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January-February 2007 Selected Content

Good Stuff - Rebecca Rupp

Wonderful Writing: From Runes to Romulan

There's more than one way to write. These days there are, in fact, well over 150 ways to write worldwide, including phonemic alphabets that use symbols to represent individual vowel and consonant sounds - like the Roman (now ours), the Greek, and the Cyrillic, syllabaries that use symbols to represent syllables - as in Cherokee, Inuktitut, and Japanese hiragana, and logographic scripts such as Chinese, in which individual characters represent words for objects or ideas. Then there are wholly imaginary scripts - say, J.R.R. Tolkien's Elvish, or Star Trek's Romulan and Klingon - and alternative writing systems such as Louis Braille's raised-dot alphabet for the blind. Enough, in other words, to keep interested kids busy for weeks.

Omniglot A superb and multifaceted guide to written languages, with illustrated pages of dozens of alphabets, syllabaries, logographic systems, fictional and invented alphabets, and much more. A source for everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics and Viking runes to Klingon, Braille, Shavian, and Morse code.

So where did the alphabet come from, anyway? James Rumsford's There's a Monster in the Alphabet (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), a richly illustrated picture book for ages 7-10, is a retelling of the ancient story of how Cadmus, prince of Phoenicia, brought the alphabet to Greece. The author explains how the alphabet evolved from pictures: once "A was a picture of an ox, B was a house, and C was the curve of a boomerang." A chart at the back of the book compares Roman, Phoenician, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic alphabets, and allows kids to decode words and phrases in Phoenician characters scattered through the text. Rumsford includes a caveat explaining that much is not yet known about the history of the alphabet - in other words, some of his story is just a story - but the book does give kids a sense for how the modern alphabet evolved.

In Write Around the World: The Story of How and Why We Learned to Write (Oxford University Press, 2002) by Vivian French and Ross Collins, six zany birds head off on a time-traveling adventure to trace the history of writing from its origins 6000 years ago in Mesopotamia to the present day. There's a lot of information here, cleverly presented, variously covering Chinese pictograms, Egyptian hieroglyphics, world alphabets and languages, handwriting, typefaces, punctuation, and secret codes.

For ages 9-12, Tiphaine Samoyault's Alphabetical Order: How the Alphabet Began (Viking Penguin, 1998) surveys the history of writing, from its ancient origins to the wealth of alphabets used today, along with such related topics as the invention of printing, calligraphy, Braille, sign language, and Morse code. The accompanying graphics and colorful alphabet charts are gorgeous.

For ages 13 and up, David Sacks's 300+-page Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z (Broadway Books, 2003) covers the alphabet letter by letter. It's fascinating, thorough, and information-packed; is scattered with illustrations and fact boxes; and lends itself to easy reading in short bites - say, a letter a day. Equally appealing are Alexander and Nicholas Humez's Alpha to Omega: The Life and Times of the Greek Alphabet (David R. Godine, 2002) and ABC Et Cetera: The Life and Times of the Roman Alphabet (David R. Godine, 2000), both wonderful letter-by-letter histories, each short section filled with interesting information not only about the evolution of letters, but about the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome.

An excellent lesson plan on the history of the alphabet - "The Alphabet is Historic" - can be found online at The plan is divided into four parts - "The Phoenicians and the Beginnings of the Alphabet," "The Greek Alphabet: More Familiar Than You Think," "The Roman Alphabet is Our Alphabet," and "The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and Us," with a wealth of useful links, teaching suggestions, and student activities. The lesson is recommended for grades K-2, but is clearly appropriate for a much wider age group.

From the Cobblestone/Cricket magazine group, the October 2004 issue of Appleseeds - an excellent history magazine for ages 7-10 - is titled "Children of Ancient Mesopotamia;" it includes an article on "Cuneiform: The World's First Writing." For ages 9-14, the October 2006 issue of the world-history magazine Calliope also centers around Mesopotamia - it includes, among much else, an article on the world's earliest alphabet; and the theme of the December 1988 issue of Faces, devoted to world cultures, is "Writing," with articles on cuneiform, Mayan hieroglyphics, Chinese characters, medieval calligraphy, and more. All three magazines are generally available from public libraries; individual issues can be obtained for $5.95 apiece from Cobblestone Publishing (; (800) 821-0115).

Also see:

Write Your Name Like a Babylonian
Type in your name or initials and see them appear on a clay tablet in cuneiform.

About Cuneiform Writing
An illustrated, student-targeted history of cuneiform with directions for making your own cuneiform tablets.

There are many books on individual writing systems, of which the following necessarily are just a sample. James Rumsford's Seeker of Knowledge: The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), for ages 5-10, is a picture-book biography of Jean-Francois Champollion, the 19th-century scholar who solved the secret of the Rosetta Stone. The book, illustrated with evocative watercolors, includes interesting explanations of hieroglyphs and a chart of hieroglyphic words. For readers ages 10 and up, James Cross Giblin's 96-page The Riddle of the Rosetta Stone (HarperCollins, 1993) is a more detailed account, from the discovery of the Stone by Napoleon's soldiers through Champollion's successful breaking of the hieroglyphic code.

Also see:

Write Like an Egyptian
See your name in hieroglyphics.

Egyptian Hieroglyphics
An educational site featuring a hieroglyphic alphabet chart, instructions for writing numbers in ancient Egyptian, and an assortment of downloadable student worksheets.

Laurie Coulter's Secrets in Stone (Little, Brown, 2001) is the story of Mayan hieroglyphs, beginning with the rediscovery of the Mayan culture by John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in the early 19th century; the book includes a "Glyphmaster" with which kids can make their own glyph rubbings.

Laurie Carlson's Classical Kids: An Activity Guide to Life in Ancient Greece and Rome (Chicago Review Press, 1998) includes information and activities on writing in ancient times; Linda Honan's Spend the Day in Ancient Greece: 40 Activities to Experience the Wondrous Age (Jossey-Bass, 1998), in the chapter "Alexander's Lessons," covers writing in Greek.

Also see:

Greek Information and Resource Center
The site features an Online Greek School where kids can learn Greek letters, numbers, and simple words; also see the Interactive Activity Center for Greek alphabet and word games.

Greek Language and Linguistics Gateway
Click on "Alphabet and Writing" for a comprehensive table of the Greek alphabet.

Peggy Goldstein's Long is a Dragon (Pacific View Press, 1991) is an excellent introduction to Chinese writing for ages 8 and up: kids learn about the derivations and meanings of Chinese characters and learn to write 75 simple words. Huy Voun Lee's collection of bright simple picture books illustrated with paper collages each teach readers a handful of Chinese characters: titles, published by Henry Holt, are At the Beach (1994), In the Park (1998), In the Snow (2000), 1,2,3, Go! (2001), and In the Leaves (2005). To write your name in futhark - the Viking runic alphabet - visit the American Museum of Natural History at; the site also includes a Viking timeline and resource list.

Also see:

Basic information and a beautifully illustrated runic alphabet.

Make Stone Runes
Instructions for making your own set of runes with stones and acrylic paint.

Find Out About Series
So far there are four books in this attractive series, originally published in England and now newly available in the United States from Barron's Educational Series ( Each 64-page book is intended to introduce kids to a different foreign country, and contains a fold-out map, information on the country's geography, history, daily life, famous people, and noted landmarks, and a detailed introduction to words and phrases in the language. It's the design, however, that really makes these books stand out: each has a concealed spiral binding (such that the book lies conveniently flat when you open it up); is divided into tabbed sections (for ease of reference); and is heavily illustrated with clever little cartoon-style pictures. Notes in colored stripes at the bottom of the pages add interesting facts, follow-up questions, and Web sites to visit for more information.

The language-learning sections cover all the basics: meeting people and making introductions, finding your way around, visiting a city, shopping, going to a restaurant, celebrating holidays, parts of the body, counting, telling time, days of the week, and months and seasons of the year.

Titles, all released in 2006, are Find Out About China (Zheng Qing), Find Out About Italy (Patricia Borlenghi), Find Out About Spain (Duncan Crosbie), and Find Out About France (Duncan Crosbie). I only hope there are more in the works.

Recommended for ages 9-12. $12.99 each from bookstores.

The Magical Melting Pot

Author Michelle Greenwald loves to cook, travel, explore, and experiment, and it shows. The Magical Melting Pot ("The All-Family Cookbook That Celebrates America's Diversity") (Cherry Press, 2003) is the marvelous result of all of the above: a 200+ page collection of recipes that both kids and adults can enjoy making and eating, assembled from all over the United States and all over the world. Sections cover North America (from Hawaii to New York), South America and the Caribbean, Asia and Asia Minor, Africa, and Europe - which means, for example, pecan pie and coconut shrimp from New Orleans, green spaghetti from Peru, pot stickers from China, lemon rice with peanuts from India, couscous from Morocco, spanikopita from Greece, Bavarian soft pretzels, and many, many more. Each country and region of the United States is the province of a different cook - Michelle herself represents southern California - and there are illustrated biographies of each, filled with childhood stories and interesting background information. And, to add to all that, the book is gorgeously designed. There are colorful maps, fact boxes in striped borders (readers learn interesting tidbits about everything from tigers to pomegranates to matrushka dolls), foreign language boxes, and, running around the borders of each page, bright and appealing little drawings - wooden shoes and tulips for Holland, fringed umbrellas for Ethiopia, elephants for Thailand, pandas and sticks of bamboo for China. It's fun to look at, fun to read, and what better multicultural experience than cooking your way around the world?

Available to accompany the cookbook is a 100+ page curriculum guide in a three-ring binder, variously covering "Careers in Food, Hospitality, and Nutrition," "The Business of Food," "Family Customs Around the World Relating to Food," "Learning from Other Cultures about Having a Healthy Relationship with Food and Managing Weight," and "How Geography and History Affect the Foods We Eat." Each section includes background information, worksheets, and project suggestions - mostly paper-based - for students. For example, kids try their hands at being a restaurant food critic, evaluate restaurant marketing strategies, trace the process of turning crops into food products (say, "from cocoa pods to chocolate bars"), invent recipes and customs for a personal family holiday, and pair popular dishes and spices to parts of the world. It's a potentially useful supplement, depending on the interest and commitment of your kids, but lacks the pizzazz of the cookbook itself.

Recommended for all ages, with varying degrees of adult help. The Magical Melting Pot costs $29.95; the Curriculum Guide, $39.95. Available from bookstores or from Cherry Press at

A few more resources for multicultural cooks:

Deanna F. Cooke's The Kids' Multicultural Cookbook: Food & Fun Around the World (Williamson, 1995), is a trip through 41 different countries with simple recipes, fun facts, games, activities, and humorous cartoon illustrations.

Joan D'Amico's The Science Chef Travels Around the World: Fun Food Experiments and Recipes for Kids (Jossey-Bass, 1996) includes food-related science experiments and yummy recipes from 14 different countries. (Also see D'Amico's The United States Cookbook: Fabulous Foods and Fascinating Facts from All 50 States; Jossey-Bass, 2000.)

Kids Around the World Cook! The Best Foods and Recipes from Many Different Lands by Arlette N. Braman (Jossey-Bass, 2000) is organized by food type rather than country - under "Wet Your Whistle," for example, are recipes for British tea, Indian lassi, and an American ice-cream soda.

Cooking Up World History: Multicultural Recipes and Resources by Patricia C. Marden and Suzanne I. Barchers (Teacher Ideas Press, 1994) is an excellent collection of recipes and resources from 22 different countries or geographical regions, each with educational background information and an accompanying annotated bibliography.

Unjournaling and Writing Your Life

Unjournaling by Dawn DiPrince and Cheryl Miller Thurston (2006) and Writing Your Life by Mary Borg (1998) are both publications of Cottonwood Press, which supplies classroom teachers with English and language arts materials.

Unjournaling is a collection of 200 daily writing exercises aimed primarily at a middle school-level audience. Here are a few samples:

"'Like looking for a needle in a haystack' is a descriptive phrase that we all have heard. Create five different descriptive phrases that all mean the same thing."

"Write a paragraph about winter starting every sentence with a W."

"Update the story of Cinderella...for very modern children in very modern times."

"Write a letter to an animal, creating a very clear mood with the tone of your letter."

Some of these are more successful than others, but creative kids will be able to get some fun out of it. One feature in Unjournaling that I've never before seen in a creative-writing book: there's an Answer Key in the back, with sample appropriate answers. My advice is that you ignore it.

Borg's Writing Your Life: Autobiographical Writing Activities for Young People - recommended for grades 6-12 - leads readers step by step through the process of autobiographical writing. There are lists of questions to explore, writing tips, reading suggestions, and a variety of writing-enhancing creative exercises. For example, kids make a family tree, a personal timeline, a life map, and an autobiographical collage, draw floor plans of their first home, record their earliest memories, graph key events in their lives, list their likes and dislikes, describe the people who have been their most important influences, and predict their futures. Sample questions include "Did you have a favorite hiding place or secret place?" "What birthday do you remember best?" "Are animals or pets a part of your family?" "Who are your closest friends?"

There are also memory-jogging lists intended to help young writers incorporate the outside world into their personal stories, helpful suggestions for using graphics and photographs, and a final section on how to publish a finished autobiography in book form.

One lack: the suggested reading list of autobiographies includes over 20 selections, among them Roald Dahl's Boy, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - but not Joyce Maynard's Looking Back, which seems a natural, since it was written and published to great acclaim when Maynard was just nineteen. Why not you, too?

Unjournaling costs $12.95; Writing Your Life: Autobiographical Writing Activities for Young People, $14.95. Order from Cottonwood Press; (800) 864-4297;

Number Sense and Nonsense

Claudia Zaslavsky's Number Sense and Nonsense (Chicago Review Press, 2001) is subtitled "Building Math Creativity and Confidence Through Number Play." The author hopes to accomplish this by encouraging kids to investigate, experiment, and take control of their own learning. "Unfortunately, much school instruction in mathematics has been based on rote memorization of facts and procedures, rather than on understanding," Zaslavsky writes. "Memorized procedures are easily forgotten or confused, but the ability to reconstruct methods and arrive at solutions on the basis of mastering the underlying concepts remains with a person over the years."

The book is divided into eight sections: "Odds and Evens," "Prime and Not Prime," "Zero - Is It Something? Is It Nothing?" "Money, Measures, and Other Matters," "Riddles, Puzzles, and Other Mind Bogglers," "Counting - Fingers, Words, Sticks, Strings, and Symbols," "The Calculator and Number Sense," and "Numbers Grow and Grow and Grow." Each provides kids with puzzles, problems, and activities that teach relationships, patterns, and properties of numbers. These are challenging and interesting, but not sugar-coated - this is definitely math and it's intended to make readers think.

For example, kids learn to use the "sieve of Eratosthenes" to identify prime numbers, and experiment with Goldbach's conjecture - that is, "every number greater than two is the sum of two prime numbers." (Well? Is it true?) They learn a thousand year-old Arab trick called "casting out the nines" for checking addition, subtraction, and multiplication problems; figure out the relationship between the abacus and the older Chinese "stick numerals;" crack the Mayan number code; and differentiate between terminating and repeating fractions. They also solve a number of puzzles involving steadily increasing numbers, such as determining the total number of presents in "The Twelve Days of Christmas," the number of bacteria rapidly doubling in a Petri dish, and - from the old nursery rhyme - the number of "kits, cats, mice, and wives" all going to St. Ives.

There's an answer list in the back (to "selected" questions) and a pair of excellent bibliographies of math-related books for children and adults.

Recommended for ages 8-12. $14.95 from bookstores.

© 2007, Rebecca Rupp

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