Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Tiger Rising

by Kate DiCamillo

Katie DiCamillo is a Newberry Award winning author with her work in The Tale of Despereaux.  Because of Winn Dixie received the Newberry Honor.  The Tiger Rising is a National Book Award winner.   DiCamillo is a talented writer that offers us stories about loss, grief, abandonment, and hope.
The Tiger Rising is much like Because of Winn Dixie with the loss of a mother and the father uproots his child and moves to Lister, FL.  Unlike the uplifting dog that was the catalyst for change, this story has a caged tiger.  The tone is quite different between these two books.
Rob Horton is a twelve year old boy trying to mourn the loss of his mother, who just died from cancer. Rob was numb.  “Rob had a way of not-thinking about things.  He imagined himself as a suitcase that was too full, like the one that he had packed when they left Jacksonville after the funeral.”  Rob’s father hit him after the funeral because he was crying. Rob was determined never to cry again; not the bullies at his school, not the rash that covered his legs, not the void in his heart from the loss of his mother, and not the distant father who was wrapped up in his own grief.
Rob found a tiger deep in the woods behind the motel where he lived.  He meets a new friend, Sistine Bailey.  Sistine also has emotional issues because her parents recently separated. Her father was having an affair with his secretary.  Together, they decide to free the caged tiger that belongs to the motel owner, Mr. Beauchamp.
Rob identifies with the caged tiger.  His own emotions are trapped inside of himself.  After he frees the tiger, he is initially pleased with his decision.  In the end, it causes him to release all of the pent up anger and grief that had been buried deep down inside of him.  He opens his suitcase and expresses all of his deepest emotions to his father.  He too is finally free.  This book is filled with symbolism.
The descriptive language used in this book is rich.  DiCamillo uses economy poetry at times to avoid elaborate prose.  She chooses the perfect words to touch an emotion with great depth.  For example,
“You’re the liar,” said Sistine in a dark cold voice.  Her face was so white that it seemed to glow before him.  “And I hate you.” She said to him.  “Everybody at school hates you, too. Even the teachers.  You are a sissy.  I hope I never see you again.”
She turned and walked away, and Rob stood and considered her words.  He felt them on his skin like shards of broken glass.  He was afraid to move.  He was afraid of how deep they might go inside him.
DiCamillo has a unique way of writing about very difficult issues that are hard to cope with and accept. Grief, loss, and hope are the themes that seem to run through her books.  One might think they are depressing, but they actually are written with a sense of hope and they are a form of inspiration to the reader. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Dateline: Troy by Paul Fleischman

I must admit that as a high school student or as an adult, I have not had any interest in the Trojan War.  Paul Fleischman shows his tremendous talent once again with Dateline: Troy.  He juxtaposes his retelling of the war with newspaper clippings of modern events.  He is able to illustrate the parallels of the world of Homer’s Iliad to our world today. 
After reading Weslandia, Seedfolks, Joyful Noise, and Bull Run I have come to appreciate the remarkable perspective Fleischman can portray through his work.  I couldn’t understand what would give him the idea to connect our modern events to the Trojan War.  Fleischman shares that he got the idea while reading the myth of Hercules to his children.  “When I came to the part in which he’s driven mad by a goddess and kills his wife and children, I was struck by how much the myth sounded like a contemporary newspaper headline.”  He also adds, “My best teachers in school were those who could take a seemingly remote topic and show its connection to my own life.  I’ve tried to do the same with Trojan Wars.”
I was amazed and shocked with the more current articles that he found that could parallel the events from 1200 B.C.  Right from the beginning, as Hecuba, queen of Troy had a nightmare.  Calchas was sent for and he reveals his interpretation of the dream.  “The child will bring fire and ruin upon Troy.  There’s but one action.”  On the opposite page there is a newspaper clipping from May of 1988 with headlines, Reagans use astrology, aides confirm.  There is without a doubt many controversial issues brought up through these newspaper clippings; Newborn Found in a Dumpster, Studies on Beauty Raise a Number of Ugly Findings, In Search of Daniel A mother finds the son she gave away, Attract the Opposite Sex with secret Signals, Bush declares this Sunday to be a day of Prayer, War Protester Burns Herself to Death Here, When a Homeboy Dies, Japan Admits WWII Use of Sex Slaves, No One Rests in Peace, & The Human Cost of War. The range of these clippings is from 1950-1992.  I cannot even imagine the amount of time it would take to do this research and collect the perfect article to parallel the event in history.
Without a doubt, after reading this book and the parallel articles or headlines, one must stop and think.  The collage format behind the articles adds to the articles.  I was struck by the photo of a grieving widow in a Denver cemetery on Memorial Day 1984 as she was grieving holding on to the tombstone.  There is a pressed dried flower in the top right corner and a pedal from the flower three-fourths of the way down bordering the right side.  The article reads, “The Glory and the Waste.”  The reader can feel this loss. 
Many informational books will provide the sources of where they get their information.  I did not see that information in this book.  However, I searched the Trojan War and found the same events. 
This book is certainly clever and without a doubt would engage those children that are reluctant to learn about the Trojan War.  However, one must be prepared to have some courageous conversations about the realities of our world. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Deaf Musicians

Story by Pete Seeger and Paul Dubois Jacobs
Illustrations by R. Gregory Christie

Imagine having a love and passion for music.   You are in a band and entertain people often.  Then all of a sudden you can’t hear the notes anymore.  What would you do with yourself after the band leader asked you to leave the band?  Give up! Right? Or not?  Who will listen to a deaf musician?
The Deaf Musicians written by Pete Seeger and Paul Dubois Jacobs, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie  is the winner of the Schneider Award.  Lee, a piano player, loses his hearing and is asked to leave his band.  As Lee travels home on the subway he notices an advertisement for a school for the deaf.  Lee decides to attend the school.  Of course he meets a friend by the name of Max who also plays the Sax.  Together they begin to rap about their favorite jazz tunes using sign language.  Eventually, the two form a quartet and they perform on the subway.  They begin to attract the attention of many.  “Lee, who once thought his jazz life was over, found himself playing for audiences larger than ever before.” 
Christie’s illustrations sing along with the words on the pages.  There are bright, vivid colors and expressions on the characters faces that reflect the love of music.  The mood changes as Lee is coping with the fact that he cannot hear.  After Lee attends the school for the deaf, makes friends, and learns how to overcome his challenge.  He is able to play music once again.  This is an uplifting story about overcoming challenges. 
The words on the page are rhythmic and this book lends itself well to be interactive with children.  There are phonemic gems such as “doodle-bop-bop,” “boo-bang-bing,” or “shish-shish- shoogle.” 
The arrangement of framed illustrations to the arrangement of the text on the page shows the passing of time to the rhythm of the music.  There are bold lines throughout the book that are used to focus our attention on the band and their music as they play in the subway.  Christie uses her own unique style to reflect the content and mood of this story. 
Pete Seeger includes an afterword in the book.  He is thanking interpreters who have joined him as he has played music at festivals.  Seeger states, “It is a reminder of the power of music even when it can’t be heard.”  “The real music is in people joining together.”

The Rough-Face Girl

written by Rafe Martin
illustrated by David Shannon
There are many versions of Cinderella from around the world.  This Cinderella story, The Rough – Face Girl is an Algonquin Indian version.  Just as one might expect, there are two domineering sisters who were cruel to their younger sister.  They made her sit by the fire and feed the flames.  As the branches burned and popped the embers would fall on her.  Over time her hands, arms, and face became burnt and scarred.  Her sisters would laugh at her and say, “Ha! You’re ugly, you Rough-Face Girl!”
The two are adamant that they will marry the rich, powerful, and handsome man, “Invisible Being.”  The only problem is no one can see him.  There is a father of the girls in this version who gives all he can to provide necklaces, buckskin dresses, and beaded moccasins to the girls, except for the Rough-Face Girl.  The Rough-Face Girl is given her father’s old slippers and some broken shells. In order to marry the “Invisible Being,” one would have to prove to his sister that they have seen him.  The two girls fail at their attempt.  The Rough-Face Girl, however, is able to see him in many different places.   After she bathes in the lake, magic ensues and she is transformed to the beautiful girl she had always been. 
Shannon uses framed acrylic paintings with earthly hues to reflect the mood.  On the back of the book jacket it states that Shannon frequented the Museum of the American Indian to continue his interest in Native American lore. His research is evident in the intricate details of the native dress and their tee-pees.   He has some profound illustrations as he depicts the characters in this story.  As the Rough-Face Girl is tending the fire, the girls look evil in the background as they taunt her.  On the following page the girls are beautiful as they walk proudly to meet the Invisible Being.  Shannon does a great job using the resources in the environment to illustrate this story.  He is keeping the theme between the Algonquin Indians and their love for the earth.
There is an author’s note at the beginning of the story.  According to Martin, “The Rough-Face Girl, an Algonquin Indian Cinderella, is, in its original form, actually part of a longer and more complex traditional story.”  I have tried to find evidence that this is true, but was unsuccessful. 
I appreciate the work of Martin and Shannon.   However, I don’t feel that this work compares to that of Yeh-Shen.  I was disappointed.


Devastation and Destruction.    
Earthquakes by Seymour Simon is a visually remarkable book with high quality, full-color photographs.  Each page throughout the book illustrates the magnitude and depth of destruction that can occur after an earthquake.  There are also diagrams included to depict the earthquake zones in the United States.  There is a map that shows the plates in the earth’s crust and red dots that shows where earthquakes have occurred around the world.   The photos alone tell a story about how devastating an earthquake can be.
Seymour Simon does a great job of explaining where earthquakes take place and how that impacts us.  He uses some scientific language, yet there is an analogy provided that a child would understand.  For example, “In one type of fault, called a strike-slip fault, the rocks on one side of the fault try to move past the rocks on the other side, causing energy to build up.  For years, friction will hold the rocks in place.  But finally, like a stretched rubber band, the rocks suddenly snap past each other.  The place where this happens is called the focus of an earthquake.” 
He includes facts about the Pacific Ring of Fire; faults, the San Andreas; strike and dip- slips; seismographs; the Richter and Mercali Intensity Scales; and sand boils.  With all of this terminology he does a fantastic job of describing these words so that a child is able to understand what he is talking about.  For example, “Sand, mud, and water sometimes bubble up during earthquakes, gushing water and soil like miniature mud volcanoes.  These “sand boils” are particularly dangerous to buildings.”
At the back of the book there is a glossary, an index, and a web address to read more about it at the Smithsonian Institute.
Simon’s descriptions and photos will give the reader a better understanding of the causes of earthquakes and their effects.   There will no doubt be a new appreciation for the force and magnitude behind an earthquake.  Some informational books can be intimidating, this book is inviting and non-threatening.

Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man

Who would think that reading a biography about the legendary Lou Gehrig’s life could move you to tears?  Well, author David Adler and illustrator Terry Widener were able to do just that.  This is a heartfelt tribute to one of the greatest sports figures in our history. 
The opening was interesting as it describes the year 1903.  It was a year with great beginnings with Ford’s first automobile and the Wright Brothers first successful flight in an airplane.  It was also the year Henry Louis Gehrig was born.  Lou’s family lived in Yorkville, New York after his family emigrated from Germany.  We learn of his love for sports at an early age.  His mother had great hopes and dreams for Lou to attend college and become an accountant or engineer.  He did make it to Columbia University, but he never finished college because he signed on to the Yankees baseball team.  Lou’s mother, Christina, was furious because she thought he was ruining his life.  Adler does a remarkable job of describing Lou’s character as a child to an adult.  “The boy who never missed a day of grade school became a man who never missed a game.” 
In 1938, Lou was not able to hit a ball anymore and there didn’t appear to be any reason.  Again, his character traits shine through as he took extra batting practice.  He tried to change his stance and watched his diet.  But the over time he progressively became worse.  He even fell down while he was getting dressed in the clubhouse.  Clearly something is wrong with him, but the Yankee manager Joe McCarthy refused to take Lou out of the game.  This just shows the tremendous respect McCarthy has for Gehri.  “On May 2, 1939, he told Joe McCarthy, “I’m benching myself…for the good of the team.”
Lou was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a deadly disease that affects the nervous system.  Lou was loved by his team and fans and they dedicated July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium.  Lou addresses the fans in appreciation of this day.  “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got.  Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” 
Terry Widener’s illustrations are deep and rich as he used Golden acrylics on Strathmore Bristol board.  The illustrations depict life of the 30’s from the clothes, the strap around the school books, the milk bottles on the steps, all the way to the uniform that changed over time.  I thought it was interesting that the eyes all appeared to be closed on each person.  Perhaps this was done to signify that he is a man in the past.  The most profound illustration for me was when Widener portrays Gehrig shedding a tear as he addresses his fans.  Widener depicts Gehrig in a spread that takes up about three –fourths of the page.  Gehrig is up close and center with a tear falling and the fans in the stadium appear so far away.   It is this illustration that moved me to tears as I was reading this book.  I could feel the sadness he had as he was no longer able to play the game that he so passionately loved, yet I knew he was sincere with being thankful for the opportunities he has had as he says, “I consider myself to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”  The darker colors add to the tone of this moment.  There are vertical and horizontal lines that suggest tranquility.
Just before the story ends there is a full bleed double page spread that depicts Yankee Stadium with people walking away from the stadium with black umbrellas, as the rain is falling down.  This illustration sets the tone for the last page as we learn that on Monday, June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig died.  On June 4th the Yankee game was canceled because of the rain.  This was also the day of Lou Gehrig’s funeral.  The minister at the funeral said that there wouldn’t be any speeches.  “We need none, because you all knew him.”  After reading this book, I felt like I knew him as well.  A dedicated man with tremendous dignity and pride.
One might think that children today may not be interested in this book or relate to it because Gehrig is from the 1930's. I am sure many Yankee fans may own a copy of this book for their children.  Although, I think Red Sox or White Sox or any other family should own a copy as well.   Children today can learn a lot from his character.  They can also relate to the situation in which he had to choose college or professional baseball.  Many children today want to play professional ball as well and I am sure many of their parents are telling them to get an education first.  Even back in the 1930’s Gehrig’s mother wanted him to finish college too. 
This story also brings up immigration as well.  Some people are open to the diversity in our country while others are not.  I think it is important to reflect and remember what our country was founded on and to remember some of the legends who came from immigrants from other countries.
Dedicated.  Courageous.  Appreciative.  Lou Gehrig!

Martin's BIG Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

There are many books published about the honorable, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  However, none have had the emotional impact on me like this one.  Martin’s Big Words is an exceptional children’s biography about Dr. King.   It is a Caldecott Honor book and it received the Coretta Scott King Award.
This book is written and designed very well.  From the cover of the book there is a large photograph of Dr. King with a smile on his face.  The title, author and illustrator are on the back.  The end papers are beautiful stained glass windows with four distinct shades in each quad and a diamond in the center.  Bryan Collier uses these windows as a metaphor.  The multi-colors symbolize the multi- races.  These windows allow you to see through or look past where you are. 
Rapport is able to make a long story short which flows smoothly.  Each two page spread tells about King and his crusade for civil rights.  It also has a quote from King in bold, oversized font.  This book addresses some of the issues of that time; oppression, prejudice, racism, and overcoming violence in a non-violent way. 
The collage and watercolor by Bryan Collier add depth to the sometimes simple text on a page.  He does a wonderful job extending the story.  I was moved by the African American girl standing in front of an American flag.  There are shades of green and yellow on the girls face, head band, and on the flag.  It made me think about how this country was at war with race.  There is also a little bit of yellow. The yellow, green and red reminded me of an African flag.  The text on the page states, “He cared about people all over the world.”  Bryan includes an author’s note at the beginning of the book.  “I wanted to bring a fresh spin to a story that’s been told many times.  In some places, the imagery had to stay true to history.  In others, I tried to push to an emotional level that allows the reader to bring his or her own experience to it, without actually losing the intensity or the intention of the story.  Collage is a perfect medium for this; it allows me to piece together many different things that have no relationship to each other, until they’re put together to form a oneness.”   The last illustration in the book was moving and it showed perspective.  There is a picture of Dr. King in the center of the stain glass windows in a church.  There appears to be some distance and it looks like he is looking through a window with blinds.  There are horizontal lines going across his face.  These lines suggest order and tranquility for Dr. King.  At this point in the book, Dr. King has passed.  There are also four pillar candles illuminating the church.  According to Collier's author's note, the four candles in the last illustration represent the four girls who were killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist church.  Overall around the stain glass windows it is black.  This adds to the mood of the story.  The text on the page next to this illustration is powerful.  “His big words are alive for us today.”  Then there are oversized words that say, “Freedom,”  “PEACE,” “Together,” I have a dream,” and “LOVE.”
Rapport and Collier worked well together to tell about Dr. King’s courage, commitment, and sacrifice in a moving way.  There is also an author’s note and at the beginning of the book.  Rapport had been introduced to the philosophy of nonviolence as high school student.  As a teacher she saw the sit-ins of the 1960’s.  In preparation for this book, Rapport “reread his autobiography, speeches, sermons, and articles.”  Rapport is able to use poetic language to help the reader understand who Dr. King was and Collier’s illustrations added depth and he was able to extend the story to move the reader beyond the print of each page.
At the end of the book there is a timeline of important dates; from his birth to the holiday that we celebrate each year.  There are also additional books suggested and it even offers information to a child about how to use the Web to find research.  “To find Web sites, use the name Martin Luther King as your search word.” 
This is certainly a quality nonfiction piece of literature that is a work of art.  As we continue to be a diverse society our children can be left with some profound words by the late, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  “You are as good as anyone.”  “Everyone can be great.”  “Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that.”  “Love is the key to the problems of the world.”
 I have posted a link to a photo-story of this book that is on teachertube.  It is narrated by Michael Clark Duncan.   Martin's Big Words  This video does a great job of bringing this story to life.
“His big words are alive for us today.”

Friday, April 22, 2011

Because of Winn-Dixie

by Kate Di Camillo
This is a touching story about sorrow and joy, about disappointment and hope, about denial and acceptance.  This is India Opal Buloni’s story.
India Opal was a ten-year-old girl that recently moved to Naomi, Florida.  Her life changed when she went to the grocery store to buy a box of macaroni and cheese, white rice, and two tomatoes.  She came back with a dog.  She decided to name the dog, “Winn-Dixie” because that was the first name to pop in her head, of course that is the name of the grocery store. 
Opal’s mother had abandoned her as a child and her father put in many hours as a preacher.  So, Opal referred to her father as “the Preacher.”  She is able to convince her father that they should adopt this stray dog.  “Daddy, do you know how you always tell me that we should help those less fortunate than ourselves?”  “Well, I found a Less Fortunate at the grocery store.”  A typical ten-year-old who knows how to manipulate an adults words to her own benefit. 
The Preacher agrees to let Opal keep the dog.  Winn-Dixie is the key for Opal moving forward in her life as she tries to overcome the fact that her mother was an alcoholic, that she left Opal and her father.  She has feelings of being unworthy and insecure.  As a result of her relationship with Winn-Dixie, Opal gains the courage to ask her father about her mother.  He agrees to tell her ten things and Opal holds on to each word as she tries to come to terms with whom her mother is and why she left.  She is also trying to keep her mother alive in her memory.
Winn-Dixie’s loveable, charismatic nature helps Opal make friends with some unlikely people including the local “witch” and an ex-convict that runs a pet store.  She also meets people from the church and community.  Many of these characters are also on a journey to healing as well, as they have all dealt with love and loss.   Because of Winn-Dixie, Opal and the other characters are joined together.  They are able to learn lessons about holding on, and letting go, about knowing when to listen and when to share.  They develop a friendship that helps them move forward with their lives and accept where they are in their lives.  The most important relationship that was reestablished was Opal’s with her father.  Together, they are able to share their sorrow and disappointments about Opal’s mother. 
Di Camillo uses first person narrative and this style of writing speaks directly to the reader.  She has carefully crafted the characters and makes us feel the emotions they are experiencing.  Especially at the end when Opal accuses her dad of giving up on looking for Winn-Dixie and her mother.  Opal says, “You always give up!  You’re always pulling your head inside your stupid old turtle shell.  I bet you didn’t even go out looking for my mama when she left.  I bet you just let her run off, too.” 
Di Camillo’s story Because of Winn Dixie parallels her own life.  After reading The Journey of Edward Tulane and Great Joy, I am beginning to see that she writes from her heart.  There is a sense of loneliness and hope in her work.  In an interview by Stacy Cochran she reveals that writing has been therapeutic for her.  It was after writing The Journey of Edward Tulane that she was able to begin to open up her own heart as well.  She states that The Journey of Edward Tulane was a “Gift” for her.  Here is an interview with Kate Di Camillo as she shares about her craft as a writer.

Di Camillo tells a moving, heartfelt story, but she also addresses socially sensitive issues that many children deal with every day.  This story includes alcoholism, prejudice, the elderly, death, and single-parent families. 
Kate Di Camillo’s Because of Winn Dixie is a Newberry Honor book.  This book was also made into a movie.  This is an excellent book that many children will enjoy and connect with.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children

by Caroline Kennedy
illustrated by Jon Muth

Poetry is a beautiful language that expresses our deepest emotions and questions the world around us.  As we encounter special events in our lives, we often turn to poets who are able to express our thoughts and feelings when we cannot find the words.  A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children by Caroline Kennedy and illustrated by Jon Muth is a must have in every home.  I was drawn to this book right from the cover.  There is a photograph of Caroline, as a child, sitting in a small chair “reading” to her teddy bear.  As I opened the cover of the book the rich red lined textured endpapers made me have a feeling of warmth and family.  There is a thoughtful introduction about the significance poetry has had in Caroline’s life and it certainly encouraged  and motivated me to do more with poetry with my own two children. 
Caroline has gathered a collection of one hundred six poems from her childhood.  This collection is divided into seven categories: About Me, That’s So Silly, Animals, The Seasons, The Seashore, Adventure, and Bedtime.   All of these categories are influential in a child’s life.  This anthology has a wide variety of authors.  Some of the authors are known for their children’s work such as A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack Prelutsky, and Edward Lear.  Other authors that are included have published work for all ages such as Robert Frost, William Wadsworth, T.S. Eliot, and William Shakespeare.  There are also two poems from the Bible; Psalm 23 and Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.  Kennedy also included two poems that her mother wrote, credited to Jacqueline Bouvier. Some of these poems may be difficult for children to understand. However, the pattern, rhythm and love of language will be easy and fun for them to fall in love with.  There is also a variety of categories from lyrical, free verse, sonnets, and haiku. 
The illustrations throughout this book are magnificent.  Muth’s richly textured watercolor paintings add to the depth of these poems.  Pages 70-71 shows a double page spread of a girl standing on a large rose with wings on her back, as she holds a bucket with a rose inside.  There are two poems shared with this illustration.  One by William Shakespeare Ariel’s Song The Tempest V, I, 104-110 and one by Robert Frost The Rose Family.  The deep rich colors capture the spirit of the poems. 
There is no doubt that this book was a labor of love.  There are many poems in this collection that people from all over the world can relate too.  There are ten poems that have been translated into English in the collection.  However, at the end of the book, Kennedy includes the ten poems in the native language.  Poetry is a magical language that speaks to our hearts.  It doesn’t matter what county or city you are from or if you are rich or poor.  Poetry can connect us in very powerful ways. 
At the beginning of each section, Kennedy shares a part of her life as she recollects the importance or the memories of the poems she has selected.  This is an excerpt from the introduction she shared before “About Me.”
“Poetry has been called the language of the human heart, and part of what poems communicate can’t even be put into words.  But because poems speak an authentic language, they help us to teach as well as to learn.  When we read a poem in which the poet is speaking from the heart, we can learn about ourselves as well as about the author, for poets put into words the feelings that all of us have.”

This is a beautiful collection of poems for the young and old.  They are funny; they inspire; they make us happy.  They even help adults take a trip down memory lane.  These well crafted words can evoke strong feelings and emotions and help us have a new perspective and appreciation for our lives.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Joyful Noise

by Paul Fleischman
illustrated by Eric Beddows

Who would have ever thought that poems about bugs could come to life and have character?  Well, Paul Fleischman and Eric Beddows have done just that.  Fleischman has an untouchable craft.  When these poems are read by two readers, the insects voices join together to create a duet.   The music of these words produces a rhythm and beat that brings the insects to life.  You can hear the insects buzzing and humming as they go about their business.  Perhaps that is why it was the winner of the John Newberry Award.
The poems are written in two separate columns for the two readers.  There are times when the readers read the same words, times when the words alternate between the two readers, and times when they are echoing each other.  Fleischman is able to incorporate rhythm, sound pattern, and imagery. 
Fleischman has demonstrated an outstanding ability to write with perspective.  From Sidewalk Circus, Westlandia, Seedfolks, and Bull Run to Joyful Noise he continues to present an amazing perspective.  I never thought I would find some of these bugs cute or even feel sympathy, but somehow those feelings are evoked.  Fleischman’s language is lyrical and people young and old will enjoy reading these poems aloud. 
Some of the information is true while some is fictional.  My favorite poem was about “Book Lice.”  This poem is about lice that live in books.  “We honeymooned in an/old guide book on Greece.”   “We’re book lice/ fine mates/despite different tastes.”
This book would certainly be a big hit in classrooms as children read aloud with a friend.  This book lends itself well to the opportunities of visualizing with mental images.  From the “Whiligig Beetles”  “We’re spinning and swerving/ as if we’re on a/ mad merry-go-round.”  Children will be able to relate to this description.  As children read this aloud the will begin to feel the power of language and enjoy poetry.  Even the most reluctant reader would be engaged in these poems.  They would love the alliteration as they heard the sound of the words “flickering, flitting flashing.”   Children would find the humor in the thought of fireflies writing on the night sky.  The most amazing effect of reading these poems about bugs is that they will never think of a bug in the same way.  I am certain when a child sees a firefly at night, s/he will recall this poem and think of them writing on the night sky.  Or when they find a bug in a book, they will think of the “Book Lice.” 
Eric Beddows uses black and white pencil drawings to illustrate his bugs.  He is able to convey a character within each of them that allows the reader to see them in a different light.  We don’t view them as pesky and want to shoo them off.  As the “Book Lice” are standing arm in arm on top of two books.  The smaller book is called The Jury and the larger book is called Poems.  They are standing on these books as they are deciding where to live.  The illustrations add character and charm to the magical musical duet.
Some of these poems are sad while others are funny.  Some are loud while others are quiet.  But all together they produce the Joyful Noise that surrounds us.

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night

by Joyce Sidman
illustrated by Rick Allne

From the beginning of this book we are introduced with a full bleed spread as the owl is awakening and the sun is setting.  Joyce Sidman is the author of this Newberry Honor Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night.  The collection of poems begins with;

Welcome to the Night
“To all of you who crawl and creep,
who buzz and chirp and hoot and peep,
 who wake at dusk and throw off sleep:
Welcome to the night.” 
Joyce Sidman provides twelve poems that take us into the forest at night.  From the tiniest creatures of snails, crickets, and spiders to the Dark Emperor, the owl.  From mushrooms to trees, Sidman uses varied poetic forms throughout this book from rhyme to free verse. It helps reveal the mystery behind why and how animals are active at night.
  The poems are on the left side of the page with a small illustration on the bottom right corner of that page.  On the right side of the page, there are framed illustrations that reflect the insect, plant or animal being described.  These illustrations take up about three-fourths of the page.  To the right of the illustration is a sidebar that provides factual information about the insect, plant, or animal. 
The “Dark Emperor” is written in the shape of the owl.  However, the voice is the perspective of a mouse that is terrified by his predator.  “Oak After Dark” really gives the reader a new perspective.  One must look and think about a tree in a different way after reading this poem.  Most people think about a tree making clean air for us to breathe, but I doubt that we think about the animals that live there.  “While beetles whisper in my bark,/ while warbles roost in branches dark.” 
These poems will no doubt be appealing to many children.  These poems are not too complex or abstract and will no doubt encourage the reader to think and ask questions.  I think it is great that the sidebar information is provided and will answer some of the questions that the reader may have.  The language encourages the reader to think and imagine in different ways.  When describing the oak tree, “to stand while all the seasons fly, / to anchor earth, / to touch the sky.”
Rick Allen’s illustrations are amazing.   There is information provided on the dedication page that shares how these illustrations were created.  “The prints in this book were made by the process of relief printing.  A drawing or sketch is transferred onto a block of wood or, in this instance, a sheet of linoleum mounted on wood, and the drawing is then cut and carved away using a variety of tools.  The areas left uncut are covered with ink and printed on paper by hand or on a press; a number of blocks can be cut and then successively printed in different colors, with the different blocks being “registered” or aligned to create a multicolored print.  The prints for Dark Emperor were each printed from at least three blocks (and in some instances as many as six) and then hand colored with a strongly pigmented watercolor called gouache.” 
This book is well thought out from the cover to cover.  From the endpapers, title page, the full bleed double page spreads as the sun is setting in the beginning to the full bleed double page spread at the end.  The book ends with “Moon’s Lament” as it questions where everything is going.
 “Where has it all gone-
 my glory,
my radiance-
now that day has come?
 Alas. Another eternity of sunbeams to wait."
 There is a glossary to define some of the scientific vocabulary at the end.

Waiting to Waltz: A Childhood

Written by Cynthia Rylant
Drawings by Stephen Gammell

As I continue to read more of Cynthia Rylant’s work, I feel like I am beginning to put pieces of a puzzle together.  She has a remarkable gift to write a picture book that has rhyme and rhythm for a child, yet a message that is profound for an adult.  She can write a novel that will draw you into different characters and leave you feeling satisfied.  She can write a collection of poems such as Waiting to Waltz: A Childhood that can quickly make you connect and reflect upon your own life.
This collection of poems is about Rylant’s childhood growing up in West Virginia.  It isn’t just about her; it is also about the people in her community.  Her perspective of them as she saw them as a child and how she sees them as an adult.  Rylant’s use of free verse allows her to express her feelings about what Beaver is like, the people that live there, poverty, a dog dying, her father dying, religion, and growing up. 
There are many poems that reflect a child’s own experiences and emotions.  For example, Little Short Legs is about a dog that is run over by her mother.  Many children think that their parents are perfect and nothing bad can ever happen to them.  However, we all know that this isn’t a perfect world and bad things can happen to anyone.  “Never knew a grown-up could/make such a mistake.”  Kids will relate to this.  Another example is in the poem PTA.  Many children have working parents and they are not able to attend PTA functions.  As a child, this is hurtful because you want your mom present.  You want to feel proud and be a part of these types of functions.  However, in the end, Rylant is proud that her mother is a nurse and is able to save a child. 
Steven Gammell’s pencil drawings add to the depth of these poems.  Forgotten describes her mother informing Rylant that her father had passed away.  She isn’t really sure what this means to her and how she is supposed to be feeling.  “Nobody else’s dad had been so loved/by a four-year-old./And so forgotten by one/now/thirteen.”  There is a black and white illustration of an empty chair by an end table with an empty glass on top.  There is some light shining through the window and a coat hanger hanging on a hook on the wall.  This illustration depicts emptiness.  The poem The Great Beyond is about Rylant as she went to swim in her friend’s swimming pool.  Rylant did not tell her friend that she didn’t know how to swim.  This poem is about her starting to sink in the deep water.  “Halfway across/the eight-foot end/started to sink.”  “And no one ever knew,/not even Karen,/how close I’d come/ to the great beyond.”  The illustrations are black and white, but there is resemblance of light and dark.  It reminds me of the images I visualize when someone has a near death experience and they say they “see a light.”  Both of these examples, swimming in a hole and a near death experience, remind me of two of her other works;  When I was Young in the Mountains and Missing May.
These poems are well written and include common themes, emotions, and experiences familiar to all children.  Rylant was able to write with precision.  She is able to use the perfect words to convey her experiences growing up without telling her life story. With each work that I read of Rylant, I begin to have a better understanding of who she is and where she comes from.   Rylant writes from her heart and with that comes discussion of social issues.

Before We Were Free

by Julia Alvarez
Many of us would not understand what it feels like to live under a dictator.  However, after reading Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez, I felt like I had a pretty good idea.  Imagine not being able to speak freely in your own home.  Imagine the thought of the secret police popping into your home and tearing it apart.  Or the thought of being taken away, jailed, or killed at any given moment.  This is what life is like living under a dictator. 
Julia Alvarez once lived in the Dominican Republic with her family.  For over thirty years her country was under the bloody rule of General Truijillo.  There were secret police (SIM) that would keep track of people.  People were not allowed to gather in public places.  No one dared to resist or there was the risk of arrest, torture, and death to the perpetrator and the family.  People lived in fear for their lives.  There is a tradition in the Latin American countries to give testimony.  To tell the story to keep the memory alive for those that died.  Julia Alvarez is keeping the tradition by sharing this story, Before We Were Free.  It is also the winner of the Pura Belpre Award. 
Anita appeared to be a typical eleven year old girl living in the Dominican Republic while attending an American school.  All was well until her cousin was withdrawn from school and she fled to America.  This caused Anita to be concerned and ask questions.  It seemed that all of her relatives were moving to America and Anita couldn’t understand why.  Her Uncle, Tio Toni, had mysteriously disappeared and her dad kept getting weird phone calls.  One day she came home to the secret police scoping out her house and they parked in the driveway and watched and listened to their every move.  Eventually, Anita discovers her parents and relatives are living a double life as members of an underground movement.  Anita’s father wanted a better life for his children.  “I want my children to be free.”  He asked Anita to make a promise to him, “Promise me you’ll spread your wings and fly.”    
Anita’s character is well developed.  This story is told through her perspective and the tone reflects fear and hope that she and her family endure.  As the times become more trying, Anita keeps a diary so that there is a record of their experiences if she doesn’t survive.  This story started out slowly developing the plot but once it reached the climax it became a page turner.  All of the events and emotions were real and felt by the reader.  While this book is about living under a dictator, it is also about a young girl becoming aware of boys and it also deals with family dynamics.  This would make the book more appealing to a young reader.
Julia Alvarez’s writing style and experience made me feel like I was right there with Anita as she encountered her joys and sorrows. I didn’t feel like an outsider.   It is truly an unforgettable story about a family’s effort to make change in their country and their journey to freedom.  The description of her father’s heroism and the family’s pain is incredibly moving.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Imagine living a life as a princess and you are part of a fairy tale with servants, wealth, beautiful clothes, and elaborate parties.  Then, in an instant, your life is transformed, to a life of poverty and hardships that you aren’t sure you are able to endure.  Pam Munoz Ryan is the author of Esperanza Rising the winner of the Pura Belpre Award.   Ryan was inspired to write this novel as a result of listening to the many stories her grandmother shared with her as a child.  While this story is fictional, it does parallel her grandmother’s life in some ways.  Esperanza once thought she would rise to her mother’s position of presiding over El Rancho de las Rosas.  Esperanza had a difficult time letting go of the past, but she does and she rises above the circumstances only to have her life filled with a richness that money can’t buy.
Esperanza Ortega was the daughter of a wealthy land owner at El Rancho de las Rosas in Aguascalientes, Mexico.   It was the night before Esperanza’s birthday and her father had gone out to help a friend on his ranch.  Her father was killed by bandits and Esperanza’s life was changed forever.  Esperanza’s uncles made a proposition with Esperanza’s mother, and she had no choice but to flee to America with some of her servants. 
It is during the Great Depression and situations are grim for everyone.  Esperanza and her mother are able to live in a cramped migrant camp in California where they face challenges and adjustments socially and financially.  Esperanza was well aware of the social class system and never imagined she would have to work.  Initially, she was not prepared for the labor that was expected of her.  After her mother contracted Valley Fever, Esperanza had to begin working in the fields to help pay for their food and her mother’s medical expenses.  She was also saving money to help her grandmother move to the U.S.  Esperanza was worried about the workers union and labor strikes.  She could understand both sides but she didn’t want to be involved.  Esperanza witnessed the deportation of union organizers and strikers to Mexico.  What was most shocking was that some of the people deported were U.S. citizens and had never been to Mexico before.  Esperanza just wanted to work to survive.
Ryan describes what life was like for Mexican farm laborers during the Great Depression.  We learn about the growing strike movement, the influx of immigrants into California, the discrimination against Mexican workers, and the deportation practices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
This is a story about a young girl who is resilient when faced with emotional, social, financial, and cultural differences.  Esperanza rises to each and every challenge.  She never regains her wealthy status, but she does gain the love and respect from her family and friends, even the ones that were once on the other side of the river.
This book lends itself to much discussion about the class system, cultures, migrant workers, unions, striking, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  It would be great dialogue to compare these issues from the past that are still present today.
Ryan used some foreshadowing at the beginning of the book.  When Esperanza hurt her finger on the rose her grandmother said, “No hay rosa sin espinas.  There is no rose without thorns.”  Esperanza knew her grandmother was talking about life and with life comes difficulties.  She was also teaching Esperanza how to crochet.  “Ten stitches up to the top of the mountain.  Add one stitch.  Nine stitches down to the bottom of the valley.  Skip one.”  When Esperanza tried her mountain tops were lopsided and the bottoms of her valleys were all bunched up.  Her grandmother reached over and unraveled all of Esperanza’s rows and said, “Do not be afraid to start over.” 
Esperanza didn’t just crochet the mountains and valleys she was walking in them.  Some days were good while other days seemed impossible.  She was able to heed her grandmother’s advice and she was able to give up her past and start over. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Faraway Island by Annika Thor

Living in the land of the free makes it difficult to imagine what life must have been like in Europe in 1940.  Annika Thor’s evocative writing in A Faraway Island takes us back in time and delivers a heartfelt story about a family that is separated as a result of the invasion of the Nazis.  The winner of the Batchelder Award for an outstanding children’s book translated from a foreign language and subsequently published in the United States. 
World War II was a horrifying time for many, but it was especially difficult for the hundreds of children that were shipped off to other countries in the hopes of being reunited with their families once again. Such was the plan for twelve year old Stephie and eight year old Nellie.  Together they traveled by train and ship to foster families in Sweden.  They were comforting each other and dreaming of a life of comfort and safety.  Upon their arrival they soon learn that they would not be living together.  However frightening that may seem, they were comforted by the fact that they were not too far apart and would maintain contact. Nellie’s foster parent, Aunt Alma, was kind warm and loving.  While Stephie’s foster parent was cold, stern, and anything but nurturing.
Nellie appears to assimilate to the language and culture quickly without reservation.  Stephie is acquiring the language quickly but has great difficulty adjusting to life on the island.  She doesn’t like eating fish for dinner, her language is sometimes a barrier, her classmates make fun of her because she is a foreigner and some perceive her to like Hitler.  The reader can feel the sense of loneliness and isolation as Stephie longs for her parents and the life she once knew.  Stephie manages to persevere through each day with the hope that within six months she and Nellie will be reunited with their parents in America.
Throughout the story Stephie has many internal conflicts as well.  She was a Jew and her foster parents baptized both Stephie and Nellie Pentecostal, she has flashbacks to the anti-Semitism she has experienced and witnessed, she has the burden of monitoring her sister and the plight of trying to get visas for her own parents.   Not to mention the fact that there is word the war could spread to Sweden and Nellie and Stephie could be on the move again and possibly completely separated.  Imagine the amount of apprehension for a twelve year old girl. 
Thor’s novel was inspired by true events and is a first in a series of four books.  Thor writes in her author’s note;
These novels are based on interviews with about a dozen of the real refugees who shared their childhoods, their letters, and their diaries, as well as on the research of Ingrid Lomfors, a Jewish historian in Sweden who explored the destinies of the five hundred refugee children.  I have listened to my own parents’ stories about what it was like to live as Jewish teenagers in Sweden during WWII.
I didn’t want to tell Stephie’s story as historical, but as a story in the here and now.  Today, too, children and young people have to escape from their countries, leaving their families behind.  And even today, the care we give to refugee children who arrive alone, in Sweden and other wealthy nations, is not what it ought to be.  One of my aspirations for these books about Stephie and Nellie is that they will contribute to a better understanding of the vulnerable situation in which refugee children continue to live.
While this book is about a time in history it connects to our lives today.  There are issues of displacement, learning the meaning of your own identity, and the worldwide joys and sorrows of growing up.  It offers a glimpse into our past; an opportunity to question and understand why there was prejudice, why man could be so inhumane toward another man, and why there was such a strong desire for freedom.