Friday, April 3, 2020

Carl and the Meaning of Life (Deborah Freedman)

Author:  Deborah Freedman  

Illustrator: Deborah Freedman

Target Ages:  5 and up

Genre:  Picture Book

Publisher Summary: 
This is Carl.
Carl is an earthworm.
He spends his days happily digging, tunneling, turning dirt into soil, until one day, when a field mouse asks him…Why?
Carl does not know why he does what he does, but now he needs to find out!

First Lines:
Carl was not a bird.
Carl was not a bear, or a beaver.
Carl was…an earthworm.

Memorable Moment:
All of them (the animals) are able to do what they do…
Well, why not ask Carl?

As a child, I often wondered: What is my gift?  What makes me special?  I did not have any talents or skills that stood out.  I was pretty average.  However, through hard work and divine direction, I found my—what makes me special. It is likely that many children (and adults) have similar questions about their significance. 

Carl and the Meaning of Life is an excellent springboard for that conversation.  Though a seemingly insignificant living creature, Carl realizes he has a vital purpose. His story reveals how small actions and roles in life are the foundation of a great organization or society.  On a deeper level: If an earthworm has a purpose, how much more does a human being have one? As the image-bearers of God, all people have a purpose and an opportunity to glorify their creator with their actions—no matter how seemingly small the actions.

Freedman’s soft watercolor illustrations are vibrant and warm.  They help capture how Carl feels as he is pictured small and insignificant compared to the other animals.  However, as he has his epiphany and grows in his understanding, he becomes more prominent.  On the last page, he is equal or greater in size to the other creatures.

One of the highlights of the book is Carl’s quest to answer the tough questions.  He does not stop until he finds the answer.  Multiple questions are presented—How? What? Who? and Why?  Teaching children to ask questions and to pursue the answers is the foundation of true education and understanding.  Carl symbolizes the internal quest within each person.

Carl and the Meaning of Life is a perfect picture book, ripe for many questioning and thinking opportunities.

Activities and Extension Ideas for Lesson Plans:
  • Writing:  Answer the question How? through Carl's perspective at the end of the story.
  • Science:  Read one or more non-fiction picture books about the earthworm.
  • Drawing:  Create a flow chart to show how the animals in the story are connected.  Read and/or brainstorm another flow chart of interconnectedness, such as related to bees or plankton. 
  • Creative Writing:  What is the meaning of life?
  • Characterization: What motivates Carl to answer mouse’s initial question: Why?  How does Carl change over the course of the story?
  • Character:  Create a poster with pictures, drawings, and words that show why you are special.
  • Community Outreach:  Work together as a class or family to do a small action that has big consequences, like recycling, picking up trash outside, or setting up for an event. 
  • Grammar:  Discuss the difference between a question and a statement.   Identify examples of both in the story.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Poetry Friday: The Blacker the Berry

Title:  The Blacker the Berry 

Author:  Joyce Carol Thomas 

Illustrator: Floyd Cooper 

Target Ages:  3 and up 

Awards: Coretta Scott King Award for Illustrators, Coretta Scott King Award for Authors (nominated), ALA Notable Children’s Book 

Genre:  Poetry Picture Book 

Publisher Summary: 
Black is dazzling and distinctive, like toasted wheat berry bread; snowberries in the fall; rich, red cranberries; and the bronzed last leaves of summer. In this lyrical and luminous collection, Coretta Scott King honorees Joyce Carol Thomas and Floyd Cooper celebrate these many shades of black beautifully. 

Poem Samples: 
“What Shade Is Human?"
 At breakfast

I pour milk all over my bowl of berries

And Grandpa says,

“It's the milk of kindness

that makes us human.”

“Yes, Papa," I answer,

and he continues:

"White milk

Chocolate milk

Sweet milk

Mother’s milk.”

I nod between bites of berries


My mother long ago

When she nursed me my first milk

Said, “You are beautiful,”

And I heard her.

“The Blacker the Berry"
 “The blacker the berry

the sweeter the juice.”

I am midnight and berries

I call the silver stars at dusk

By moonrise they appear

And we turn berries into nectar

Because I am dark the moon and stars

shine brighter

Because berries are dark the juice is sweeter

Day couldn’t dawn without the night

Colors, without black, couldn’t sparkle

quite as bright

“The blacker the berry

the sweeter the juice”

I am midnight and berries 

The poems have a couple significant connections.  

First, the berry metaphor is used throughout in creative and poignant ways.   For instance, one speaker is her “great-grandma’s raspberry color,” her “grandma’s blackberry cheeks,” and her “mama’s mulberry mouth.”  Another child refers to himself as “raspberry black” because he is part Native Indian and part African American.  Each use of color—shades of dark—reflects the child’s heritage and instills confidence.

Second, the poems reflect the diversity within the African-American community.  Colors range from deep black like coffee berries to “light as snowberries in fall.”  Many of the children are mixed race.  Each child recognizes his or her uniqueness and beauty.   

Finally,  the poems instill pride in children (and adults) of color.  In “Snowberries,” the child  speaker wants to be “black as midnight” so she isn’t made fun of for her “snowy skin.”  She comes to realized that if she bleeds “the one drop of blood” she is just as “Black” as a dark skinned person.  Another child declares she “feels absolutely fabulous to be this brown.”  In the final poem, it says: “Each color is rich in its own right/We come in all shades.”

Floyd Cooper’s illustrations enrich the diversity, beauty, and pride that exude from each poem.  Each two-page spread shows the sparkle, radiance, and musing of the children as they contemplate their heritage and individuality.  

The Blacker the Berry is a stunning collection of poems and art.  

This post is part of the Poetry Friday link up hosted by My Juicy Little Universe.


Spotlight on Friendship and Compassion in Books by Cori Doerrfeld

Today, I am highlighting two amazing picture books by author-illustrator Cori Doerrfeld.  The first title, The Rabbit Listened, has been on my to-review list for a while.  When I discovered Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend! I decided to discuss these books together.  While they are diverse in their subject matter, they have some noteworthy commonalities. 

The Rabbit Listened 
Publisher Summary 
When something sad happens to Taylor, all the animals think they know how to help.  One by one they come, but nothing they say makes Taylor feel better.  Until the rabbit arrives…and the rabbit knows just what to do. 

This book can be read on multiple levels.  On the one hand, it is a simple picture book about a child’s experience with pain.  However, it resonates as an allegorical tale for adults as well.  

Out of nowhere, life often comes crashing down. This idea of the unexpected in life and sense of things falling apart is a universal experience at all ages.   In the story, this idea is illustrated when a pack of black birds knock down an elaborate building the protagonist, Taylor, has built.

Various animals attempt to “comfort” Taylor.  Each animal parallels the types of people we encounter in life.  These people are often more concerned with their own agendas rather than genuinely helping someone.  In the story, the chicken just wants to talk, talk, talk about it. The bear wants to dwell on angry feelings while the elephant tries to fix it.  When their approach doesn’t work, they walk away.

The rabbit in the book is the only one concerned with just being present.  He is true to his nature:  He sits and listens.  Everyone needs someone just to be present sometimes.  The rabbit allows the protagonist to go through all the emotions he feels.  The rabbit represents what a true friend acts like—compassionate, supportive, and selfless.    

Goodbye, Friend!  Hello, Friend! 
Publisher Summary 
Every goodbye brings a new beginning.  Goodbye to snowmen means hello to stomping in puddles!  Goodbye to the sun means hello to the stars!  Sometimes goodbyes are especially hard, and sometimes new beginnings take time but tomorrow always comes. 

Several life experiences are represented through this straightforward text all while exemplifying the saying: When one door closes, another one opens.

Initially, Stella is reluctant to go to school.  She learns to make friends and to follow a new routine.  Another aspect of change is having to transition from an activity she enjoys to another one.  

Stella deals with loss.  Her pet dies.  Later, her best friend Charlie moves away.

With each potentially negative experience, Stella learns to see the rainbow on the other side of the storm.  Sometimes optimism is a relatively easy choice,  like having to come inside when it gets dark or having to go to bed during a sleep over.  Other times, she learns this lesson in more challenging experiences like falling down while trying something new or losing a loved one.  

Goodbye, Friend!  Hello, Friend! illuminates the importance of resilience and optimism no matter the circumstances.  The story reminds us that a closed door isn't the end.  Instead, there is an opportunity for a new beginning.

Cori Doerrfeld demonstrates exceptional skill in both picture books.  She shows the complexities of life and friendship while keeping it all on a concrete child’s level. The Rabbit Listened and Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend! are must-reads for home and the classroom.  They illustrate the importance of compassion, friendship, feelings, and optimism in challenging times. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle (Anne Renaud)

Title:  The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle: The Cool Science Behind Frank Epperson’s Famous Frozen Treat 

Author:  Anne Renaud 

Illustrator:  Milan Pavlovic 

Target Ages:  5 and up 

Genre:  Picture Book STEM Biography 

Publisher Summary: 

Young Frank William Epperson always knew he wanted to be an inventor.  He loved to experiment—especially with flavored soda water.  

Frank was determined to create the yummiest, most thirst-quenching soda drink ever.  Not all of his attempts were successful…you could even say some were disastrous.  But Frank never stopped trying, even as he grew up. 

First Lines:
Frank William Epperson knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.

And everyone in Frank’s family knew, too.  Because in case they forgot, he reminded them—often.  

Memorable Moment:  Frank has a creative and effective way to market his new product. 


Frank’s idyllic childhood illustrates the importance of being creative, imaginative, and inquisitive.  His first laboratory was his back porch where he tinkered, tested, analyzed, and scrutinized.   

When he was 10 years old, he completed his first successful invention.  Frank’s example will inspire young readers as they realize they don’t have to wait to grow up to become an inventor.  They can begin doing it right now!

Another essential life and STEM lesson is show in Frank’s experience both succeeding and failing during experimentation.  Without the failures, Frank never would have found the right combination for success.   

Milan Pavlovic’s energetic and entertaining illustrations compliment this engaging text.  

The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle is an ideal family or school text to encourage scientific thinking and doing.  I recommend it for teachers and parents looking to add STEM biographies and models for their children. 

Activities and Extension Ideas for Lesson Plans: 
  • Comparison:  Compare and contrast Frank Epperson with another kid inventor. Try Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E.Knight Became An Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully. 
  • Characterization:  Discuss the types of activities Frank did in his daily life that lead to his success. 
  • Creativity:  Create a new Popsicle flavor.  Draw a picture of it and write a pitch or advertisement to encourage others to try it. 
  • Nonfiction:  Discuss the difference between fiction and non-fiction.  Compare this non-fiction story about a child inventor with a fiction counterpart like Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts.  
  • Science:  Integrated in the story are 4 related science experiments that children can complete at school or home. 
Additional background information and photographs on the life of Frank Epperson are provided at the end of the story. 

For other books on inventors, click HERE


Sunday, February 2, 2020

One Shoe, Two Shoes (Caryl Hart)

Title:  One Shoe, Two Shoes 

Author: Caryl Hart 

Illustrator: Edward Underwood 

Target Ages:  1-7 

Genre:  Concept, Early Reader 

Publisher Summary:  Shoes, shoes, and more shoes…This book is bursting with shoes of all different colors, sizes, and shapes.  There’s a pair here to suit everyone—even a family of mice. 

First Lines:
One shoe
Two shoes
Red shoes
Blue shoes
Old shoes
New shoes 

Author Caryl Hart has written a fresh, new text in the vein of the Dr. Seuss classic One Fish, Two Fish.. 

Edward Underwood’s vibrant illustrations add another engaging dimension to the text with his dog and mouse shenanigans. 

One Shoe, Two Shoes is a exciting frolic with a band of mischievous mice and a lively dog.  It is ideal for parents and educators looking for exciting early readers. 
Hart and Underwood also collaborated on another excellent early reader:  Big Box Little Box.  This fun cat and mouse tale is sure to delight children.
Activities and Extension Ideas for Lesson Plans:
  • Math:  Practice counting and numeral words.
  • Onomatopoeia:  Identify sound words.  Kids can add some of their own sound words to go with the action of the text.
  • Colors:  Primary colors are highlighted and often referred to in the text. 
  • Rhyming Words:  True and slant rhymes abound for practice saying and identify.
  • Reading:  Simple, often repetitive text make for an ideal early reader.  
  • Verbs:  Identify action words in the text. Then, create a list of other action words based on the illustrations. 

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Across the Bay (Carlos Aponte)

Title:  Across the Bay

Author:  Carlos Aponte 

Target Ages:  4-10

Genre:  Realistic Fiction Picture Book

Award: Pura Belpre’ Illustrator Honor

Publisher Summary:  Carlitos lives in a happy home with his mother, his abuela, and Coco the cat.  Life in his hometown is cozy as can be, but the call of the capital city pulls Carlitos across the bay in search of his father.

Memorable Moment:
When Carlitos loses his only picture of his father, a park ranger helps him cope with his loss. 

Carlitos has a loving home with his mother, abuela, and cat.  Nevertheless, he is spurred to search for what is missing—his father.  

After an unsuccessful quest to locate his father, Carlitos finds contentment in his circumstances.  He learns, “No matter the storm, the sun always returns.”  As he journeys back home, he has a renewed appreciation for the loving people in his life and they home they have created for him.  

Through Carlitos’ quest, author Carlos Aponte aptly conveys the heartache and loss a child feels when a parent is no longer in the home—especially when that parent is completely absent.  The story subtly but powerfully shows the longing and loss through the juxtaposition of Carlitos’ circumstances with those of other young boys who are sharing every day experiences with their father—in the neighborhood, the barbershop, and the city.  

The illustrations show the beauty and diversity of Puerto Rico as Carlitos traverses the ancient city of Old San Juan and his more modern hometown of Catano.  From the colorful foliage to the vast array of people and activities, young readers get a glimpse of island life. 

Across the Bay reminds us of the quiet desperation many children around the world feel for a missing parent. This poignant narrative is both heartbreaking and uplifting, a blast to the heart and a spark of delight. 

Interview with Carlos Aponte 

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.
Excuse me?

Memorable Moment:
Oh, can’t they?
What if suddenly there were…

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.

Carl and the Meaning of Life (Deborah Freedman)

Title:   Carl and the Meaning of Life   Author :   Deborah Freedman   Illustrator: Deborah Freedman ...