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.

Soup for Breakfast, Poems and Pictures by Calef Brown

New York Times Best Selling Author Calef Brown created a collection of playful, short-verse poems and pictures in Soup for Breakfast. Starting with the cover page, the various images are pieced together in a collage-like form and are depicted on a soup can, giving the reader a glimpse into what the book will entail. The subject of poems are an ecletic mix along with the complimentary silly images and lines. Brown's somewhat "folk art" style of illustrations will surely have you laughing out loud at times.

In the poem titled, Grandpa's Mustache, the nonsense verse and rhyming scheme is portrayed full-heartedly within this 16 line poem:

"Grandpa has nose hair-/it really grows there. /It also makes him snore,/but grandma doesn't care./She can't hear./Too much ear hair."

The opposite page of the poem is a full-page illustration of Grandpa with his mustache, while on the right hand corner of the page where the poem is written is a smaller image of Grandma with her over-embellished eair hair. Brown also incorporates unexpected rhymes and strange puns. For example, in the poem titled One to Ten (and BACK AGAIN), Brown writes:

"Five, six, snap your fingers./Think of something weird./Noodles in a haystack./A baby with a beard.

Seven, Eight, clap your hands./Think of something silly,/Chickens popping bubble wrap./Statues eating chili.

Nine, Ten, tap your feet./Think of something fun:/Mulling over foolish whims./Counting back to One."

This poem radiates the imaginitative creation of words that poetry can encompass. The unexpected word choice reflects the idea of how writing poetry can include letting go of boundaries and having fun while doing it. And while there are the fair share of these quirky yet adventurous poems, Brown also incorporates poems that contain a certain seriousness.

"Go Forth, /Young Moth./It takes strength/to lift up and stay aloft/with wings so soft.

Brown's featured poem as well as the title of the collection, Soup for Breakfast, celebrates the idea of individualism and satisfaction of the speaker with eating this peculiar, yet satisfying bowl of soup int he morning.

"I like soup for breakfast./That's the way I am./I'm not a fan of toast and jam/or griddlecakes/with eggs and ham,/or even Cream of Wheat./A bowl of cream of broccoli,/now there's a morning treat./Coffee drinkers often scoff,/but I just laugh/and sip my broth.

At the end of the story on it's final endpaper, Brown admits that he truly does enjoy soup for breakfast, and does his wife, Anissa.
These are a few of the reviews at the back of the book that I found to perfectly highlight the book's purpose;

  • "Silly it may be, but all the best kind, prompting the reader to see the world (slightly) askew and to delight in it." ~ Horn Book

  • "Words and pictures manage to be both clear and weird, an enjoyable mix." - Booklist

  • "The book celebrates language and wordplay with some real tongue-twisters, and the high-energy acryllic illustrations are just as engaging as the text. - Parents' Choice
Calef Brown has the distinct talent of writing and illustrating poems that allow readers to have fun with his humor, sarcasm, and witty undertones. Reading these poems aloud will surely have an audience's full attention, while inspiring those to bring out their own creatitivy and expression through their own poetry. I believe that sharing poetry colllections such as these will bring out your most reluctant readers and writers, while understanding the underlying message that not every poem falls into a particular mold, and that a distinguishable style sets a poem out from the rest.

Owen & Mzee, The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella and Craig Hatkoff

Owen & Mzee tells the heartwarming story of a friendship that results after the 2004 Tsunami in Kenya. The inseparable duo first meet when Owen, a baby hippo is stranded. As villagers work tirelessly to rescue Owen, Mzee, a 130-year-old tortoise, "adopts" the young hippo. From that moment on Owen and Mzee become acquainted with one another at the animal santuary and stay by each other's side day in and day out.

These are a few of the questions that I had after reading this story:
  • Why did the authors decide to write about Owen and Mzee?
  • How did they know of their bond in Kenya?

While trying to find these answers, I found in a review by Publisher's Weekly. The review stated that a photograph of the two was published in newspapers about a month after the tsunami. "Craig Hatkoff and his then six-year old daughter, moved by that image and the accompanying article, decided to learn more about these animal-companions-and to write their story."

The photographs of Owen and Mzee detail each of the events and emotions involved throughout their journey. Photographer Peter Greste incorporates full page spreads of Owen's trying transport to the sanctuary. Photos also demonstrate Owen's immediate movement toward Mzee once arrivng there - "Owen crouched behind Mzee, the way baby hippos often hide behind their mothers for protection." While the illustrations depict the heartfelt emotions of the pair, the text allows readers to closely follow just how remarkable yet suprising the bond truly is between the two of them. Illustrations throughout the story detail the daily activities of cuddling, swimming, and playing around with one another. "Most wildlife experts have never heard of a mammal and a reptile forming such a strong bond."

The story of Owen and Mzee just goes to show how during life's most trying times, it's the people (or animals) in this case, that help us survive it and move on. Even though there were differences between Owen and Mzee, that did not stop them in surrendering their love for one another and forming a mother-son relationship that continues to exist today. I was surprised yet pleased that these two would create this relationship. I believe that children who read this story will be glad that Owen was able to find a mother to care for him, as well as Mzee having a son to take care of. Once reading this book, students will be inclined to read the follow-ups that tell of their first year together and the unique "language" that they created to communicate. UNREAL!

Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka

Illustrator and storybook writer Chris Raschka's Yo! Yes? details the short yet sweet meeting of two boys, one white, one black on the street. With the story's word count totalling only 34 words, one would think at first glance that the story's plot would be uninteresting; however, it's message of finding friendship in the oddest of places it what is clearly understood at the culmination of this award-winning book.

Raschka's rhythmic text introduces the reader to two opposities, while one is shy, the other is very outgoing. As the two communicate with very few words, "Yo!" "Yes?" "What's up?" "Not much." The exchange of words lead up to an increased amount of converstaion. The two boys join together to become friends at the final pages as Raschka depicts them both jumping up into the air while yelling simulateneously, "Yow!"

Although the text is simplistic, the underlying message that Raschka details in the story is that you can find friendship with someone who may appear completely different than you on the outside. But if you take the time to get to know that person and his intentions, you may find that you have alike than you assumed.

  • What gave Raschka the inspiration to write Yo! Yes?
While I did not find an exact answer to this question, I discovered the process of how he gets started on writing a story. In an interview with Scholastic, Raschka states,"usually a number of events will be going on around me to start on a book. What I mean is I will have read a poem or saw a picture that is lingering in my mind. I will be brooding about something going on in my life, and then I will remember something that happened to me as a child. Some of this will just come to me; some if it I will actively pursue for instance, maybe it was that worried me the most when I was eight. So then I will have this thing that I want to get down. It might just be a single picture in my mind, or an image suggested by a line of poetry, or a phrase I heard on the street, something that I want to nurse along into a picture book."

The part of the interview where he says, or a phrase I heard on the street, totally struck me - perhaps he heard bits and pieces of a conversation like this on the street, and this was his motivation to write Yo! Yes? I wonder??

I think reading this story aloud, even using this as a Reader's Theatre activity in the classroom, will allow for children to be actively involved in the text, as well as being "eavesdroppers" on their conversation. Raschka sends the message that children can find friends in the most unlikely places, and at first glance, with the most unlikely people.

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson

A celebration of African American women and their traditions from generation to generation are detailed in Jacqueline Woodson's picture book, Show Way. This is the first book I've written that is based on my family's history - tracking my family down the maternal line, from my great-great-grandmother to my daughter, Toshi." (

Show Way begins with Woodson's great-great-grandmother being sold at the age of seven and taken away from her home in Virginia to live in South Carolina. While listening to stories about freedom from Big Mama, she used the piece of muslin, red thread, and two needles to create a Show Way, or a quilt that showed messages and directions for slaves to escape through the Underground Railroad. The craft of quilting is passed down from woman to child year after year, and soon culminates through eight generations, ending with Woodson and her daughter Toshi on the final pages, as the story comes full-circle. "Writing Show Way made me remember that that's the not only the blood that runs through my veins, but it's the blood that runs through my daughter's veins and it's the blood that runs through all of our veins. I mean, the fact that we as human beings have gotten this far is amazing."

Together, both Woodson and illustrator Hudson Talbott emphasize the importance of how these quilts represented the memories of the past and present. Talbott's stunning illustrations link closely with the text while also carrying the same quilt-like motif. Just by looking at the pictures, not even reading the words, a story is told about the culture, traditions, trials, and tribulations through the use of color, size, shape, and background effects. Quilts are also used in the design of the book; for example, on the cover Mathis May is holding a candle. "A diamond is actually cut into the cover as diamonds represent the four stages of life in African textiles." ( Pictures of African American leaders such as Martin Luther King, words by Sojourner Truth, and other inspriational historical figures are stiched together on the cover surrounding Mathis, demonstrating an importance and celebration of their efforts for equal rights.

Woodson's family stories in Show Way created an opportunity for readers to reflect and learn about the past experiences of these women. Readers obtain a firm understanding of the importance of how these quilts and patterns told a story that was shared from mother to daughter. This story will encourage readers to seek information about their own family's background, while learning about how their experiences and traditions helped shape their present lives.

Animals Nobody Loves by Seymour Simon

Seymour Simon's takes a close look at twenty of the world's creatures that would make most readers skin crawl in his informational picture book Animals Nobody Loves. The book's cover illustration depicts a large photograph of a spider, dominating the width and almost the length of the page. At the end of the spider's description, Seymour states, "It's a good idea just to watch spiders and not to bother them." This warning comes immediately after the fact about how the black widow's powerful bite that can make people sick, or even kill them. Even though spiders don't normally bit human beings, "they usually trap insects they prey upon--from flies to grasshoppers and crickets--in beautiful silken webs. So we should remember that spiders do us a lot of good by getting rid of insect pests." This is one warning that I even remember as a child growing up. I would never kill a spider that I saw, I would just leave it alone knowing that it would trap a pesky fly or mosquito!

Among other animals, Simon's nonlovable animals include sharks, rattlesnakes, cockroaches, skunks, and pirahnas. The layout of the text usually takes up the first half of the page, while the photograph of the animal is a full-page depiction making it "up close and personal" with the reader. In an interview with Reading Rockets, Simon says that he usually takes the photographs before he begins writing a book. "And these photographs that I choose, I winnow through them-I go through them and choose the images that are most striking, the most arresting to me, and if it interests me, I think it might interest the kid...I want the kids to be drawn into the book, and I want them to read it from beginning to end."

While the animals presented in this book are not common for many readers to think that they are "cute and cuddly" like a pet cat or dog; however, Simon's analysis and facts of these twenty creatures allows the reader to think in a different way about them, while hopefully coming away with an understanding and newfound appreciation for what their purposes are here on Earth. In his introduction, Simon states, "You may never love a rattlesnake, a cockroach, or an octopus - but this book may help you begin to understand and respect them for what they are."

Though Simon includes facts and brief information about these animals, he does not include additional information or sources at the back of the book. However, his words at times may prompt readers to self-research about an animal that interests or puzzles them. At the end of the book, Simon questions the reader: "Do you feel any differently about the animals in this book now that you know more about them? If you do, can you think of the reasons that made you change your mind. Perhaps, you might make your own list of animals that you don't love and think about why each of these animals in on your list."

Before reading this book, I was terrified to even hold it in my hands (the large spider on the front cover looks real enough to crawl right off the page!) In response to Simon's question, I do feel differently about these animals. Though they may look hideous and dangerous, they all serve a purpose and do what they must in order to survive.

Slob by Ellen Potter

Author Ellen Potter moves away from the fantasy world of Olivia Kidney and details the realistic life of twelve-year-old Owen Birnbaum in Slob. Owen is a 7th grader that has a hard time fitting in with his peers in school. Not only is he the fattest kid in school, but he is also very intelligent, which results in him being constantly bullied by his classmates.

Consequently, Owen has very low self-esteem and describes at the very beginning of the book just how nervous he feels about attending school every day. "The thing is, when you are fatter and smarter than the national average, practically every day is like the first day at a new school." And to make matters worse, Owen's phys. ed teacher, Mr. Wooly humiliates him in front of his class on a daily basis, making him do exercises that he knows he cannot complete on his own. All while boys are snickering and making comments, resulting in Owen doing all three of the following: 1. Turned red as shrimp cocktail sauce; 2. Lost control of all the muscles in my face; 3. Cried; 4. No, Sobbed; 5. No, bawled like a three-year-old in Wal-Mart. Despite it all, Owen manages to collect himself and move on. Until, his oreo cookes diappear from his lunch, and believes that class mate Mason Ragg is the thief - and will stop at nothing to catch him in the act.

Despite the flaws that people criticize Owen for, he seeks to create a contraption he names "Nemesis" using parts he and his sister Jeremy take from demolition sites. In some way, working on Nemesis gives Owen that outlet to forget about his troubles and believes that its success will somehow make his life better, while trying to figure out how to capture radio waves from the past. And maybe, by making Nemisis successful he will be able to view what was on television years ago, when it seems as though is life made more sense.

Unlike Owen, his sister Jeremy (real name Caitlyn) belongs to a group called GWAB, Girls Who Are Boys, is very bold and brave. Nima, their Buddhist neighbor, provides advice for Owen during his troubling times, stating, "when you stay calm around your enemy, you become stronger; when you do a good thing, good things come back to you."

Ellen Potter slowly reveals the real reason why Owen is building Nemisis. About three quarters of the way into the book is when Jeremy and Owen have a conversation about it's purpose that is fully revealed. Their parents, who used to own a deli, were murdered - and it isn't until Owen tells this story to Nima that I fully understand Nemesis. In a pivotal conversation, Jeremy states, "I was just thinking. Even if you see the person who did it, even if the police can find him and catch him and stick him in jail, it won't change things. Not really. It won't change things for us, I mean. Or for Mom and Dad. It won't make them less dead." (p. 141)

It is through this that Owen ultimately realizes that he can't bring his parents back, no matter how hard he tries. "SLOB," which is written on a small piece of paper, is finally revealed at the end of the story - deli shorthand for salami on an onion bagel - the last thing his mother wrote from the order of a customer, the customer who killed her. (p. 197) Owen rips the paper apart and throws the pieces into the Hudson River. He leaves the story with thoughts of a prayer, "That the man who murdered my parents has someone in his life who thinks he's a better person that he actually is. Ok. That is really the best I can do." (p. 199)

Owen is a character that many readers will be able to empathize with; and the more we learn about him, the more sense we are able to make of his situation and understand where he is coming from. I truly admire him for his strength as a young boy to put up with the tragic loss of his parents, while also trying to deal with the constant pressures of fitting into the middle school environment. Although we find that Owen had to deal with the loss of his parents, it is clear that he gained a certain confidence through his experiences and the people in his life, his sister, Zelda, who we find adopted Owen and Jeremy after their parents passed, and Nima. Owen even discovers Mason Bragg has endured his fare share of humility in his life, and they discover that they have more in common than what meets the eye. Owen finds closure, and even ends up losing the weight he gained in the past two years, making his old clothes to be even too big for him.

Ellen Potter's exemplary writing style in Slob takles more than the disappearing Oreo mystery at the novel's beginning. Readers find themselves focusing in on more in-depth issues of dealing with loss, love, and the confidence to move on. And while there is its fair share of seriousness, she has the ability to weave in moments of humor, sarcasm, and sadness - a balance that makes the characters as well as the plot highly believable and relatable. At the books end, readers will feel satisfied as well as hopeful for Owen, as he assumes a certain confidence in himself assuring that he will be okay.

But I'll Be Back Again by Cynthia Rylant

In an autobiographical account, author Cynthia Rylant describes vivid memories of her childhood and early adolescent years. The story starts out as Rylant explains how her parents separated when she was only four, and how she moved in with her grandparents. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother left him due to his addiction. Rylant's mother, who wrote to her regularly, went away to nursing school where she stayed away for nearly four years. Rylant recalls the time spent with her grandparents as "good ones, and while I waited for my father and mother to come back, I had big stacks of pancakes and hot cocoa, hound dogs and chickens, teaberry leaves and honeysuckle, and aunts and cousins to sleep with at night and hug until someone could retunr for me." As Rylant reflects on her past, she also explains how her experiences lead her to becoming a writer. "Writing stories has given me the power to change things I could not change as a child. I can make fathers stop drinking. I can make mothers stay."

At the age of eight, Rylant and her mother lived in Beaver, WV, where she spends most of her years growing up from a young girl to a teenager. Her memories include learning about kissing, in which she describes her first kiss in spin-the-bottle, her changes in appearance leading up to the moment of when her mom finally decides to let her shave her legs and underarms, and her infatuations with The Beatles and Bobby Kennedy. Readers can certainly see that Rylant is still deeply moved by the lyrics of the Beatles as she uses verses from various songs to separate the sections of her story.

In reading this autobiography, it was confirming to me as I've read many of Rylant's stories to find that her experiences growing up truly did find a way into her books. Rylant's first book, When I Was Young in the Mountains was written to thank her grandparents for the time she spent with them in her early years. Her references to religion and her analysis in "figuring out God" is conveyed in Waiting to Waltz as well as in A Blue-Eyed Daisy and A Fine White Dust. Harold, her childhood boyfriend, is somewhat thanked in the "kissing chapter" of A Blue-Eyed Daisy. Although it is not mentioned in the book, there are many memories of her time living in Beaver that are captured in her poetry collection, Waiting to Waltz, as well.

Rylant's ability as a writer to hook readers is done so through her conversational voice. Readers are able to see her as a person, who experienced many ups and downs through her childhood. While reflecting on these experiences, readers can gain an understanding that all of her stories involve a specific purpose, and a piece of her is linked into each of her books. "I would finish out my childhood forgetting who I really was and what I really thought, and I would listen to other people and repeat their ideas instead of finding my own. That was the curse. The gift was that I would be willing to try to write books when I grew up."

Rylant's final Beatles verse at the culmination of her book from the song, In My Life, by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, perfectly suits the ending:

All these places had their moments,
With loves and friends
I still can recall.
Some are dead and some are living,
In my life, I've loved them all.

While she was not able to say her goodbyes to her father, she was able to keep his memory and spirit living on for years to come. "But my father wrote a fine, fine, article, full of life and color and intelligence, and as I read it, I realized that his voice sounded like mine. And that he had not completely left this world becuse the sound of him was still alive in over twenty children's books written by the daughter he left behind."

As Rylant's life incoporated times of happiness, tragedy, and loss - she's discovered how to make a life filled with peacefulness and love. While going through two divorces, she notes that through having a son of her own, she would like for him to have an easier childhood than her own. "But every child will have his heartaches. I just hope that along with these each child will have a hero, and music, and at least one kiss he will never forget."

Before reading But I'll Be Back Again, I had a true admiration for Rylant as a writer. After reading her autobiography and getting to the heart of her struggles, I have a newfound appreciation and admiration for her as a woman and what she went through and overcame to become a successful writer. Her stories involve such emotion that capture the hearts of her audience, while sending the message to readers that without the moments of heartache and pain, you cannot fully appreciate the moments in life that bring you true happiness. And I am a firm believer in just that.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a must-read for anyone who wants a good laugh, at a young boy's expense. The main character as well as our narrator, Gregory (Greg) Heffley, sets the stage for this nonstop laughter at the very first "journal" entry: "First of all, let me get something straight: This is a JOURNAL, not a diary. I know what it says on the cover, but when Mom went out to buy this thing I SPECIFICALLY told her to get one that didin't say "diary on it. Great. All I need is for some jerk to catch me carrying this book around and get the wrong idea. The other thing I want to clear up right away is that this was MOM's idea, not mine...don't expect me to be all "Dear Diary" this and "Dear Diary" that.

Greg, being rather small, skinny, and somewhat awkward looking (as also depicted in the cartoon images) tries to fit into his school, while also trying to avoid the muscling tactices of the bullies that surround him. He is also continually picked on by his older brother Rodrick and is annoyed by his baby brother Manny. Greg's parents continually are on his case to do well in school, stay physically fit, and to deter his video game playing obsession. The character of Greg is someone that many readers will be able to connect with when reading his journal entries based on how he deals with the conflicts that arise in each of his sticky predicaments. Usually, the scheme that he tries hard to create in order to get out of a problem typically results in disaster!

Author Jeff Kinney has a true talent of capturing the issues of acceptance, bullying, and popularity-most of which all middle-schoolers like Greg learn to deal with throughout their early teenage years. Kinney incoporates a lot of one-liners that you find yourself giggling uncontrollably, in addition to being able to relate to some of the feelings and thoughts described by Greg. "Mom is saying that I'm a smart kid, but I just don't "apply" myself." "I've been trying to be a lot more careful about my image ever since I got to middle school, but having Rowley around is defiinitely not helping."

The format and layout of the text and illustrations is something that is very unconventional to how most novels are set up. How exactly did Kinney come up with idea to set his story up in this manner? In an interview with The Huffington Post on March 22, 2010, Kinney stated: "I was a cartoonist in college, and I thought I had a shot of breaking into newspapers afterwards. I got rejection letters for a few years, and that was enough to make me reconsider my approach. At the time, I was keeping a journal, and it was filled with cartoon drawings. I decided to try writing a fictional story in that format, and that's when the idea for Diary of a Wimpy Kid was born."

Kinney also noted that the Diary series has brought out the interest in reading with the most reluctant students. I can confirm this exact statement with children that I've instructed in my 4th grade classes. In a review by Allie (age 11), she stated, "I ADORE these books. Finally, not some book series that's about some wonderchild that no one can relate to at all, but a book about an average kid who just wants to be cool and, in a way, is an anti-hero. Sure Greg is kind of shallow and mean, but hey, nobody's perfect. And Rowley's sort of annoying. I love these books because they're relatable." (
Kinney's ability to create a character who isn't perfect, but real, an "average" kid who makes mistakes, is something that many readers can connect with. And while Greg isn't the best role model for children, hopefully readers will learn to understand his good points, while reasoning why his downfalls would be unacceptable to replicate in their own lives. But that's part of the learning process, especially in middle school. Pre-teens such as Greg do a lot of maturing, as well as developmental and physical changes that impact their decision making process. It's no wonder why most people recognize it as a period time in their lives that they wouldn't want to live through again, certainly not me! :)

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis is about a first-generation freeborn black 11-year-old named Elijah Freedman. Elijah is best known around his community for having thrown up on Frederick Douglass as a baby. The book focuses on Elijah's life, attending school, doing chores, fishing, and playing with his friends. Elijah was the first to be "born free" to former slaves in Buxton, Canada, and although he's heard stories about slavery from the freed slaves that surround him in his settlement, he has not come face to face with it.

Elijah's innocence to slavery changes as he, who is once described by his parents as being a "fra-gile" boy, embarks on the dangerous journey to America. Elijah, accompanied by Mr. Leroy, emarks on this quest in order to track down former slave, Reverend Zephariah, who stole Mr. Leroy's money that was intended to buy his family back from captivity in the south. Elijah's fragile persona is put to the test once reaching the destination and after Mr. Leroy unexpectedly passes. Elijah, though unable to recover the money and find the evil Reverend, successfully rescues an enslaved baby girl named Hope and the two journey safely back to Buxton.

Once described as a "fragile" boy, Elijah demonstrates the ability to face the harsh reality of slavery and finds the strength and courage that portrays him as the "grown up" that he longed to be perceived as by his family and friends. And he gave the greatest gift of all to Hope-a life of freedom, growing up in the settlement of Buxton, Canada, land of the free.

Curtis was able to depict a historical fiction story that contained the cultural and historical authenticity, while painting a clear picture of what life was like for runaway slaves and those who settled in Buxton. The character that he creates through Elijah is believable to readers, and does not make him "superheroic," while his rescuing of Hope proves to be a brave and admirable characteristic of a hero, it is believable of his age.

In the author's note, Curtis states that while some of the story is fictionalized, most of the story is based on fact. Frederick Douglass and John Brown did visit Buxton, and Reverend William King did found the Elgin Settlement for freed slaves. He encourges readers to go visit Buxton, while "it is almost impossible not to be deeply moved while looking out on fields that were cleared by people who risked their lives for the dream of freedom."

As this was my first book that I've read by Christopher Paul Curtis, I gained a deeper understanding of what life was like for those who were successful in escaping slavery after reaching Canada. It is unreal what young children, such as Elijah, had to endure throughout their lives. I respect, value, and admire their brave spirits as they experienced a life filled of uncertainty and danger.

Who Comes With Cannons by Patricia Beatty

Truth Hopkins, a young Quaker girl, gets more than she bargained for when arriving at her Aunt and Uncle's home in North Carolina at the start of the Civil War. Truth, whose father becomes hospitalized and mother deceased, must stay with her relatives after leaving Indiana. After getting the cold shoulder from her cousin, Truth discovers that it isn't because she isn't welcome in their home - but that her Aunt, Uncle, and cousins aid in the transport of slaves through the underground railroad. Slowly, they gain trust in Truth to keep their secret and eventually she helps them with their activities.

Because of the fact that Quakers do not believe in war, they will not fight on either side, angering the neighbors in their small town; however, her cousins are forced into joining the Confederate Army. When Robert is captured by Union troops, Truth and her Uncle embark on the dangerous journey up north to set him free from the prison in Elmira, NY. Uncle gets hurt and cannot continue the journey with Truth, so she is forced to continue on her own. She is able to free her cousin by asking Frederick Douglass to plead with Abraham Lincoln on her behalf. Truth's determination and strong spirit see her through her journey back home, as she shares her story at the First Meeting with her fellow "Friends" at the meetinghouse.

Truth's experiences upon arriving to North Carolina prompted her maturity and development as a character from the beginning to the end of the story. First, her father is ill and then dies and she must begin a new life with family that she barely knows. Second, she is confronted with issues of slavery and war that closely involves her relatives. Third, she assumes the responsibility of running the area school with her friend Martha as Mr. Hartling, their teacher, joins the Confederate Army. Finally, she takes on the daunting task of rescuing her cousin from the Union jail, while risking her life. Although Truth is only twelve years old, the events that occur prompt her to grow up at a faster rate, while opening up her eyes to the harsh realities of war. Beatty closely develops her characters and plot that allows for readers to understand the Quaker religion and how others were discriminatory to their beliefs. "The risky choice to create a heroine who plays a passive role for much of the story succeeds in the end--Truth's quiet determination allows for readers to view the Civil War from the perspective of a group persecuted by both sides." ~ Publisher's Weekly
After reading this novel, I was intrigued by how Quakers such as Truth and her family stayed true to their beliefs, despite the threats of violence brought on my others that opposed their religious practices. This brought on my own research in finding out what the majority of Quakers decided to do in the Civil War - was it similar to Truth's family? "Even though a few Quakers did fight in the Civil War, the vast majority refused to violate their peace testimony and thereby suffered consequences. Northern Friends had to pay fines or had their property confiscated." (

The Vegetables We Eat by Gail Gibbons

Gail Gibbons picture book, The Vegetables We Eat, "is a clear, informative introduction to eight groups of vegetables...A simple, effective approach to the topic." ~ School Library Journal. The facts presented for each of these vegetables is laid out to be asthetically pleasing for younger children and easy to comprehend in text. "Vegetables grow to be different shapes, sizes, and colors."

The bright and cheerful watercolor illustrations are quite suitable for the text, allowing for children to get a close up view to each food presented page after page. The varying scenes give readers an additional perspective on the process of how vegetables grow on a farm, who is involved in their production, how they are produced and then eventually sold to stores. While the text is simplistic, Gibbons incorporates vocabulary and its definition with words such as fertilizers and hyroponics that can be geared for students at the upper elementary level.

Gibbons comments on a ReadingRockets interview that she tries hard to make her nonfiction books "visually exciting." "I want to make nonfiction visually exciting, but it's sort of natural for me to do that. I mean I love bright colors, and I love doing my artwork. But when I'm plotting out a book, because of my graphic design background and because of the television background, I can sort of visualize while I'm writing what is going to be on the next page. And I don't want it to be boring. I want it to be visually exciting. I will never pick a topic that I think is dull or uninteresting. It has to be something that I want to dig in and be curious about."

I could see teachers, even nurses, introducing the skill of classifying vegetables, according to size, color, characteristics, and how to effectively implement the number of servings needed each day. The more fun students have with these types of activities while reading, the more inclined they will be try something new!

With all of the school-wide initiatives in healthy eating habits, this story couldn't have better timing. The wealth of information that this book provides will assist readers in understanding what kinds of vegetables exist and how important it they are in order to maintain healthy and active lives.

The Jacket by Andrew Clements

Phil, a 6th grader confronts Daniel and accuses him of stealing his brother's jacket. Without questioning Daniel, Phil only assumes that the jacket was stolen. Daniel, who is African American, denies stealing the jacket and claims that it was given to him by his grandmother, Lucy. Lucy is the cleaning lady in Phil's home. Upon the principal's discussion with Phil's mother, it turns out that Phil's mother gave Lucy the jacket in the first place. He (Phil) "kept thinking about the early morning scene in the principal's office, replaying it again and again. He kept seeing the look on Daniel's face, the anger in his eyes as he threw the jacket on the floor. And instinctively Phil knew that his being white and Daniel's being black was part of this. Maybe a big part."

After the incident, Phil began to question his own understanding of race.
  • "Can I help it if we have a cleaning lady, and she's black and we're white? And can I help it if she's Daniel's grandmother? I mean, it's not like we're rich or something. If's not like we force Lcuy to work for us, is it?

  • "What if Daniel had been a white kid? Would I have grabbed him like that? If he had lookd like he belonged in that jacket, would I have said he stole it?"

  • "How come you never told me I was prejudiced?" ( a question to his mother)Throughout the story, Phil comes to realize that he is not prejudiced, but recognizes the disturbing fact that is father is, in fact, a bigot.
After visiting Daniel's neighborhood, Phil finds that he and Daniel are a lot alike personality-wise, despite their differences in appearance. Phil changes drastically in the story, as author Andrew Clements sends a strong message that will certain move any reader that picks up The Jacket.

Clements wrote a story that deals with issues that children in schools deal with throughout the world. The issues of tolerance and honesty embody this short, yet thought-provoking novel that allow for readers to self-question their values, just as Phil did throughout his journey. The Jacket would serve as an exellent springboard for discussion in classrooms in exploring racism, tolerance, and prejudice. (School Library Journal)

When asked what prompted him to write The Jacket, Mr. Clements says in a note at the back of the book: "If a white kid grows up in the majority culture in America, sooner or later there will come a realization that children from other races may have had a very different experience, may have lived in a different America. I vividly remember that realization in my own life. I wanted to write a story about that moment when unconscious prejudices rise to the surface, a story that would explore differences and emphaszie our common humanity."

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein's collection of verse poetry will make you laugh from start to finish. Children as well as adults will find themselves having a hard time putting this book down once getting started. In a review by the Reading Teacher, it is "an ideal book for teachers to have handy ... If you want to ungloom your day, start Where the Sidewalk Ends.

His collection opens up with the invitation:

If you're a dreamer, come in

If you're a dreamer a wisher a liar

A hop-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer...

If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire/For we have some flax golden tales to spin/Come in! Come in!

Silverstein's creative writing style engages the readers through his quirky wording, silly phrases, and pencil drawings that totally complement the text of each poem. As a child, I can remember laughing uncontrollably when my teacher read every poem aloud to our class.

Today, Shel Silverstein has CD's that accompany most of his poetry collections. It is amazing how much of any effect the author's voice alterations, pitches, and tone can impact the overall outcome of how a poem is recited. This was my first year using his CD to accompany some of my favorite poems. No matter how hard I tried, my characterization couldn't quite compare with his when reading his poems aloud! When playing "Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too," my students were able to see how a narrators voice can aid in the overall expression of the poem, while also depicted the tone, mood, and, in this case, humerous theme! They were also able to understand how all of these elements symbolize what poetry is, and how powerful this form of expression can be in reading and writing.

Shel Silverstein will continue to be a poetry collection shared with my students, as well as a book that I will pull "when I'm having one of those days." "Shel invited children to dream the impossible, from a hippotamus sandwich to the longest nose in the world to eighteen flavors of ice cream and Sarah Synthia Stouct wouldn't take the garbage out." His repetitive, rhythmic, and spontaneous rhyming schemes aid in the overall playfulness of his poems while making their way into children's hearts and minds.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Olivia Kidney by Ellen Potter

Twelve year old Olivia Kidney has moved, yet again. This time the apartment building she has moved into in New York City isn't quite what it appears to be on the outside. Olivia finds that within confines of different apartments that this high-rise building is more than meets the eye. She enters into a magical fantasy world - one apartment being made of glass and another a tropical rain forest. The residents are quite peculiar as well, one being a ghost, while another wears a lizard boa! Each of the apartment buildings as well as the residents who live in them have their own stories to tell, and Olivia begins to feel comfortable with the people she meets. She reveals to the reader and her new friends that her brother had just died of cancer and that her mother left almost two years ago, conveying strong feelings of loneliness and unhappiness in her life. Her father, the building superintendent, has a difficult time reconnecting with Olivia at first in the novel, but the two reconnect as he expresses his feelings to her about wanting their relationship to get "back to normal." It is at this point that Olivia begins to feel not so alone. Olivia is able to connect with her brother's spirit through the static that she hears on her radio while she is lying in bed to go to sleep. His message to her lets her know that he is always looking over her, and to be sure to take care of thier father. As the reader, you can tell by Olivia's thoughts and flashbacks throughout the story that her older brother was a huge part of her life, and that she missed him dearly. Knowing this, I empathized with Olivia and her life of loneliness and despair. I felt comforted when her brother revealed his message to her through the static in the radio. This brought Olivia the closure that she needed to move on and the security to know that her brother was still with her in spirit.
Author Ellen Potter created a fantasy chapter book that keeps the reader on the edge of his seat. Many children around Olivia's age with connect with the desire to fit in with peers and to fit into a society that can be rather cruel and judgemental at times. According to Publisher's Weekly, Potter "achieved a delicate balance between fantasy and stark reality, the author leaves it to the readers to form their own interpretations of Olivia's experiences."

Illustrator Peter Reynolds consulted with author Ellen Potter about the front cover illustration of the book. He questioned her about what kind of apartment building she had in mind when she was writing the story. Potter said that the building was based on the one she grew up in, a high-rise in NYC. She asked her parents to snap some pictures and then she e-mailed them to me to help inspire me. "I was intrigued by how it must feel to be little in such a big building. I played with the idea of the size on the cover - making Olivia 15 stories high - peering out of the top of the building. I added spotlights criss-crossing the sky to give a feeling of drama and spectacle." (totally confirmed in the text!)

Just the fact that both Reynolds and Potter worked together to create the cover illustration says it all - I wish all authors and illustrators had the ability to do this. I believe that Reynolds was able to make such a statement in his cover illustration, demonstrating Olivia "opening" the door to this fantasy world, and being able to conquer her fears and issues through new friendships made with residents. It is also interesting to note that the 1st edition of Olivia Kidney was published in 2003, and the 2nd edition in 2004. The 2004 edition has a totally different cover illustration, showing smaller pictures of the characters in the story. I do feel that this cover does not send the same powerful message as in the 1st edition, but does give the reader the opportunity to "meet" the characters before reading the story. After finishing Olivia Kidney and moving on to her latest book, Slob, I am beginning to understand Potter's exemplary ability to write engaging and entertaining stories that readers can relate to in some way. I can't wait to read more - and of course, meet her with my class during our "skype" interview!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection by F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada

Tales Our Abuelitas Told, is a mixture of twelve popular tales celebrating the Hispanic culture and is many roots-Indigenous, African, Arab, Hebrew, and Spanish. Authors F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada retold each of these stories that capture the heritage, emotions, and spirit of Latino people around the world. An introduction or "welcome" provides background information to the reader about folktales, their origin, and the influences that each have had on their lives. The authors also include the opening and ending lines of how these tales traditionally begin in the Spanish language, while writing the Spanish version and English-language equivalents in the sections, "To Begin a Story" and "To End a Story."

Beginning: Habia una vez... Once upon a time..

Ending: ...y se acabo lo que se daba (and that is the end of all that has been told)

After each tale, the authors give background information about how the tale was derived and any other variations of the story that exist, along with any connections that they have to the story itself. Subject matter includes magical bandpipes, flying horses, talking ants, etc. In some cases, like many folktales, a moral is emphasized.

The authors note throughout the book that most of these stories were heard by them as children from their own grandmothers or "abuelitas." For example, "The Bird of One Thousand Colors" is a story that was told to Ada when she was a little girl, but she had never found the original source. She credits her grandmother, Dolores Salvador Mendez, who passed it on to her. Other stories were merely discovered throughout their research in writing the collection. Variations and changes in stories are also a result of transformations in oral retellings that occur between different cultures and areas of the world. Campoy and Ada note in their welcome that "many of the stories originated from in Spain, a land that has been a cultural crossroad throughout history. Since Spain is geographically close to Africa, it has served as a bridge between the continents of Europe and Africa, receiving influences from both and generating its own unique cultures." For example, in the story, "Dear Deer! Said the Turtle" (reminscent to "The Tortoise and the Hare) Campoy notes that this well-known story has gone through numerous transformations in its travels back and forth across the Atlantic. In the version found in Cuentos populares de Espana, the race was between a rabbit and a hedgehog, who, with the help of his wife, outwits the rabbit. The version told in The Tales Our Abuelitas Told comes from the Cuban oral tradition, with African elements. "The Castle of Chuchurume" is a story, similar to the English folktale "The House That Jack Built" and the African folktale, "The Great Rain on Kapiti Plain," with their cumulative verse. Instead of using the elements of a house, which is found in most versions, the authors substituted it with a castle, following the lead of the title given to this Mexican version of a nursery rhyme.

Sporadic, colorful illustrations by Felipe Davalos, Vivi Escriva, Susan Guevara, and Leyla Torres depict the humor and wit within the text of each folktale. Torres notes at the back of the book that she was inspired by the memory of the mountains, growing up in Bogota, Colombia, and the colorful clothes that women wear in the village markets. Guevara stated, " in this book I wanted to paint the giant threat of an angry, lazy wolf and the fiesty dance of a wily she-fox. I wanted to paint the flat, unreal appearance of color in the moonlight. I think these images have their roots in the magical realistm born out of Latino writing." It is clear that even the illustrators have brought in their own perspectives and experiences into their paintings, while creating their pieces of artwork for each folktale.
Tales Our Abuelitas Told demonstrates the power of storytelling and how folktales have evolved over time. Many are unknown of origin or have been simply passed down from word of mouth. Ada and Campoy captured the essence of tradition, heritage, and remembrance of the stories their abuelitas told them as young girls. I feel that this collection will make a great addition to my classroom library, as well as serving as a comparison for my students in the nursery rhymes and folktales that were passed on by our own ancestors.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Nandi Tale: Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema

The great Kapiti Plain, once flourishing with a "sea of grass" enough for giraffes to browse on and herdsmen to pasture their cows on, is devastated by the lack of African rains. The sea of green grass soon becomes brown and dead, "needing the rain from the cloud overhead" as the larger animals begin to migrate. The big, black cloud, all heavy with rain, that shadowed the ground on Kapiti Plain. But Ki-Pat, a herdsman, ingeniously brings the rain down to the plain with a bow and arrow that pierces into the dark rain cloud above. In the end, the grass grew green again, and Ki-Pat got a wife, and a little Ki-Pat who tends the cows now, shoots down the rain, when black clouds shadow Kapiti Plain.

In the note at the back of the book, I discovered that author Verna Aardema is a highly acclaimed storyteller and the author of many books of African folktales. "This tale was discovered in Kenya, Africa more than seventy years ago by Sir Claud Hollis, a famous anthropologist. He camped near the Nandi village and learned the native language from two boys. He learned riddles and proverbs from the Nandi children, and most of the folktales form the Chief Medicine Man. This tale reminded Sir Claud of a cumulative nursery rhyme that he loved as a boy in England, "The House That Jack Built." So he decided to call the story "The Nandi House That Jack Built" and included it in his book "The Nandi: Their Language and Folklore, published in 1909. Verna Aardema has brought the originial story closer to the English nursery rhyme by putting in a cumulative refrain and giving the tale the rhythm of "The House That Jack Built."

Aardema's repetitive phrase "that needed the rain from the cloud overhead--the big, black cloud all heavy with rain, that shadowed the ground on Kapiti plain" is found throughout each of the story's rhythmic plot. Each event occurs, the text builds upon one another, similarly in The House That Jack Built. The rhyming scheme and predictability allow for readers to closely follow the adventure and challenge that awaits Ki-Pat throughout the duration of the drought. The illustrations by Beatriz Vidal demonstrate the types of diverse animals that live in Africa, such as cows, giraffes, lions, rhinos, zebras, antelope, buffalo, cheetahs, leopards, etc. The culture, appearance, and tradition of the Nandi people are also touched on in this story, and can provide the opportunity for further research into this part of Kenya.

Reading Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain allowed for me to further evaluate lack of exposure to multicultural literature, especially folktales. Having read The House That Jack Built, this African folktale gave an interesting and unique twist to the English nursery rhyme, while also keeping true the Nandi traditions. Despite differences in folktales within the world, these oral traditions continue to be passed down from one generation to the next, while readers remain entertained and take away a valuable lesson or morale from the story. And just as little Ki-Pat did, too, tends the cows on Kapiti Plain, after being guided by his father by his own experiences and stories.