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 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.