Sunday, November 16, 2014

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett

There are horrible children’s books. 


These books are sickly sweet and predictable, sometimes with happy (sappy?) lessons spelled out for readers too dense (no we're not!) to figure them out themselves. These tales often include fuzzy woodland creatures like Birthday Bunny who wakes up on his special day worried that all his woodland friends - Crow, Badger, Squirrel, Bear, and Turtle - have forgotten his special day. These tales might include crying, a Special Thinking Place, and overuse of the word special. (Exhibit A, left)

There’s only one man who can fix a story like this: Alex.

Of course you did Alex. And what a masterpiece you have created. But you have to admit, authors Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett and illustrator Matthew Myers helped some, didn’t they?

Okay, okay. I won’t push the issue. This doesn’t need to come down to you vs. me.

Now, really. Name calling, Alex? Don’t you think if it really came down to a competition between the two of us it should be determined by wits or skill or strength? Not name calling. What do you think?

I can see this is getting nowhere. Can I just finish this book review?

Well, while you’re thinking, Alex, let me share some great things about your book.

Birthday Bunny was given to Alex by his Gran Gran on his special day. But Alex, being bored with sweet woodland creatures who cry in their Secret Thinking Place, takes matters into his own hands and creates:

But it’s not just the cover. The entire story changes, both the text and pictures. Hopping becomes chopping, carrot juice becomes brain juice, and a tediously dull story about Birthday Bunny’s friends forgetting his special day becomes Battle Bunny’s evil plot to take over the world. Not only that, but Alex himself becomes the story's hero, penciled in by the man himself. Way to go, Alex.

Way much cooler.

Alex’s use of eraser, pencil, and imagination is a tactic that should be replicated by kids around the world. As a teacher, I look forward to having kids duplicate the activity with $5.00 worth of books from the second-hand shop. You can even print a copy of the original Birthday Bunny at and make your own version.

Of course teachers can come up with all sorts of creative ways to use Alex’s story, but don’t let classroom use get in the way of the pure enjoyment of Battle Bunny. Let kids read it. Let kids laugh. Let them be kids.

And then keep a close eye on your own books from Gran Gran. Some creative kid might get ahold of it and make it … better.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

This conversation happened when I read Mr. Tiger Goes Wild aloud to two kindergartners:

Kindergartner 1: “He’s naked!”
Kindergartner 2: “But he’s a tiger!”
Kindergartners 1 & 2: [contemplative silence]

Yes, a character who normally wears clothing exits a city fountain sans clothing. So, by definition, he is naked. One can’t argue. At the same time, animals generally are naked, and tigers are animals. So is “He’s naked!” a statement of fact or an exclamation of shock?

To better understand this kindergarten conundrum, let’s step back to the beginning of the book. Mr. Tiger is a proper gentleman (top hat, bow tie, overcoat) in a city of proper ladies and gentlemen. But Mr. Tiger was bored with always being so proper. All of this “Good day” and “Lovely weather we are having” and “Indeed.” Boring.

Mr. Tiger wanted to loosen up, have fun, and be wild. So he did one of the wildest things this proper city had seen in some time. He walked on all four legs. This led to running and chasing and climbing and roaring. “And then Mr. Tiger went a little too far.”

He dove in the city fountain and exited au naturale. “Mr. Tiger!” shouted Ms. Elephant. “If you must act wild, kindly do so in the WILDERNESS!”

So he did.

Then this conversation happened with my two kindergartners:

Me: “What do you think is going to happen next?”
Kindergartner 1: “He’s alone.”
Kindergartner 2: “Yeah. He’s lonely.”
Me, turning the page and reading: “But Mr. Tiger was lonely.”

What should Mr. Tiger do? Don his top hat, bow tie, and overcoat and stroll two-legged back into that proper city? Or remain in the wilderness living the wild life? Could there be a middle ground?

After all, shouldn’t Mr. Tiger feel free to be himself? Shouldn’t we all?

I won’t give away Mr. Tiger’s decision or how the story turns out, but I will share that there are lessons to be learned in Peter Brown’s book. Be yourself. Respect others despite the differences. Don’t conform only to please others.

And maybe you should just stay out of the city fountain altogether.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

My Teacher is a Monster by Peter Brown

Teachers. Monsters. Not all monsters are teachers, but all teachers have the potential to be monsters … at least in the eyes of their students.

Or in the eyes of specific students like Bobby, the paper airplane-throwing, chair-tipping, slowpoke main character in My Teacher is a Monster. “No recess for children who throw airplanes in class.” There’s only one kind of teacher who would say something like that, and Mrs. Kirby is that kind of teacher.

She’s a monster. Undeniably.

Author and illustrator Peter Brown quickly sets the stage for conflict between everykid Bobby and his teacher, Mrs. Kirby. Then he moves the story from the classroom to a Saturday in the park. What happens when Bobby and his monster end up on the same park bench?

“Bobby wanted to run! He wanted to hide! But he knew that would only make things worse.”

So he raised his hand. “Robert, you don’t need to raise your hand out here.”

It’s not the greatest start to a Saturday in the park sort of conversation, but it is a start. And where that conversation leads them, neither could have predicted.

Readers won’t see it coming either. There’s a lost hat, ducks, some quacking, some rock climbing, and some fantastic airplanery. Over the course of that Saturday in the park, Bobby learns something important about his teacher. Maybe, despite the roaring and the stomping at school, just maybe, Mrs. Kirby isn’t a monster. Maybe monsters are not always what they seem.

Don’t believe me? Compare the front cover to the back cover. Teachers. Monsters. One and the same? Take a look at what happens between the front and back cover and decide for yourself.

Just like Bobby did.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Hansel & Gretel by Neil Gaiman

My fairy tale history is a little fuzzy. Here’s what I remember about Hansel & Gretel: A boy and a girl are lost in the forest. They find a candy house and try to eat it. The witch gets mad and wants to eat them instead. Kids escape. An oven is involved.

But I knew something must be missing from the version I remembered, especially if Neil Gaiman had put pen to paper to record his version. The author of Coraline and The Graveyard Book certainly wouldn’t publish a saccharine story of lost kids and candy houses.

So I read and learned about the woodcutter and his wife and their two children. How their life was good until war came and food, once plentiful, became scarce. How a mother logically concluded that they will all die unless there were fewer mouths to feed. How a mother could convince her husband to abandon their children in the forest. Twice.

In other words, I finally got to know the real story of Hansel & Gretel.

Readers familiar with Toon Books may be expecting a comic version similar to other Toon Books titles, but Hansel & Gretel is told as a short story like the original Grimm story. The text is broken by fourteen two-page illustrations that alternate pages with the text. The illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti are done in black ink and reveal more and more each time they are viewed.

No, this is not the story I was told or remember or the one I just chose to remember. It’s better - way better - and thankfully so. It’s a story begging to be read aloud, slowly and quietly in a room dimly lit, to be heard by listeners contemplating abandoned children, sinister old ladies, scorching ovens, and finding a way home. Listeners lost in a tale well told.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen is one of those books where, upon the first read, a grown-up might wonder, “Hmm. So. They dig a hole. And don’t find anything. Then they fall. Ooookay.” It’s on subsequent reads that grown-ups start to notice the little things missed the first time through.

But read it with kids and the magic starts immediately. When Sam and Dave declare they are going to dig a hole and not stop until they find something spectacular, young readers are ready to share the adventure.

At the outset, things don’t look good for our diggers. They just miss a huge diamond, digging straight down, just past it. That certainly would have been spectacular. Sam and Dave’s frustrations persuade them to change tactics. They dig horizontally (and miss something more spectacular). They split up and dig diagonally (missing something even more spectacular-er). When they decide to dig straight down again, they miss the most spectacular-er-est item of all.

Or do they? At the end, Sam and Dave agree that what happened was spectacular, but to me the best discoveries are the ones readers make that get them flipping back through the book.

“Hey, look at their dog! He knows! Was he doing that on the last page?” Flip, flip.

“Wait a second. Didn’t they have an apple tree?” Flip, flip.

“Check out that cat! See how the dog is looking at him?” Flip, flip.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole pulls kids back inside, that won’t let readers turn the last page, and keeps them searching and discovering more.

And that, you have to agree, is pretty spectacular.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Kel Gilligan’s Daredevil Stunt Show by Michael Buckley

Kel Gilligan is the hero of my toddler self. He bravely takes on challenges that I would never have considered at his age. No way.

Broccoli. Yes, all of it and, yes, without complaining. In the end, he’s a bit weaker and greener, but unscathed. Me? Yeah, forget it. Even today.

There’s the potty. Even though it took longer than expected, and with no coloring book to help, he emerged victorious. Ta-Daaa! Me? Ask my mom about my potty experience (I was a two-year-old) the time we toured a house for sale. No victory for me, but thankfully it wasn’t a deal-breaker; we ultimately moved into the house.

Then there’s getting dressed. Kel Gilligan does it by himself. No net, no safety precautions, and no helmet (at least until he’s dressed). Spectators are amazed. Me? Shirt backwards. Shoes on the wrong feet. Fly unzipped.

Kel Gilligan allows Mom to talk on the phone uninterrupted. He takes on bath time with a brave face and comes out scrubbed and squeaky clean. He even takes on bedtime. The darkness, the monsters, no problem, right? Right?

In the end Kel learns an important lesson, despite his heroics. Some stunts are better left to the professionals. (But even professionals appreciate a little help.)

Michael Buckley captures the impossible tasks of childhood through the bravery of one unique, danger-loving adventurer, and Dan Santat’s illustrations support the daredevil vibe wonderfully. Kel dresses in red, white, and blue reminiscent of Evel Knievel. Some stunts are recorded on videotape, complete with battery levels and elapsed time in the corners. (Keep an eye on the time for Kel’s potty stunt.) Even Kel’s portrait on the wall features a scowl, and untamed lock of hair, and a t-shirt that reads “I ♥ DANGER.”

Kids will quickly understand how Kel takes on challenges many of them once faced themselves. With a little encouragement, and a little exaggeration, readers’ own stories might even rival Kel’s adventures.

And bonus points for reading the story in Don LaFontaine’s voice. Just because.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Revolution by Deborah Wiles

People don’t believe me when I tell them that much of what I have learned about history was from fiction. But let’s be clear - I’m talking about well-researched, factually based, historical fiction. Of course, one must carefully filter the fact from the fiction and do additional research where the separation is difficult, but fiction generally engages this reader more than nonfiction, so I’ll take the lessons where they come.

I could (and should) thank many authors, but here’s a heartfelt thank you specifically for Deborah Wiles for the lessons she’s taught me. First it was the Cuban Missile Crisis in Countdown. Now it’s Mississippi in 1964 - Freedom Summer - in her second of three documentary novels, Revolution.

Revolution takes place in Greenwood, Mississippi. Depending on who you ask, the summer of 1964 was when the invaders came from the north or it was Freedom Summer when volunteers worked diligently to help African-American residents to register to vote.

Sunny is caught in the middle of the disagreement. Her grandmother holds strongly to segregation. Her father runs a grocery store that welcomes and employs numerous African-Americans. Her stepmother sees inequality and injustice. But historical fiction would be, well, nonfiction if it didn’t include some fiction. Sunny also struggles with relationships within her new family. Should she trust and respect her stepmother? What about Gillette, her new stepbrother? How does the extended family accept the new family additions, and what factors in the family’s past affect that acceptance?

Again, like in Countdown, scattered throughout the novel are bits of image-dominated nonfiction. Photographs, pamphlets, song lyrics, newspaper excerpts, and signs are found throughout, usually in 5-10 page chunks every few chapters. Some are meant to specifically support the story such as images of volunteers working with unregistered African-Americans, Freedom Schools, and protesters being arrested. Other nonfiction parts help readers understand more about the time in history like “Whites Only” segregation signs, the Beatles, and soldiers in Vietnam.

There’s much to learn about our country from these three months in Greenwood, Mississippi, but know that the most powerful lessons from Revolution come from Sunny. As she wrestles with the changes happening in her family and her world, so do readers. And both come out changed at the end of Freedom Summer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story by R. J. Palacio

Like most fans of Wonder, I was eager to read The Julian Chapter to see just what was going on in Julian’s head throughout the events of his and Auggie’s fifth grade year. I expected to learn how Julian explained and even justified his actions. Surely I would learn more about how Julian’s actions lead to the events in Wonder.

What I did not expect was to learn something about myself.

Next year will be my 20th year teaching. Most of that time has been spent with students in grades 4, 5, and 6 - Auggie and Julian’s age. There have been many students in that time who have challenged me. Disrespected me. Ignored, provoked, and disregarded me. (And others, of course.) But never once did I have a student who was just, simply, a bad kid. Every child has redeeming qualities. Some students just hide those qualities and make it more challenging for teachers to find them.

Yet after reading Wonder, I was more than happy to leave Julian as the antagonist. The bad kid. The source of all the problems in Auggie’s fifth grade year. As I told my fifth graders, “I’ve never known a fifth grader to be completely evil, yet I accepted without much thought that Julian was exactly that.”

It’s embarrassing. Never once did I wonder why Julian behaved the way he did or said the things he said. Could there be something behind the behavior? Might I be missing something about a character who, up until now, didn’t have a chance to share his perspective?

The Julian Chapter adds another layer to Wonder. On her website author R. J. Palacio has said that “[Julian] has nothing to add to Auggie’s story” and explains in great detail why Julian doesn’t have a section in Wonder. But Julian does have his own story, and readers of Wonder deserve to know it. Julian’s actions are never justified, and The Julian Chapter doesn’t explain away Julian’s atrocious behavior, but I’d be lying if I said I never felt empathy toward Julian.

Julian may not have had anything to add to Auggie’s story, but Julian’s own story is one worth telling, and it’s one readers deserve to know. Don’t miss it.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story Read Aloud Resources

Many, many classrooms have read Wonder aloud in their classrooms and rightfully so. This past school year (2013-2014) was no different for us. We started our fifth graders’ year by reading Wonder, and just like countless other classrooms around the country and the world, we used its lessons and themes as a basis for building a strong classroom community. When The Julian Chapter was released in May, 2014 we thought it would be great opportunity to revisit those lessons.

So just like I did for Wonder, I put together some online resources. Once again we used the songs, quotes, and images from the story - along with the occasional mini-lesson - to enhance our reading and understanding of the story. And once again, you are invited to use these resources with your students as well.

Below are links to the original Wonder resources and the added resources for The Julian Chapter. I hope they add to your enjoyment and understanding of both texts.

Thanks for reading and thanks for stopping by this little corner of the web. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions please feel free to share them. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

If you are looking for books that will engage young readers, do you really need to look beyond the cover of Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales to know the book will do just that? Seriously. There’s a boy in his briefs, wearing a professional wrestler’s mask, standing on a banner that proclaims “NIÑO” in bold letters, surrounded by stars, in a champion’s pose. The cover illustration itself screams, “Winner!”

Rest assured the rest of the book is a winner as well. “Señoras y señores, put your hands together for the fantastic, spectacular, one of a kind . . . NIÑO!” comes an announcement as Niño laces up his mask. What follows is challenge after challenge from out-of-this-world contenders.

La Momia de Guanajuato! Cabeza Olmeca! La Llorona! El Extraterrestre! El Chamuco! None can defeat the mighty Niño and his creative wrestling maneuvers. Until . . .

Las Hermanitas! Fresh from their afternoon nap! They tackle. They hold. They tickle. They stop at nothing and nearly give Niño the ultimate in wrestling shame - an unmasking!

Ah, but Niño didn’t become amazing and mighty by giving up easily. Will the mighty Niño take a mighty fall? Could Niño’s final match turn out to be his greatest victory? Tune in next week . . .

. . . or get your own copy of Niño Wrestles the World.

At first I struggled with some pronunciations, but thanks to our resident Spanish II student (my daughter) and the book’s endpapers, reading the book like a true wrestling announcer is possible. The endpapers feature pictures of each of Niño’s opponents along with their name, pronunciation, and description.

I thoroughly enjoyed Niño Wrestles the World, and I’m pretty sure that a great many kids will too, and not just those masked marauders in their briefs ready to take on all comers.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt

Everybody gets tired of something, sometime. Teachers? Maybe it’s checking homework. Students? Maybe it’s completing homework. Kids get tired of cleaning their bedrooms while parents get sick of repeatedly reminding their kids to clean their bedrooms.

But does that mean that you can just quit what you’re doing? Shirk your responsibilities? Sure, you might take an occasional break, maybe delegate some responsibilities. But quit?

Yet that’s exactly what Duncan’s crayons decide to do in The Day the Crayons Quit. They’ve had enough. When Duncan goes to use his crayons, instead of finding them properly in their box he finds a stack of letters addressed to him. Each letter, one from each crayon, gives their individual complaints and reasons for quitting.

Red complains of having to work harder than all the other crayons - all the fire engines and apples for instance - in addition to all the Santas at Christmas and the hearts on Valentine’s Day.

Beige is tired of being mislabeled. It’s Beige. Not “light brown” or “dark tan.”

Gray complains that all he gets to color is big stuff - elephants, hippos, humpback whales.

All black gets to do is outlines. Nobody can even see white. Orange and yellow are in a snit over the correct color of the sun. Peach is embarrassed to be seen without a label, which Duncan tore off.

And who knew purple was such a neat freak? His complaint? Coloring outside the lines.

“Well, poor Duncan just wanted to color . . . and of course he wanted his crayons to be happy. And that gave him an idea.”

What could his idea be? What sort of creation could make all of Duncan’s crayons happy and still receive an A in coloring and an A+ in creativity? Don’t worry, Duncan’s got it covered colored.

As readers progress through the book, each page presents another letter, handwritten in the matching color, with illustrations that show each crayon’s complaints. The book could easily be used with students. What other things might cause a crayon to quit? Could we write our own letters? Would markers be different than crayons? What if everyone in your art box - scissors, glue sticks, rulers - quit? What would their reasons be, and what would their letters look like?

Even if you don’t use The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt as the basis for some creative writing, the book works wonderfully as a read aloud and kids will never want to quit reading and rereading it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld

Technically, I guess, the title of this book is !. That’s all there is on the cover, anyway. A picture of a smiling exclamation mark. (To be fair the spine of the book does say exclamation mark, but I like the idea of a book having just punctuation as a title.)

What do you do if you stand out? What if, in a lineup of periods, you stand taller than the rest? That’s the question facing our main character, an exclamation mark. At first his response is to conform. Can he smoosh that tall thing above him? Flatten it into, I don’t know, some sort of squiggly hat or home-perm-looking-hairdo? Can one change who they really are?

The answer should be clear to us all. No. We are who we are, and we should be happy with that. Unfortunately many of us - adults and children - aren’t satisfied with our uniqueness, let alone amazed and thrilled by it, choosing rather to fit in with those around us.

And sometimes it takes a question mark to help us see why our uniqueness should be celebrated, not hidden.

After being bombarded by questions from this new questions mark acquaintance, he finally has enough. “STOP!” he screams, providing the final punctuation himself. His exclamation is surprising. He tries a “Hi!” and a “Howdy!” followed by a “Wow!” This new-found skill - or newly appreciated uniqueness - was amazing.

“It was like he broke free from a life sentence.”

And off he goes, to share what he can do with the world, including his old friends, the periods.

Even if the title of the book isn’t clear (Is it words? Punctuation?), we are sure of the author and illustrator. It’s the dynamic picture book team of Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. They’re the team behind books like The OK Book, Duck! Rabbit!, and It’s Not Fair!, and ! (or exclamation mark) is an equal addition to their impressive list of titles.


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