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

Friday, January 31, 2014

Babymouse: Queen of the World!

Introducing…. BABYMOUSE: QUEEN OF THE WORLD! Ok, not really. But she sure wishes! Babymouse: Queen of the World is an entertaining graphic novel by siblings Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. It is the first of the series and was published in 2005.

Babymouse is about a creative, sassy girl mouse enduring the typical issues of adolescence. She wants so badly to fit in with her peers, particularly the most popular girl named Felicia Furrypaws. Babymouse has a childhood best friend named Wilson the weasel and they have a lot in common. One day, Babymouse discovers that Felicia is having a sleepover and it seems that most girls in her grade are invited. except Babymouse! She is obviously devastated and has multiple (and hilarious) daydream adventures about the issue. The opportunity arises for Babymouse to get invited to Felicia’s party when she is asked to give Felicia her book report that is due that day in return for an invite. Babymouse quickly jumps at the chance and doesn’t look back which in turn makes her forget that she already had plans that same evening with Wilson. Babymouse remembered her plans with Wilson later on but decided to go on with her popular girl sleepover anyway. However, at the sleepover Babymouse discovers that she is not interested in the same things as these popular girls and doesn’t have fun. In the end, Babymouse heads over to Wilson’s house to watch a movie like originally planned!

Finally, a graphic novel series for girls! This text is full of excitement and hilarity. It is sure to be a hit among young girls due to the pink theme, hearts, and relatable adolescent storyline. The illustrations are simple but with the right amount of details. I especially enjoyed all of the creative daydreams that Babymouse had in the text. They regularly included her as a hero protagonist and were a riot! These daydreams were illustrated with a predominant black background which made them easy to differentiate from the actual story line. However, I do wish there was a bit more color instead of just black, white, and pink but that may just be the artist in me.  As a teacher, I believe this series will be a big hit with my second graders, particularly the girls. I am going to conduct a book talk with them about this book on Monday and gauge their responses. I am always trying to expose them to new genres and I have not seen my students read this series yet.
 My favorite part of this graphic novel other than Babymouse’s hilarious and sassy personality is the message behind it. The message in this book is clear: stay true to who you are! Trying to be like everyone else will not make for a happy life. Trust your instincts, love your friends, and celebrate yourself! 

               If you would like to check out this book for FREE at your local library, go ahead and click the "Image Source and Find a Copy!" link at the bottom of this post.

Image Source and Find a Copy!
Image 2 Source

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dog Heaven

Calling all dog lovers! Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant is not to be skipped over! If you have ever loved a dog, you will surely be touched by this story.  As a dog lover myself, I cannot say enough positive things about this book. This book is about the Dog Heaven that all dogs are fortunate enough to visit when they leave our world.

First of all, let me discuss the illustrations with you. They were painted using acrylics by Rylant herself and they are clearly directed toward her child audience. The contrast in colors is bight and drastic which really makes the pages come to life. The landscapes, people, and even animals are drawn as if a child had drawn them. That makes complete sense to me. Shouldn’t a real children’s book have illustrations that are (or look like they are) drawn by children? They are simple by design with a touch of complexity. Speaking from a personal standpoint, these may be my favorite illustrations in any children’s book, ever. Dare I say that?

Now, on to the story. This book is clearly religious as Rylant mentions not only heaven but also God and angels. I could see this book being seen as controversial not only because of its religious connotations but because of its lack of multicultural characters. It is important to note, however, that a few of the angels are different ethnicities if you look closely enough. Despite these controversial aspects, this book still delivers a strong message. Rylant goes into detail about all of the things dogs have and get to do in Dog Heaven including fields to run in, wide lakes with geese, children to play with, and hilariously shaped dog biscuits. She has clearly thought of every single aspect of Heaven that a child would wonder about: Can my dog sleep? (Yes, on clouds). Can my dog visit me? (Yes, with angels).  Does my dog have a bowl? (Yes, with their name on it). I think it is imperative to mention how Rylant illustrated God and the angels. God is an ordinary, cowboy-inspired, Caucasian man with a white mustache, yellow pants and a blue shirt. My first thought was, why would she depict God as such a regular person? Then I remembered that this is a children’s book. Perhaps Rylant wanted to ease children into the idea of Heaven and expose them to a God that did not look so mighty and intimidating. For if God looked like a normal, average man then He would be more accepted by children. Similarly, the angels look like regular, middle aged people that wear pants, shirts, and hats, but with wings. Again, my first thought was, where are the fancy white dresses and halos? But I think Rylant purposefully wanted children to feel comfortable in the Dog Heaven world.

Rylant assures the reader that their dog is not gone forever. “So sometimes an angel will walk a dog back to Earth for a little visit and quietly, invisibly, the dog will sniff about his old back yard, will investigate the cat next door, will follow the child to school, will sit on the front porch and wait for the mail.” Is this not the exact type of comfort a child needs after losing their dog? Sure, it is not true (or is it?), but what harm is Rylant really doing by giving the children hope to cope with their loss? Children need to know that they will see their best friend again and that they are being watched over. “They will be there when old friends show up.” This sentence gives the reader hope and reassurance that they will indeed see their dog again someday. That type of support is all a child needs after the loss of a dog.

I felt at peace while reading this book knowing that my own childhood dog was happily enjoying Dog Heaven. I also felt comfort in knowing my dog that is still alive will someday join him, just as I will. Is it wrong to have childlike hopes and dreams? I don’t think so. From a teacher stand point, I think this text is a wonderful writing resource for lessons on word choice, ideas, and matching text to illustrations. For reading, it would be a good resource for a lesson particularly on comprehension and fluency strategies. But it is important to reflect on if this text would be appropriate for your classroom because of the religious aspects. As long as no one would be offended in the classroom, I recommend this book to children, teachers, and of course, dog lovers.

Back to Front and Upside Down!

Back to Front and Upside Down! By Claire Alexander is a Schneider Family Book Award winner and with good reason!  This book is about Stan, a reluctant writer because of the difficulties he faces when he writes his thoughts down on paper. His letters come out “back to front and upside down.” The struggle that Stan faces is a very real one that many students encounter every day. But Claire Alexander has managed to portray how students with similar disabilities can still be successful writers. 

The story begins with Stan’s principal, Mr. Slippers, announcing his birthday in Stan’s classroom. He invites the entire class to his birthday party and all of the children are excited. Stan’s teacher, Miss Catnip, decides that all the children need to create birthday cards for their principal. Stan is ecstatic at the idea and immediately begins drawing! But then, Miss Catnip reminds the students that they need to write, “Happy Birthday” in their cards. Stan immediately became full of anxiety! As hard as he tried to write “Happy Birthday” the same way he read it on the board, his letters came out “back to front and upside down.” Alexander accurately portrays the anxiety and frustration that struggling writers can face with tasks that seem easy to others. Stan became very frustrated and started to shut down. He watched as his friends effortlessly created their birthday cards with writing in them to Mr. Slippers. He so badly wanted to ask Miss Catnip for help but was terrified that his friends would laugh at him. 

The illustration on this page is iconic for what dyslexic and struggling writers face every day. The background is black which suggests how lonely Stan feels in his daily struggle to write. There is a giant clock behind him that portrays how he always feels so rushed to keep up with his peers. When you turn to the next page, the background is completely black and there is sad Stan sitting alone in his small desk. “Stan felt sick, like his tummy was being all stirred up with a big wooden spoon.” Any reader and writer, struggling or not, can empathize with Stan by this point in the story. I have witnessed students exactly like Stan fight the same struggle in my classroom and it is not an easy one.

Then, it was Stan’s friend Jack that reassured him that it was OK to ask for help because we all need help sometimes. So when Stan does ask for help, Miss Catnip is happy to assist him and a classmate named Mimi admits that she also needs help. The look on Stan’s face is priceless! Alas, he is not alone after all! After this realization, Alexander has two pages about how much hard work and practice, practice, practice was needed for Stan and Mimi’s letters to come out “right way round and the right way up.” In the end, it is explained that Stan now enjoys writing even though it does take him longer than everyone else and when he gets stuck he asks for help. That closing message is exactly what I try to get across to my struggling, dyslexic writers every day. Although writing may take them longer and use more effort than others, they are just as capable and smart as everyone else.

The illustrations in this text are lively and colorful. They are welcoming to any child and are sure to keep their attention throughout the story with so many fun elements. The vocabulary is not difficult and has some repetition that is helpful for struggling readers. This text would also be wonderful to help students with their fluency.  I highly recommend this book! It forces readers to empathize with students with dyslexia, a developmental delay, or similar disability and in the most supportive way. I currently have a student in my classroom that endures an identical struggle every day. I cannot wait to read this book to my class and watch her eyes light up when she realizes she is not alone. We are in this together. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

"Once there were two towers side by side." This is the first sentence of the nonfiction picture book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. I believe the first sentence of a book sets the theme for the entire story and this sentence does not disappoint. The towers stood side by side in strength and dignity. But in memory, there are still there. In this book, Gerstein tells the brave true story of Philippe Petit while paying a respectful tribute to 9/11.

The cover of this text is an immediate draw-in for children and adults alike. What a thrilling scene we have been thrown into without even reading! This book is sure to promise adventure and suspense. The story begins explaining the setting: the infamous New York City. It is then that we are introduced to our main character, a then nameless man, who is a unicycle street performer. However, his favorite performance act is walking and dancing on a rope he tied between trees. While describing this man’s love for this job, the illustrations are brightly colored, lots of blue skies, and framed with a thin black border. Then, the man notices the twin towers and decides he wants to walk on rope in the space between the towers. The illustration’s point of view is from behind the man as he stares at these two, enormous buildings. But from where the reader is looking, the man looks almost as big and mighty as the buildings. Perhaps this was Gerstein’s way of exhibiting this tightrope walker’s bravery and confidence in his dreams and in himself. The man has a flashback (shown by a squiggly border) to when he danced on a wire in Paris and the authorities thought he was crazy. On to bigger and better adventures!

It is not until we are introduced to the conflict of the story (that this man wants to tightrope between the twin towers but is afraid they won’t let him), that we learn his name. Philippe. Perhaps not giving the character’s name right away was Gerstein’s way of giving the reader a non-biased first perspective of his story. He gave the reader a chance to pretend they were in Philippe’s shoes. What would you do?

The story continues as Philippe and his friends set up his wire across the two towers during the night but not without some difficulty. The artwork on these pages is dark shades of blue and purple. These colors illicit a peaceful and tranquil mood for Philippe which would have been a nerve wracking time for anyone else! They finish setting up the wire just as the sun is beginning to rise and the people below begin their day with this astonishing fleet. “He was not afraid. He felt alone and happy and absolutely free,” Gerstein wrote as birds flew fearlessly around him. There are two fold out pages at this time; one to show the vast distance of which Philippe was dominating and one to show the enormity of the towers. The effect of these two over-sized pages does not go unnoticed as the reader comprehends how difficult and amazing of a task this was. It was humorous to watch Philippe taunt the policeman as he enjoyed himself on the rope. But just when the reader starts to realize he HAS to come down some time, it begins to rain (similar to the disappointment we feel), and Philippe gives himself up.  Despite being arrested and going to court, Philippe still holds a smile. He continues to hold his positive attitude as he later performed in the park for the children of the city.

The end of the story caught my attention. I wondered how and if Gerstein would address 9/11. He did so tastefully and positively. “Now the towers are gone,” is matched with a NYC skyline without the towers. The sky is blue and the birds are singing. It is difficult to tell whether the white masses are clouds or smoke; I think it could be purposefully be either depending on your perspective. Do you choose to be negative or positive? Then, on the last page the illustration shows the skyline again but this time with an outline of the twin towers and Philippe walking across. “But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there.”  Instead of focusing on the negativity and evil that surrounded 9/11, Gerstein decided to end the book with a positive memory that NYC shared with the twin towers and Philippe Petit.