Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Art & Max by David Wiesner

Arthur is a lizard.  Sort of a pointy lizard.  Max is another lizard, but he’s more smooth-ish.  (Hey, I’m a reading teacher, not a herpetologist.)  At the beginning of Art & Max, Arthur is painting a portrait of another smooth-ish lizard when Max rushes up and says, “Hey, Art, that’s great!”

“The name is Arthur,” Arthur reminds Max.  Undeterred, Max announces that he too can paint.  Arthur isn’t excited about the idea, but he allows Max to paint as long as he doesn’t get in the way.  With his supplies and blank canvas ready to go, Max realizes he doesn’t know what to paint.

“Well … you could paint me,” suggests Arthur.  Needing no further encouragement, the blue, yellow, and orange paint flies off Max’s brush.  Directly onto Arthur.

No, that isn’t what Arthur meant when he said, “You could paint me.”

But that’s exactly what Max has done.  Arthur, now transformed into a Jackson Pollock-ish pointy lizard, is enraged.  He screams Max’s name and the now dry paint cracks, flakes, and bursts off of Arthur to reveal another artistic layer.  Chalk.  Max helps Arthur get rid of the chalk, only to reveal another artistic layer.  Layer after layer is removed, each revealing Arthur artistically rendered in another medium.  Eventually, after several artistic transformations, Arthur is left as the shell of himself.  He’s just a pencil outline.

It gets even worse for poor Arthur before it gets better, but Max’s final solution is both amazing and fascinating, even to Arthur.

David Wiesner has created another artistic gem.  What Flotsam did for photographers, what June 29, 1999 did for gardeners, what Tuesday did for herpetologists, Art & Max will do for art teachers*.  The story is simple, but Wiesner’s tour through several artistic media is what makes his latest book a must have for classrooms.

*Okay, I don’t know for certain that photographers, gardeners, or herpetologists necessarily benefited from Wiesner’s books, but art teachers, yes, get yourselves a copy of Art & Max.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Always Listen to Your Mother by Florence Parry Heide and Roxanne Heide Pierce

"Once upon a time there was a nice little boy named Earnest."  Oh, and how nice he was!  He always listened to his mother.  Always.  Always, always.

He ate his vegetables, even when they were the only things on his plate.  He played quietly, and when he was done, he picked up his toys.  He sat up straight and went to bed on time.  He helped with the household chores and even managed more difficult tasks (for kids anyway) like polishing, mending, and cooking.

What did Earnest never do?  The list is extensive: spill, whine, dawdle, talk back, get his own way, or have a good time.  But he was a nice little boy, there's no arguing that.

So when Earnest noticed a new family moving into the house next door, he asked his mother if he could go over.  His mother hoped he would meet another nice little boy.  "Mothers always want their children to meet other nice children.  They want their children to meet nice children who will be a good influence."

Earnest is greeted at the door by another nice little boy.  This boy introduces himself as Vlapid.  He has beady eyes, pointy ears, and spiky gray hair to match his grayish complexion.  And Vlapid always listens to his mother.  But when his mother looks like ... um, well ... you see, Vlapid's mother is ... ah, shucks.  Let's just try this:

So yes, Vlapid always listens to his mother (and Earnest is all too eager to help), but can you imagine what Vlapid's mother expects of him?

I bought into this book right from the start.  Earnest looks completely wholesome - suspenders, bow tie, right hand politely tucked into his pocket - while Vlapid, I think, may have a troll or two in his family tree.  At first I was disappointed that the book ended when it did, with only the promise of days spend together "influencing" one another.  I expected readers to see a slow transformation in Earnest.  Instead, they are left with the two boys together, smiling pleasantly, fishing.  But what comes next?  Does Earnest's mom invite Vlapid's family over for tea?  Does Earnest begin helping his mother like Vlapid helps his?

Maybe it's better this way.  While I love the idea of tea at Earnest's house, other readers will surely imagine a variety of other possible scenarios.  Leaving what happens to the discretion of the reader allows for as many creative endings as there are readers, and all readers will be satisfied.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Power Mothers Have

As my son plays football behind me - yes, he's in the house, throwing a ball which tends to bounce randomly off walls, shelves, furniture, and just now, me - his actions simply give me another example I could have used in my latest newspaper column.  (Printable version here.)  

Let's just hope he doesn't end up with a broken finger from playing football in the house ... like a certain boy - who shall remain nameless - once did thirty-ish years ago.

Mothers have the most incredible power known to humanity.  This power has been used every generation since the dawn of time, and its effectiveness is evident in our own children.

Having trouble with your children?  Blame your parents, not your parenting.  Our children’s behavior is entirely beyond our control.  They behave this way due to that incredible power mothers have heretofore refused to lay aside.

What is this ability able to sit dormant for 10, 20, even 30 years before bursting back to life, crossing generational divides to unleash its remarkable power?

The Mother’s Curse.

Every mother, at some point during motherhood, faces the choice.  The circumstances may differ, but the choice remains the same.  Every child will inevitably push their mother’s limits to this crucial crossroads when frustration and aggravation become exasperation.

It is at this moment when mothers must choose.  Do I want my child to one day grow into a happy, peaceful, joy-filled parent, or do I want my child to one day experience the same frustration, aggravation, and exasperation as me?

The choice is anything but easy.

This is the time when mothers the world over, throughout history, with no regard to religion or race, culture or creed, have unanimously uttered these words: “One day, someday, you will have a child.  Just.  Like.  You.”

My wife’s train recently rolled into that station.  One of our angels was in the midst of fulfilling her grandmother’s prophetic declaration when my loving, kind-hearted, peaceful wife began, “One day, and I hope I’m there to see it, someday, you will have a child.  Just.  Like…”

“Stop!” I yelled.  “Don’t do it!”

She stopped.  Not because I suggested it, mind you.  It was more of a shocked, did-you-just-rudely-interrupt-me-in-front-of-the-children hesitation, but she did stop.

Here she was about to continue the Mother’s Curse to another generation, to perpetuate the problem of childhood conduct, and in that moment I shared -- blurted, really -- my realization.

“Don’t do it!  Don’t continue the curse!”

She did not speak, and has yet to speak, those words that nearly passed her lips.

And thus began my quest.

Parents of today, the ability to change the world is in our hands.  We Generation X-ers, often criticized as cynical layabouts and unmotivated slackers, could rise up and accomplish what no generation before has even considered.  We could end the Mother’s Curse.

Hear me out!  No longer will beds go unmade.  Homework will be completed without asking.  “Please” and “thank you” will roll naturally off the tongues of the young.  Sass will be a thing of the past.

When our daughters say, “I hope you have a child just like you,” our grandchildren will respond, “Oh, Mother, kinder words may never have been spoken.”

Words once a curse will become a blessing.

Sure, as grandparents it might be satisfying to sit back, smirk and ask, “Having trouble with the children, hmmm?”  But as gratifying as that would surely be, this quest is for the good of humanity.

Break the Mother’s Curse!  It is time. No, it is PAST time.

Your silence is golden.  An ounce of patience is worth a pound of …

What?  Our kids?

Well, no, it wouldn’t actually apply to our children.  See, our mothers have already enacted the curse upon us, but together we could …

Ah, never mind.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems

Trixie and her beloved bunny have traveled down the block, through the park, and past the school to the Laundromat in Knuffle Bunny.  Trixie took her one-of-a-kind bunny to school in Knuffle Bunny Too.  In Knuffle Bunny FreeMo Willems tells how Trixie and her family embark on a much longer journey.  This time they are going to visit Oma and Opa in Holland.

The Knuffle Bunny series has been a family favorite for years.  The adults laugh at the marriage and hospital pictures on the title page and how Trixie helps her daddy with the laundry.  Our kids laugh when Trixie says, "Aggle flaggle klabble!" and "Wumby flappy?!”  They think it's hysterical when Trixie goes boneless.  (Good thing they've grown out of the habit of going boneless themselves.)  The adults laugh at the kids laughing, like when a friend of our daughter’s said, “Why is she washing goggles?”

So everyone was excited when Knuffle Bunny Free was released.

During their journey to Holland, Trixie and Knuffle Bunny experience all the joys of traveling long distances.  There’s the eagerness of the taxi ride to the airport, the uncertainty of airport security, and the excitement of boarding a real airplane.  There’s also the monotonous boredom of waiting in line, waiting at the gate, and waiting for the plane to arrive.  Finally Trixie and her family board a train for Oma and Opa’s house, arriving to welcoming hugs and cold glasses of chocolate milk.  But then...

Trixie's realizations in Knuffle Bunny, Knuffle Bunny Too, and Knuffle Bunny Free.

No, Knuffle Bunny is not in the washing machine.  No, Knuffle Bunny is not at Sonja’s house.  Worse.  Trixie’s daddy called the airline.

Knuffle Bunny is in China.

No way Knuffle Bunny is coming home this time, everyone thinks.  Mommy gives Trixie hugs, Daddy tells the story of his “Special Lamby,” and Oma got more chocolate milk and commented about how big Trixie was getting.  Not even the cafĂ©, the park, the carnival, windmills, feeding ducks, or Oma and Opa’s surprise can fill the Knuffle Bunny sized hole inside Trixie.

Eventually Trixie comes to a realization on her own about Knuffle Bunny.  And despite the amazing and miraculous final events of the Knuffle Bunny saga, Trixie knows that her realization is true.

“Really?” asks Trixie’s daddy.  “Really?” asks Trixie’s mommy.  “Blaggie Plaggie?” asks a new acquaintance.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

It's a Book by Lane Smith

There’s not much more to share about the book that isn’t available in my first or second posts, so I’ll just tack on my review here.  I think the book is absolutely hilarious, and I’m talking about the pages between the introductory Jackass and the concluding Jackass.

Are we really living in a world where some people have forgotten about books?  People certainly haven’t forgotten the importance of reading.  Try taking away someone’s texts or tweets or blogs.  That’s reading.  People read more today than ever before.  But there’s still value to books - the plain old, hard bound, paper and ink book.  Maybe I’m just biased … okay, I am definitely biased … but I think everyone should see the importance of books.  Even a Jackass.

Of course Lane Smith and Roaring Brook Press knew exactly what they were doing.  First, the book is a spot-on commentary on technology in today’s world and perfectly illustrates what happens when a great book grabs the attention of the reader.  Second, using Jackass in the manner they did guaranteed publicity and sales.

And there’s the rub.  I believe most teachers will find the book a great tool to use with students to spark discussions on technology, books, and reading in today’s world.  I believe most teachers will find it entertaining.  At the same time I also believe that most teachers will hesitate or flat-out refuse to use the book.  So while I highly recommend the book and think it’s hilarious, the choice to use it (and potentially defend it) is yours.

I find it extremely frustrating that a book with so much potential for classroom use will simply not find a home in classrooms, not because it doesn’t belong there, but because some people will think it doesn’t.  In the end it’s the teachers and librarians who will need to defend their use of the book to parents, principals, and school boards.  And at the end of the day, most teachers will simply say:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It's a Book by Lane Smith - Survey Results

A few days ago I set up a simple survey about It’s a Book by Lane Smith.  It is admittedly a very unscientific survey, but it gathered some information, and that was the intention.  (Here’s my original post and the survey.  Opinions are still welcome.)  Here is a summary of the results.

All the respondents were either teachers or librarians, but several people checked numerous boxes, like the teachers who are also parents.

Completed Surveys = 32

Was it funny?  Yes = 31  No = 1

Have you read the book?  Yes = 25  Read about it = 7

Should it be in a school library?  Yes = 11  No = 16

Should it be in a public library?  Yes = 28  No = 2

Teachers who would read it aloud to their class:  Yes = 1  No = 7  Yes, but edited = 16

Librarians who would read it aloud to a group: Yes = 1  No = 5  Yes, but edited = 2  Maybe = 1

Parents who want the book read in their child’s class:  Yes = 0  No = 4  Yes, but edited = 3

About half of the respondents left comments, and most of them focused on the use of the word Jackass.  Here’s a sampling:
  • I’ll use it as long as I don’t have to deal with any angry parents.  I already have enough to do.
  • Teaches them slang.  Throw it out!
  • Is that kind of book "commentary" really meant for younger kids? I don't think so…I think we should discourage the use of disrespectful language and labeling, which I think the use of the word jackass exemplifies.
  • The Jackass aspect ruins the book instead of making it better.  It wasn't necessary.
  • I feel that it is a funny premise, but it is divisive. It seems to miss its audience and therefore misses the point. I don't think most children would get anything out of the book other than "jackass." I love what he is trying to do, but I don't see how his message will get to the masses when teachers and school librarians can't read it aloud or stock it in their library.  Having the book in schools is a fight many librarians will choose not to start. I am sure they push the boundaries as far as they feel they can with many of their choices. There's no point in unnecessarily ruffling feathers WITH A PICTURE BOOK. Could he have gotten his point across any other way?  I think if he had chosen any other humorous joke, it would have made the point because he is LANE FREAKIN SMITH!
Thank you to everyone who took the time to respond.  Anyone who would like to share their opinions can still complete the survey or leave a comment below.  Thanks again.