Monday, December 31, 2012

THE GIRL IN RED

Written by Aaron Frisch

Story and pictures by Roberto Innocenti

(Creative Editions, 2012)

After my first read, I knew I would not feature this book as a recommendation.  I did not like the ending.  Indeed, it was not appropriate.  Too dark.

But then I went for coffee and recalled earlier versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”, the story upon which the book is based.  In some tellings, the grandmother got locked in a closet, but in others, the wolf ate her.  Red Riding Hood often suffered the same demise.  Then, the woodsman cut open the wolf, rescued the remarkably unchewed characters and stuffed the villain with rocks, leaving him to die.  Happy endings?  No nightmares?  Maybe this is why night lights were invented.

Here I go.  I’ll feature the book and you can decide if it suits you.  The story begins with a strange grandmotherly doll plopped in the middle of a table as children gather round to hear a story on a rainy day.  The narrator (the doll) tells us:

Our story takes place in a forest.

This forest has few trunks and leaves—it is composed of concrete and bricks instead.

Yes, we’re in a city in modern times.  Sophia is “a quiet girl” who lives in a rundown tenement with her mother and younger sister.  Since Sophia’s grandmother is unwell and wants company, Sophia sets off for the “other side of the forest,” first putting on a red hoodie as there is a possibility of rain.

Sophia’s mother cautions her to stick to the “main trail” the entire way.  Indeed, it’s a grim route, littered with trash, graffiti and a chalk-drawn body behind police tape.  A mall proves a distraction and then Sophia does what we’ve all done:  she exits through the wrong doors.  This leaves her disoriented and vulnerable in an even seedier area.

Taunted by some no-goods, she is “rescued” by a motorcyclist with big teeth.  Ultimately, he ditches the girl and gets to nana’s house in advance.  An unhappy ending results.

 This is a reminder of stranger danger, a tale to warn kiddies to never let down their guard.  Still, common sense should have prevailed.  It appears to be a long, long journey through the worst parts of the city.  I cannot imagine a parent allowing a young child to make the trek alone. 

The illustrations portray dark scenes with bursts of color.  Roberto Innocenti’s illustrations are the true highlight of the book.

Author Aaron Frisch offers an alternate happy ending after we see the story audience weeping around the doll.  After all, we are told, “Stories are magic.”  I doubt the book would have been published without this add-on which leads me to wonder if the grimmer work of the Brothers Grimm would reach the marketplace in today’s Disney-fied world.  If nothing else, this is a book to begin a discussion on whether grit and darker aspects of reality have a place in children’s picture books.  I have featured some darker books (Way Home; Riding the Tiger; Bird) and enthusiastically recommended them.  But is scaring children about strangers the way to ensure they are safe?  My uneasiness remains, but I welcome your comments.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

THE WIDOW'S BROOM

By Chris Van Allsburg

(Houghton Mifflin, 1992)

Oh, what a talented man, that Chris Van Allsburg!  His realistic, yet fanciful black and white illustrations are masterpieces, works I can marvel at, feeling simultaneously calmed and inspired.  But he adds to the awe through clever story ideas, compellingly written.  In fact, the opening sentences of The Widow’s Broom caught my attention even before the art:

                       Witches’ brooms don’t last forever.  They
                       grow old, and even the best of them, one
                       day, lose the power of flight.

 
What a concept, what an introduction.  Immediately, we think of a broom as a character.  The introduction further entertains:

                           Fortunately, this does not happen in an instant.  A witch can feel the
strength slowly leaving her broom.  The sudden bursts of energy that
once carried her quickly into the sky become weak.  Longer and longer
running starts are needed for takeoff.  Speedy brooms that, in their youth,
outraced hawks are passed by slow flying geese.

Pardon the pun, but now we’re fully swept up in our imaginations.  We consider the life of a broom.  We empathize with such brooms whose glory days were long ago.  Moreover, we visualize without Van Allsburg’s illustrations.  How fun to imagine a witch making unsuccessful running starts in hopes of flying!  How amusing to picture the same exasperated witch falling behind a flock of honking geese!  (And oh how those of us with clunker cars can suddenly identify with a witch!)

One day a worn out witch’s broom lands in—or plummets into—a widow’s garden.  Naturally, it comes with a witch, but she makes a witchy exit, abandoning the useless broom.  To the widow’s surprise, the broom retains some of its magic, displaying its skills as an obsessive sweeper.  With a little redirection, the widow comes to welcome the broom.  However, her neighbors, particularly Mr. Spivey, feel  differently.  “’This is a wicked, wicked thing,’ he said.  ‘This is the devil.’”

This is a story about superstition, about suspicion, about refusing to modify one’s black-and-white views of good and evil.  This is also the story of triumph, not so much the broom’s but the widow’s.  Indeed, superstitious beliefs can be manipulated.

Children will easily connect with the broom and side with it when it is taunted, perhaps even bullied.  (Though I would argue the broom is never the victim.  There is no imbalance of power.  If anything, the broom has the upper hand.)  It is only at the end or during a repeated reading that an audience will view the story more from the widow’s point of view.  This is a wonderful book to use with students in discussing perspective taking.  Think as the broom, as the Spivey parents, as the Spivey children and ultimately as the widow.  All of these characters have different reasons for their thoughts and their behaviors.  A fanciful book like The Widow’s Broom can shed light on real situations, on the notion of fear, on the utility of objects and on how cleverness may prevail.

Monday, October 1, 2012

WHEN I WOKE UP I WAS A HIPPOPOTAMUS

Written by Tom MacRae

Illustrated by Ross Collins

(Andersen Press, 2011)

Okay, before I begin to discuss this book, let me just work through a rant.  Writing and illustrating a picture book involve distinct skill sets.  I have particular respect for the talented few who excel in both realms.  The recent trend in children’s publishing is to print both the author and the illustrator’s name on the cover without noting his/her particular role.  Same for the title page.  Only from the back jacket flap can one determine that one person was the writer and the other the illustrator rather than having the book be a wholly collaborative undertaking.  I agree that names deserve equal billing on the cover and I realize that, when there is no specification, the author’s name appears first, followed by the illustrator.  I just think the contributors should receive a specific credit for what they did.  Am I the only one who feels this way?  Feel free to leave a comment.

Okay,...I feel better.  I shall shed my cranky Grizzly persona and move on to talking about hippos.

When I Woke Up I Was a Hippopotamus doesn’t actually dwell long on the hippo transformation.  No, this is a book about a boy who imagines he is a series of objects, each occurring at the most (in)opportune time.  When it is time to get up and go to school, enter hippo.  “[H]ippos in their sludge don’t get up in the morning, and so I didn’t budge.”  As the boy nears school, he becomes a statue.  His poor parents must push and tug to fight the inertia.  Once class is dismissed, the boy is a rocket, zipping home faster than the speed of light.

It is a fun book, one that might feed young minds with DANGEROUS bursts of imagination to help cope with the day while leading to greater exasperation from parents and teachers with their own schedules and commitments.

The story reminds me of the amusing imaginings of Frankie in Let’s Do Nothing and the adventures of Calvin in so many Calvin & Hobbes sequences.  Why be human when you can be a monster, a robot or a mud-lovin’ hippo?

My one quibble with the book is that the text is told in rhyme.  Some of the verses come off clunky as one has to squeeze in a couple of extra syllables.  Getting the rhyme right distracts from the goofy antics.  But then, I confess to reading every children’s rhyme as though it were written by Dr. Seuss.  Perhaps it is I who needs to stretch myself.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

BINKY THE SPACE CAT

By Ashley Spires

(Kids Can Press, 2009)

I live in a rural area that has a healthy population of coyotes and bears.  There is a tendency for pet owners to keep their furry ones inside.  But how would an animal rate its existence if it were permanently house-bound?  Binky is such a pet.  To be sure, he loves his humans—one big, one small—and his good friend Ted, a stuffed mouse toy.  Life is good.

But adventure calls.  Binky feels the need to travel to outer space.  Binky receives a package from F.U.R.S.T. (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel).  Included in the contents is his official Space Cat Certified badge. 

To Binky, outer space is not the moon, Jupiter and a gazillion stars.  It is outside space—everything on the other side of the windows and doors that confine him.  He yearns to fend off aliens, aka flies, and lay claim to distant lands.  He must train for the mission and ready his outer space gear.  The time has come.

Binky the Space Cat is a 64-page easy reader graphic novel, a good pick for students in grades two and three, a rapid read for grade fours.  It took me awhile to view Spires’ main character as a cat.  The ears never really looked like ears to me, especially when the character is shown from the side or the back.  Eventually I just had to go with it.  The black and white blobby is a kitty.  The other characters and illustrated backgrounds are clear and appealing.

The story’s structure and humorous tone bear a strong resemblance to Mélanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel series by the same publisher.  Perhaps too strong.  This is essentially Scaredy Squirrel as a graphic novel instead of a picture book.  In the Scaredy series, a squirrel fears leaving the safety of his tree; in Binky, a cat longs to stray from the comforts of his home.  Kids won’t mind the similarities.  In fact, this is a great book to recommend to young readers who love Scaredy Squirrel. 

We know that one way readers strengthen comprehension is by making connections to what they read.  Kids easily make personal connections text, but it is harder to get them to make book-to-book connections.  The pairing of Scaredy Squirrel with Binky the Space Cat would support students in thinking this way.

If nothing else, reading this book will prompt you to take your pet for an immediate outdoor excursion.  If you don’t lead this endeavor, who knows what plans your pet will come up with on its own?!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

THE PIRATE CRUNCHER


By Jonny Duddle

(Templar Books, 2009)
 
There’s an edginess in the air.  I always sense it before the big holidays.  Thanksgiving.  Christmas.  International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  Yes, mateys, the day is creeping up on us—September 19. Tick, tick,... And, if you’re like me, all you’ve got in your talking treasure chest is, “ARRRR!”  Makes a strong initial impact, but you’ve got to have something as a follow-up.  How about a book?

Last year, in a last-minute ITLAPD rush, I dug through the children’s library shelves and came up disappointed...nothing but fool’s gold.  Perhaps someone had already pillaged the collection because I found a couple of cutesy titles that failed to capture the pirate spirit and a few older text-heavy books that lacked the visual appeal for today’s youth.  This year, I began my search in August and sailed away with The Pirate Cruncher.  A worthy find, indeed!

The story starts with a bone thin old fiddler who wanders into Port Royal and captures the attention of the pirates at the Thirsty Parrot.  I’m guessing it’s more the lyrics, than the tune:

I was sailing one day and what did I see?
An island of gold in the scurvy sea!
With a fiddle-de-dee,
There’ll be treasure for me.
Fiddle-de-dee, across the sea.

Immediately the motley crew dream of bags of loot...diamonds, rubies, gold.  (Only Captain Purplebeard’s faithful macaw strays from the revelry:  “I’d rather have a bag of peanuts.”)  The pirates hastily down their last pints of grog and board their ship, the ominously named Black Hole.  (Arrr!  Methinks this may be a springboard to foreshadowing.)

The fiddler adds another verse to his chantey.  Seems the island vanishes and no pirate has ever returned. Pirates, of course, are a hardy lot.  But when the fiddler sings on about a pirate-crunching monster, the crew members begin to quiver (“I forgot:  it’s the Parrot’s Point picnic today.”).  Nonetheless, no one can keep Purplebeard from his golden opportunity. 

I shan’t reveal more.  But do take a peek at the ending before sharing with children.

Duddle’s tale captures the true spirit of pirate adventures and his colorful digital illustrations are pure visual candy.  Hunt down this treasure to make your Talk Like a Pirate Day a rich, successful celebration.

Now I’ve got to get started on taste sampling all that Halloween candy I’ve stashed before sending off my letter to Santa. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

THE PENCIL

Written by Allan Ahlberg

Illustrated by Bruce Ingman

(Candlewick Press, 2008)

Drawing instruments have been book stars of late.  I recently reviewed The Obstinate Pen and now a pencil, a paintbrush and two erasers have prominent roles in The Pencil.  At the outset, a pencil rests on a blank page before discovering its ability to draw squiggles, then objects.  First, a boy.  The boys wants the pencil to draw a dog and the dog, in turn, wants a cat which leads to a predictable chase through areas that the pencil quickly draws.  Each new creation asks the pencil for a name.  The boy becomes Banjo, the dog, Bruce.  There is Mildred the cat and Kitty the paintbrush.  But there be limits to all this naming.  After the pencil draws a ball, this text follows:

“What’s my name?” said the ball.

“Don’t be silly,” said the pencil.

The ball then made a sad face.

“All right, then…Sebastian,” said the pencil.

As everyone knows, sad-faced balls always get their way.  Perhaps only the pencil will go unnamed.

The characters soon want color.  Enter the paintbrush.  All is glorious until an exuberant eraser emerges, threatening to obliterate all that has been created.

This is a quick-paced story, told in succinct sentences that create a rhythm that allows the reader to focus more on the ongoing changes in the illustrations.  Pencil and paintbrush earn a well deserved break by book’s end, at which time the reader will be only too happy to take a blank paper and a few art tools to create his own drawing adventure. 

This is a clever picture book that will captivate an elementary school audience.  To put it in corny terms, readers will be drawn to it.  [Insert groan here…but don’t let my lame humor dissuade you from tracking down this title.]

Sunday, September 9, 2012

I'M DIRTY!

By Kate & Jim McMullan

(Joanna Cotler Books, 2006)

I’ve seen it many times.  A boy doesn’t want to look at a book…there’s too much playing to be had.  But then, out comes a book with a race car or construction machinery, someone starts to read and the boy is enthralled.  No doubt, that will occur in many schools and homes as teachers and parents introduce young boys to I’m Dirty.  The picture of a smiling backhoe will lure the boy into the book, but the words will keep him there ‘til the end.  He’ll be hooked from the first page:

Who’s got a BOOM, a dipper stick, and a BUCKET with a row of chompers?  ME!  And that’s just my REAR end.

Honestly, that kind of opening would have been lost on me, but I could get lost in animal books while the Smash Up boys delight in dirt.  The backhoe is the main character of this book, but a mucky muck boy could easily place himself in the vehicle’s wheels. 

The backhoe is tasked with cleaning up an illegal dumping ground and Kate and Jim McMullan create a four-page reverse counting book in the middle of this picture book, with the rig clearing 10 torn-up truck tires…down to 4 cat-clawed couches…and finally 1 wonky washing machine.  For me, it’s a sad statement about how we view so much as being so easily disposable, but little boys will simply be fascinated in imagining the backhoe do its work.

A stump removal is the next focus for the backhoe and the reader is challenged with making realistic machine noises for “Mmmmmmmmmmpuh!” and “TIM-BERRRRRRRRRR!”  After a solid day’s work, the backhoe has a mud bath, emerging plenty dirty.  Good luck convincing little boys to take a bath after finishing the book.  I imagine many listeners will think, If the backhoe can be happy in the dirt, why can’t I? 

I’m just here to point out a few good books.  Sorry, but I’ll leave the rest of the parenting issues to you.

Monday, September 3, 2012

PICTURE BOOKS FOR KICKING OFF THE SCHOOL YEAR


There is so much excitement in elementary schools as a new year begins.  Still, there is also a palpable amount of nervous energy.  What will my teacher be like?  Will I make new friends?  If I put one more pencil in my backpack, will the whole thing explode?

Everyone deserves a fresh start.  I’ve blogged these picture book favorites before, but I am listing them here with links to the original posts for your convenience.

Here’s hoping it’s a great year, with students discovering books that strengthen a love of reading, parents and teachers finding a little downtime to engage in their own reading pursuits and class pets discovering new ways to reuse newsprint.

I hear a bell ringing.  Stay calm and enjoy the ride!

THIS SCHOOL YEAR WILL BE THE BEST!

Written by Kay Winters

Illustrated by Renée Andriani

(Dutton Children’s Books, 2010)

This is a great book to get a child or an entire class thinking about their hopes and dreams for the new school year.  It’s one I return to every year.  There is something so wonderful about renewal.  (Click here for the original post.)

DAVID GOES TO SCHOOL

By David Shannon

(Blue Sky Press, 1999)

True, some children will wish they were home battling monsters and worse on the videogames, but most are truly happy to be back in the classroom.  David is the kind of student I worry most about.  He’s certainly eager, but all those school rules don’t make much sense to him.  This year, let’s keep David’s spirit intact and find ways to channel all that exuberance!  (Click here for the original post.)

SHIN-CHI’S CANOE

Written by Nicola I. Campbell

Illustrated by Kim LaFave

(Groundwood Books, 2008)

Going back to school wasn’t always a happy time.  Many aboriginal children faced separation from their families, language and culture, spending the year in residential schools.  This beautifully illustrated book is a way to spark critical thinking early in the year.  (Click here for the original post.)

SPLAT THE CAT

By Rob Scotton

(HarperCollins, 2008)

Poor Splat.  He’s a jittery mess.  What will school be like?  Can he put it off another day?  Forever?  This humorous book may serve as a springboard to talking about what children are nervous about with the start of school.  (Click here for the original post.) 

PERFECT MAN

Written by Troy Wilson

Illustrated by Dean Griffiths

(Orca Book Publishers, 2004)

There once was a superhero known as Perfect Man.  Now he’s a teacher.  He is still saving the world, one child at a time.  This book honors the heroic deeds teachers do every day.  (Click here for the original post.)

A FINE, FINE SCHOOL

Written by Sharon Creech

Illustrated by Harry Bliss

(Joanna Cotler Books, 2001)

If you can’t read this book and think it is about your school, you’ve got a problem.  All year, I am reminded of Principal Keene’s genuine impression of where he works—a fine, fine school with fine, fine students and fine, fine teachers.  And yet Mr. Keene still needs to learn a thing or two.  No matter how wonderful school is, there still needs to be time to pursue other interests.  (Click here for the original post.)

 

These are my back-to-school picks.  What are yours?  Leave a comment and mention a title or two.  I’d love you to steer me in the direction of other reading treasures!

 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

PERFECT MAN

Written by Troy Wilson

Illustrated by Dean Griffiths

(Orca Book Publishers, 2004)

Perfect Man is a perfect book to begin the new school year.

Perfect Man is a real superhero who has done many amazing feats to save the world time and time again.  Naturally, he is idolized and there is no bigger fan of Perfect Man than little Michael Maxwell McAllum.  To Michael, Perfect Man rocks!  He rules!  He is the superhero of superheroes! 

But then Perfect Man holds a press conference to announce he is getting out of the superhero biz.  Lots of other able rescuers in masks and capes.  Perfect Man will stick to his human identity.  A reporter asks, “What will you do?”  The reply:  “Oh, I’ll find something.  After all, there’s more than one way to save the world.”

The announcement doesn’t faze Michael Maxwell McAllum.  Perfect Man will be back.  He always returns. 

But time passes and the other superheroes take on all the menacing threats to society.

When school resumes in September, Michael discovers Perfect Man’s new identity.  Yes, he is Mr. Clark, Michael’s new teacher.

Michael didn’t recognize him at first.  He wasn’t wearing his costume anymore.  His hair was thinner.  His stomach was rounder.

Oh, how this book makes me do cartwheels!  In my mind, at least.  I am not a gymnastically gifted superhero.  How wonderful for a teacher to be portrayed as a superhero, saving the world one student, one class at a time!

He saw all the good stuff and helped them bring it out.  He helped them find their super powers.

One of my all-time favorite picture book illustrations appears near the end of the book.  Dean Griffiths provides an aerial view of the classroom, with Michael hovering by Mr. Clark’s desk as the two talk about Michael’s power to write.  The rest of the students have cleared out for recess or for home, but Michael is completely captivated by his teacher’s inspiring words.  Yes, this is how teachers can be “superhuman”, inspiring children to do their own super deeds.

Part “The Incredibles”, part Frindle, this is a book to warm every teacher, to reaffirm why we work so hard in the classroom, in the halls and on the playground.  Enjoy!

Friday, August 31, 2012

I WANT MY HAT BACK

By Jon Klassen

(Candlewick Press, 2011)
 
Humor’s a funny thing.  You have to be in the right mood for a joke or it will fall flat, maybe even offend.  Such was the case when I first read this book last year.  I did not like the ending.  Not a bit.  Yep, I was offended in the same way I was when I first read the otherwise worthy book, Some Smug Slug.  I am a hardcore vegetarian and I do not like to think of animals eating animals.  Even if it’s the law of nature, part of the life cycle, yada yada yada.  Berries for all!

A few months ago, a colleague came to me, incredibly excited about a picture book he’d stumbled upon over the weekend.  “Hysterical!” he said.  “I could not stop laughing!  Only I can’t remember the title.  Something about a hat.”  Well, we Googled and, to my surprise, it was this book.

I gave it another try.  Okay,…better.  Still thumbs down to the ending.

Third try today.  (It’s hard to get my hands on a copy of the book.  It is ALWAYS checked out of the library.  In fact, I grabbed the book as it was being reshelved.  Apparently, it’s not just my colleague who finds this book pretty funny.) 

Yes, I see the humor…the whole way through the book.  I reminded myself of what Roald Dahl did to Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Sometimes we need to be entertained in seeing characters get their comeuppance.

Simple story here in I Want My Hate Back.  A bear wanders the forest asking the other creatures if they’ve seen his hat.  It’s missing.  And, yes, the bear wants it back. 

I do love the simple use of color in the text.  Bear’s parts are in regular black ink.  Each of the other animals speaks in colors that correspond with their own coloring (e.g., green font for the turtle; brown font for the deer).  There is one exception, that being the animal whose words are shown in red.  The color matches not the animal, but the hue of the missing hat which this animal clearly knows something about.  All of this builds to the big ending.

Naturally, I prefer a couple of the parts in the middle of the story.  When the bear asks the turtle, “Have you seen my hat?”, the turtle says, “I haven’t seen anything all day.  I have been trying to climb this rock.”  Poor turtle.  It’s not exactly a colossal rock.  We see the good side of the agitated bear when he says, “Would you like me to lift you on top of it?”  Turtle’s reply:  “Yes, please.”  A day’s work accomplished in a passing gesture!

I also love the bear’s response to the clueless animal—mole?  armadillo?—that says, “What is a hat?”  This is where I laughed out loud.

Klassen’s illustrations are simple and effective.  Each page portrays the featured animals and a minimal background.  This allows the viewer to focus on the animal interactions and the search for the missing red hat.

Kids will indeed love this story.  The whole story.  Check it out if you can get your hands on it.  In most households, however, it would make a worthy purchase.  I have a feeling I Want My Hat Back will warrant many encore performances.  With the different colored fonts, it makes a wonderful two-person read-aloud.

Laugh freely.  As I’ve learned, this is not a book to be taken too seriously.

Monday, August 27, 2012

GOOD BOY, FERGUS!

By David Shannon

(The Blue Sky Press, 2006)

There are many splendidly trained pooches.  Ones that sit, stay, heel and vacuum the living room.  These dogs have never been raised by me.  Or, presumably, by David Shannon.  The author/illustrator of the popular “David” books (e.g., No, David!; David Goes to School) has a West Highland terrier named Fergus who is as challenged by rules and expectations as dear David.

At the outset, Fergus charges out the door, in hot pursuit of a cat.  Fergus can’t get the cat and the owner can’t get Fergus.  Calling and coaxing do not work.

Okay, Fergie, time to go in.  Come here, Ferg.  C’mon boy.  FERGUS, COME!  Here Fergie, Fergie, Fergie!  FERGUS MacLAGGAN!  YOU COME HERE RIGHT NOW!  Please, Ferg.  Come on.  Let’s go, boy!
Whoo boy, you know someone’s going to be in the doghouse.  No treat for you, Ferg.  But, of course, charmer that little Fergus is, he gets the treat and the prime spot on the sofa.  Some dogs just know how to rule rather than follow rules.  Let the “smart” border collies dazzle with their obedience.  And let Good Boy, Fergus! Impress and reassure all the failed dog trainers out there. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

BOOK OF BIG BROTHERS

Written By Cary Fagan

Illustrated by Luc Melanson

(Groundwood Books, 2010)

I don’t usually go for endearing when I’m picking out books about siblings.  Experience tells me bratty and annoying lead to funnier reads.  But I’ve groaned when reading a few recent books that feature pesky siblings.  Sometimes it’s just too much.  Perhaps that’s part of the reason I kept reading Book of Big Brothers when it became clear from the first pages that the book was a tribute to older siblings rather than a platform to humorously disparage them.  The real reason that I persevered, however, is due to the author.  Cary Fagan wrote one of my all-time favorite picture books, the utterly delightful Thing-Thing.  For me, anything he writes deserves a read. 

There is a sense of nostalgia that comes from reading this book.  I may not have had such endearing moments growing up with my siblings, but it is nice to think Fagan—or anyone—may have.  Jerry Spinelli masterfully evoked nostalgia regarding his childhood in Knots in My Yo-yo String:  The Autobiography of a Kid and Fagan’s Big Brothers ably takes the baton handoff. 

The story begins with the boy narrator relating the story of his arrival home from the hospital after birth.  His two older brothers drop him—not due to being cloddish or evil imbeciles but on account of their excitement to be the first brother to hold the newest member of the family.  The anecdotes of the boys’ growing up together lack incidents of teasing the baby brother.  (Indeed, there is one tale of the youngest having the upper hand on them.)  Fagan’s storytelling is as appealing as ever.  Take this description of when the narrator had to stay home sick on a school day:

At recess time I could hear the kids shouting in the school yard.  The afternoon dragged on and on.  It felt like the whole world had forgotten me.

Yes, it’s a far car from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”.  Endearing, to be sure.

Fagan goes on to portray the big brothers as protectors, entertainers, death-of-a-pet consolers and sparkly-ideas-gone-wrong co-conspirators.  Many a parent will read this book and find it a pure work of fiction.  I can picture a mother or father giving the book a bedtime read, sitting between two siblings and interjecting, “Now why can’t you two be like that?!”  But in most homes, even my own, there are (were) such moments.  Sometimes we just have to jog our memories a little more.

Luc Melanson’s illustrations add to the nostalgic feel with a heavy dose of muted greens, blues and reds.  The humans are simplistically drawn in sharp contrast to some of the realism that pops up in furniture, a shoe tread and a Lego robot.

The text is far longer than most of the current crop of picture books.  I’ve attended conferences and heard agents and editors continue to lower the word count maximum for picture books:  1,000…800…500.  Yes, these limits make the slush pile more manageable, but I am glad that Groundwood Books allowed the author the chance to tell the whole story rather demanding the equivalent to a highlight reel.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

LARF


By Ashley Spires

(Kids Can Press, 2012)

While vacationing in Whistler, I spotted a sasquatch!  Not on a trail or overtaking a gondola.  It was in the library, of course, on the cover of a picture book prominently displayed in the children’s section.  Naturally, I had to take a closer look.

Yes, it seems that the sasquatch is no hoax.  Indeed, there is one living sasquatch in the world and he is a laundry-obsessed vegetarian named Larf who lives in a cabin in the woods with his pet rabbit, Eric.  In accordance with legend, he’s extremely tall, extremely hair and has extremely big feet.  (But the legend never spoke of Larf’s flashy red scarf.)

Larf likes his quiet existence.  Just thinking about how he’d become a spectacle if he were ever captured makes him break into a sweat.  He does what he can to avoid too-curious humans. 

But then he comes across a news story about a sasquatch making an appearance in the city of Hunderfitz.  This startles Larf.  Could it be that he is not the only sasquatch?  He travels to the city, as incognito as an extremely tall, extremely hairy, extremely big-footed beast can.  What will happen if and when Larf finally meets another of his kind?

Like The ShyCreatures, this book is another conversation starter about legendary creatures and about being different.  As I came to the double-page spread where Spires shows how the sasquatch appearance is turned into a tacky tourist attraction, complete with vendors selling Bigfoot Burgers and stuffed animal sasquatches, I thought of the Dionnequintuplets, the Elephant Man and Knut the polar bear.  These would also make worthy research topics to connect with the book.  Why must we turn rarities and natural marvels into shameless roadside attractions?  What actually happens when the fascination fades?  How should these “wonders” be regarded in a way that is respectful?

There is also a strong message about the joy of solitary endeavors and the sometimes competing need for a real connection—companionship—with someone who is like you.  Just like Larf, we all need to discover our own uniqueness while also finding a likeness in others.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

MY THOUGHTS ON REQUIRED SUMMER READING

Until I’d read MyLife as a Book, I was unaware that some schools require summer reading.  As should be abundantly clear based on the fact I maintain this blog (and I’m an author and I have a masters in Language and Literacy Development), I am a huge advocate of getting kids to read more.  That said, there is a marked difference between imposing reading and inspiring reading.  I think we should be focused on the latter. 

Call me old school about school, but I have always viewed the school year as taking up roughly ten months of the calendar year.  During that time, teachers introduce students to a variety of learning activities, attempt to instill solid work habits, decide what should constitute homework and hope that students leave feeling not just like they survived but they grew as human beings from the range of experiences. 

There is a growing movement against assigning homework.  Some say it does not advance a child’s learning, particularly up until high school.  Many parents feel it infringes on family time during evenings and weekends when a child should pursue other interests or simply learn to appreciate unstructured leisure time.  Still, homework is the norm in most schools and households.  But required summer reading effectively classifies reading during July and August as more homework.

When I was in school, my English grades were good.  As for Woodworking (“Industrial Arts”) and Physical Education, not so much.  I cannot imagine how miserable summer would have been if my wretched Woodworking teacher required that I build 2 birdhouses and a lamppost over the summer.  What if my P.E. teacher had ordered that I climb a rope three days a week, run laps around my neighborhood and learn to finally connect the bat to the ball as peers smirked and whispered putdowns throughout July and August?

The point is, we all have strengths and weaknesses.  We also need to make personal choices about how to spend free time.  As much as I value reading, it should not be incumbent upon me, as a principal or a teacher, to set forth a reading routine for summer.  I am not there to oversee it.  I should not be prescribing how children and families spend a portion of their vacation.

I do understand that many parents struggle with developing a leisure reading habit in their children.  Teachers do their part during the school year, often assigning reading minutes and requiring students to submit monthly reading charts that document books/pages/minutes read.  At some point, educators have to step back and see if there are any fruits of their labor.

I have always felt that reading attitudes are more important than current levels of comprehension and fluency.  There are many “aliterate” readers who can read, but choose not to unless forced.  Yes, I am sure they are one of the targeted groups for required summer reading.  Will their interest grow?  Fat chance.  I know firsthand.  Beginning around the middle school years, I stopped reading.  At least, I stopped reading school-sanctioned works—namely, fiction books—unless there was a test on the book.  I did, however, spend time reading.  I read a great deal in newspapers and magazines.  I devoured Mad magazine and wondered why entertaining parodies were never mentioned in school before high school.  If I had been required to read certain books or a set number of minutes during the summer, I may have shut down altogether.

I never belonged to a public library summer reading program.  Some kids jump on board, but I didn’t want a sticker or certificate.  That would only have cemented my then-unwanted geek status.  Still, I did bike to the local branch from time to time, checking out a few books on hockey or orangutans or how to get rich.  I didn’t have to do it on a set day or time during the week.  It was just an option that I usually tied in with a stop at the convenience store for yummy, unhealthy summer treats—a Fudgsicle, a pack of gum, a soda or, if I’d just been paid for mowing the neighbor’s lawn, all of the above. 

Have we forgotten what summer is about?  Did the people who now prescribe summer reading have miserable vacations when they were growing up or were they the natural readers who didn’t have to be coerced to read Julie of the Wolves and The Borrowers? 

To be clear, I was not a prolific summer reader.  I spent much more time riding my bike, hiking the escarpment, playing marathon sessions of hide and seek, splashing about in our pool and engaging in a great deal of imaginative play.  Yes, I also watched too much television and let many afternoons crawl by with my head six inches away from an A.M. transistor radio.  I am thankful that I had time to be bored and to have to figure out what to do on my own.

I am reminded of one of my favorite picture books, A Fine, Fine School by Sharon Creech.  It is one of the few in which a principal is a main character.  Mr. Keene loves school and his fine students and teachers.  In fact, he so loves seeing how much everyone is learning that he believes more school will make things even finer.  After all, you can never have too much of a good thing.  School on weekends, holidays and, yes, summer!  This wonderful book is always such an entertaining read-aloud.  The students moan and groan—they even yell!—as I keep stopping the reading and pretend to jot down Mr. Keene’s ideas about more school…just the thing our school needs!  It takes a student to (politely) confront the principal to tell him there are other types of learning that cannot happen at school or under a school’s direction.

During any given school year, I hope teachers do everything they can to inspire a love of reading.  I hope they have built classroom libraries with new titles and not just dusty paperbacks with torn covers (although some of the best reads are the ones that have survived mud puddles and spins in the dryer).  I hope teachers have actively been a part of school and public library visits with their classes.  (It surprises and disheartens me when I see that students do not know their way around libraries.  Where are the graphic novels?  Where are the books about pets?  Where is the Guinness Book of Records?) 

I hope that teachers have introduced new types of books through lively, memorable read-alouds and enthusiastic, informed book talks.  I hope that they have spotted the pretend readers during silent reading times and tried to find something—anything!—that will pique their interest.  Calvin & Hobbes?  Book One from BONE or Wimpy Kid?  The sports section of the local newspaper?  Hopefully, we as educators have done our part in planting a seed.  At some point, I think it is up to the learner and his family to take over.

Recommended reading lists make more sense than required reading lists.  To be fair, many parents are not up on what interests today’s ten-year-olds.  As nostalgic as we may be, Encyclopedia Brown (thank you, Mr.Sobol!) may not have the appeal it once did, even with new book covers.  I think much can be gained from talking with the classroom teacher during the school year if a child is not keen to read on his own at home.  Also, visit that public library and talk with the children’s librarian.  If you are lucky enough to live near an independent bookstore with a well-stocked children’s section, drop in and ask what is selling. 

Nothing, however, can replace talking with your own child about reading.  Let him vent if need be about all the boring books he has been subjected to.  Let him tell you what bothers him about reading.  If you haven’t been there along the way in championing reading, in listening to your child read, in reading to your child and in reading at the same time your child reads, you have a steep uphill climb.  Still, don’t give up.  Pull out a book that has been made into a movie and read it to, or with, your child.  I worked with a group of readers that hated their teacher’s “old-fashioned” book choices.  I surveyed the group and downloaded the script from “Despicable Me”, a movie they all said they thought was hysterical.  We did table reads of the screenplay and improved fluency by re-enacting scenes they chose.  The kids loved it.  (Watch how a child focuses on reading with expression when he is trying to emulate a movie character.) 

The year before, I encouraged teachers to poll their students.  Instead of creating a Good for You reading list, why not have the students each nominate a title?  The list that goes home lists the title, author and the student who recommended the book.  Now the book isn’t something Miss Chang suggested, but one that Johnny thinks is good.  (It would also help if students searched online to see which titles are available at the local library.  The titles should be books that are accessible and won’t totally wipe out a kid’s lawn mowing/Fudgsicle fund.)

Will some children go all summer without reading anything more than a cereal box?  Yes.  Will the reading gap grow?  Most definitely.  If we are really concerned about the reading gap over summer, why not change the school calendar?  Same number of days, but make the breaks shorter and over the course of the calendar year.  Many educators don’t want to get into that discussion.  Ironically, they like their extended summers to do what they see fit.

There are some students who genuinely struggle with reading.  Imposing a reading requirement over the summer may only make things worse.  A parent who tries to help the child read may belittle or overcorrect.  The books may be too difficult in the first place.  The child’s self-esteem as a reader plummets further and a negative attitude (i.e., resistance) grows.  If these children truly need to read in the summer, a tutor or summer school may be an option.  These choices may, of course, do more harm as well.

I don’t believe required readings will close the gap or, more importantly, improve a person’s desire to read.  The same kids who don’t do their homework and don’t do the home reading during the school year will be the same ones who don’t do the “required” reading in the summer.  What then happens?  Do they start school in September with a failing reading grade from summer? 

I picture my summer birdhouse, too wobbly for any warbler, a woeful creation.  A generous “D” on the first day back in Woodworking.  What a long school year it would be.

I suppose the Twitter version of this blog post about summer reading is inspire, don’t require.

What are your thoughts?  I’d love to hear the success stories as well as the frustrations over school involvement in summer reading.