"The best children's stories are wisdom dipped in art and words." -Peter Reynolds

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars is a realistic fiction text and was written by John Green. It was published in 2012 by The Penguin Group.  This story is a modern love story about a sixteen year old girl named Hazel Grace Lancaster who falls in love with a handsome boy named Augustus Waters in cancer group at a local church. But what sets this romantic, teenage love story apart from the others is that both of them are suffering from cancer. Readers watch as a romance unfolds between the two teens on their trip to Amsterdam to see Hazel's favorite author. But all the while Hazel has to struggle to breathe with her oxygen tank and ever-filling lungs of fluid while Gus struggles with his prosthetic leg. Can these two love birds survive as a teenage couple independent of their health issues? Or will their cancer come between them? The final outcome will surprise you and leave you heartbroken, yet hopeful.

I am having a hard time reviewing this book because it left me with no words. I absolutely loved it. It is beautiful. Heartbreaking. Hilarious. Relatable. Honest. And still, nothing I can say will do this book enough justice. I do not know much, if anything, about cancer but Green's story taught me so much about the sickness and what people suffering have to go through. This is my first "cancer book" so I cannot compare it to others but it absolutely blew me away.

The characters are extremely relatable, realistic, and well-developed. They seem so real that I could easy run into Hazel Lancaster or Augustus Waters on the street. The plot is very diverse and realistic yet keeps you on your feet. I found myself laughing at Green's sarcastic dialogue yet crying over the realism. I definitely recommend this book to young adults but make sure you have a box of tissues handy.

The movie is coming out this summer 2014 and the previews seem promising. I will see the movie because I can't refuse the film adaptation of a book I have read but nothing will ever compare to the book. Especially this book!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

But I'll Be Back Again

But I'll Be Back Again by Cynthia Rylant was published in 1993 by Beech Tree Books. Her storytelling is as lively, engaging, and beautiful, as one would imagine Rylant's autobiography to be. Usually I am not a fan of listening to people talk about themselves but her story is compelling! Rylant's story explains her childhood in a small West Virginian town including, but not limited to, stories about her alcoholic father, absent mother, experiences with boys, the Beatles, and her son. Every section of the book is met with a quote from a Beatles song  that describes that section, which I found very poetic. 

Rylant's ability to connect with her inner child and past experiences in her childhood is truly remarkable. It is obvious this is why she is such a wonderfully acclaimed children's book author. She is able to recount her experiences from her inner child's perspective that so many of us have experienced before. "I got my first kiss when I was eleven years old, and for the next several years I did so much kissing that I barely had time to take a breath. I loved to kiss, and still do, and apart from going out for ice cream, there are few things as easy and enjoyable. My first kiss occurred at a party during a game of Spin the Bottle," (47). It is reassuring to relate our childhoods to such a famous and talented author. We must be doing something right!

All people, especially women, can relate to Rylant's hilarious and awkward adolescent experiences with her body and the opposite sex. I found myself laughing out loud when Rylant explained her struggles with her first bra. "I hated bras. I'd been an ace volleyball player until I started wearing bras. I could never keep the strap up; sometimes I couldn't even keep a bra in the right place. I'd serve a volleyball and either the strap would be hanging over my elbow or the bra would be up around my neck," (33). Rylant's consistent honesty draws readers in and makes them relate to her experiences very well. 

I feel a very strong connection to Rylant due to our similar childhood experiences and artistic outlets. This book was very personal to me. My parents divorced when I was five because my mother is an alcoholic so I very much sympathized with Rylant's childhood explanations and feelings. For example, when she said, 

"I think I believed that if I were really really good then I would make them happy and they wouldn't fight. Children always think they can make their parents happy, so they try a hundred different ways to please them, but nothing works. The parents still yell at each other and they still yell at their children, and all the goodness in the world, or in one little child, will not help that. No one ever told me when I was little that my parents' battles were not my fault. I am certain I must have felt they were, and I believe I grew up with this big feeling inside that said, 'Whenever anyone who is with you is unhappy, it is you fault.' I didn't know, growing up, that I didn't have to make people happy," (16).

I couldn't have explained this better myself for that was exactly my thoughts growing up and the reason I am how I am today. Who knew that an autobiography of an award-winning children's book author could make you cry and come to terms with your childhood traumas and influences? Additionally, it brought me to tears to read Rylant's explanation of her feelings when her mother abandoned her because that was how I felt as a child, also. After my parents' divorce, my mother left and I was raised by my father:

"My mother wrote to me regularly (putting a stick of chewing gum inside every letter), and a few times a year she was able to come and see me. But it was not enough for a little girl. I believe that deep down I felt I just had not been good enough to make her want to stay. For a child there is never a good reason for a mother to leave. My mother's few trips each year to see me, instead of making things better, only made things worse. It would be wonderful having her back with me again, and I would have so much to tell her and so many things to show her. Then suddenly it would be time for her to go, and I could hardly bear it," (17). 

I think I have a stronger connection to Cynthia Rylant than most people because of our childhoods. Her ability to put pain and childhood memories into words has really moved me. This autobiography has instantly touched my heart and young adults will definitely relate to her life as they live through these similar experiences. For adults, it will make them recall their childhood experiences, both positive and negative, and give them the strength to grow and move on from them. Our childhoods do not make us all that we are, but they definitely have played a monumental role. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Beyond The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Nixie's Song (Book One)

Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles: The Nixie's Song (Book One) by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, was published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster Inc. This book is the first book of the second installment of The Spiderwick Chronicles series. This particular series follows new children that the other series, particularly Nick Vargas and his step-sister Laurie Vargas in swampy Florida as they discover a Nixie in their back yard. Trouble begins to unfold as they return the Nixie, named "Taloa" to the lake. She requests they help her find her sisters who have disappeared. But when Nick and Laurie go searching for her sisters, they come across the three burned bodies of her sisters as well as an enormous, fire-breathing beast that is threatening to burn the whole neighborhood. With the help of Simon and Jared Grace from the first installment and Nick's brother Jules, Nick and Laurie may be able to save the entire neighborhood from being blown to smithereens.

I am a big fan of the first five books of the Spiderwick Chronicles series. My second graders and I love to read them for read aloud due to their suspense and fantasy creatures. However, I am extremely disappointed with this second installment. I am so disappointed that I am going to strongly encourage my students to not read these.The characters and story line seem rushed and underdeveloped, unlike the first five books. One minute Nick's dad and Laurie's mom are happy and in love and the next Nick's dad is furious at her? Even their dialogue seems extremely fake and unimpressive. For example, this scene where Nick's dad notices all the sand in his car and suspects Nick and Laurie are the culprits:
 'Did someone put you up to this?' Nick's dad looked over at Laurie.
'What are you implying, exactly?' Charlene asked. 'Are you saying my daughter's responsible?'
'No!" Nick's dad said too quickly.
Charlene put her hand on her hip. 'Of course not. That's the problem with your whole family. No one ever says what they really mean. Well, I'm not like that and Laurie's not like that, either.' She turned her back on him and walked out of the room before he could answer." (66). 

Where did that come from? Maybe this cheesy dialogue and emotional backlash is impressive for children but, definitely not for adults. Personally, I don't want my students reading literature I'm not impressed with. Would you?

 I also am not impressed with the main character, Nick. He is SO angry, ALL the time. Is that really necessary? If he's not angry about his dad getting remarried, he's mad about how "annoying" his sweet stepsister Laurie is, or he's mad about the new house development, or something else. What are we teaching kids here, exactly? I very much prefer the main characters Jared, Simon, and Mallory from the first five books. They were better role models for kids and left a better taste in my mouth. These characters left me uninterested and unimpressed.

Lastly, I am appalled at the offensive language in this book. There are curse words that were not in the first installment of Spiderwick and should NOT be in a children's book meant for ages 7-10. I will not mention the specific curse words in this review, but let's just say I was shocked and really upset. That language was not necessary at all and I'm disappointed in the authors. I will no longer be recommending this second series to my students. Overall, I am not impressed with this first book and I do not plan on reading the second one.

Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt was published in 1975 by RR Donnelley & Sons Company. It is a fantasy novel set in the 1880's during a hot summer in August. This story has it all: fantasy, murder, mystery, suspense, violence, and most importantly, love.

Ten-year-old Winnie Foster has grown tired of her over-protected life and decides to run away from home. When she sneaks away in to a forested area near her home called "The Wood," she sees a handsome, seventeen year old boy named Jesse Tuck drinking from a spring in the ground. Jesse sees Winnie in the bushes and she explains that she also would like a drink. Jesse forbids her to take a drink and then his family shows up. It is then that Winnie learns the magical story of the Tuck family and that if anyone drinks from the spring, they will live forever. The Tuck family then "kidnaps" Winnie to ensure she understands how important it is that she doesn't tell anyone about them or the spring, but a strange man in a yellow suit emerges. He had heard the whole story and consequently saw Winnie leave with them. Tensions rise as Winnie's family is looking for her, the man in the yellow suit becomes a big problem, and Winnie becomes more comfortable with the Tuck family. She even grows to become very fond of Jesse; who asks her to drink from the spring when she is 17 so they can get married and be together forever. How romantic! But not everything goes according to plan...

**Spoilers Ahead**
There are an immense amount of deep, philosophical meanings in this book. I found Tuck's conversation with Winnie in the boat to be particularly important. He explained to her why it was imperative she did not drink from the spring because it was not natural, "It's a wheel, Winnie. Everything's a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That's the way it's supposed to be. That's the way it is," (62). I agree with Tuck and his explanation to Winnie. Although people at some point of their lives wish they could live forever, they eventually come to realize that they actually do not wish that. It is not how the world should be and not how the world is! I also really enjoyed the quotes about life in general in the text. In the same scene as the previous reference, Tuck says to Winnie, "This water, you look out at it every morning,and it looks the same, but it ain't. All night long it's been moving, coming in through the stream back there to the west, slipping out through the stream down east here, always quiet, always new, moving on. You can't hardly see the current, can you? And sometimes the wind makes it look like it's going th eother way. But it's always there, the water's always moving on, and someday, after a long while, it comes to the ocean," (61). Babbitt really made a beautiful comparison between the water of the river and life. We wake up every day thinking that everything is the same it has always been because that is how it looks to us day to day. But in reality the world is always moving and changing, and it will continue to do so with or without you in it. There's something beautifully tragic about that to me.

It took me a while to get really into the story but I'm so glad I stuck with it. The second half of the book was a real page turner! I was disappointed that the man in the yellow suit didn't have a great significance. I was hoping he was a metaphor for God or someone of greater importance than just a greedy man. So that was disappointing. However, I found the ending to be particularly beautiful and meaningful. Winnie had the chance to drink water from the stream to live forever with Jesse, but she chose not to. Instead of everlasting life with a family and man she loved, she chose to be part of the wheel of life and make room for the new people. I think I would have made the same choice as Winnie because it is not natural for people to live forever. There needs to be an end to every person's life story.

I was pleasantly surprised with this classic novel. The characters were developed enough, but not too deeply to where I grew bored. I felt I understood the characters and empathized with all of them. The setting was beautifully described in great detail. I actually feel that I have a better understanding of the setting than the characters, but I think Babbitt did this on purpose to ensure the focus of the story was more on the spring and the magical land in inhabited. I definitely recommend this text for young adults and upper elementary students!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

When We Were Very Young

When We Were Very Young was written by A.A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. It was first published in 1924 by Dutton Children's Books and then redesigned in 1988. It is a classic collection of children's poems. These poems were written for Milne's own son, named Christopher Robin Milne. Christopher Robin... sound familiar?! In the author's note entitled "Just Before We Begin," Milne explains that his son Christopher named a swan that he frequently feeds, Pooh. And so, the characters of Christopher Robin and Pooh (Bear) are born.

But now let's get to the poems! There is something special about poetry this beautiful and old-fashioned. They are silly and very child-centered. I can see children giggling away at these poems! The poems follow the little boy, Christopher Robin, through his childhood experiences and dreams. Milne's writing style has much repetition and rhythm that any reader will enjoy. The voice of the narrator in these poems is innocent and vulnerable, like a child.

My favorite poem of all from this collection is "Spring Morning." It is lengthy, but it is worth it! I love the descriptive language and how Milne perfectly describes the nature of a child. I admire the silliness with the underlying serious and philosophical undertones. The repetition of the beginning and ending lines is beautifully written and the rhyming is perfectly timed:

"Where am I going? I don't quite know.
Down to the stream where the king-cups grow--
Up on the hill where the pine-trees blow--
Anywhere, anywhere. I don't know.
Where am I going? The clouds sail by,
Little ones, baby ones, over the sky.
Where am I going? The shadows pass,
Little ones, baby ones, over the grass.
If you were a cloud, and sailed up there,
You'd sail on water as blue as air,
And you'd see me here in the fields and say:
'Doesn't the sky look green today?'
Where am I going? The high rocks call:
'It's awful fun to be born at all.'
Where am I going? The ring-doves coo:
'We do have beautiful things to do.'
If you were a bird, and lived on high,
You'd lean on the wind when the wind came by,
You'd say to the wind when it took you away:
'That's where I wanted to go today!'
Where am I going? I don't quite know.
What does it matter where people go?
Down to the wood where the blue-bells grow--
Anywhere, anywhere. I don't know."

The illustrations by Shepard are sketched with an ink pen. They are simple in concept but detailed in intricate design. There is at least one small picture to accompany each poem. These simple and child-centered illustrations are perfect for this traditional collection of poems for children. I think children of all ages will enjoy these poems but definitely with the company of an adult for the younger ones. The language is sophisticated for young children and therefore this would make a great read aloud or bed time story for them. But older elementary students, say second grade and above, should be able to read the poems independently. When We Were Very Young is traditionally classic and full of beautiful poetry; and I recommend it to children, parents, and teachers!

Joyful Noise

Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Eric Beddows, was published in 1988 by Harper & Row. It won the 1989 Newberry medal and is a lovely collection of poems about various insects. The poems go into great rhythmic detail about the insects' personalities, habits, and sounds.

There is a note in the beginning of the book that explains how the book is supposed to be read: " two readers at once, one taking the left-hand part, the other taking the right-hand part. The poems should be read from top to bottom, the two parts meshing as in a musical duet. When both readers have lines at the same horizontal level, those lines are to be spoken simultaneously." I very much appreciated this note and I'm sure young readers would as well! Without it, I'm not sure that I would have felt the full impact of Fleischman's beautiful poetry.

The poems in Joyful Noise are truly magical. Each poem sounds like a unique song; rhythmic and full of life. When the poems are read with another person, like they are supposed to be, they really blossom into the creative genius they are. My favorite poem of them all has to be "Fireflies." It is difficult for me to type up an excerpt of the poem when I feel in order to get the full effect, you need to hear it. This link will take you to a recording of a brother and sister reading Fleischman's "Fireflies" aloud: Click me!

There are also black and white charcoal pencil style insect drawings throughout the book that correspond to the poems. They are whimsical and full of character and excitement! The insects take on personalities and facial expressions of real people, which makes them very child-friendly.

Young readers of all ages will fall in love with Joyful Noise. It would make a wonderful bedtime story for parents and their children. It would also be excellent for practicing fluency in school. I am really looking forward to sharing this magical book with my second graders. They love participating in reader's theater scripts and fluency activities so I am positive they will be eager to practice with this work of art!

Dark Emperor

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night was written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Rick Allen. It was published in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. It won the Newberry Honor for 2011! This text is a wonderful collection of twelve beautiful poems about night time animals for children.

The beginning end paper is a dark, eggplant purple reminiscent of the night. This is followed by a stunning two-page spread of a sunset landscape. Darkness is approaching! The first poem of the collection entitled Welcome to the Night where creatures of all sorts are welcomed into the wonderful world of darkness. The vivid poems that follow include diverse animals such as the snail, spider, and bat. Each poem tells the story of that animal during the night time. The "Dark Emperor" is symbolizing the enormous great-horned owl from the cover; who rules over the night. My favorite poem from the book is Oak After Dark because it reminds me of the giant trees at my childhood home. I used to fall asleep with my bedroom window open, listening to the giant trees. Sidman's use of rhythm and rhyme perfectly encompasses my memories:

"As nighttime rustles at my knee,
I stand in silent gravity
and quietly continue chores
of feeding leaves and sealing pores.
While beetles whisper in my bark,
while warblers roost in branches dark,
I stretch my roots into the hill
and slowly, slowly, drink my fill.
A thousand crickets scream my name,
yet I remain the same, the same.
I do not rest, I do not sleep,
and all my promises I keep:
to stand while all the seasons fly,
to anchor earth,
to touch the sky."

Each creature of the night has two different sections dedicated to them. The first is the detailed poem itself on the left. Then on the right of the second page is factual, in-depth information about the subject. I absolutely love this feature of the book because it not only teaches the reader about the specific aspect of the night but then deepens their understanding and complexity through the poem. Genius!

Following the final poem, there is another gorgeous, two spread landscape that now features the sun rising. The final end paper is a golden yellow which symbolizes the coming of day. All of these poems are suitable for elementary students of all ages. I think children will understand the poems independently but primary children may need the assistance of an adult for some of the multisyllabic and content specific words. The factual descriptions on the right side may also need to be further read and explained to the child depending on their ability. The subject matter of this text is interesting to children because they love animals! The poems evoke a feeling of mystery and excitement in the reader. Additionally, the language in the poems is absolutely beautiful and descriptive.

The illustrations are magnificently detailed and unlike any I have seen! They follow the nighttime theme of darkness and serenity but with pops of color. They are extremely textured by Allen's use of line, perspective, and shading.The illustrations were created by relief printing which is where a drawing is transferred onto wood, the drawing is cut and carved away, and the parts left uncut will be covered with ink and printed on paper. The title page says, "The prints for Dark Emperor were each printed from at least three blocks and then hand colored with a strongly pigmented watercolor called couache." The combination of rich poetry and intricate illustrations makes Dark Emperor must-have for every library!