Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Panda Problem (Deborah Underwood)




Illustrator:  Hannah Marks

Target Ages:  5 and up

Genre:  Post Modern Picture Book (Metafiction)

Publisher Summary: 
Every story needs a problem.  But Panda doesn’t have a problem.  Unless Panda IS the problem.

First Lines:
Once upon a time, there was a panda who lived in a beautiful bamboo grove.
But the panda had a BIG problem.
Nope.
Excuse me?

Memorable Moment:
BECAUSE THINGS CAN’T GET ANY WORSE!
Oh, can’t they?
What if suddenly there were…

Evaluation:
Author Deborah Underwood knows how to create a witty picture book. I became a fan after reading the Here Comes the … Cat series.  Her creative twists and turns as well as her memorable characters make for an entertaining reading experience.  The Panda Problem is no different.

Along with many readers—young and old—I love pandas. Underwood’s panda character is full of cheeky fun.  Though he is the main character (at least in theory), he does everything he can to undermine the story.  At the same time, he is creating the very story he attempts to usurp (more about that later). 

On a simple level, this picture book introduces children to the parts of a story—setting, character, plot, conflict, and resolution—in an engaging manner.  Characterization can be explored through the witty dialogue between the narrator and the panda. Suspense is craftily used to keep listeners predicting what will happen next. Underwood often subverts expectations with inventive surprises and humorous irony.  


The difference between realism and fantasy is another layer.  It is real that pandas live in a bamboo grove.  They eat lots of bamboo.  Pandas cannot live in Antartica.  However, elements like jellybean rain and a banjo-playing bear are fantasy.  The seamless blend of the two elements—fantasy and reality—is an ideal teaching opportunity for educators and parents. 

The story can be read as just a fun picture book.  However, older students can look at it more closely because it is deceptively complex. 

The Panda Problem subtly pokes fun at the cliché picture book—a story with a character that has a problem and then the problem worsens, but in the end everything resolves itself.  Like many post-modern books, it questions this plot development assumption while also sticking with it (somewhat) often including absurd elements, such as aliens and jellybean rain. 


Educators and parents can use it as an example of metafiction, fiction about fiction in which the author knowingly draws attention to the fact that it is fiction.  Older students (through college age) can dig into not only what metafiction is but what purpose it has and how it reflects post-modern attitudes about literature and life. For instance, The Panda Problem uses metafiction to epitomize the post-modern idea: Life is uncertain and truth is relative, but we might as well have some fun with them. 

Witty.  Subversive. Thought-provoking.  The Panda Problem is a must read for all ages! 

Lesson Plan Activities and Extension Ideas Recap:
  • Parts of a Story: Use to introduce or reinforce the key parts of a story.  Then, identify the parts of this story.  Debate--Who is the real protagonist?
  • Predicting Skills: Periodically stop to allow children to guess what is going to happen next and why they think so.
  • Irony:  What are some examples of irony?  What type of irony is it?  What is the significance of each example?
  • Suspense:  How does the author incorporate suspense?
  • Fantasy vs. Reality:  Discuss which story elements are based on fantasy and which are on reality.
  • Post-Modernism:  Demonstrates post-modern elements on a simple but complex level. For more post-modern picture books, click HERE.  (More post-modern picture book posts coming soon.)
  • Metafiction:  Can be used up to college age along with novels (like Don Quixote) or short stories ("The Kugelmass Episode") that incorporate metafiction.  For more metafiction examples, click HERE.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Five Fabulous Creation Retellings (Biblical)


Cynthia Rylant
Pulling verses from the first two chapters of Genesis, Rylant illustrates the days of creation.  The information has been condensed down, but it sticks close to the biblical text. 


James Weldon Johnson, author
James E. Ransome, illustrator
Written as a poetic sermon, the influence of folk sayings and antebellum south imagery is present in the text.  Pictures of the creation are interspersed with children sitting around listening as a storyteller recites this poem. The text  takes a few liberties, but embodies the essence and meaning or the biblical story.  The rich poetic language and stunning illustrations make this selection timeless. 


Brenda C. Ward
In this adorable board book version, the text is simplified.  Each illustration has a baby dressed up in a costume (sun, moon, animals) to reflect the text.  The book is out of print (unfortunately), but available in many libraries and from private sellers. 


J.D. Wise, author
Don Day, Kelly Pulley, and Paul Trice, illustrators
A father tells his son the story of creation and the fall as they sit around the fire.  The African terrain, vibrant colors, dynamic illustrations, and poetic verse work together to not only retell the biblical story but emphasize the father’s love (both earthly and heavenly).


Archbishop Desmond Tutu, author
Nancy Tillman, illustrator
A combination of the literal text with some poetic elements, for added imagery and appeal, make this my favorite picture book on the list. Tillman’s rich illustrations are stunning compliment to the text!

Related Books


Matthew Paul Turner, author
David Catrow, illustrator
God’s light—both physical and spiritualis celebrate.  The poetic verses spill over with gratitude for God’s creation and many blessings that come from the light he has created. The conclusion ends with a call to action to “shimmer and shine,/be a beacon so bright,/ cause when God made you, child, God made light.” 


Paul Fleischman, author
Julie Paschkis, illustrator
The universal creation and flood stories are retold using elements from versions all over the world. Paschkis gorgeous illustrations and the fascinating comparative elements make this a worthwhile selection. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Finding Langston (Lesa Cline-Ransome)




Target Ages:  9-13

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Awards:  Coretta Scott King Honor Book, 2019 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction,  Junior Library Guild selection

Publisher Summary: 
When eleven-year-old Langston’s mother died in 1946, he and his father move from Alabama to Chicago’s Bronzeville.  Langston must leave behind everything he cherishes:  family, friends, Grandma’s Sunday suppers, even the magnolia trees Mama loved so much.  The northern city is noisy and hectic, and their kitchenette apartment is just a lonely room with old newspapers covering up holes.  At school Langston is tormented for being too country.  But his new home has something his old one did not:  unlike the whites-only library back home, the George Cleveland Hall Library welcomes everyone.  There, hiding out after school, Langston discovers another Langston, a poet whose words are powerful.  In one of his poems lies a secret that will bring Langston closer to his mother’s spirit. 

First Lines:
“Never really thought much about Alabama’s red dirt roads, but now, all I can think about is kicking up their dust.  I miss the hot sun on the back of my neck and how now the racket of cicadas, seems like not sound at all.” 

Memorable Moment:
“I get to thinking how much I didn’t know about my Daddy when we lived in Alabama.  With Mama there, he barely spoke to me, and I didn’t know what to say to him.  But now, with just us two in Chicago, I know Daddy better than I ever hoped to” (103).

Evaluation:
Finding Langston would fit well into a middle grade classroom.  The post-World War II setting focuses on black Americans who are a part of the Great Migration.  People at different places in the process from second generation to newly arrived illustrate the successes and struggles. 

The influence of Harlem Renaissance, especially its poetry, is shown as the renewed pride in black culture and literature impacts the protagonist, Langston.  As he discovers the connection of his name to the beloved poet Langston Hughes and his mother’s secret passion, the protagonist begins to understand himself, his mother, and his heritage on a deeper level.

The story and characters connect well with middle grade readers.  Short chapters, well-paced plot, and relatable experiences will keep them turning the pages. 

Langston deals with many common middle grade trials.  He experiences loss—both of his mother (and another dear relative) as well as his home when he moves away.  These situations make him feel lonely and isolated.  As the new kid, he tries to fit in, but instead he is mercilessly bullied.  Langston struggles in his relationship with his father, who is a good man dealing with his own loss and trying to make a better life for his son.

Langston learns to see people in a more multi-faceted way.  He is willing to re-examine his initial impressions, allowing him to come to appreciate others.  In addition, he finds positive ways to cope with his loss and loneliness, which helps him make friends with others and become more connected to his new community.

I highly recommend Finding Langston for middle grade teachers and readers.

Historical Connections:
Great Migration
Harlem Renaissance
Langston Hughes Poetry

For other great middle grade book suggestions, visit Always in the Middle for the Marvelous Middle Grade Monday Round Up.

Friday, April 19, 2019

First Star: A Bear and Mole Story (Will Hillenbrand)



Title:  First Star:  A Bear and Mole Story


Illustrator:  Will Hillenbrand

Target Ages:  3-8

Genre:  Picture Book Fiction

Publisher Summary: 
Up, up, up climb Mole and Bear.  They are on the way to Camp Tiptop to see the stars.  But as the sun sets, Mole is scared.  What if they get lost in the dark?  Luckily, Bear has the perfect story to calm Mole’s fears. 

Later, the sky has its own surprise in store for the two campers.

First Lines:
Mole gazed up.

“May we sleep under the sky tonight?” asked Mole.

“I want to see the stars turn on.”

Memorable Moment:
Bear comforts Mole, “Dark is not so dark if you know where you are.”


Evaluation:
The cover art is adorable! It previews perfectly the theme—friends using their strengths to help each other out. 

A simple plot focuses on a camping trip.  Mole and Bear work together to pack up for the journey, to help each other out on the way up, to set up camp, and to spend the evening outdoors. 

The story within a story framework is utilized.  As night moves in, Mole is afraid of getting lost in the dark (a bit ironic for a mole).   To comfort him, Bear tells the story of how the moon and stars were added to the sky to give them light and direction. 

Hillenbrand’s signature illustrations use soft shades in contrast with bright colors.  The story moves from close up shots of the characters to sweeping views of the sky, emphasizing a strong intimacy of friends and family in the vast and spectacular universe.

These characters are memorable and endearing.  Bear has great physical strength, but he also is kind and gentle.  I love how he uses these qualities to help his small, meek friend, Mole feel safe and overcome his fears.  Overall, their friendship exemplifies the importance of using our strengths—whether physical, emotional, spiritual, or mental—to help each other.   

First Star:  A Bear and Mole Story a sweet story of lasting friendship and overcoming fears.

Also, check out Hillenbrand’s Spring Is Here and Down by the Barn. 

Activities and Extension Ideas for Lesson Plans:
  • Literature:  Read other creation stories.  Compare and contrast them.  See Picture Book Connections.
  • Writing:  Write an original creation myth about the moon and stars or something else in nature.
  • Science:  Learn about the moon and its phrases.
  • Life Skills:  Allow students to share their camping experiences. What supplies did they need?  What did they do on the trip?  How did they get around at night? 
  • Field Trip:  Plan a camping trip (even one in the backyard).  Have the whole family (or class) determine what supplies are needed and pack them up together.  For a class, it could be a picnic outside school. 

Picture Book Connections (Creation Stories and Myths):


A Big Mooncake for Little Star
This heartwarming modern folktale explains how the moon ends up in the sky—as well as the reason for its phases. 


The Star-Bearer: A Creation Myth from Ancient Egypt
Creation begins when Atum, the god child, emerges from the bud of a lotus. Stories build off his family that explain how the world and other gods came to be.


Anansi the Spider: A Tale from Ashanti
When Anansi falls into trouble, his six sons come to the rescue. This trickster tale explains the origin of the moon. 


Why the Sun & Moon Live in the Sky
The story explains why the moon and her children the stars only appear at night when Sun is not around.


Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky: An African Folktale
Like the aforementioned story, the origin of the moon in the sky is explained.



The Woman who Fell from the Sky: The Iroquois Story of Creation
As a sky woman falls from a floating island high in the sky, she creates the earth, creatures, and sky. 



Piecing Earth and Sky Together: A Creation Story from the Mien Tribe of Laos
A brother and sister duo from heaven make a bet.  The brother weaves a majestic sky while the sister a glorious earth. When they put them together, the world is created. 


Visit Susanna Leonard Hill for Perfect Picture Book Friday.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

No More Poems! A Book in Verse that Just Gets Worse (Rhett Miller)



Author:  Rhett Miller

Illustrator:  Dan Santat

Target Ages:  7-12

Genre:  Children’s Poetry Collection

Publisher Summary: 
Poems (Un) Fit
For the Modern Family

POEMS for kids who wrestle when they
should go to bed.

POEMS for when you don’t brush your
teeth (and you should brush your teeth,
but if you don’t, you still get a POEM.

POEMS for parents desperate to get
someone in this dang house to go to bed.

POEMS for devices, which are basically
a part of this family now.

POEMS for kids who STILL don’t have a
DOG, which is a CRIME.

POEMS for rock star dads and for the kids
who put up with their singing.

POEMS for sisters who aren’t allowed to
murder their little brothers, not even once.

POEMS for people who write POEMS, and
POEMS for being DONE. WITH. POEMS.

POEMS for all kinds of weirdos.

Especially you.

Memorable Poem Selection:

“My Secret Karate”

There’s a type of karate I specialize in
I invented it all on my own
No one has witnessed my secret karate
It’s meant to be practiced alone

I stand on my left foot and raise my right leg
Using muscles in abs, thighs and tush
And with just the toe of my special blue sneaker
I make the toilet flush

I toggle the lever or mash down the button
Or lean on the handle just so
That way my fingertip never gets yucky
Thanks to the skills of my toe

Courtesy’s something my mom always taught me
Starting when I was a kid
So using the toes of my special blue sneaker
I lower the seat and the lid

My secret karate is practiced in private
In public bathroom stalls
I don’t mean to brag but my balance is awesome
I never touch the walls

I don’t have a name for my potty karate
I might call it Tae Kwon Doo
Or maybe I’ll say I’m a third degree black belt
In the top secret art of Kung Poo

Evaluation:
There are some fantastic poems in this collection.  Right off, I was captivated with the sample poem above, “My Secret Karate.”  I think everyone can relate to the public bathroom anxiety of trying to touch as little as possible.  The comparison to a special karate (i.e. Tae Kwon Doo or Kung Poo) is witty and amusing. 

Equally so, I love “My Device” (see picture). Santat’s use of text boxes perfectly compliments the poem. Miller captures the text-saturated and communicative handicap younger generation in a poignant and humorous way through irony and word play. 


Some other favorites are “My Homework,” “Weirdos of the World Unite,” and “Purple Pox.”  This collection is appealing to kids with its inventive way of looking at everyday issues and experiences.  Santat’s illustrations are boisterous and imaginative, often adding layers to the already absurd scenarios.    

“Brotherly Love” is one poem I would have left out.  On one hand, it illustrates the often-contentious sibling relationship, which is a popular topic in children’s literature.  However, it goes a bit far asking the girl not to drown her brother in the bathtub or to pour gasoline on him.  Yes, the speaker is saying, “don’t do it.”  My question is, why even suggest these as possibilities—even in a “funny” context?  I felt uneasy reading it—especially in a children’s book.  Thinking of creative tortures that are not really dangerous would have been better option for an otherwise solid children’s poetry collection. 

Aside from that one objection, I enjoyed No More Poems! 

Check out more great poems and poetry books at The Poem Farm for Poetry Friday.


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Titanosaur: Discovering the World’s Largest Dinosaur




Authors: Dr. Jose Luis Carballido & Dr. Diego Pol

Illustrator:  Florence Gigena

Target Ages:  5 and up

Genre:  Non-Fiction Picture Book (Science)

Publisher Summary: 
Join paleontologists Jose Luis Carballido and Diego Pol on the adventure of a lifetime, and learn all about how they uncovered more than 180 titanosaur bones in the deserts of Argentina, forever changing our understanding of these 100-million-year-old creatures.  After excavating the skeletons of seven of these giant sauropods, Dr. Carballido and Dr. Pol and their team transport them to a museum in Argentina, studied them, replicated them, and built the biggest dinosaur skeleton the world has ever seen!  With information on how to keep fossils from breaking, the secrets to a successful dinosaur dig, and just how much we can really learn from a tooth, this book with not only delight dinosaur lovers—it will inspire young scientists.

First Lines:
Early one summer morning in a place called Patagonia, Argentina, a gaucho and his sheepdog left their ranch to search for a lost sheep. After hours of searching, the gaucho spotted something poking out of the dirt.

Evaluation:
From the mystery of the unknown object sticking out and the unearthing of the bones to the preparation for study and the finalize reconstruction, every event is a critical puzzle piece in this compelling story.

Words and concepts are defined outside of the storytelling to help educators and parents explain text references.  Budding paleontologists and future scientists will be drawn to the fascinating facts about dinosaurs, archeology, teamwork, and research.

Florence Gigena’s artwork perfectly adds to the storytelling and concept building.  Photographs from the dig and study are interspersed with Gigena’s stunning replication of the events.  When a bone is discovered, it is highlighted in a drawing of the dinosaur to give context. Other times she adds pictures to help visualization, such as comparing the dinosaur’s neck to a school bus or the length of the femur bone to the size of a person. 


Young readers (and older ones too) will immediately be swept in as this real dinosaur discovery unfolds!  Titanosaur: Discovering the World’s Largest Dinosaur is a must-read for ages 5 and up.

Activities and Extension Ideas for Lesson Plans:





Picture Book Connections:


This delightful book highlights the unique bones of different species. Young readers are encouraged to guess which dinosaur they belong to. The answer, and some fast facts about it, are revealed on the next page. 


Brown was an early paleontologist whose many discoveries led scientists to a greater understanding of dinosaurs and people to a greater fascination of these prehistoric creatures.


Dinothesaurus

This children’s poetry collection celebrates dinosaurs. 

For fiction for the dinosaur-lover in your life, click HERE.



The Panda Problem (Deborah Underwood)

Title:  The Panda Problem Author :   Deborah Underwood Illustrator :   Hannah Marks Target Ages :   5 and up Genre :   ...