Saturday, May 21, 2016

Shrunken Treasures (by Scott Nash)

Title: Shrunken Treasures:  Literary Classics, Short, Sweet,and Silly

Author: Scott Nash

Illustrator: Scott Nash

Target Ages: 5 and up 

First Lines:  “This book you are holding in your hands is a marvel of squishy science.  After many years of mulling and figuring, I have developed a device called the Versizer that will transform lengthy novels, myths, and epic poems into delightful nuggets of nonsense.”

Publisher Summary:
Don’t have a thousand and one nights to get through Scheherazade’s ordeal? Lacking the strength to read the Odyssey?  Can’t stomach all of Frankenstein?  Never fear:  Shrunken Treasures is here!  Nine of the world’s best-known stories and books have been reduced, like slowly simmered cherries, to tart and tasty mouthfuls. Lighthearted verse turns Moby-Dick into a simple nursery song. Riotous images transform poor Jane Eyre’s ordeal into a whirlwind adventure. Outrageous color makes even gloomy Hamlet seems like fun.  These and other works have been remade from dense duties into delightful ditties by the wicked quill and sly brush of Scott Nash. 

Evaluation and Teaching Ideas:
When I saw this book introduced on another blog, I knew I had to read it for myself.  Candlewick was gracious enough to send me a copy in return for my honest review. 

Shrunken Treasures covers some of my favorite literary works and a few that are on my “must read” list. Young readers are introduced to the Odyssey, Frankenstein, Moby-Dick, Jane Eyre, A Thousand and One Nights, Hamlet, Don Quixote, The Metamorphosis, and Remembrance of Things Past—using an imaginative and whimsical approach. The stories are shrunk down to their bare elements—covering only 2-4 pages each. Each is written in a poetic form.

Two of them use popular children’s songs. For instance, Moby-Dick is written to the nursery rhyme “Mary had a Little Lamb.”  This technique makes it easier for children to remember and even to sing a long after a few readings:

Ahab had a wooden leg,
Wooden leg
Wooden leg.
Ahab had a wooden leg—
He got it from a whale.

Other shrunken stories use rhyming stanzas of various lengths and types.  For The Odyssey, Nash uses 4-line stanzas with an abba rhyming scheme:

When home he did arrive,
One hundred men
Were in his den!
He threw them all aside.

Finally, others are in free verse.  Hamlet uses this approach:

A great Dane was Hamlet.
He lived in Elsinore.
And seemed quite mad
for digging holes,
Though none could say what for!

Parents and educators can causally talk about the various poetic styles and patterns that are used. You do not have to be a poetry expert to point out places that rhyme or different length stanzas. Just talking about how poetry is different than other stories is building a foundation for later literary study.  

Here are a few more differences between poetry and prose you can point out:
  • Instead of paragraphs, there are stanzas.
  • Instead of sentences, there are lines.
  • Instead of lengthy descriptions and lots of words, everything is more concise.
  • Instead of everyday language, there are more figurative ideas with vivid concrete words.
  • Instead of an emphasis on what happens, the five sense are heightened.
One reason I was drawn to this book immediately is because I feel strongly that children should be introduced to classics as early as possible.  Reading an ancient epic, for instance, can be daunting in the adult versions.  Fortunately, many of the classics are re-written for children or in abridged versions. I read Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, and the Iliad to my kids when they were young using those types of versions.  When my son had to read The Odyssey in ninth grade this year, he was already familiar with the main elements, making the task so much less strenuous.

Shrunken Treasures is an outstanding introduction to some of the most beloved classics—ones your children are likely to eventually encounter in school.

Some stories have a stronger, more literal overview like The Odyssey and Moby-Dick. The poems provide an excellent outline of the main story structure.

Others have a creative reimagining. A Thousand and One Nights changes the king killing a different woman every night as revenge for his former wife’s adultery to a tiger king killing off mice because he is afraid of them. Like its original, a clever character (in this case, a mouse) comes along that entices the king with fascinating stories. This version is obviously more kid-friendly, but it also gives a nice overview of the main idea of the novel—stories used to teach the king some important lessons.

Another reimagining is for Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis. In the original, the main character has a sad fate—dying isolated, discarded, and alone. Nash employs “metaphor and poetic ambiguity” in an attempt to save him from his fate though.

Hamlet is harder to decipher.  The poem introduces the main characters and some of the key elements.  It is more abstract—the Hamlet dog is digging holes for everyone.  My first thought was—huh?  How is this related?  Nash provides a short paragraph on each story poem at the end, explaining what he did and why. This information is valuable for parents and educators.  (You may want to read it first.)  Discuss what it means metaphorically to “dig a hole” and briefly relate it to the play.

In some poems, I wish Nash had given more details about the original works.  Don Quixote, for instance, has so many rich details and memorable incidents. The poem only describes one of them—Don Quixote’s battle with a windmill. I suppose it is best to leave your audience wanting more. 

The illustrations are so. much. fun. Several pages have many different illustrations depicting in more vivid detail the sparse details in the poems.  Others are full-page grandeur.  All are dramatic, animated, and entertaining.

The publisher suggests this book is for ages 5-8. I disagree though. These poems could be read in a middle or high school classroom.  Here are just a few ideas on how:
  • Use a poem to introduce one of the literary works covered.
  • Create an activity for post-reading to discuss how the poem is different or reimagines the work. 
  • Instruct students to write their own reimaginings or retellings using a well-known poetic song, nursery rhyme, or specific poetic form (sonnet, villanelle and so forth).
  • For some of the shorter poems (Like Don Quixote), they can add a stanza with another one of the main character’s escapades.
  • Discuss how Nash’s ending to his poems, like the one based on The Metamorphosis, compares or contrasts to the actually ending: In some metaphorical or thematic way, can his ending be valid?
Having taught college and early college (high school students in college classes) for over a decade, I have learned that older students love children’s literature and “juvenile” activities too—everything from using play dough to painting. Do not hesitate to bring in a children’s book/poem or fun activity in the upper grades. Almost everyone likes to act like a kid on occasion.  If you can incorporate an “adult” lesson along with it, everyone wins.

I highly recommend beginning with Shrunken Treasures:  Literary Classics, Short, Sweet, and Silly for ages 5 and up. Once you have them hooked to the “shrunken” versions, check out the children’s or abridged versions. 

You can ignite a love for literary classics beginning at any age.  Shrunken Treasures is an ideal stepping stone.

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