Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Stella’s Starliner (by Rosemary Wells)

Summary of Stella's Starliner
Stella lives in a camper-type trailer (referred to as a Starliner) with her parents.  Life is simple but full for them.  They do typical things like go to the market, check out books at the library, and read them together.  Stella is happy and content until she meets a trio of weasels.  They refer to her home as a “tin can” and call her poor.   Their words sting Stella’s heart.  

Feeling shame and sadness, she keeps the incident to herself.  Her mother senses there is something wrong, so she gently coaxes Stella to reveal what occurred.   They cuddle together as their little home travels to a new location. 

When they arrive at their new destination, Stella meets some new friends.   Instead of seeing her little home as a disadvantage, they are fascinated by it.  They think she is a “zillionare” because she lives in a silver home.  Stella and her new friends explore and play in the Starliner. 

I am a fan of Rosemary Well’s characters and stories.  Her characters tend to be sweet animals experiencing childhood dilemmas.  In Stella’s Starliners, she uses an adorable family of foxes as the main characters.  Stella’s friends are cute little bunny rabbits.  What child doesn’t love fuzzy foxes and bouncy bunnies?   The pictures are animated and active, reflecting the words on the page well, but do little to add to the story content.

The story is relevant and meaningful.  Many children have had experiences similar to Stella where they are marginalized and demeaned for something superficial—appearance, clothes, home, socioeconomic class, and so forth.  This story can be used to discuss the acceptance of others based on the content of their character rather than their material possesses or outward appearance.  In addition, the incident with the weasels can be used to explore how to deal with those who say hurtful words. 

The only part of the story that seemed odd to me is that Stella’s father left for the week to go to work (as he always does).  However, on the evening Stella reveals the bullying incident, her father is driving them to a new place.  She does not realize it though until her mother tells her to look out the window.  Her mother states that her father is “flying [them] far away through the night.”  An illustration shows them literally flying. 

The next page, however, is back in reality with a neat ending.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am fine with Stella having a foil experience to that of the weasels to affirm her and end on a positive note.  Clearly, in reality children have contrasting experiences depending of the circumstances and people they encounter.  The sudden moving to a new location with no explanation and no knowledge comes off as incongruent though.  I think even a small child would know the difference between her home sitting still and it driving on the freeway.  It would have been better if they went to a park or public place and met some other children. 

Other than that little snafu in the narrative, the book is a good read.  The characters are endearing. The story teaches children to be accepting of both themselves and others.  As a result,  I recommend Stella’s Starliner for ages 3-9.  

Monday, June 16, 2014

Nonfiction Monday: Becoming Ben Franklin (Russell Freedman)

Benjamin Franklin is a remarkable man.  Raised in humble circumstances, he left home to far surpass his parents' station in life.  He is the epitome of a man who pulled himself up by his boot straps—the quintessential American.  Not only was he insatiably curious, but he used it to create useful items, such as a lightening rod, the Franklin stove, and bifocal glasses.  His contributions to society went beyond material things to include a library, a university, a fire company, and a philosophical society.  Anyone would be proud to have so many accomplishments!  Yet, his do not stop there.

His most important role was as a founding father of this great country.  Interestingly, Franklin wished to remain loyal to England for much of his life.  It was not until he spent many years in England working as an ambassador that he realized that the colonies had to declare their independence.  He also spent a decade in France securing their assistance during the war and their help in recognizing the country as independent.  Along with John Adams and John Jay, he eventually negotiated and secured peace with England.  He was involved in the composition of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  He is the Forrest Gump of America’s founding—somehow he is in the middle of all the significant events. 

The struggles and joys of Franklin’s personal life are also highlighted.  While he was primarily loved by a wide circle of people spanning two continents, he had a falling out with his son, a run in with English parliament, and a personal failure running against an opponent.  

All of these areas humanized Franklin beyond all the fanfare of his community and political persona.    

The first biography I remember ever reading is Lincoln:  A Photobiography by Russell Freedman.  I was completely enthralled in it.   I did not think much of the writing at the time (it was long, long ago before I really paid attention to such things).  I gave more credit to the subject.  I mean, who doesn’t find Lincoln fascinating? However, I re-read the book a few years ago.  It was then that I realized what a master story teller Freedman is. 

I picked up Becoming Ben Franklin:  How a Candle-Maker’s Son Helped Light the Flame of Liberty because it was written by Freedman.  I knew he was a “founding father” in a vague sense.  I honestly did not know much else about Ben Franklin outside of the kite story and his almanac.  

I was immediately engage in Freedman's narrative of Franklin’s life.  The story was even more thrilling because his life story parallels the founding of our country. Freedman does a masterful job intertwining Franklin’s personal story with historical events and observations from his contemporaries.  The narrative gives a strong sense of his strengths and weaknesses as person.   On one hand he was passionate, personable, and persuasive.  However, he could also be prideful and resentful. 

The layout of the book is kid-friendly.  Nearly every page has a photograph illustrating a person or event from the narrative.  The pictures break up the text, making the pages and chapters less daunting for reluctant readers.  Second, the pictures also provide essential visuals for youngsters to get a sense of what life looked like 200 years ago—from the dress, to the wigs, to the quill pens.  The book is broken down into short chapters ranging from 9 to 13 pages, each about a different phase in Franklin’s life.  This attribute makes it ideal for teachers who want to focus on a specific area and for children who feel more comfortable reading in shorter increments. 

Overall, I highly recommend Becoming Ben Franklin:  How a Candle-Maker’s Son Helped Light the Flame of Liberty for ages 8 and up.  The book is sure to engage young and mature readers with its vibrant content and engaging text. 

Teaching Opportunities
  • Character Education:  discuss the positive attributes Franklin embodied and how it helped him succeed
  • History:  connect to curriculum related to and/or explore more about the Revolutionary War, Boston Tea Party, Declaration of Independence, and the American Constitution
  • Compare/Contrast:  compare Franklin to a current political “hero” or important figure
  • Literature/Biography:  read about other founding fathers, such as John Adams, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington
  • Science:  explore the developments in electricity
  • Social Studies: learn more about the art of diplomacy; brainstorm ways to use the principles in everyday life
Check out other Nonfiction Monday posts HERE. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Poetry Friday: Follow, Follow (by Marilyn Singer)

Like her earlier work Mirror, Mirror, Marilyn Singer has created a collection of clever and ironic reversos.  Follow, Follow uses fairy tale characters and stories to illustrate that there are two sides to every story.  The poems, and accompanying illustrations, are side by side.  Though there are only slight changes in areas of punctuation and capitalization, the poems are exactly the same on both sides, but the lines are in reverse order.  Amazingly, with just those small changes, a completely different perspective is revealed. For instance, in “Ready, Steady, Go!” both the hare and the tortoise’s views are seen (read both side separately):

That ridiculous loser!                             Take me to the finish line!
I am not                                                 I’ve got rabbit feet to
a slowpoke.                                           beat.
Though I may be                                    I can’t be
the smallest bit distracted,                       the smallest bit distracted.
I can’t be                                               Though I may be
beat.                                                      a slowpoke.
I’ve got rabbit feet to                              I am not
 take me to the finish line.                       That ridiculous loser.

Singer uses many other favorite fairy tales, such as  Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Goose Girl, Princess and the Pea, The Pied Piper, Puss in Boot, and Three Little Pigs.  Follow,Follow can be enjoyed for its beautiful illustrations and witty poems, but it also makes for insightful and entertaining exploration opportunities of literacy and performance in the classroom.  I recommend this book for ages 7 and up. 

One of my favorites is a nice contrast between traditional and modern views of women and love: “The Little Mermaid’s Choice.”

For love,                                           You’ll never catch me
give up your voice.                             playing
Don’t                                                “Catch him.”
think twice.                                       You can’t
One the shore,                                   be docile
be his shadow.                                   in the unruly sea.
Don’t                                                Keep your home.
keep your home                                 Don’t
in the unruly sea.                               be his shadow
Be docile.                                          on the shore.
You can’t                                           Think twice!
catch him                                           Don’t
playing                                              give up your voice
"You'll never catch me."                          for love.

For other great poetry selections from around the blog-o-sphere, check out Think, Kid. Think.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Non-Fiction Monday: No Backbones series (by Natalie Lunis)

On this Non-Fiction Monday, I am excited to share another outstanding non-fiction series from Bearport Publishing.   I promise.  I am don’t work for them.  I am just a huge fan of high quality books.  This week I read Squishy Sponges and Prickly Sea Stars from the No Backbone: Marine Invertebrates series.  There are four additional titles:  Crawling Crabs, Gooey Jellyfish, Slimy Sea Slugs, and Squirting Squids

The information, written by author Natalie Lunis, is an excellent introduction to invertebrates in general and each animal specifically.  Each 2-page layout has 4-5 simple sentences in a bullet point format for easy reading.  The independent reading level is 2-3 grade range while children as young as 3-4 years of age will understand and enjoy.  Each book has fascinating facts on areas like what each animal eats to how they eat to what eats them!  Of course, each animal has a unique body type, which makes each title high interest reading. 

I love the large, vivid pictures that accompany the text well, offering an “inside” look into the lives of these underwater creatures.  For instance, Squishy Sponges reveals how crabs use sponges to camouflage themselves and Prickly Sea Stars shows how stars use their stomachs to eat mussels.  Many of the photos are so up-close and personal that minute details are seen, such as a sea stars’ eye spot and a sponge's pores. 

Check out the No Backbone series, as well as their others, at Bearport.   Visit Instantly Interruptible for other Non-Fiction Monday selections from around the web. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Navigating Early (by Clare Vanderpool)

Summary of Navigating Early (by Clare Vanderpool):
Jack Baker is suddenly uprooted from his Kansas home after his mother dies.  He transfers to a Maine boarding school while his father, a military officer, finishes serving at the close of World War II.  Early Auden, the strangest of boys, is also an outsider who has faced great loss.  The two boys forge a friendship that takes them on a quest in search of the Great Appalachian Bear.   Along the way, Early tells Jack of the fictional story of Pi which parallels their own physical and, often, personal journeys toward facing the loss and pain in their lives.  A colorful cast of characters help make their quest memorable and poignant. 

I read Vanderpool’s debut (and Newbery winning) novel, Moon Over Manifest, so when I saw this new book on a couple other blogs, I knew I had to read it.  Vanderpool has a gift for creating unforgettable characters and parallel multi-layered story lines.  Navigating Early showcases both of these features.

Jack is a sort of “every boy.”  He struggles with fitting in and finding his place in school, in his family, and in life.  Early, on the other hand, is rare and unforgettable.   Jack commonly calls him “the strangest of boys” because Early’s behaviors were not understood in that era.  Though Early is highly intelligent and functional, he appears to be on the autism spectrum.   His mannerisms and personality are endearing and, at time, humorous.  I could not help loving him. 

The main story line is Jack and Early’s quest.  Early creates a story to parallel the numbers in the mathematical pi.  Pi, like Jack and Early, must go on a quest to earn his name.  As Pi learns what it means to be a man and deal with loss and hardship so do Jack and Early—each in a different way.  Even the minor characters they encounter have their own intertwined and satisfying stories. 

Middle grade readers will be drawn to the boys’ journey to find the Great Appalachian Bear.  They will relate to Jack’s and Early’s characters as well as enjoy the fascinating other characters.  I highly recommend Navigating Early for ages 8 and up. 

Check out other excellent Middle Grade Fictions at Shannon Messenger's blog

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Before I Fall (Lauren Oliver)

I just finished listening to Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall on audio.  When I first began the book, I was tempted to stop it.  The characters came across arrogant, superficial, and immoral.  All qualities I hate to see in anyone, but especially as models for teens.  Because of the countless rave review I have encountered over the past couple years on the book (and because I enjoyed one of her other books, Delirium), I plunged forward.   I am glad I did. 

Plot:  Oliver takes the familiar “groundhog day” plot, but she makes it feel fresh.  Seventeen year old Sam keeps living the day of her death over and over for a total of 7 days.  The first few days she is only interested in finding a way out.  She is also still stuck in her immaturity, prejudices, and shallow teen self.  With each effort to make a significant change, Sam slowly sees the day (and much of her life) through a 360 degree lens.   The multi-layered plot has a steady pace that kept me wanting to come back to hear more.

Characterization:  At the opening of the book, I disliked all the characters.  I grew to like Sam and the others. Even the fiercest character, Lindsey, earned my sympathy. They each illustrated in different ways that people are much more than they seem. The popular people are often some of the most broken, always looking to cover up their hurts, habits, and failings. Sam, also, learns how her actions impact others, often in unexpected and devastating ways. The circumstances, I hope, will prompt young adults to consider their choices more carefully.

Motifs: There are so many great motifs.   First, the story focuses on the bullying of one innocent classmate, Julia.  As she lives out each day, Sam feels the weight of her group’s actions toward this particular peer as well as a few others.  The message about the impact of bullying is real and relevant.  Next, I love how Sam begins to appreciate the people and the world around her.  Unfortunately, she only has a short time to revel in it, but readers will definitely be challenged to “love deeper” and “speak sweeter.” Finally,  illusions play a significant role. Sam lives in an illusion—until that fateful day of her death. She struggles at first to see others and herself for what they are in reality.  As she peels back the onion layers of that day and her life, she gains a greater understanding of herself and those around her.

Language: I love Oliver’s often lyrical and beautiful use of language and metaphor.  Her dialogue comes across genuine and realistic.  The one aspect I did not enjoy is the frequent cursing.  Two of the most common words—sh*t and b**chare used more excessively than I prefer, especially for young people. Yes, I know that many do curse—and do it often—and most people cuss on occasion.  For many, this issue will not bother them.  To me, cursing is the crutch of those who lack imagination and/or vocabulary to express themselves another way.  For these teen characters, it is likely the case. 

Sexual Situations:  I was especially saddened by Sam’s initial desire to have sex for the first time with a boy she had mediocre feelings with to “get it over with.”  Fortunately, this attitude does eventually mature.  Also, Sam is flirty with one of her teachers.  On the day she decides to “live it up” since everything will be reset the next day anyway, she becomes sexually aggressive with the instructor, leading to some intense physical contact.  This scenario is a HUGE pet peeve of mine in young adult fiction.  Fortunately, Sam becomes repulsed by the event in retrospect.  With each fictional or real occurrence of the inappropriate teacher-student relationship, I feel it becomes less shocking and, slowly, becomes seen less and less as immoral or wrong—which I believe is a sad commentary on our times.  Overall, the girls approach sex is playful and fun. They are described draping themselves all over guys who appear to have little respect for them.  One of their favorite sayings is “No glove.  No love.”  If they are going to have sex, I appreciate that they at least advocated condom use.  Like many contemporary youth fictions, the seriousness of sex as an extension of maturity and commitment and love is completely absent.

After finishing the book, I believe it was likely the author's purpose to begin with the superficial, popular "mean girls" and turn the stereotype upside down--which she did accomplish.  I recommend Before I Fall for ages 15 and up.  

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

Summary of The Fault in our Stars (by John Green):

Sixteen year old Hazel is clinically depressed after three years of fighting off terminal cancer. The doctors have found a way to keep the cancer from spreading (for the time being), but she has limited lung capacity.  To help her deal with her illness and (hopefully) make friends, her parents bring her a weekly support group.  When charismatic and witty Augustus Waters begins to attend, Hazel finds a kindred spirit who not only understands her situation but is also her intellectual equal.  Through their relationship, Hazel begins to experience life more fully. 


Insightful:  Author John Green has drawn authentic characters who offer insights not only in what it means to live and to fight off illness but also on what it means to be young, in love, and dealing with loss.  I loved the playful banter between the characters (especially Augustus and Hazel).  The often poetic way that a situation or idea is described is brilliant and wonderful.  I thoroughly enjoyed Green’s use of language and metaphor. 

Bold: The author does not belittle those with terminal illness, but he does not romanticize the fight of cancer patients either.  The characters themselves comment on the common stereotype of the “heroic” fighter.   They illustrate in their lives that even the “best” of people and fighters are not always graceful and brave. 

Irreverent:  Hazel has no idealistic notions of the world, God, or the afterlife.  She believes in a vague “universe” that she eventually concludes “wants to be noticed.”  Her attitude towards traditional religion and beliefs is impertinent.   While Augustus has a sense of wanting to make a difference in the world and of a “something” beyond, Hazel does not see the purpose.  She shames him for believing his position is more enlightened, and he caves.  Hazel is content to just be part of her small circle, eventually dying and being forgotten.  While this aspect of the novel is realistic and reflective of many people’s beliefs, I found it disappointing and depressing.

Raw:  Green reveals the harsh reality and difficult setbacks of his characters.  The characters get angry, yell, and, even, break things. They occasionally use raw language and profanities.  Parents sometimes showed their weakness in dealing with their sick children.  Some of the more heart-wrenching moments are when Hazel is desperate to find out what happened to the mother in her favorite novel (An Imperial Affliction), and her fears on what will happened to her parents (especially her mother) after her death. 

Overall, I genuine enjoy The Fault of our Stars.  I cried.  I laughed.  I smiled (especially when Augustus was “in the picture”).  I recommend this book for ages 14 and up. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Poetry Friday: Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars (by Douglas Florian):

Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars (by Douglas Florian):
As with many of Florian’s other books, this space-themed collection incorporates science facts with the  rhyme, rhythm, and imagery of poetry.  The illustrations are a wonderful blend of painting, collage, text, and simple die cut shapes.  The collection begins with general poems about the universe and our solar system.  Next, each planet has its own poem.  Other space elements are covered, such as moon, comets, constellations, black holes, and the great beyond.   The “galactic glossary” explains in prose format, that both compliments and expands the poems, more about each of the objects. 

This collection is ideal for educators and parents teaching about the solar system.   Children get a fun introduction or reinforcement of facts.   They can be challenged to create their own space poems using information that an adult provided or that the children researched.  The illustrations could be used as a spring board for child-created painting/collage depictions of our solar system.   For other solar system books and activities, visit my Pinterest collection

Scalding-hot surface,
Nine hundred degrees.
Nothing can live there,
No creatures,
No tree.
Poisonous clouds
Of acid above.
Why was it named for
The goddess of love?

“The Comet”
Ice, rock, dirt,
Metal and gas—
Around the sun
A comet may pass.
A dirty snowball
Of space debris.
The biggest snowball
That you’ll ever see.

Check out other great poems and poetry anthologies at Random Noodling in honor of Poetry Friday.  

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Pirate Nap (by Danna Smith)

Summary of Pirate Nap: A Book of Colors (by Danna Smith):
Two energetic and mischievous preschoolers attempt to avoid naptime.  Together, they experience a pirate adventure by imaginatively turning household objects into colorful pirate treasures and objects.  Eventually, their mother successfully corrals them into bed for a nap, but not before they “stash their treasures” and “stow their swords.”   The snappy rhyming text is sure to draw young readers. 

Another clue.  Blow me down!
A treasure chest!  Wooden. BROWN.
Pirate’s luck.  The treasure’s big.
Yo ho ho!  The pirates dig. 

Author Danna Smith has created a fun rhyming adventure that effectively teaches the early learning concept of color identification while celebrating imaginative play.  The colors words are a natural part of the text.  The object in question is the focal point through brighter colors that contrast with more muted tones, position on the page, and/or the action of the story.  The color name is always bold and in the color in question, ideal for teaching youngsters visual recognition and allowing them to “read” along.   While color identification is taught, it is down in a more subtle way than most concept books.  The focus of the text and illustrations is on childhood play and nap time.

Artist Valeria Petrone does a wonderful job with the accompanying illustrations.  Her animated pictures add to the text rather than just mimic it.  For instance, the text states:  “Hear a scream.  What could it be?  A purple monster from the sea!”  The illustrations show a younger sister (dressed in purple) who has taken the necklace from her siblings and run off. 

Pirate Nap will quickly become a pre-naptime favorite.  I recommend the book for ages 3 months to 4 years old.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Picturebook Author Spotlight: Jan Thomas

I was so delighted with The Doghouse by Jan Thomas that I was inspired to check out her other books.  I find myself frequently revisiting and sharing them with others.   My local library recently added her latest book, prompting me to share some of my favorites with my fellow picturebook lovers on the blog-o-sphere.

Jan Thomas has a charming style which is both memorable and interactive.   Children (and adults) are drawn to the simple illustrations and reoccurring characters—animals and dust bunnies.  These characters are often emotionally charged with cheerful excitement or playful fear.  The simple vocabulary, rhyming words, and repetition are ideal for building early reading skills and for practicing early readers.  Her stories often have an ironic twist or humorous situations.   Best of all, the books make the readers and listeners feel like important participants in the story experience.  Check these books out on your next trip to the library or the bookstore. 

Four adorable dust bunnies—Ed, Ned, Ted, and Bob love to rhyme all the time!  While the other three are distracted with their exuberant rhyming game, Ed tries to warn them of impending danger.  Instead of listening to him, they correct him.  For instance, they inform him:   “No, Bob…’Look!’ does not rhyme with car!”  Even when he finally gets his whole message out (“Look out! Here comes a big scary monster with a broom!”), the others still do not understand…that is until they see it coming toward them!   They are not out of danger yet though.  Kids will want to rhyme right along with these original characters while enjoying the fun plot turns. 

When the rhyming dust bunnies meet Big, Mean Dust Bunny, they ask him to join their rhyming game.  He declines.  They urge him on anyway.  The Big Mean Dust Bunny lives up to his name…he makes every rhyming round an opportunity to bully the others.  Until, the big fat cat “spats” him.  The others come to his aid (while maintaining their rhyming game), warming his heart and winning him over.  The end pages have a cute twist…and a possible clue for a sequel. 

The book begins with the question, “Will Fat Cat sit on…the cow?”  The concerned cow replies, “Moo?”  The next page reveals, “No!  Fat Cat will not sit on Cow!”  The question continues in a similar fashion with each of the animals until the mouse helps find a solution.  With that resolved, the next question is, “What will Fat Cat have for lunch?”  This query prompts the animals to all flee.  I love the playful banter between the animals, the melodramatic looks, and the exaggerated suspense.  Children are sure to have a blast with this question and answer book. 

A cheery ladybug invites readers/listeners to join in a game of pretend.  They are asked to imagine there is a tiny bug on their nose, in their mouth, and on their shirt (among other things).  When that pesky bug refuses to come off (even after a round of the chicken dance), the ladybug asks readers/listeners to pretend a giant hungry frog is coming to eat the pest.  An unexpected visitor arrives, so she pleas to the participants to make a scary face!   That scary face has a surprising outcome!  Not only does this book encourage interaction, it is sure to elicit giggles and grins.

Out on the prairie, the cowboy tells two cute little cows it is “Time to hit the hay.”  Looking sleepy and content, they listen as the cowboy sings:

It’s time
for little cows
to rest their head.
It’s time
for little cows
to go to bed.
It’s time
for little cows
to sleep so tight.
It’s time
for us to say…

On the next page, the cowboy shrieks, “Eeeeek!”  He sees a shadow and thinks it is a huge hairy spider.  The cows show him it is only a flower.  They try the lullaby again.  Each time, the cowboy becomes frightened by something that turns out to be nothing scary at all.  Until a big giant wolf shows up.  It is okay though.  He LOVES lullabies too.  They all sleep happily ever after.  Kids will love to read a long with this bedtime story, which reassures them there is nothing to fear.  

Monday, April 1, 2013

Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert (Gary D. Schmidt)

Summary of Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert (Gary D. Schmidt):
Martin de Porres was born with seemingly everything to his disadvantage.  He was the son of an African slave mother and a Spanish noble father, making Martin a mixed race child.  His early years were spent in extreme poverty.   Despite these economic and cultural obstacles, his mother called him “The Rose in the Desert.”  When he was eight years old, his father took him from the stink, cold, and hunger of the barrios.  He gave Martin and his sister his name—which was frowned upon by both the royals and the clergy.  Later, Martin was apprenticed out to become a healer and later came to live with the Dominican priests.  He overcame great racial and economic prejudice to become highly respected and sought after for his ability to heal and to show compassion to both people and animals, yet he always lived humbly among those he served until his death.

Like most people, I love success stories.  Martin de Porres’ story is definitely such a story—but not at all in the typical sense.  He is not a man who overcomes to be rich and famous, but rather to remain poor and humble.  Through his work, he ministers to many and alleviates great suffering.  There are many recorded miracles attributed to him which led the church to eventually canonize him into the sainthood.   Whether you believe in miracles or not, Martin’s service and compassion for others stands as a testament to the greatest that humanity can achieve despite immense odds. 

Author Gary D. Schmidt records this story in beautiful poetic language.  For instance, I love the lines, “Hunger lived in their home.  Illness was their companion.”  This description aptly captures the oppressive nature of his early surroundings.  Another favorite section is:  “After thirteen years, every soul in Lima knew who Martin was:  Not a mongrel.  Not the son of a slave. ‘He is a rose in the desert,’ they said.”   In addition, artist David Diaz expertly illustrates the text.  I love the muted tones with splashes of color that captures the life and the culture of this beloved saint. 

While Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert is a story worthy of sharing for any occasion, it is noteworthy to include in a study of the Renaissance, South American/Spanish culture, and saints/religious figures.  Of course, it is a study of positive character qualities, such as perseverance, humbleness, and compassion.  I recommend this book for ages 7 and up.   

For other outstanding non-fiction selections, check out the Non-Fiction Monday round up at Wendie's Wanderings.  

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Watsons Go to Birmingham (Christopher Paul Curtis)

Summary of The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 (by Christopher Paul Curtis):
Kenny and his family of “weird” Watsons live in Flint during the tumultuous civil rights era.  In their middle class, black community in Michigan, they are insulated from much of the tension and violence.  The novel focuses on their everyday lives and relationships, which ranges from humorous when Byron gets his tongue stuck to the car mirror during a winter storm to endearing as the family sits around listening to music on their new car record player to reflective as Kenny learns how to be a friend to the neighborhood newbies.  The family decides to take a trip down to Birmingham, Alabama to visit extended family.  During their stay, they experience a racial terrorist attack on a church in the community they are visiting. 

I had a fond recollection of this middle grade novel after reading it several years ago, but I had honestly forgotten how endearing the voice and timeless the story until I recently reread it.  Author Christopher Paul Curtis so beautifully captures the perspective of a 9 year old boy, Kenny.  He has an innocence about him that tempers the tragedy and tension, which is ideal for young readers.  Kenny, also, has a mischievous-side, bringing about much of the humor and lightness in the novel. 

I love the family dynamics.  There is sibling rivalry—particularly between Kenny and his older brother Byron--but it is clear the boys love each other.  Kenny looks up to his brother, known the “juvenile delinquent,” even though Byron often torments him.  Also, Byron saves Kenny physically and emotionally during the course of the story.  The parents have a strong, through not overbearing, presence in their children's lives.  The youngest child plays the smallest role in the action, mostly that of a tattle tale and conscious to the two older boys.  Each person, including the parents, is flawed, but ultimately, they all look out for each other and love each other. 

Kenny is often naive and immature in social situations.  Throughout the novel, he grows as a friend, family member, and person.  The most significant growth comes after their visit to Birmingham which causes him to face his own mortality as well as that of his younger sister and his community.  Back in Flint, it takes him several weeks to go though a healing and mourning process.  Just as everything is not clear and neatly tied up in life, so is Kenny still left with some uncertainty even has he moves forward with hope. 

The author does an excellent job with the historical time period and tragic bombing.  Much of the oppressive and dangerous backdrop is understated, which works well for the child perspective and reader.  At the same time, the events are ideal for discussions on recent tragedies and dangers that young readers are familiar with (or may even have some first hand experience). 

Christopher Paul Curtis is an impressive and memorable writer.   He has two other middle grade novels that tackle issues that are unique to the African-American culture while transcending it with characters and experiences that are universal (Bud, Not Buddy and Elijah of Buxton).  All three books have been awarded the Newbery or Newbery Honor award, which is quite an impressive feat.  In addition, he has published a couple middle grade mysteries.  I had the pleasure of hearing him speak and meeting him at a conference.  He was warm and friendly as he met his many fans as well as entertaining and engaging as a speaker--all qualities that come through his writing.  For any middle grader reader or fan, he is a must read! 

I recommend The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 for ages 9 and up.  It is also ideal for classroom and home schooling curriculums because of the outstanding characterization, excellent literary qualities, and connections to a pivotal historical era.

Teaching Opportunities:
  • History:  read during a unit study on the 1960’s and/or civil rights movement
  • Music:  Kenny has a favorite song he loves to listen to over and over again; play it and discuss why he might be so drawn to it; then, listen to other popular songs of the era and discuss
  • Biography:  read about famous civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks
  • Compare/Contrast:  discuss similarities and differences in Kenny’s life and that of contemporary middle graders
  • Character Education: discuss the qualities of a good friend; apply the list to Kenny to evaluate if he would be  a good friend and to selves
  • Similes and Metaphors:  have the students pick a character or conflict in the book; next, ask them to pick an animal or thing to describe the person or conflict and explain why they chose it; write similes and metaphors using the animals or things
  • Picturebook Literature:  read other experiences during this historical era such as Ruth and the Green Book, Back of the Bus, Grandma's Pride, When Grandma Sings, and Goin' Someplace Special
Visit Shannon Messenger, the hostess of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, for other great middle fictions.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Delirium (by Lauren Oliver)

Summary of Delirium (by Lauren Oliver):
Lena Haloway is content in the government-managed society she lives in.   The reality that everything is neatly laid out for her—career, husband, life—makes her look forward to her “cure” and the future.   Despite the tragedy of her mother’s suicide and the whispers of the “invalid” community, Lena believes the government knows what is best for its people.   As she dabbles in investigating the forbidden parts of society, she begins to realize the government and the cure are not really about her best interests.  Instead, she will seal for herself a future that is grey and dreary—if she submits.   Lena realizes it is better to love and to live—even if it means feelings of pain and loss.  She must make an important, and possibility dangerous, decision before it is too late. 

I have seen the Delirium series and Lauren Oliver on many favorites’ lists.  I took the plunge and began reading Delirium at the beginning of the week…I could not put it down.  I was enraptured in the plot immediately!  Ms. Oliver’s language is often poetic.  Her storytelling keeps a steady pace, each new event driving me to find out what will happen to Lena, Hana (her best friend), and Alex (her first love). 

The characterization is well done.  One of my favorite parts is the relationship between Lena and Hana.  There is an innocence in their friendship as they savor the last days of their youth and life with emotions.  They are fiercely loyal and devoted to each other.  Lena starts off as an obedient, though internally conflicted, protagonist.  As the story progresses, she grows bold, confident, and independent—willing to risk everything for truth, freedom, and love.  Alex is protective, loving, and strong.  They appear to be a good, healthy match.    

Since they are living in an oppressive society, it is natural to cheer them on as they defy social and government expectations.  On the other hand, I always feel a sense of conflict as teens’ rebel in novels.  I realize a certain amount of stepping out from parents is healthy and necessary, but I don’t believe it has to be under of cloud of deception and rebellion.  Lena lies and sneaks around a lot--though it is understandable to a degree in her extremely rigid society because there is no other recourse, ever.  I hope young adult readers will not view their own seemingly “oppressive” lives as an excuse to do the same.  This story (like other dystopian novels) should be a cautionary tale of allowing the government too much control over our lives.  Hopefully, it will prod young people to seek out representatives that fight for individual autonomy rather than government control--no matter how enticing the freebies may seem.

There are, also, a handful of profanities and some mild sexual content.  For instance, a scene is briefly described where Alex gazes at Lena with no shirt on.  They also have a night alone sleeping together.  Lena does not feel ready for sex. Alex respects her decision with grace.  Of course, there are many references to kissing.   

The novel prompted me to think about the age-old dilemma of emotion vs. reason.   I think we are so drawn to emotions as humans because they, along with their cohorts passion and  love, are not something we can readily control.  Sometimes we don't want to.  Other times we want or need to, but feel we cannot.  This situation could spur a lively discussion on the role of passion and emotions as well as reason and control in our lives.

Overall, I genuinely enjoyed this dystopian novel.  I have the next one, Pandemonium, on reserve.  I look forward to reading the other books in the series.  I recommend Delirium for ages 14 and up.  

Friday, March 8, 2013

Poetry Friday: Blue Lipstick (by John Grandits)

Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems (by John Grandits):  
John Grandit has expanded my understanding and appreciation of the concrete poem.   Previously, I saw this medium has child’s play and simplistic.  When I first picked up Blue Lipstick, I was initially turned off.  Everything seemed so busy.  

Then, I sat down and really examined the poems.  The first one was “Bad Hair Day.”  The words come out of a head, appearing as a crazy mess.  The narrative poem captures well the adolescent female’s voice, with hyperbole and humor.  Next, I was drawn to “Girls, We Have the Solution!”  This witty poem is set up as an advertisement.  It effectively depicts common insecurities of young girls, insightfully and humorously.  Also, “Pep Rally” is memorable. There is a traditional free verse poem at the top accompanying a concrete poem describing cheerleaders through the speaker’s perspective.   

All the poems are written through the perspective of a young high school girl.   She grows and changes through the poems.  For instance,  in “The Wall”  she sees most the people in her life as on “The Other Side.”  In other words, they are against her.  However, in “The Wall (Revisited)” positioned toward the end of the book, she becomes more reflective and acknowledges more people as on her side. 

Blue Lipstick is a memorable and engaging book of poems.  I recommend it for ages 13 and up.    

Visit My Juicy Little Universe for other poetry selection in honor of Poetry Friday.