Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale....

Knuffle Bunny : a cautionary tale

     After seeing my student's repeatedly check out books from the Knuffle Bunny series I decided to read one for myself. The first one that I came across in my school library was Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale. It has the rare quality to be one of those books that makes you laugh out loud when you read it and smile every time you think about it. It relates to young children, older siblings, and any adult who has ever dealt with a toddler.

     The story started simply enough--Dad and Trixie go on a errand...with Knuffle Bunny in tow. They pass some wonderful places; the neighborhood, the park, the school and finally the laundromat. Trixie helped her daddy with all sorts of chores there and when they are done they leave. Everything is a wonderful adventure until a block later when Trixie realized something is wasn't right. With a panicked look on her face, she tells her father "Aggle Flaggle Klabble!"
Dad failed to realize that Knuffle Bunny is missing and that Trixie is entering melt down mode. She repeatedly tried to talked to dad--"Aggle, Flaggle, Klabble! Blaggle plabble!, Wumby flappy?!, snurp." Then he uttered the infamous words that have pressed the go button on a million toddler break downs-- "Now, please don't get fussy," and that pushed Trixie over the edge into full blown melt down mode. She wailed then she did the most famous toddler move ever "She went boneless."
Everyone, including dad knew that she is UNHAPPY!!! When they finally get home, mom saved the day with one simple question, "Where's Knuffle Bunny?" The family raced past the neighborhood, the park, the school and to the laundromat. A frantic search for Knuffle Bunny ensued with no results. Dad took one look at Trixie's wobbly lip and decided he needs to look even harder......backing out of a washer he saves the day with Knuffle Bunny in hand. The world is right again.

     There are so many great moments in this story it's hard to know where to begin. Mo Willems is an expert at using both the words and illustrations tell the story. I loved how the book opens with end papers that have multiple drawings of Knuffle Bunny peering hopeless out the door of a washing machine. As a parent you remember the stress of having to wash a child's special love toy. Counting down the minutes till the dryer would stop so that your child would never know it was missing.  Every child can relate to that special love thing that makes everything in the world okay and safe. They can feel the terror of realizing that the love thing is missing. I think Mo Willems uses the end papers to help assure children that Knuffle Bunny is not truly lost just a little misplaced. As a parent I have been through this exact drama with a missing blankie. Looking back, the crazy search is actually very comedic yet at the time it was full on panic. Next Mo Willems uses a unique style of cartoon-like characters drawn on top of black and white photographs of Brooklyn. At first it seems a little odd but after a while you actually see Trixie and her family as real people in a real setting. He puts pictures of the parents on their wedding day, in the hospital after Trixie is born, and a hysterical picture of the parents with a bugged Trixie stuffed in a baby front carrier across from the title page so you understand that this is a loving family. After that I found Trixie's toddler break down hysterical. The limited language skills of a toddler totally break down in a crisis. Your life with frantic communication that makes no sense. Mo Willems illustrations capture perfectly the frustration that Trixie feels as dad doesn't understand the drama that is about to unfold. When words fail her, she starts to pull the toddler power move crying. When that fails to achieve the needed results she does the ultimate toddler power move..."boneless". Every parent faced the infamous "boneless" toddler where a child melts into a puddle and is impossible to pick up, stand up, or carry. Finally after all the drama, it warms my heart at the end of the story when dad sets his jaw, pushes up his sleeve and decides to look even harder. He loves Trixie and will do anything to make her happy again. Super Dad to the Knuffle Bunny rescue!

     After reading this story I totally understand why it won was a 2005 Caldecott Honor book. Mo Willems uses his skill as an illustrator, author, and parent to create a funny insightful picture book.

     Mo Willems has a very interesting career in children's television. Learn more about him at his web site!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Grandfather's Journey....

Grandfather's journey
     One of our textbook reading assignments in class was for multicultural literature. It made me more conscious of the literature choices that are available in our school library.  Since I have a very quiet Asian student I decided to search my local library for book with people who look like her and might share some of her background. There were two reasons that I choose Grandfather's Journey by Allen Say. First was that I was looking for multicultural books for my classroom that would represent my Asian student. The second was that my student's parents are also immigrants and I thought the story might seem very familiar to her. I was also pleased to see that that Grandfather's Journey was the 1994 Caldecott Medal Winner.

     The narrator in Grandfather's Journey is actually the author, Allen Say. He tells the story of his grandfather coming to America from his home in Japan. We learn about all the things that his grandfather saw; the Pacific Ocean, riverboats, deserts, endless farm fields, huge cities, towering mountains, and "rivers as clear as the sky." He met people from all races and backgrounds, and "the more he traveled, the more he longed to see new places, and never thought of returning home." Finally he settled in his favorite place, the Sierra Mountains along the California seacoast, and brought his Japanese bride to join him. As life goes on he raises his own daughter and begins to think about his life and the beauty of his homeland. He returns his family to Japan. He rejoiced at reconnecting with his old friends and the beauty of his childhood home. However his daughter was not happy in a small Japanese village so the man bought a city house where the girl met her husband, and the narrator was born. Allen Say went on to describe his wonderful visits to his grandfather's house until War World destroyed what had been a peaceful world. Grandfather's beautiful home was gone so he moved back to his childhood village where he dreamed of seeing California again. Unfortunately, he never went back. The narrator grew up and made a  journey of his own to America. He learned to love his new country and had a daughter of his own. In the end he says....

     "But I also miss the mountains and rivers of my childhood. I miss my old friends. So I return now and then, when I can not still the longing in my heart. 
     The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.
     I think I know my grandfather now. I miss him very much."

     There are many things that I loved about this book. The first is the beautiful art work that Allen Say has created with simple watercolors. He uses their softness to create an almost dream like imagines in the story.The illustrations give the feel that you are with him looking back at his memories. They have the softness and hazy that memories have over time where you forget or ignore all the bad things. The next thing that I enjoyed in this story was the simplicity of the sentences. Each word was chosen with care, there's not a word wasted. They allow the pictures to carry the imagine and for your imagination to soar. As a military spouse, I understand the problem of loving where you are yet missing and longing for your childhood memories.  Every place you live has its own special beauty and cultural that you can understand and appreciate, however there's always something inside that draws you back to the comfort of your childhood.


     Finally as someone who came into teaching later in life, I can relate to Allen Say. He had many careers and lives before he became a writer and illustrator. Then he used his life experiences to tell stories and help people understand his multicultural view point of the world.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Black and White....

Black and white

     When I was looking for picture books to read, I went searching for things that I had never read and that looked interesting. I thought the book Black and White by David Macaulay fit those criteria perfectly. It won the Caldecott Medal in 1991, so it had to be great right? It might be wonderful, but I just don't get it.

     The book has 4 different stories taking place at the same time. Each story has its own plot, characters, and illustrations. The first story "Seeing Things" takes place in the upper left page of the book. It is about a young boy riding a train to meet his parents. The illustrations for this story are soft and almost dream like. The second story "Problem Parents" is located in the lower left page and is written by a daughter whose parents being acting out of character and dressing up in newspaper. The illustrations are ink drawings in sepia tones. The third story, "A Waiting Game," is in the upper right page and is about people waiting for the train. It's illustrations are bright and colorful. Finally the fourth story, "Udder Chaos" is written on the lower right page. Oddly, the first line in the story sums it up, "The worst thing about Holstein cows is that if they ever get out of the field, they're almost impossible to find." Then the cows and a bugler who is also dressed in black and white blend into different scenery. The illustration are brightly colored and draw in a comic book style. It's a visual delight trying to locate the cows and the bugler across the pages. That is the simple part of this book

     Each story is complete by itself, however all the stories cross over to the others. "Seeing Things" tells the story of what takes place as the boy travels to his parents. Yet some how Holstein cows walk past the train and there is a snow fall of newspaper pieces. "Problem Parents" tells how a set of parents crazily make outfits out of newspaper, and the family has a dog that looks like a Holstein cow. "A Waiting Game" is almost a wordless story with people waiting for a train and as they wait they being making crazy outfits out of newspaper. When the train finally picks them up the only person left is the bugler. The last story, "Udder Chaos" is primarily a collection of black and white camouflage pages where you try to locate the bugler among the Holstein cows. However, a road sign is placed on one page and the cows walk in front of a train on another page. Trains, newspapers, a bugler, and Holstein cows are all intertwined in all four stories. In the book flap, David Macaulay gives a "WARNING--This book appears to contain a number of stories that do not necessarily occur at the same time. But it may contain only one story. Then again, there may be our stories. Or four parts of a story. Careful inspection of both words and pictures is recommended." So is there four stories, is there just one story, or are there five stories. I just don't know. I was left with the feeling that I missed something big.

     Please read this book so we can talk about it. Maybe you can show me what I missed and I can show you what you missed. 

     After looking for reviews I found this one--The Horn. They really understand the story and it's amazing what they see! 

The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales......


The Stinky Cheese Man and other fairly stupid tales
     After reading three different versions of Cinderella and a website on Snow White, I was done with the traditional folktale so I went looking for something that I knew my students would love. As I was searching my teacher's book shelf in my classroom I came across a copy of The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales. Even though it had been in my collection for a while I had never read it. I originally bought for my son when we were doing the nightly reading battle in elementary school. I struggled to find books that he would enjoy and finish. Once I discovered Jon Scieszka's books and his Guys Read program, my life became easier, and Jon Scieszka became richer because I bought everything he'd ever written.  I don't really get them, but my son and my students love them and most importantly, they READ them which is my goal.

     The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales is a collection of nine or maybe 10 fractured fairy tales if you count the Little Red Hen attempting to tell her story. The narrator of the collection is Jack from the Jack and the Bean Stalk story. As you read the book, Jack has direct conversations with the reader about things that are going on in the story. Jack has several responsibilities in the story, he organizes the text features, he deals with difficult fairy tale characters, and he saves himself from the Giant. All the tales have quirky characters that fail to follow the traditional tale. The Little Red Hen starts her story too early, barges into other tales, and never really gets to finish her tale thanks to her warm bread and the Giant. Jack reveals to much of the Little Red Running Shorts tale so the Wolf and Little Red walk out of the book leaving a blank page. The Giant protests Jack always tricking him so he wrote his own mixed up fairy tale. Jack has to keep his wits about him to trick the Giant into letting him go by putting in fake end papers. All the tales go in different directions than the reader expects making it a hilarious read for children.

     After doing a little research on the book I learned that The Stinky Cheese Man was the first story that Jon Scieszka had ever written. It wasn't until Lane Smith's illustrations were add to the book that it was picked up by Viking Publishers and earned a 1993 Caldecott Honor. Lane Smith's illustrations help the story feel even more chaotic and fractured. Instead of beautifully illustrated imagines traditional fairy tales use, he uses odd colors, layering his illustrations, and random fonts and type set to highlight the quirkiness of the story. He and his book designer wife, Molly Leach, worked on the layout so that it fit the story. On his web site he says... "The greatest book designer working today. She has designed nearly all of my books. When she designed the Stinky Cheese Man back in 1992 folks called it a “watershed moment.” Suddenly every designer wanted to make books with crazy type and upside-down pages. The problem is it is very hard to do unless you know how. Molly knows how."  Their quirky style of layout and illustration invites those hard to interest non-readers into the story and then traps them there till they have been tricked into finishing the story. Jack would be proud.  

     What I love about this story is that it's target audience is the hard to reach boy reader. Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith can remember being children and now write the type of stuff  that they liked to read. I loved this quote fro Lane Smith's web site he says... "I do not know your child. But I will say I do not subscribe to the notion that every book is for every child. I make the kinds of books that I liked as a kid. I don’t like ordinary, middle-of-the-road books. I like funny, odd books that excite and challenge a child. There are enough people doing nice books about manners and feelings and magical unicorns. I do not do those kinds of books. 
The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales was not written for me so my opinion really does not matter. What matters is that children love it, fractured tales, quirky illustrations, and all. It's a must have for any classroom! 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Cynthia Rylant's Cinderella.....

Walt Disney's Cinderella

     After hearing such wonderful things about Cynthia Rylant's Cinderella and spending quite a bit of time chasing down a copy, I was expecting wonderful things. I finally found an online version that a Disney Princess's Blogger had scanned and posted. As I quickly read the story and looked at the illustrations I didn't feel the excitement or the joy that I had expected. I am not sure if my expectations where too high or if not having a "real" copy of the book lessened the experienced, but I didn't love it. Sorry, it didn't speak to me.

     The book follows the traditional story line of Cinderella. Her mother dies, father remarries, then dies and leaves Cinderella with an evil stepmother and sisters. She is treated poorly, yet her beauty and kindness shine through for all to see. The King decides the Prince needs to marry so the all important Ball becomes the talk of the town. The evil Step-Mother and greedy step-sisters leave for the Ball leaving Cinderella to cry in the garden. Cinderella's tears have a magic effect that night and a fairy godmother comes and works her magic so that Cinderella can attend the Ball. Of course Cinderella arrives at the ball, meets the Prince, dance and fall in love. Midnight comes, Cinderella races off leaving just one shoe, and the next day the Duke arrives looking for the Prince's true love. The shoe doesn't fit the greedy step-sisters and they shrug off the fact the Cinderella could possible be the "one". Cinderella makes herself known, the shoe is shattered, luckily she has the other one in her pocket. Cinderella and the Prince marry and they live happily ever after.

     One difference that I noted in this version of Cinderella was that the search for Love was the focus that the story revolves around. The first page even states "This is a story about Love." Even after all the darkness in her life, each morning she gets up and "everyday Cinderella wished for Love". The story goes on to say that the Prince was also wishing for love. When Cinderella is left behind her heart breaks because it had told her that she was meant to go, Love was waiting for her there. When they finally meet at the ball the story states "In silence, Love found them." Cynthia Rylant uses the theme of love throughout the story. It is what helps Cinderella survive her hardships, it is what brings her to the Prince, and it is what saves her with a magical new life. Love is what saves the day!

     I know that Cynthia Rylant is known for her use of language in her writing, however  I found some of the phrasing complex with challenging vocabulary.Several times I had to go back and reread passages to make sure that I understood the meaning. For example in reference to Cinderella's step-sisters, "Like the roses, which did not bloom across their doorways, love itself did not ever linger." She uses it to enhance the feel of the story she uses words like banished, momentous, integrity, luminous, and covetous. Also with all the talk about love I don't feel that this book is meant for children. It feels like a children's book with an adult theme to me. Unlike several of the other versions of Cinderella, I can't see using it in my 2nd grade classroom. Maybe it would be a good mentor text for a creative writing class for older students.

     Mary Blair's art work was my favorite part of this story. I did not grow up with Disney's Cinderella consistently playing on the VCR so the softer less focused images of this book seem more familiar to me. I loved how over sized the backgrounds are compared to people, it adds to the magical feel of the story. The colors are rich and beautiful and continue the feel of magic. I know that the pictures were the original production artwork from the 1950's version of the story, so it gives me the feel that I already have connections to the story. I would love to learn more about Mary Blair and see more of her art work.
                                                                                                                  In the first picture I think it is amazing how she uses light to draw the reader's eye to focus of the drawing. It adds importance to the imagine. Even though the fairy godmother is dress plainly, her glow tells you that she is magical and special. The moon light gives a sense of urgency to the riders leaving the castle to find Cinderella. In the bottom picture everything is dark grays and blacks except for the magic sparkles and Cinderella.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Cendrillon A Caribbean Cinderella......

Cendrillon : a Caribbean Cinderella       After learning that the Cinderella story is timeless and universal, I decided to find a version from another culture. So I choose Cendrillon A Caribbean Cinderella. While it is similar the traditional version of the Cinderella story, it does have a few differences. Even before you get to the title page, the main character, the godmother, begins telling her story. She tells of how she was left a poor orphan. The only thing left to her was a magic wand of mahogany that will only work to help someone you love for a short time. The young girl grew up to be a blanchisseuse, a washerwoman. One of the women she worked for was sickly and died shortly after giving birth to Cendrillon. Her husband, Cenderillon's father, soon remarried to a cold women that made Cendrillon work "like a serving-girl". As Cendrillon grows she begins joining her Godmother at the river to wash clothes. They laugh and sing even though life is tough at home. One day Cenderillon comes to the river "sad-faced" because she is not being allowed to go to the ball. The Godmother promise to help her get to the ball. That night the godmother comes to the house and uses her magic wand to create a coach, five coachmen, and a beautiful gown with beautiful slippers. Cendrillon and the godmother attend the ball with the knowledge that "the magic lasts only a short time". The ball is a wonderful event, Cendrillon and Paul fall in love and dance away till the midnight bell chimes and the two women have to run away into the night leaving behind a embroidered pink slipper. Cenderillon feels that the magic is the reason that Paul fell in love with her and that a least she had one marvelous night. Paul is soon knocking at the door with the lost pink slipper, he is trying the slipper on all the "unmarried young women on the island". The godmother makes sure that Cendrillon tries on the slipper which fits perfectly and she and Paul live happily ever after. The perfect ending to any fairy tale!

     After reading Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal by Paul Fleischman, I was intrigued with the different cultural versions of the story so I went looking for one that I had never read. Cendrillon A Caribbean Cinderella was a perfect choice. You immediately get the feel of the Caribbean with Brian Pinkney's illustrations. His art work uses the beautiful rich colors of the Caribbean in dream like imagines that make you think of faraway magical islands. I found this description and examples of the technique that he use on his web site:

"Brian uses the “scratchboard” technique to create many of his illustrations. Rather than adding lines or paint to a white canvas or paper, he subtracts; it's almost like drawing in reverse. Starting with a white board covered in black ink, Brian uses sharp tools to scratch away the ink to expose the white board below, creating white lines that emerge to form the image he is trying to portray. “Working in scratchboard is like drawing, etching, and sculpting all at the same time,” says Brian. He adds the color last, using a new technique by tinting the black-and-white images with Luma dyes, then painting on top of that with acrylic paint."--Brian Pinkney

image from Alvin Ailey by Andrea Davis Pinkney, 1993 

The images seem to be in constant motion just like the ocean and island breezes. Robert San Souci choice to write from a storytellers point of view celebrates the oral language tradition of the island. Throughout the story I noticed a mix of French and creole words which made the story more authentic. I was pleased to see a "Glossary of French Creole Words and Phrases" at the back of the book. I was also enjoyed reading the Author's Note. I found it interesting that the story is "based on a French Creole tale "Cendrillon" and "follows the basic outline of Perrault's Cinderella". The story, the language, and the illustrations all make me think of the times my family and I have spent in the Caribbean enjoying the beauty of the culture and tropical islands.   

     This story would be a wonderful mentor text to use when I teach compare and contrast this spring. I think that my students could relate to this story and be able to see very distinct  ways that they are similar and different. It would also be wonderful to use as a writing lesson in point of view or even how to use voice in your writing. I can't wait it share it with my class!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal....

     While I was familiar with several versions of the Cinderella Story, Yeh-Shen, The Rough Face Girl, A Smoky Mountain Rose, and Cinder Edna, I had never had heard of the Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella. I found it a delightful version of Cinderella that I look forward to sharing with others.

     Paul Fleischman takes 17 multicultural versions of the Cinderella story and blends them into one book. The book opens with a simple framed picture of a mother and child reading a story. You turn the page and the story within the story begins. As the mother reads about about a how a girl convinces her father to marry the widow down the road, you realize the story is Cinderella. The text and folk art picture is framed in bright colors and a orange-yellow design. If you look closely at the art work in the design you pick out symbols of Mexico, a donkey, a cactus, a snake and a bright sun. A small box in the corner also says Mexico. The next page hold another snip of text about how the stepmother begins ordering the girl around and gives her room to her daughters. This time the text and folk art picture is framed and surrounded by a yellow- green design. The picture has Asian images such as a tea pot, rice paddies, and a small box in the corner that says Korea. The page after that tells of how the stepmother only allows the girl a few scraps of food, but since the girl begged her father to marry the women she vows not to complain. Once again the text and art work is surrounded by a rich green design that highlights figs, dates, and a scorpion, all imagines from Iraq. At this point you realize that there is a pattern; a snip of text from a country's version of Cinderella and then an illustration that gives you colors and imagines from that represents that country. You quickly pick up that the orange pages are from Mexico, the yellow-green from Korea, bright green from Iraq, pink from India, and purple from Appalachia. While there are small variations between the different versions of the story, all follow the same tale. A beautiful, kind girl gains a stepmother who treats her badly, and she is not allowed to go to the big social event. The girl is always given an impossible task to finish and left with nothing to wear. Some type of magic must occur to get the girl to the social event, she is always the most beautiful women there, and no one recognizes her. At a set time she must leave because her magic will run out, and she'll go back to dirty rags. The eligible bachelor always gives chase and ends up with some type of footwear that will only fit the mysterious beautiful girl. The cruel stepmother always tries to get her daughter in the footwear, but some how the girl always comes forward and claims her place next to the bachelor. They always live happily ever after!  The story within a story ends when the mother finishes reading the little girl her bed time story.

Glass slipper, gold sandal : a worldwide Cinderella     The first hint this book is going to be something different is the beautiful brightly colored art work on the cover of the book. The bright folk art look of the book makes you want to pick it up. The next clue that this book is different are the end covers that feature a map of the world with certain countries and places labeled. I found myself returning to the end covers again and again to locate where the snip of text and art work had come from in the world. My favorite part is the Author's Note written by Paul Fleischman prominently displayed at the beginning of the story. I usually skip those, but this one said "READ ME." In very simple terms he explains how the Cinderella story has traveled around the world because of its statements on people and their ways. 

It is amazing to me that so many countries have such similar versions of the same story and that over the centuries it has changed very little. Except for a few words such as scorpion, rice,and figs that are true to that particular culture, the story comes together almost seamlessly. The artwork is what fills in the back story of the culture that that snip of text originates. The colors and the imagines set each cultural apart yet the simple folk art style tie everything together. Except for the wordless picture books, I feel that the illustration are what makes this story special. I found myself going back to each page and studying the detail of the background art and then comparing it to the other pages from the some countries. Julie Paschkis did a beautiful job Illustrating "the girl" in each culture's image yet you always know that she is Cinderella. In a touch of humor, he step-sister are always illustrated with big feet. The art work takes a simple text and adds volume and depth to it.  

     I think that Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal makes a wonderful statement on how no matter how different we think other cultures are from our own that we all very much the same. I would differently share this book with my class. I would probably use it to talk about people who are different yet still very much the same. It would be a book that if I used it as a read aloud I would make it available for my students to study on their own. I can't wait to share it with them!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale....

Martina, the beautiful cockroach : a Cuban folktale

 Today, I was lucky enough to read  a "GREAT" book! Martina the Beautiful Cockroach is a wonderful Cuban Folktale. I choose it because it was an ALA Odyssey Honor winner. While doing research on the story, I was amazed to find out all the awards that it has won--"Martina the Beautiful Cockroach was presented with the 2008 Pura Belpre Honor Award, the 2008 NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Book Award, the 2008 Best Children’s Books of the Year (Bank Street College of Education), the 2008 International Latino Book Award, the Irma Simonton and James H. Black Award (Honor), the 2008 E.B White Award (Nominee), and the 2009 ALA Odyssey Audio Award (Honor), among others." See, I told you it was a "Great" book! 

     The story begins by introducing the main character "Martina Josefina Catalina Cucaracha was a beautiful cockroach", and making you familiar with her situation "now that Martina was 21 days old, she was ready to give her leg in marriage." Her home is a buzz with the excitement and every senora has a gift for her to make her more beautiful. "But Abuela her Cuban grandmother, gave her unconsejo increible, some shocking advice." She wants Martina spill coffee in the suitor's shoes so that they will show their true colors. Martina is mortified by "The Coffee Test", but she trusts her Abuela. The first suitor was Don Gallo, a very cocky rooster with "one eye on his reflection." After he croons his proposal... 

Beautiful muchacha,
Won't you be my wife?

     Martina thinks only for a second before she is looking for some coffee. Of course the rooster explodes as soon as the coffee touches his shoes, and Martina realizes that he is not the rooster for her. Several more suitors arrive each with obvious flaws. Each time Martina wearily goes looking for more coffee, and each time the suitors react poorly. Finally Martina is ready to call it a night when Abuela tells her to look around and points out a tiny brown mouse in the garden below. With an interesting twist to the story, Martina realizes that the love of her life has been under her street lamp all the time. So there is a happy ending for Martina & her mouse, just like any good story should have.

     I had several favorite parts in this story. The first was that Abuela wanted Martina to pick a suitor that would love & cherish her. I love how Abuela said "You are a beautiful cockroach. Finding husbands to choose from will be easy--picking the right one could be tricky." I think that is an important life lesson that some young people don't focus on enough. They often pick people that look good, but think only of themselves. Next was the part when the mouse beat Martina to the coffee test. It made her realize that the other person also had an Abuela that wanted them to be happy and feel cherished too. Another feature of the story that I enjoyed was the use of Spanish words and phrases throughout the story. I thought that it added flare to the story and reminded you that this was a Cuban Folktale. Finally I thought the illustrations were AMAZING!!! The colors are so vibrant and rich you can't help but think of Cuba and the Latin culture. Michael Austin's illustration also seem to have a three dimensional depth to them that helps the reader see the characters as "real people" instead of bugs and animals. I felt this quote from the Booklist did the best job of summing up the stories artwork, "The acrylic illustrations, in a hyper-realistic style reminiscent of a softer William Joyce, are rendered in a vivid tropical palette. Shifting perspectives and points of view add vitality to the compositions, and facial expressions reveal both emotions and character traits.” I enjoyed them so much that I searched for more information on Mr. Austin. I included his web address at the bottom of the page. This is a book that I will recommend to others.

     I cannot wait to use this book in my classroom. I know my students will love the incredible artwork, and those with Hispanic backgrounds will enjoy helping me with my pronunciation of the Spanish words. As a teacher I think it would be a great mentor text to talk about the author's purpose for writing the story. Since many of my second graders are working on building their comprehension skills while reading. It also sends a good message about picking a partner or friends based on the way they treat you all the time not just the good times. However, after reading about good multicultural literature, I did wonder about a few things. Is a cockroach the right insect to represent a Cuban character? Are the rooster, pig, and lizard being stereotyped? I think these questions could open up a discussion about character traits and the way we perceive people. Is it okay for a folktale to make judgments on characters because it is part of a cultural history or is it just continuing to spread stereotypes about the culture? These are questions that are could be discussed in a middle or high school classroom.    

Monday, February 10, 2014

Let's Talk About Race...

        Let's talk about race                                                         

     Let's Talk About Race is an intriguing book written by Julius Lester and Illustrated by Karen Barbour. It's written as a personal narrative with the author telling the story. Julius begins the story by talking about how everyone has a story and asking the question "How Does Your Story Begin?"

     He explains all the different things that makes up "your story". To help create his story, he tells you his birth date, his parent's occupation, his favorite things, his religion, and nationality. All the things that makes him who he is. Almost as an after thought he also includes "Oh. There's something else that is part of my story. I'm black." Then he casually ask "What race are you?". He goes on to explain that every race has stories that makes them feel better about themselves by putting others down. Just like when people believe that they are richer, smarter, the better gender, or go to the better school, they are just stories and are untrue. The next section of the book explains that we are all made up of skin and bones. He instructs the reader to push on the bones of their checks and a those of a family member to see that everyone is constructed the same. Without skin "Everything would be normal except we would look at each other and couldn't tell who was a man, who was a woman, who was white, black, Hispanic or Asian." He emphasizes that without our outer layer it would be impossible to compare ourselves to each other. The author feels it is more important to get to know each other through their story instead of looking at someone's color and assuming you know their story. At the end of the book, Julius Lester want's to get to know you. He says "I'll take off my skin. Will you take off yours?"

     What drew me to this book where the fascinating illustrations. I loved the bright colored pictures with the uniquely drawn people and animals. One of my favorite pictures was the drawing of a woman representing a tree growing out the head of another woman (mother earth) with branches filled with children. I thought it was a incredible representation of a family tree. To me the story and the pictures fit together perfectly. It made me wonder if the author and the illustrator worked together on the book. I also enjoyed the author's simple explanation of how everyone has things about them that makes them different and, usually, race is just one of those things. However in the middle of the story that I felt that the text went from being beautifully simple to wordy and a little hard to follow. As an adult I understand the idea of removing your outer layer and only seeing people for what's inside, but I doubt that a child would understand the concept. I know my second graders would not be able to get past the idea of taking off their skin and the pictures of skeletons. So I am not sure who the author's intended audience is. 

     I really wanted to like this book--the illustration are beautiful, I like the idea of knowing people "by their story" and not by their race. But for some reason I just don't love this story the way I thought I would.

More information

Sunday, February 9, 2014




     Faith is a beautiful non-fiction text that introduces children to the many religions of the world. It is written in very simple yet specific sentences that allow the reader to focus on the photographs.
  The photographs carry the weight of the story. The first part of the book addresses the many ways that people from around the world practice and celebrate their religion of choice. Children of different nationality and ethnicity are shown participating in aspects of their religion by praying, chanting and singing, reading holy books, listening to others, visiting holy places, and observing holidays and festivals.

The next section of the story shows the outward expression of beliefs and tradition. You see the different dress, foods and drinks that children use to reflect their beliefs. I never realized that there was so many tradition religious headdress. There's photos of a Hindu songket, Sikh Patka, and Jain girls with fancy gold headdress. They are all a interesting contrast to the "plain clothes" of a Mennonite boy.

The final section of the book focuses on all the things that religions have in common. the pictures show children respecting people and nature, working together to help others and, in my opinion, showing hope for the the future. The back of the book is filled with wonderful information that will help further a child's understanding of others and their religion. There is a color coded world map of all the countries the children featured in the story represent. It also has a section that gives more information on the different elements of faith. A vocabulary section helps explain some of the important terms in the story such as bar mitzvah/bat mitzvah, Hijab, monastery, and Shamanism.  In all, it presents a simplistic yet rich view of the world's religions.

     To me this book is a wonderful way to introduce children to the religions of the world. The sentences and pictures are simple, yet they tell a rich story. They show children of all colors involved in activities that are similar across all religions. There is a lot of emphasis on how every religion has similar components. I love the simple layout of the book. The photos with multiple children take up a whole page, you can see a large view of the activity so you feel like an observer. While smaller photos are placed on brightly colored background that frame to to create a more intimate feeling that focus on faces. I also feel that the story is leveled with the simple sentences in the beginning and the more complex "Elements of Faith" in the back. Both young and  older children could read and take away information. I loved this book and can't wait to share it with my class. I know that they will find it even more fascinating than I did!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Sidewalk Circus...

     Sidewalk circus

     In the past, a type of picture book that I hadn't really appreciated is the wordless picture book, because all books need words, right? It wasn't till a required staff development with an amazing Virginia Beach Reading Specialist, Beth Estill, that I saw the beauty and purpose of a book with no words. To me Sidewalk Circus is the perfect example of a wordless picture book. It has a simple story line and the pictures allow your imagination to take over.

     The story line of Sidewalk Circus is very short and sweet; basically a young girl is waiting for the bus in a busy city. Sounds a little boring and not very complex, however Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes present it in such a way that you keep going back and "rereading" the story. As soon as you open the book the title page tells you that the "World-Renowned ...Garibaldi Circus!!!!" is coming soon. A street scene opens the story with men working, people waiting for the bus, and hardly noticeable is a young girl approaching the bus stop. It's just a plain ordinary city street. However, many first time readers would miss it, but the workman in the center of the right page has a shadow that doesn't quite match...his shadow is a ring leader.

The young girl joins the people at the bus stop and begins her wait for the bus all the while watching the activity on the street. A construction worker walking on a steel beam, a butcher carrying a side of beef, teenage boys riding skateboards, a chief flipping pancakes, a dentist working on a patient, painters on a ladder, and some window washers make up the busy activity on the street. Finally the bus arrives and the young girl gets on leaving the street scene behind. But as the bus pulls away a young boy approaches the bus stop and the circus adventures continue. You wonder if the circus magic will continue for him. 

     The illustrations are what gives this story its complexity. Even the cover of the book alludes that there is more to this story. The cover is a full bleed with a simple workman with a bigger than life magical ring leader shadow. The fact that the title is located in the bottom corner and hardly noticeable makes you aware that words aren't the important part of this story. The shadowy figures on the end papers continue the theme of the circus and that imagines are going to play a huge part of this story.

The first pages of the story are a full bleed with the reader looking down on a city street scene, and a diagonal street curb running for one side of the page to another. It gives you the feeling that you are an observer to a story that is about to unfold, but not in the normal way. The illustrator uses light to draw your eye to the stretching workman and his magical shadow. However you have to be looking closely to notice the young girl approaching the bus stop; she seems to be just part of the scene. The next page the illustrator draws attention to the girls by having her in a yellow shirt with more light on her face and positioning her leaning into the scene. You are also viewing the scene from ground level and with a wider view of the buildings much like what the girl's view would be from the bus stop. Directly across from the bus stop are the most important words in the story "World-Renowned....Garibaldi Circus!!!!" Those simple words bring up all the special childhood feelings you had when the circus would come to your town. You immediately expect magic! As you turn the pages your eye is drawn to the young girl featured in oval windows framed in white. You are now seeing the street scene through her eyes. The first thing she notices is a construction worker carrying buckets while walking on a a steel beam high above the street. A banner below him advertising the the circus's famous tight rope walkers helps you make the connection. Each part of the street scene the girl sees becomes a circus act with a little help of magical shadows and the work man and his well placed circus posters. The butcher carrying meat becomes the strongman, the teenage boys on skateboards change into street clowns, the chief flipping pancakes is the juggler, the painter on the falling ladder is the man on stilts, and the dental patient becomes the infamous sword swallower. All the excitement on the pages are reflected in the young girls face, laughing at the clowns, worry with the sword swallower, and afraid to watch with the trapeze men. The street has become a magical shadow street circus. As always magic can only last for a little while and the city bus, or is that a circus elephant, pulls up to pick up the little girl. You expect the street to go back to being just a normal street scene. As you see the girl through the back bus window you see a young boy approaching the bus stop. You have to wonder if he will be able to see the circus magic.

     To me the most wonderful thing about this story is how I see something new every time I go through the pages. It took me the longest time to see the bus's elephant shadow, and just today I realized that the man on the cover was the one putting up the circus posters. I think this would be a wonderful story to share with my class as a mentor text for inferring. I think even the younger students would be able to make inferences about the people and their circus side kick. I can't wait till I can use it in my classroom!



Wednesday, February 5, 2014

BABYMOUSE Queen of the World

Babymouse : queen of the world!

     I had never been a real fan of graphic novels even though several great librarians have had highly recommended them. I hate to admit that I have rolled my eyes many times when some of my lowest 5th grade readers walked out of library time with a copy of the one of the many Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. So to better educate myself I decided to read both of the graphic novels and then to pick one to blog about. And the winner was...........Babymouse Queen of the World!!!!!!! It is one of a few graphic novels that target audience is girls.

     Babymouse Queen of the World! is a delightful book about a young mouse that is just trying to fit in and survive in school. The story begins with Babymouse thinking about the less than exciting thing called her life. She wonders "Where was the glamour? The excitement? The adventure?". Then she allows her mind to wonder how it would be "Queen of the World". All thoughts that young girls have on a regular basis. Of course there is already a Queen in Babymouse's world and her name is Felicia Furrypaws. However Babymouse is lucky mouse because she has a best friend Wilson the Weasel who is always there for her and invites her watch movies on Friday night. Unfortunately drama is about to occur in Babymouse's life. Felicia Furrypaws is having a slumber party and everyone who is anyone is invited except Babymouse. As many girls have done in the past and will continue to do, Babymouse tries to charm, bribe, and beg herself an invitation. But Felicia is not interested until the day she needs a book report...then she is willing to bargain an invitation for Babymouse's book report. Oh the excitement of an invitation to a glamorous slumber party! She starts packing immediately. Life was glorious till the day of the party and Babymouse runs into Wilson and he reminds her of their movie night. "Ow!" What was a mouse suppose to do? Wilson would understand. However the slumber party isn't the fun time that Babymouse expected. The party started with the girls talking, talking, and talking. Next girls did their hair and there was a flat iron accident and then they painted their nails and there was a polish accident all Babymouse's fault. It that wasn't bad enough they started watching a yucky romantic movie and Felicia ordered Babymouse to make popcorn. But the worst was when the girls started gossiping mean thing about classmates and Felicia targeted Wilson. Babymouse was stopped in her tracks, "Babymouse couldn't imagine not having Wilson as her best friend." She realized that she was the Queen of her own world and that needed to be with her true friend Wilson. She dumps Felicia's "extra butter" and popcorn on her head and races to where she belongs with her true friend Wilson.

     Not only does this book bring back memories of my own girlhood, it is true with my students today. Babymouse is a sympathetic character that most girls can relate too. She isn't to tall, she isn't to short, her style is a simple black and white dress with a single pink heart. Actually all the illustration in the book are black & white with touches and shades of pink. It gives the graphic novel a touch of "girlishness." I also love how easily Babymouse moves from her regular drab life to her super imagination life which is highlighted with high action and movie style drama. She uses her imaginary life to help her cope or escape the drama that is occurring in her real life. To help the reader transition  Babymouse's fantasy story line the illustrator uses lots of black and darker pink. Babymouse's life reflects those of most girls the dullness of just being alive, having to deal with the demanding popular girl, and the best part is a best friend that accepts you for who your all. The sweetest part of this story is when she realizes that Wilson is her true friend who allows her to be herself. I now understand why my students gravitate towards this series and graphic novels in general. They can relate to Babymouse because she is going through the same things that are happening in their lives. Reading the story also helped me understand when my low students could power through this type of book but never complete even a simple chapter book. The sentences are not complicated, uses a limited vocabulary, and the story lines are short so its easy to read a little and stop before a child becomes overwhelmed or exhausted. While I would not consider Babymouse or Diary of a Wimpy Kid great children's literature I now understand the important part that it plays in developing the love of reading in children.   

In November....

In November

     The second Cynthia Rylant book I choose was In November. A basic, brief summary of the book would be that In November covers the events that take place in nature, animals, and with humans during the fall. However this is not a basic book! Jill Kastner illustrations are what make you pick up this book. You see the rich orange, reds, various greens and browns of fall leaves with a tiny field mouse in the corner. You can already feel the fall leaves crunching under your feet. Even though the illustration are what attract you to the book, it's Cynthia Rylant's words and phrases that pull you into the story. She starts with beautiful words on how the earth prepares itself for the winter "In November the earth is growing quiet. It is making its bed, a winter bed for flowers and small creatures. The bed is white and silent, and much can hide beneath its blankets." Even though the illustrations are of winter, they are are rich with textures and brush stokes of color. You look up at the bare branches of trees silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky. Then Cynthia Rylant begins to talk about the changes the animals go through during the fall. The birds call to each other, some head for warmer climates, and others hunt for special berry treats. You hear about how other animals are changing "In November, animals sleep more. The air is chilly and they shiver. Cats pile up in the corners of barns. Mice pile up under logs. Bees pile up in deep, earthy holes. And dog lie before the fire". Their pace of life is slowing because the colder weather. Finally the story speaks about people in the fall. Cynthia Rylant reminds us of the smells of November, "It is the orange smell. It tastes like cinnamon and can fill up a house in the morning, can pull everyone from bed in a fog." A dream like picture helps you remember the smell of coffee and breakfast on those special holiday mornings. The story then moves on to remind us of a special day in November when our families gather together to celebrate each other and food. Finally a beautiful winter night scene matches wonderfully with Cynthia Rylant's words " In November, at winter's gate, the stars are brittle. The sun is a sometime friend. And the world has tucked her children in, with a kiss their heads, till spring."

     I felt that this book had a magical quality that makes it a timeless piece of work. The words and the illustrations work beautifully together allowing you see November in a new light. Instead of being a time that things go dormant or die and the days become shorter and colder, you now see it as a lovely time of transition. This would be a wonderful book to use with younger elementary students to explore the concept of fall. Since it approaches the topic of Thanksgiving more as a family gathering than a holiday it could be used in a classroom with children who don't celebrate holidays. Finally In November would be a wonderful mentor text for a writing lesson on words choice and expression. Phrases such as "the trees are standing all sticks and bones. Without their leaves, how lovely they are, spreading their arms like dancers. They know it is time to be still."  and "The air is full of good-byes and well-wishes." are perfect choices to help child see how words can paint a mental image. I enjoyed the beauty of the words and the pictures in this book. I look forward to sharing with my students.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story....

     I am starting to think that I am the only elementary school teacher in the world that isn't familiar with Cynthia Rylant. After hearing about her wonderful writing style, I was very excited to get to choose two of her books to read and blog about this week. My first selection that I made was Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story .

Silver packages : an Appalachian Christmas story

     The story takes place in Appalachia Mountains every Christmas. The older people could remember when a rich man who had been traveling through the area had an accident and was injured. He was saved and nursed back to health by a caring local person who would not take any money for their help. "So that rich man left the mountains feeling he owed a great debit". To repay that debit each December 23rd, he brings the Christmas Train into the hills. Frankie, a local boy, tells the story of how each year he waits for the train no matter how cold. Every year he is waiting for "a particular present: a doctor kit." The man in the back of the caboose always has "a sparkling silver package" for him, but it is always something he needs warm socks, gloves, hats, and scarves with a regular toy. Frankie grows up and moves to other places and meets new people, but part of him always remembers the Christmas Train and how he always received what he needed the most, "when it seemed his feet would freeze like the snow a man on a train had brought socks. Just when it seemed his fingers were hardening to ice, the man had brought mittens. Just when the cold wind was cutting sharp as a blade into his throat, the man had brought a scarf. And just when Frankie's ears were numb with red cold, the man had brought a hat." After reflecting on this Frank, the adult, realizes that he needs to go home to repay his debit. The next Christmas he watches for the Christmas Train with the local children and when a child is injured he reveals that he has come back to be the town's doctor.

     What caught my eye about this book was the Christmas theme on the cover. I have a collection of Christmas Children's books and I am always looking for a story that is usually or different. The illustration have a soft nostalgic look of a past time. The deep red end papers remind you of Christmas and of some kind of richness.The first page of the story show a hillside covered with bare trees, snow, and an icy blue black river. It would be a cold picture except for a dozen little houses huddled into the side of the mountain all with their lights glowing. They create a sense of warmth even in the frozen winter. When you reach the first picture of the children waiting for the train you can feel their excitement, but as you read the text you notice that Frankie, the character telling the story, doesn't have any socks on his feet. After that you notice that most of the children look a little ragged, but as the train pulls in "they cheer and clap'. Yet it also says "some of the mothers even weep to see it coming." Without saying it the story and illustration start to reveal that the Christmas Train is not just a "fun" holiday activity, but that it is a desperately needed supply train for a very poor community. Sadly this book reminds me of the stories of my mother growing up in North Georgia. I grew up with her tales of how my Grandmother who was a teacher, took all of my mother's out grown clothes to poor children at her school. There were also the years when the crops failed and my mother's only gift was one that she had earned the money. Like Frankie my mother also moved away from her childhood community as a young adult, but again like Frankie she has returned to help enrich her first home. To me this is what the rich red of the end pages represents the feeling of community and belonging.

     As much as I have connected with this story and thought it was beautiful, I probably would not use this book as a read aloud with my students. I don't feel that most of my students would have a connection with being so poor that their only gifts might come from a stranger in a train. Nor as second graders would they understand owing something to their community. However I did notice that this story was inspired by a real train, "Santa Train" which has been carrying tons of toys and treats to children in the Appalachian Mountains since 1943. So I might use this book as a hook if I was doing a unit on the history of the communities in the Appalachian Mountains.