and make it their own.

Hard Work, Persistence, and a Little Luck

I double checked the content, took a deep breath, and clicked Submit. The first 50 pages of my middle grade novel and a synopsis went whizzing off to the inbox of an agent.

As you regular readers will know, I am referring to my beloved first novel that I have labored over for the last two years (ugh- has it really been that long?). Through hard work, persistence, lots of herbal tea, and much support from my critique group it is finally ready.

So now what? It is out of my hands and hopefully an agent will fall in love with it. All I can do for the next 4 weeks (their typical response time) is cross my fingers, pray, and hope. Any good thoughts you can send my way would be much appreciated.

Now that I have finally finished the synopsis and submitted the novel, I have no more excuses for putting off writing new stories. Sure, I have another novel to revise but what I really need is a creative jumpstart. My journals are bursting with ideas – perhaps the next book is just waiting to be freed from the pages.


Review: The Pirate’s Parrot

The Pirate’s Parrot

Written by: Lyn Rossiter McFarland

Illustrated By: Jim McFarland

Tricycle Press, 2000, Hardcover

Target Audience: Ages 3-8

Genre: Fiction

Theme: Bravery, Strength

How We Discovered This Book: This book has been on my “To Read” list for a while. I believe Joanna recommended it to me. We borrowed it from our library.


Captain Cur’s parrot dies, and his monocle is stepped on. How can he be a proper pirate captain without them? His crew finds him a replacement parrot, who is really a stuffed girl teddy bear. The crew teaches her to be a proper pirate, who bites, spits, swashbuckles,  and perches on the captain’s shoulder. But she proves she’s really a proper pirate when they encounter another pirate ship and she saves the day.

What I Liked:

This book is funny, and is immensely fun to read aloud. My kids thought my teddy bear and pirate voices were hilarious. Who doesn’t love to do a good pirate voice?

What Did My Kids Think?

Both of my kids enjoyed the story. My son liked that it was different from other pirate stories. He thought the funniest parts were when the bear talked and tried to be a pirate. In simplest terms, TEDDY BEAR + PIRATES + HUMOR = GOOD STORY in our house.


In searching for resources related to this book, I discovered that the mascot for the Pittsburgh Pirates major league baseball team is called the Pirate Parrot. Go figure.

Pirate Crafts, Coloring, and Printables

Declare it Pirate Day in your house: Dress up like pirates (a scarf, a striped shirt, a belt, and a quick paper eye patch will do), talk like pirates, and use your imagination to turn your couch into a pirate ship set for plunder.

Whether it’s Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19th) or not, you can always integrate pirate-based lessons into your classroom.

Book Recommendations for Children 1 Year Old and Under

One of our critique group members recently became a grandma, so we were discussing our favorite books for very young children. Each of our personal lists brought back many memories, and we ended up with a solid list of quality books. So we thought we’d share them with you!

Here are our favorite books for children 1 year old and younger, in alphabetical order by author:

Hug, Jez Alborough

Sandra Boynton Books- including Pajama Time; Blue Hat, Green Hat; Moo, Baa, La la la!; Barnyard Dance!

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin

Are You My Mother? P.D. Eastman

Time For Bed, Mem Fox

Orange Pear Apple Bear, Emily Gravett

Cowboy Small, Lois Lenski

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?/ Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? Bill Martin and Eric Carle

Guess How Much I Love You, Sam McBratney

Blueberries for Sal, Robert McCloskey

Good Night Gorilla, Penny Rathmann

Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, Richard Scarry

I Am A Bunny, Richard Scarry

Sheep in a Jeep, Nancy Shaw and Margot Apple

I Love You Through and Through, Bernadette Rossetti Shustak

Hop on Pop, Dr. Seuss

Owl Babies, Martin Waddell

That’s Not My Puppy/ That’s Not My Car/ That’s Not My Dinosaur, Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells

Knufflebunny, Mo Willems

Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown

Do have other favorites not on this list? Please share!

When Books are Made into Movies

Recently, me and my children read a few books together that were eventually made into movies. We read the books first, and then we watched the movies. I’m a believer that most books are better than their movie counterparts. It is nearly impossible that the images I create in my mind can be recreated on screen. However, a movie adaptation still has a chance to wow me. If it makes a very literal translation to the screen, then the movie might be okay. But if the movie brings something new to the interpretation of the material- a new perspective, a creative visual twist, the intriguing portrayal of a highly complicated character- I might enjoy the movie just as much as the book.

The first book we read was The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. It is the story of a family of tiny people who live under the floor of a house. A teenage girl named Arrietty lives with her mom and dad under the kitchen. They “borrow” just what they need, and only those things the residents won’t miss. It was published in 1952 (and won the Carnegie Medal and other awards) but it has a timeless quality to it. There were several movies made from this book, including an American live action version with John Goodman. The movie we saw was The Secret life of Arrietty, which is a 2010 Japanese anime film dubbed in English.

We enjoyed both the book and the movie. It is a fanciful story, but set in everyday environments. It draws on a common human premise: where do things go when I can’t find them? The movie was different in many details and subplots from the book, but it deftly visualized the core elements. Each of the characters was presented slightly differently, but in most cases the changes smoothed over parts of them that I found mildly annoying in the book. For example, Arrietty’s mother is whiny and neurotic in the book, which is switched to concern and worry for the well-being of her family.

The second book we read was Holes, by Louis Sachar. This book tells the story of Stanley Yelnats, a boy who is always in the wrong place at the wrong time. He gets sent to a juvenile detention camp in the desert, where each boy is tasked with digging a large hole each day. It was made into a movie in 2003 with Shia LaBeouf in the lead role. The movie sticks fairly close to the book, but changes some of the details. My son was wondering why some parts of the movie felt so different from the book. The book is written in first person, from Stanley’s perspective. We get to hear his thoughts directly – how he feels about a situation, what he worries about, etc. I explained that if they directly translated it, we would be spending a lot of time watching Stanley think, or listening to an annoying voiceover. The film makers chose to use the parts of the book that had the most visual potential, and focused on those.

I especially enjoyed this book. There were details thoughout the book that seemed to be character or setting description. When you get to the end, you realize that everything the other has included is important to the resolution of the story. As a writer, I was amazed at how tight the writing was, while being so descriptive and creative,

I was also interested to see how each of these books were adapted, given that The Secret World of Arrietty is screenwritten by someone other than the author. The screenplay for Holes was written by the author, Louis Sachar. I was impressed with the restraint he showed with the source material, only including the parts that would best tell the story on screen. I was also impressed with his ability to write a screenplay, which to me requires a different skill set than writing a novel.

I would recommend both of these books and movies. Me and my kids are so enjoying this process, I think we’ll keep it going. We have already read Charlotte’s Web and seen the movie. I’m waiting until they are older for necessities like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Any recommendations for other book and movie combos? Please share in the comments!

It’s Time for Action!

A long (really long) winter causes me to want to pull the thick comforter over my head until it’s all over. This winter was so long, I tried to resist that temptation and kept plugging away at a few of my long term goals. I finished revisions on my first novel, and I ran as often as I could.

Now Spring has sprung. How do I know? The daffodils are in full bloom, the magnolias are ready to burst, and the sun is out more often. I am very eager to get back outside and work in my yard. I want to smell mulch, and grass clippings, and lilacs. I want to watch my kids swing, and rollerskate, and draw with chalk on the driveway.

Photo by Katie Cullinan

It also means that the fruit of my winter’s labors are at hand. I need to make final changes to my synopsis, and then I will begin sending it out to agents. I ran my first 5K race for the season two weeks ago, taking two minutes off my personal best race time. I’m still striving for a sub-30 minute race time this year, so we’ll see if another few weeks of training can get me there in my next race on Mother’s Day.

It’s hard to take the long view of things. I know I want to feel progress, feel accomplishment, and check something off my list. It takes a lot of faith and perseverance. Sometimes I’m up for the task, and sometimes I’m not. The best way I have found to keep my eye on my goals and put in the necessary hard work is to break it down into pieces. Biting off a piece at a time feels more manageable.

So the biggest step is just to start – to jump in and begin the process. I’ve always wanted to grow strawberries and blueberries in my garden. I resisted planting them, since most varieties must be in the ground for a year before they will yield significant fruit. Last year I finally planted them. So after a year of waiting, covering them over a long winter, and giving them much TLC, I peeked under the straw this week to see this year’s strawberry plants already growing and spreading vigorously across the planting bed. I can almost taste the fat ripe strawberries.

The hard work will pay off. I keep telling myself that. So if you hear me muttering to myself, don’t worry. I’m just talking myself into another revision cycle.