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.