Monday, November 15, 2010

The Misfits

The Misfits by James Howe
            Children’s Novel—Realistic Fiction
            Grades 5-8
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: A group of seventh-grade outcasts start a third student council party in order to bring attention to the negative impacts of name calling.

            The Misfits is truly an amazing book that I think everyone should read at some point. Its theme of name calling addresses an issue that most people will fall victim to and therefore makes this book particularly relevant for middle school students who are in the midst of such an issue as part of their day to day lives. However, I found no problem relating to the characters and the situations that they faced at an older age as well.
            The realness of the characters in this novel is really what makes it such a powerful book. There is a personality or trait that everyone can relate to: the weirdo, the fat kid, the tall girl, the brainiac, the fairy, the shy girl. While we may not be able to see an exact mirror of ourselves in Bobby, Addie, Skeezie, Joe, or any of the other characters, we can still share in a similar experience, which is what makes these characters so “authentically human” and relatable through the problems they face (Peterson & Eeds, 2007, p. 40). I found myself connecting to the experiences of Kelsey as the shy girl. In elementary and middle school, I was quiet and didn’t like to be notices, and I related to her feelings of embarrassment when someone was talking to her. It is fascinating to observe the behaviors of each character while reading and be able to identify people in my own life that are similar to them. In that sense, Howe did a phenomenal job of creating such real people in his story and capturing the social essence of what it means to be a middle school kid.
            Howe’s choice for point of view also makes this novel unique. We see the story through the eyes of Bobby, one of the members of the Gang of Five. At first, I thought it may have been more effective to switch between the four friends, Bobby, Addie, Skeezie, and Joe, in order to offer insight into each of their thoughts throughout the book. However, I realize that by showing the events only through Bobby’s perspective, we have the opportunity to see things only as he sees them. I feel like this allows us as the reader to feel like a member of the Gang of Five because we get to know each of Bobby’s friends in a way that only he can share. Because he has such a close bond with each of the other three friends, we are able to experience the interactions consistently through one character, which is what makes the first person narration through Bobby a significant choice.
            Finally, the theme of The Misfits gets at the heart of a significant issue in schools today. While we can all likely relate to a character of this novel in some way, most of us go through school without standing up against those that call people names or degrade others based on stereotypes. I think that the actions of the Gang of Five represent an empowering message for kids in school. Many students face torment by bullies and do not know how to cope with it, but Bobby, Addie, Skeezie, and Joe show readers that they can and should do something about it. One of the most significant events in the book is when the Gang of Five hangs up signs with the names that they have been called and come to realize that if someone calls them a name, then they are only proving their point. The characters show that name calling does not have to be brushed off or tolerated. Indeed, they help the reader understand that we are all people and deserve to be treated with care and respect. In my experience, this is a message that all kids could benefit from hearing.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Jacqueline Woodson Experience

            While I had never heard of Jacqueline Woodson before being assigned to read one of her novels, I am now very intrigued by her as an author. I love that she takes risks in her writing and touches on subject matter that many would stay away from, but yet is very beneficial for students to come into contact with and learn from as they grow into young adults and become increasingly more immersed in society.
            I read Woodson’s Hush, which I wrote about here, and as we discussed and related our novel to some of her other works, many common elements and themes were found across her writing. One of the major themes present in both Hush and The House You Pass on the Way is identity. Characters in both novels struggled with who they were and what defined them as people, which is a question that many of us deal with in the real world. Woodson’s approach to this theme involved exploration of identity, and I’m not sure that either of these book’s characters really came to any solid conclusion about their identity. In this way, I think Woodson navigates the question of identity in a rather peculiar way. For instance, it is strange to me that Evie in Hush would spend almost the entire book wondering who she is and trying to find a place for herself, only to be left as the reader still questioning that same thing. It’s true that Evie found a place on the track team, but I felt like she was still searching for something deeper. However, this interpretation of identity closely parallels reality in that I don’t think we ever do truly find our identity and can say that who we are is permanent. Rather, identity is something that is fluid and ever-changing as the seasons. As humans, we are constantly forming and reforming the critical elements of our lives that make up our identity, and so I find it fascinating that although this is what Evie was searching for, Woodson ends the novel absent of a final conclusion for this question.
            Woodson also tackles the idea of keeping memories alive in some of her literature. For example, this is a big part of Evie’s life as her family enters the Witness Protection Program and is also a major theme in her picture book, Sweet, Sweet Memory. In this story, Sarah and her family mourn the death of her grandfather, but find solace as they reminisce about things that he used to say and do. Woodson’s attention to the importance of memories is slightly bittersweet in Hush because it is Evie’s desire to return to the place of those memories that causes so much pain and hardship. Her family must move on and will never be able to go back to Denver, and Evie struggles to accept this fact and let go of the past. However, Sweet, Sweet Memory uses the past as a comforting element for Sarah after the passing of her grandpa. After remembering the words he used to say, she is able to share her own memory of him and smile. I think it’s interesting that Woodson uses the element of memories for these two very different purposes. However, the idea that memories should be preserved still prevails in both stories, as Evie eventually realizes that she doesn’t have to let go of the past in order to take comfort in the future.
            Overall, I think Woodson is unique in that a lot of her stories share a common thread, whether it is the challenges of finding ones identity or the importance of keeping memories alive. I think students would definitely benefit from reading her work, as they would certainly face difficult questions as they approach the struggles that characters like Evie face. However, it is through such questioning as we read that we are able to grow, and Woodson definitely provides many opportunities to do just that.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, ill. by Ray Cruz
            Picture Book—
            Realistic Fiction
            Grades PreK-3
            Rating: 5 Stars!!
            Summary: Alexander experiences a day where everything seems to go wrong until he is ready to give up and move to Australia. At the end of the day, his mom reassures him by saying that everybody has bad days, even in Australia.

            Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was one of my favorites as a kid! I can remember listening to my mom read it and chanting along with the refrain of “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day!” each time that line came up. What makes this story so charming is that everybody can relate to the day that Alexander experiences. We all have our ups and downs, and I can remember feeling the same way when I had a day full of seemingly unfair circumstances and situations that were not to my liking. It is also easy to relate because the things that frustrate Alexander are so real—being squished in the back seat of a car, finding out you have a cavity, and feeling left out at school. Peterson and Eeds point out that this ability to identify with characters is one element that helps to create a quality story, and I certainly agree that this is the case with this book (2007, p. 40). Lastly, each time that Alexander says that he wants to move to Australia, I just crack up. If only it were that easy!
            Alexander’s story is an obvious choice for discussing similar emotions that students may feel. As an adult, I relate to Alexander, and so there is no doubt that students will naturally see themselves in his character and in the situations that he deals with. As a teacher, I think it will be important to bring up the fact that everyone has bad days, and use this book as a jumping-off point to discuss how we can cope with the emotions that come with those days. Perhaps it is unrealistic to decide that we will move to Australia, but children might agree with Alexander on this point and so we could talk about how to confront feelings rather than escaping them. I think it is important to have these conversations when kids are young and teaching them coping skills for dealing with tough times. Overall, as their teacher,  I would hope to foster a safe environment for this type of discussion to take place and make sure students know that I am always available for them to talk to if they are having a bad day.

Absolutely Wild

Absolutely Wild by Dennis Webster, ill. by Kim Webster Cunningham
            Picture Book—Poetry
            Grades 2-6
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary:  A collection of poems about unusual animals, this book uses witty rhymes to describe yaks, puffins, gnus, gibbons, and more.

            I have always loved poetry and animals, and Absolutely Wild is an intriguing combination of the two! Webster’s descriptions are so hysterical and yet logical at the same time, for instance, when he describes the yak: “A shaggy species is the yak / With hairy front and hairy back / It isn’t very hard to spot him / With hairy top and hairy bottom.” I found myself laughing and eagerly turning from page to page to see what peculiar details are revealed about the next animal. Each poem has a slightly different style and rhyme scheme, but the overarching presence of rhyme and meter stabilizes the structure of the book as a whole and offers “unity and coherence” that help to make this book a success (Peterson & Eeds, 2007, p. 35). Also, the illustrations are absolutely amazing as they depict each species in dark ink and contrastingly vibrant color. This combination is simply stunning and adds to the text in a funky way that is very complementary to the spiritedness of the words themselves. I particularly enjoyed the picture of the snail with a house literally drawn on its back in reference to the lines, “Still, moving at all is hard, you know / When you carry your house wherever you go.”
            In the classroom, this book would be a great choice to introduce poetry to young students. Its animal subject matter is popular and relatable for children, as most are usually interested in animals. I think the illustrations would also be appealing to kids and would invite them to observe the pages during their independent reading. The fun descriptions might be useful when teaching a mini-lesson on adding detail to writing or using your voice in writing. For this purpose, I think this book would be a great choice in order to familiarize kids with poetry rather than the typical choice of a fictional picture book. I find that many children are unsure or unaware of poetry as a genre, so overall Absolutely Wild would be a good selection to have in a classroom library in order to expose students to the wonderful world of poetry.

Spaghetti Park

Spaghetti Park by DyAnne DiSalvo
            Picture Book—Multicultural
            Grades K-3
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: Angelo and his grandfather, along with other residents of their Italian-American neighborhood, restore a park and create a bocce ball court in the midst of the parks trouble-making inhabitants. When they find that their work has been destroyed, they decide to begin again and are surprised that some of the troublemakers themselves pitch in to help.

            Spaghetti Park was such an enjoyable read for me, as I was able to relate to Angelo’s relationship with his grandfather. I grew up in a half-Italian family and, like Angelo, learned how to play bocce ball with my own grandpa. I liked reading as they worked together to restore to its original beauty the park that had become a hangout for the rowdy troublemakers. The ending is particularly gripping in that these very same kids turn from destroying the park to helping in the effort to restore it. This really shows the importance of standing for what you believe in, and I couldn’t help but feel proud that Angelo and his grandpa worked hard and were able to see the fruits of their labor. This particular lift in tension helps contribute to the lighter mood as everyone enjoys the park together at the end and revels in a sense of satisfaction in what they have achieved. In addition, as the reader we are able to “make adjustments in what we think the story is about” through this shift in tension (Peterson & Eeds, 2007, p. 37). Just when the outlook is gloomy, everyone comes together and I was left feeling happy and wanting to play bocce right along with them.
            This story would be an interesting choice for a class read-aloud because it is a socially conscious multicultural book. As the troublemakers, elders of the neighborhood, and Angelo work to restore the park, we see how these different social groups end up coming together. I think this message is pertinent for students as they are at some point likely to face social conflict among peer groups. With this book, I might consider having students share in groups, if they are comfortable, a situation they have faced when someone else opposed them and challenged to destroy their ideas or dreams. Angelo’s determination to do what is right is a great model to inspire students to stand firm in their beliefs and try to work together with others rather than engaging in confrontation or disagreement. 

Madlenka

Madlenka by Peter Sis
            Picture Book—Multicultural
            Grades PreK-3
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: Madlenka takes a trip around her New York City block to tell everyone that her tooth is loose. Each new shop that she comes to becomes a virtual trip around the world for Madlenka as they all are characterized by elements of their owner’s home country.

            Madlenka is a treat in that we get to experience a tour of the world with Madlenka as she travels through the city block. I feel that this story is a mirror book for me in that my experience as a white American is similar to that of Madlenka. However, I have never experienced such diversity as a minority, and it was cool to see her curiosity and how she has come to understand the uniqueness of each vendor’s culture and background. Sis’s illustrations also add a certain dynamic to the story that deepens the richness of the experience as the book continues. His progressive use of color as Madlenka comes to each new vendor or shop is a neat feature that helps to draw attention to detail in a fun and dramatic way. Also, I love that each country is represented with a variety of elements that Madlenka tells us about and then concludes with an imaginary scene of her own immersion in that particular culture.
            This story is so interesting and interactive in its own way. As Madlenka journeys throughout the city block, we are invited to share in the experience and even physically turn the book all around to take it all in, which is an aspect of this story that I think would be appealing to kids. In the classroom, this story would complement a unit on the exploration of cultures from around the world, and would also help students understand that many of these cultures are represented here in America. I think that this fact alone would be a great topic to discuss so that children can see that the way people live across the globe is not separate from what we experience here. Rather, we will likely come into contact with people of many cultures just as Madlenka does, and so this story would be beneficial to help foster an appreciation for different cultures and show us that we all live together.

To Be a Kid

To Be a Kid by Maya Ajmera and John D. Ivanko
            Picture Book—Multicultural
            Grades PreK-3
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: This photo picture book shows that kids from all over the world do the same things—they play, care for animals, spend time with family, and all of the things that make them a kid.

            To Be a Kid made such a powerful statement to me as an adult that I can only imagine how eye-opening it would be for children. In our society, it is often easy to view the world through the lenses of our own experience, but this book truly enlightens its readers to the experiences of people throughout the globe. However, its focus is not on what makes us different, but on all of the ways that kids around the world are alike through the similar games they play and how they interact with family and friends each day. I love that this book shows that we are all the same, no matter what skin color or race that we are, where we live, or what language we speak. I feel like our society damages this message by emphasizing how these things make us different, and so this book is so refreshing in that it sends the opposite message.
            This book contains such a significant message that is crucial for students today to understand. I think that as a child, I often viewed people from around the world as so different that they were not relatable to me. I hope to inspire exactly the opposite in the minds of my students, and this book would definitely help to illuminate the fact that kids from other parts of the world are no different than they are. By recognizing the similarities between themselves and kids from other countries, students might “acquire a sense of acceptance and appreciation for others,” rather than simply viewing these children as different (Hillard, 1995, p. 728).  Overall, I feel that this is an important message of multicultural literature, but it is often hindered by the sense that children should learn about other cultures and how they are different, instead of what makes us all the same as humans. I think it would be neat to follow up this book with a pen pal program so that my students could write to an international pen pal and further come to understand how they are alike as kids. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hush

            Children’s Novel—Realistic Fiction
            Grades 6 and up
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: After her father witnesses a race-related murder, the safety of Toswiah’s family is threatened and they must move away and change their identities. Toswiah becomes Evie and tries to reinvent herself in a strange place amidst a family that is quickly falling apart.

             I have always wondered what life is like for those that enter the Witness Protection Program and must begin a life in an identity that is completely different from who they really are. After reading Hush, I can say for sure that I would never want to go through the utter hell that Evie and her family experience as a result of a separation from everything the once knew.
            First off, I think that this novel is a great piece of literature. It was a page turner and I simply could not put it down! Woodson portrays the story in the first person through Evie’s perspective, and I think this choice enables you as the reader to “have the knowledge of the experience,” including her struggles, in a very authentic way (Peterson and Eeds, p. 50). It is through her eyes that we see how difficult it is for Evie to cope not only in a new environment, but as a new person in that environment. Her emotions are so raw that it is impossible not to feel a tug on your own heart for this poor girl. I truly cannot fathom having to leave everything that you have ever known behind and begin a new life. In the end, Evie shines through as a courageous warrior, albeit with her share of battle wounds. However, as Peterson and Eeds discuss, the way that a character copes with problems is what makes them human (p. 40). Although I can’t relate to the same situation and struggle of identity, Evie’s vulnerability really opens her up as a character that is innately human, which allows me as the reader to connect with her on a deeper, more emotional level.
            Many of the issues in Hush would make it a very controversial choice in the classroom. I imagine that many parents would be unhappy if I asked their child to read this book, however I feel like many of these topics are vital to talk about with kids and this book would be a worthwhile read. The issue of racial conflict is an obvious one. I think it would be beneficial just to get a feel for what students think is at work behind this conflict and see where that conversation leads. Even the simple act of facilitating discussion among students so that they can begin to think about issues of race is important. Naturally, kids might wonder about how race played into the murder of Raymond Taylor, and this is something that I would not try to shelter my students from. Unfortunately, racial discrimination is a very real part of the society we live in and if children don’t encounter this fact in school, then they will inevitably encounter it somewhere else. As a teacher, I think it is my responsibility to talk about these societal issues because school is a much safer place to ask questions and voice opinions, rather than sending kids out into the real world to learn about it on their own.
            Another relevant topic discussed in Hush is the formation of identity. I would read this novel with middle school students, as this is the age at which kids are really starting to question their own identities and form who they are as human beings. I think it would be neat to talk about Evie’s struggles with identity and the things that she did not want to let go of. Everyone goes through that phase of wondering who we are, and this book challenges the essential pieces of our identity and whether or not we would be able to let go of that. This could turn into a project for students to explore the hypothetical—if they were to enter the Witness Protection Program, what would they miss the most about their live? What might be difficult about creating a new identity? Since this is something that most people don’t have to think about, we often take things in life for granted. Reflecting on Evie’s experiences and struggles would be a good way for students to stop and think about their own lives, and perhaps learn to appreciate who they are and what they have. 

The Giver

The Giver by Lois Lowry
            Children’s Novel—Science Fiction
            Grades 6-9
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: When Jonas is assigned to be the next receiver of memories in his community, he discovers a hidden world of feelings, colors, and experiences that everyone in society is sheltered from. After seeing the injustice in this way of life, Jonas and The Giver devise a plan for Jonas to escape and release the memories to the community.

            I have never been a huge fan of the science fiction genre. When I think science fiction, I often see images of outer space, robots, and futuristic technology. The Giver introduced an entirely new perspective to me in regards to this genre which I had previously overlooked. In many ways, Jonas is a person just like me…he has a family, he goes to school, he plays with friends. The twist in this novel is that Jonas exists in a community that has placed such tight restrictions on its members that Jonas and everyone he knows has been prohibited to lie, sense color, and feel. In many respects, they are forbidden to live in the way that we as humans are meant to live.
             One of the most intriguing elements of The Giver is Lowry’s construction of place. Many authors create an enhanced version of the world as we know it, often allowing us as the reader to experience something that is thrilling and magical when we dive into their stories. However, Lowry’s construction of place is a society which is deprived of the essential elements that make the real world what it is. This is what elicited an eerie feeling of emptiness for me as I made my way through the pages of The Giver. I cannot imagine living in a world that does not know the happiness of Christmas and family, or the delight of sledding down a snow-covered hill. Even pain is something that helps us make meaning out of life, but this is a feeling that Jonas experiences for the first time at age twelve and something that is foreign to the rest of the community. The inability to feel was a strange thing to witness, and this conception of a place with restrictions on such things is what ultimately set the mood for me in this story (Peterson & Eeds, p. 45).
            Time is another element which Lowry uses in a rather unconventional way. There is the normal passage of time through the months, but if you think about, the grander concept of time is very skewed for the members of the community. Jonas is able to experience memories of the past, almost as flashbacks, but the rest of society remains ignorant to their very own history. The idea that his parents had parents at one time is even a surprising revelation to Jonas, which shows how the idea of a past is just not relevant to how these people live. While time for them is passing, to the reader they almost seem to be standing still, living in the moment, because the minute someone is old enough to leave, they are gone and forgotten about. This idea is actually quite difficult to wrap my mind around, but maybe this is what Peterson and Eeds are referring to when they talk about time being “ordered psychologically” so that it seems to have stopped (p. 53). Overall, this is another aspect of the novel that contributes to the mood and feeling of uneasiness, which makes it an effective science fiction read.
            The ending was, for me, the climactic peak of tension that had been slowly building since Jonas and the Giver started meeting. As Jonas becomes more aware of the restrictions and injustice that the community imposes on its members, I felt that this caused a climbing tension as he becomes increasingly enraged with the lies that he had been told all his life. With his decision to escape, I felt a sense of victory over the inner conflict that Jonas experiences between the life he has known and the new experiences that the Giver has shown him. Jonas and Gabe battle some rough conditions in their escape, and even though the ending can be interpreted as the death of Jonas, I really don’t think he dies. I think that because he has arrived at the spot of his first pleasant memory that he received from the Giver, this must be the start of a new life as he sleds down the hill towards the house filled with music and light. 

Lilly's Big Day

Lilly’s Big Day, by Kevin Henkes
            Picture Book—Grades K-2
            Rating: 4 Stars
            Summary: Lilly’s teacher, Mr. Slinger, is getting married, and Lilly has her heart set on being the flower girl at his wedding. When she finds out that Mr. Slinger has asked his niece, Ginger, to be the flower girl, Lilly is disappointed and must be content with just assisting Ginger on the day of the wedding.

            I really enjoyed reading Lilly’s Big Day and learning about Lilly’s character through this story. Lilly’s dream is to be the flower girl at Mr. Slinger’s wedding, and I felt a surge of empathy for her when she learns that Ginger will be flower girl. I think this arousal of emotion that I experienced helps this story to shine as a great work of literature, as Tunnell and Jacobs say that well-written books “stir deep emotional responses in readers” (p. 18). I felt a connection with Lilly and found myself continuously wondering if her feelings of resentment toward Mr. Slinger would ever be resolved. This anticipation is what pushed me to keep reading as I was secretly pulling for Lilly and hoping that she would somehow find a way to shine at the wedding. In the end, the tension shifts as we learn that Ginger is too nervous to walk down the aisle and it is only with Lilly’s help that she is able to fulfill her role as flower girl.
            This story would be a great addition to any classroom library, as Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse is already an adored favorite of many children. The lessons that Henkes shows through Lilly are endless, and I think it is through his characterization of her that students can benefit from reading this and other stories about Lilly. She embodies the self-centered nature that we all possess when we're young, so students will find it easy to relate to her. For example, I am sure that many of us have experienced a time when we wanted to be in the spotlight and have all of the attention, similar to the way Lilly feels as she desires to walk down the aisle as the flower girl. However, Lilly shows us in her own fun way that we should ultimately respect what others want and sometimes we may be surprised by what comes our way in the end. For this reason, I might suggest this book to students who have a hard time recognizing the needs of their peers. Lilly’s Big Day would also be a good choice for a read-aloud just to get students laughing and engaged with a character that they are likely familiar with and can relate to.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Not a Box

Not a Box, by Antoinette Portis
            Picture Book
            Grades PreK-K
            Rating: 4 Stars
            Summary: A defiant little bunny rabbit proves that the square next to him is indeed not a box, and demonstrates how the imagination can transform this simple object into a racecar, a mountain, a building, a spaceship, a hot-air balloon, and many other things.
           
            Not a Box is a story that I wish had been around when I was younger. It is so much fun to flip through the pages and see how the bunny has transformed the box into a new adventure simply by using his imagination. This innocent sense of creativity reminded me of the forts that my brother and I would build out of blankets and pillows. These forts would become a castle, an army bunker, or a space ship, and we would entertain ourselves in these blanket structures for the entire day. Like the bunny in the story, as children most of us dream up the wildest situations and use our imaginations to make these places come alive, and as adults I think we lose this sense of creativity. This book serves as a great reminder for me now as an adult that imagination can transform daily life into something a bit more magical. The same is required while reading this book—a willingness to let go of what “makes sense” in the real world and experience the simple drawing of a box in the same adventurous way as the bunny.
            Overall, I think kids would be thrilled to read this story as a class read-aloud. It is such an authentic expression of the imagination, and creativity is something that comes much easier when children are young and not embarrassed by the crazy things they come up with. In a class of younger students, I would love to use this story as inspiration for them to either write about or draw something that is a little out of the ordinary. I think it would be fun to pass out pieces of paper with boxes drawn on them and have each student draw their own interpretation of what the box really is, just like the bunny demonstrates in the story. Children have such a unique way of thinking and constructing meaning, so it would definitely be fun to see what they can come up with. 

The Friend

The Friend, by Sarah Stewart, ill. by David Small
            Picture Book—Realistic Fiction/Rhyme
            Grades 1-3
            Rating: 4 Stars
            Summary: Belle’s wealthy parents have no time for her, but she takes comfort in the companionship of her nanny, Bea. Belle and Bea spend every day together doing chores and then relaxing by the sea.

            The Friend is such an endearing story that really caused me to step back and appreciate the family that I have. I truly felt sorry as I began to read this story and realized that Belle’s parents are so absent from her life. Stewart’s rhythmic rhyming text does a good job of chronicling the bond between Belle and her nanny, Bea, but it is really Small’s illustrations that show the reader the extent of Bea’s love for the child and the overall significance that Belle finds in her relationship with Bea. I especially enjoyed the double-page spreads of wordless pictures, as I feel that this served the special purpose of allowing the reader time to reflect on the characters’ relationship. A casual and serene mood is created by these spreads and by the rhyming text, but this is disrupted when Belle wanders to the sea by herself and finds her life endangered by the waves. This sudden rise in tension and Bea’s quick move to save Belle helps us to construct a deeper meaning from the story as we realize that Bea’s love for Belle is far greater than we imagined (Peterson & Eeds, p. 37).
            This story is likely to raise some provocative questions among students, specifically pertaining to the distant relationship between Belle and her parents and then the complicated relationship between Belle and her caregiver, Bea. I think there are some racial nuances to this story that young Belle herself did not understand, and so I would not expect younger students to analyze this book any deeper than surface-level. However, I do think that on the surface, it would a relatable read for students who may be experiencing a home life similar to Belle’s, as Peterson and Eeds have determined that we can have a richer experience with literature when we are able to identify with the characters (p. 40). 

Once Upon a Banana

Once Upon a Banana, by Jennifer Armstrong, ill. by David Small
            Picture Book—Wordless
            Grades PreK-3
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: A monkey runs away from his juggler owner towards a fruit stand full of bananas, and from there a chaotic chain of events takes place as the juggler chases down the monkey.

            First of all, I absolutely love the idea of wordless picture books. They allow every reader to create their own story from the illustrations, and I definitely had a blast navigating the scenes of Once Upon a Banana and figuring out what was going on in my version of this story. Despite the lack of text, all of the literary elements are present, including characters, tension, mood, place—you name it. The precious expressions on the face of the monkey are hysterical. As the reader, I know that he is quite a mischievous little guy, but yet he still thinks he’s innocent. David Small gives us a birdseye view on most pages, which allows you to notice a lot of background details that add an entirely new perspective to the story. For example, I loved noticing the people that were not immediately involved in the action, as their faces are usually frozen in awe and bewilderment at what is happening down the street from them. I often found myself spending an extended amount of time on each page taking in these small details, and yet the pictures omit energy so that at the same time, I could not wait to move on and see what would happen next.
            I love how the illustrations, and really the story, start on the inside cover and continue through the title and dedication pages so that the “first page” of the story is actually the third or fourth illustration and a lot of action has already taken place. This is a neat feature to point out to young readers who may not have seen a book that does this. In the classroom, this book would also be an excellent resource for a discussion on cause and effect. In fact, I think it would be more valuable to use illustrations to talk about the basics of cause and effect rather than using a text. Finally, wordless picture books are often a great way to inspire reluctant writers by having them write the text to accompany the illustrations. This story would definitely be a good choice for this purpose because it offers so much action and detail to write about, but also because it’s a tale that I think younger students would especially enjoy interacting with. 

Where the Wild Things Are


Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
            Picture Book—Fantasy/Adventure
            Grades PreK-3
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: When Max is sent to bed without dinner, he sails off to a distant land where he becomes king of the wild things. They all play and cause a ruckus together until Max becomes lonely and decides to return home.

            Where the Wild Things Are is a classic, but I don’t remember reading it when I was younger, although I’m sure someone must have read it to me at some point. I love how Max’s experience is something that almost every kid can relate to—being sent to your room and escaping the moment by dashing off into a wild fantasy world. Playing with my Barbie dolls as a kid was a way for me to escape similar to how Max did in the story. His imagination is so playful and child-like that it is nearly impossible not to smile at the way that he tames the wild things and then proceeds to play with them freely as he chooses. This expression of choice and control is an essential piece to understanding Max, as it shows how he copes with being reprimanded by his mother for causing mischief and adds depth to his character (Peterson & Eeds, p. 40). I think the ending is very fitting as Max realizes that despite his role as king of the wild things, he is still lonely. When a warm dinner is waiting for him upon his return home, I experienced a feeling of belonging and contentment in the fact that like Max’s mother, our parents will love us even when we act crazy. Finally, this Caldecott Medal winner is worth the read just for its amazingly intricate illustrations.
            I would love to use this book as a classroom read-aloud, although it is one that a lot of children will probably have already read or heard. It could be a great conversation starter to get kids to think about the tension that Max experiences and how this helps us to better understand the emotions that he is experiencing, especially as the tension shifts toward the end of the story (Peterson & Eeds, p. 36-37). I would be interested to hear students talk about their own similar experiences, as I’m sure that kids all relate to Max on some level. Instead of reading this book to the entire class, it would also be a great recommendation to make for individual students who are into fantasy and adventure stories and will benefit from this simple read, or those who have wild imaginations and would enjoy Max’s own created world. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. & John Archambault, ill. by Lois Ehlert
            Picture Book—Alphabet & Rhyme
            Grades PreK-K
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: The rhyme/chant style of text relates what happens when the entire alphabet tries to climb to the top of a coconut tree.

            Chicka Chicka Boom Boom was one of my favorite stories when I was growing up—I used to beg for my mom and dad to read it to me. Reading it again now, I am still enamored by its rhythms and beats that just beg to be chanted out loud. The vibrant colors immediately draw you in as the reader, and complement the interesting cut-out graphics. I feel like the simplicity of this book’s design perfectly relates to its intended message—learning the ABCs in a funky way. I remember as a child being intrigued by the unique circumstances of each individual letter. This certainly helps you as the reader to remember the letters in relation to what their ailment is after falling from the tree. For instance, I know that as a kid I distinguished the letter “f” based on his band-aid and the letter “p” was obviously the one with the black eye! The authors also present the upper-case letters as the “mamas and papas and uncles and aunts” of the lower-case letters, which grants a sense of familiarity in an otherwise foreign concept for children just beginning to learn about letters. Peterson and Eeds describe “problems and circumstances that are authentically human” in the characters of quality literature (p. 40).  Letters are obviously not people, but I think this personification is an effective method of making the concept accessible to young children.
            I know from personal experience that Chicka Chicka Boom Boom is an extremely fun and engaging book when we are learning to become familiar with the alphabet. Many alphabet books tend to focus on words that begin with each letter, but this story describes the letters as elements of literacy that simply interact with each other. I think this departure from the traditional is what makes the story particularly special and one that I would use with students. In addition, the personification that I’ve discussed as a vehicle to engage students is so important in order for them to both enjoy the reading experience and to construct deeper meaning from the story. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Annie and the Wild Animals

Annie and the Wild Animals by Jan Brett
            Picture Book—Fiction
            Grades PreK-3
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: Annie’s cat, Taffy, suddenly disappears and so Annie tries to find a new friend by luring animals with her baked corn cakes. When none of the wild animals are suitable for Annie, the arrival of spring also brings back her cat.

            Jan Brett’s story, Annie and the Wild Animals, describes the beauty of friendship. As Annie longs for a new friend once Taffy has disappeared, her loneliness seeps from the pages of the book. She is going through something that is so innately human in that we need companionship and were made for relationships. Peterson and Eeds (2007) discuss how “symbols exercise an unconscious influence on our interpretations” (p. 57). I definitely found this to be true in the story as Brett uses the dead of winter as a symbol to further emphasize Annie’s desperation that leads her to lure animals with food in order to find a new friend. Winter is a season of cold and harsh conditions that represents isolation between Annie and the rest of the world as she stays inside her cottage. This interpretation of winter forced me to view Annie’s situation as an even more desperate one given the circumstances. The end of the story then brings spring, a season of life and new beginnings. This is also symbolic, as sure enough, Taffy shows up with three kittens just as the snow has melted! As the reader, I felt my spirits warm also with the coming of spring, especially knowing that now Annie has four friends.
            In my future classroom, I could see how this story might be quite popular among girls, given the context of animals and kittens in particular. However, I think boys and girls alike would enjoy this story for its message of life and the importance of having companionship in our lives. At a young age, many children are “friends” with everybody, and it is not until later that children begin to develop deeper relationships with certain friends. As a teacher, I think there is value in discussing what it means to be a good friend. Annie could help start the conversation because she demonstrates that we need friends in our lives to interact with, and that we come to depend on them. 

The Rain Came Down

The Rain Came Down by David Shannon
            Picture Book—Realistic Fiction
            Grades PreK-3
            Rating: 4 Stars
            Summary:  A series of squabbles and bickering is set off when it starts raining one Saturday morning. Just when it seems like a riot will break out, the rain stops and the people enjoy the day.

            The Rain Came Down is a humorous tale of a chain of events that are all linked together in some way. As a reader, we must learn to follow this shifting perspective, and it actually becomes quite enjoyable to track how each animal or person sets off another. I can relate to this chain of ignited emotions that stem from the rain. There are days when the weather just gets to you, and I know that it can affect my mood just as it did the characters’ moods in this story. As more and more people become involved in the chaos, tension builds until it seems as though a riot will break out. Shannon uses this tension to inspire a frantic mood, which I felt building as the reader. I was growing ever more concerned that one more outburst would through the entire crowd into a tailspin and they would all lose control. The rainy weather as the catalyst for the chaos in this story can also be a metaphor. Peterson and Eeds (2007) describe a function of metaphors and say that “they abstract some of the components of life” (p. 60). This is definitely true in this story, as the rain is a metaphor for the bad days that we all experience.
            This story can serve many purposes in the classroom. First, it can provide an example of how people should treat each other, as we see in the end that the rain clears and the people engage in more pleasant interactions with one another. The chain of events would also be a great foundation upon which to discuss sequencing in stories and how events are linked and can cause new things to occur. Even if this story was just taken at its surface value, I think children will love taking in Shannon’s amazing illustrations and engaging in the tension and eventual relief that comes at the conclusion of the story.

The Higher Power of Lucky

            What I loved most about reading The Higher Power of Lucky is that there is a little bit of Lucky in all of us. At some point in our lives, we all search for something more and feel like we are all alone in our struggles. Susan Patron’s characterization of Lucky is so successful because of this fact—she is completely relatable. She just wants to know that after losing her mom and never really knowing her dad, she will have some security in her future. When this is challenged by her suspicion that Brigitte is going to go back to France, Lucky decides to take matters into her own hands and fend for herself. When I was younger, I remember feeling like my parents were never coming back when they would leave me and my brother with a babysitter. Lucky’s way of coping with her situation is a bit more dramatic that I was as a child, but either way, the need to feel wanted is important when we are young.
            At first, it seemed odd to me that Patron told the story in the third person. Lucky’s feelings seem so raw and vulnerable that it is easy to think that we must be seeing through her perspective, but that’s not true! I think what makes this choice effective is that we still are empowered to know everything that Lucky is feeling. Had there been any more distance between us as the reader and Lucky as the main character, a lot of meaning would have been lost. Peterson and Eeds (2007) say that authors writing in the third person can “choose to let us view everything that happens through the eyes/thoughts/feelings of a limited number of characters” (p. 51). This is the case in Lucky. We never have access to the thoughts of Brigitte and must rely on Lucky’s perception of her, which is why for most of the story we become entangled in the fear that Brigitte is going to leave Lucky. Through this aspect of her writing, Patron creates a mood for us as the reader that is easily influenced by Lucky’s perception.
            Mood plays an important role in Lucky. As I just mentioned, it is influenced by the fact that Lucky’s viewpoint is pervasive and Brigitte’s is not. I spent most of the story worrying right alongside Lucky that Brigitte is going to leave her. This worry helped me to connect on a deeper level with Lucky and I found myself wondering what I would do in the same situation. Lucky is a lot more bold than I am, and I don’t think that I would run away like she did. I did, however, feel a genuine concern for her, and this connection was created through my access to Lucky’s emotions. Mood also functions as an avenue for tension in literature (Peterson & Eeds, 2007, p. 55). Tension definitely increases when Lucky sees Brigitte’s passport and decides right then that she needs to take action. When she comes to the conclusion that she will run away, I became nervous and concerned that she was making a mistake.
            Overall, The Higher Power of Lucky is a story that is true to the emotions and struggles of its main character. As a reader, I enjoyed following Lucky’s journey and her growth as a result of it. As she goes through her struggles and eventually learns to cope with her fears, Lucky’s relationships evolve with other characters, including Miles, Lincoln, and eventually Brigitte. The fact that her character is dynamic and changing lends itself to the other elements of the story as well, creating a nice balance and enhancing the piece as a whole.

Little Red

Little Red: A Fizzingly Good Yarn by Lynn Roberts, ill. by David Roberts
            Picture Book—Fairytale
            Grades PreK-4
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: Little Red goes off into the dark woods to visit his grandma and bring her a basket of goodies as he does every week. The big bad wolf has plans to eat Little Red and his grandma, but Little Red uses his sharp wit to outsmart the wolf in an unusual twist to this classic tale.

            Robert’s version of Little Red Ridinghood is so charming and irresistible. She puts a totally new spin on the tale, starting with the time and place. Little Red brings us back to post-revolutionary America. Peterson and Eeds discuss the ways in which the author lets the reader know about place, and Roberts definitely adds unique details to the story that enrich our sense of the setting (p. 46). Little Red’s parents own a tavern which reflects an earlier time, and the family’s interactions with the customers as they talk about their travels also helps the reader discern that this story is not set in modern times. The illustrations also contribute to the reader’s sense of time and place, as everything from the clothing to the tableware and d├ęcor of both the tavern and the grandma’s house are from the post-revolution era and give off an aura of patriotism. Overall, I just love the unique details of this fairytale, and the ending certainly does not let down. The wolf ends up making a deal with Little Red that he will not eat them if he can have an unlimited supply of ginger ale.
            Little Red would be a great version of a classic to use in a study to compare and contrast different versions of the same fairytale. Robert’s style makes this story truly unique. While it has the same frame as the original Little Red Ridinghood, there is so much to take in that is new and interesting by comparison. This story would also be valuable to share in order to inspire a creative writing project. Either individually or as a class, students can change and add unique details to a classic fairytale and create a completely new and imaginative take on the story, just as Roberts did. 

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel by Rachel Isadora
            Picture Book—Fairytale
            Grades 1-3
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the lush African forest and cannot find their way back home. They find a witch’s cottage made of bread, cake, and sugar, but must escape the hungry witch before she eats them!

            Rachel Isadora’s Hansel and Gretel is a fresh retelling of the Brothers Grimm classic tale. The illustrations create an entirely new atmosphere for this story to take place, with vibrant colors and an enticing collage effect that brings the story to a different level. I love the texture that is created by the painted papers—I think it creates an effect that brings the story down to a younger audiences’ level as it appears to be more playful and authentic. In addition, Isadora’s interpretation of the story embraces a different culture that is not often portrayed in fairytales, which is also refreshing in a genre that typically embodies the European heritage. The emotions of Hansel and Gretel are certainly relatable as their simple yet telling facial expressions capture each moment perfectly. I felt like my experience as the reader was enhanced by the tension in the story when the witch is preparing to eat Hansel and Gretel. Peterson and Eeds mention the importance of a shift of tension, which I felt when Gretel pushed the witch into the oven (p. 37). This moment provided a release and the reassurance that everything was going to work out for them.
            I love the idea of using this version of Hansel and Gretel in my future classroom. Fairytales often limit the perspective to a Caucasian European protagonist, which can send a latent message that only white people can be the hero and rule the day. However, I hope to teach my students to embrace diversity and all of the unique cultures that we see not only around the world but in our own backyard. Therefore, this particular book would be a valuable addition to a year-long focus on diversity as well as a study of fairytales. It would definitely lend itself to a compare and contrast discussion to encourage students to think about why most fairytales are written and illustrated to portray the typical white princess and the white prince that saves her. 

The Wall

The Wall by Eve Bunting, ill. by Ronald Himler
            Picture Book—Controversial Book
            Grades 1-4
            Rating: 4 Stars
            Summary: A boy and his father visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. They have come to find the name of the boy’s grandfather, who he never had a chance to meet.

            The Wall is an emotionally touching story as the boy and his father visit the Vietnam War Memorial. I felt compassion for the young boy because he never got to meet his grandfather. I know that death and loss is difficult to cope with, but I thought that Bunting addressed this issue in a particularly gentle way. The father and son stand at the wall just reflecting the life that once was. Having experienced loss in my life, I can relate to the father and know that feeling of longing just to see that person again. However, I think this experience was more difficult for the son because he never knew his grandfather and witnesses firsthand this relationship that he longs for as he watches another grandfather walk by with his grandchild. As other people come and go at the memorial, the story reminds us of how life is a treasure that is here today and gone tomorrow. However, as each person leaves behind a memory or artifact, this reminded me of the legacy that we leave behind for our family and friends that remain. The father is able to reflect on his father’s life and I think this message comes full circle in that although the grandson has never met his grandfather, he metaphorically comes to meet him for the first time at the memorial.
            In all honesty, I cannot really understand why this book would be controversial. The Vietnam War was a difficult time in our country’s history, but it’s a part of who we are as Americans and we cannot change that. I don’t see why we would want to change that. Therefore, I would not hesitate to use this book with my students. I think it is a great way to honor all those who have fallen for our country and how they valiantly laid down their lives. As the boy and his father reflect on the grandfather’s life, they are proud of him, and I would want my students to look back and feel the same way. Tunnell and Jacobs warn that teachers must be “willing to defend” their book choices in the classroom (p. 206). If a parent came to me with a concern about their child reading this book, I would try to explain that the Vietnam War is a part of our history and our children should know about the men that went and fought for our country, despite the controversy that surrounded this war at the time. Our focus needs to be on their sacrifice and not on the bitterness and opposition of the people during the war.