Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Review of “Wintergirls”

Anderson, Laurie Halse.  Wintergirls.  Viking, New York, 2009.  ISBN:  9780670011100

Lia’s best friend Cassie has just died alone in a hotel room.  Lia still doesn’t know what the cause for her death was.  What she does know is that Cassie called her 33 times the night she died.  Lia never answered.  They hadn’t been best friends anymore and now Cassie haunts Lia day and night.  They shared a pact, a competition, to become the skinniest girls in school.  Lia’s anorexia coupled with her parents’ divorce and the ghost of her ex-best friend put Lia in a strange fantasy land that only a Wintergirl can understand.

This book has a mixture of reality and fantasy.  Unlike Anderson’s Speak, this novel has much more vivid hallucinations, or, hauntings as the protagonists views them.  The same theme of a devastating circumstance is still present, however, and as in Speak, Anderson weaves the daily pain with a very traumatic event.  There’s a lot going on with this main character and you get pulled into her world.  With Lia, her troubles are more sinister and creepy.  Heck, they’re downright disturbing.  But you still want to be the reader who helps her through to the end where she can finally begin to thaw.

School Library Journal reviewed this book by stating, “As events play out, Lia's guilt, her need to be thin, and her fight for acceptance unravel in an almost poetic stream of consciousness in this startlingly crisp and pitch-perfect first-person narrative. The text is rich with words still legible but crossed out, the judicious use of italics, and tiny font-size refrains reflecting her distorted internal logic. All of the usual answers of specialized treatment centers, therapy, and monitoring of weight and food fail to prevail while Lia's cleverness holds sway. What happens to her in the end is much less the point than traveling with her on her agonizing journey of inexplicable pain and her attempt to make some sense of her life.”  I would use this book, as with Anderson’s other books, for a real-to-fiction project in a high school English class.  The students could choose Wintergirls and discuss the issues that the book address to the class as a group and/or in a visual presentation.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Review for “Lunch Lady”

Krosoczka, Jarrett J.  Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute.  Random House, New York, 2009.  ISBN: 9780375946837

The kids at school wonder what kind of life the Lunch Lady leads.  Soon after the new substitute seems a bit odd, the Lunch Lady begins her work and gets to the bottom of things.  She finds out that the odd substitute is a robot, created by the science teacher to get the kids to hate all other teachers for giving them extra robot-ordered homework.  Then the science teacher can be Teacher of the Year, or so he thinks.  The Lunch Lady and her sidekick figure out that the teacher is a robot and she fights the clan of evil robots away from the kids.  All seems well at the lunchroom again until we find that the evil cyborg substitute is at the jail, requesting new orders from the science teacher.

Vardell states that, “there needs to be a clear and consistent point of view that encourages the reader to believe in this fantasy world and engage in the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ for the length of the novel.”  This is the power of the Lunch Lady books.  These books are great graphic novels that are easy to read, full of unbelievable circumstances, but just such great fun that you don’t mind.  It really reminds me of the Captain Underpants series that my middle school students really enjoyed.

Booklist (Mar 1, 2009) reviewed this book by stating, “This tongue-in-cheek superheroine graphic novel will hit the spot for chapter-book readers. Lunch Lady and Betty, her assistant in both the cafeteria and her role of wrong-­righting supersleuth, investigate the strange case of an absent teacher, his creepy substitute, and a plan to grab the Teacher of the Year Award by truly foul means. Three little kids join in the action as Lunch Lady, equipped with a variety of high-tech kitchen gadgets like a spatu-copter and a lunch-tray laptop, tracks a cleverly disguised robot to his maker's lab, where a whole army of cyborgs require kicking, stomping, and the wielding of fish-stick nunchucks. Yellow-highlighted pen-and-ink cartoons are as energetic and smile-provoking as Lunch Lady's epithets of Cauliflower! and Betty's ultimate weapon, the hairnet. There is a nice twist in the surprise ending, and the kids' ability to stand up to the school bully shows off their newfound confidence in a credible manner. Little details invite and reward repeat readings with visual as well as verbal punning.” 

I agree that there is so much subtle detail in the pictures, the way the graphics are arranged, the little play on words here and there and, the movement of the story.  It works so well as a comic book style tale of a superhero.  This is just such a nice way to put the situation into a school with fantastical scenes that I think a lot of young readers, male or female, will really enjoy these.  I would suggest keeping such graphic novels available in my classroom or school library.  For those who are reluctant readers, this has the basic elements of character, plot, setting, theme and style so any kind of book report or presentation would be done well by using a Lunch Lady book.

Review for “Speak”

Anderson, Laurie Halse.  Speak.  Scholastic, New York, 2003.  ISBN: 0439640105

Melinda is a high school student who doesn’t talk much.  However, she does speak, just not about what’s really troubling her.  Over the summer she and her friend Rachel had attended a party.  Something happened and Melinda called the police.  Lots of people at her school, including Rachel, now shun Melinda who looks odd.  There’s something wrong with her lips and her attitude.  People got arrested at that party for drinking underage and it’s all her fault.  If they really knew what happened to her, that the popular boy at school, Andy Evans (Rachel’s new boyfriend) was a predator, they would be able to understand why Melinda is so withdrawn.

Vardell writes, “More unfamiliar problems that are increasingly common, though not necessarily universal, are coping with divorce, dealing with drugs or alcohol abuse, and the effects of violence, abuse, aging, disease, disability and death, even the death of a child.  This expanding rand of life experiences is part of our global society in the twenty-first century.  Good literature reflects these complexities and portrays children coping with them in realistic settings; great literature weaves these elements seamlessly throughout a compelling story.”  This is how Speak works.  On one hand the story is just of being a high school student, dealing with social class issues in an institution and unfair teachers.  The issues that Melinda has due to violence effects everything she does.  But you don’t know exactly what happened to her until further in the book.  That makes the story so good.  It’s not pushing any kind of anti-violence campaign on the reader, rather, it shows how the protagonist is effected by the violence.

School Library Journal (Oct 1, 1999) reviewed this book by stating, “As the school year goes on, her grades plummet and she withdraws into herself to the point that she's barely speaking. Her only refuge is her art class, where she learns to find ways to express some of her feelings. As her freshman year comes to an end, Melinda finally comes to terms with what happened to her-she was raped at that party by an upperclassman who is still taunting her at school. When he tries again, she finds her voice, and her classmates realize the truth. The healing process will take time, but Melinda no longer has to deal with it alone. Anderson expresses the emotions and the struggles of teenagers perfectly. Melinda's pain is palpable, and readers will totally empathize with her. This is a compelling book, with sharp, crisp writing that draws readers in, engulfing them in the story.”  The book won the Printz Honor 2000, Golden Kit Award, ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, Booklists Top Ten First Novel of 1999, BCCB Blue Ribbon Book Award, SLJ Best Book the Year and is a 1999 National Book Award Finalist.

This is a book that can stand to be used in high schools.  I would choose some other realistic fiction such as Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes and get a few small sets.  Then I would have students read excerpts and choose which book they want to read on their own.  Those who chose the same book are their group members.  They will read the book, give a basic story plot and demonstrate what the message is for the book.  For instance, in Speak there is an anti-violence and date rape awareness that students could report on.  They would make visuals such as posters that show images (appropriate for school) about the book and its message.

I really liked this book too and I’m glad I read it.  I look forward to reading more of Anderson’s books as well as similar YA contemporary realistic fiction.  I wasn’t aware that this was even a genre and I’m so glad to learn about it.  It’s very engaging for me because I love realistic stories with a 1st person point of view over fantasy for the most part.

Review for "When You Reach Me”

Stead, Rebecca.  When You Reach Me.  Wendy Lamb Books, New York, 2009.  ISBN:  9780385906647

Miranda has read A Wrinkle In Time over and over.  Soon she starts talking to Marcus, a kid who punched her friend Sal.  He has read her book and disputes the idea of time travel.  Mysterious notes asking her to tell exactly what happened so that when her mysterious correspondent reaches her, they can do the right thing…again.  The book weaves the realistic in with the fantastical and the story of Miranda is an amazing adventure that you don’t realize you’re taking until you’re already into the book.  It’s wonderful;  a real masterpiece that any reader would enjoy.

Vardell states, “Fantasy is fantasy because it contains elements or events that cannot happen in the real world, as far as we know.  These may be magic, but not necessarily.  It may be technologically impossible, like time travel.  This element of the impossible, yet probable, is a big part of the appeal of modern fantasy literature.”  I have to agree with this statement.  The beauty of a story like this is, as I said, it’s mixed with the real and unreal.  While Miranda can be dealing with issues of racism, she’s also dealing with someone predicting her future in letters.  Plus, the fact that A Wrinkle in Time is the catalyst for why these kids believe time travel is possible is another beautiful element of the story.  It makes it believable to the kids in the book and, therefore, the reader buys the possibility as well.  I also applaud Stead for not having to go overboard in explanation about how and why the time travel occurs.  There’s enough information that the reader needs to buy the possibility because it is just one part of the whole story.

When You Reach Me has deservingly won the following awards:  Newberry Medal 2010, Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Books 2009, Book Sense Book of the Year 2010, IRA Children’s Book Awards 2010, Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards 2010 as well as being nominated for several others.  School Library Journal (July 1, 2009) reviewed this book by saying, “Discerning readers will realize the ties between Miranda's mystery and L'Engle's plot, but will enjoy hints of fantasy and descriptions of middle school dynamics. Stead's novel is as much about character as story. Miranda's voice rings true with its faltering attempts at maturity and observation. The story builds slowly, emerging naturally from a sturdy premise. As Miranda reminisces, the time sequencing is somewhat challenging, but in an intriguing way. The setting is consistently strong. The stores and even the streets-in Miranda's neighborhood act as physical entities and impact the plot in tangible ways. This unusual, thought-provoking mystery will appeal to several types of readers.”  Again, I have to agree that this is appealing for various age groups and reading tastes.  I personally thought I didn’t like fantasy novels, but this one was incredible and I couldn’t put it down. 

I will go as far as to say this book could be used in a high school situation, especially for reluctant readers or lower level readers.  If permission would allow to show clips, I would show them some of Lost, especially the episode where Faraday and Desmond see one another in the past and the future and the audience realizes that they had made one another their “constant” or their “go-to person.”  I have heard librarians say that middle school students weren’t really into A Wrinkle in Time, so maybe for high school kids, some snippets here and there would work.  I suggest maybe assigning a chapter to a few groups in class to give presentations on what the story is about.  This will help get into reading When You Reach Me as a class.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book.  I’m saw it on the shelf at the library a handful of times and put it down because it has the whole Million Dollar Pyramid bit at the beginning.  Plus Miranda is supposed to be very young but you don’t get that idea when reading the book.  Again, I give this four stars and recommend it to everyone.  I even bought a copy on Amazon to keep in my book collection.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review of “The Wednesday Wars”

Schmidt, Gary D.  The Wednesday Wars.  Clarion, New York, 2007.  ISBN: 0618724834
Holling Hoodhood must stay in Mrs. Baker’s class in the year 1967.  The Vietnam War is going on and Mrs. Baker’s husband is a soldier there.  However, Holling doesn’t learn that, or that Mrs. Baker is an Olympiad, until later.  First he has to deal with Wednesdays when he stays in her class while the other kids go to Catechism or Hebrew school.  He is forced to clean chalkboards, clean the coat closet, then read Shakespeare.  Eventually he and Mrs. Baker form a bond but the Vietnam war still rages on.
Vardell states that, “Historical fiction definitely offers meaty content that has teachable value” (176).  There is plenty of historical reference for the 1960s that a student could gather from by using this book as a tool.  For a classroom lesson, I would read the book aloud and use any historical reference (Jesse Owen, Vietnam War, Mickey Mantle, etc.) and have students report back what information they learned about each subject.  This book is quite entertaining because it mixes unrealistic (the name Hoodhood and his fear of a teacher are my first notions of the absurd) but with the real theme of the Vietnam War. 
This book has won ALA’s Notable Books for Children award in 2008 as well as both Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Book award and Best Books of the Year in 2007.  Booklist (June 1, 2007) gave this book a starred review by saying, “On Wednesday afternoons, while his Catholic and Jewish schoolmates attend religious instruction, Holling Hoodhood, the only Presbyterian in his seventh grade, is alone in the classroom with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, who Holling is convinced hates his guts. He feels more certain after Mrs. Baker assigns Shakespeare's plays for Holling to discuss during their shared afternoons. Each month in Holling's tumultuous seventh-grade year is a chapter in this quietly powerful coming-of-age novel set in suburban Long Island during the late '60s. The slow start may deter some readers, and Mrs. Baker is too good to be true: she arranges a meeting between Holling and the New York Yankees, brokers a deal to save a student's father's architectural firm, and, after revealing her past as an Olympic runner, coaches Holling to the varsity cross-country team.”  It is definitely a book that has something that male readers could get into, especially with explanation of the historical references in the book.  I would also go as far as to suggest the class watches an episode of The Wonder Years, because it reminded me a lot of that television series.  I suggest Shooting the Moon as another comparable book if students are reading a novel in groups or choosing their own themes novel for a book report.

Review of “Catherine, called Birdy”

Cushman, Karen.  Catherine, called Birdy. Clarion, New York, 1994.  ISBN: 0395681863
Catherine is a “typical” girl living in 1200s England.  Her father wants to marry her off and her mother is teaching her to embroider cloth and act lady-like.  The story is told with a funny tone even though this girl is living in deplorable circumstances.  She is living with fleas, being “cracked” by her father, being sold off to “Shaggy Beard” and told to write an account of her life in order to become more mature.  Instead of hearing about princesses, as Cushman explains, this book is about the real life of a normal girl in medieval England.  Catherine has hopes and dreams to have a better life.  She is smart and talented but she has a kind heart towards animals.  Luckily, Shaggy Beard dies and she only has to marry his son, Stephen.
Vardell writes, “Cushman’s Newberry winning novel, The Midwife’s Apprentice…tells of a dirty, homeless girl in Medieval England who learns self-respect as well as midwifery in this short, excellent read aloud” (180).  This book is a bit more detailed to be a read-aloud I think, but the same premise is there.  By making this book show young readers (especially young female readers) there is an awareness of what kind of life young women had to endure.  I think readers will connect with the epistolary style.  Vardell states, “A well-written historical novel can give children a sense of participation in the past, a sense of continuity, of our place in the sweep of human destiny” (176).  This diary of a 13 year old girl really would give a reader a sense of participation in her world.
This book has won the Newberry Award  and the Golden Kite Award in 1994.  School Library Journal (June 1, 1994) reviews this book by saying, “This unusual book provides an insider's look at the life of Birdy, 14, the daughter of a minor English nobleman. The year is 1290 and the vehicle for storytelling is the girl's witty, irreverent diary. She looks with a clear and critical eye upon the world around her, telling of the people she knows and of the daily events in her small manor house. Much of Birdy's energy is consumed by avoiding the various suitors her father chooses for her to marry. She sends them all packing with assorted ruses until she is almost wed to an older, unattractive man she refers to as Shaggy Beard. In the process of telling the routines of her young life, Birdy lays before readers a feast of details about medieval England. The book is rich with information about the food, dress, religious beliefs, manners, health, medical practices, and sanitary habits (or lack thereof) of the people of her day.”  I would love to see young female readers use one of Cushman’s books for a historical novel book report.  I know the local library keeps the Dear America series on the top shelf because many students come in looking for a required historical fiction novel for a report.  Carolyn Meyer’s books would be of interest to young readers also.  I think most students would like to tell the class all about the ways of life that children of such time periods lived.

Review of “The Green Glass Sea”

Klagas, Ellen.  The Green Glass Sea: A Novel.  Viking, 2006.  ISBN: 0670061344
The Green Glass Sea is about Dewey Kerrigan who goes to Los Alamos to live with her father.  There he and many other scientists and mathematicians are creating “the gadget”, or, the atomic bomb during the 1940s.  She is an eccentric child who has a lame leg and an interest in radio building.  She encounters Suze who is a trouble maker and not accepted by the girls at school either.  They both have to live together in this closed off section of the world while their parents create something important for the Army.
Vardell states that, “Historical fiction may be one of the most difficult genres to promote.  Nearly all children respond to the immediacy of contemporary realistic fiction, and many avid, imaginative readers seek out fantasy novels that are hundreds of pages long” (175).  I understand this statement completely with The Green Glass Sea.  While this novel is based on something interesting for adults, the whole construct of the plot is quite flat.  There isn’t much going on and without the element of the Los Alamos backdrop, this book wouldn’t be terribly interesting.  Granted the characters like Dewey are different but they don’t do much.  I think this is the problem with creating a good historical fiction novel.  Vardell continues that, “the majority of historical fiction for young people is set in the United States prior to 1950”, which this novel is (179).   Using a touchy subject like the atomic bomb which most young readers wouldn’t know about (heck, they don’t understand why 9/11 was such an important day) this would need a whole lot of explanation before giving it to a classroom.
However,  this book did win the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award in 2007 and School Library Journal (November 1, 2007) reviews it by saying, “Ellen Klages's impeccably researched novel (Viking, 2006) is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, between 1943 and 1945. Dewey Kerrigan, age 11, has been bounced from her parents to her grandmother. When her grandmother can no longer care for her, the girl joins her father at a secret military location. Her father works with preeminent scientists in Los Alamos, racing to research, develop, and build the ultimate military weapon. Work at Los Alamos forces Dewey's father to travel and a colleague agrees to keep Dewey, who adapts to the new situation, the community, and the school.”  Therefore, using it in a cross-curriculum lesson would work well.  Apparently young readers like this book.  If there were lessons on WWII, the atom bomb and perhaps a book like The Boy in the Stripes Pajamas to give students a real sense of what kinds of impact the war had on people, especially children.  I’d suggest a YA book that discusses Japan during WWII as well, if there is one available.  I just wonder if students could really become interested in this period of history.  Again, since the book is well-received maybe it will be a good way to get them to learn about WWII.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review of “Walt Whitman”

Kerley, Barbara and Brian Selznick.  Walt Whitman: Words for America.  Scholastic Press. 2004.  ISBN: 0439357918

America’s poet, Walt Whitman, began working as a printer’s apprentice.  Soon after surrounding himself with words through books at the library, plays and listening to famous speakers, he was writing and printing his own newspaper.  His assistant was his eight-year-old brother, George.  Walt went to Brooklyn and began writing poetry about “the common people” of the United States.  Walt travelled more to the South where he wondered what he could do to help his country during the time of slavery and the brink of a Civil War.  Walt read letters from his brother, George, who served in the Civil War.  Walt continued to write and spent his time caring for wounded soldiers – one of them being his own brother.  Walt often saw President Abraham Lincoln ride by.  His intense admiration for Lincoln was apparent when he wrote “O Captain, My Captain” for the fallen President.  Today Walt is still remembered as being a voice of the American people.

Vardell writes that, “Enticing children to read biographies got a little bit easier with the arrival of picture book biographies.  Here the presence of extensive illustrations adds visual interest along with details that enhance the authenticity of the time and place of the setting.  In addition, the art helps personalize the subject” (245).  This picture biography of Walt Whitman is full of beautiful illustrations that capture the facts about the poet.  While this is a book for children, the in depth poetic analysis would be too much for such an audience, so this book does a great job of sticking to important facts.  The big illustrations of Walt with his brother and seeing Lincoln on his horse, for example, give a connection to the information.  This being a book for grades 4 and up, I would use for middle school and even older students.  Poetry is something hard to grasp for many students so having a simple biography with visual queues can help them comprehend what the poetry is about when we get to that heavier material.

Booklist (November 15, 2004) reviews this book by saying, “The vicissitudes of a poet's life are of less inherent interest to young readers than dinosaur bones, and what whisper of excitement there is in Whitman's biography, Kerley downplays by focusing on his war-scarred twilight years rather than his reverberating "barbaric yawp" against starchy literary tradition. Like his collaborator's narrative, though, Selznick's contributions reflect a keen passion for research, right down to the subtle references to early editions of Leaves of Grass 0 in the book's typeface and design. Try this sophisticated offering on readers who won't quail at the lengthy text and who will be less likely to skip the dense, illuminating endnotes. Younger readers may profit more from the more straightforward presentation of Whitman's words in Loren Long's excellent When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer.”  Again, since Whitman’s poetry is a big hefty for young readers I would use a book like Long’s to couple with the lesson on Whitman.  I can see using this in an effort to tie a middle school class’s History lesson into their English curriculum (something public schools are really encouraged to do with the help of their school librarians.)

Review of "Actual Size"

Jenkins, Steve.  Actual Size. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2004.  ISBN: 0618375945

Actual Size is a book with large pages that show pictures of various animals and how they would look in real life on that page.  The images are in a cut out and torn paper art form so there is a lot of detailed color for the atlas moth, the eye of a giant quid and the Goliath birdeater tarantula, for example.  Each animal is not really shown in it’s full size on the page, but the idea is given to young readers as if they were up close to the large, small, cute and creepy animals.  Information given on the animals such as “The Goliath frog lives in Africa.  It’s big enough to catch and eat birds and rate” along with its measurements “length: 12 inches, 36 inches with legs extended…weight: 7 pounds.”  Each animal is shown in full color with interesting facts about their size.

“Concept books ‘explore the characteristics of a class of objects or of an abstract idea…typically size, color, shape, or spatial relationships…patterns in a class (for young children)…and cross-cultural concept books for older children’ (Hepler, 1998, p. 7)” (Vardell 239).  This book is really interesting and something that is distinctly a children’s book but with informative captions.  The colorful artwork makes a child’s eyes take in the whole page and see the animal that they are reading about.  Importantly the information is limited and the picture is the primary teaching tool in this book.

School Library Journal (June 01, 2004) reviews this book by saying, “The end matter offers full pictures of the creatures and more details about their habitats and habits. Mixing deceptive simplicity with absolute clarity, this beautiful book is an enticing way to introduce children to the glorious diversity of our natural world, or to illustrate to budding scientists the importance of comparison, measurement, observation, and record keeping. A thoroughly engaging read-aloud and a must-have for any collection.”  I agree that this would work well for a story-time or read aloud for young children.  This book also won the Blue Ribbon Non-Fiction award and many of Jenkins other books such as Prehistoric Actual Size would work for young students to teach them basics about animals for a science class.

Review of “Bodies from the Ice”

Deem, James M.  Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2008.  ISBN: 9780618800452

Beginning with the Iceman of the Alps, this books covers the many bodies found in artic conditions.  There are pictures and descriptions of how each body died and was recovered.  Along with the Iceman, the book also includes people found in glaciers in Switzerland.  Here there were soldiers and travelers who died and were preserved in the ice.  There is also information about the frozen children of the Andes where the children were sacrificed to appease their gods.  These bodies as well were preserved in the ice and the book provides photographs of these corpses.  Everest hikers and tools are also shown being discovered in frozen climates that have been preserved over time.

Vardell states that, “The photo essay book ‘particularizes and personalizes information making it more emotionally involving for the reader or documents and validates the truth of the text with photographs’ (Hepler, 1998, p. 8)” (239).  I look at this book as if I were a middle school student who would be disturbed yet fascinated with the morbid science of this book.  The pictures are absolutely necessary to show the reader what archeologists have found.  The vivid details of the Iceman and the Andes sacrificed children really provides powerful understanding just by seeing these photographs.  It is the photographs that draw the reader in to know all about who they, how they died, how they were discovered and how they managed to be preserved all this time.

Booklist (Dec 01, 2008) reviews this book by saying, “Perhaps most fascinating to kids will be the chapter on recently discovered Incan children sacrificed to the gods. The pictures of these children, looking as though they might be sleeping, are arresting. Heavily illustrated with historical memorabilia as well as photos of bodies, scenery, artifacts, and rather simplistic maps, this offers a lot to look at and learn about.”  I think this book would work well from the projected grades of 5-8 who were doing a section in environmental science.  I would pair this with the other book by Deem called Bodies from the Bog. Having the photographs and spawned interest in the morbid would give students a springboard for class projects and presentations on subjects found in these books.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review of “What My Mother Doesn’t Know”

Sones, Sonya.  What My Mother Doesn’t Know.  Simon & Schuster for Young Readers. 2001. ISBN:  0689841140

Sophie Stein is a teenage girl who has two best friends, Rachel and Grace.  She has a boyfriend named Dylan who is a good looking, popular boy, but the more she is around him, the more she loses interest.  She is independent and artistic and when she is in art class she notices Murphy, the most disliked kid at her school.  She strikes up a “relationship” with a guy named Chaz online who turns out to be a pervert.  Her mother and father fight a lot and her mother retreats downstairs to watch soaps and cry – something Sophie thinks about doing herself but refuses to allow herself to sink into that same predicament.  Instead, while her friends are away over break, she begins spending time with Murphy.  Finally she finds a true connection with a boy whom she really likes – even if no one at school does.

Vardell states, “A relatively new poetic form with roots in ancient epic poetry, the verse novel, or novel in verse is a form that is growing in popularity, particularly with middle school readers” (116).  I had run into novels in verse such as this when I taught middle and high school English.  Prose poetry novels, or Push Poetry was what it was referred to when I first heard of it.  I was really excited and confused by how an author could get published by writing a book in simple language, in broken sentences and just fragmented scenes.  But it was fascinating and I loved it.  I understand how this is really cool for teen readers.  I went on to read the continuing book through (Robin) Murphy’s point of view, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know.  Next I will read her other books because I really enjoy this type of YA novel.  I wonder how well it would translate into an adult fiction novel.

Booklist (Nov 1, 2001) reviews this book positively by saying, “The poetry is never pretentious or difficult; on the contrary, the very short, sometimes rhythmic lines make each page fly. Sophie's voice is colloquial and intimate, and the discoveries she makes are beyond formula, even while they are as sweetly romantic as popular song. A natural for reluctant readers, this will also attract young people who love to read.”  I agree with the idea that this is great for reluctant readers.  Since both Sones’ books about Sophie and Murphy can be good for boys and girls it may be something that they could easily get through.  However, it is suggested that such books are use in “a promising trend and a fun format for dramatic read alouds” (Vardell 116).  I would never feel comfortable having students in public school read these aloud, especially with the sexual content.  I could, for the purposes to get students interested, read excerpts from the non-racy poems.  I think these types of books would be a great alternative for students who simply don’t like to read or feel intimidated by so many words on the page.

Review of “Monster Museum”

Singer, Marilyn.  Monster Museum. Hyperion. 2009. ISBN: 9781423121008

Nine brave souls and a two-headed rat enter the Monster Museum as part of a school field trip.  They are assured by the tour guide that they will encounter “some creepy surprises” and they can read all about them in the brochure.  The children see an ogre, a troll, a banshee, ghosts, a mummy, Count Dracula, Medusa and  a zombie (just to name a few).  Each monster has its own story and children can push the button to hear each display explain their predicament.  Luckily, by the end of the tour, all the children (and the rat) have made it out alive and have some new, monster friends to take back on the school bus with them.

As a poem picture book, this one really does a great job showing the reader who they are reading about.  Vardell states, “In a poem picture book, the illustrations help provide on vision of the poem’s meaning.  This can help introduce young readers to longer, narrative poems or classic works” (115).  Using books such as this to show a silly side of poetry, but also give an intro to perhaps mythology, then we would get better visuals from readers.  Even older readers who are not familiar with the story of Frankenstein or his monster without a name (though in the novel, the monster calls himself “Adam”) can get an idea of how these monsters and characters are perceived in popular culture.

Kirkus Reviews (Sept 15, 2001) commented on the book by stating, “Singer's poems are lively and humorous (if not great literature), and they impart quite a bit of information about various famous monsters. A "Glos-scary" offers excellent definitions of all the monster variations, with enough concrete information and background to satisfy the most committed monster maniac.”  The glossary is another element of the poetic children’s books.  It adds to the knowledge of the monsters.  This would be an excellent transition into an activity where students could do research (even the beloved web-quests) on one of the monsters.  They could present their findings to the class and connect the poetic picture book story to the original story of the monster.  Who wouldn’t love to write a report on Gremlins?

Review of "Blue Lipstick"

Grandits, John.  Blue Lipstick. Sandpiper. 2007. ISBN: 9780618851324

Jessie is teenage girl who has a Mom and Dad, a cat named Boo-Boo Kitty, and a little brother Robert.  Boo-Boo Kitty is on her side all of the time while Robert is on her side half of the time.  Jessie has a few ups and downs with turning her hair blue, dealing with her little brother, getting to volleyball practice, putting up with cheerleaders and jocks, or having difficulty in her classes.  But she ends up finding a bright side to all of her problems when her mother calls her a woman in reference to “every woman has a bad hair day” and when she discovers that Andrea is a cool guitar playing cheerleader.

As a concrete poem book that has a central theme, it is a very well crafted book.  As Vardell states, “Consider the theme or topic, organization and design, length and breadth, balance and variety of poems, use of illustrations, inclusion of reference aids, and appeal to the audience” (125).  This book is centralized to the story of Jessie but the way the poems are all different is really exciting.  Having to put your book up to a mirror and twisting it around in circles so you can read the poem is really a hands-on activity that really would engage a young reader. 

Voice of Youth Advocates (Aug 1, 2007) reviewed the book by saying, “Others seem to require a lot of eye gymnastics, which is more effort than some readers might want to exert for not getting a whole lot back. Teens might be enticed to pick up the book with its cover in the shape of a mirror poem with a shimmery silver background, but they will likely be disappointed that the voice wavers between authentic and adult-speak throughout.”  I agree with this maybe be a bit too much for some readers, especially reluctant readers.  However, it may have the opposite effect because the poetry is so small and the pictures would draw them in.  Reluctant readers are constantly looking for the book with the least amount of pages and the biggest type when required to do a report.  This could very well draw in a middle school female reader who isn’t a big fan or reading – especially poetry.

Since most students aren’t big poetry fans at any age, I like that this can show how poetry can be fun.  Amazon suggests that the companion book, Technically, It’s Not My Fault be read as well.  I think that using books like this for poetry to be included in a Poetry Unit would really show a different type or poetry and a fun side to the genre.  I would use this and Grandits’ other concrete poetry book to be read in class, in groups, discussed, then give students the opportunity to write their own concrete poems.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review of “Noah’s Ark”

Pickney, Jerry. Noah’s Ark. SeaStar Books. 2002. ISBN: 1587172011

God was not pleased with the people on earth but he loved Noah who was right in the sight of the Lord. God told Noah to build an ark because he was going to cause a great flood that would swallow up every living thing. He also told Noah to bring two of every creature as long as food for them and himself. God promised that he, his family and the animals would be safe. Noah’s family helped him build the ark and store up food. The people called them fools for building an ark on dry land. The animals heard God’s call and went to the ark and then the rains began. Water rose over the cities and towns but God remembered Noah and his family and all the animals – they stayed safe. Noah sent out a raven to see if it found dry land. After it didn’t he sent a dove. On its second return the dove brought back an olive branch in its beak, symbolizing it had found land. The waters dried up and the animals left the ark. Noah and his family praised God. God promised that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood and set a rainbow to show a sign of this promise.

“Characters in traditional tales are typically archetypes of good or evil, described with a few broad strokes, and symbolic of our most basic human traits” (Vardell 92). Noah is our hero who is in right standing with God. Because he is not like the other people on earth, he is saved from the flood and given a specific duty to perform. I am glad that the Supreme Court asserted that “one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion” (Norton, 1993). I live in a Christian influenced community and not having such books on the shelf at a library would be unheard of. The pictures in this book are the loveliest part of this version of the Biblical story. I can just imagine being a child and looking at these beautiful, large water color paintings and feeling enveloped in the story. The whales swimming underneath the ark and the Earth displayed in rainbows in the back of the book gives the whole story a happy, content, calming effect. I even went as far as to add this book to my own collection (along with “Kitten’s First Full Moon”).

This book did win the Caldecott Honor Award. Booklist states, “One of the best-known Old Testament stories gets a powerful traditional interpretation by an artist who seems utterly comfortable with the majesty of the tale, in terms of both meaning and visual scale…Like the jacket art, however, there's much that is exceptional here, especially an impressive, quiet view of the ark sitting patiently as rain pounds the earth and the swirling sea begins to engulf the whole world. Definitely make room for this on the shelf.” This book would be wonderful for children at Storytime at my library because they would be familiar with the story but see it in a whole new way. Perhaps reading other books by Pickney such as “The Lion and the Mouse” would be good for a themed Storytime. I think children would love the artwork in these books.


Vardell, Sylvia M. Children’s Literature in Action. Libraries Unlimited. Westport, CT. 2008

Review of “The Three Little Pigs”

Marshall, James. The Three Little Pigs. Dial Books for Young Readers. 1989. ISBN: 0803705913

The classic tale of the Three Little Pigs takes on a story of three pig brothers who were sent out by their mother, an old sow, to seek their fortune. The first little pig sees a man who has a load of straw and buys it from him, claiming that he will build his house with it. The man tells him it is not a good idea but the pig tells him to mind his own business and builds the straw house anyway in record time. Very soon a “lean and hungry wolf” tries to get into the pigs house. The pig refuses to let him in, so the wolf does, as expected, and says, “Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in.” Once the house falls down “he gobbled up the little pig.” The second little pig has a similar experience of house building with some sticks. He too meets the fate of the hungry wolf and is gobbled up. The third little pig is depicted as a smart one who outwits the wolf by telling him he’ll meet him at the farm, the orchard and even the fair at a later time than he really will be out. Once the wolf catches on to this, he goes to get the little pig at the fair but the pig is able to scare the wolf away by getting in a butter churn and rolling down the hill at him. By the end, the wolf goes down the chimney into the little pig’s awaiting, hot iron pot. Then, the little pig gobbles up the wolf.

The plot of this story is simple and action based, as is necessary for traditional tales. The story does “move forward logically with a quick ebb and flow of action” (Vardell 93). The theme does follow the basics by being one of the “big, global messages with a clear stance on the importance of good triumphing over evil.” The gory side to this is a bit much and I was trying to recall the original “Three Little Pigs” cartoon that I saw as a kid. In Disney’s 1933 version of “The Three Little Pigs” we first hear the memorable song “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf.” As I watched this version, I noticed that the first two pigs seem much more jovial, naive, singing pigs whereas the third little pig is a hard-working strong type (more than likely a cultural nod to the American way of life in the 30s). It also incorporates the idea of “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” as Big, Bad tries to outwit the first two pigs. The apple orchard that is mentioned in Marshall’s version is seen in the Disney version, but only as the pigs escape as apples fall on the wolf’s head. The ending is without any gobbling and the wolf is just shot back out of the chimney with a burned bottom that sends him running away for good.

It also cracks me up that the third little pig has a picture of “Mother” on the wall - a large sow, sucking her piglets. “Father” is a link of sausages!

Publisher’s Weekly (July 14, 1989) reviewed Marshall’s book by stating, “Deadpan as ever, Marshall begins this one in a traditional way: the old sow sends her piglets off into the big world. Despite the protests of the tradesmen who sell them materials, both the first and second pig construct their flimsy houses of straw and sticks. In short order, they are gobbled up by the wolf. The pig who invests in bricks, of course, does the gobbling when he encounters the wolf, after a merry mass of near misses that blithely build suspense. There are fairy tales, and there are Marshall's tales. Readers can also be forgiven for preferring his over all the rest.” Other reviews state that Marshall writes “half-fractured fairy-tales” so I think I would like to read more of Marshall’s takes on familiar stories.

For activities in the classroom or library, perhaps comparing film versions to book variations would be an interesting project. I can even see having older students write compare and contrast essays on the various versions of these familiar tales. It would be something reluctant readers could get into because they would have easy to read books and cartoons involved. Honors or college freshman would be able to examine the cultural and historical impact the different variations have. Other familiar tales such as “Cinderella” or “Little Red Riding Hood” would work for this project as well.


Vardell, Sylvia M. Children’s Literature in Action. Libraries Unlimited. Westport, CT. 2008

Review of “The Story of Lightning and Thunder”

Bryan, Ashley. The Story of Lightning and Thunder. Maxell Macmillan. 1993. ISBN: 0689318367

This is a retelling of an African folk tale about how Lighting and Thunder ended up in the sky. The story begins by explaining that a long time ago Thunder and Lightning did not live in the sky. The people from town and the country could chat or pat or wave to Ma Sheep Thunder and Son Ram Lightning. When the farmer needed rain they just went up into the mountain and called on their friend, Rain, to help them. However, Son Ram Lightning wanted to show off to the King and they were sent to live outside of town. Later Son Ram Lightning ate some straw hats made by his mother’s friend and the King made them move beyond the village to the center of the forest. When Son Ram Lightning’s idea to get Ox from eating up the vegetables, he created sparks that led to a fire in the field. The King heard the people’s cry and sent the dangerous Thunder and Lightning to live beyond the mountain, into the sky.

Bryan’s belief is that “It is important to affirm our ancestry, to learn about our people while learning about others” (Vardell 89). Culture is an important subject for folktales and legends. It is essential that the images go along with the story and make them believable for children. Since these folktales are from one person, in a oral tradition, using their own authorial interpretation, we trust the author and his illustrations – he is the expert. I think Bryan does a wonderful job is showing us the story as well as telling it. However, I must say I found this book hard to read for a children’s book. I notice that it is shelves as “Juvenile” rather than “Easy” so it would be for older children. Still, it’s quite wordy and I’m sure it is being told in the style of the original folktale. Since the supernatural element of Lightning and Thunder being a sheep and a ram would very well be very obscure for a young reader to grasp for starters, then the story being in paragraph form with a lot of detail, I don’t know how well this book would be received by children at my library. It seems like it would be more for a one on one reader type of situation. I think it would be the kind of book a parent could help a child through rather than doing the typical sing-songs thematic books of group Storytime.

Booklist (September 15, 1993) reviewed this book by stating, “Bryan's swirling watercolors depict a bright African terrain peopled with decorative, colorful characters. The text has music and style and moves along quickly, thanks to the humor inherent in the exploits of the rambunctious ram. Specific source notes are included. This is a solid title for reading aloud that will appeal to a wide age range.” Other book reviews say the age range is from 4-8. I’m still not sure that 4 would even be old enough to grasp the concept of the book but ages 7 and 8 would be able to understand it I think.

One of the books that Amazon suggests as a similar book is The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale. If a teacher were going to introduce multi-cultural folktales into their curriculum, this book would be something comparable. This book is recommended by School Library Journal and has about the same number of pages as well as a similar theme of inanimate objects being depicted as animals. Since teachers so often use Greek Myths with their older students, I think introducing them to other myths early on will give them a more varied background in legends and storytelling.

Vardell, Sylvia M. Children’s Literature in Action. Libraries Unlimited. Westport, CT. 2008

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit"

Potter, Beatrix. The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Frederick Warne & Co. 1902, 1987, 1996. ISBN: 1-57719-157-9

Peter Rabbit is one of four bunnies belonging to their mother, Mrs. Rabbit, who instructs them to not go into Mr. McGregor’s garden because “your Father had an accident there, he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Not run along, and don’t get into mischief, I’m going out.” Of course while Mrs. Rabbit is not watching the bunnies, Peter, who was not a good little bunny like his siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail, ran to Mr. McGregor’s garden. Peter is chased by the farmer - losing his bunny clothes that ended up being used as a tiny scarecrow by Mr. McGregor. He gets wet from jumping into a watering can, smartly decides to avoid a cat, and then runs himself out so that he is tired and frightened. He finally makes it back home. There his mother gives him only tea while the other bunnies have bread, milk and blackberries for supper.

The best part of this book is the pictures. They are so delicate and have just the right amount of detail. They are what grab your attention the most. However, the story is quite basic (though I question Mrs. Rabbit’s mothering skills) and children can easily get into a story that has a believable character like Peter. A rabbit would go into a garden and get chased. The pictures give you just enough vivid imagery to go along with the choice wording (“Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail” – such good rabbit names!) You get the feeling of Peter running for his life, afraid he will be put into a pie if he is caught.

Interestingly enough, Booklist (November 01, 1987) states that, “Undoubtedly one of the most famous books for children, this enduring classic has been reprinted more than 100 times in the 80-plus years since its debut, resulting in a loss of much of the artist's careful brushwork, color, and detail. To rectify this, the original illustrations have been re-photographed, giving children and adults a beautiful new edition to love and appreciate. All 23 of Potter's treasured offerings have had similar transformations, and librarians will want to consider replacing their old copies.” I can understand wanting a modern, more vivid book to offer their patrons. Since it is such a well loved book, there are so many editions out there that keeping something as highly popular makes sense for libraries.

Being a classic, well-loved book, I would like to see more classic books that go along with Peter Rabbit’s tales. Even Frog and Toad and The Pokey Little Puppy would be appropriate in giving young readers the good, basic, classic children’s literature. I personally like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie too. It’s another way to show the supposed animal-human relationship that The Tale of Peter Rabbit has.

Review of "A Piñata in a Pine Tree"

Mora, Pat. Magaly Morales Illustrator. A Piñata in a Pine Tree: A Latino Twelve Days of Christmas. Clarion Books, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-618-84198-1

Stemming from the Christmas carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas”, Pat Mora creates a Latino version of the son that not only includes Spanish words, pronunciations and vocabulary, but includes the musical score for the song to be played as the children sing. The little girl in the story is being given gifts such as “dos pastelitos” (two small pies or turnovers) and “siete burritos bailando” (seven dancing donkeys” from her “amiga.” When the “doce angelitos celebrando” (12 angels rejoicing) appear by the end of the book, we learn that the “amiga” is the new baby sister that the little girl has been anxiously awaiting for.

Vardell writes, “books and their illustrations should also build an appreciation of beauty and aesthetics” (57). This is the case with A Piñata in a Pine Tree; the colorful pictures show the Mexican style and decoration while also letting the reader appreciate how pretty each page has been designed. Vardell comments that, “it is also important to consider how words and pictures are used to depict culture in children’s picture book” (60). This book definitely shows young readers the culture of Mexico with the language, colorful artwork and original take on the classic Christmas carol.

Booklist (November 01, 2009) reviewed the book with the following positive comments, “In trading a partridge for a piñata and intertwining English and Spanish, Mora has created not only a fun adaptation of a classic Christmas carol but also an introduction to many elements of holiday celebrations for families across the U.S. and Latin America… these acrylic paintings share a similar colorful and vibrant style as they integrate words, numbers, Spanish pronunciations, joy, and excitement throughout each full-page spread. A glossary, useful author's and illustrator's notes, and musical notation are also included. The syllabic rhythm doesn't always perfectly match the familiar tune, but that won't make reading or singing this any less merry.”

I would like to see a Storytime themed with different Christmas customs so young readers could get a glimpse into how children in other parts of the world celebrate the holidays. There would be a vast amount of books to choose from various countries, religions and cultural backgrounds. Opening the world to young readers through a familiar event like Christmas would be a great way to get children interested in multicultural literature.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review of “Kitten’s First Full Moon”

Henkes, Kevin. Kitten’s First Full Moon. Greenwillow Books, 2004. ISBN: 0-06-058829-2

Kitten sees a big bowl of milk, just waiting for her, up in the sky. Despite her efforts she cannot reach it. She tries to lick the bowl, she tries to climb the tree for the bowl, she even sees the bowl in the pond below her. Still, she never gets to the milk. She only gets bugs on her tongue, bumps on her nose and becomes sad, wet and tired. Eventually, when she finally gives up and goes home, she finds her bowl of milk just waiting for her on the porch.

As a picture book, I found this interesting that it is not in color. The story is very cute and the way it reads is quite entertaining. Still, there is only simple art work that gives you focus into the story. There’s not too much detail in the wording or the pictures to distract you from the basic tale of Kitten. As a character, Kitten serves as credible and convincing as a personality. The plot is simple and Kitten’s motivation is believable. What would a kitten think if it took notice of the moon? It may very well think that it is a bowl of milk. The illustrations work with this characterization and plot because without the words, you could still look at the pictures and know what was happening in the story. I enjoyed this book very much and would like to purchase it for my own collection.

This book has won the Caldecott medal. School Library Journal (April 01, 2004) review states, “Done in a charcoal and cream-colored palette, the understated illustrations feature thick black outlines, pleasing curves, and swiftly changing expressions that are full of nuance. The rhythmic text and delightful artwork ensure storytime success. Kids will surely applaud this cat's irrepressible spirit. Pair this tale with Frank Asch's classic Moongame (S & S, 1987) and Nancy Elizabeth Wallace's The Sun, the Moon and the Stars (Houghton, 2003) for nocturnal celebrations.” I would like this kind of book to be used at Storytime in the library for such themed activities. For the craft to go along with the book, we could make cats out of paper plates and googly eyes (as you would when making the fish for “under the sea” themes Storytimes.) FamilyTLC.net suggests that for comprehension strategies, children can be asked what the moon looks like in real life in comparison with the cover. Then as the children read, ask them what the moon looks like to them. After reading, children can be asked what other things they see in the night sky and what other objects they may seem to look like as well.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Alice I Have Been

I found this on the "New Fiction" shelf at the library.
I didn't finish the book but it doesn't mean I didn't like it. Alice Lindell was courted at a young age by the writer known as Lewis Carroll. I like that the book only hinted at a physical attraction and didn't go into any seedy supposings. It's based on historical information, even including pictures.
I would recommend this and I would like to check the book out again and finish it soon.
Read my review on Goodreads.

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