Friday, October 28, 2011

BONE SOUP


By Cambria Evans

(Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

Oh, to be nothing but skin and bones. Literally. Meet Finnigin, a nomadic skeleton who longs to put some meat on his bones. He roams the countryside, strapping his eating stool to his back, fastening an eating spoon to his cloak and longing for tasty bits to satisfy his “gigantic eating mouth.” There must be a feast somewhere.

He encounters a witch on Halloween and asks for directions to the nearest feast. The witch speeds away on her broom to warn the local monster, zombies and the mummy. Ghouls, after all, aren’t known for sharing. They all tell Finnigin to scoot and scram when he comes a-knocking. Undeterred, the skeleton boils a cauldron of water in the center of town, adding a raggedy old “magic” bone to whip up that delicacy everyone loves: bone soup. The townsfolk are intrigued and gather round. Ghouls, after all, are known to be gullible.

This is a simple tale, a passable read for Halloween. It will most likely entertain preschoolers and students up to grade one. Older readers, however, need to be spooked more and will want a more involved story line. The witch, the mummy and the zombies are indistinguishable and this will surely disappoint those who are more invested in creepy characters of Halloween lore. Still, for the younger ones, it’s a tame tale with appropriately simple, dark illustrations created with pen, watercolor and digital color.

Don’t be surprised if your reader proposes that everyone add toenail clippings to their bowls of chicken noodle soup. Mmm, mmm good.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

WE ARE IN A BOOK!





By Mo Willems

(Hyperion Books for Children, 2010)

I love books about books and have previously featured It’s a Book and The Incredible Book-Eating Boy. I also love books that break conventions such as Mélanie Watt’s Chester which chronicles a conflict between author/illustrator and a wannabe main character and Watt’s You’re Finally Here! wherein a hyper hare talks directly to the reader. It should come as no surprise then that I am completely taken by Mo Willems’ We Are in a Book!, a book about books with characters that discover a reader is eying them.

This is part of Willems’ easy reader series, following the classics of P.D. Eastman and Dr. Seuss. An elephant named Gerald and a pig referred to as Piggie are the main characters. As the book opens, the elephant suspects someone is watching them.

Piggie moves up for a closer look.

Why, yes, indeed! Someone is watching. It’s…it’s…it’s a reader! A reader is watching AND reading.

Well, this is astonishing to Gerald. Piggie and Gerald decide to have some fun with the reader and, no doubt, the fun will be a mutually shared experience.

Mo Willems draws the elephant and pig simplistically and yet these characters are tremendously expressive, particularly Gerald the elephant whose amusement will become infectious. While Willems does not engage in the playful, sometimes nonsensical rhymes of Dr. Seuss, he masterfully conveys a sense of humor using a limited number of simple words. In fact, I read this book to a group of high school volunteers who have signed up to participate in an after-school reading program at my school. I didn’t know this group of thirty adolescents who were polite, yet a tad weary after a full day of classes. As I read the book, they relaxed. Smiles evolved into laughs and, at the end, the teens applauded.

This is a book that is sure to amuse any reader. Yes, that’s a sweeping statement. Mo Willems is that talented. I am so envious!

Friday, October 21, 2011

THE SHY CREATURES





By David Mack

(Feiwel and Friends, 2007)

When I was young, I spent a lot of time wondering about Bigfoot. What if he snuck into the basement? What if he jumped out of the forested area behind our cottage? Would he come out of hiding if people let him be the punter on the football team?

I also thought about the Loch Ness Monster. How old must it be? Did it send invisible vibrations to make photos blurry? Who decided it was a monster in the first place?

I never shared my thoughts. I was shy. Pathologically so. I thought Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and other questionable creatures made the world a more interesting place. Please, let them be real. Expressing my opinions was too risky though. My pasty face reddened all too easily.

Thank you, David Mack, for creating The Shy Creatures! The book dignifies shy people and mythical creatures alike. A shy girl sits in class, listening to classmates eagerly shout out what they want to be when they grow up. “‘I want to be a doctor to the shy creatures,’ said the shy girl. Or she would have if she wasn’t so shy.’” The class may have laughed and the teacher may have dashed the girl’s imagination, explaining that Bigfoot is not real. Maybe. Maybe not. When you’re shy, the maybes keep you quiet.

As the shy girl considers all the things she would do as a doctor tending to the Abominable Snowman, the Cyclops and Grey Aliens, David Mack reveals a creative, considerate and funny little girl, a personality as unknown (and perhaps as misunderstood) as the true character of the evasive mythical (or real?) creatures. Maybe all these seldom seen beasts are simply shy. (That is, if shyness is ever simple.) Mack finally asks, “[W]hat if the shy creatures just needed a friend?”

In a classroom or during bedtime reading, this book could be used as a springboard to thinking about a particular child’s own shyness. Imagine sharing a trait with a mighty dragon or a unicorn! It could also lead to discussion about how to chat with and include quiet peers in fun activities.

Mack’s art is reminiscent of that of Dr. Seuss, so much so that I expected The Grinch and little Cindy Lou Who to make a special appearance. I think many kids will be able to connect the art, a wonderful early opportunity to compare art and to talk about how iconic artists influence others.

Don’t overlook the shy creatures. I can think of a little girl and a young boy at my school whose eyes twinkle every time I read a story to their classes. They never share their ideas and reactions. I will make an extra effort to touch base with them on Monday. As for coaxing Bigfoot out from his hiding place, well, I’ll leave that for someone with a video-camera and a yearning for YouTube notoriety. I’m still too shy for that!

Monday, October 17, 2011

MY LIFE AS A CHICKEN



Written by Ellen A. Kelley

Illustrated by Michael Slack

(Harcourt, 2007)

I am not a fan of rhyming picture books, but sometimes the story and the words are so amusing that I can escape the sing-song way I read most children’s rhymes. Maybe I just have a soft spot for goofy chicken tales.

Pauline Poulet is a hen that is all too aware of her surroundings. She lays egg after egg, only to have them snatched and stored in cartons. Worse, she cannot rest like her coop-mates:



But round my roost
I hear suspicious
words like
“Chicken pie,
delicious.”
Has Farmer hatched a crafty plan
to throw me in a frying pan?

Pauline flees the farm, beginning a harrowing adventure that finds her dumped in the sea.



Then pirates pull me
from the foam.
Why, oh why,
did I leave home?


As the frazzled fowl faces challenge after challenge, she finds courage in the words, “Pauline, prevail!” Yes, our little chicken is a comical character who nonetheless provides inspiration when facing fear and demonstrates resilience when things appear bleak.

Michael Slack’s digital mixed media illustrations add to the playfulness of the story. Poor Pauline is shown in a series of hapless circumstances befitting a cartoon character. Her foes appear sinister while simultaneously foolish.

Kids will enjoy joining in to yell, “Pauline, prevail!” They will root for her. Perhaps they can, in turn, come up with original phrases to help them through their own travails.

Friday, October 14, 2011

TALE OF A GREAT WHITE FISH [a sturgeon story]



Written by Maggie de Vries

Illustrated by Renné Benoit

(Greystone Books, 2006)

Here is a fish story that seems like a “fish story”: too exaggerated to be true. Yet, the facts are accurate. This book is another example of how to write an engaging nonfiction picture book. (See also, Surprising Sharks.) Most young readers will not be familiar with the great white sturgeon, but they will soon be in awe. Author de Vries begins with a once-upon-a-time equivalent: “Even before dinosaurs roamed the earth, sturgeon swam in its waters.” Older than dinosaurs? There’s an initial hook, but it gets better.

In telling the story of one sturgeon, readers will get more of a feel for the facts. Page entries begin with the time period in all capital letters and the initial writing is for Late Spring, 1828, a seemingly ancient date for the target audience. Before reading anything more, I ask students to figure out how long ago 1828 was. Some guess randomly, others try some creative mental math. Either way, the thinking establishes an investment in the story. An adult sturgeon spawns. Some eggs become larvae and then become small fry, including one named Little Fish. The story jumps to 1858. Little Fish is now Fish and basic stats (in metric and the American system of measurement) now follow the date for each entry. Here: 30 years old, 1.7 m (5.6 feet) long, 32 kg (71 pounds). This is another time to stop and make meaning of the numbers. Otherwise, the reader glosses over the key data. I grab a measuring stick and the reader(s) and I figure out the length. We talk about the mass (weight). When the facts are understood, the awe regarding the great white fish builds. Murky sand colors of a river bottom provide a unifying backdrop to Benoit’s understated art. Readers get just enough from the illustrations, but the story and the facts remain the central focus.

Eventually Fish becomes Big Fish, surviving challenges presented by man and nature. Big Fish ages to 52, then 69, then 85 and grows to 3.8 m (12.5 feet) and 364 kg (802 pounds). Each time, we stop and measure. We get a better sense of these figures. Readers mumble comparisons to sharks and whales.

In 1968, a boy sits on a dock and is wowed in seeing this 140 year-old, 17-foot long, 1,358-pound Goliath jump in the water. This unforgettable experience leads the boy to advocate for the sturgeon’s protection when he becomes an adult and a Canadian hero. The boy/hero’s identity is only revealed in a letter appearing after the glossary in the book, a thoughtful detail ensuring the man does not overshadow the fish.

I have read this book to many classes and small groups. It has always captivated the audience. When I first tested the story with a grade five class before the book was published, I did it as a favor, not thinking it would be a hit. But numbers, when understood, can play a significant part in engaging readers. With younger students, we move about and measure floor space in the room to better visualize the size of the sturgeon. Part of the appeal may be that the book is not a sit-still-and-listen tale. Active engagement makes the sturgeon story memorable.

Monday, October 10, 2011

DON'T CALL ME PRUNEFACE!

Written by Janet Reed Ahearn

Illustrated by Drazen Kozjan

(Disney Hyperion Books, 2010)

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.

Who came up with that lame expression? I’ve got a few names for him! Seriously, name calling, putdowns and taunts get under our skin, particularly when we’re young. My mother, my teachers and practically every adult I knew when I was a child offered the same advice: “Just ignore it.” I never found that effective. How can you ignore being called Maggot or Stupidhead or Bird Turd?! To most adults, the names seem trivial, even nonsensical, but kids like to be called by their name. Moreover, the tone in which “Stupidhead” is uttered and the witnesses hearing the offending remark make ignoring impossible.

As a principal, I deal with name calling incidents on a regular basis. By the time things get to me, “Stupidhead” has opted for a more problematic recourse. Thus, I picked up Don’t Call Me Pruneface! from the local library, hoping it would give kids some other useful, safe choices. I don’t think it does that, but it does open things up for discussion.

Paul is “a good boy.” In fact, his grandmother says he’s “as good as gold.” But then Prudence becomes his new neighbor. He immediately surmises she’s a lunatic since she walks her cat on a leash. On their first encounter, Prudence changes his name to Pill and offers another mild insult. Each day, she continues to act mean and spew putdowns. Paul doesn’t react, but thinks up responses. Not only is she a lunatic, she’s a creep and, yes, her name should be Pruneface. Ultimately, he is taunted enough and finally blurts his name for her. Things are resolved before matters escalate. The book’s primary purpose is to entertain, not to educate.

Still, I would take this book and ask a class what Paul’s options are. When he thinks but doesn’t say mean things, is that okay? What may have caused Prudence to come off as rude on the first encounter? Did he try to ignore her and did that work? Why didn’t he talk to his grandmother about his problem? Is the ending realistic? What other things could have happened after Paul called Prudence “Pruneface”? How have you reacted to name calling? What might you do next time (and, yes, there will be a next time)?

Sometimes a book can mark the beginning of an important conversation, an opportunity that should not be ignored.

Friday, October 7, 2011

SHIP AHOY!



By Peter Sis

(Greenwillow Books, 1999)

I had a professor in law school that I suspected dreamed of doing stand-up comedy. His lectures inevitably strayed to well-rehearsed monologues and I sat up front, willingly providing a contagious laughtrack. One time, he talked of growing up in a very poor household. His only toys were potatoes. Each night he’d have to surrender his toys, watch them get thrown in a pot of boiling water and, fifteen minutes later, he’d sit at the dinner table, forced to eat his beloved playthings. I have never looked at Yukon Golds the same.

We all know that almost anything can be a toy: stick, pot and spoon, bubble wrap, potato. Not a Box, reviewed here, captures the many alternative ways a young bunny views a cardboard box. Ship Ahoy! by Peter Sis is another book that celebrates a child’s imagination.

Ahh. That was my first reaction after “reading” Ship Ahoy!—total sense of calm as when floating on an air mattress in a pool or on a lake. This is a wordless book, its story told in a series of simple illustrations brought to life using gouache paint, watercolors, pen and ink. For the most part, Sis limits the palette to blues and white, perfect for the nautical setting.

A boy sits on a sofa with a few toys and gadgets by his side. An oval area rug rests on the living room floor. But then, the boy imagines a sea gull flying above and suddenly the room transforms to the sea. The rug expands into the vast ocean, the sofa becomes a dinghy. By changing his position on the sofa and shifting the other objects, the boat changes to a canoe, a pirate ship, a submarine. The left page of each spread depicts the boy playing on the couch; the right side reveals his imagined scene.

Eventually, mom’s vacuum appears—a sea monster?—and then she drifts into the scene. In the end, mother and son sit on the rug as she reads him a book—something about a boat, of course. This book reminds us of the power of books and simple household objects to inspire creative minds.

Monday, October 3, 2011

METROPOLITAN COW



By Tim Egan

(Houghton Mifflin, 1996)

I don’t know why, but boys like cows. They find them funny. Last year, I supported a grade four writing group and one boy insisted on adding at least one cow to every story. Before long, other boys were creating cow characters. They enjoyed making others laugh from their writing and one of the easiest gags was to think of a human action and make a cow do it instead. The Far Side’s Gary Larsen would approve.

I picked up Metropolitan Cow from the local library simply because of the title and the cover image of a cow family, each member standing on two legs and dressed as cows would before heading out for a night at the symphony. I am confident the cover will catch a young reader’s attention. The story, however, has an important message, though Tim Egan provides cheeky commentary to keep the reader smiling.

Bennett Gibbons is a young cow living a life of privilege. All is well except there is no one for him to play with near his urban abode. All the other cows are significantly older and mud-sloshing pigs are…well, they’re pigs. Cows play with cows, pigs play with pigs.

Things change when a pig family becomes the new neighbors. Bennett befriends Webster the pig who is roughly the same age and has the same interests. When the two are outside, Webster suggests they jump in the mud, but Bennett echoes his parents’ long-established directive. “I can’t. I’m too dignified.” Webster asks, “What does that mean?” to which Bennett replies, “I have no idea.”

The two continue to hang out while avoiding the temptation of frolicking in the mud. One day, however, with his parents watching, Bennett can resist no more. Who wouldn’t want to play in the mud? This, of course, causes grave concern. This is why cows don’t play with pigs.

Metropolitan Cow is a story of prejudice, opinions forming from lack of contact with groups deemed different. It may be skin color, religion, family structure (think Benny Has Two Bucks) or first language. Bennett and Webster are typical youngsters. They are open to acceptance, but susceptible to following inexplicable rules that continue to keep those who are different at bay. Sometimes, as in this story, the adults need to learn from the younger generation.