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.