19 Aug

What’s for Lunch? Math Homework, Duh

Posted in Book Reviews, Teaching

This might come as a surprise for some of you, but I’m obsessed with math.  Seriously.  In college, I took Number Theory, Topology and Abstract Algebra just because it sounded like fun.  It was.  The summer between junior and senior years, I got a used Graph Theory textbook and in my free time taught myself the material, for kicks.  Oh, and to this day, my favorite T-shirt has a picture of a Klein bottle on the back with the word “mathematics” in absolute value signs underneath.  (Ha ha!  Get it… absolute mathematics?  Like the vodka ads…)

But it wasn’t always like this.  When I was in grade school, and even for most of high school, I hated math.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around arithmetic that could be just as easily solved by plugging numbers into a calculator.  It all seemed so pointless.  There was no beauty, no artistry to it.  Or so I thought.

What I didn’t know in middle school was that just because you couldn’t add and divide numbers in your head, it didn’t mean you were bad at math.  In fifth grade, I was the “slow” kid in the math class.  The one who never got called on because by the time I figured out the answer, someone else had already raised their hand.  When the teacher did call on me to give me a chance, she would get frustrated at how long it took me to get the answer and call on someone else.  I thought I was the dumbest kid in the world.

But then one day, we had a sub–an awesome teacher who didn’t waste our time with fractions, decimals and other inane topics that seemed so unbelievably important to our regular teacher.  Instead, this teacher taught us about the Fibonacci sequence, the Golden Rectangle and different types of infinity.  Everyone else was bored and rolled their eyes, but I stayed late after class to ask more questions.  That was the day I started realizing that math and arithmetic are two completely different things.  Maybe I couldn’t multiply numbers the fastest in the class, but I could see the beautiful patterns and mysterious ratios that made math wonderful.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  I know there are some moms and dads out there who read this blog, and others of you may not be parents but probably have kids in your lives.  I’m also betting that at least a few of you know kids who are convinced they hate math (just like me in grade school.)  Worse yet, they might even have crossed the line from hating math to thinking that they stink at it!

If that is the case, you must get this book: Eat Your Math Homework by Ann McCallum and illustrated by Leeza Hernandez.  This is the book I wish my parents had gotten for me when I was a kid.  It takes abstract math concepts and without dumbing them down, illustrates them with food activities.  How awesome is that?

One fun way to use this book is to throw a math-themed party and use the recipes in this book for the food.  My favorite recipe, of course, is the Fibonacci snack skewers!  For party entertainment, present some math riddles and math puzzles and have kids work together to figure them out.  Books like Raymond Smullyan’s The Lady and the Tiger are chock-full of awesome puzzles and challenging riddles.

Lots of kids go through life feeling like they’re bad at math, but they’ve never actually had a chance to experience math for real.  And that makes me sad.  I was one of those kids, but I was lucky because that fifth-grade sub and then a number of professors in college, opened my eyes to how amazing and beautiful math can be.  Not all kids are that lucky.  And that’s where books like Eat Your Math Homework can help.

What about you?  Do you have a heartbreaking math story to share?

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10 Aug

The Rule of 3: The Flint Heart by Katherine and John Paterson

Posted in Book Reviews, Craft, Kid Lit, Writing

by Katherine and John Paterson, illustrated by John Rocco

“A man, a woman and an emu walk into a bar…”  We’ve all heard that joke before, or at least something along those lines.  They’re always told the same way, with two parts building up to a third that is the punchline.  The Rule of 3.

We hear this pattern in songs too.  “Here an oink, there an oink, everywhere an oink oink.”  But I’m not just talking about children’s songs either; jazz and blues are filled with the Rule of 3.

The best way to illustrate the Rule of 3 in the blues would be to quote the lyrics of the hilarious parody Poppa’s Blues from the musical Starlight Express:



The first line of the blues is always sung a second time.
The first line of the blues is always sung a second time.
So by the time you get to the third line, you’ve had time to think of a rhyme.

The Rule of 3.

Finally, we also see this pattern in stories.  The perfect example, of course, is “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in!”  Not to mention that there were three little pigs, one with a house of straw, one with a house of sticks and one with a house of bricks.  The Rule of 3.

This rule is alive and well in Katherine and John Paterson’s gorgeous book, The Flint Heart, where the evil Flint Heart causes trouble for the woodland community not once, not twice, but a full three times.  This beautifully illustrated novel proves that even today, this age-old technique of grouping things in threes is still quite effective.

So, how does the Rule of 3 work, exactly?  Doesn’t the reader see the punchline coming?  Why is it that even though it’s been around for what seems like forever, the Rule of 3 still holds that element of surprise and satisfaction?  Here’s why:

1) There’s always three.  Not two.  Not four.  Three.  Why three? Because it’s enough to set up a pattern in the reader’s mind, but not so much that the reader gets bored.  If you repeat something only once, it’s not enough for the reader to notice the effect, but if you do it three times, then you’ve got the reader’s attention.

2) There’s a build-up.  Part of the reason why the Rule of 3 is so effective is that when writers use it, they build each piece on the previous one.  The Flint Heart is a perfect example.  The first time the flint heart causes trouble, it is only within the context of one human family.  Next it causes problems within the fairy kingdom.  Finally, the flint heart creates trouble for the entire woodland community, affecting humans, fairies and all the creatures of the forest.  Each iteration is more intense and has higher stakes than the last.

3) Third time’s the variation.  Finally, the Rule of 3 works because the third time is never exactly the same as the first or second.  Think of the three little pigs.  The first two houses get blown to smithereens but the third house of bricks is what does in the Big Bad Wolf.  Think of jokes, where the punchline comes at the end of a chain of three.  Think of the Blues, where the first two lines are often the same, with a variation coming in the third and final line.  Using the first two iterations to establish a pattern, you can then add a variation or twist with the third.  That catches the readers attention and leads to that element of surprise and satisfaction.

Have you used the Rule of 3 in your writing?  How?


14 Jul

Fashioning Fiction: Guest Post by Olivia Bennett

Posted in Book Reviews, Craft, Kid Lit, Reading

Today we have a fabulous guest post from Olivia Bennett, author of Who What Wear: The Allegra Biscotti Collection, just released in June 2011.  This charming book continues the adventures in fashion of Emma Rose, who is also secretly the hip new fashion designer Allegra Biscotti.  I had the pleasure of reading this book, not realizing it was actually the second one of the series.  And unlike many sequels that often lean heavily on the first book, this one holds its own as elegantly as one of Allegra’s designs.  After finishing Who What Wear (and of course, going back to read the first as well!) I knew I had to get Olivia here at the blog to share a few secrets of how to fashion a story for young readers.  For more information on Olivia or The Allegra Biscotti Collection, please visit the Who What Wear webpage.  Now without further ado, here’s Olivia Bennett with FASHIONING FICTION.


“She wore a black cotton cardigan–on which she had replaced the plain plastic buttons with marching band uniform buttons–over a white tank top and black, gray, and white camouflage pants from the Army-Navy store and her favorite silver sneakers.”

With the above description, I introduced Emma Rose to the reader in the first book of THE ALLEGRA BISCOTTI COLLECTION. Because ALLEGRA is fiction with a fashionable twist, I felt it was very important to not only show the fashion but to use the fashion as way to describe the characters via what they chose to wear or not to wear. Emma—who later takes on the double life of fashion designer Allegra Biscotti—is creative above all else. While couture and designers matter very much to her, she thrives on the creative (and so the detail about the DIY buttons), does not aim to stand apart from her middle school peers (thus the tank and under-the-radar colored pants), yet is an individual who embraces a special sense of fun and whimsy (finally, the silver sneakers).

Description is what makes a story real, especially for middle-grade readers. It allows the reader to feel as if she is really in Allegra’s design studio or standing by the racks of gasp-worthy clothes lining Madison’s sleek offices. The question often becomes—how much detail to bring to your descriptions.  Allegra is a fashion series so, knowing my audience, all clothes were described in painstaking detail. However, my readers also have a strong desire to create and too much detail would take this almost- interactive process away from them. The key was to give them just enough and then let their imagination do the rest.  Throughout the first two book in the series, I made sure the juicy colors, the weight of the fabric, and the general shape of the garments were vividly described, but allowed by reader to add the little details—buttons, zippers, and all the trimmings.


Thank you so much Olivia for joining us here at iggi&gabi and sharing your words of wisdom.  Now my questions to all you readers out there: What are your thoughts on giving too much detail vs. not enough?  How do YOU find that balance?  Hint: For an example of how to put this balance into action, check out Who What Wear and The Allegra Biscotti Collection.  Write on!

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07 Jul

At the Sea Floor Cafe – By Leslie Bulion

Posted in Book Reviews, Education, Poetry, Teaching

I first learned about At the Sea Floor Cafe: Odd Ocean Critter Poems by Leslie Bulion (Illustrated by Leslie Evans) at Book Expo America this past spring.  A book of poems about ocean creatures?  My inner poetry-science geek was instantly intrigued.

While the book is short (I read it in one sitting), you could spend an entire school semester with it and not run out of things to discuss.  In fact, what I liked about this book is that each poem opened up an entire world to the reader, not just with the science but with the poetry structure itself.  Each poem in the book represents a different form ranging from rhyming couplets to free verse, to a pantoum (my personal favorite).  With each poem comes opportunity for a unique lesson plan relating either to the poetry or the science, or both.

My one slight concern with the book is I wonder if it’s trying to do too much.  Reading it in one sitting, the poems began to run together and I felt I wasn’t able to fully appreciate all the detail that went into each poem, both in its structure and in the science behind the verse.  The concept for this book is so smart and unique, I would hate for readers to miss the nuances of each poem by glossing through this book too quickly.

My recommendation for parents and teachers: Ask readers to select one poem and spend time with it, rather than having them read through the book in one go.  The book is short, so the temptation to breeze through it is definitely there, but young readers will get more mileage out of this book if they read through it slowly, one poem at a time.  For each poem, I would encourage readers to do one or more response activities to help emphasize what they learn in the poem.


  • Draw pictures of the ocean critter in the poem.
  • Cut out pictures or search for pictures on the web and make a poster about the ocean critter (what it eats, what its habitat is like, funny behaviors, etc.)
  • Go to the library (or the computer) and look up three cool facts about the ocean critter in the poem.  One rule: These have to be facts not found in the poem.
  • Read the poetry notes about the poem and try to write your own poem in that form.


I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It has lots of cool facts about ocean creatures, and the poetry notes at the end really show that the author knows her stuff.  Because this book is so full of opportunity for teaching, I would love to see a parents’ guide available to give parents ideas for activities that could go along with this book.  Good teachers will see millions of opportunities with this book and will get a lot of mileage out of it in their classrooms, but for kids reading it at home I think a guide with companion activities would be wonderful.

Overall, it’s a funny and quirky book.  When I teach another poetry workshop for kids, this one is definitely going in my repertoire.


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