Tuesday, October 26, 2010


            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. 


Whitewash by Ntozake Shange
            Picture Book—Controversial
            Grades PreK-4
            Rating: 5 Stars
            Summary: This true story is about a young African-American girl named Helene-Angel who is attacked one day by a Caucasian gang when she is walking home with her older brother Mauricio. The gang spray-paints Helene-Angel’s face white, and she is traumatized by this encounter.

            Whitewash was an eye-opening book for me because it brings up a topic that most people shy away from—racial conflict. I realized as I was reading that I cannot relate to the experiences of Helene-Angel and her brother, Mauricio. They were innocently walking home from school, minding their own business, and were both brutally attacked by a gang of Caucasian guys. I have no experience whatsoever in what that must have felt like for them. Growing up in a white middle class family, I don’t know anything beyond what was the norm in the area where I grew up. As I walked down the street or in the halls of my high school, I simply blended in. However, Helene-Angel and Mauricio are racial minorities and face discrimination for no reason other than the color of their skin. This situation just made me cringe as I was reading because I don’t know what that feels like, but it is reality for so many people. In many ways, Helene-Angel’s experience makes me ashamed to be the same ethnicity as the guys that spray-painted her face. I was overjoyed at the end of the story to see that Helene-Angel had the support of her family and friends of diverse cultures and that she rose above what they did to become a stronger girl.
            A couple of years ago, I would probably have said that I wouldn’t have this book in my classroom because I had a fear of dealing with parents who were upset or angry about literature that challenges social norms. Now, I can’t imagine having a classroom library without books like Whitewash, which challenges what society feels about issues surrounding race. As Tunnell and Jacobs point out, “Avoiding the harsh and often unsavory realities of life does not make them go away” (p. 206). I feel like this statement speaks strongly about the mission and responsibility we have as teachers to inform our students and not to ignore the issues of this world that children will undoubtedly face some day. Literature can be used to teach students to stand up for what is right. We will be doing a disservice to our students if we try to mask these issues and “protect” them, and Whitewash is a great example of a story that models how to be better than the racial discrimination that is all around us.