Friday, May 13, 2011

Happy Birthday Jennifer Armstrong - May 12

Happy Birthday Jennifer Armstrong - May 12

My three kids and I want to go in separate directions when we get to the library.  Heading into the children's department is much like shopping with my wife's family on the day after Thanksgiving -- "And they're off!" My oldest son heads to the computers, my youngest son heads for the nearest shelf to see how many books he can remove, and I start to locate the books on my list for the next birthday celebration.  By the time my library bag is half full of books, I have lost track of my daughter - slight panic.  But, I have eyes on my oldest son.  My youngest son is now under my arm lack a sack of potatoes, and I re-shelve section F of the picture books.  Now walking, my head rocks back and forth as I look down each aisle between the bookshelves only to find her in the Biography Section on the other side of the room.  Unfortunately, this seems to happen almost every time we are at the library. One of these days I will learn that I always find her in the biography section.

This week I headed to the Biography section with my daughter.  I was looking for Audubon: Painter of Birds in the Wild Frontier by Jennifer Armstrong, illustrated by Jos. A. Smith. This is a book that Armstrong wrote after her "interest in nature and history lead her to reading about pioneering naturalists and explorers." (Suite 101 interview).  I was excited to find the book without much difficulty and I placed it into my bag along with The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History, Once Upon a Banana, and few other titles I had already found by Armstrong.  At that point I had no idea how much fun Audubon was going to be for my children.

My children were drawn into the book immediately one night before bedtime.  My son identified a chickadee, one of his favorite birds that visit our backyard feeder, on the first page.  On the next page, my daughter and I were instantly hooked on the book when we learned about John James Audubon's experience with vicious an earthquake.  Later, we learned and discussed how hard it would be achieve Audubon's dream of painting all the birds in America, in life size. Kirkus Reviews described the book as, "An excellent example of what a picture book biography can be."  We could not have agreed more.  We loved the image of enormous flocks of passenger pigeons passing over head, leaving bird droppings all over Audubon. Then there was his experience inside a tree with thousands of swifts, which we also enjoyed.  When the book was over I started to read the author's note and my daughter said, "Nooooo! Not another author's note."  I said, "Okay, I read it on my own, because you know I love a good author's note."

On Monday after I picked my daughter up from school I said, "I read the author's note at the back of Audubon and I learned something really cool."  My daughter looked very interested but with a little regret in her eyes that she didn't learn it herself the night we had read the book.  I continued, "Actually, it was in the artist's note, and it said that Audubon was able to paint with both hands at the same time!"  She was amazed and this was the hook I needed for our activity that afternoon. After lunch I planned on taking them to the Beaver Marsh, one of our favorite places in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This area has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.  On this trip we would be packing our art supplies along with our binoculars and bird identification guides.
My daughter suggested stopping at the Great Blue Heron nesting area
which was on the way to our destination, for our first attempt at drawing wild birds.
My children used their oil pastels to draw their observations in their sketchbooks.
Even though we were in the designated viewing area, I had them sit in the stroller
since the nesting area is along side the road.
We reached the Beaver Marsh and set up our supplies.
This is one of my favorite spots in the marsh.  Tree Swallows buzz overhead tending to their
nests which are in the dead trees right by the deck overlooking the marsh.
My son loved the lily pads and sketched one with a frog.
We hiked up further along the trail and came to a spot overlooking
the Cuyahoga River.  Yes, those are music stands that we
set up as art easels for our last sketch of the day.  We just found the
music stands at a rummage sale for $1 last weekend!
My daughter drew "Ducks in Water".  While she was drawing,  a volunteer from the National Park inquired about the pictures they were drawing.  My daughter told her everything she learned about Audubon.  The volunteer shared that she had just purchased an original painting at an auction of an antelope by Audubon. She suggested that if we ever see an Audubon painting that we need to look at it with a magnifying glass to appreciate the detail. 
On Jennifer Armstrong's website below her title "Jennifer Armstrong, Author and Historyteller" she has the quote, "History isn't dusty facts. History is stories - stories about people who came before us. I love writing those stories." After visiting her website I was convinced that a birthday celebration was necessary for our family because of my daughter's love of important historical figures and events. For Armstrong, "Writing is the only job I ever really wanted to do. I wanted to write books that would capture a reader's imagination and make them forget everything else while they read." (jennifer-armstrong.com).  In addition to Audubon, my daughter loved The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History.  Each tale is about 3 pages long which made them perfect for before bed reading.  This book is quite large, but each night we just opened the book to randomly select a story. We learned about John Henry, Alexander Graham Bell, The Great Molasses Flood in Boston (my favorite!), and giant Redwood trees in California.

Experiencing Jennifer Armstrong's books this week has been so much fun.  In addition to the books I have enjoyed reading Lion's Whiskers, a blog about raising courageous children that Jennifer Armstrong writes along with parenting coach, Lisa Dungate.  Click here to read their Top Ten Reasons to follow the blog.  I was convinced and now follow on Facebook.

We also recommend reading Once Upon a Banana, practically a wordless picture book, that made my children laugh out loud.  I personally enjoyed reading Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World which was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.



Links:

1. Jennifer Armstrong's Website - including Articles and Speeches Page
2. Lion's Whiskers Blog - Her blog about raising children to have courage
3. Lion's Whiskers on Facebook
4. Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World - Facebook Page
5. Printable Author Biography - RandomHouse
6. Text Interview - Suite101, Patricia Newman Site
7. The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History Lesson Ideas - RandomHouse

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