Saturday, October 27, 2012


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


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.