Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Big Elephant in the Room by Lane Smith

I picked this book off the shelf first because for whatever reason I thought it was going to be about politics- donkeys on the cover and its about a big elephant, I dunno. Anyway, I thought that it would be interesting to see politics from a children's book point of view. This was however, not about politics. In the end though I was okay with this because it ended up being something just as interesting. We have all heard this phrase "the big elephant in the room". It refers to something that is very obvious that nobody mentions, but everybody knows. For example, an elephant in the room would be a bad smell. It is obvious, everyone smells it, but nobody wants to mention it. Or it could be a topic of discussion that everyone knows about, but nobody brings up to talk about like a divorce or something like that. At any rate, it is a common phrase. What this book has done though is make the phrase into something that children can understand, and it does it in a funny way. It starts off with one of the friends asking, "Can we talk about the big elephant in the room?" And the other friend says "The big elephant? As in the BIG problem? I was expecting this! Because I ate all the crunchy-nut ice cream?!" He goes on asking if other things are the proverbial "elephant in the room" and finally the other friend says "No! No! No! I don't care about any of those things...I was just asking about the big elephant in the room!" Then they both look into the living room and an actual elephant is sitting on the sofa, "Oh, that big elephant! That's Stanley."

It was a very amusing ending to the story, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if it would be confusing. Maybe it would only be a good, funny ending if you already understood what the phrase meant, because the joke comes in that he wasn't being metaphorical when he asked about the elephant, he was being literal. That could also be a little confusing for younger students who didn't understand the phrase to begin with. On the other hand though, this could be a good introduction to phrases and being metaphorical versus being literal in general and in writing. Another good mini-lesson idea!

Ages 4 to 8 sayith the library and I say yay!

I Want A Dog by Dayal Kaur Khalsa

My original attraction to this book was the front cover because it is a re-imagining of a famous painting by Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. If I weren't going to be a teacher, I would have been an art history major, which is why this particular cover art appealed to me so much. Interesting thing though is that it is not the only major work of art featured in this book. Another is a famous Japanese block print entitled The Wave at Kanagawa.

Now on to the literary portion of this blog. All in all, this was a cute story with a good moral, but I didn't like it that much. I feel awful saying that but for some reason it just did not jump off the page for me in the same way that other books I have reviewed did. It wasn't that I did not relate to it because you could replace the main character's name with mine for most of the book and the shoe would fit. This was me last year: Meaghan wanted a dog more than anything else in the world. She thought about dogs all the time. She talked about dogs; she read books about dogs...It seemed as if everyone in the world had a dog except Meaghan. So what was it about this book that didn't click? I really don't know. Maybe it was the illustrations. They are detailed but sort of blocky. More than likely though it was how the book ended. I wanted May (the real main character) to get a dog in the end, and she did, but not in the way I thought she would. The author simply says In a couple of years, May did get a real dog of her own. Meanwhile, though, May and all her friends, kept practicing. I wanted her to get her dog right away.

This made for a morally sound story though. This book taught about not only the responsibilities that come with having a dog, but it also taught about more abstract concepts. For example, not giving up, which could be applied to more than just begging your parents for a dog. It taught about hard work when May saved up to buy a puppy. It taught about patience in that May did not get her puppy right away but she continued to show her parents what a good owner she would be. It also shows May gaining a good idea of how she will take care of her dog, and show her parents that she can be responsible by taking her roller skate for walks and such.

The library says all ages, and I agree! These lessons know no age limit.

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

Love That Dog? How about Love That Book? That was corny but it had to be done. Yes, I did love this book. It was charming and simple, yet deep in its own right. It introduces the idea that children of all ages, or anyone, for that matter can write poetry. Which is important for children to realize. This book would be so perfect to help introduce that to students because it shows an average little boy writing poetry that his teacher loves. I think that praise from the teacher is a good example for students to see, because even though Jack thinks his poetry is silly, his teacher wants to put it up on the board. It is also a good way to approach teaching poetry to students. Putting everybody's poetry up on the board for everyone to see, leaving off names if the student so desires. I thought that it was interesting that Jack didn't want his name on his poetry just because it is not uncommon for people to write poetry anonymously. It can be such a personal thing for people, as it clearly ended up being for Jack once he became more comfortable with the emotions that were coming up about his dog and the blue car. All in all I guess my favorite part about this book was that it brought poetry down from its seemingly lofty position and bestowed it upon us mere mortals and made it seem reachable.

Now that having been said, I really enjoyed this one but I have some issues. One thought was that it bothers me in the beginning that Jack thinks that anyone could write poetry, you just have to organize it right. This is just not true. The form is not what makes poetry, it is the rhythm and the rhyme and I feel like Jack's teacher should have make a better example of that. Though, I get it, this was written from a child's perspective and he wouldn't say that, but it bugged me. Also, I don't know if some of the verse was as a child would have written it, I don't really have a good example of it, some of it was just a little too adult like. This was brought up in class, and I have spent some time thinking about this; the seemingly quick transformation of Jack into a poet. I cant decided if I think this is realistic or not. If given enough stimulation and encouragement I think it is possible that Jack started to make the transition into thinking of himself as a poet. On the other hand though, it is not always that way, students could digress easily. I know of a student who takes it in turns to feel incredibly confident and very lowly. Maybe that would have made it a little more believable.

I would totally recommend this book for a classroom, even if you are not teaching a poetry unit. For just everyday reading, students would benefit from the reading of something that is classified as a chapter book, even though it is not very long. It would help their confidence in their reading. It could also get students thinking about writing poetry of their own. Not to mention that whole making poetry accessible thing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It's About Dogs by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Ted Rand

Okay so here is a smidge more bias showing, I picked this book out because theme was dogs, and I love dogs! The first thing that came to mind when I saw this book, aside from being excited about the subject, was what a great book for a student that didn't think they would like poetry but loves dogs. This would be one of those books that you could use as a platform for students who weren't sure about reading where you use the subject to entice your students. I know that when I was little I would have been all over this. Anyway, as the title would suggest, all of the poems are about dogs. They are not uniform though and I liked that about it. For example, some of the poems are only two lines and others go on for several stanzas. They are also about all different kinds of dogs in different situations. One of my favorites was this:

At The Pound

Eyes bore


down to the



what we cannot


to know...

It was very sad, its true, but I liked it because like some of the other poems that I have read in this unit, it was not wordy but the picture was there. Reading it, I could just see those big, brown soulful eyes staring up at me. It's like I am there walking along that hallway with the cages, I can hear the dogs barking. Makes me want to give my puppy a big squeeze.

The library suggests ages 6 to 9 but really I think that these poems could be enjoyed by younger students too, even if they were just read to them. I believe that poetry is good for young students, even if they cant read it on their own yet, because it teaches about rhythm and rhyme. Plus it just sounds good to the ears, and even little ones know that.

A Rumpus of Rhymes by Bobbi Katz and illustrated by Susan Estelle Kwas

This would be such a fun book to do with younger students, it would be particularly nice in a big book setting so that all of the students could see it to participate. The really neat thing about this book of poetry is that it incorporates sounds. There are lots of action words that you would find in comic books, for example lots of EEEK! and WHACK! SMACK! THUD! I just think that little ones would have a blast making the sounds along with you while you read out loud. The other really neat thing about this book is that there seems to be a poem for every season and occasion. There is a Halloween poem, a winter poem, one about the Fourth of July and one about going to the barber. This book could also potentially be a way to incorporate instruments into your book time. For example, you could use drums or tambourines and other different types of noise makers to stand in for the different noises. I really think that so far this is my favorite of all the poetry books I have looked at. Couldn't be cuter and there are so many things to do with it!

The library says that this would be good for ages 7-10, but really I think that this one could be good for all ages. I mean, who doesn't like to make loud noises when they are supposed to just be sitting and listening?

Whatever Happened to Humpty Dumpty? by David T. Greenberg and illustrated by S. D. Schindler

The other part of this book's title is "And Other Surprising Sequels to Mother Goose Rhymes". That was important to share because it really explains the book, as does the front cover, I feel. These are almost re-imaginings of these classic rhymes because they include the original and then go on to say more about them. Or they include a short passage from the original rhyme and build on it. One interesting thing for me was that I did not know some of the Mother Goose rhymes in here, or at least not all of them. I was surprised to find some of them a little gruesome actually. My favorite rhyme in this book was both funny and a little grotesque. It is a re-imagining of Three Blind Mice.
Three blind mice, see how they run!
They all ran after the farmer's wife,
who cut off their tail with a carving knife!
Have you ever seen such a sight in your life?
As three blind mice?
The rest of the tale goes on to explain that the farmer's wife cut off the tails because they are useful around the house. It also says that she decided mouse tails weren't enough so she started cutting the tails off of all kinds of things and then...
And then one day she tried to chop
the tail off the end of a whale
but he swallowed her up instead
and that is the end of her tale.
Soo... I guess she got hers. What made this one funny though were the illustrations. They are something that would probably go right over the top of a child's head (not unlike most of the humor in Shrek) but adults would catch on. The farmers wife who decides that mouse tails are helpful around the house is none other than Martha Stuart.

Another thing that this book, and that rhyme in particular, made me think of was how grotesque children's stories used to be. I mean look at the original telling of the Grimm's Fairy Tales- totally messed up! I guess you have to consider the times though. When those were made up, nothing was being psycho-analyzed and nobody thought about "oh what will this do to my children's emotional state?" Can you imagine what the press would do to someone if they came out with all those stories today? If rhymes like Three Blind Mice weren't hailed as classics, would we think the same about them? Just a thought.

Anywho, this one is for all ages. I would watch out for any kind of sensitive material though. For example, the one where Mother Goose and her gander get sucked up by a 747 while out for a leisurely fly. Some kids might laugh, others might be horrified so you just have to know your class.

Is It Far to Zanzibar? by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by Betsy Lewin

This book was unique in a way because it used some language native to the area of Zanzibar. This was neat because, not only could you use it to help teach students about different cultures, but you could use it to teach about languages. Anyway, this whole book is poems about Zanzibar and, I assume, a family that lives there. Some of the poems rhyme and some of them do not, it is nice how they switched that up. One of my favorites was called Rainy Season, it goes like this:
Aiii! The raindrops streak our faces.
All at once, the shower chases
creatures from their hiding places.
Five goats, four ewes,
Three snakes, two gnus
And one field mouse
squeeze inside my house.
To be honest I don't know why I liked this one in particular, but I did. I think perhaps it was visual without over doing it. Sometime in poetry, the similes and metaphors can swallow the message and the scene. Here though, with just saying that the storm chases, you can picture the kind of storm it is. I personally see the rain sweeping over a wide open plain, kind of like how it does over the water in the summer time, and the animals are all scurrying for cover.
I like this book for all ages really because I feel like all students would benefit from the knowledge of another country and another language that is so different from ours. The poems are generally short, but all tell a little about the country and what life is like there.

Don't Forget Your Etiquette written by David Greenberg and Illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott

This is the first book of poetry that I have looked at that is aimed at the little ones out there, and I must say that I enjoyed it. One thing that I am going to have to get used to as far as children's poetry is concerned is that it seems to have a different purpose from adult poetry. Children's poetry, from what I have so far gleaned is much more lighthearted and more story based. Whereas most adult poetry I have come into contact with is about emotions and matters of the heart and generally heavier topics. I have also noticed that adult poetry tends to be a little bit abstract in that you have to think about the meaning that the author is wanting to convey. And in my opinion, I can only take rhyming poems seriously if they are for the little ones. Of course this just could be because I have a general dislike for a certain someone that I knew who's poetry always rhymed- hey bias is bound to come out somewhere! At any rate, this particular book of poetry was centered around that idea of etiquette for children, only it isn't real etiquette. Instead, it is silly backward etiquette written by a woman named Miss Information (very clever).

The Etiquette of Kissing
With emperors and empresses
you only kiss their cheeks.
With giant thrashing octupi
you only kiss their beaks.
At diplomatic parties
you just kiss fingertips.
With fierce komodo dragons
you only kiss their lips.
Principals and teachers
require slurpy smooches
kind of like the type
you get from friendly pooches.
This poem goes on, but I thought this was a good place to stop because frankly this last stanza made me wrinkle my nose. This whole book is based on sarcasm, and we would know that, but what if there was a child out there reading this who didn't understand that? Sarcasm after all is a bit abstract. I wouldn't want students coming into my class the first day thinking that I would expect a big wet kiss! This sort of thing happens in other places too, for example in lines where it talks about the etiquette of sitting and it says: "You must not breathe, so hold your breath even if this causes death." Perhaps I am not giving children enough credit here, but I just feel like some of them might not get this and it would be disturbing to them.
All in all though I thought this was an amusing book and I think that given the possibility for misinterpretation, I would recommend this one for older grades. The library suggests 6 and up but I think that I may raise it a little to 8 and up, I really don't know why but I feel strongly about it. Maybe it could be used in a mini-lesson to discuss sarcasm.

Monday, November 23, 2009

So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins

All kinds of emotions are present both in this book and in me when I think about this book. Personally, I have never read any books specifically about war. They just aren't really my genre because when I read I want to have drama but more in a things-are-bad-but-not-in-a-life-and-death-kinda-way. That does not mean though that I didn't enjoy this book. Well, maybe enjoy isn't the right word. To me "enjoy" would seem to imply that this was a happy book, if that makes any sense. And even though it had its moments, by and large, this book wasn't about happy. It was about hope and the human spirit and condition. It was about family and surviving all obstacles together. Some parts of this were just painful to read. I know that it is something that came up in discussion a lot and it was mentioned in nearly every ones blog, but the part where the baby was thrown out the window of the train. Okay. It isn't that I don't understand why this was done, they couldn't leave the body behind for all kinds of reasons. It feels though like this is one scene in particular that outlines the true horrors of war. In a very literal sense, everything that is true and pure about the world, like a child, is thrown out the window during war. The other children in this story are another example of this though as well, they don't have to die to be horribly scarred by the events of war. This is something that is evident in every war ever fought, right up to today. It is always the people and the children, the civilians, who are hurt most by war. Despite all of the hardship that Yoko and her family endure, I am glad that there was a semi-happy ending when her brother comes and meets up with them. Honestly, it reminded me of seeing my brother for the first time after he came back fighting in Iraq.

This kind of paired text set is a wonderful idea and I would certainly consider using it in my classroom. I might even use it for some other kind of lesson besides history. These books are particularly good though because they focus on an aspect of history that is not discussed very often. It might also be interesting to do a paired text set dealing with the Holocaust. One book from the point of view of a Jewish child and one from the view point of a German child. Or a German soldier and an American or English soldier. This kind of thing really helps students to understand that there are two sides to every story.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Anticipation Set Response for Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi

A couple of things can be told about this book from simply looking at it. First of all, the title is very revealing. It implies that, not unlike in So Far From the Bamboo Grove, a major theme here is going to be loss. Not just loss of family and friends, but loss of places too. For example, homes and villages. It could also be a goodbye to everything that is comfortable and familiar to the main characters. Also, loss of life, both in a metaphorical and literal sense. Metaphorical in that so much will be given up and sacrificed that ones identity could eventually be lost. Literally speaks for itself really, because this is a story about war, death seems inevitable. Something that can be told from the cover of the book is that the main character is Japanese, because of the flag behind her. Also, there is barbed wire strung across the girl in the illustration, signifying to me that a theme could be loss of freedom. This could refer to the main character herself or the entire nation.

One thing that I would pose to students before starting this book is how the above themes could fit into the theme of this book. I would also have them consider the following quote, because hope has everything to do with both books we are reading.

Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops... at all. ~Emily Dickinson

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Skippyjon Jones Lost in Spice by Judy Schachner

Okay so I picked this book because I saw by flipping through it that it had little bits of Spanish in it, which I thought was pretty cool. Here is the thing though, this book was a little hard to follow. See, Skippyjon Jones is a kitten who thinks he is a dog, more specifically a red Chihuahua. He also loves outer space. And here is where things get off. Skippy walks into his closet and is immediately sent into orbit, where he almost collides with a comet filled with Chihuahuas. These Chimichangos as they are now referred to as inform him that they are going to build a pipeline to carry chili polvo from Mars to Earth. From here he meets aliens, discovers he is lost and has a tug-of-war with a green martian that looks just like him but with one eye. This hurtles him back through space and through his closet door where he lands with a KA-BOOM in his bed. And the Spanish that I thought was so neat? Turns out that it was neat and used correctly, but it really just made the story harder to follow, and I have a feeling that if you didn't know the words you would be lost too. Where there weren't Spanish words, the author added "-ito" to the end of words, like astronaut-ito. This was cute and all, but a little insulting to the language. Like how people say that they can speak Spanish and then they just add an "o" to the end of everything. I'm not even a native speaker and that irritates me. Plus, can you imagine how confusing that would be to a student learning to read. I know of a student who would start out on this book and give up when he realized that the words weren't English. To make the Spanish a little better, I think that I would have included a glossary in the back of the book.

On the other hand. If taught correctly, this could be a wonderful tool to introduce a different language to your students. It does have just small words so you could have students look them up. Or you could use it as a mini-lesson and keep a running list on the board of Spanish words while you read it aloud. Then have the students hypothesize what the words meant by the other words around the ones in Spanish. This would help them with words that they don't know in English as well. Another good thing about this book were the illustrations. They were done in pastel and they are wonderful. They are vibrant and bold and very colorful. There is lots of movement and variation. Sometimes there is no horizon line, sometimes there are more than one illustration on a page and in one case, the book flips vertical. Wonderfully executed.

The library recommends this book for ages 3 to 5 and here finally I do not agree. I think that with everything that goes on and the language change, this book would be better left to older students. Perhaps third grade and up instead. I just feel like a child that young would be thrown for a loop with this one, especially if they did not have a solid grasp on their reading.

*Just so ya know! This book is part of a series about Skippyjon Jones*

Tallyho, Pinkerton! by Steven Kellogg

Another wonderful Pinkerton book. More so than the other book that I reviewed, this story adds a bit of non-fiction to the mix. In several other books the little girl comes home and shares some facts that she has learned in school that day. This time, she shares information about mammals. This leads to the rest of the story, during which the little girl's homework requires her to find some different mammals and birds. As they go through the book, actual names of birds and mammals are given as well as illustrations of them so that students could maybe find them on their own. One interesting thing that happens in this book is that, while they are searching in the woods for animals, they happen upon a group of hunters. Two things that were particularly interesting here were how they were portrayed and the fact that they actually shoot at things. The hunters are shown as being mean and a little ignorant. They are snarling and wanting to shoot at any and everything that moves. I have to wonder if this is showing a bias of the author? Perhaps Steven Kellogg looks down upon hunters and their activities. Also, there are a few illustrations in which the hunters are actually shooting up into a tree, and they shoot down Pinkerton in a hot air balloon. This might actually be kind of scary for students just because it really looks like they may have hit Pinkerton. They don't, but it still looks like it would have been a definite near miss. Also, i am always surprised when guns and bullets are shown in children's books. Granted the guns featured in this book look very old fashioned, but a gun is a gun. The saving grace for me though I suppose is showing the people using the guns in a negative light.

Once again, the illustrations were very detailed, and I loved them! The age range remains the same, 4 to 8 and beyond.

A Rose for Pinkerton by Steven Kellogg

I rediscovered Steven Kellogg the other day in my block a class and quickly remembered Pinkerton. I think that I will for sure have to purchase all Pinkerton books for my own personal collection because I just love them. Yes there is a bias at play here, I love dogs. That really isn't the only reason though. These books are very entertaining and funny! That giant Great Dane puppy is always getting himself into some kind of mess. In this story, Pinkerton's owner decides that he must be lonely, so she goes to find him a friend. Finally, she comes upon a kitten named Rose. Instead of becoming friends though, Rose soon takes over as the resident dog while Pinkerton begins to act like a kitten. When Pinkerton's owners go to find out why this has happened, they unintentionally cause chaos at The International Pet Show. Pinkerton heads right for the kittens, while Rose heads for a parade of poodles who are none too pleased to see her. In the end, Pinkerton saves Rose from the herd of angry poodles and their masters and they become friends, resuming their roles as puppy and kitten.

One very interesting thing that I noticed about this book is that there is no father present in any of the books. It is only Pinkerton, Rose, the little girl and her mother. Every now and then, the grandma comes to stay with them, but there is never a father. It doesn't take away from the story at all, but it is interesting that Kellogg chose to show a non-traditional family. I like that he chose not to show a "normal" family in this series. As we discussed during our unit on controversial books, what is normal for one child isn't whats normal for another. Showing only one kind of family, alienates students and families so it is important to read books like these to your class. This way, they can see that you can live with just one parent and its okay.

One last note, even if the text wasn't as entertaining as it is, the illustrations would be enough for me to pick up these books. They are so detailed and intricate. One of my favorite things that Kellogg does in his illustrations is that whenever there is text within texts (in books or on signs) he always takes the time to write little titles on the books. In some other books, illustrators simply put squiggly lines where the titles are supposed to be. Ages for this book? The library says 4-8 and I would agree but add that really anybody would enjoy these.

Hush Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick

Okay I set out to read what I am certain would have been a wonderful Eve Bunting novel this week, but I just couldn't. Not when Hush Hush had just come out on Thursday. In true book nerd fashion, I went out and bought this book the day after it came out because I have had my eye on it for several months now. I finished all 391 pages in a single evening, and to be honest I wish that I would have read it slower so that it would have lasted longer. This would have been impossible though as the action was just that fast paced. In this story we have Nora, an average teen with her fair share of emotional baggage and a best friend named Vee. Then there is Patch, a senior transfer student with a mysterious past and a love of dingy pool halls. The only thing Nora (and us) knows about him is that he seems to know just a little too much about her personal life and he has an enormous V shaped scar on his back. SPOILER: We come to find out as the book progresses that the scar on Patch's back is actually from when he was cast out of Heaven for falling in love with a human woman. For his love, he "fell" and has his wings ripped off (yikes I know!) After a long time wandering the earth miserable and alone, he discovers that he has two options. He can either take the life of a human and become human OR save a life and become their guardian angel. That person? Nora, naturally. If that wasn't complicated enough, Patch isn't the only one who may have it out for Nora. I cant tell you what happens in the end, but if you have been following my blog you know about my affinity for forbidden love, and could probably guess what Patch decides to do and why :-)

This book was suspenseful and wonderfully written. The emotions are real and artfully described. Like most of the other novels I have reviewed, Hush Hush falls into the Twilight category for age. In other words, if you would encourage your students to read the fourth book in the Twilight series then this would be no problem. Is there kissing? Yes. Semi-adult emotions? Yes. Nothing explicit though.

Also! If you read this and enjoy it. I would HIGHLY recommend The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.