Sunday, November 16, 2008

The First Part Last

Bibliography: Johnson, Angela. 2003. The First Part Last. New York. Simon and Schuster: Books for Young Readers ISBN 0689949222

Plot Summary: Bobby, a teenage boy, receives the incomprehensible news on his sixteenth birthday that his girlfriend Nia is pregnant. Through first person narrative from Bobby's perspective, the reader is allowed to view the male side of teen pregnancy. The emotional roller-coaster filled with What-Ifs: what if we keep the baby? What if we put the baby up for adoption? What if this had never happened? keep the reader wondering what the eventual outcome will be, resulting in an unexpected twist.

Critical Analysis: Angela Johnson offers a moving and poignant rendering of the teen pregnancy issue. Johnson chooses to focus on the lesser-known protagonist in the drama, that of the teenage father.
Using a unique, almost poetic style, the action is revealed in a way that shows first the story that is occurring "Now" in its own chapter and the past action that occurred "Then". through the Now and Then chapters, the reader is brought along through the story via the eyes of the young father in first person narrative. Very little profanity is used, despite the fact that the young protagonist is a male teen who resides in a large inner city neighborhood. To leave such language out of a modern, realistic novel with this theme would be insinuating that it doesn't exist.
Teens will find several characters in this novel with whom to relate and with whom to cry when it is disclosed at the end of the story that Bobby's girlfriend Nia experiences complications in her pregnancy. Nia's voice is show only once when she reveals that something has gone wrong, "I'm flying up high over everybody...and even myself...I guess this is what it must feel like to be dying." The What-Ifs are finally answered also when Bobby tells his new baby daughter that " were mine...'cause now that she was gone I wouldn't sign the papers" which will allow for much discussion between teens as to whether Bobby did the right thing or not.

Review Excerpts:
From BooklistGr. 6-12. Bobby, the teenage artist and single-parent dad in Johnson's Coretta Scott King Award winner, Heaven (1998), tells his story here. At 16, he's scared to be raising his baby, Feather, but he's totally devoted to caring for her, even as she keeps him up all night, and he knows that his college plans are on hold. In short chapters alternating between "now" and "then," he talks about the baby that now fills his life, and he remembers the pregnancy of his beloved girlfriend, Nia. Yes, the teens' parents were right. The couple should have used birth control; adoption could have meant freedom. But when Nia suffers irreversible postpartum brain damage, Bobby takes their newborn baby home. There's no romanticizing. The exhaustion is real, and Bobby gets in trouble with the police and nearly messes up everything. But from the first page, readers feel the physical reality of Bobby's new world: what it's like to hold Feather on his stomach, smell her skin, touch her clenched fists, feel her shiver, and kiss the top of her curly head. Johnson makes poetry with the simplest words in short, spare sentences that teens will read again and again. The great cover photo shows the strong African American teen holding his tiny baby in his arms. Hazel Rochman Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal Grade 8 Up-Brief, poetic, and absolutely riveting, this gem of a novel tells the story of a young father struggling to raise an infant. Bobby, 16, is a sensitive and intelligent narrator. His parents are supportive but refuse to take over the child-care duties, so he struggles to balance parenting, school, and friends who don't comprehend his new role. Alternate chapters go back to the story of Bobby's relationship with his girlfriend Nia and how parents and friends reacted to the news of her pregnancy. Bobby's parents are well-developed characters, Nia's upper-class family somewhat less so. Flashbacks lead to the revelation in the final chapters that Nia is in an irreversible coma caused by eclampsia. This twist, which explains why Bobby is raising Feather on his own against the advice of both families, seems melodramatic. So does a chapter in which Bobby snaps from the pressure and spends an entire day spray painting a picture on a brick wall, only to be arrested for vandalism. However, any flaws in the plot are overshadowed by the beautiful writing. Scenes in which Bobby expresses his love for his daughter are breathtaking. Teens who enjoyed Margaret Bechard's Hanging on to Max (Millbrook, 2002) will love this book, too, despite very different conclusions. The attractive cover photo of a young black man cradling an infant will attract readers.Miranda Doyle, San Francisco Public Library Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Conduct a book talk on the novel after school hours- might need to include parental permission
Display other books on teen pregnancy such as the following:
The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom (graphic novel)
Annie's Baby (anonymous)
Chill Wind by Janet MacDonald
Choices by Dianne Wolfer
Dance for Three by Louise Plummer
Dancing Naked by Shelley Hrdlistchka
Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye by Lois Lowry

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Bibliography: Hiaasen, Carl. 2002. Hoot. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, Inc. ISBN 0375829164

Plot Summary: Roy Eberhardt has moved from Montana to Florida where he is the 'new kid' and immediately earns the nickname "Cowgirl" from one of the worst bullies in the school. While riding the bus to school and avoiding the Bully, Roy notices a strangely ragged-looking boy without shoes running with the agility of a deer. His curiosity awakened, Roy starts a search to find out who this boy is. In doing so, he begins an uneasy friendship with a girl who turns out to be the boy's sister and discovers the boy is staging a one-man assault against a national pancake house which plans to illegally build a new restaurant right over the homes of endangered burrowing owls. Together, the three work to prevent the business from becoming a reality and save the owls.

Critical Analysis: Hoot is written with a protagonist many students can relate to. Roy is a new kid and is picked on by the biggest bully in school. Roy is not a large boy and even some girls are bigger than him, a common sight in junior high schools.
The novel's language fits in to today's lingo without using too much contemporary slang which will allow Hoot to remain a contemporary realistic fiction novel for many more years. Hiaasen uses some mild profanity from the bully when he says, "Yeah, well, they'll be laughin' even louder when I kick your skinny ass to kingdom come, Cowgirl" or "You must be crazy. After all the crap that's happened to me, you're so dead, Eberhardt." While some might find the language too severe for the intended audience, it is slight enough to be exchanged for more acceptable vocabulary if the book is used in a read aloud.
The setting of Florida with its description of the heat and humidity rings true along with the theme of good vs. evil, which manifests itself in several vignettes in the novel: Roy vs. the Bully, Mullet Fingers vs. the Corporate Business World, and Endangered Owls vs. Man.
Students who love animals will be able to relate to the feelings of Mullet Fingers and Roy when they want to save the burrowing owls.

Review Excerpts:
From School Library Journal Grade 6-9-Packed with quirky characters and improbable plot twists, Hiaasen's first novel for young readers is entertaining but ultimately not very memorable. Fans of the author's adult novels will find trademark elements-including environmental destruction, corrupt politicians, humorous situations, and a Florida setting-all viewed through the eyes of a middle-school student. Roy Eberhardt has just moved with his family to Coconut Cove. He immediately becomes the target of a particularly dense bully who tries to strangle him on the school bus. Roy seems more concerned, however, with discovering the identity of a running, barefoot boy he spots through the window of the bus. Meanwhile, plans to build a pancake house on a vacant lot are derailed when someone vandalizes the construction site. The two story lines come together when Roy discovers that the runaway boy is disrupting the construction to save a group of burrowing owls. Roy must help his new friend, nicknamed Mullet Fingers, as well as fend off the bully and adapt to life in Florida. The story is silly at times but rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and there are several highly unlikely scenes. Also, it wraps up a little too neatly-Roy's classmates join him to protest the construction project, his father finds the missing environmental impact report, and the owls are saved. While Roy is a sympathetic protagonist, few of the other characters are well developed. Students looking for humorous, offbeat characters and situations will probably prefer Louis Sachar's Holes (Farrar, 1998) or books by Daniel Pinkwater.
From Booklist: “It seems unlikely that the master of noir-tinged, surrealistic black humor would write a novel for young readers. And yet, there has always been something delightfully juvenile about Hiaasen’s imagination; beneath the bent cynicism lurks a distinctly 12-year-old cackle. In this thoroughly engaging tale of how middle schooler Roy Eberhardt, new kid in Coconut Cove, learns to love South Florida, Hiaasen lets his inner kid run rampant, both the subversive side that loves to see grown-ups make fools of themselves and the righteously indignant side, appalled at the mess being made of our planet. The story is full of offbeat humor, buffoonish yet charming supporting characters, and genuinely touching scenes of children enjoying the wildness of nature. He deserves a warm welcome into children’s publishing.”

Have students research endangered animals in their state.
Research qualifiers for animals to be on endangered or extinct list.
Have students rainstorm other solutions Mullet Fingers could have used against the pancake restaurant.
Practice letter writing by writing imaginary Letters to the Editor protesting the building of the restaurant on the owls homes.

Among the Hidden

Bibliography: Haddix, Margaret Petersen. 1998. Among the Hidden. New York. Aladdin Paperbacks ISBN 0689817002

Plot Summary: Luke Gardner is 'among the hidden' in a futuristic society that is strangely a regression of today's society. In his world, families are allowed to have only two children, but Luke is the illegal third child of the Gardners, a modest farming family. When the Government forces the family to sell some of their land to build houses on it, this causes Luke to have to hide inside his house night and day, never even going outside. Only when Luke watches the homes through the vents in his attic bedroom and sees an extra face in a window of a home where he knows only two children live, does he realize there is another illegal third child within yards of his home. Luke then has to decide if he is willing to risk being found out in order to meet a 'shadow child' like himself. When Luke does meet the other shadow child, a girl named Jen, she introduces Luke to a lifestyle and a manner of thinking he had never considered: overthrowing the Government to allow Shadow Children to live.

Critical Analysis: Among the Hidden could be considered both low fantasy and science fiction. Haddix combines both elements in such a way that the society Luke lives in seems frighteningly realistic and at times even familiar. Ordinary lifestyles are introduced early in the novel, with the believable characters of the Gardners, a simplistic, hardworking family of traditional beliefs and habits except for one: the conceiving and raising of Luke, an illegal third child in direct disobedience to the laws of the Government.
Haddix chooses not to use futuristic or scientific vocabulary , making the novel an easy read for most students. Only when Luke reads propaganda about the Government does the reader encounter higher vocabulary, "...elements of the overpopulation crisis were foreseen in the 1800s, an uninformed observer could only wonder why humankind came so near to total annihilation." As the plot unfolds, much of the government's descriptive persuasions are explained by Luke and his new companion, another Shadow Child.
The eerily realistic settings with common effects found in today's homes such as computers, phones, security alarms, blue jeans, and junk food, make the issues of hypocrisy and bias within the story hit hard for a young reader of developing opinions. Today's youth could find it difficult to comprehend Luke's compliant acceptance of his hiding when he describes his life as, "He was special. He was secret."
Margaret Haddix gives young readers a thought-provoking novel with plots on which to use maturing problem-solving skills.

Review Excerpts:
From Publishers Weekly: This futuristic novel focuses on a totalitarian regime and the Internet. PW noted, "The plot development is sometimes implausible and the characterizations a bit brittle, but the unsettling, thought-provoking premise should suffice to keep readers hooked." Ages 8-12.

Novel could be used to practice debate: The Government vs. The Shadow Children
Students research famines and population growths and predictions and develop ideas for preventing such a world as the one Luke was born into.
Survey students to see who is a third child or more in their family.
Practice letter writing by writing a Letter to the Editor to defend Shadow Children

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Island of the Blue Dolphins

O'Dell, Scott. 1960. Island of the Blue Dolphins. New York: Dell Publishing Co. ISBN 0440940001

Plot Summary:
A little-known island off the southern coast of California in the early to mid 1800s is the setting for O'Dell's story. Karana and her brother, members of an Indian tribe living in the village of Ghalas-at, are accidentally left behind on the island when the tribe decides to relocate to the coast of Southern California. After her brother is killed by wild dogs, Karana is left completely alone, a girl Robinson Caruso. Based upon a true story, Karana spends 18 years alone before being found and brought to California. What transpires here is a story of courage, steadfastness, self-discovery, and hope.

Critical Analysis:
O'Dell's story is not long and each chapter is a story unto itself. It is written in a quiet manner, where one can feel Karana's thoughts and understand her. Karana's pain and anguish at losing her brother are very keen. Scott O'Dell has conducted his research on the islands mentioned in the story and the life of these ancient Indian groups and has utilized it in the novel. There are notes at the end of the novel where the author explains more about the idea for the novel.
While Karana does survive, she does so with the knowledge gained from watching her older sister and the women in her tribe. None of her activities are beyond what might have actually happened within her tribe. O'Dell uses Indian superstitions in giving Karana cause to think of what might happen to her if she makes weapons, a job assigned only to the men and warriors of her tribe. Necessity makes Karana finally break the tribal taboo, only to discover that nothing happens to her when she makes bows and arrows and a fishing spear.
Written completely in first person, the reader sees all the action from Karana's viewpoint, but it is a viewpoint that includes the emotions and reactions of other characters in the novel.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is quietly written but filled with much for readers to learn about the value of life and companionship.

Review Excerpts:
School Library Journal: "A haunting and unusual story based on the fact that in the early 1800's an Indian girl spent 18 years alone on a rocky island far off the coast of California."

ALA Booklist: "A moving and unforgettable story."

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books: "Recommended."

Horn Book: "Strange and beautiful, revealing courage, serenity, and greatness of spirit."


Encourage students to research more about the Lost Woman of San Nicholas and other Indian groups of the time period.

Research the Aleut Indians.

Encourage students to research more on earthquakes and tsunami waves, both of which occur in the novel.

Extra research can be conducted on the animals and food plants Karana mentions in the novel.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The River Between Us

Peck, Richard. 2003. The River Between Us. New York: Dial Books ISBN 0803727356

Plot Summary:
Set right before the start of the Civil War, The River Between Us chronicles a year in the life of the Pruitt family and the changes each member undergoes when two total strangers are given shelter in their home. The two strangers, mere women from New Orleans, transform forever the life of the protagonist Tilly and her twin brother Noah. An alternative narrator at the beginning and end of the novel provides the unbelievable twist at the end which Richard Peck is so skillful at providing.

Critical Analysis:
Richard Peck researched an area of the Civil War of which many people are unaware. The 'Glorious South' is well-known due to novels and movies such as Gone With The Wind and North and South. Not too many children's/young adult novels deal with the topic and few touch on the places seldom mentioned in the history books, like Grand Tower, Illinois.
The glory of war is left out of Peck's novel and readers are given manageable doses of the truth in how horrible the War Between the States really was. The characters are allowed to vent their opinions of the war, demonstrating how some families, towns, and states could be divided in their feelings about the issue of slavery and states' rights and keeping the Union together.
Peck mentions key battles like the Battle of Belmont and important towns such as Cairo, Illinois, and rounds out characters by using regional dialect and language, especially the mercurial Delphine when she shrieked, "Jambalaya! Merci, bon Dieu, we are saved!" Readers can visualize Calinda in her tignon selling her New Orleans candy, pralines, yelling at the people on the river steamboats, "Last chance for Prawleens, New Orleans style!"
However, the most poignant sentence comes from the protagonist Tilly when she says, "I looked back on the way life had been yesterday, and couldn't find it."
Richard Peck uses a flashback in the novel by using a boy, age 15, who is a great-grandchild of Tilly in 1916. Upon a visit back to Grand Tower, he discovers family secrets that he now will have to keep tucked away inside, to bring out later in life, perhaps when he has a great-grandchild.

Review Excerpts:
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-In the opening days of the Civil War, a genteel but worldly wise young woman and her companion step off a steamboat from New Orleans onto the dock of a provincial Illinois town. This richly told and evocatively realized novel tells how the strangers are taken into the Pruitts' home (and into their hearts), changing all of the characters' lives forever. Winner of the 2003 Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Publishers Weekly
In our Best Books citation, PW wrote, "The author crafts his characters impeccably and threads together their fates in surprising ways that shed light on the complicated events of the Civil War." Ages 10-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Use novel to help show the differences between the North and the South and their opinions about the War
Include in study of Civil War along with other novels based on the time period

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Midwife's Apprentice

Bibliography: Cushman, Karen. 1995. The Midwife's Apprentice. New York, Clarion Books. ISBN 0395692296.

Plot Summary

Not quite the usual coming-of-age story but one which today's youth can still relate. The protagonist, eventually named 'Alyce,' is shown first as an unloved, unwanted orphan who, through her own determination and grit, finds her place in the world of medieval Europe, a place, if not of honor, at least of some respectability as the Midwife's Apprentice.

Critical Analysis:

Karen Cushman has given young adults a book worth thinking over. Cushman has done her research well and portrays a real medieval life that is not the 'Camelot' of legends. Life was hard in these times and the main character, Alyce, experiences life almost at its worse. Cushman's descriptions in the opening chapter of the dung heap that Alyce chooses to sleep in, gives today's youth cause to appreciate the insulated homes they live in. Interestingly enough, when Alyce is 'saved' by the midwife, her new place to sleep, in the midwife's home, is actually not as warm as the calefacient dung heap.

The main character undergoes several changes in the novel, not the least being her name. She starts out in the story as 'Brat' moves to 'Beetle', then to 'Dung Beetle' and finally to 'Alyce'.

As a parallel to Alyce, the cat in the story is also tormented in life until Alyce saves him. He too, receives a name and new identity.

Karen Cushman allows time to be fluid in this novel, which allows the pace to move quickly along for the reader. Cushman shows research of the time period by using time period dialect, including a few phrases such as "Corpus bones!" or "I be sore afraid" , giving opportunity to discuss vocabulary and current phrases with a class of students.

As all good novels must come to an end, so does this one with Cushman leaving Alyce to decide her own fate. Alyce does so using her new knowledge of herself and what she can do, when she tells the midwife, "I will try again and again. I can do what you tell me and take what you give me, and I know how to try and risk and fail and try again and not give up. I will not go away." Even though the reader is left to decide how Alyce's life will progress afterwards, one is left feeling that she will succeed at whatever Life gives her.

The Midwife's Apprentice is both an informative and a satisfying read for those interested in medieval life.

Review Excerpts:

School Library Journal: "Characters are sketched briefly but with telling, witty detail, and the very scents and sounds of the land and people's occupations fill each page s Alyce come of age and heart. Earthy humor, the foibles of humans both high and low, and a fascinating mix of superstition and genuinely helpful herbal remedies attached to childbirth make this a truly delightful introduction to a world seldom seen in children's literature."

Booklist: The characters are drawn with zest and affection but no false reverence...Kids will like this short, fast-paced narrative about a hero who discovers that she's not ugly or stupid or alone."


Compare and Contrast with some of the legends of Camelot.

Use as a literature connection for sixth grade social studies medieval unit of study.

Encourage students to visit local Renaissance Festivals if able.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Forbidden Schoolhouse: The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students

Jurmain, Suzanne. 2005. The Forbidden Schoolhouse: The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0618473025

An emotionally-charged history of a little-known heroine of civil rights who lived a century before school integration. The tumultuous years of Prudence Crandall's school for "girls of color" is chronicled here, taking the reader from its inception to its eventual demise.

Critical Analysis
Suzanne Jurmain has written a powerful history that shows what one individual can do when one truly believes in the rights of others, even when it goes against the convictions of the time. Purdence Crandall is a figure in history whose story needs to be told, and Ms. Jermain does it succinctly and in such a way that leave no doubt to the reader of how Purdence Crandall felt about the education of young ladies of color: "In the midst of this affliction I am as happy as at any moment in my life."
Ms. Jurmain has left no stone unturned in her extensive research of Prudence Crandall which goes beyond the history text and offers appendices which include information on former students and on both friends and enemies and their struggle for equal rights. Notes are given at the end of the book detailing the sources used in each chapter, which include primary sources of letters and newspaper accounts of the day. A bibliography of books and newspapers is also offered.
Sprinkled throughout the chapters are current photos of the actual school building which still stands today, along with old photographs of the people in Prudence Crandall's life. A photo of the actual newspaper advertisement written by Miss Crandall advertising her boarding school is also shown, along with other newspaper articles of the day.
Suzanne Jurmain uses mid-level vocabulary which is easy to understand. Older students should be able to research this book on their own with ease.

Review Excerpts
"Jermain has plucked an almost forgotten incident from history and has shaped a compelling, highly readable book around it." —Booklist, starred
"Fascinating photographs and images...and endnotes provide insight into the lives of the students, Crandall, and her supporters." —Horn Book
"This book offers a fresh look at the climate of education for African Americans and women in the early 1800s."––School Library Journal
"A captivating read." --Kirkus Reviews

This book or excerpts of the book could be shared in read alouds during Black History Month
Include as extra research during fifth grade units on the Civil War
Include in a woman's rights study
Encourage students to research further the bibliography at the end of the book.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Houdini: World's Greatest Mystery Man and Escape King

Krull, Kathleen. 2005. Houdini: World's Greatest Mystery Man and Escape King. Ill. by Eric Velasquez. New York: Walker Publishing Company. ISBN 0802789536

A start to finish production showcasing Harry Houdini as the world's greatest escape artist and magician. Houdini's modest beginnings are portrayed "on stage" with the main highlights of his career chronicled in beautiful illustrations and page-turning text, giving the reader a glimpse into the mind and will of one of the world's most memorable artists.

Critical Analysis:
Kathleen Krull and Eric Velasquez have given children a fabulous book to peruse,discuss, and perhaps research further. Playing off Houdini's theatrical background, Velasquez has illustrated the text with a Master of Ceremonies introducing each segment of Houdini's life from the stage, complete with a red velvet curtain. Krull's text hooks the reader in just like the hawkers of old Vaudeville. One cannot help but to enter the show. Once inside, you are shown the life of Houdini, from his humble beginnings to his eventual stardom. Full color, full page illustrations reinforce the text allowing one to read and check the drawings against the facts written on the page. Many of Houdini's famous escape acts are displayed "on stage" with the audiences' reactions you feel also. We are introduced to Houdini's wife Bess who helped in the acts. We learn that Houdini had a will power very few people will ever be able to surpass, which was the main clue as to how Houdini could perform such amazing feats as he did.
Krull does choose to end the book with a 'behind-the-scenes' page that does give a few, but just a few, of Houdini's secrets behind his acts. However, Houdini warns others against trying to perform one of his stunts by saying, "I have done things which I rightly could not do, because I said to myself, 'you must.'"
Kathleen Krull's writing is exciting and fast-paced. You feel the excitement of the show on each page and are encouraged to continue your study of Houdini with the bibliography list provided at the end of the book.

Book Excerpt:
The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"A flashy impresario with an imposing handlebar mustache leans into the title page and tips his hat in greeting: 'Welcome! Enter! Prepare to be dazzled!' The curtain parts for the opening spread, in which 'The Milk Can Escape' of 1908 unfolds in four panels ('Just over two minutes. Behold our Houdini, wet, breathless—but alive!'). Then Krull's narrative voice takes over, leading readers through the biographical particulars of Erik Weiss' rise from son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, through poverty and self-education in the illusionary arts, to the household name for life-imperiling entertainment. The master of ceremonies breaks in from time to time, introducing Houdini's favorite stunts with showmanlike verve and hype. Between text and concluding notes, Krull presents a well-balanced look at the master's life, touching on his sadly childless marriage, his obsession with researching and improving his craft, and some of the tricks (those that are known, at least) he used to make his escapes. . . . Definitely encourage kids to try this (book) at home."

Display more books on magic for students to research.
Learn a simple card trick to show to students before reading this book as a read aloud.
Invite students who might know a 'magic trick' to show their trick to students after reading the book aloud.


Simon, Seymour. 2004. Cats. New York: Harper Collins Publishers ISBN 0060289406

A brief history of cats is given along with basic knowledge on the physical characteristics of cats and on their care and raising and breeds.

Critical Analysis
Simon's Cats gives younger readers the opportunity to explore the world of cats without being overwhelming with too much information. Large, colorful photographs are used to illustrate the facts, which younger readers will find easy to understand as the information is written with only one topic discussed per page of the text. Facts can be verified with additional research within the non-fiction animal section of a school or public library.
Cats will appeal to the junior high age also, especially as the text and font are not elementary in style. Language flows easily from topic to topic; allowing one to read a page, put the book down, and return later without losing any continuity. Struggling readers will appreciate the concise information given on one page, making research easier.
Without showing any biases, Simon gives readers time to think about owning a cat by asking questions at the end of the book such as : "Do you have enough room for a cat's food dish, water dish, and litter box?" or "Can your family make arrangements to take care of the cat if you go away for many days on a trip?"
Seymour Simon's Cats is an informational read that is easy to understand and a pleasure for cat lovers with its wonderful photos of elegant cats.

Review Excerpt
from Booklist: "There are other books about these popular pets, but most are for older children. Here, Simon writes crisply for a young audience, who will eagerly turn the pages to see the next endearing color photograph...Simon's always lucid prose is matched by sharp photos, most of which fill up the pages. An attractive way to introduce children to nonfiction."

Guide children to read more of Seymour Simon's nonfiction books.
Invite children to bring in photos of their own pets to display on a bulletin board.
Read a nonfiction Simon book and pair it with a matching fiction book.
Connect literature with other curriculum areas; pair nonfiction with topic in science or social studies.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies

Sones, Sonya. 2004. One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0689858205

Plot SummaryCheck Spelling
Four months are chronicled here in prose, depicting the highlights of fifteen-year-old Ruby Milliken's move from Boston to LA after the death of her mother, when she meets her famous movie-star father for the first time.

Critical Analysis
Sones gives an excellent first person view of the emotional ups and downs a teen goes through when faced with a double-whammy of losing a parent and then having to move away from all that is familiar. the writing is clear, vivid, and allows one to step into the heart and mind of the main character, through insights such as "I didn't know how much I depended on being depended on by her [mother]".
The writing flows through the days and weeks using the title of each page to give the reader hints to what the main idea of the entry is about. Different fonts gives the eyes a break when the main character is emailing or receiving email from her friends back home. The character is also shown emailing her deceased mother, giving the reader another glimpse into the heart and soul of this teen.
The pace is fast, intriguing, and telling and will keep a young teen interested until the final page.

Review Excerpts
School Library Journal starred review: "In one-to-two page breezy poetic prose-style entries, 15-year-old Ruby Milliken describes her flight from Boston to California and her gradual adjustment to life with her estranged movie-star father following her mother's death. E-mails to her best friend, her boyfriend, and her mother ("in heaven") and outpourings of her innermost thoughts display her overwhelming unhappiness and feelings of isolation, loss, and grief ("...most days/I wander around Lakewood feeling invisible.?Like I'm just a speck of dust/floating in the air/that can only be seen/when a shaft of light hits it"). Ruby's affable personality is evident in her humorous quips and clever word plays. Her depth of character is revealed through her honest admissions, poignant revelations, and sensitive insights. This is not just another one of those gimmicky novels written in poetry. It's solid and well written, and Sones has a lot to say about the importance of carefully assessing people and situations and about opening the door to one's own happiness...Ruby's story is gripping, enjoyable, and memorable."

Many text-to-self connections can be made between the text and the reader. The novel can be used as a springboard for students to journal in class or to send emails to the teacher.
The novel could also be used in a book club setting allowing discussion between the students facilitated by a teacher.

Hummingbird Nest: A Journal of Poems

George, Kristine O'Connell. 2004. Hummingbird Nest: A Journal of Poems. Ill. by Barry Moser. New York: Harcourt, Inc. ISBN 0152023259

Plot Summary
Kristine O'Connell George and her family were the lucky eye-witnesses of a mother hummingbird who chose their patio ficus tree on which to build her nest and raise two baby hummingbirds. Being smitten with the mother bird, Kristine O'Connell George decided to keep a daily journal of the birds' activities from building the nest to the eventual first flight of the baby hummingbirds. From her journal came this book of poems illustrated by Barry Moser.

Critical Analysis
George beautifully chronicles the lives of a mother hummingbird and her fledglings using simple but precise language. The journalistic style of the poetry doesn't require exact rhythm and rhymes, but enough is used to maintain the sense that what one is reading is poetry. Including points of view from the family cat ("The Cat Remarks...I'm a prisoner-because of a bird. How absurd.) and dog and even the sky allows students to experience more of the event that just those the usual third person or singular first person can provide.
Barry Mose's illustrations of transparent water color draws in in, softly and quietly, to view the nest and its occupants. Several details are included that students will recognize from their own homes, making more real experience the story of the hummingbird.

Review Excerpts
Publishers Weekly starred review: "Sublime illustrations and keenly observant verse are sure to captivate in this collection about a hummingbird who sets up house in the author's backyard..."
Curriculum Connections: "A family watches with breathless fascination as a hummingbird builds a next on their porch, lays her eggs, and cares for her young. Brief poems and delicate watercolors convey a sense of wonder and excitement. A nature lover's delight."

Read a page a day using the actual calendar of time from the book. Discuss the event for theat day and allow students to write their own journal to correspond with the book.
Conduct research on hummingbirds.
Ask the art teacher to teach water color techniques so students can illustrate their own journals.
Check out the back of the book for a list of books and website the author has provided for teachers and students in their study of hummingbirds.

Wild Witches' Ball


Prelutsky, Jack. 1976. Wild Witches' Ball. Ill. by Kelly Asbury. New York: Harpers Collins Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0060529725

Plot Summary

Mr. Prelutsky has given young children a funny presentation of a normally scary topic: witches- witches having a ball at a ball just right for witches. Cartoon drawings fill every page using every color imaginable with "witchy" surprises hidden in the drawings. A twist from the usual rhyming counting book, this one chooses to count backwards from ten down to one, with the final page encouraging the reader to count all the witches shown.

Critical Analysis
Perhaps because this is an earlier writing of Mr. Prelutsky's, it appears to be a little more challenging with the rhythm and rhyme. An example would be where the syllable breaks try to match up, and Mr. Prelutsky includes a word "sorceresses" that is almost too many syllables for a young child to pronounce or even understand.
The vocabulary of this poem will also be challenging. To understand it, a teacher would need to first introduce many of the words and discuss "Halloween" theme meaning. Unfortunately, in today's society, one might question reading aloud, "Nine queer dears with pointed ears..." I know of no Halloween connection to the word 'dears', and I would hesitate to use the word 'queers' in a public classroom or library setting. The work requires a teacher to practice reading aloud several times before performing an oral reading to a group. the rhythm and rhymes are a bit tricky on the tongue.
Asbury's illustrations are adequate with the required number of witches on each page, but it is difficult to determine which are the "witches six in shaggy rags" and which are the "five old hags", as there is very little to distinguish between each character when presented on one page together.
Despite its shortcomings, Wild Witches Ball is a low-key, non-scary Halloween book for the younger set.

Review Excerpt
Booklist: "PreS-Gr. 1. The poet laureate of the prepubescent set is ate it again! Prelutsky sets his sights on the divas of the dark in this counting rhyme about the annual fete of witches. With "ten tall crones" battling in barrels, six witches "in shaggy rags playing toss and tag," ...the text will both amuse young readers and help them hone new found counting skills...Highly recommended as a not-too-scary Halloween read-aloud."

Have students create own counting-down booklet with matching illustrations.
Make appropriate Halloween art.
Choose words from poem for vocabulary enrichment.
Share other student-friendly Halloween books and poems.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Mightier Than The Sword: World Folktales for Stong Boys

Yolen, Jane, Trans. 2003. Mightier Than The Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys. Ill. by Raul Colon. New York: Silver Whistle, Harcourt, Inc. ISBN 0152163913

Plot Summary
Mightier Than The Sword is a collection of fourteen folktales gathered from Asia, Africa, and Europe. All tales depict a young man as the protagonist who solves major problems without ever resorting to force. The main character thinks through the problem first before ever making his first move, demonstrating that brains can overcome brawn.

Critical Analysis
Jane Yolen has benefited the literary world by collecting prime folktales demonstrating young men from all around the globe who succeed in solving problems by using their wit and intelligence instead of brute force. This is an important message for boys of today who have cut their teeth on the violence found in modern media. The fourteen tales in this collection portray many universal themes found even in today's society: courage, following your dream, generosity, fairness, and the evil tyrant. Each story is provided with a pen and ink illustration showing a high point in the story and leaving the rest to the imagination of the reader.

Review Excerpts
"[Yolen's] versions of these stories are lively, expressively written, ready for reading aloud or telling..." - School Library Journal

"Free of didacticism, these diverse stories give readers something to think about." --Booklist

"This collection is outstanding and well worth any teacher's attention. Teachers that have video games 'fanatics' in their class could possibly use these folk tales with these students. I would suggest that they create the idea for a video game that has no violence patterned after one of the stories. It might get them to thinking about a game that contains something besides the most creative way to annihilate someone or something." - Heart of Texas Reviews

The tales in this collection lend themselves well to oral readings. Prior to reading, one could ask students how they would go about solving such a problem, and write the ideas onto a chart of blackboard. Following the reading, a discussion of alternative endings and solutions to the conflict could encourage both boys and girls to use their wits to solve issues instead of arguments.

Seven Blind Mice

Young, Ed, Trans. 1992. Seven Blind Mice. New York: Penguin Group. ISBN 0399222618

Plot Summary
A retelling of the Indian fable depicting blind men discovering an unfamiliar creature and their individual interpretations. This time the characters are colorful mice who again, insist their explanation of the Something is the only true one, until the last mouse explores the object and puts together correctly all the clues that reveal the unknown creature is actually an elephant.

Critical Analysis
Ed Young provides a brightly colored retelling of the classic fable of the blind men and the elephant. Illustrations of glowing colors set against a black backdrop keep a reader interested. The mouse moral at the end of the story is written in simple enough language that young readers will be able to understand an appreciate the lesson to be learned.

Review Excerpts
"Immensely appealing." - The Horn Book, starred review
"Exquisitely crafted: a simple, gracefully honed text, an appealing story, and outstanding illustrations and design- all add up to a perfect book." - Kirkus Reviews, pointer review

Prince Cinders

Cole, Babette. Trans. 1987. Prince Cinders. New York: The Putnam & Grossed Group. ISBN 0698115546

Plot Summary
A retelling of the classic Cinderella. This version stars a teenage boy as Prince Cinders who has three obnoxious brothers and one slightly incompetent fairy. All is well though, when Prince Cinders loses his bluejeans and Princess Lovelypenny searches for the one who can fit them.
Modern-day twists are incorporated into the retelling including sports cars, a disco, and a bus stop. Princess Lovelypenny is a liberated princess in that she proposes to Prince Cinders. Revenge is sweet at the end when she has the fairy turn the three obnoxious brothers into houseflies, cursed to do housework for the remainder of their lives.

Critical Analysis
Babette Cole's retelling follows the tried-and-true Cinderella plot while maintaining the interest of today's readers by using modern culture and idioms. The language is up-to-date and easy to understand. Cole's illustrations are amusing with a cartoon-feel to them with plenty of current details for readers to recognize and compare with the more traditional elements. The change of having the princess propose is a fun deviation from the norm.

Review Excerpts
"Take a classic story, substitute a few ingredients, season freely with silliness and imagination, dress it all up in jaunty illustrations, and what have you got? In the case of Cole's Prince Cinders, an outrageously funny romp of a picture book...A madcap, highly entertaining spoof." - Publishers Weekly

"Would bring giggles to any age." - School Library Journal

Use Venn diagrams to practice comparing and contrasting using various Cinderella versions.
Challenge students to write their own new ending different from the happily-ever-after or the one presented in Prince Cinders.
Discuss the pros and cons for getting revenge.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Araminta's Paint Box

Ackerman, Karen. 1990. Araminta's Paint Box. Ill. by Betsy Lewin. New York: Atheneum, Macmillan Publishing Company. ISBN 0689314620

Plot Summary: Araminta's family is moving west in a covered wagon to the territory of California. Her uncle gives her a special paint box as a going-away gift. Unfortunately, the paint box is lost on the trail west, but through a series of incredible events, the paint box winds up back with Araminta in California.

Critical Analysis: This is a happy-ending story with a predictable ending, but one that arrives there with the reader satisfied with how the events are resolved. This is a good example for practicing sequencing and geography and maps of the early days of the United states.
Every page of the book has an illustration, which highlights each important event in the story allowing young readers to better grasp the flow of sequence and time in the story. Action and movement are felt in each picture enabling the reader to feel the westward expansion of the United States during the second half of the 1800s.

Review Excerpts:
School Library Journal: " engaging way to present a slice of early American history to young children. Pen and watercolor illustrations charmingly capture the light-hearted spirit of the westward saga."

Connections: This book ties in nicely with a study on the westward movement of the United States. It provides a break from all the facts and history of this time period.
Extra materials:
Video Series: Westward Expansion for Students
Title: Covered Wagons and Westward Expansion
Publisher: SVE and Churchill Media 2004

Broida, Marion. Projects About Westward Expansion. ISBN 0761416048

Erickson, Paul. Daily Life in a Covered Wagon. ISBN 0140562125

The Man Who Walked Between The Towers

Gerstein, Mordicai. 2003. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. Brookfield, Connecticut: Roaring Brook Press ISBN 0761317910

Plot Summary: As the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were being completed in 1974, a French aerialist, Philippe Petit, with the help of friends, strung a tightrope between the the skyscrapers, and proceeded to walk, dance, and perform tricks on the rope. His walk has now become a piece of the history of the World Trade Center, a memory captured here for both children and adults alike to experience the thrill and daring of Philippe's incredible feat.

Critical Analysis: Mordicai Getrstein has brought to life the memory of Philippe Petit's incredible high wire walk between the World Trade Center towers. His writing captures the free spirit of Philippe and allows one to understand why he would want to even try so amazing a performance.

Gerstein's illustrations provide a sense of awe at the height of the towers, and, using two fold-out pages, conveys the feeling of tremendous distance, with Philippe's small silhouette drawn between the towers. A sense of the impossible enters the mind along with unbelievable relief that Philippe did indeed survive this amazing act.

Review Excerpts:

Publisher's Weekly: "Gerstein's dramatic paintings include some perspective bound to take any reader's breath away."

School Library Journal: "Gerstein captures his subject's incredible determination, profound skill and sheer joy. The final scene depicts transparent, cloud-filled skyscrapers, a man in their midst. With its graceful majesty and mythic overtones, this unique and uplifting book is at once a portrait of a larger-than-life individual and a memorial to the tower4s and the lives associated with them.


This would be a valuable book to share around September 11, to remind students of some of the good memories of the World Trade Center.

A connections could be made between girl gymnasts who perform on balance beams. If access to a gym is possible, try having students walk on beam.

Related books:

McCully, Emily Arnold. Mirette on the High wire. ISBN 0698114434

Petit, Philippe. To Reach the Clouds. ISBN 0865476519 Although written for adults, it provides photos of Philippe and his walk.

A Caldecott Celebration: Six Artists and Their Paths to the Caldecott Medal

Marcus, Leonard S. 1998. A Caldecott Celebration: Six Artists and Their Paths to the Caldecott Medal. New York: Walker and Company. ISBN 080278651

Plot Summary: Leonard Marcus gives us a book highlighting six Caldecott-winning books which span the six decades of that medal's history. The book answers many children's questions of "How did the author/illustrator come up with the ideas for his/her book?"

Critical Analysis: Leonard Marcus begins his work by explaining the background of the Caldecott medal but doesn't bore one with too many dates and details. After the introduction, he highlights a winner from each decade, giving the reader insight into why the author/illustrator wrote the story and how he/she designed the illustrations. Leonard Marcus encourages young readers by detailing how many of the illustrations started out with very simple thumbnail sketches, and that many illustrations took several weeks or even months before the illustrator considered the drawings to be done.
The Text is appropriately written in chronological order describing the book from start to finish and makes good use of the artists' original work showing sketches, thumbnails, and the final product.

Review Excerpts:
Booklist: "A beautifully made book"

The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books: "Eminently satisfying"

School Library Journal: "While the focus is on the creation of the award-winning books, a great deal of background about the artists' lives and the way in which they work is given. The large, attractive pages invite readers to savor the multitude of illustrators."

Use the book as a spring board for book talks that include discussions about illustrations, not just the text or story.

Introduce the year's medal winners by showing past winners and their books.

Encourage students to illustrate a page or two for a book that does not have an illustration on every page and display in the library.

Other books about artists and illustrators:
Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children about Their Art
ISBN 9780399246005
Pass It Down: Five Picture Book Families Make Their Mark
ISBN 0802796001

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Literature for Children and Young Adults

I will be using my blog as a site to post my book reviews for my class in Literature for Children and Young Adults from Texas Women's University for the 2008 Fall Semester.