Sunday, May 9, 2010

Every Living Thing by Cynthia Rylant

Twelve short stories in Every Living Thing are devoted to telling specific tales of how animals have played an integral role in people's lives. In each short chapter, author Cynthia Rylant gets right to the heart of the story, describing in detail how each event in that person's life lead up to the moment of being deliberately affected by that specific animal. And each of their lives from that point on will never be the same. Similar to The Van Gogh Cafe, Rylant separates each of these stories into sections with a small picture of the animal, giving a predictable pattern to the reader of how each living thing's story will be told in the text.

In my favorite short story, Retired, Miss Phala Cutcheon, a retired schoolteacher just got a dog, and named her Velma. The dog was old, and in a way, was also retired. It took some getting used to, but Miss Cutcheon, as well as Velma, were both used to being around children. Velma belonged to a family with three children, and was used to their company before they had to move away to France. Miss Cutcheon, was also used to the company of children, having taught fourth grade for so many years. Even though they had each other's company, something was missing in both of their lives.
  • "Velma's memory of the three children grew fuzzy, and only when she saw a boy or girl passing on the street did her ears prick up as if she shoudl hve known something about the chidlren. But what it was she had forgotten."

  • "Miss Cutcheon's memory, on the other hand, grew better every day, and she seemed not to know anyting except the past. She could recite the names of children in her mind-which seats they sat in, what subjects they were best at, what they'd brought to school for lunch. She could remember their funny ways, and sometimes she would be sitting at her dinette in the morning, quietly eating, when she would burst out with a laugh that filled the room and made Velma jump.
It is not until the two continue their walks together to the school down the road while visiting the children at the playground that they feel a part of children's lives again. Maybe that is what brought both together, and their love for children made their love for each other grow stronger.

Relationships between people and animals develop in the most peculiar ways; Jenny, a young girl in Glen Morgan who grew up to be terrifed of a wild boar in the woods by the Miller farm came to realize, once face to face with it, that unlike her hesitations of being near it, it was equally afraid of people that surround it. "But mostly she is sorry that he lives in fear of bluejays and little girls, when everyone in Glen Morgan lives in fear of him."
When a puppy wanders into the lives of the Lacey family, Doris develops a close relationship between the stray German Shepard mix that she can't let go of --until her parents tell her that he's going to go straight to the pound in the city once the snow storm cleared up. It isn't until Doris's father realizes that the puppy would be put to sleep after arriving there (among the harsh conditions of ten dogs to a crate) that he agrees to let the stray pup live with them in their home.

Rylant's ability to capture the feelings of both the people and animals involved radiates through each of these twelve situations. Although we only meet these individuals for a few short pages, we come away as readers to knowing so much about the character of these individuals involved and how much of an affect an animal can have on the decisions that they make in their own lives. Even if the stories have different situations and results, the same basic themes of friendship, hope, and love permeate throughout each of them.
It is through these stories that a certain appreciation and value is given to those beings who comfort us and inspire us to live life to the fullest. It wasn't until I moved away on my own that I truly valued the company of my two cats. Their love, affection, and independence has brought me through even the most trying times in my life, while their playful and engaging spirits have brought a smile to my face when I need it the most. It's amazing how they know just when you need them the most, and how you can recipricate that devotion in return.

How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Authors Steve Jenkins and Robin Page question the reader about their knowledge of six different animals and how they must find or catch food in order to survive in their habitats.

In the introductory page, the authors state: "there are millions of different kinds of animals, and they have come up with some ingenious solutions to these problems. See if you can figure out how the animals in these pages will snare a fish, hatch an egg, use a leaf, catch a fly, dig a hole, or eat a clam." The intro is closed by a statement to the reader that if he would like more information about the animals, that they will be able to find more facts in the back of the book.

The text of the question is the largest font size for each of the animals, while a "thumbnail" image of the images on the following pages is noted at the very bottom of the page. For example, the first question asks, "How many ways can you snare a fish?" Below the question it states a fact about fish and how they "have clever enemies, and most face the constant threat of being eaten by other animals."

Thumbnail images of a bear, eel, dolphin, matamata, diving beetle, and anhinga are at the bottom of the page. The pages following this question include larger illustrations of these thumbail images, with their specific names, the manner in which they capture the fish, and an illustration that depicts the "snaring" of the fish. "As salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs, a grizzly bear waits, it stands in teh rapids and grabs fish in midair as they leap from the water." "The matamata rests on the bottom of a lake or stream. When a fish comes near, it sticks out its neck, opens its mouth, an expands its throat. The sudden suction pulls the fish into the turtle's mouth."

Jenkins and Page creatively place the text to wrap around the animals and their surroundings, while creating a collage of answers to the question stated. The cut-and-torn paper collage images allow for close-up views of the animals, while making this picture book an eye-opening fact-based story that will fascinate children in a large or small group read-aloud.

The animals and their accompanying facts will provide even the most inquisitive readers with something to take away from the story. There are many animals in this story that I did not know existed before reading it. So I found myself taking the authors advice and discovering more information about the matamata or the white tent bats. However, a centralized theme is created among the animals in that although their approaches may be different, they all respond to their environment in a manner for survivial

The story encourages the readers to predict, confirm, clear up misconceptions, ask questions to themselves, and research what they still wonder about after reading. After all, isn't this what we want every time from our children when reading nonfiction? Illustrations that are visually exciting, topics that capture their interests, and prompting from the authors to answers to their continuing questions.

A Blue-Eyed Daisy by Cynthia Rylant

Ellie Farley, a blue-eyed and fair-haired 11-year-old girl, lives with her family in West Virginia. Ellie's father, Okey, has not worked for many years due to his coal mining accident - resulting in his staying home and developing an addiction to alcohol. With the need for companionship, Okley brings home a dog for his family, a beagle, in which they name Bullet. Ellie finds Bullet to be a dear friend to her, and it is through the addition of this faithful friend that Ellie, Okley, and Bullet spend quality time together hunting.

Ellie's life in West Virginia includes many life changing events that result in feelings of sadness, happiness, and confusion. In the beginning, her Uncle Joe leaves for war. "Ellie thought the world of her Uncle Joe. At school in the fall she had told her friends about her uncle who'd gone to war. One boy told her what his father said about the war. He told her his father said it was stupid. That soldiers were dying for nothing. That it wasn't even a real war. The told told Ellie that it must mean her uncle was not a real solder. Ellie shoved him into the wall. And she called him one of Okey's best cuss words. The boy was so surprised he didn't even fight back--just stared at her with his mouth hanging open. 'It seemed, after that, the time would never pass quickly enough until Joe came home. Ellie missed him, but more than that, she wanted him to tell her that he had been a real soldier." One he returned, Ellie watched him. "He looked older than Okey. Old as her grandfather. And when news of the war had finished, he wiped a hand across his eyes. That night Ellie cried tears for her Uncle as well as all the rest of the real soldiers.

As a young girl approaching her teenage years, Ellie experiences her first kiss with a round of spin-the-bottle with Harold at her friend Carolyn's birthday party in the section titled A Lovely Night. "Ellie was dizzy for the rest of the party. her insides were floating and she found she couldn't take her eyes off Harold. She hoped they'd play another kissing game, but everyone wanted to dance."

Ellie also describes the terrifying moment in geography class when she witnesses classmate Harvey have a "fit" which she later learns is a seizure. "So she surprised him-and herself, and especially Carolyn-when she invited him to sith with the two of them at lunch. Carolyn wasn't talking and Harvey was still shy, so Ellie talked the whole time about Bullet." "Ellie never before had such a lovely night."

In one of the final sections titled The Accident, her father Okey drives over a mountain after drinking his whiskey at the Stardust Tavern. "They all knew it would happen sooner or later, They knew Okey would drink one glass of whiskey too many and not make it home one night." "Okey was not dead, he was unconscious, his condition was critical, he was fighting for his life, their mother said-but he was not dead." As her family comforted one another during this trying time, Ellie turned to praying for her father, hoping he would be okay. And the next morning, he was in stable condition. Ellie cried.

Cynthia Rylant's realistic fiction story incorporates many of her childhood experiences. After reading many of her picture books and her autobiography, it is evident that many of her personal events are reflected in each of her books. In A Blue-Eyed Daisy, Rylant is similar to Ellie in the manner that she, too, lived in West Virginia and her father was an alcoholic. While Rylant did not live with her father again after the age of 4 once her parents separated, she longed to reunite with her father and have an official good-bye before he left the world. Ellie and Rylant also had the same first kiss while playing spin-the-bottle, and went through a religious period while living in "The Bible Belt" and often turned to God in her times of need. Rylant also had to deal with her Uncle going off to war, just as Ellie yearned for his return home.

A lot happens to Ellie throughout a span of a year - she deals with moments of tension, sadness, perplexion, and apprehension; however, it is through her friendships, family, and strong spirit that carries her through to her 12th birthday. As a reader, you feel these emotions right along with her, as if you are living through those experiences.

Rylant never ceases to amaze me. Reading her stories is like putting the pieces to a puzzle together, and her subtle clues and hints in each story give the reader a sense of discovery as an "ahhh-hah" moment is creatively woven into each one of her pieces of literature.

The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania of Jordan Al Abdullah

Queen Rania of Jordan Al Abudullah's The Sandwich Swap tells the story of a friendship between Lily and Salma. The two are inseparable - playing together, laughing together, and sticky by each other's side, just as best friends usually do. It isn't until a lunch time incidient, in which Lily, eating her peanut butter sandwich, tells Salma that her pita and hummus sandwich basically looks gross. And so Salma returns the same opinion, claiming that Lily's peanut butter and jelly sandwich looks gross to her. One thing leads to another, and Lily and Salma continue to insult one another, not only criticizing their lunch options, but making comments about they way they look and they way they dress.

Students surrounding them take either Lily or Salma's side, resulting in a full-fledge food fight in the cafeteria. Once called to the principal's office, the girls finally wake up and realize that what they've done is completely wrong. They are ashamed of their behavior and how they could let this get in the way of their friendship.

The next day, Lily and Salma sample each other sandwiches. While their initial exchanges of the opposing sandwich was "gross" or "yucky," after sampling one another's they realized that they tasted pretty good - even DELICIOUS! The two friends return to the principal's office, this time with a full-bleed illustration of a buffet filled with various foods, with adorning flags depicting the coming together of some of our world's diverse ethnicities - some of these include Iceland, Greece, Mexico, United States, Jordan, etc).

In an author's note, Queen Rania explains that the book is inspired from a moment in her own chidhood. In an interview with Oprah, she states,

  • QR: "I went to an international school, and I used to go every day, and at lunchtime I would proudly open my lunchbox and find my hoummous sandwich which my mother made me every day with lots of love, and you know, there's a dependable, tasty texture. So I unpack my sandwich and I see a girl sitting next to me and she's eating something horrible. It was just this gooey, pasty..."

  • Oprah: "brown stuff..."

  • QR: "...brown, purply stuff. And I really felt sorry for her. And then I thought that poor girl she doesn't have my delicious hoummous sandwich. So one day she offered me to take a bite and I didn't want to hurt her feelings so I kind of scrunched up my face, closed my eyes, and took a bite. And then I wanted to take another bite just to make sure I liked it. And then another, and that's when my love affair with peanut buttter started."

  • Oprah: "Peanut Butter and Jelly."

  • QR: "You know I was five years old so it's not like I drew any conscious lessons, but on a subconcious level I think I understood that I shouldn't fear the unknown. That I shouldn't judge something without trying it. That wonderful things can be found in even the strangest of places, and from that time onwards I stopped second guessing diversity but started embracing it. You know differences became part of the turf, adding texture and colour to one's life." (www.queenraniajo/media/interviews)
It is fascinating to find an author's childhood experiences come out in their stories. The theme of cultural tolerance and appreciation of diversity was the lesson that Queen Rania learned as a young girl growing up. Even though the story between Lily and Salma seemed to simple, it was more than just their sandwiches looking gross to one another; it was the hesitation in trying something different, while the sandwiches represented an underlying message to readers on what can happen when you open up your mind and heart to something unknown. You may surprise yourself with what you discover.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Author Maruice Sendak's Caldecott Honor Award-Winning picture book Where The Wild Things Are embodies the heart of childhood, and what a vivid imagination can create when dealing with the reality of the world. One night, Max is sent to bed without finishing his dinner, calling him "a wild thing." Max, unable to carry out his mischief in his wolf suit, is swept away by his imaginative spirit and journeys to the land of monsters.

"That very night in Max's room a forest grew -
and grew -
and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around
and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for max as he sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are..."

Max is crowned "The King of Wild Things" upon his arrival to the land of monsters, and they all have a "wild rumpus." As the wild things are sent off to bed, Max begins to long for his home again and feels alone. He gives up being king of where the wild things are because of his yearning to feel love and comfort once again.

"and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him
and it still was hot."

As Sendak defended the critics to his story for it being too "frightening," in his acceptance speech for the Caldecott he stated, "despite adults' desire to protect children from painful experiences," "the fact is that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their every day lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming the Wild Things." (

Max's character is someone that readers may be able to connect with; we all experience feelings of anger from time to time; but instead of acting upon those actions, he uses his imagination to free him from the stress of the situation. Although at first he enjoys being in this fantasy world, in the end he realizes that his place is to be at home, safe with his mother.

Sendak's story celebrates the power of a child's imagination, and emulates the realistic emotions and thoughts of children of yesterday and today. It allows for children to enter into a fantasy world with Max, and its through the simplistic text and story-telling illustrations, that readers come away with an understanding that it's okay to fantasize and discover a world hidden within your own bedroom.

"Sendak presents an image of children not as sentamentalized little dears but as people coping with complex emotions such as anger, fear, frustration, wonder, and awareness of their own vulnerability. This well-earned and reassuring happy ending for all children wrestling with human nature's darker emotions." ~ Children's Literature Review

It is through literature, and converstion within literature, that children and teachers, parents can discuss the emotions involved. Children need to know that it is okay to have these emotions but to know how to deal with them in an appropriate manner. Children will be able to relate, imagine, and enjoy the exploration of finding their individual wild sides, while being assured that its okay to have it!

Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen

A twelve-year-old boy receives a rickety-old riding mower for a birthday present that was once his grandfather's and isn't quite sure what he will make of it, at first. Then, with some thinking he realizes that he can capitalize on all of the lawns throughout his neighborhood, and buy that inner-tube that he's longed to buy for the summer. As the grass grew, so did Lawn Boy's mowing business.

At first he questions his job as a Lawn Boy: No vacation. Seven thousand five hundred dollars (a week). No summer fun. Seven thousand five hundred dollars. Then he meets Arnold, a stock-broker that persuades him to invest his earnings for him in exchange of cutting his lawn. He agrees and Lawn Boy learns the economic terms and jargon as he sees his earnings grow and grow. Paulsen highlights these terms through the titles of his chapters, i.e. "The Law of Increasing Product Demand Versus Flat Production Capacity", "Capital Growth Coupled with the Principles of Production Expansion," and "Labor Acquisition and Its Effect on Capital Growth." Arnold teaches the young businessman about terms such as investing, capitalism, and hiring employees while also providing benefits.

As Lawn Boy's money accumulates, problems also rise to the surface - an extorsionist named Rock threatens to take over his business and take all his workers; however, Joseph Powdermilk (a prize fighter that Arnold encourages him to sponser) protects the business, its investments, and employees by threatening the "villian" of the story. All of this goes unkown of Lawn Boy's parents (whose real name is neve revealed by Paulsen), until he finally must get help from them because of his assumption that Rock and his gang are holding Arnold prisoner. They all decide to go over to Arnold's house and demand that Joey assist them in getting rid of the men that are threatening Arnold; and without "pinching off their heads," Rock promises that he won't come back to bother them again.

At the story's end, Lawn Boy and Arnold sell a stock worth $485,000 - and after revealing this to his parents, his father faints. His grandmother says to him, "You know, dear, Grandpa always said, take care of your tools and they'll take care of you." (look how this turned out!)

Gary Paulsen's writing style captures the personality of a young twelve-year-old boy, and his demonstration of the narrator's lack of knowledge in how the business world works. Lawn Boy never brags about his earnings, while not even revealing the profit he is making until the end of the story, due to the fact of not wanting to "show his parents up." When researching as to why Paulsen went from writing stories that catered to outdoor adventure series to writing humorous books, he stated, "I love writing humor. I really enjoy it. I had a dog handler helping me, a kid, and (what happens to Lawn Boy) actually sort of happened with him. When he was 13 or 14, he started a lawn care business and he actually made $25,000. It just blew me away, so I kind of used that as the basic story line for this. He also had empolyees and everything. It was really funny." (

I believe that young adult readers will appreciate and understand the terms presented in Lawn Boy. The economic wordings and concepts may be a bit too sophisticated for intermediate readers. "It makes for an interesting book discussion for pre-adolescents or even potential business students." (~ Children's Literature review). Reading this book allowed for me to spruce up my knowledge of this topic , while involving humor and an action-filled plot that kept my fullest attention. (wish this was around during my high school economics class!!)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pickney

Jerry Pickney retells the original Aesop fable, The Lion and the Mouse. In his first wordless book, Pickney tells the story of a mouse, who, both exchange acts of kindness for one another.

"It did not start out, the intent was not for it be be wordless. As a matter of fact, I thought that this story was so clear in my mind that I would actually start the process of doing thumbnail sketches then adding the text later. So the story is visually narratively driven, and I think that's what you find in it. Not only telling the story of the lion and the mouse, but also the story of what attracted me to the Serengeti, the African Serengeti."

Pickney's illustrations clearly demonstrate his wealth of knowledge of the Serengeti. His carefully sequenced images of the characters develop the closeness of their relationship, as the close-up images that are seen throughout note the lion and mouse as the protagonists of the story, as they appear to be realistic. In an author's note, Pickney explains that he set the story in the Serengeti, "with its wide horizon and abundant wildlife so awesome yet fragile, not unlike the two sides of each of the heroes."

Pickney's pencil work, coupled with the watercolor images create a characters that fit well into its surroundings, while also using perspective to see the Serengeti through the mouse and lion's eyes. The interview from Reading Rockets continues, "I wanted them to be anthropomorphic, but in a way that suggested the true nature and the character of a lion, and a true nature and a true character of a mouse. And in doing so I had to straddle a fence making them respond in a kind of natural way, but the reader to understand what they were responding to."

The symoblic meaning behind the lion and the mouse is something that is valued by this popular tale. "The lion, while strong and powerful, does not harm the small, defenseless mouse after it scurries away from an owl. In return for this kindness, the mouse comes the rescue of the lion by chewing through the roped snare that captured him. As many fables have a moral, in the story of the lion of the mouse the reader does not know why the lion lets the mouse free or why the mouse saves the lion by setting him free." Perhaps, it's the acts of kindness and the actions represented in the pictures that becomes the moral of this popular, and thought-provoking fable.

Although this was a retelling, Jeff Pickney's version of this tale forced me to re-evaluate my own knowledge of fables. It is amazing how a wordless book can drive the story right out of its illustrations. The ability to interact with the text between a teacher and a student or a mother and a child is the beauty of what resonates from these types of storybooks. And it will be a storybook and lesson that a child will live by, and never forget.