Friday, November 23, 2007

Joey Pigza Loses Control

Gantos, Jack. 2000. Joey Pigza Loses Control. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374399891

Plot summary

Joey Pigza tries to spend six weeks visiting his estranged dad. His mother has warned Joey that his dad is "wired like you, only he's bigger" (8). Once Joey gets to dad's house, everything changes. The normalcy that Joey has felt with his medication is literally flushed down the toilet when his dad decides that he knows what is best for Joey. Their relationship is like riding a roller coaster, and finally Joey wants to get off the ride.

Critical analysis

I did not realize when I picked to read this book that I would be reading about one of my students. Joey's voice in this novel seemed accurate of the internal dialogue that a kid with ADD or ADHD has. He feels like he's melting. He feels like he's losing control. He knows rationally that things he does are not appropriate, but he cannot stop himself. As I read this book, I felt more sympathy and compassion for my student. I began to understand what he must go through on a daily basis.

When Joey first arrives at his father's house, his dad is very excited about making up for lost time. He wants Joey to play baseball on the team he coaches. When sizing his hand for a glove, they hold up their hands together. Joey feels "a jolt as if he had a joy buzzer in his" (23). Joey's dad is full of these jolts of energy.

Joey's dad Carter is quite a character. His is a selfish idiot and a hypocrite. He thinks he knows what is best for Joey. He continually says, "I've been thinking" which usually means trouble for Joey. When Dad takes Joey to Storybook Land (Dad's place of epiphany), he won't stop talking. Joey states, "I knew how Dad felt about everything. But Dad didn't know how I felt about anything" (29). I think kids feel this way about their parents, whether they are visiting or constantly in their lives. Kids want to be heard, and Joey's dad is too busy thinking of himself to listen to Joey.

Grandma is the comic relief as well as the sage. She understands her son and Joey. She can tell when their life is about to spin out of control. She's seen the patterns too many times. Yet, she endures living with her son and continuing her own self-destructive patterns. She smokes, even though she uses an oxygen tank. She "borrows" Joey's emergency phone money to buy cigarettes (or rather has Joey buy them). She has Joey push her in a grocery cart to the story or park to play golf. Grandma explains, "'I did have a little handcart for the oxygen but Carter said it cost too much to rent so now he just gets me the tank with the shoulder case and because it's so heavy I can't get very far'" (42).

Each of the 14 chapters are named. Most of the names are places in which the story will take place (The Mall, Storybook Land, Downtown). The story unfolds naturally and as the book progresses, the reader sees that this kid is wired. He spins himself around to figure out where he's going in the city. He practices throwing rocks in the house. He tries to form a relationship with his dad, but his dad is so self-absorbed that he cannot. Joey thinks about "what it is like to be normal" (115). Without his medication, he won't be "normal."

Readers feel compassion for Joey as he tries to do the right thing, but keeps making wrong choices. Joey tells himself that he's losing control and the reader sees it happening but cannot do anything to help Joey. I just wanted to scream at Carter when he flushed Joey's medicine down the toilet. "One by one he took my patches out of the box and balled them up in his fist and dropped them into the bowl" (95). Joey feels helpless as he watches his "normalcy" go down the drain. Carter tries to tell Joey he knows what is best, but his own life is spiraling.

Readers will identify with this book even if they don't need medication to be "normal." Gantos uses everyday experiences to show how coping for some can be more difficult than for others. Even though the story takes place in Pittsburgh, it could be any town.

Review excerpts

BULLETIN of the CENTER for CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "Joey's view of the world is compelling regardless of what he's dealing with, and it's realistic in both its perceptions and their limitations. Characters are sharply and truthfully drawn."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Readers will be drawn in immediately to the boy's gripping first-person narrative and be pulled pell-mell through episodes that are at once hilarious, harrowing, and ultimately heartening as Joey grows to understand himself and the people around him.


Read other books about Joey Pigza:

Gantos, Jack. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. ISBN 0064408337

Gantos, Jack. I am Not Joey Pigza. ISBN 0374399417

*Have students rewrite the ending where Joey and his dad do win the baseball championship. What happens next in their lives? Do they grow closer? Will Joey live with his mom or dad? Will he start taking his medication again?

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Step from Heaven

Na, An. 2001. A Step from Heaven. Asheville, NC: Front Street. ISBN 1886910588

Plot summary
This is a story of survival. Young Ju is a Korean immigrant whose family left Han Gook to come to America (specifically California) for a better life. Young Ju is suspended between adopting American ways and keeping her Korean heritage alive. Young Ju's family is not what it appears on the outside. Her father is abusive and an alcoholic. Her mother is obedient but strong. Young Ju is trying to cover up her reality and her brother is rebelling against everything. What becomes of this family makes a compelling story of how much a family can endure and overcome.

Critical analysis
This young adult novel is not just about a Korean family coming to America. It is a novel about how families cover up the truth and pretend that everything will be OK when their world is falling all around them. Young Ju's family is trying to survive moving to a new country without the benefit of knowing the language or customs before coming. They must find their own way.

The plot is absolutely believable. Even for readers that are native born Americans, the issues this family faces are universal. Kids hide where they live; mothers hide bruises left by drunk fathers; friends don't know each other as they think they do.

Each chapter is named and could be read as a stand alone story. The title of the book is also the name of an early chapter in which Young Ju's father explains that America "is a step from heaven" (28).

I enjoyed how Na used Korean words sprinkled through the story. In the early chapters, there are more words in Korean, but as Young Ju learns English, Na includes fewer Korean words. The parents still speak in Korean, but the new generation (Young Ju and her brother) do not. This adds to the believability of the story.

When Young Ju first goes to school, it took me a minute to realize that what Na was writing was English, but it was filtered through Young Ju's ears. She heard, "Ah ri cal, co mo ve he" when the "witch teacher" said, "All right class. Come over here." (31). She also refers to crayons as "color sticks" (32). I think this is an accurate description to a person who has never seen crayons.

The first sign of abuse shows up relatively early in the book. "I do not see Apa's hand. It is too fast. I only hear the slap, loud as breaking glass" (37). Young Ju's father has just slapped her mother for wanting too much. The more frustrated Apa gets with his life in America, the more beatings his wife endures. Apa occasionally hits the children, and Young Ju finally reaches a point to save her family, which becomes a turning point in the novel. "Please...send help....My father is killing my mother" (141). I wondered how many children make this kind of call every day to protect themselves or their family.

I found this novel to be beautifully written even with the horrific abuse. The ending is hopeful for Young Ju's family. I think teen readers will be relieved that sometimes atrocious situations do end happily ever after.

Review excerpts
BOOKLIST (starred review): "This isn't a quick read, especially at the beginning when the child is trying to decipher American words and customs, but the coming-of-age drama will grab teens and make them think of their own conflicts between home and outside. As in the best writing, the particulars make the story universal."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Each of the chapters in this emotionally succinct novel might be read as a short story, although the plot-the acclimation of one young girl to a new culture and to her own family-is steady and at times suspenseful."

*Read Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club ISBN 0399134204.

*Have a class discussion about local services available to teens to help them if they are in similar situations. Where can they go that is safe? Who can they call (anonymously?) for help? What should they do if they suspect a friend is being abused? How can they stop the cycle?

*Create a "Getting to Know Our School" brochure that gives pictures of important places, with the accompaning English word. This might help new students (ESOL) become more familiar with the school as well as teaching them the correct words.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Giver

Lowry, Lois. 1993. The Giver. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 0329379259

Plot summary
Twelve year old Jonas lives in a perfect world. His world is so perfect that he never has to make a choice or decision about anything. Everything is decided for him, even his job. However, once he begins his job training, he realizes that he wants choices, and his world is not perfect. This is a story of struggle as Jonas learns that his world is not all there is to living.

Critical analysis
When I began reading this book, I thought this imaginary world that Lowry creates was sterile. I didn't think I would like reading about this perfect futuristic world. Every aspect of life is controlled. "Life here is so orderly, so predictable--so painless" (103). There are ceremonies to commemorate naming, aging, job placement, and even dying (which is referred to as a "releasing"). There is a loud speaker that reminds the community of infractions against the rules. Any infraction "infringed on the community's sense of order and success" (46).

I was intrigued by the title and needed to find out more about Jonas the more I read. Would he be a giver? What would he give? However, in these twenty-three unnamed chapters, I learned that Jonas first became a receiver so that later he, too, could be a giver.

As Jonas begins his training as Receiver of Memory, "the most honored [job] in our community"(61), I realize that the word of Sameness that Lowry creates means there is no color in the world. There also is no choice or decision making. Once Jonas learns of these things, he begins to question his own world. He desires choices. There are no talking animals in the story, but there are magical beings. The Giver touches Jonas to give him memories of times past.

The aspect of good versus evil is present in this story. Jonas must decide that everything he has been taught from birth might be a lie. "Now Jonas had a thought that he had never had before. This new thought was frightening....What if they had all been instructed: You may lie?" (71). His own first lie comes almost sixty pages later when he lies to his parents.

Lowry capitalizes words like Sameness and Elsewhere to indicate their importance to the community's balance. "If you don't fit in, you can apply for Elsewhere and be released" (48). This sounds like a desirable option until you learn later in the book was exactly the releasing process is. When Jonas questions what happens to the things he sees in the memories, the Giver explains what happened to those things. "Climate control. Snow made growing food difficult...It wasn't a practical thing, so it became obsolete when we went to Sameness" (84).

Jonas might be considered an archetypal hero because he does cross the threshold of safety into an unknown world where he is able to survive the trials of the new environment. His adventure really begins with the first realization that his world is not the entire world. As he learns more memories, he becomes frustrated at his surroundings and wants to escape. The Giver (the protective figure) and Jonas form a plan, and Jonas takes the baby Gabriel (symbolic of hope for new generations) to Elsewhere. However, Jonas does not return home. In fact, Lowry leaves the ending open. The reader does not know if Jonas and Gabriel die, or if they become part of a new town that is not in Sameness.

When my students noticed I was reading this book, many commented that they loved this book or it was one of their favorite books. I was surprised by some of the students that commented because they are not necessarily the strongest of readers, but they remembered this book. I felt that I had to see what they liked so much and why this book left such a positive memory with them. When I finished the book, I had many questions. I wondered if a world like this could exist one day. What would I have done in Jonas' position? What would happen if people stopped caring for one another? I was able to talk about this book to my students that read this book and make another connection with them. I also think our conversations piqued curiosity in those students that have not read the book.

Review excerpts

PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "A storyline that hints at Christian allegory and an eerie futuristic setting."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "The author makes real abstract concepts, such as the meaning of a life in which there are virtually no choices to be made and no experiences with deep feelings. This tightly plotted story and its believable characters will stay with readers for a long time."


*Have a discussion about whether or not this type of society could exist and/or survive. What if you didn't have memories? How could a Committee of Elders become a true controlling force in society? What would you do in Jonas' position? What if no one could lie? What is a "perfect world"?

*Read other books about futuristic societies (i.e., Vonnegut, Bradbury, Orwell) and compare what the authors' visions for society include. Have some of these writers accurately predicted our reality?

Monday, November 5, 2007


LaFaye, A. 2004. Worth. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 1416913211

Plot summary
Eleven year old Nate suffers a farm injury that makes him unable to help on the family farm. His father decides that he needs help and brings in orphan John Worth to help. Nate feels that he is being worthless and being replaced. While Nate is going to school, John is learning how to work on the farm. As the two boys get to know one another, they find that they are more alike than they realized.

Critical analysis
Each chapter of this book is named. The story is told from 11 year old Nate Peales's point of view and carries an informal tone. After an accident mangles his leg, he feels like a freeloader "lying around" (11) not able to help his dad.

When Nate first goes to school, a "place like a root cellar--dirt walls, air choked up with must and bugs" (34), he finds out that he's not book smart. "They'd all studied things like map knowing. Called it a geo-something or other" (28). He feels like "pretty much all the kids hated me" which is a common idea among adolescents.

The setting is Nebraska, but the time is not specific. The reader can gather from the clues given in the text that this story takes place before automobiles (or at least before the automobile reached the rural farmlands), as the mode of transportation is horse-drawn wagon. "The jingle of tack and the rumble of the wagon said Pa headed out for town" (17). When the family moved to Nebraska, they furnished their house by Ma's "tinkering." "Brought in most of our house by tinker trade....We got an old table for fixing a brush rake....Chairs came to us through piecework" (13).

The reader also learns that living on a farm is not a glorified place. There is always something to be done and the threat of losing the crops is constant. Before moving to Nebraska, the reader learns that "locusts ate up all we had, left us with nothing to live on for the winter or pay the bank with, so Pad had to give them our farm" (25).

When Nate cannot work, Pa finds John Worth, a boy about Nate's age, from the Orphan Train. At first, Nate is resentful of John. "The only hint of happiness I got was when I heard Pa shouting at John Worth for doing something city dumb again" (38). As the story unfolds, Nate learns that John's life has been hard and unfair. too. Nate's mother is not happy about bringing in a child from a "no-account family" (31) but changes her mind some when she learns that John's family died in a tenement fire.

Due to a choking accident, the Peales' family lost a one year old child. Missy is not mentioned very often in the book, but it is one of the ties that bring Nate and John closer. Nate realizes that losing his sister is similar, but not as awful, as John losing his entire family to fire. Their relationship becomes less hostile and more friendly when they discover that there are similarities between the two of them. When John explains that he was scared running at night in the country, Nate remembers helping his mother one time in Chicago. "He [John] was afraid of the country and all the dangers he couldn't understand, just like me in the city" (87). I think that young readers can relate to this universal truth that we are more alike than we might at first realize.

Another aspect of history that LaFaye writes about is the highly emotional range wars. The battle of fencing in one's land became an issue as the country's population moved west. Cutting fences to let the cattle graze was a hanging offense. At the end of the story, Nate and John work together to stop fence cutters.

When I first picked up this book, I thought the title would be something about self-esteem (worth) and was tickled when I saw that "worth" was symbolic and one of the main character's names. When I finished the book and read the "About the Author" page, I was surprised at myself for assuming that the writer was male. Alexandria LaFaye writes a believable story from a male point of view.

Review excerpts
PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "LaFaye paints a realistic picture of the hardships for average families at the time the Orphan Train rode the rails."
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "The author convincingly conveys the boys' gradual realization of the value of one another's friendship....A satisfying piece of historical fiction."

*Have a guest speaker bring in "props" from living on a farm, such as a pair of fence cutters or a wagon wheel to give students an idea of what life on a 19th century farm looked like.
*Have students write about a time when they discovered that someone was different than they first thought. How did their relationship change? Did the realization bring them closer or make them grow farther apart?
*Read more about Greek mythology (like Nate did at school) or books about settling Nebraska.
Bunting, Eve. Dandelions. ISBN 0152024077

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Eleanor Roosevelt

Freedman, Russell. 1993. Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0899198627

Plot summary
Russell Freedman takes the reader into the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. He not only gives the facts of her remarkable life, but he gives the reader the story of her life. Eleanor comes alive in this book and is seen as one of the most remarkable women of her time. Freedman begins before Eleanor's birth and chronicles her education, her courtship and marriage to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the birth of her children, her activism, and her role in the political arena of the United States.

Critical analysis

I enjoyed reading this book because I felt transported into Eleanor's life. I've always admired Eleanor Roosevelt, and I feel that Russell Freedman creates a vivid picture of her through an objective point of view. She comes to life in this book instead of a one-dimensional caricature of someone in history. Freedman incorporates narrative with historical facts. One example is when Freedman writes, "Although FDR listened to his wife, he was keenly attuned to what he believed was politically possible" (116). Eleanor and Franklin had a partnership and Freeman relates to the reader how strong their relationship was in spite of their differences.

There are eleven chapters in this book and each chapter gives the reader another layer of who this woman truly was. Almost each chapter begins with an epigram quoting Eleanor. Included within the text are pictures, mostly gathered from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, that show Eleanor throughout her life. There are other pictures to supplement the time period, such as the picture of Polish Jews being marched off to death camps (130). I found the pictures captivating and a visual support of the text. I also enjoyed the sixteen page photo album at the back of the book that contained pictures from Eleanor's childhood through the 1960s. Following the photo album is a section about Eleanor's cottage, Val-Kill. Freedman explains that the cottage is open to the public and gives contact information to find out more. Freedman then gives a list of "Books about and by Eleanor Roosevelt" (189) for readers interested in reading more about Eleanor.

Each chapter follows a chronological order to explain what Eleanor's life was like at that particular time with the exception of Chapter One, the shortest chapter. Chapter One gives an overview of her life focusing mostly on her time as First Lady. Freedman gives a concluding paragraph stating, "For thirty years...Eleanor Roosevelt was the most famous and at times the most influential woman in the world. And yet those who knew her best were most impressed by her simplicity, by her total lack of self-importance" (3). Chapter Two then goes back to her childhood and begins the story of Eleanor's life.

Through Freedman's book, we learn what a strong and influential person Eleanor was. "Eleanor replied that she was sorry if her activities offended anyone, but she was determined to pursue her interests and express her beliefs. 'Everyone must live their own life in their own way and not according to anybody else's ideas,' she told a press conference" (111).

This book includes and index and can be read for research purposes. However, I recommend reading this for pleasure to learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt.

Review excerpts
PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "This impeccably researched, highly readable study of one of this country's greatest First Ladies is nonfiction at its best."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Fans of Eleanor Roosevelt will enjoy this detailed anecdotal record of her life, while those unfamiliar with her life will count themselves among her admirers by the end ."

*Read Freedman's biography on Franklin Roosevelt to get a more complete picture of this influential duo.
*Create a fact or fiction game with questions based on Eleanor's life. This game can be used as an introductory assignment before reading the book or as a closing assignment to check for reading comprehension and recall.

*Read other books about Eleanor Roosevelt:
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884-1933. ISBN 0140094601
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 2: 1933-1938. ISBN 0670844985
Gerber, Robin. Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way. ISBN 0735203245
Wigal, Donald. The Wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt. ISBN 0806524782

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Kadohata, Cynthia. 2004. Kira-Kira. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0689856393

Plot summary
What happens when a Japanese family must relocate to Georgia to survive, and their world falls apart no matter what they try to do to keep it intact? This is the story of Katie Takeshima and her family. The family moves to a Georgia so her parents can work in poultry factories. Katie relies upon her older sister Lynn for knowledge of their world. Lynn relies upon Katie to take care of her. As the story unfolds, the reader sees how unfair life can be, even to good people.

Critical analysis
The title of the book is explained in the first paragraphs of the book. "Kira-kira means 'glittering' in Japanese" (1). This is Katie's first word and one she uses to describe her world. However, it is really her sister Lynn that sees the beauty in the world around her, even when she is dying. I enjoyed how Kadohata included Japanese words in her narrative. This made the story more believable and realistic.

Kira-kira is also a contrast to the actual world of the Takeshima family. They are close, but it seems external forces keep knocking them down. First their store closes, and they must move to Georgia for work. The conditions described in the book of these poultry plants are horrible. "The factory workers weren't allowed to take unscheduled breaks, so they all wore pads in case they needed to use the bathroom" (97). The family tries to save money to buy a house, but Lynn's medical condition causes them to work more. "My father's hours changed sometimes. His newest schedule was to work for ten to twelve hours, then eat and sleep a few hours at the hatchery, and then get up and work six hours. When he wasn't working at his main hatchery, he worked in a different one in another town" (84).

Through Katie's story, we see the prejudice of the 1950s Deep South. When driving from Iowa to Georgia, the family stops at a motel for sleep. The innkeeper ignores the family at first, calls them Indians and then charges them "two dollars extra" for the room (28). Lynn warns Katie that "some of the kids at school may not say hello to you" (50) which Katie doesn't understand. Once she enters school, she quickly learns that her sister was correct. She is treated differently because she is Japanese.

Katie understands the poultry industry supports Georgia's economy, "but that didn't stop many people who did not work with poultry from looking down on those who did" (88). Katie is treated differently at school because her parents worked at the poultry plants and "the fact that I was Japanese were the two reasons the girls at school ignored me" (88). Katie and her brother Sam often went to work with their mother because there was no one to take care of them. The kids stayed in the car while the mom worked inside.

Kadohata does a terrific job describing how this Japanese family endures the hardships of the time and survives. They are treated unfairly by their employers and the townspeople. With each chapter, the family seems to struggle more and more and then the unthinkable happens. Their child Lynn has cancer and dies. The grief the family feels is so real, but it seems that even with this injustice, they cannot afford to grieve. They must go to work. "My mother and father became like zombies. They ate but didn't seem to taste their food....It looked as if we might lose the house because my parents still owed money on Lynn's medical bills" (226).

Emotionally, this was a hard book to read. I felt like I was with the family in these sixteen chapters. I could identify with Katie and how she felt like the black sheep because she wasn't Lynn. "I got straight C's at school....Lynn got straight A's. She loved school" (62). I felt the fatigue the parents felt by working so much to try and keep a roof over the family. I was shocked when I found out that Lynn had lymphoma. I felt the joy of baby Sam being born and then later of his leg being caught in the trap. I felt the father's anger at "the system" when his daughter died, and he had to release his anger on Mr. Lyndon's car. I was confused with Katie when her dad went to apologize. "'Apologize! But he doesn't know it was you! Dad! He doesn't even know. You don't have to apologize!' He looked at me as if he was very disappointed I'd said that. I didn't care. I just wanted to protect my father" (231).

Kadohata includes handwritten passages to represent the diary entries of Lynne or the essays Katie writes for school. Using this technique makes the passages seem like the young girls are the writers.

Review excerpts

PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "Katie's narrative begins almost as stream-of-consciousness, reflecting a younger child's way of seeing the world. But as she matures through the challenges her family faces, so does the prose. Kadohata movingly captures the family's sustaining love."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "This novel has the immediacy of an autobiographical account of love and loss and presents insightful glimpses of questionable labor practices and post-World War II discrimination against Japanese-Americans."


*Research how Japanese-Americans were treated throughout the United States during and after World War II. Was the South the only place of discrimination? What other places were Japanese-Americans allowed to work and what were the conditions?

*Research how other minority groups were treated post World War II.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Simon, Seymour. 2006. Horses. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 0060289449

Plot summary
Seymour Simon shows through this book the importance of the horse to our society. He gives the reader the "basic" information like how much a horse might weigh or the different breeds of horses, but he also examines how functional a horse is and how much humans and horses need each other.

Critical analysis

This photo essay book is visually appealing. Each page uses photographs of horses either as the background or beside the text. Sometimes there are many horses together or the picture is a silhouette of horses on the prairie or close up shots of the horse. Seymour Simon begins at the beginning "during the Ice Age" (1) to show what horses have meant to humans. When Simon discusses a horse's teeth, the accompanying photograph is a close up of a horse with its mouth wide open. The reader can see what actual horse teeth look like.

The book is organized by topic. With each turn of the page, Seymour Simon gives the reader a better understanding of horses. On one page Simon discusses the vocabulary used with horses. "A young mare is called a filly, and a young male is called a colt" (10). The sentences are simple and informative. Simon does not talk down to the reader and still is able to thoroughly explain the concepts. "The Shire is the biggest of the English coldbloods. It weighs as much as 2,200 pounds, more than the combined weight of all the students in your class" (19). Simon discuss every aspect of a horse from the look of them, how it walks, and special jobs the horse performs. "In jumping or steeplechasing competitions, horses and riders jump over barriers or obstacles" (22).

There are no page numbers which makes citations more difficult, but it also relaxes the reader to enjoy the pictures and the text. The book is colorful and lively. It invites the reader to keep turning the pages to learn more about horses.

This book does not contain any reference aids, such as a table of contents or index.

Review excerpts

BOOKLIST: "Simon has pulled together a variety of information to give children a concise but memorable, even dignified picture of the magnificent beast and how its relationship to humankind has evolved and changed."

HORN BOOK: "Although captions would have supported points in the text better, the crisp photos in the book showcase the beauty of the species."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Children will pore over the photos and garner enough information from the text to make this book a popular introductory choice."


*Have a guest visitor bring a horse to school so students can see one in person (especially if in a non-rural school district). If possible, arrange for student photos with the horse. Students then write about their experience with the real horse and how this book prepared them to see one in person. What did they learn from the actual visit? What was different about the horse they saw and the ones they read about in the book?

*Create a clues game (similar to the inside flap of this book) to introduce another book by Seymour Simon. Students will have a fun time guessing what topic the next book will be. Read the book to the students.

*Other animal books by Seymour Simon:

Simon, Seymour. Spiders. ISBN 0060891033

Simon, Seymour. Big Bugs: SeeMore Readers Level 1 ISBN 1587172658

Simon, Seymour. Whales. ISBN 0060877111

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Actual Size

Jenkins, Steve. 2004. Actual Size. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0618375945
Plot Summary
Reading about animals and actually seeing them are two different things. Steve Jenkins uses a very creative way to give readers information about animals that helps show what they actually look like. He creates a visual of the animals and includes a caption of size (usually height and/or weight). He tries to include on the page only what fits (the eye of the giant squid or the tongue of the giant anteater) to help the reader "see" the animal in its actual size.

Critical Analysis
The concept of this book was interesting because Steve Jenkins includes as a visual just what would fit on the page of this over sized book (measuring 12" tall). Each illustration is a collage of cut and torn paper. This gives the illustration texture (the earthworm looks segmented; the tiger looks fuzzy; the gorilla's hand looks leathery).

The limited text on each page introduces the reader to the particular animal without overwhelming the reader with too many facts.

Each animal shown has some kind of measurement caption showing how much it weighs or what the total length of the animal is or how big a specific part of the animal is. Included are two animals, the saltwater crocodile and the Goliath frog, that require a fold out page to show their sizes. The picture I liked the best was the Alaskan brown bear because it looked so real. The paper collage illustration made the bear look like there was actual fur in the book and a glint of a reflection in the eye.

Jenkins includes a visual index at the back giving more specific information about each animal. This information tells the reader about the habits and habitat of the animals featured in the book. It discusses camouflage techniques the animal might use to ward off being eaten by other animals. Even though there is more detail about each animal, the index is not overwhelming to the reader. There are just enough interesting facts about each animal that the reader is satisfied.

The illustrations are a great visual instead of just the text stating a dimension. The reader gets a true understanding of how large or small an animal is.

Review Excerpts
HORN BOOK: "The relative sizes are accentuated by the white backdrop and are grounded by the straightforward information that accompanies the creatures."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "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."

*Using this book as a springboard, have students research one of the included animals to find out more about that specific animal.

*Taking the information from this non-fiction book, students can create a fictional piece (i.e., short story) or a poem about a specific animal. The story must be factual, but some creative license is allowed.

*Have students measure things in the classroom (furniture, posters, knick-knacks, supplies, etc.) and replicate part of it (by drawing or collage or other art medium) onto a standard sheet of paper. How much will fit? What is important to include to help a reader understand the item in its entirety? Write some text for the item and give dimensions. Collect the class' drawings and bind together to form a Book of My Classroom.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An American Plague

Murphy, Jim. 2003. An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0395776082

Plot Summary
A strange thing happened one fall in Philadelphia. People started dying and it was unclear why. The streets were full of sewage, animal carcasses and "noxious bubbles to foul the air" (2). The number of deaths at first seemed small and contained. However, the fever soon spread to all parts of the city, forcing the closure of businesses, trade and even the federal government. This deadly disease ravaged Philadelphia, but the lessons learned and improvements made are beneficial even today.

Critical Analysis
The text of this book reads like a story instead of just a textbook summary of facts and figures thrown out at the reader. The words create a vivid picture of the events and people of Philadelphia in 1793. Each of the eleven chapters layered more of the story about this plague ravaging through Philadelphia. The vocabulary was simple and accurate. This would not be a book to read to younger children, but a third grader (or older) could read and understand the book. With exception to Chapter 10, most chapters averaged ten pages in length. The 12 point Times New Roman font helps highlight the graphics and headings of the chapters and is not too small for younger readers.

I enjoyed reading about the people involved with helping fight the plague. I did not realize that there were so many people living in Philadelphia in 1793, nor did I know that the Free African Society was instrumental in helping the city survive. "Volunteers from the Free African Society were the first to enter the homes of most fever victims" (50). When many people fled the city, this group of volunteers stayed to help. As I read this, I wondered if Jim Murphy was writing some "revisionist history" but when he cites later in the book a book that was published during the time by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, two elders of the Free African Society, my skepticism faded. The reference makes me want to explore this subject further.

At the beginning of each chapter, there is an illustration, usually a newspaper reprint of the time connected to what the chapter is about. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 begin with a list of the dead. "No one would ever know precisely how many Philadelphians died of yellow fever in 1793. Many of those who traditionally kept such count--ministers, sextons, and city officials--had either fled the city or been ill themselves" (101). Other illustrations are scattered through the book to reinforce the text. These illustrations are not Murphy's original work, but mostly lithographs borrowed from outside sources depicting the people involved with helping; some pictures are street scenes of the time or other newspaper reprints. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from someone of the time (1793-1795) with the exception of the last chapter which begins with an epigraph from 2001. Each chapter also begins with a specific date, as if the reader is reading the news of that day.

Within the text, Murphy includes diary entries from citizens and doctors trying to help the afflicted; newspaper headlines or articles from the papers in Philadelphia; first hand accounts of what people experienced and saw during this year of death. These sources give credibility to Murphy's account of 1793.

I found it interesting some of the tactics people used to protect themselves from this perilous death. "Strong-smelling substances, such as vinegar, be sprinkled on handkerchiefs and held to the nose to ward off the fever" (27). People wore vinegar soaked clothes to visit sick friends and family. "'Others placing full confidence in garlic, chewed it almost the whole day; some kept it in their pockets and shoes'" (qtd. in Murphy 27).

Jim Murphy includes a "Sources" section that is "a select list of sources, arranged by broad subject categories" (141). The book also contains an index to help the reader locate information within the text without having to read the entire book first. For doing research using this book, the index is helpful.

One thing I found distracting about the book was the last chapter. Reading this book, I've felt immersed into 1793, and then the writing shifts to 1858 and moves to present day. The last chapter discusses the research that's been done with yellow fever and how there still is no cure for it. The last two paragraphs shift from a third person narration into a first person sermon. I found this entire chapter to distract from the story of Philadelphia.

This book received numerous awards including a Newbery Honor and a Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award.

Review excerpts

BOOKLIST: "History, science, politics, and public health come together in this dramatic account of the disastrous yellow fever epidemic that hit the nation's capital more than 200 years ago."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Black-and-white reproductions of period art, coupled with chapter headings that face full-page copies of newspaper articles of the time, help bring this dreadful episode to life. An afterword explains the yellow fever phenomenon, its causes, and contemporary outbreaks, and source notes are extensive and interesting."

*Read other accounts of the yellow fever and compare it to Jim Murphy's story. One example of historical fiction about yellow fever is Laurie Halse Anderson's book Fever 1793 (ISBN 0689848919).

*Research other diseases the ravaged society through the years. Make comparisons of what resulted from the disease. Have a health care professional come and talk to the class about different diseases that people once feared or those that are in the current news.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems

George, Kristine O'Connell. 2002. Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems. Ill. by Debbie Tilley. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0618152504

Plot Summary
Kristine O'Connell George captures the life of the first year in a middle school through the voice of a young girl. George creates clever poems about the day to day trappings of those awkward middle school years and the experiences that students face during this time of development.

Critical Analysis
Kristine O'Connell George creatively transported me back to those three challenging years of my life--middle school. Through her poetry, George shows the timeless experiences that middle school holds through the voice of a young girl. While reading, I wasn't sure of when these poems took place until almost half way through the book, there was a reference to email in the poem "So Much Better Than I Expected" (45).

The imagery George shows through her poetry is accurate. The reader can see what is important to the narrator. She uses rhyme in some of her poetry, but many are free verse. Either way, the images are timeless. These experiences that George shows in her poetry show careful observation of life in middle school. In the poem "Group," George shows how friendships form, "Friday night is our first official United Nations Slumber Party." Since I went to a middle school with a variety of people, I could relate to this poem and thought the name of the slumber party was cute.

In the poem "Network, " the reader gets a sense of urgency by the use of space in the poem. "Late breaking news" is spread out to four lines, and the "news" is squished together. The reader gets a sense of how important this information is because it must be shared very fast.

One of my favorite poems from this book is called "Un-Tied Tongue" because I often have this experience. George shows through her diction and visually that our words do get tied up in our mouth. "I knock chotato pips off the runch loom table. My mind scrambles like a gabble scrame, and I even mangle his name" (60).

Will boys understand these poems? Most are universal experiences, but what about when the girls are giggling in the bathroom at the dance waiting to be asked by a boy (47)? It is hard for me to see if a boy will understand this one.

In "Zach's Watch" the narrator observes her fellow classmate giving an eighth grader information about his watch. George concludes by stating that the eighth grader doesn't give Zach "the time of day" (56). This is one example of how George uses puns and humor in this collection.

Although I did not play flute, I appreciate George's haiku about playing it. In the beginning of the book, the flute "is broken" (24) and then it "suffers severe case of laryngitis" (30), but as the year progresses, the narrator does get "a few flutelike notes" (44) from the flute and finally recognizes a tune "After a few notes, this song seems familiar. Twinkle little star?" (58). I think anyone who has tried to play an instrument feels the same as the narrator about her flute.

No subject is off limits to George. She writes about young love in "Does He or Doesn't He" by sharing the note passing experience and what is next. "Does he like me? Well, he kind of does. Now what?" (54). In "Growth and Development," George writes about that movie. I remember watching that movie. George captures the moment perfectly when she writes that the girls "then peek to see if anyone else is really watching that movie" (69). The experience is universal.

One of the most touching poems to me was "That One" in which George examines the school bully. The narrator overheard a conversation that she wasn't supposed to hear and learned that the boy who scares them so much "is coming to school hungry, sleeping in the garage to hide from his dad, who hasn't seen his mom in two years" (64). George sets these stanzas apart from the rest of the poem. It gives the reader a visual sense of how the bully is apart from the group.

Debbie Tilley does a good job reinforcing the text with her illustrations. On each page, there is a wavy vertical line and circles all over indicating that movement of a stream. Sporadically in the book are four double page illustrations. These pencil illustrations are like photographs of what happens in the hallway, the lunchroom, the band hall and the classroom. The subjects of the illustrations are clever. For example, in the hallway illustration, one student must stand on a stack of books to reach the top locker. This shows how Tilley understands the physical development of a middle school student as well as the irony of the "short kid" getting the top locker.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the poems that George created to expose the middle school experience. These are tough years, and George does not treat them dismissively. She understands and respects the trials that middle school students face and humorously gives these experiences voice.

Review excerpts

BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "Readers facing this upstream swim can get their feet wet here, and those toweling themselves off afterwards will find much they can relate to in this engaging volume."
THE HORN BOOK: "George's poetry is unpretentious and down-to-earth; the voice is believably that of a twelve-year-old."


Look at Kristine George's website at for a class discussion guide and related activities

*Acrostic poem: have students write a poem using their name (see "SNOB" page 41).

*Have students take photos of different aspects of their school life (lockers, eating in the cafeteria, pep rallies, students reading, etc.). Have students pick one photo and write a poem about the picture.

*Do some free writing about the daily experiences one faces. How can those thoughts be turned into poetry?

Related books: Bagert, Brod. Hormone Jungle: Coming of Age in Middle School. ISBN 0929895878

Ambrosini, Michelle. Poetry Workshop for Middle School: Activities That Inspire Meaningful Language Learning. ISBN 0872075176

Saturday, October 6, 2007


Florian, Douglas. 1998. Insectlopedia. San Diego: Harcourt. ISBN 0152163352

Plot Summary
Each of the twenty-one poems in this book is a mixture of information and humor about a particular insect. The poems are stand alone and follow many forms, but the theme of this collection is insects.

Critical analysis
Douglas Florian is the poet and artist of this clever collection of poetry. He infuses science, art and poetry to interest the reader about insects. There is a table of contents to help the reader find a poem about a particular insect. The illustrations are wonderfully created incorporating the subject of the poem, sometimes the letter that the insect starts with and such details that part of reading the book is reading the pictures. For example, in the poem "The Dragonfly," Florian's drawing shows a reflection of a dragon in the dragonfly's eyes.

The spacing in the poetry indicates movement. In "The Army Ants," the reader sees the marching by the placement of the opening words "left" and "right." My favorite poems are the concrete examples like "The Inchworm." The poem illustrates the subject--an inchworm. In "The Whirligig Beetles" poem, the text is circular imitating the beetle's movement.

Florian infuses humor with his poetry. In "The Praying Mantis," there are puns included to show the insect prays (preys) and swallows "religiously" what it catches. Florian suggests in the poem "The Crickets" that the annoying sound crickets make is really them playing music for free. In "The IO Moth," Florian states that the moth's eyes "ward teachers."

The text is on one side of the book and the illustration is on the opposing side. The page numbers are discreetly on the border of the page in the middle. They are not distracting to the reader but allow for finding a specific poem.

The language Florian uses is simple and employs sound devices that calls for reading out loud. However, the pictures must be shared with the audience. The pictures are part of the experience. In "The Caterpillar," Florian makes "pupa" and "super" rhyme. Some of the words he uses are made up but fit the poem. In "The Daddy Longlegs," poem, Florian asks how the legs are so long, and he uses the phrase "spiderobic exercise" which puts a humorous image in the reader's mind.

I enjoyed the white space that Florian uses in this book because it drew me to the illustrations. As I read the poems, I would examine the art to see how the text showed up in the pictures.

Review excerpts

BULLETIN of the CENTER for CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "While some of the verses scan better than they conceptualize, they're always neat and often quite witty indeed."

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: "The silly, imaginative verses about whirligig beetles and waterbugs (almost) match the exquisite pictures in playfulness and wit."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "These portraits build on the imaginatively integrated realistic and anthropomorphic images created in the text. There are other books of poetry about insects and lots of collections of humorous verses about animals but none match Insectlopedia."

*Create a classroom bug collection (maybe some alive specimens?) and write poetry that mimics the movement or visual appeal of the bug

*Create a collection of poetry based on another theme, such as reptiles or aquatic animals, and try to infuse scientific information, humor and visual clues with the poem

Other books by Douglas Florian:

Florian, Douglas. Mammalabilia. ISBN 0152050248

Florian, Douglas. Lizards, Frogs, and Polliwogs. ISBN 0152052488

Florian, Douglas. Beast Feast. ISBN 0152951784

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Out of the Dust

Hesse, Karen. 1997. Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 0590360809

Plot Summary
This novel in poetic form spans two years of the protagonist's life. Billie Jo Kelby writes about both what is happening in her life (the losing of crops, her mom, and her love of playing piano) and world events (Dionne quintuplets, Franklin Roosevelt's speeches). She lives in a small Oklahoma Panhandle town where her father tries to grow wheat. Due to a terrible accident, she loses her mother, her unborn brother and terribly injures her hands. Through her struggles, she becomes stronger, and the story becomes one of hope and redemption, all rising out of the dust where Billie realizes that she "can stay in one place and still grow" (226).

Critical Analysis
I enjoyed reading this book so much that I read it in one day. I needed to see what would happen to Billie. I felt like I was with her and experiencing everything as she did. There was a rhythm to the reading. The images Karen Hesse creates of living in the Panhandle during the Depression are heart wrenching. Each poem is like reading a dated journal page of Billie's life. Most of the titles in the book were one word giving the reader a sense of what the poem would be about or the emotions that Billie was feeling.

The form the poems take show more than just what the words state. For example, in the poem "The Dream" (193), the visual space between the words mimicked playing a piano and allowed me to see Billie's hesitation of even touching her mother's piano.

At some points during the novel, I felt like I was drowning in the dust with her. "I waited for my father through the night, coughing up dust, cleaning dust out of my ears, rinsing my mouth, blowing mud out of my nose" (145). I also realized the symbolism of her continuing to live even though life didn't seem worth living. "I don't want to die, I just want to go, away, out of the dust" (149). She feels like she's suffocating because of her circumstances.

YA readers will be captivated by the vivid imagery of Hesse's writing. The book is not distracting because of the poetic form. The words do not rhyme, but the reader does not notice. The story is compelling. In one stanza of the poem entitled "Outlined by Dust," Billie remarks on her father's well being. "I can't help thinking how it is for him, without Ma. Waking up alone, only his shape left in the bed, outlined by dust" (112). The reader can see that she feels compassion and empathy for her father's loss.

The voice of the narrator is authentic. The obstacles she faces are not outlandish and over exaggerated. This is Billie's life and for two years, she shares it with us.

Review excerpts

BOOKLIST (starred review): "A powerfully compelling tale of a girl with enormous strength, courage and love."

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (starred review): "Readers may find their own feelings swaying in beat with the heroine's shifting moods."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL (starred review): "Free-verse poems...allow the narrator to speak for her self much more eloquently than would be possible in standard prose."


*Study how the farmers in Texas and Oklahoma were affected by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Compare how accurately Karen Hesse conveys these events in her novel.

*Have students keep a journal for a two or three week time period where they record their life in poetic form.

*Either copy one of Hesse's poems or one students wrote for themselves into narrative form. How does the structure affect the poem? How does the form affect the reading? Do you get the same imagery in narrative form?

*Read other novels in poetic form for exposure to this genre.

Related books:

Henderson, Caroline. Letters from the Dust Bowl. ISBN 0806135409

Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp. ISBN 0517880946

Another novel in poetic form by Karen Hesse

Witness. ISBN 0439272009

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

And the Green Grass Grew All Around

Schwartz, Alvin. 1992. And the Green Grass Grew All Around: Folk Poetry from Everyone. Ill. by Sue Truesdell. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 0060227583

Plot Summary
As this is a collection of rhymes, chants, songs, and sayings, there really is not a plot. Alvin Schwartz began collecting these bits of "folk poetry" and found that some of his "original" creations were actually pieces of other works. Schwartz also learned that children all around the world used rhymes made up (or refurbished) to explain things, make fun of others, or just to be silly. He includes "about three hundred" favorite poems in this book (ix).

Critical Analysis
Many of the poems found in this book are just two or three lines, so reading the 148 pages of text was quickly done. When the poem is sung or chanted to a tune, Schwartz puts the actual musical score in the text as well as the more commonly known song title. Even with the musical chart and reference to the original tune, I was not able to sing some of the poems because I was not familiar with the original score.

Schwartz breaks up his poems into topics (people, food, school, etc) and includes an introductory page for each section. I liked this grouping arrangement because it makes it accessible to the reader. If I'm looking for a poem about work, for example, I can quickly go to that section instead of digging through page after page of poems. (Well, actually, Schwartz only has one poem under the work section, so I would need to find a different source if this one poem did not meet my needs).

Reading these poems aloud (as they originally would be conveyed) encourages children to repeat them or add their own twist to them. I liked how Schwartz added instructions to some of the poems ["Add the right punctuation to this riddle" (90)or "Recite this as you skip rope" (45)]. My daughter's favorite section was "Nonsense" because she enjoyed watching me try to read the words. She mimicked the verses including some of her own nonsense words.

The illustrations in the book help separate the poems and add to the text. The colorless illustrations look like pencil sketches that use shading for color and are scattered all over the pages. I think the book would look better and appeal more to a modern audience with spots of color. One thing that bothered me about the illustrations was the facial expressions that Truesdell used (or rather didn't use). Many of her characters do not have mouths. They have upper lips and mustaches, but I could not tell if they were smiling, frowning or indifferent.

Schwartz also includes in this book an extensive section of notes, sources and bibliography. It is obvious that he did research in compiling the book which adds to the credibility of the poem. Since most of the collection was acquired through oral tradition, it is nice to see that Schwartz took the time to trace back to find out more about the origin. Something interesting that I learned from Schwartz's research was that the saying "Eeny, meeny, miney, mo" is based on a "an ancient way of counting in the Celtic language" (96). Schwartz oftentimes refer the reader to the notes section to find out more about the poem, its original or just trivial information related to the poem.

Review excerpts
BOOKLIST: "Schwartz's scholarship is unobtrusive and stimulating, with detailed notes at the back about sources and variants for any child or adult who's curious to find out more."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Read this outrageous volume before it is shelved; once the kids discover it, it will always be checked out."

KIRKUS REVIEWS:"It's hard to imagine a child who wouldn't greet this treasure trove with enthusiasm."

Related books:
Cohn, Amy. From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs. ISBN 0590428683
Cole, Joanna. Best-Loved Folktales of the World. ISBN 0385189494

*Have students perform some of the poems. Allow them to use school appropriate props.
*Create poems that can be sung to popular tunes. (Incorporate the poem's topic into the current unit of study. For example, if studying the Puritans, have students create a poem that shows some aspect of Puritanism in the song).
*Do a speak-around for students to create a poem. One student begins the poem, the next student must add to the poem. Every other student must rhyme, so it incorporates listening and memorization skills.
*For older students, research particular sayings and/or songs to find out the origin, variations over the years and perhaps how the saying or song survived.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Rough-Face Girl

Martin, Rafe. 1992. The Rough-Face Girl. Ill. by David Shannon. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0698116267

Plot Summary
This is a Cinderella tale set in the Algonquin Indian tribes of North America. The Rough-Face Girl is mistreated by her sisters and is literally scarred by their meanness. The Rough-Face Girl must "sit by the fire and feed the flames" and as the branches burn, she is burned by the sparks. The Invisible Being lived in this village and all the young women wanted to marry him. The Invisible Being's sister told that whoever could see her brother would marry him. As fate has it, the Rough-Faced Girl does see the Invisible Being and is able to answer his sister's questions. The sister gives the Rough-Faced Girl the finest buckskin robes and a perfect shell necklace, and the Rough-Faced Girl transforms to be as beautiful on the outside as she is on the inside. She then marries the Invisible Being, and they live "happily ever after."

Critical Analysis
This book surprised me. I expected the girl to become beautiful before meeting the Invisible Being, but she doesn't change until after meeting him. I like the message of this version better than the Cinderella story I grew up with--one does not need to be beautiful on the outside for others to see the beauty within.

Instead of a fairy godmother to help, the Rough-Face Girl relies upon herself. She asks for buckskin, moccasins and beads from her father. He provides what he can, and she is satisfied. The illustration on this page is heartbreaking. The father is obviously giving everything he can to his daughter, and his facial expressions show his distress that he cannot give her more.

Because this is a traditional folktale, the plot is simple and predictable. The reader knows that the mistreated sister will marry the "handsome prince," and the couple will live "happily ever after," but there is some doubt raised because of the Invisible Being's sister's questions. The reader is not certain the Rough-Face Girl will be able to answer the questions. The Rough-Face Girl is able to answer the sister's questions because she sees the Invisible Being in the natural world around her.

Almost throughout the book, the text appears on the left side, giving the entire right side of the book to powerful illustrations.

David Shannon does a remarkable job capturing the details of the Indian tribe (specifically their dress). The moods created by the illustrations offer more to the story. In the opening pages of the book, the illustrations seem clouded as if the reader is landing into this magical place. When the Rough-Face Girl is going to see the Invisible Being's sister and the villagers are laughing at her appearance and audacity of seeking the Invisible Being, Shannon covers the Rough-Face Girl's face with her hair. To me, this is symbolic of the Rough-Face Girl not focusing on what others think and say. She is setting out on her own journey.

I really enjoyed the two page illustration where the Rough-Face Girl is on her quest. The girl is just a small part of the bigger picture. I felt like I was there in this beautiful place with her. Within the sky is a face of the Invisible Being. I didn't see it at first, but once I did see it, I thought it was clever how Shannon made it come to life.

Review excerpts

HORN BOOK (Superior rating): "The text contains the cadences and rhythms of oral language, and the illustrations, dark and vivid, use earth tones and shadows to convey the drama."

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: "The drama of these haunting illustrations--and of Martin's respectful retelling--produce an affecting work."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "This is a splendid read-aloud."


Related books:

San Souci, Robert. Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella. ISBN 0689848889

Climo, Shirley. The Persian Cinderella. ISBN 0064438538

*Let students read other variations and compare the stories. What are the similarities and differences? What values of the culture can you gather from the version?

*Find examples of a male "Cinderella" and compare the challenge faced by the protagonist.

*Find allusions in modern movies or television shows to the Cinderella story.

*Look at other picture books and compare how Native Americans are portrayed in the illustrations. Are they accurate depictions? Are the details specific? Are there stereotypes seen in the illustrations?

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Runaway Tortilla

Kimmel, Eric A. 2000. The Runaway Tortilla. Ill. by Randy Cecil. Delray Beach, FL: Winslow Press. ISBN189081718

Plot Summary
This is a story about a tortilla that was "too beautiful to eat" and ran away from the taqueria. Tia Lupe and Tio Jose, the tortilla shop owners, chase after the runaway tortilla as it sings, "Run as fast as fast can be. You won't get a bite of me. Doesn't matter what you do. I'll be far ahead of you!" Others try to help Tia Lupe and Tio Jose catch the tortilla to no avail. Finally, a coyote is able to trick the tortilla and manages to eat it, thus ending the story.

Critical Analysis
This trickster tale gives the reader a valuable lesson that taunting others is unwise. Eric Kimmel takes a familiar story by an unknown author and sets it in the Southwest.

The predictable lines of the tortilla's song (an allusion to "The Gingerbread Man") encourages the reader to become active with the story. The song is even illustrated to mimic the rolling of the tortilla through the town and into the desert. As the tortilla rolls along, animals of all sorts try to help Tia Lupe and Tio Jose. I liked that the animals included in the story help show what kinds of animals would be found "down by the Rio Grande" as the story's first line indicates the setting. Also, the colors used in the illustrations reflect the earth tones of the Southwest.

The tortilla resembles a moon because of it's coloring and facial features. Both my daughter and a high school student of mine thought the illustration was a moon until I explained that it is a tortilla. The believability of a talking tortilla works with this story and is not a distraction. It makes the reader imagine, "What if our food could talk? Would it try to run from us?"

This was almost a counting book as well as a folktale. As others came to help Tia Lupe and Tio Jose catch the tortilla, the number of helpers increased (two horned toads scampering, three donkeys trotting, four jackrabbits leaping, five rattlesnakes slithering, etc.).

One strength of the book is using the typical coyote as trickster. The coyote convinces the tortilla to jump into his throat to pull out a grasshopper. The tortilla's reward will be "a great treasure" which the reader can surmise will be knowledge of being tricked instead of riches and gold. When the tortilla is inside the coyote's mouth, illustrator Randy Cecil makes the reader feel the cavernous space by extending the drawing over 1 1/2 pages.

The endpapers show a repeating pattern of pictures of the ingredients and tools needed to make tortillas: oil, flour, salt, griddle, and rolling pin.

Because of the repetition of the tortilla's song, my daughter "read" the story to me easily. The predictable patterns (the song, the counting animals, the animals actions) makes this book a good example of a traditional folktale.

Review excerpts
HORNBOOK: "Playful illustrations in a brown-gold palette set this one in the Texas desert."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Kimmel's saucy story joins a swarm of similar, albeit popular, retellings of traditional tales with a Southwestern setting."

BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "The setting and vocabulary are unusual enough to make this well worth reading or telling aloud."

It was also reviewed in: Schon, Best of the Latino Heritage: A Guide to the Best Juvenile Books about Latino People and Cultures: 1996 through 2002, Scarecrow Press, 2003 but I could not access the actual review.

Related books: Compestine, Ying Chang. The Runaway Rice Cake. Ill. Tungwai Chau. ISBN 0689829728
Kimmelman, Leslie. The Runaway Latkes. Ill. Paul Yalowitz. ISBN 0807571768
Squires, Janet. The Gingerbread Cowboy. Ill. Holly Berry. ISBN 0060778636

*Rewrite the ending of the book. Could the tortilla out smart the trickster? Could the tortilla face other obstacles besides the coyote?
*Research the authenticity of the animals shown in the illustrations. Create an original art project of one animal.
*Make and share tortillas and tortilla recipes.
*Have students create their own trickster tale.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mo Willems

Willems, Mo. 2004. Knuffle Bunny. New York: Hyperion Books. ISBN 0786818700

Plot Summary
The protagonist, a toddler named Trixie, goes on a field trip with her dad to the laundromat. Upon her return, she realizes that she has misplaced her prize possession, Knuffle Bunny. She tries to explain this to her clueless father ("before she could even speak words"). When they return home (after much crying), Trixie's mother immediately asks "Where's Knuffle Bunny?" The dad finally understands the reason for Trixie's tantrums. The family rushes back to the laundromat to retrieve the prized possession and Trixie exclaims, "Knuffle Bunny!" which becomes the first understandable words she speaks.

Critical Analysis
This "cautionary tale" was delightful and easy to read. Upon a first reading, the audience does not know why Trixie is so upset after leaving the laundromat. When the reader learns that Knuffle Bunny is missing, the suspense heightens. "What is a Knuffle Bunny? Where is it? Why is Trixie so upset?" are questions the reader asks. When the dad can't find it immediately, the reader can infer that the perhaps Knuffle Bunny is with the clothes in the washer.

When you open this book, the inside cover shows a repeated pattern of an animal inside a circle. After reading the book (and seeing the same pattern on the inside back cover), the reader knows that this circle is a washer door and Knuffle Bunny is inside.

As both writer and illustrator, Mo Willems begins immediately with a progression of family "photos" showing the parents getting married, having Trixie and then outside their home. These pictures are a combination photo and drawing superimposed upon the photo. This technique is done throughout the book. I think it makes the characters pop out to the reader (the photos are sepia and the characters are full color). Combining the photo and drawing also gives the unexpected to the reader. The pictures make the story look real (which reinforces the text). Willems also includes small details that fans will enjoy (one page has a character wearing a shirt that has Pigeon on it, and it looks like Pigeon is watching the family run by, too).

The action of the story is mimicked by where the words appear on the page. At the beginning of the story, the reader almost skips down the path that Trixie and her dad are on as they turn the page. When the rising action occurs, there are more words and pictures on a page. The reader zooms down the path back to the laundromat with the family, and we are looking and looking and looking for Knuffle Bunny as well.

There are no page numbers to distract the reader in this book. The vocabulary is accessible to younger readers, but is not watered down. I really liked how Willems described Trixie going "boneless" and the picture shows a contorted body. People who deal with young children can understand that moment.

This is a great book to read out loud. My four year old was excited to read about Trixie and wanted to read it several times this week. She even began "reading" the story herself because the text was simple but memorable. I noticed after a few reads that Knuffle Bunny was in the washer when Trixie got to put the money in the machine. I didn't notice that on the first read.

Review Excerpts
BOOKLIST (starred review):"Readers of all ages will recognize the agonizing frustration of a little girl who knows far more than she can articulate."
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL (starred review): "A seamless and supremely satisfying presentation of art and text."

*Talk about what happens when you lose something important.
*Discuss ways to communicate when the language is a barrier.

To continue Trixie's and Knuffle Bunny's tale, Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity ISBN 1423102991
Other books by Mo Willems: The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! ISBN 0786852488
Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! ISBN 0786837462

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Talking With Artists

Cummings, Pat, ed. 1992. Talking with Artists. New York: Bradbury Press. ISBN 0027242455

Plot Summary
This book gives a brief two to three page biography on each illustrator (there are 13 including the compiler and editor Pat Cummings) and a two to three page question and answer session that each illustrator reveals even more about themselves and their craft.

Critical Analysis
This book had a predictable pattern. It began with a biography of the artist. I liked how each one included a childhood and a recent photograph. The writing was easy to read and interesting. The question and answering section seemed like the artists were answering letters sent to them by young fans. Each illustrator had the same eight questions. Included within the illustrators' space were different samples of their work. Some were referenced in the Q & A part and some were discussed in the biography. It was neat to see early drawings of the artist (some were from childhood) and how they developed their craft.

Some common themes I found among the artists were that many loved to draw from an early age. A few of the artists had professional artistic training; some had natural talent and were just encouraged to continue. Many traveled around the world and often put people they really knew in the illustration. Most of the artists profiled in the book were married; some had children and almost all of them worked from some kind of studio in their homes.

At the back of the book was a handy glossary of terms used within the writing, which I think is beneficial to all readers. There also was a list of books by the artists at the back of the book. I thought that was a handy reference to "read more about it" or in this case, see more about their work.

As I could not check this book out of the local university's library (it is an educational reference book), I was not able to read it to my daughter. I'm not sure if she would have found it as interesting as I did since she's only four. However, as I read, I imagined myself being about ten years old, loving to draw, and how this book would help encourage me to continue doing what I enjoyed through drawing.

Review Excerpts
Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards: 1992 Winner

*Encourage children to write to people who are doing what they want to do. Ask questions of how they got started and what someone up and coming should do and study to be able to "do the job" they want.
*Have students try different art techniques
Other books about children's book illustrators:
Cummings, Pat. 1999. Talking with the Artists Volume Three. ISBN 0395891329
Marcus, Leonard S. 2006. Side by Side: Five Favorite Picture-Book Teams Go to Work. ISBN 0802796168
Sheaks, Barclay. 2000. The Acrylics Book: Materials and Techniques for Today's Artist. ISBN 0823000621

So You Want To be President?

St. George, Judith. 2000. So You Want to be President? Ill. by David Small. New York: Philomel Books. ISBN 0399234071

Plot Summary
This book gives interesting facts about each of the American Presidents up to William (Bill) Clinton but not in a chronological order. The text discusses what the President's job involves, how they live, how they were reared, what they do for recreation, what their personalities are like and what they did (or will most be remembered for) as leader of America. The book also includes relevant quotations from some of the Presidents.

Critical Analysis
St. George includes interesting trivia in this book about the Presidents and tries to relate the President's life to the reader's life ("You probably weren't born in a log cabin. That's too bad. People are crazy about log-cabin Presidents. They elected eight"). The transition from one topic to the next is easy to follow because each page turned reveals a new topic. The writing creates a neat narrative of the Presidents' lives without being political. At times, St. George uses precise vocabulary (i.e., snatched), but she also uses more simplified vocabulary (i.e., mad) to tell the story.

David Small captures the caricatures of the Presidents through his art work. The faces on each drawing look so realistic (some resembled photographs that I've seen) and the subtle details included in the illustrations made me want to laugh. For example, when discussing the looks of the Presidents, there is a banner in the background stating, "Presidential Beauty Contest." Another picture that I found humorous was the page discussing the Vice-Presidents. Small created a stage where Ronald Reagan is front and center addressing the crowd. George H.W. Bush is behind the curtain with a sour expression on his face and every book, magazine and television close to him has Reagan's pictures on it. This shows the "backstage" role the Vice-President often plays. The pages are colorful; the illustrations are humorous and reinforce the text.

As I read this book to my four year old, she seemed bored because there was too much text and not enough page turning. I found the information interesting and the illustrations were terrific. With 47 pages, the book is longer than a traditional picture book. At the back of the book, I liked the "Featured Illustrations" page that identified the Presidents' pictures and the chronological listing of each President with a mini-biography.

One strength of the book is the accuracy of the information. Both St. George and Small researched the Presidents for the text and illustrations. There is a bibliography included at the end of the book, which is rarely found in children's "picture" books.

One weakness of the book is that it will not have the current or future Presidents in it unless there is a reprinting. I found that St. George did update this book in 2004. I think it would be costly to update this book after each Presidential election.

Review Excerpts
BOOKLIST: "The light tone of the books makes it possible for readers to absorb a great deal of information, some of it silly...that children still aspire to be President."
BOOKPAGE: "Young readers will come away from [this book] with the clear perception that the presidency is a tremendously important and challenging office, well worth seeking."
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "While the text exposes the human side of the individuals, the office of the presidency is ultimately treated with respect and dignity."

Use this book during a unit on American heroes, Presidents or the American Dream.

A companion book containing Presidential trivia is The Complete Book of Presidential Trivia by J. Stephen Lang. ISBN 1565548779
A fiction book that encourages youngsters to consider the Presidency is The Kid Who Ran for President by Dan Gutman. ISBN 0590939882

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I love to read. I love to read. I love to read. I read all of the time, but not as much as I'd like to read. In graduate school, I started making a list of books that I read just to see how often (or not) I was reading. Some months are obviously more hectic than other months. I like to look at my list when I write another title down just to see how many books I've read. Each book is part of my biography. I can tell what "season" of my life I was in by the books I was drawn to read. Books shape me. Books delight me. Books inform me.

This is my first blog. I look forward to capturing my reading experiences through this outlet.