Monday, May 9, 2011

Muggie Maggie

by Beverly Cleary
Stubborn.  Defiant.  A mind of her own.  Meet  Maggie Schultz.   A third grade student that is anything but eager to write in cursive.  This Talented and Gifted student can’t understand why she should write in cursive when she can type on the computer.  She refuses to even try.  Her refusal gets a little out of control and she isn’t sure how she can stop.  When her mother asked her how long it was going to take her to learn cursive Maggie responds with, “Maybe forever.”  Her teacher works with other staff members to create an ingenious idea that motivates Maggie to learn cursive. 
Cleary’s idea to solve the problem works in this book.  It is a clever idea that doesn’t cause embarrassment or harm to Maggie or anger and frustration for Mrs.  Leeper, the third grade teacher.  However, in the real world I can’t imagine a child’s refusal to do work being solved in this manner at all.
This is a simple story with a simple plot.  There wasn’t a lot to this book.  I did like some of the vocabulary that was used such as nuisance, indignant, and dawdle.  Children will enjoy this book because of the character, Maggie.  Even though kids may not think of acting like she does they can relate to her not wanting to write in cursive.  Many children always question WHY they must do something.  They may not see the value in writing in cursive, just like Maggie.  In the end, I think they too will see the importance of learning cursive.  Even if it is to read what your teacher and principal are saying about you. 
After reading Dear Mr. Henshaw I was quite surprised by the difference between these two books.  Beverly Cleary has written many books and I was wondering where the majority of her books fell on the continuum of quality. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Almost Perfect

 by Brian Katcher
Imagine yourself as an eighteen year old senior falling for a beautiful new girl in town.  She seems to like you and all is going well, but she has some sort of secret.  You can’t imagine what it is, but regardless, you like her just the same.  Then…. You kiss….. And the secret is revealed.  The one you thought was a she is really a he…..
That is what happens to Logan Witherspoon.  At first, he doesn’t want anything to do with her, Sage Hendricks.  However, he realizes that he misses her.  He decides that he can be friends with her.  This is very difficult for Logan though.  Sage is a girl in every regard, well except for THAT.  Logan has never encountered a transgendered person before.  He has no idea how he is feeling or how he should be feeling.  He begins to have tremendous internal conflict.  Does this mean he is gay?  If someone else finds out about Sage will they think they are gay?  Will he be able to stand up for her?  Does he need to explain his relationship to his family of friends?  One of his biggest questions is, can he be there for a friend when she needs him the most? 
This book was the winner of the 2011 Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award.  I must admit that I wasn’t exactly excited to read a book in this category.  I was definitely censoring myself.  I am thankful that I was forced to step outside of my comfort zone.  This book was very well written and speaks clearly about the issues that many face when a child or friend is struggling with transgender issues.
The characters in this novel were well developed.  Katcher did a great job engaging me with a book that I was honestly resistant to reading.  The characters and the problems associated with them were real.  Quite honestly, many today would prefer to look away and pretend that these issues aren’t real and then we don’t have to deal with them.  Unfortunately, life isn’t always so simple.  This is a great read for a variety of audiences.  It is great for kids to know that their feelings are real, they are not alone, and there are places to turn for information.  It is also good for adults to read.  As parents, we can put our children on brink of suicide with our emotional threats as we may try to convince them otherwise.  Clearly, this is a very sensitive issue while in the real world would require therapy for many to cope with.  However, this book provides some insights and causes the reader to think about this issue from a variety of perspectives.  Without a doubt this book has controversial and sensitive issues, but it is worth the read and conversation for some, not all.
There is an author’s note in the back that speaks directly to those people who can identify with Sage.  Those that are struggling with their identity and don’t know where to turn.  While Katcher was researching for this book he found that a common feeling was that of being alone.  Katcher offers some resources for those that are not able to reach out to a parent, counselor, clergyperson or a family friend.  He suggests contacting Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).  This resource provides information for gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as those who just have questions. 
Katcher also includes a warning.  “The Internet is full of great resources for transgender people.  It is also full of creeps who would love to meet a sexually confused teenager and take advantage of him or her.  Please remember, if you contact anyone online, NEVER GIVE YOUR REAL NAME OR HOME STATE.  Things are not always as they seem.  No matter how sincere someone sounds online, do not give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Long Night Moon

written by Cynthia Rylant
illustrated by Mark Siegel

Serene.  Silent.   Still.  A mother stands in a gazebo bundled with her infant toddler.  The chill is in the air as she is looking out at the moon.   This is a beautifully written and illustrated book that takes a mother and her child through a year long journey of admiring the faithful moon that has become their friend.  A moon that will help them find their way home.  A moon that tells of promise and hope.
 “Long ago Native Americans gave names to the full moons they watched throughout the year.  Each month had a moon.  And each moon had its name….” Cynthia Rylant writes poetically to describe the moon each month.  Rylant personifies the moon as it misses its sister, the sun.  The Flower Moon is a smiling moon.  The Thunder Moon, listens to the clouds beat their drums.  The Acorn Moon says good-bye.  In November, it wants to sleep.  She brings a new perspective to the moon as it provides light for the many creatures active at night. 
Mark Siegel was inspired by Rylant’s poetic writing about the moon.  He took many long walks with the moon as his guide to help him reveal the perspective.   He chose charcoal to illustrate the full-bleed double page spreads throughout the book.  The colors change with each month to reveal the changes that occur in nature over each month.  The reader is drawn right in to the night, as if we are experiencing it as well. 
Rylant is able to write with breaks in the lines to make the reader pause.  It also puts emphasis on some of these lines.  She also uses cursive writing for this book.  I was wondering why this font was used.  Is it just because of the elegance that fits aesthetically with the book?  This limits the audience for children to read this book. 
I was curious about the names of these moons to see if they were accurate.  I was not able to validate all of these moons.  I am not sure that this book accurately reflects the Native American culture.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken

written by Kate DiCamillo
illustrated by Henry Bliss
read by Barbara Rosenblat

Have you ever been sitting at home thinking….. If I don’t get out of here, I’m going to go crazy.  Have you ever imagined that a chicken would be feeling that way?  Well, that is exactly how Louise is feeling in Kate DiCamillo’s book Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken.
Yes, Louise is looking for adventure, but I would venture to say she likes extreme adventure.  In chapter one Louise decides to  ventures out to sea.  As she is standing on the deck, letting the wind “ruffle her feathers” she decides this adventure is not what she had imagined.  However, she can’t exactly change her plans because pirates are coming and she is almost fricasseed.  After this experience I think she is feeling like “there is no place like home.”  She made it home and “slept the deep and dreamless  sleep of the true adventurer.”
Again adventure calls and Louise joins the circus, walks a high wire, only to have a close encounter with a lion.  The family farm sounds good once again and Louise “slept the deep and dreamless sleep of the true adventurer.”  Louise continued to long for adventure.  In chapter three she heads East and visits a fortune-teller.  She is kidnapped and held captive with other chickens.  “Chickens do not belong in cages,” and Louise set them free.  Louise began to miss her sister hens and her henhouse, so she went back home.  In chapter four, Louise shares her adventures with her the other hens.  In the end, all of the chickens “slept the deep and dreamless and peaceful sleep of true adventurers.”
Harry Bliss’ illustrations are beautiful.  Each spread shows Louise’s bright white feathers and red cockscomb standing up straight.  The reader’s eye is drawn to her right away.  There are two pages in this book which remind me of the fold out spread in The Man who Walked between the Towers.  This is an oversized book and there are two vertical spreads that show Louise walking the high wire with the perspective from the audience on the crowd.  When you turn the page it shows the perspective of Louise falling down toward the lion’s mouth.  I found Louise’s placement on each page to be interesting.  She is often on the left side of the page suggesting that she is more secure and possibly confined.  Bliss does a nice job with distance.  There are times when Louise is quite large and the center of our attention.  We are drawn in to her feelings of wanting adventure.  There are also times when Louise is quite far away and we are distanced from the action, such as when she is walking the high wire. 
Barbara Rosenblat’s magnificent performance transforms this beautifully written story.  She is able to adjust her voice brilliantly for each character; from Louise and Monique to the pirates, the circus characters, and the fortuneteller.  There is background music and noises that add to this listening experience.  I felt like I was listening to a movie.  This read aloud version with accurate sound effects was most deserving of the Odyssey Award.
This book is seamless.  The writing, illustrations, and read aloud work masterfully together.  People young and old can appreciate this for what it is, a good story.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dear Mr. Henshaw

written by Beverly Cleary
illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

How do you deal with your parents getting a divorce?  Moving and going to a new school....  Never hearing from your father when he says he is going to call....  Learning your dad is spending his time with someone else’s son....  How can any child possibly cope with all of this?  Well, Beverly Cleary has figured it out with her Newberry winning book Dear Mr. Henshaw. 
Leigh Botts was living with his mother and was a new kid at school.  His teacher had given the class an assignment to write an author and ask him/her questions.  Naturally, Leigh had chosen Boyd Henshaw because he had been a fan of his since second grade.  Boyd Henshaw responds to his questions with humor but also sends Leigh a set of questions to answer.  As a result of the TV not working, Boyd decides to respond to the questions from Henshaw. 
The story begins with letters from Leigh to Mr. Henshaw over three years.  The letters show the increasing emotions and the growth of Leigh as a writer.  As the book progresses, the format changes from letters to Mr. Henshaw to diary entries.  There is the suggestion that Mr. Henshaw writes back to Leigh and encourages him to write in his journal every day.  Initially, Leigh writes “Dear Mr. Pretend Henshaw.”  He grows as a writer and moves toward journal entries without addressing them to someone. 
The diary exposes the loneliness that Leigh feels with his father not actively involved in his life, the trouble of someone stealing the “good stuff” from his lunch every day, and the fact that his parents will not be getting back together.  Leigh has to try to come to terms with the fact that even though his parents still care for each other, they are living different lives now and there isn’t a chance that it will go back to the way it used to be.
The issues that Leigh experiences are real and many children will be able to relate to this story.  There is a lot that children can identify with in this book.  So, how does Cleary help Leigh deal with all of his emotions?  By writing, which would be therapeutic for any child experiencing any difficulty in their life. 
I was thinking about reluctant readers and was thinking this might be a good book for some of them.  The short diary entries with larger font will be enticing to them.  It is also about divorce which many children are familiar with or curious about.   Not to mention the fact that this is a well written book. 
The illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky appear to be pencil or charcoal.  There is a great illustration on the title page as Leigh is writing in his journal.  He is sitting on his bed in his room and above his head are the many thoughts and issues that he is grappling with.  A tractor trailer, as his dad travels across the country and is never there for him.  The school custodian raising the flag, who has come to be friends with Leigh.  The lunchbox that someone keeps steeling his treats from.  His dog that now lives with his dad, the kids at school and the butterfly garden.  All of these thoughts in his head are presented at an angle suggesting the emotion or tension that he has attached to all of the people.  The dog is presented sitting upright and happy which suggests stability. 
Although the topic of divorce is a social issue, I feel this book is appropriate for children.  Not only can children identify with it, they can also learn how to cope with their own emotional issues.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham----- 1963

by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watsons go to Birmingham ---1963 is a Newberry Honor book and the recipient of the Coretta Scott King award.  This book is a comical, tragic, and touching story about a family that lives in Flint, Michigan. 
Christopher Paul Curtis spends a large amount of time developing each character and the relationships within this family.  We learn that thirteen-year-old Byron is destined to be an “official juvenile delinquent.”  Six-year-old Joetta is as sweet as can be, but will do anything to protect her older brothers.  Kenny, the narrator, is ten years old.  He is smart and gets picked on at school.  Dad is fun loving and likes to make people laugh.  Mom is the disciplinarian with a loving heart. 
As a result of By’s activities, the parents decide that it is best to take him to Birmingham for the summer to live with his grandmother.  There is even the possibility that he stay for a year.  As they prepare to leave, the mother has planned and researched their every stop because she knows they will not always be welcome.   The children have new experiences such as a roadside outhouse and legalized segregation. 
They are heading south in the middle of one of the most tragic events in the civil rights era.  The story is set in a real time against the backdrop of real events.  On September 15, 1963 white racists threw a bomb into a black church, in Birmingham.  Four young girls were killed, and many others were injured.  Curtis uses this bombing in his novel as the family is visiting Grandma Sands. 
Joetta had gone to church that morning and Kenny didn’t go because he didn’t want to go.  The bomb went off and Kenny ran to find his sister.  He walked into the church just minutes after the explosion went off. 
“I walked past people lying around in little balls on the grass crying and twitching, I walked past people squeezing each other and shaking, I walked past people hugging trees and telephone poles, looking like they were afraid they might fly off the earth if they let go.  I walked past a million people with their mouths wide-opened and no sounds coming out.”
Curtis does an amazing job with helping the reader understand each character.  As events occur in the story the tone changes smoothly.  The emotions that are evoked in this story are strong from the fun loving events to the horrific tragedy with the bombing. 
Curtis presents this family within the context of a tragic time in American history.  Kenny is left to question WHY?  Byron responds with, “Kenny, things ain’t ever going to be fair.  How’s it fair that two grown men could hate Negroes so much that they’d kill some kids just to stop them from going to school?  How’s it fair that even though the cops down there might know who did it nothing will probably ever happen to those men?  It ain’t.  But you just gotta understand that that’s the way it is and keep on steppin’” p. 203.  This book lends itself well to great conversations.  
 How far have we come?  How much further do we need to go? 

Number the Stars

by Louis Lowry
A story about courage and bravery.  A story about the integrity of the people in Copenhagen, Denmark after the Nazis invaded their community.
This narrative is told through the eyes of ten-year –old Annemarie Johnson.  Initially, when the Germans took over Copenhagen in 1943, life continued as usual for Annemarie.  It wasn’t until the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people begins, when everything changes.  A rabbi told his congregation that the Nazis had taken the synagogue’s list of all the Jews to include their names and addresses.  Annemarie’s family agrees to take in a Jewish child who was a friend of Annemarie.  Thus, Annemarie’s family becomes involved in the Resistance effort.  Annemarie’s friend, Ellen Rosen, poses as Annemarie’s dead sister Lise. 
Annemarie begins to question the adults in her life as she learns that her mother and uncle are discussing the death of a relative that Annemarie is sure does not exist.  Her uncle explains to her that they are all trying to be brave. “It is much easier to be brave if you don’t know everything.” 
Annemarie has an opportunity to show tremendous bravery as she is running through the woods to bring her uncle an envelope.  She has no idea what is in the envelope, but she know it is crucial for the relocation effort to be a success.  She does it and is stopped by the German police.  The suspense and intensity is deeply felt, not knowing what would happen to Annemarie or the people on her uncle’s boat.  Annemarie was successful and she was able to act the role of the innocent child because she honestly didn’t know what was in the envelope.
 Lowry includes an afterword in her book to clarify questions the reader may have.  She explains that Annemarie Johnson is fictitious, although she has a friend Annelise Platt who lived in Copenhagen during the time of the German occupation.  After reading there was a handkerchief in the envelope I was wondering why?  What could that be symbolic of?  Why a handkerchief?  The handkerchief really was a part of history.  “After the Nazis began to use police dogs to sniff out hidden passengers on the fishing boats, Swedish scientists worked swiftly to prevent such detection.  They created a powerful powder composed of dried rabbit’s blood and cocaine; the blood attracted the dogs, and when they sniffed at it, the cocaine numbed their noses and destroyed, temporarily, their sense of smell.  Almost every boat captain used such a permeated handkerchief, and many lives were saved by the device.” 
Lowry does a great job creating the sense of realism.  There is an authentic setting and dialogue during this period in time.  The characters’ responses to the historical events were real.  There is such power behind her words.  One must reflect on that time period and the courage of the people.  Especially, a child.  If I was ten, would I have had the courage to do what Annemarie did?  Ellen was lucky to leave with her family.  There are others whose children left alone.  It is hard to imagine what it was like for the children and the parents.  Great literature like this brings these stories to life.  Children are able to have a better understanding of the past and hopefully an appreciation for their life as it is today. 
Lowry ends her afterword with a paragraph from a letter written by Kim Malthe-Bruun.  Kim was part of the Resistance.  He was captured and executed when he was twenty-one.  This was from a letter he had written to his mother the night before he was put to death.
….. and I want you all to remember--- that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dream for you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow-minded and prejudiced one.  That is the great gift our country hungers for, something every little peasant boy can look forward to, and with pleasure feel he is a part of – something he can work and fight for.
I believe we still hunger for this today.  After reading this, one must reflect and think about how each one of us can make a difference.