Sunday, March 27, 2011

Graven Images by Paul Fleischman

Graven Images by Paul Fleischman consists of three short stories.  Each story revolves around a graven image; a wooden boy, a copper saint, and a marble statue.  This book was the recipient of the Newberry Honor, a Notable Children’s Book Award, and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year Award. 
The Binnacle Boy was a suspenseful story. The Orion arrives at its homeport in New Bethany, Maine with an entire crew mysteriously dead and there wasn’t any evidence of a struggle.  The only boy left on the ship is the “Binnacle Boy,” the life sized carving of a sailor boy holding the iron binnacle.  The people of the town decide to mount the binnacle boy before the town hall as a memorial to the Orion’s crew.  Over time, the people from the town began sharing their secrets with him, knowing his lips would forever be sealed.  The story takes a turn when a deaf girl, Tekoa, is asked to read the lips of the people sharing their secrets.
St. Crispin’s Follower was a comical story.  The story takes place in Charleston, South Carolina and involves a shoemaker’s apprentice, Nicholas.  Nicholas is often daydreaming and thinking about love, while the Master of the shop continually redirects his attention to his work.  “Let your thoughts never stray from shoes, Nicholas.  And your dreams as well, lad-always upon leather!”   The Master of the shop continues to tell Nicholas that the weathervane, St. Crispin, is always watching over him.  Even though it is pointing in a direction all together different from the other weathervanes.  Nicholas begins to believe in this thought and believes that the weathervane will guide him to love.  This story has a completely different tone, although, it still has twists and turns that are unexpected.
The Man of Influence dealt with the supernatural.  Zorelli is a stone carver by trade and he makes monuments from granite.  He has been without work for awhile and he despises the thought of going back to work with his father and brothers.  “If no commission came his way today he’d be forced to return to work at the quarry, toiling once again beside his loutish father and his foul-smelling brothers.”  As Zorelli and his cat go for a walk one evening, Zorelli is approached by a ghost.  The ghost asks Zorelli to carve a life size statue of him.  Zorelli agrees because he thinks the man is associated with elite people.  Zorelli learns of many surprising events that may have occurred through this ghost.  He begins to question himself and many of the elite people in his community. 
What impressed me the most is Fleischman’s writing style. There were times when I began to read aloud because the words were like poetry. “She pursed her lips, lowered her eyes, and looked out upon her flower garden.  It was nearly Independence Day- tansy was thriving, pinks were in bloom, marigolds were budding on schedule.”  He is able to develop a character quickly and use language that just takes you back in time.  “Good day to you, Miss Frye," chirped Miss Bunch.  Without asking, she plopped herself down on a chair, a trespass that drew a stare from her hostess.  Affirming for sovereign powers, Miss Frye regally motioned the others to be seated.”
After reading Weslandia and Seedfolks, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Graven Images.  Needless to say, I continue to be amazed by his originality and versatility.  Graven Images provides text that is rich in figurative language.  The stories dealt with moral and psychological issues that were suspenseful with ironic twists in the plot. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Dicamillo Illustrations by Timothy Ering

The Tale of Despereaux is much like a fairy tale with a hero and a villain, light vs. dark, but it isn’t written in the typical fairy tale format.  This novel is set up with four books and a coda. 
The first book describes the hero, Despereaux Tilling.  He was a unique mouse from birth.  He was born with his eyes open, weighed half the amount a normal mouse would weigh and he had very large ears. Not only did he look different, but he acted differently as well. He didn’t scurry across the room looking left and right. He wouldn’t eat books either, he preferred to read them.  It was there in the library castle where he discovered a book that touched his soul.  He began to read it over and over.  It was about a princess and a brave knight who serves, honors, and rescues her.  As he is spending time in the castle library he hears music.  Despereaux moves toward the sound only to discover Princess Pea and King Phillip.  Despereaux believes that Princess Pea is his princess and he courageously moves toward her.  As the King tries to scare Despereaux away, he calls out to the princess, “I honor you!”  Alas, he is in love.  However, he has broken a rule and the Mouse Council call a meeting to allow Despereaux to admit or deny the charges brought against him for speaking to humans.  He admits his guilt and is sentenced to the dungeon. 
The second book is about the villain, Chiaroscuro, also known as Roscuro.  Kate DiCamaillo takes us back in time to tell us about Roscuro, the rat.  He seemed to be a typical rat until he had a match held in front of his face.  “From that moment forward, Roscuro showed an abnormal, inordinate interest in illumination of all sorts.  He was always, in the darkness of the dungeon, on the lookout for light, the smallest slimmer, the tiniest shimmer.  His rat soul longed inexplicably for it; he began to think that light was the only thing that gave life meaning, and he despaired that there was so little of it left to have.”  This longing for light is what led him upstairs into the castle.  He was drawn to the chandelier that sparkled so brightly.  Roscuro managed to climb onto the chandelier only to be noticed by Princess Pea.  She screamed out, “RAT!”  For the first time Roscuro felt that being called a rat was “a curse, and insult, a word totally without light.”  Roscuro felt terrible for his actions and as he ran off he looked back and heard the Princess cry out; “Go back to the darkness where you belong.”  Now Roscuro’s heart was broken and he wanted REVENGE!
The third book is about Miggery Sow, a girl named after her father’s prize winning pig.  Her mother dies and her father sells her to a stranger for a tablecloth and some cigarettes.  The man she was sold to physically abused her, “clouting” her on the ears making her ears resemble that of cauliflower and she lost some of her hearing.  Mig’s wish throughout the novel is to become a princess.  Oddly enough, she lands herself a job in the castle.  Her longing to be a princess allows her to be manipulated by Roscuro, so that he can have his revenge on Princess Pea.
The fourth book weaves all of the characters together to bring this story to its climax.  We learn about forgiveness and hope, darkness and light.  Who could ever imagine a happily ever after in this book? 
Kate DiCamillo’s style of writing was unique.  I have never encountered a book that uses a narrative type style that spoke directly to the reader. The narrator asked questions, “Reader, can you imagine your own father not voting against your being sent to the dungeon full of rats?  Can you imagine him not saying one word in your defense?”   Pointed out consequences, “Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not confirm.” Clarified difficult vocabulary, “The word reader, was adieu.   Do you know the definition of adieu?  Don’t bother with your dictionary. I will tell you.  Adieu is the French word for farewell.”  Kate DiCamillo commented on the narrative voice in an interview.  She stated, “It provides a sense of “It’s OK; everything will work out.”  It lets the reader know that life is funny and hard at the same time.”
Timothy Basil Erring uses pencil to illustrate this book. It reflects the light and dark theme that is used throughout the story.  The illustrations are framed and somewhat faded and distant because this has such a heavy underlying tone. 
The design of this book is enticing.  The pages on the edge are rough and jagged, as if a mouse had nibbled the pages.  This Newberry Award winning novel by Kate DiCamillo speaks to the reader’s emotions, fears and our highest hopes.   

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Imagine living in a world where everything was perfect.  No worries about poverty, disease, war, or pain.  A world where adults are assigned a mate by the Elders, after careful studying and contemplation to ensure no divorce.  Children are assigned to a family after the child turns “One.”  The“family unit,” would be assigned one boy and one girl. The community is orderly and simple where people have a distinct place in society and have clear cut duties.  There are simple rules and everyone must obey them or they will be “released.”  There are no choices in this “perfect” world.
Each year of life shows some sort of developmental milestone until the child reaches the age of twelve.  At the age of twelve, the child becomes an adult and is assigned a career within the community.  They are given training and they work as an apprentice alongside their teacher.  Jonas, in this story, is assigned the receiver of Memories, a career that is most respected of the Elders. The current receiver becomes, The Giver. 
As Jonas, the Receiver of Memories, begins to work with the Giver, the story becomes more engaging.  We learn the truths about this “perfect” world.  The Giver initially passes on happy memories which encourage Jonas to come back and he is excited to learn more.  However, at some point the Giver had to also pass on memories of pain and suffering. Jonas learned about war, starvation, misery, and despair.  Jonas accepted these memories and began to question, which was something that would have been against the rules for all the other members in the community.  As Jonas began to question, he realized that the world he was living in was not perfect and in fact much of it was a lie.  After Jonas experiences love through a memory, he is convinced that the world he was living in must change.  People must experience joy and sadness, love and pain.  But how?  Jonas and the Giver develop a plan to change the world.  As a reader, we know this story takes place in a futuristic society that does not exist.  Yet, it still causes us to reflect and question our own values and beliefs.
At the end of the book I was wondering if Jonas and Gabriel were the Givers children.
 I was also wondering about the ending and I think it is all about interpretation, but do the children die at the end with a happy memory or do they survive?  I interpreted a happy ending and I found a quote from an interview with Lois Lowry about the ending.  She said, “I liked the ambiguity of the ending, but I always felt that there was optimism to it. It never occurred to me that people would believe that Jonas had died.”
A Newberry Medal winning book, The Giver by Lois Lowry has been challenged for a variety of reasons.  Some include its reference to euthanasia and suicide.  Others challenge the book because they don’t feel it is appropriate for young readers.  As with all books, parents and teachers need to think about books that they share with their young and make informed decisions about what is appropriate for certain age groups and their maturity level.  The Giver is a well written book that causes the reader to question and think.  It provides opportunities to have conversations about our world and why it is the way it is or how it might change for the better. 
In the  link below you can see the process that occurs when a book is challenged to be removed from the shelves of a school or school division.  The response from the author caused me to do some reflecting of my own.  I encourage you to check out this site and gain a deeper insight about the book and some of the concerns as to why it is banned, but also read the response from Lois Lowry.  Then ask yourself, do I trust my son, daughter, or student to think critically for themselves?  Have I done my part as a parent or teacher to instill values and beliefs?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman is a story about transformation.  It all begins in a vacant and abandoned lot in Cleveland, Ohio.  The lot was filled with trash, the area was neglected, and the neighborhood became a haven for crime.  There are many people that live in the apartment building that sits across from the vacant lot.  Just as one might imagine, each person has a story to tell.  Fleishcman is able to sow the seeds of thirteen different people into this book.   
It all began one Sunday morning, in early April, when Kim wanted to be noticed and accepted by the father whom she never knew.  He was a farmer when he lived in Vietnam.  She dug a hole with a spoon in the hard soil and decided to plant six lima beans in the vacant lot.  “In that vacant lot he would see me. He would see my patience and my hard work.  I would show him that I could raise plants, as he had.  I would show him that I was his daughter.”   
Just as there are a variety of vegetables and flowers that grow in a garden, there are a variety of stories that go with each of the thirteen people that planted seeds in what is to become the garden.  Over time, people from the neighborhood begin to claim their spot and plant their own seeds.  However, people don’t say hi or even look at each other.  People are speaking their own languages and going about their own business as usual.
Then we meet Sam who calls the lot “Paradise” from a Persian word which means “walled park.”  He has a unique character.  “You’ve seen fishermen mending the rips in their nets.  That’s what I do, only with people.  I used to try to patch up the whole world.  For thirty- six years I worked for different groups promoting government, setting up conferences on pacifism, raising money, stuffing envelopes.  Not that I’ve given up the fight.  I’ve just switched battlefields from the entire planet to this corner of Cleveland.”  However, as Sam stands up one day while gardening he notices that the people in the garden are segregated.  The garden had replicated the neighborhood in which they lived.  I began to think that the concept of community was impossible, even in the garden where all the varieties of vegetables and flowers are accepted and appreciated.  There began to be tension as the homeless man came home to the lot only to find out that his couch was gone.  People began to be protective of their areas with fences and signs. 
There are many realistic issues in this book; loneliness, homelessness, aging, teen pregnancy, heritage, etc.  However, through a garden people develop a community.  At one time people would have crossed the street to avoid a neighbor, now they are sharing vegetables from their own garden with each other.  A business man, who was trained to give nothing away, now has an excuse to break the rule. 
Amir shares an interesting story as he talks to one of his neighbors in the garden as they are having a harvest festival.  A year prior, the woman had accused Amir’s store of not giving her the proper change.  She had become angry with Amir and called him a “dirty foreigner,” even though she was a foreigner herself.  Now as Amir reminds her of the story she apologizes and says, “Back then I didn’t know it was you…..”  What a profound statement!  Isn’t that the whole problem?  We never take the time to get to know people. 
I thought it was interesting that a garden was used to help create this sense of community.  I searched what a garden was symbolic of and found that a garden is “typically an earthly paradise.  It is an archetypal image of the soul, of innocence, of happiness; it is a place for growth of the inner self.”    I found that to be appropriate because the people that shared their stories had a part of them that was broken or hurting inside.  What is so amazing though, is how that garden transformed their thoughts, helped heal their sadness, and helped people grow together as a community.
This is a well written book that gives you a snapshot of the lives of thirteen people in a community.  There certainly are some controversial issues brought up that would encourage some conversations in a classroom.  However, those same issues may be reason enough for a teacher not to share this book with the class.  What would you do?

Missing May by Cynthia Rylant

What is it about the loss of life that leaves us paralyzed?  We can’t think… we can’t feel… we can’t function… Until one day, our grief is transformed into acceptance. 
Missing May, a Newberry Medal Award Winner, by Cynthia Rylant, is a touching story that will make the reader think and reflect upon the characters and setting as if they were a part of their own life. This story deals with the struggles within characters about love, abandonment, grief, and acceptance. 
Rylant tells this story in first person narrative, revealing the intense thoughts and feelings of the grieving 12 year old protagonist, Summer.  Summer’s mother had passed away when she was just six years old.  Summer became an orphan that was passed from house to house amongst the Aunts and Uncles and she knew that no one really wanted to care for her.  She was a burden until she met Uncle Ob and Aunt May.  “Back in Ohio, where I’d been treated like a homework assignment somebody always having to do, eating was never a joy of any kind.  Every house I had ever lived in was so particular about its food, and especially when the food involved me.  There’s no good way to explain this.  But I felt like one of those little mice who has to figure out the right button to push before its food will drop down into the cup.  Caged and begging.  That’s how I felt sometimes.”  However, the first night in Virginia with her Uncle Ob and Aunt May, Summer “was as close to paradise” as she had ever come in her life.
Unfortunately for Ob and Summer, May passed away while working in her garden.  Summer and Ob are having a difficult time dealing with the loss of May.  Then Uncle Ob reveals to Summer that “May was, is, right here with us.”  Summer is not sure what to make of Uncle Ob’s statement.  The three of them at one time were a strong family unit.  Now, with May gone, Summer is feeling the pressure.  She has already lost her biological mother, now she has lost her Aunt who became her second mother, and currently she feels she is about to lose Ob.  “But we’re not strong anymore.  And I think Ob’s going to die, truly die, if I can’t figure out a way to mend his sorry broken heart.  And if Ob does go, goes off to be with May, then it’ll be just me and the whirligigs left.  And all of us still as night, praying for wings, real wings so we can fly away.”
Over time Ob loses hope that he will be able to feel May’s presence again.  Then, a boy from the neighborhood, Cletus, gives Ob a glimpse of hope once more.  He describes his out of body experience as he was drowning in the river.  He tells Ob that he saw a light ahead of him and that he was reaching out toward it until he heard a voice that told him to go back home.  Cletus was becoming everything that Summer and Ob had needed from the undertaker, preacher and relatives. “He became the perfect consoler.”  Cletus suggests that they travel to Putnam County to visit a Spiritualist at the Spiritualist Church of Glen Meadows.  Ob began to have the will to get out of bed again as he was chasing after some hope. 
Uncle Ob, Summer, and Cletus decide to go to the church to meet the spiritualist only to learn that she had passed away months prior.  “Then the door that had held so much hope was closed and we were back on our own again.”
So, how is Uncle Ob able to transform his grief?  Why does he long for living again?  How do moments in time come back to us and make us feel connected to those that have gone on to the afterlife? 
As Summer returned from the trip, she whispered to Uncle Ob, “It’s been so hard missing May.”  And Ob said, “She’s still here, honey.  People don’t ever leave us for good.”
Are there really spirited messages that connect us to another life? Do they really bring us consolation?  Or is it our mind helping us cope and deal with the loss that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to deal with?
Rylant’s use of literary devices such as flashbacks and foreshadowing really layer this story to a deeper level of understanding and appreciation.  I am connected to these characters so much so, that as I was driving home from school one day, I saw a large bird that landed on a street sign. It reminded me of an owl and it immediately took me back to the story.  The symbolism that owl had; May visiting Summer, reminding her that she was still with her. 
The whirligigs that were Fire and Love and Dreams and Death.  Even one called May.  In the beginning of the story these were all in the house.  In the end, they are in May’s garden and the wind set them free.  Just as Uncle Ob and May are now free of the grief they have been holding onto for so long. 
Rylant’s use of descriptive language really made me feel like I was there.  I was able to use many of my senses as she described events.  Throughout the story I couldn’t help but feel connected to all of the characters.  They were so well described and developed, they were real!    I also started to connect the author to part of the story.   As Cletus continues to imply that Summer is a writer, I was connecting Rylant to the story. 
This book certainly portrays the realities of life and provides an opportunity for others to see the world from another perspective.  It also informs children that they are not alone with the feelings that are experienced in this text and that there is hope to move forward in the grieving process.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Walt Disney's Cinderella Retold by Cynthia Rylant

When I read the title Walt Disney’s Cinderella, I thought about the Magic Kingdom, the glitz and the glam and the all too familiar movie.   I began to wonder why Cynthia Rylant felt the need to retell this age old classic.  As I opened the book, I recognized some of the art work from the movie on the title page.  Then, I read the first page and knew the answer to my question.  Rylant worked her own “magic” through her lyrical storytelling and took this story to a deeper level.  This is not the superficial Cinderella story; this is a story that will touch your heart.
She begins with, “This is a story about darkness and light, about sorrow and joy, about something lost and something found.  This is a story about Love.”  Readers young and old will be able to connect to this text, although we may all have different or limited experiences with all of these emotions.  In the end, we all as humans want to be loved.
 Rylant keeps many of the story elements with the typical wicked stepmother, evil step sisters, and a prince looking for a wife, there is a ball that Cinderella is not able to attend, a fairy god mother etc.  However, unlike the movie, these events are not what this story is all about.  Rylant is able to continue to weave the message of love throughout the story.  As Cinderella was outside weeping, “She knew something more.  She knew, somehow, that she was meant to go to the king’s ball as well.  Her heart told her.  Her heart said that Love was waiting there.”
“Who can say by what mystery two people find each other in this great wide world?  How does a young man find his maiden?  His heart leads him.  He finds her in a room.  He asks her to dance.  And when he touches her, he knows.”  This is the Love that they both had been longing for, that we all long for. 
Mary Blair’s illustrations certainly take us back to the time and place with the Fleur de Lis on the end papers.  The illustrations in this text are unique in that they were originally made for the movie. One page that stands out in my mind is when the prince and Cinderella are standing in front of the clock when it struck midnight.    The colors are muted with some darkness to show the time of day.  There is some light in the sky because the moon is behind the clock.  I could appreciate the clock and the architecture to the right of the clock.  I noticed the vertical and horizontal lines to suggest order and tranquility.  I think that shows how they feel when they are together.  Then as look at Cinderella she is leaning with her hand out and that shows me the tension she is experiencing because she must leave now.  She knows she will turn back to the girl with rags and filth.  The clock is large and center of the spread showing me how important time is at the moment. The prince and Cinderella are right in front of the clock and we are right there with them.  This is making me feel more empathetic to the situation. 
I must admit that I wasn’t thrilled to read yet another version of Cinderella.  However, I realize how important it is to understand authors and illustrators.  I am beginning to appreciate the incredible craft of writing that Rylant has mastered.  I have a whole new perspective and appreciation for this fairy tale that has been around for many years.  I wonder if she plans on retelling any other fairy tales.

Sidewalk Circus

Have you ever had the opportunity to sit on a bench and just observe the world around you?  Many times, we adults are too busy to notice anything.  We see everything for exactly what it IS not what it COULD BE.  In the Sidewalk Circus Paul Fleishman and Kevin Hawkes work collaboratively to tell a story about the Garibaldi Circus coming to town.  The setting IS on the city street with construction workers, a butcher’s shop, a market, a theater marquee, a restaurant, and a dentist’s office.  Through Hawkes amazing artwork you will see how this city street COULD BE a circus act.
The first full-bleed spread shows people beginning the day.  Most of the spread is shadowed by the buildings with the sun on the rise.  People are in their normal routine, reading the paper, waiting for the bus stop or taking their dog for a morning walk.  Two people stand out from all the rest.  The girl wearing a yellow shirt and purple pants and the man wearing a yellow and red shirt with overalls.  As the girl is walking down the street, she notices the man holding up a rolled piece of paper.  The shadow behind the man illustrates the child’s perception of what COULD BE, the Ringmaster.  She takes a seat on the bench and reads the marquee, “COMING SOON!  WORLD-RENOWNED…. GARIBALDI CIRCUS!”  The show is about to begin….
Hawkes uses a full bleed spread to encourage us to become part of the audience in this circus.  Then, he frames the girl on the left side of the page to clearly show this story is being told through her eyes.  Within the frame of the girl, there are four other adults all in black and white while she continues to be in color.  Throughout the story Hawkes alternates between the full bleed spread to pull us in and then he frames the girl and uses one and a half pages to continue the actions through this girl’s perspective.  His use of acrylics and smooth paper make the colors vibrant and engaging.  His use of shadows allows him to transform the story from what IS to what COULD BE.  He transforms the ordinary to extraordinary through the eyes of a child.
We feel frightened as the construction worker walks across the beam… or as “The Great Tebaldi” walks across the tightrope.  Hawkes is able to elicit suspense and fear in the reader because of the lines and angles that he uses.  The lines from the beams are angled from the bottom left toward the top right.  The construction worker is also angled making it appear that he is off balance.
Who knew that a man carrying a frozen hunk of meat COULD BE “Goliath the Strongman,” two children on skateboards COULD BE “The Famous Colombo Clowns,” window washers COULD BE “The Borovsky Brothers on the Flying Trapeze?”  Even a dog walking on a leash becomes a lion.
Hawkes does a terrific job of weaving these acts together.  He is able to draw your attention to the main event while including events from the past that we would see for what it really IS.  The man with the yellow and red shirt appears throughout the story.  One might think that he is just hanging posters to advertise the circus coming to town, but through a different lens one could see that he is the ringmaster coordinating these events. 
At the end, the girl is walking toward the bus and there is a shadow of a clown on the road.  I began to wonder if the circus was going to continue as she traveled along.  Then, I turned the page and realized another circus was about to begin with different characters.  A young boy is sitting on the bench reading the marquees that is advertising the circus coming to town.  The tightrope walker in the boy’s version is a squirrel with a long plant in his mouth as he is running across the wire.
Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes make a great pair.  Even though this is a wordless picture book, Hawkes would not have seen these events without Fleischman helping him see these events through his imagination. By the same token, we as readers would not have understood Fleischman’s story without the artwork by Hawkes.  His ability to use colors and shading told a sequence of events in our ordinary world and transformed them to extraordinary.