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. 

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