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.  

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Fairy Tale Friday: Five Fabulous Fractured Fairy Tales

I have been reading a lot of fairy tales lately, especially fractured ones.  In my study of this sub-genre, I have realize there is not a set definition, and it is applied to many types of tales that I did not original think of as fractured.  Previously, I believed works like The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs were the “definition” of fractured.  According to my research, the term broadly includes pretty much all modern retellings.  

I feel this sub-genre should have a clearer definition because I don’t necessarily think a tale is “fractured” if only a few superficial elements are changed.   To me, there should be a switching of perspectives and/or modern characterization and message to be a good fractured tale. Also, I believe there is a difference between a multicultural tale and a fairy tale that has been retold using non-traditional cultural elements.  I do not see this distinction though in the definitions and discussions I have come across so far.  With all that being said, here are Five Fabulous Fractured Fairy Tales you should check out! 

The Three Ninja Pigs (by Corey Rosen Schwartz):  
This twist on The Three Little Pigs begins “once upon a dangerous time” there was a wolf blowing houses down.  The three pigs decide to fight back, so each one enrolls in school to learn martial arts.  The first two pigs quit after they learn a few moves, but the third pigs works until she has become a black belt.  When the wolf comes around, he able to quickly disarm the first two pigs because they are ill-prepared.  The third pig though scares him off when she demonstrates her skills.  The other two pigs decided they need to finish what they started.  They go back to school to finish their training and eventually open up their own dojo to train other animals.  This modern retelling has a fun, snappy text and entertaining illustrations is perfect for ages 5 and up.   The Three Ninja Pigs will please aspiring ninjas and anyone who wishes to “fight back” against the bullies in the world. 

This picture book is broken down like a simple graphic novel with several scenes per page to capture all the action.  It begins with a class making a gingerbread man.  As he comes out of the oven, they leave for recess.  The gingerbread man does not want to be left out though.  He says, “I’ll run and I’ll run as fast as I can.  I can catch them!  I’m their gingerbread man!”   As he seeks out his class, he meets various people like the school nurse, the gym teacher, the art teacher, and the principal.   When he finally finds his class, he is welcomed back with cheers.   They make him a desk, chair, and his own little house.  The gingerbread man finds he is where he belongs.  This tale could work well in school at the beginning of the year (especially for kindergarteners) to discuss the various staff and teacher they will encounter.   Gingerbread Man Loose in the School is a must read for listeners 4-7.

Sleepless Beauty (by Frances Minters)
This fractured fairy tale takes place on a city block in more modern times.  When this little beauty is born, all their friends and relatives come to celebrate.  A “witch” in the apartment building is left off the guest list, but she attends anyway to put on the girl a sleeping curse with one twist…she will be awakened by a great rock star.  Her parents have many sleepless nights working to make sure nothing sharp pricks her fingers.  Then, on her 14th birthday, a creepy old lady arrives with a gift—a record player.  The beauty pricks her finger and falls fast asleep.  She outwits the witch though.  The next morning her radio alarm clock wakes her up to the tune of her favorite rock star.   The girl writes her “prince” of a rock star to thank him.  So what ever happened to the rock star?  They eventually met..and enjoyed music together.  The story is written in poetic verse with some jazzy intrusions in the narrative by others.  Sleepless Beauty is a witty retelling that children 8 and up will appreciate.

This clever tale is sure to leave kids giggling from the verbal and situational irony.  For no particular reason, three dinosaurs set up their beds, chairs, and bowls of chocolate pudding.   Then, they decide to leave to go “someplace else” with the hopes that “no innocent little succulent child happens” to come across their home.   As they casually hide in the woods, they wait for Goldilocks to find their signs to help lead her to their home (trap).  She finds her way there and fills up on chocolate pudding that has been left out (but not because it will make her more delicious).  Looking around, she begins to realize she is not in the right house or story..just in time because there is a loud booming noise (which could be a passing truck or, maybe, a gloating dinosaur).   Willems wraps up this tale in a creative and entertaining way.  Children 8 and up will want to revisit this tale over and over again.  Be sure to look closely as the pictures that offer lots of clues and humor. 

Prince Henrik wants to fall in love and get married.  He does not care if the girl is pretty—only that likes hockey and camping.  Oh, and he like her to have a nice smile.  His brother gives him advice on how to find a “real” princess using a pea and some mattresses.  Henrik observes the “real” princess his brother married and decides that is not the kind of girl he wants to marry—she is fussy and overly sensitive.  Instead, Henrik puts a pack of frozen peas under a single, thin mattress, hoping to find a girl who is not bothered by it.  Girls come and go, but none of them sleeps well.  His friend Pippa comes for a visit.  They have a blast together playing hockey and riding horses, so he “tests” her and finds she is just the girl for him:  She slept perfectly, even appreciating the frozen peas because they helped soothe her sore muscle from their hockey playing.  Henrik asks her to marry him.  She replies, “But I am not a real princess.”  Henrik says, “Even better…You’ll be an unreal princess.”   I loved this reimagining of the tale and what it means to be a good “princess.” I recommend The Princess and the Pack of Frozen Peas for ages 6 and up.

Teaching Opportunities:
  • Pinterest:  Check out my Fairy Tale folder of ideas  from around the Internet. 
  • Irony:  Several fractured fairy tales use irony (especially Goldilocks and the 3 Dinosaurs).  Depending on the age of child, teach the concept on a basic level and help child identify or teach types of irony and allow child to identify them. 
  • Comparison:  Compare and contrast the fractured fairy tale with a traditional version.  Use a Venn Diagram to record the results.
  • Writing:  As a class, in groups, or individually, guide children to write their own fractured fairy tale.
  • Literature:  Introduce the characteristics of a fractured fairy tale and apply to one or more tales.
  • Research:  Pick a tale to research.  Learn about the origins and development of the tale over the years.  

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

It’s a Tiger (by David LaRochelle)

Summary of It’s a Tiger (by David LaRochelle):
A young boy imagines he is in a story where he encounters a tiger at each turn. 

Sample Text:
Are you ready for a story?
Me too.

We’ll start in the jungle
where the tall trees grow
and the monkeys swing
from vine to vine.

Wait a minute.
That’s not a monkey.
That looks like ….

(turn page)


It’s a Tiger is a fantastic read!  Youngsters will enjoy it because they are active participants in the protagonist’s quest for a story.  At each prompt, they can recite “A Tiger!” or “A Tiger! Run!”   As the story concludes, the boy realizes that the Tiger does not want to eat anyone.  He is only yawning. The boy scratches his belly and ears as he begins to tell him a story.  It, too, begins in the jungle but with a new antagonists—A crocodile! 

Artist Jeremy Tankard uses vivid colors contrasted with dark tones to create the jungle landscape.  With each new scene, he creatively incorporates the tiger—allowing young readers to find him.  This book is sure to delight young listeners ages 1-7.  

Check out other favorite Read Aloud books at Hope is the Word. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Fairiest (by Gail Carson Levine)

Summary of Fairiest (by Gail Carson Levine):
As an infant, Aza is abandoned at an inn.  Fortunately, the inn keeper and his wife adopt and love her.  Growing up, she is often berated and rudely stared at by guests because of her awkward and unseemly looks.  Aza’s voice, though, is a rare and wonderful beauty, even in a kingdom of singers.  When she receives an opportunity to attend the king’s wedding as a companion to a duchess, her voice wins over Prince Ijory and the Queen Ivy—who makes Aza her lady in waiting.  The king is injured during the ceremonies, leaving the self-absorbed and demanding queen to rule.   Her jealousy and vanity prompt her to pressure Aza into a dishonest scheme.   Eventually, Aza is falsely accused and imprisoned.  She must flee for her life…hoping the queen believes she is dead and her family remains safe from the queen's vengeful ways. 

Levine crafts her own contemporary and creative tale within the basic outline of the beloved Snow White fairy tale.  Like her earlier story Ella Enchanted, the narrative is full of mythical and fairy tale characters as well as thrilling adventures.  The author has imaginative twists on the typical story elements, such as the magic mirror, Aza’s benefactors during her banishment, and her enticement into eating the poisoned apple.

Unlike traditional fairy tales, the female protagonist is not limited to a pretty face and a sweet disposition.  Aza attracts people with her character and her voice.  She is sweet and obedient, but as the novel progresses, she becomes more independent and strong.  I like, for instance, that she escapes prison by her own devices and that she saves the guard from the ogres.  Aza is bullied and ridiculed, which has an impact on her confidence.  It also makes her character resilient and accessible. 

A unique feature of the narrative is the use of songs.  Music is a core element of the community, resulting in “sings” and singing to each other like a modern day musical.  I listened to this book on a CD version that put music to each song.  I was not crazy about the singing.  I found it a bit distracting and, even at times, annoying.  I think if I “read” this story instead, I would have scanned through the music so it would not be as off-putting.  Many will probably enjoy this aspect though. 

Fairiest will resonate with contemporary young girls because Aza is an average girl who uses her unique talents and positive character qualities to win over the prince, instead of her looks and sex appeal.  The book is filed in the young adult section at my library, but I believe middle grade audiences will enjoy it as well.  I recommend this modern retelling for ages 10 and up. 

For other great middle grade reads, please visit Shannon Messenger's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday round up.  

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Tale Dark and Grimm (by Adam Gidwitz)

Summary of A Tale Dark and Grimm (by Adam Gidwitz):
Hansel and Gretel are two of the most unlucky children.  This innovative work of fiction interweaves nine Grimm’s Brother tales into a single narrative about the unfortunate childhood.    The tale of Faithful Johannes gives the background for their parent’s courtship and the children’s cause for running away.  The next tales is the traditional story of them coming upon a cottage made of sweets.  As they eventually flee from there they go on other adventures and become part of several Grimm’s tales (most of which are lesser known).  After meeting the devil, battling a dragon, and facing a serial killer, Hansel and Gretel come to “under-stand” their parents and their motivations.   The children are finally able to reconcile with their parents and to take on their new role as rulers of the kingdom. 

The storytelling is brilliant.  Adam Gidwitz expertly crafts and intertwines the tales.  Additionally, he has created a narrator who adds humor and lightness to the story, which is much needed to temper the tone and content. 

The characterization is well-done.  He makes normally 2-dimensional fairy tale characters into to fully fledged, multi-dimensional protagonists.  Hansel and Gretel are both strong, wise, and resourceful.  They persevere through great obstacles and hardships.  The siblings are loyal and loving toward one another.  The one down-side on characterizations is that nearly all the adults fail the children.  They either attempt to hurt them in some way/act in a selfish way that prompts their affliction or they are unable to protect and care for them when they need it.  

I feel mixed about the violent content.  Ok. I get that the original tales are violent.  We live in a violent world.  Our entertainment is highly violent.  Children are probably far less sensitive to violence than I give them credit for.  It begs the question:  Does that make it right?  Good?   I have no problem with action violence, especially when there is minimal blood.   However, A Tale Dark and Grimm would be rated “R” if made into a movie.  There is torture in Hell that made me squirm.  A serial killer chops up his victim in front of Gretel and commands him mother to put the parts in a pot to cook.  Hansel is presumed dead and then skinned.  The parents cut their children’s heads off.  It makes me wonder if it is all too much for middle grade readers. 

As an adult, I appreciate this well-written and creative fractured fairy tale.  I am just not sure the violence content is optimal for youngsters.  I would recommend this book for ages 13 and up.  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (by Sherman Alexie)

Brief Summary:
Arnold Spirit (nicknamed Junior) is a 14 year old Native American boy, living on the Spokane Reservation. He comes into the world with lots of disadvantages—beginning with fluid on this brain which prompted some physical issues.  His family (like most of the others on the reservation) is extremely poor.  Arnold  is a budding cartoonist and stellar student.   He attends an Indian school with outdated textbooks and poor resources.  A teacher urges him to pursue his education in the white community, which leads to complications and obstacles—such as getting to and from school each day (often he must walk miles), being further ostracized by his native community (including his only friend), and learning to fit in his new environment. Through it all, Arnold learns about himself, his culture, and his community (both his white school and his Indian homeland).

Sherman Alexie has created an amazing voice in Arnold.  I was immediately sucked into his story and his world.  First, I was intrigued by his early life and, then, the story of his dog just got me!  I could not put this book down!  I really felt for Arnold.  He is bullied.  He is poor.  He is largely alone.  Despite all of it, his spirit overcomes even as he deals with personal challenges, family difficulties, and tragic loss.  His depiction of Native Americans is raw but moving. 

Another dimension to the narrative is Arnold’s drawings, which are a creative and emotional outlet for him.  They often reveal further insights into his world and his feelings.   The cartoons also epitomize his character.  Sometimes they are funny.  Other times touching, revealing his tender heart.  They are always honest and entertaining. 

Several complex issues are dealt with, such as alcoholism, poverty, bullying,  and death.  With those awful and often heartbreaking matters, there is always a sense of hope and humor. A couple controversial issues may turn some people off.  There is some occasional profanity.  The biggest concern for many will be the references to physical arousal and self-pleasuring.  They are not graphic and only sporadic.  I would have preferred them not to be a part of the narrative, but I guess it is not entirely out of place since they are facts of life and reflective of the age of the protagonist. 

Despite a handful of unpleasant words and references, I highly recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for mature audiences (15 and up).  The story prompts insight and compassion.   You will not soon forget Arnold or his friends and family members. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Poetry Friday: Here’s a Little Poem (collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters)

Here’s a Little Poem:  A Very First Book of Poetry (collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters) would make a nice addition to a family or preschool class library.  The anthology is divided into 4 sections—self, family (including pets), outdoors, and bedtime.  The poems focus on daily activities, relationships, and observations from a young child’s perspective.  I adore Polly Dunbar’s illustrations.  Most pages depict several visual “scenes” from the poems in vivid colors and lively actions.  Many of the poems are from beloved poets and authors, such as Lee Bennett Hopkins, Langston Hughes, Marilyn Singer, and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Here are a couple of my favorites.

“Dressing Too Quickly” (by Jill Townsend)
Too many buttons.
What a long zip.
Velcro to fasten.
Mind you don’t slip.
Dress more slowly.
You’ll fall in a minute!
You’ve one trouser leg
And two legs in it.

After A Bath” (by Aileen Fisher)
After my bath
I try, try, try
to wipe myself
till I’m dry, dry, dry.

Hands to wipe
and finger and toes
and two wet legs
and a shiny nose.

Just think how much
less time I’d take
if I were a dog
and could
shake, shake, shake.

For other wonderful poems and reviews visit Teaching Authors for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Thunder Underground (Jane Yolen)

Title:    Thunder Underground Author :   Jane Yolen Illustrator :     Josee Masse Target Ages :   5-10 Genre :   Poetry Publi...