Saturday, January 31, 2009
"I didn't like it at all."
Well, so much for the critical review.
That night before bed, however, we read it together. Each page has cut-outs revealing part of the next page's illustrations (think Joseph Had a Little Overcoat or The Very Hungry Catipillar). Guess who was trying to remember what was on the next page based on the little bit that was visible? "Wait, wait, wait! Don't turn the page yet!"
The cut-outs reveal part of the illustration on the next page, but after the page is turned, they also leave part of the previous page's text visable. These still visable letters become part of the next page's text. Again, guess who, after he understood how the cut-outs worked, was trying to guess what part of the text would reused on the next page? We'd read "SEVEN CANDLES," and I'd hear him murmer, "Candles...candles." He'd think some, then continue, "...andles...can...cand...AND!" We'd turn the page and sure enough, "AND A CAKE."
The book begins with "ONE BOY." The next page shows him seated, seemingly bored, and "ALL ALONE." The word ONE is now part of ALONE. Later we read "THREE APES" followed by "BIG ESCAPE." This time APE becomes part of ESCAPE. At the end, "ANTS" becomes part of "PANTS," but I'll leave the visual and context of that one to readers.
So, yeah, apparently the boy didn't like it. He didn't like it so much that he told me when to turn pages and was guessing and predicting on each page. Congratulations, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, on writing a thouroughly...eh-hem...unenjoyable book.
(And woe to anyone who quotes that last paragraph out of context!)
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Unfortunately Piggie doesn’t see the coming rain. Rain! On a day when they were going to do everything. Everything! What can be done? How can the day be saved? How can there be any fun?
But…the worms…they seem to have fun. Okay, they don’t run – being worms and all – but they do jump and splash. They are having fun, so why not Piggie and Gerald? They discover that everything they were planning on doing in the sun is just as fun in the rain. Everything! Quite possibly even more fun.
Playing in the rain is so much fun that when it stops, as most rain eventually will, Piggie’s tune changes. “I DO NOT LIKE RAIN!” has now become “I like rain – and now the rain has stopped!” Gerald, however, comes to his friend’s aid, creating a rainstorm just for Piggie.
Are You Ready to Play Outside?, just like the other Elephant & Piggie books, is a great read aloud for partners. Student and student, teacher and student, teacher and librarian, parent and child, all would be successful. Children will be laughing with one another, grown-ups can enjoy books with their kids, and teachers can launch a new book for their readers. Most importantly, readers of all ages will have fun reading, which, of course, is pretty much assumed when the cover says Mo on the front.
Monday, January 26, 2009
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman - Why, why, why did I not read this one? It was eligible. It was ineligible. Eligible. Ineligible. Ugh! I loved Coraline. Perfect amounts of creepiness, mystery, intrigue, and humor. I've got The Graveyard Book on order and requested at the local library. Hopefully I get me a copy soon.
Newbery Honor Books
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt - Was this the closest thing to a sure thing in a long while? Thoughts here.
Savvy by Ingrid Law - I'd have liked it even better if there were more extended family members and their savvies included. The story was good, but man did I like the idea of getting a savvy on your thirteenth birthday. My daughter agrees. So does my class. Thoughts here.
After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson - I really liked this book, and I'm glad it was recognized. It's a thought provoker, that's for sure. Thoughts here.
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle - I haven't found much poetry that lights a fire under young readers, unless it involves sisters for sale or the end of a sidewalk, but I'll certainly read this one.
The Caldecott Medal
The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson - Before I was even able to look at the copy I snagged at the library, I got two opinions from two kids. The first grader said, "I didn't like it at all," while the fourth grader said, "Well, I liked it. It kind of goes forward, then backward or something. I don't know." Hmmm. More information (from me) soon.
Caldecott Honor Books
A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee - An Honor book in our school's student-selected mock Caldecott, so I'm glad the grown-ups agreed with the experts. Fourth graders especially like how the illustrations don't match the text. That, and Grandpa Bill's vocabulary lesson. Thoughts here.
How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz - Waiting for a copy. Did I read right, though? A family flees war and finds poverty?
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant - Waiting for a copy. Is it poetry or simply about a poet? Nevertheless, see comments on The Surrender Tree above.
Bonus Thought #1 - Sibert Honor Book
What to Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy! by Barbara Kerley - My wife is thrilled that this one was recognized, and I can't say I disagree.
Bonus Thought #2 - Kadir Nelson Gets Three
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson wins the Sibert Medal, Coretta Scott King Author Award, and Corrett Scott King Illustrator Honor - Sheesh, it takes more time to type out all the awards than my comments. But well deserved. His illustrations jump off the page, and I'm glad his writing was recognized in addition to his artistry.
Bonus Thought #3 - Theodor Seuss Geisel Award
Are You Ready to Play Outside? by Mo Willems - Two words: 1. Woo. 2. Hoo. (And one punctuation mark: ! )
(Is it any wonder kids love these books? Click here for Mo's thoughts.)
Sunday, January 25, 2009
And the next day during a field trip to Black Vine Swamp, 1) She disappears. 2) A wildfire happens to start. 3) The kid nicknamed Smoke, with a history of starting fires who recently threatened the now disappeared teacher, wasn’t with the class.
It’s hard not to compare Scat with Carl Hiaasen’s other two novels for younger readers, Hoot and Flush. They’re all similar – set in Florida, money grubbing antagonists, middle/high school protagonists a little braver/wiser/upright that the average adolescent, and strong environmental themes. Scat adds another layer with the war in Iraq.
Scat grabs readers’ attention with the first line. “The day before Mrs. Starch vanished, her third-period biology students trudged silently, as always, into the classroom.” The teacher vanished? Like, poof, and she’s gone? By the end of the chapter, readers see how that might possibly be a good thing.
While more mystery than comedy, Scat still contains plenty of humor. An oil worker gets glued to a cypress tree, painted orange, sans clothing. Wendell Waxmo, substitute biology teacher, always teaches page 117 on Monday and 263 on Fridays, no exceptions, regardless of the subject matter. There’s plenty of funny, most enjoyably, how the antagonists finally get what’s coming.
Scat has much more mystery than the other books. Where is Mrs. Starch? Why is her car still traveling around town with mysterious drivers? If she’s gone, how is she sending mail and changing her voice mail greeting? If she has no family, how can she claim a family emergency?
Main character Nick’s father, an Army reservist serving in Iraq, is injured in a Humvee attack and loses his right arm. Nick not only has been pulled into the Mrs. Starch mystery – now including endangered panthers and an oil company – but also tries to learn more about his father’s injury by trying to do everything with only one arm.
Scat is a totally engaging novel, one that will get and hold readers’ attention, beginning to end. Readers want to fight for what’s right, defend the environment, stop greed, support their families, aid their friends, all of them right along with the main characters. Readers will also realize the danger in too quickly judging those around them.
Monday, January 19, 2009
So when Julia Gillian, in the summer between fourth and fifth grade, travels around her neighborhood, it’s easy for me to imagine where she’s headed*. She walks to Bryant Hardware, across the street from Our Kitchen, on 36th Street, and onto Girard Avenue where a sign reading DOGS! PLEASE HELP YOURSELVES! rests beside a water bowl under a birch tree in a kindly person’s front yard.
She does all of this under the strict parameters set forth by her parents. These parameters – look both ways, no strangers, no farther than nine square blocks, and take Bigfoot, her St. Bernard – are enforced by Enzo, Julia Gillian’s eighteen-year-old friend and downstairs neighbor. This summer Julia Gillian’s parents, both teachers, are taking graduate courses and study much of the day, so she has plenty of time for travel.
Julia Gillian has many accomplishments – papier-mâché masks, spreading gum across her front teeth, communicating wordlessly with Bigfoot – and she keeps a list to prove it. She enjoys having a first name for a first name and a first name for a last name, and she enjoys waiting patiently for grown-ups to figure it out. (Did you get it?) She uses phrases like, “Indeed it is.” Most importantly, as her mother says, she is “highly skilled at the art of knowing.”
This summer is full of challenges. Her parents are incredibly busy with school, and there is little time for picnics at the Lake Harriet Rose Garden. She needs to master the claw machine in the back of Bryant Hardware. She seeks to understand her parents’ interest in the wider world, when the wider world only seems to contain bad news. And she needs to finish the green book despite what she believes…knows…will happen to the boy’s old dog.
Julia Gillian and her family travel to more places in south Minneapolis like Quang Vietnamese Restaurant on 28th and Nicollet and Magers & Quinn Booksellers on Hennepin. Of course this will resonate more with readers who have local connections, but the natural description of Julia Gillian’s neighborhood coupled with the realistic concerns of the fourth/fifth grade mind make Alison McGhee’s book an enjoyable read.
*It’s even easier with Google Maps' Street View. Check these out:
Bryant Hardware, home of the claw machine.
Our Kitchen, where Julia Gillian and her father sometimes go for pancakes.
It's the only birch tree I found on Girard Avenue!
Quang Vietnamese Restaurant - The best eggrolls in Minneapolis.
Magers & Quinn Booksellers, where Julia Gillian got the green book.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
The pencil was lonely, so he drew a boy named Banjo. Banjo wanted a dog, so the pencil drew a dog named Bruce. Bruce wanted a cat, so the pencil drew a cat named Mildred. But then Bruce chased Mildred, and Banjo chased Bruce, through the house and down the street and in the park ... all drawn by the pencil.
When Banjo and Bruce and Mildred's snacks couldn't be eaten because they were black and white, the pencil drew a paintbrush. Soon there were extended families and checkered table cloths and a ball named Sebastian. And all seemed well.
Then the problems began. Banjo kicked Sebastian, and it hurt! A window was broken. Some people complained to the pencil. They didn't like their hats or shoes or big ears or unhealthy habits. (Grandpa smokes a pipe.) So the pencil does the only thing he can think of. Draw an eraser.
And that's when the problems really begin.
The mischievous look on the eraser's face immediately give warning to readers that he's got something planned. Pretty soon the pencil's creation is disappearing just as fast as he can create it. Nothing he draws is able to stop the eraser ... until ...
Well, I'll let you find that out for yourself. Kids love predicting what's going to come next. What will the pencil draw to take fix the black and white snack problem? How will the pencil try to fix his creation's sudden problems? How will he stop the renegade eraser? Another part kids love are the names of all the items, and the end pages share the most creative ones. There's a box named Deirdre, a birdcage named Ramona, shoes named Edward and George, and plenty more.
Kids laugh at the text, like all the characters (a bone, a ball, a family of ants) that ask, "What's my name?" Then they laugh at the ball's, I mean Sebastian's sad face and the close up of the newly named, picnic-crashing ants. Kids are even tempted to reach out to rub the eraser's shavings off the page.
And, of course, they cheer at the happy ending.
Friday, January 16, 2009
Sort of. It's actually a cold day. Last night temperatures hit the -25 to -30 range. Factor in the wind chill and you're looking at -50ish. Buses aren't running, and nobody wants kids standing outside waiting for one anyway when frostbite can start in only ten minutes. Temperatures yesterday morning were -10 to -20 and hovered in the negative single digits all day. Yeah, we were home yesterday too.
So. January 2008 to January 2009. Snow Day to Cold Day. One year.
What better day to make some updates? Here's what's new:
- Replaced the old recommendation labels with Recommended 5 Stars, Recommended 4 Stars, and Recommended 3 Stars labels.
- Added the Recommended Exceptions label. These are books that don't necessarily match the criteria I set forth, but nevertheless deserve recognition. It just didn't work writing a complimentary review but then labeling it Not Recommended.
- Added information about conference sectionals, teacher inservice, and school visits.
- Updated Site Information. Changed a few boring, little things.
So that's about it. Thanks to all my visitors over the past year, especially those of you who return on a regular basis. Hopefully each visit - whether it's your first, second, or three hundred forty-fifth - will give you another book or two that will Help Readers Love Reading!
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
I know, I know, it’s crazy! One might think, “That’s the life for me, I tell ya!” But, I guess, night after night, the sameness might get a bit tiresome. So when a window is left open, this group of bats seizes the opportunity to do something different. They’re going to the library.
The older bats have been here before and head off to their favorite bookshelves. The young ones, however, haven’t yet discovered the magic inside libraries. They play with the overhead projector, splash in the water fountain, make photocopies of themselves, and play house in the pop-up books before finally settling down to story time. Then the magic happens.
Everyone is captured by a book, swallowed by a story. The bats take over the illustrations of famous children’s books. There’s a midnight ride and a flying bed. There’s a sword and a stone and a hobbit hole. There’s a bat with red pigtails and one with a red riding hood. There’s plenty more, but my favorite illustration resembles this much loved classic.
As can so easily happen, time slips away. The sky lightens, and the library’s late-night patrons must take off. Back through the window they go, hoping that sometime soon, a generous librarian will once again leave a window open.
Look closely at Brian Lies’ illustrations. Are the bats upside down or is it the background? And why are those books flipped? Little details are everywhere, starting with the spectacles on an elder bat to the iPod earbuds used to lasso a book in the cover illustration, and there’s more to discover with each reading of Bats at the Library.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
At thirteen, you see, Beaumonts receive their savvy.
A Beaumont family savvy is a unique ability, a power, beyond normal human capacity. Mibs, short for Mississippi, is awaiting the arrival of her savvy, just days before her thirteenth birthday. Will she blow out the candles on her cake only to have fires die throughout a four county radius? Or will her puffed cheeks cause her to start floating toward the ceiling?
The novel’s plot is simple enough. Two days before her birthday, her father is in a car accident, leaving him in a coma ninety miles south in Salina, Kansas. Mibs knows her soon-to-arrive savvy will be just what Poppa needs to wake up if only she can get to Salina in time. She stows away on a pink Bible delivery bus that’s headed that direction, but before it can leave, she is discovered and joined by her brothers, Fish and Samson, and the local preacher’s kids, Will Junior and Roberta.
Predictable difficulties arise. The bus travels in the wrong direction. They are discovered by Lester, bus driver and Bible salesman. There are stops for deliveries and dinner and a maid in distress that delay their arrival in Salina. Their faces are plastered on the news as missing children.
What makes Ingrid Law's book so enjoyable is the Beaumont savvies. Oldest brother Rocket could keep the lights on when the power went out and zap his siblings from across the room. Strong emotions, however, cause power surges that leave blown circuits in his wake. Second brother Fish changes the weather, causing a hurricane on his thirteenth birthday and an ever-present threat of wind and rain. Mom has the tendency to do things perfectly.
As readers learn more about the family, more savvies are revealed. An aunt who steps back twenty minutes in time with every sneeze. A cousin who melts ice with her glare. Grandpa, with a low rumble deep in the Earth, can create land. Grandma could catch radio waves and store them in canning jars. One aunt could open any lock, another could get people to do whatever she wanted.
But Beaumonts are taught from early on that they’re just like other people. “We get born, and sometime later we die. And in between, we’re happy and sad, we feel love and we feel fear, we eat and we sleep and we hurt like everyone else.” And in Mibs’ search for her own savvy and quest for her father’s health, she and her family experience them all.
Friday, January 9, 2009
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Almost immediately, adventure number one commences, when Jane meets a gentleman who looks like a clothes hanger, too skinny for his suit, a man who his mother calmly calls her father.
I’m trying and trying to remember what to write, and I finished the book only a week ago. Let’s see, there was a younger brother who always yelled, “Whale!” when looking at the ocean. I remember Nellie Phipps thinking it was a good idea to deliver Bibles to unsuspecting recipients from a hot air balloon and getting Jane to help. There was a trip across the country that ended abruptly with all the travelers returning home. Someone had a thrombosis. Jane prayed for one lady but not another one, then the non-prayed for one got sick, and then one of them died from candy purchased by one of Jane’s potential fathers or something like that.
There’s other stuff in there too, but try as I might, I don’t remember what happened. There’s offbeat humor, for sure. Delivering Bibles by hot air balloon? A preacher searching for a portal to the future? But other than odd bits of humor and absurdity, which I enjoy thoroughly, nothing sticks out to make me think it would be passed between students. I’m reminded of an eighth grader who once commented to me about another book, “It was fine, I guess. It’s just that nothing happens.”
My One Hundred Adventures ends after fourteen adventures in fourteen chapters with Jane, her family, and a new (new? old? original?) father headed to Saskatchewan to start a new life and find, apparently, the missing eighty-six adventures.
It did have a great quote about reading, though: "The library in summer is the most wonderful thing because there you get books on any subject and read them each for only as long as they hold your interest, abandoning any that don't, halfway or a quarter of the way through if you like, and store up all that knowledge in the happy corners of your mind for your own self and not to show off how much you know or spit it back at your teacher on a test paper."
Sunday, January 4, 2009
The Hunger Games is their reminder. Part reality TV, part Roman gladiator games, all horrific, the Hunger Games are a yearly event in which the twelve districts each send two randomly selected tributes, one male, one female, both teenagers, to participate. After brief training, participants are released in a large wilderness area known as the arena. Imagine Survivor where contestants aren’t voted off the island. They’re killed. But like Survivor, there is only one winner. All of it is televised – required viewing in all of Panem, in fact – and the Capitol’s message is clear. “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just like we did in District Thirteen.”
At sixteen, Katniss Everdeen becomes District Twelve’s female tribute. She has grown up sneaking outside District Twelve’s borders and hunting with homemade weapons. Her daily life, while mostly illegal, has prepared her for individual survival. But against others? To the death?
Katniss is sent to the Capitol with District Twelve’s other tribute. She receives the training and participates in the pregame festivities, televised events meant to introduce the contestants, encourage wagering, and an opportunity for the tributes to earn sponsors, or people who use their financial resources to send contestants supplies during the contest. All too soon the Hunger Games begins.
What follows is Katniss’s attempt to find dignity amidst death. To use love while surrounded by hate. While some tributes actively hunt and kill the opponents, Katniss focuses mainly on her own survival. The further she and the other surviving contestants make it, the more the Gamemakers work to drive them together. Fires, floods, cold, supplies, emotions – all are used to force tributes to engage one another. All the while, Katniss attempts to avoid becoming the murderous monster that makes for great TV, from the Capitol’s perspective, anyway.
It’s been a while since a book has demanded my attention like The Hunger Games. It is intense. But should it be recommended to younger readers? Well, not elementary readers, but certainly young adults. The action will hold readers by itself, most definitely, but with a parent’s or teacher’s guidance, the politics of the book could come alive. Is this a future we face? Are we that far away? Can the good in our world and in each individual outweigh the evil? It’s a stretch, but Suzanne Collins does an excellent job of connecting the dots of today’s world and form a possible future. Readers will look forward to the story’s resolution in the upcoming books. Can a nation built on fear continue to survive, or will the actions of young adults show the people of Panem what they can become, despite what their government leaders insist? Readers won’t want to wait to find out.
Friday, January 2, 2009
It was right, and she challenged me. If she sent me a book, would I give it a try? Would I read a couple of chapters even if I disliked it intensely?
Um, yes. Yes, I would. So, properly humbled of my judge-a-book-by-its-cover-itis, I read it. And here’s what I think.
First, about the cover: It is a dog and kittens, but they aren’t under a bed. They’re under a front porch, hiding from a wicked master, a master who has already shot the dog and who’s willing to use the cats as alligator bait. This isn’t a mushy, cutesy, puppy and kitties story. (That was my inaccurate cover judgment.) This is a story of survival, of friendship and love and determination and finding good while surrounded by evil.
It’s also a story of revenge, of hatred and death and deception and betrayal.
Numerous stories are woven together seamlessly, and I have to admit, those are the books I love. Seeing how multiple threads come together to form one yarn fascinates me. In The Underneath it’s stories of a crippled dog and orphaned kittens, an abused boy grown into a drunken and abusive adult, a monster alligator, a grandmother snake with festering hatred and desire for revenge, a granddaughter leaving her family for true love, an ancient tree in an ancient forest, and more I’m forgetting, surely. Each story is told in short chapters, 124 total, none more than three to four pages.
All the reviews and comments that say The Underneath reads like a poem or a novel in verse are correct. Each chapter is like a small bubble that, upon being read, begins floating away. Just as it’s about to disappear from the reader’s memory, more is added to that part of the story. The bubble swells slightly and floats in the reader’s conscience a bit longer. More is added to each bubble, and each floats independently of the others. They bump and swirl together and eventually all merge into one, well-constructed novel.
The Underneath has received plenty of Newbery discussion, and rightly so. Whatever accolades it receives (in addition to being a National Book Award finalist) are deserved, and I won’t argue. It’s not, however, a book I’ll eagerly put into students’ hands. It’s heavy, heavy, heavy.
Oh, one more thing. Thanks, Ms. Appelt, for challenging my book cover judgment.
Thursday, January 1, 2009
Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell
After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
The Fortunes of Indigo Skye by Deb Caletti
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt
Savvy by Ingrid Law
These aren't my shortlist or predictions or favorites or anything like that. These are the books that, for various reasons, I read. That's it. I've already reviewed the first three. Watch for my thoughts on the last four over the next few days.
But first, a warning. I've always intended Help Readers Love Reading! to be a site that recommends books kids like. It's possible, as numerous articles in recent months have pointed out, for a children's book to be distinguished yet unattractive to children. Recommendations on HRLR! reflect whether or not kids will embrace a book, not its distinguished-ness in the eyes of adults.
I'm excited to see this year's winners. I am every year. When they're announced, I'll try to place my Amazon order before all the first editions are gone and it's 4-6 weeks before the second editions ship. I'll reveiw the winners. Until then, watch for these last four preview reviews, and then check back for even more books that Help Readers Love Reading!