Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book Review: Steven Caney, Steven Caney’s Ultimate Building Book

Book Review:

Steven Caney, Steven Caney’s Ultimate Building Book
Philadelphia: Running Press Kids, 2006

A couple of weeks ago at the library, AJ and I may have stumbled on the best book ever written. Or at least “the coolest book ever written,” says AJ.

Steven Caney’s Ultimate Building Book has it all. It’s entertaining. It’s interesting. It’s philosophical. It encourages free thinking and free play. And if you were stranded on a desert island, it might even help you survive. If you had a whole stack of these books, for instance, you could build a shelter with them, as books do a good job at withstanding compression (see pages 354-355).

The Ultimate Building Book is extremely comprehensive. It’s a big book and might be daunting if it weren’t so engagingly written. The first part of the book covers all kinds of structures, large and small. It discusses the different people involved in building and offers an overview of architectural style and history, not just of buildings, but of many kinds of structures. There’s a section on architecture in nature – how animals build things and what we can learn from them. And there’s a big discussion on tools, which doesn’t just talk about things in your toolbox. I found all of this very interesting to read and especially enjoyed some of the sidebars, particularly one discussing the bridges of Merritt Parkway, which I loved as a child growing up in Connecticut, and another telling the story of the town of Roosevelt, NJ, which I knew nothing about but am now completely fascinated with. . There are also chapters on style and scale, on invention and inspiration (and how to find it).

The second half of the book, though, is where AJ’s attention is firmly focused. It’s all about projects. Many of the projects relate to the architectural and construction ideas introduced in the first section. In the books introduction, the author says he had originally set out to write a book about making toys out of common building sets, and some of this is in evidence in the projects. But many of the projects use creative, cheap materials that are often easy to scavenge at home. There’s an entire chapter on building out of rolled up newspapers. Many of the projects use basic geodesic dome construction technology. Some of the projects are things I’ve seen before, but most are new. I was particularly taken with a set of giant Lincoln logs made out of cardboard paper towel tubes filled with expandable insulating foam. And I am seriously considering building the small greenhouse made out of PVC pipes for my garden. AJ has his eye on another PVC pipe project, a sort of sculptural sprinkler made out of a crazy array of capped pipes with holes drilled into them at a few key places. There are Rube Goldberg machines and marble tracks. There are forts and games and puzzles. There are a whole bunch of projects made out of food, including dominos made out of crackers and M and Ms, totem poles made out of fruit, and a set of building blocks made out of Jello and ice cube trays. And there are some remarkable projects made out of nothing but coat hangers and zip ties.

At the end of the book is an appendix “For Parents and Other Teachers” that talk more about the projects, the building sets he refers to and how to buy and use toys to maximize open-ended play.

I cannot put this book down. It’s overdue at the library, because every time I pick it up to take it back, I end up sitting down to read something. Then I have to show it to AJ and we end up getting up and doing some project or another. This book has made us look differently at the things in our house and at the house itself. Although we’re already somewhat prone to environmental consciousness, this book has inspired us to find new ways to use things we might otherwise have thrown away. This is why I think it may be the best book ever written. It has inspired us, given us tools, spurred us to action. This is what books for children should be. This is what any good book should be.

I regret that I have only two thumbs to give to this book. Maybe if I constructed some gigantic skyscraper-like prosthetic thumbs out of cardboard tubes and glue, my review would come across with a more accurate level of enthusiasm.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go convince my husband to let the grass grow a little so we can make a maze in our back yard. The instructions are on page 556-557.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review: Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs

A few weeks ago, AJ found that he had some money left on a bookstore gift card and we headed off to spend it. After wandering through the bookstore for a while, he ended up with a book neither of us had ever heard of before, Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs. AJ was attracted to the large cartoon hippo lying on its back with its legs in the air and xes for eyes. Clearly this was a book about a dead hippo.

But it's much more interesting than that. Belly Up is a terrific murder mystery that keeps you guessing until the bitter end. It takes place in a zoo and is full of interesting information about animals and zoos, which AJ loves. But what he loves even more is that it is funny. Teddy is a smart and somewhat cynical 12-year-old kid, the son of the Funjungle's resident ape expert and wildlife photographer, who suspects the recent death of the zoo's mascot was no accident. Teaming up with the celebrity daughter of the zoo's wealthy owner -- and with a little help from mom and dad -- Teddy sets out to find out how Henry the Hippo really died.

Belly Up is Gibbs' first book and it's a good one. It's also a particularly good one for gifted readers, I think, because it's a smart and interesting story and the vocabulary is more complicated than you often see for this age group. That said, some reviewers at Amazon have expressed discomfort with some of the language, which includes some minor swearing. Personally, I didn't find anything too egregious but if you are the kind of parent who is less tolerant of that kind of language, you might want to preread the book and see what you think.

My one beef with this book is the editing. It is possibly the worst copyedited book I have ever read. And that's saying something. There were so many extra words and omitted words, that it detracted from the story. AJ and I were reading it together and it got to the point that when we'd sit down to read, AJ would say "how many mistakes do you think we'll find tonight?" The most problematic of the errors is when one of the minor animal characters changes it's name in one chapter from Henrietta Hippo to Hildegarde. I was half tempted to mark up the book and send it back to the publisher. This author deserves a better showing than this. It's a terrific story well told. The book's quality should match the work the author has clearly done.

But if you can get past the errors in the text, AJ and I each give Belly Up two thumbs up. We hope there may be a sequel, or at least another book, from Gibbs in the not-too-distant future.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Courtesy of Hoagies Gifted, some timely advice to pass on to your kids' teachers about how to integrate gifted kids into a mainstream classroom.

The article doesn't present anything you don't probably already know, but it's a nice succinct list with links to articles for further reading about each topic. Many of these are useful for parents as well as teachers.

The 10 ways to integrate gifted children into the classroom are::

1. Learn to identify your gifted students
2. Communicate with your gifted students' parents and previous teachers
3. Understand it may be harmful for gifted students not to be academically challenged
4. Go beyond test prep
5. Use cluster groupings
6. Create open ended assignments
7. Maintain a positive social atmosphere
8. Encourage pursuit of outside interests
9. Offer praise for hard work instead of level of knowledge
10. Make good use of modern technology.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Last night I checked the school website for the first time in months. I noticed there was still a link for gifted, even though the program has been eliminated by budget cuts. I clicked it.

“Due to budget cuts, the gifted program has been eliminated. Any differentiation for students will come solely from the child's classroom teacher. If you have any questions you can contact XX, former gifted resource teacher.” The former gifted resource teacher will be teaching fifth grade this year. At another school.

In a week and a half, AJ will start fourth grade. We've decided to leave him in his current school and grade, at least for now. It will be his fifth and last year at his elementary school (our district starts middle school in grade 5). It’s the first year we will have no formal assistance with his curriculum, the first year class sizes will top 30 (AJ’s grade will be one of the most overcrowded at 34 per class), the first year with a 5.75 hour day instead of 6.5 hours. We don’t really know what to expect out of this year or even what to hope for in terms of teachers. There are just too many wild cards.

On Wednesday, the class lists will go up and on Thursday, we’ll be meeting with whoever will be AJ’s teacher for the next nine months. At this point, it’s kind of a formality. The school has an enormous file on AJ. But it makes sure that the teacher’s seen that file and lets us get a sense of what to expect and how we might be able to help with his curriculum. And the preparation for the meeting gives us a chance to think about what we want AJ to accomplish this year. Now that AJ’s getting over, I want to include him in some of the thinking. What does he want to accomplish? Does he want to do some projects? Learn something new? Have more time to practice piano or make some art?

We are trying to view this period of change as an opportunity. The shortened day gives us time to do more work at home, which may ultimately be a good thing. I've always thought a combination of public and home school would be good for him and now we have a chance to try it. I suggested to AJ that we work on a foreign language and he picked Latin. He’s had some Spanish, so he’s able to read some basics already. Thanks to Percy Jackson, he’s interested in mythology, which we’ve approached to date solely from the Greek side. But he knows the Roman names from his interest in astronomy. His fascination with all things disaster led him to do some reading about Pompeii, so he knows a little about the culture from there.

Although Latin is not my strongest language – I had several years of it in high school, but didn’t much pursue it beyond the Latin I use as a musician or during the time I was a music director for a schismatic Catholic church that did the pre-Vatican II Mass where everything was Latin but the homily. But I didn’t have to think twice about a textbook. We’re using the wonderful Cambridge Latin Course, which unlike many Latin texts, teaches it as if it’s a living language. There is a ton of cultural information in the books and lots of beautiful pictures. Although I used the book in high school, there is nothing here inappropriate for a bright nine-year-old. Best of all, the series’ website (see link above) includes online activities for the books, including a feature called “explore the text” which lets you read the texts in the book with the option of clicking on any word to get a definition. These materials are free. If you’re not confident enough teach Latin yourself, there’s even a distance learning option for a fee. We had our first lesson today. I’m hoping it holds his interest. We’ll let you know how it goes!