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