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

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963

The Watson’s Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis was published in 1995 by Delacorte Press. It has won many awards including the Coretta Scott King award, the Newberry Honor, and the Golden Kite Award. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by this novel because I am not normally a historical fiction fan. This story follows the Watson family through their daily life in Flint, Michigan. I really grew to love this family and I believe that was what Curtis intended. I was surprised how far into the book I was before any segregation/racial inequality themes were brought up. But Curtis wanted to ensure that we fell in love with the family first. 

Ten year old Kenneth or “Kenny” Watson is our narrator. He is very smart and has a lazy eye which makes him the target of much bullying at school. We are introduced to his family as they are shivering at home trying to stay warm by huddling together one cold, Michigan winter. They live in Flint, Michigan, although Momma is from warm Alabama. Sweet, younger sister Joetta or “Joey” is in Kindergarten and very impressionable while older brother Byron or “By” is the tough guy of the school and family. Momma and Daddy seem to still be very much in love and act as normally as any married couple I know today.

We watch as Kenny encounters school bullies, classes, new country friends, and old toy-stealing friends. Byron is the family rebel and is constantly getting in trouble and pushing his parent’s buttons. From skipping school to lighting fires to starting fights, Byron seems to do the opposite of everything he is supposed to do. He is a complicated young man going through a lot of changes. He is emotional and conflicted yet always watches out for his younger siblings. But one day Byron upsets his parents for the last time by getting a “conk” hair cut which apparently was the popular style in the 1960’s. I’m not ashamed to admit I had to Google search what a “conk” looked like. Anyway, his parents decide it’s time for Byron to go live with their Grandma Sands in Birmingham, AL for the summer of ’63. Mr. Watson suits up the “Brown Bomber” car and the family endures a three day road trip to Alabama to drop of Byron. When they arrive, it seems that Byron is actually happier being in Birmingham while Kenny and Joey are absolutely miserable with the never-ending heat.  Kenny is actually the first one to disobey parental orders this time by going swimming in the whirlpool (or Wool Pooh as they called it) at Collier’s Landing. The three children had been warned not to and Byron and Joey listened but Kenny did not. He almost drowned in that whirl pool but thankfully his siblings got him out. Poor, Kenny, The one time he doesn't obey the rules he almost gets killed for it!

Then one Sunday morning, the neighbors and Joetta went to church. Not too long afterward they all heard a giant boom sound. It turned out that it was the 16th Avenue Baptist Church bombing that we all know too well. When the family ran to see if Joetta was hurt, Kenny followed, and actually went inside the church. It was there that he was traumatized by seeing three dead little girls and he assumed one of them was Joey. He ran home traumatized and upset. Thankfully, Joey was not hurt, but many other people were. She had actually left the church early because she was too hot and thought she saw Kenny waving to her across the street. The rest of the book explains how traumatized Kenny was by seeing those deceased girls and thinking one of them was his sister. In the end, Byron ends up pulling Kenny out of his depression and showing him that he saved Joey. I really enjoyed how the book wrapped up all strings for the Watson family. But I can’t help but feel sadness for the lives lost in the 16th Avenue Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama as well as all other people affected by racial prejudice.

On a more positive note, I laughed a lot while reading this book! The interactions within the family were hilarious. Byron and Kenny reminded me so much of my brother and I except reversed. I am older but a rule follower like Kenny and my younger brother is the Byron of the family. All of their antics together including the arguments, name calling, and even sticking up for each other, made me laugh out loud and reminisce of my childhood in Illinois. I couldn't help but feel a connection to these characters that I didn't expect to feel. My father is from St. Louis but moved to Birmingham, Michigan in the mid-1960's which is about 50 miles south of Flint. 

          Two scenes had a particularly strong effect on me. The first was when the neighbor Mrs. Davidson gave Joey an angel that was white with blue eyes, dimples, and rosy pink cheeks. Joey hid the angel in her sock drawer because she didn’t think the angel looked like her. Her mother came upstairs and the exchange went like this:

Momma: “Sweetheart, I can see how it reminds her of you. Look at that dimple.”
Joey: “But Mommy, it’s white.”
Momma: “Well, honey, I can’t say it isn’t, but an angel’s an angel, what do you think?”
Joey: “Maybe, but I know that angel’s name isn’t Joetta Watson,” (Curtis 128-129).

I was conflicted with this scene in the story because I couldn’t decide how I should feel. Should I feel sadness that Joey already is well aware of her race or should I be happy that she is and wants to stay true to her identity? I did enjoy Momma’s attempt at making Joey appreciate the angel and indirect notion that people are people no matter the color. But I do wish Curtis took this scene a bit deeper and led Momma and Joey into a conversation about race and equality. Yes, Joey is only a Kindergartener, but clearly she is well aware of race and could handle said conversation. 

The second scene that really got to me was the church bombing, respectively. I actually had to reread this section a few times to fully comprehend the events that transpired. I was shocked to come to terms with these events in the story let alone realizing they were REAL. Although racism is still alive in the world it has definitely toned down since the 1960’s. I have never lived in a world of segregated bathrooms, schools, and drinking fountains and it always seemed like the civil rights movement happened so long ago. But in reality, it really wasn’t very long ago, was it? 

Interestingly enough, in the "About the Author" section at the back of the book we learn that Curtis was born and raised in Flint, Michigan. This gave the book a whole new level of validity that I did not have before. He does mention in the Epilogue that the characters and events in the story are fictional. After some research on Curtis I learned that he was born in 1953 which would have made him ten years old when the story took place; the same age as Kenny and in the same town. Interesting. 

The Watson’s Go to Birmingham perfectly illustrates life in the 1960’s for an African-American family and it is sure to leave a mark in children’s hearts forever. The Epilogue does a fantastic job giving factual information on the civil rights movement and inspiration for the book. I definitely recommend it as a young adult novel for studying historical fiction, the civil rights movement, and equality. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Giver

The Giver by Lois Lowry was published in 1993 by Houghton Mifflin Company. It was the winner of the 1994 Newberry Medal as well as many other awards. The story takes place in a high fantasy world where there are no memories, no pain, and no color. We first meet the main character Jonas who is an 11 year old boy and anxiously awaiting his Ceremony of the Twelve. At this ceremony he would learn what his life assignment would be for the rest of his life as selected by the Elders. Jonas lives with his father who is a nurturer, mother who works in the Department of Juice, and seven year old sister, Lily. There are many rules in this world. Each “family unit” is allowed one son and one daughter. There is no poverty, crime, inequality, or pain. No one keeps track of their age after 12. Children are assigned to families, not born. Everyone is extremely polite, mannerly, and conservative. Sounds like a dream, right?

                Anyway, we are introduced to Jonas’s best friend Asher who is lively and a bit goofy as well as Jonas’s crush, Fiona. Although Jonas doesn’t actually understand that he has a crush on her since all “stirrings” are subdued by taking pills. Jonas enjoys playing with his friends, following the rules of his community, and spending time with his family. We learn that Jonas’s father is a nurturer who takes care of the newborns and also releases (kills) them if necessary. However his father has brought home a baby named Gabriel that is struggling and he hopes to make him stronger so he doesn’t need to be released before the Naming Ceremony. The family begins to feel a bond with Gabriel but more so Jonas than anyone else.
                Finally, Ceremony Day arrives and Jonas watches the children go through their ceremonies. When the Ceremony of the Twelve arrives, Fiona gets the Caretaker of the Old job and his best friend Asher gets Assistant Director of Recreation. But when it was supposed to be Jonas’s turn to be called, they skipped him! Everyone was shocked and terrified… why was he skipped? Finally at the end of the ceremony it is noted that Jonas was skipped because his job is that important. He is named “The Receiver of Memory.” He is not entirely sure what this job entails except that it is the most important job of all and that he must go with the elderly man called “The Receiver” We come to find out that The Receiver is now "The Giver" to Jonas. The Giver is the man who stores all memories inside him so that the people of the community do not need to remember. Every day during his training, Jonas would receive memories from The Giver by having The Giver touch his back and transport them into his mind. Some of the memories were incredible ones like sledding down a hill, Christmas, seeing colors, and love. But most were bad including sunburn, pain, and war. Basically any  memory that would elicit feelings from the past. It was then that Jonas completely started to change. “Although he had through the memories learned about the pain of loss and loneliness, now he gained, too, an understanding of solitude and its joy,” (Lowry 122). He couldn’t believe how much the people didn’t know and couldn’t comprehend how much pain The Giver had to hold on to through these memories.

                Months passed as Jonas accepted more and more memories from The Giver so that he could soon take over his job as The Giver wanted to be released. The job before Jonas arrived belonged to a woman named Rosemary, who couldn’t handle the memories. Instead, she committed suicide by asking to be released. Jonas is hopeful that he will be a stronger Receiver than she was. We find out later that Rosemary was actually The Giver’s daughter. Receivers of Memory had special privileges that other members of the community did not. One of those privileges was that they could watch releasing videos if they wished. Jonas’s father had told him that he needed to release a twin one morning and Jonas wished to watch the video since he did not fully understand what release meant. After watching his father inject a liquid into the baby’s head and seeing it die; Jonas remembered a memory of death and panicked. This was a turning point for Jonas. He felt lied to and betrayed! Jonas didn’t want to hold on to all of these memories anymore and felt that the people should feel them. This gave The Giver the idea of letting the people feel their own feelings. He said, “If you get away, if you get beyond, if you get to Elsewhere, it will mean that the community has to bear the burden themselves, of the memories you had been holding for them,” (Lowry 156). He went on to say, “And having you here with me over the past year has made me realize that things must change. For years I’ve felt that they should, but it seemed so hopeless. Now for the first time I think there might be a way,” (Lowry 155). So, that was their plan. Jonas was to leave in the middle of the night with all the memories that The Giver had given him so that the community could change and people could feel again. He decided that people needed to feel and needed memories for they were better than having none at all. “His thoughts continued. If he had stayed, he would have starved in other ways. He would have lived a life hungry for feelings, for color, for love,” (Lowry 174).

                The night that he was supposed to leave, Jonas’s father announced to the family that Gabe would be released in the morning which understandably greatly upset Jonas who was full of feelings and memories. After dinner, Jonas stole his father’s bike, took Gabe, and fled like the plan said. The two boys were on the run for many days through the snow and cold temperatures. They ran low on food and grew very tired. Jonas’s anxiety was through the roof as he imagined the people searching for him. Then finally in the last chapter, the boys reach the top of a hill that seems familiar. He remembers it from his sled memory and there is a sled on the top of the hill. The two boys ride down the hill on the sled and see a building with lights and they hear music. But the last sentence is very misleading by saying, “Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo,” (Lowry 180).

                The themes and ideas in The Giver were absolutely fascinating to me. Entrusting one human in the entire community to ALL memories both good and bad? NO feelings at all? No colors? Government chooses everything for you? The people are more like robots than they are human beings. But isnt this the direction our world is going in?  It is scary to think about.  I understand why The Giver is controversial and one of the most highly censored books in education although I do not agree with it. Yes, there are some adult themes in this book but isn’t censorship what The Giver was all about anyway? Trying to “protect” people by censorship is the same as protecting people in the story from feelings. It is better to let people feel emotions sort through it themselves than to make those decisions for them. I keep going back to one particular line in the story:
‘Or what if,’ he went on, almost laughing at the absurdity, ‘they chose their own jobs?’
‘Frightening, isn’t it?’ The Giver said.
Jonas chuckled. ‘Very frightening. I can’t even imagine it. We really have to protect people from wrong choices.’
‘It’s safer.’
‘Yes,’ Jonas agreed. ‘Much safer.’” (Lowry 99)

Does safer mean better? Or does safer just mean we are shielding people from the realities of the world? I personally believe that books should not be censored. Of course, parents reserve the right to decide what their child reads and does not read. However, shouldn’t students be given the fair chance to create their own meaning from the story? Maybe I have difficulty with censorship because I am not yet a parent but, what are parents so afraid of? That their children will disobey their parenting skills and values and suddenly jump on board with the themes in the latest book they’re reading? We need to have more faith in children. Authors write stories for readers and they expect readers to bring their own memories and feelings to the book. If we censor the books that people are able to read then all we are doing is creating the same robot/emotionless people that are in The Giver.  Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Giver and recommend it to everyone and anyone, as long as it is developmentally appropriate. It was an eye opening book and more people today need to read it!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is the first true children's novel I have read in a long time. It was published in 2012 by HarperCollins and won the Newberry Medal in 2012. This story was truly written for children and will elicit feelings from them that they may have never felt before.

The story follows Ivan; a Silverback gorilla who lives off of Exit 8 at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade in a glass "domain." Ivan is a lonely, artistic gorilla who has many friends. He loves to draw and then eat his crayons afterward. One of his closest friends is an older elephant with motherly attributes and a bad foot injury. She "...remembers every moment since she was born: every scent, every sunset, every slight, every victory," (Applegate 53). Bob is another best friend of Ivan who is a small stray dog with a troubled past. He has a definite chip on his shoulders and enjoys sleeping on Ivan's belly. It is safe to say that the animals are unhappy going through their mundane lives of performing for humans and being stared at through glass.

Mack is the owner of the establishment and the only real father that Ivan has ever had even though he treats him badly. George is the custodian for the mall and has a daughter named Julia who loves Ivan as much as he loves her. She is a fellow artist and the two have an unbreakable connection. Julia accompanies her father to work and completes her homework while talking with the animals. One day, a new baby elephant named Ruby arrives to the shock of the other animals. Stella actually re-injures her foot trying to get Ruby out of the truck and welcomed into her new home. Stella quickly takes the role of mother on for Ruby as she settles into her home. Ruby is a naive, kind baby elephant that desperately misses her family. We find out that her family was slaughtered by humans. Sadly, Stella ends up passing away because of her foot injury and Mack's negligence to call a doctor. But before she dies she makes Ivan promise he will take care of Ruby and get her out of the mall and into a real home, like a zoo. The people and animals are obviously very saddened by their dear friend's death. Then Ivan decides to stop complaining and start doing something! Julia gives him finger paints and he begins making a puzzle that says "HOME" and painted a picture of a zoo. Julia picked up on the symbol after much huffing and puffing from Ivan and is amazed by his talents! She realizes that Ivan is trying to tell her that Ruby needs to go to the zoo. So, Julie and her father George hang up Ivan's paintings on the infamous billboard to attract more visitors. As visitors arrive, so does a news reporter and begins taking pictures of the establishment and treatment of the animals. Eventually the mall gets closed down (Yay!) and the animals will be transported to the zoo! They are very nervous but as soon as they arrive Ruby is put in with other elephants and Ivan with other gorillas. They are both very happy. Then one day Julia arrives to visit with Bob and her father and Ivan realizes that EVERYONE has a happy ending! He kept his promise to Stella, Ruby is safe, and he is finally the Silverback he always wanted to be.

The characters are lovable, sarcastic, and compelling. Children will fall in love with this story of friendship, hope, and being true to oneself. This book sheds light on animal cruelty and children will definitely feel empathy toward the animals. It will probably even make them cry! But as author Katherine Applegate said in her Newberry acceptance speech for this book, "Children know all about sadness. We can't hide it from them. We can only teach them how to cope with its inevitability, and to harness their imaginations in the search for joy and wonder," (Applegate). The One and Only Ivan does a wonderful job doing this.

There are some illustrations in the text also that are simple and charcoal reminiscent. The "chapters" are very short and the text is very spread out which is the perfect example of how one might imagine a gorilla speaks. I also enjoyed the author's note at the end of the book that explained the inspiration for the story. I think children would be equally fascinated to hear the explanation!

The Rough-Face Girl

The Rough-Face Girl written by Rafe Martin and illustrated by David Shannon is an Algonquin native american Cinderella story. It was published in 1992 by G.P. Putnam's Sons. The story takes place in a village along the shore of Lake Ontario. There is a legend that inside the largest wigwam was a handsome Invisible Being that no one could see except his sister and the woman who would marry him. Well in this village lived a poor man with three daughters. The two older ones were very mean to the younger sister and would make her sit very close to the fire to help fuel the flames. The sparks from the fire would fall on her and her hands, arms, and face became scarred. The other sisters would laugh at her and call her ugly. They gave her the nickname, "Rough-Face Girl." One day the two older sisters begged their father to give them nice clothes and jewelry so they could dress up beautifully and marry the Invisible Being. But when they arrived at the wigwam the sister was waiting outside. When she asked the girls if they had seen him they answered, "Of course we've seen him. Can't you see how pretty we are?" (Martin) So the sister started asking the girls questions like, "What is his bow made of?" and they couldn't answer truthfully but insisted they had seen him. Even though the sister knew they were lying, she let them inside and they saw the bow and arrows floating and then set down. They knew now that they really could not see him. The next day the Rough-Face Girl asked her father for jewelry and clothes like her sisters so that she could marry the Invisible Being because she sees his face everywhere. The man said that he did not have anything left but broken and worn out things. But she said, "Whatever you can spare, I can use." (Martin). So she put together her outfit which was ratty and falling apart. People laughed at her as she walked through the village to the big wigwam. As she got closer she saw the beauty of the Invisible Being in the wilderness around her. When she arrived at he lakeshore the sister was there waiting for her. As it turns out, the sister was a wise woman and could see into your soul and see if you had a good heart. She saw right through the Rough-Face Girl and knew she was the one for her brother. She asked her the question, "What is his bow made of?" and the Rough-Face girl replied, "It is the great curve of the rainbow." (Martin). Then the sister asked, "What's the runner of his sled made of?" and the girl replied, "It is the Spirit Road, the Milky Way of stars that spread across the sky." (Martin). The sister was overjoyed that Rough-Face Girl had actually seen him and took her to the wigwam. The sister gave the Rough-Face Girl nice clothes and jewelry and had her bathe in the lake. As the bathed, the scars vanished from her body and she was beautiful again. The Invisible Being and Rough-Face Girl were married and lived together happily.

The story has similarities to the traditional Cinderella tale. There is a man with three daughters and no wife. The two eldest are mean to the younger daughter and torture her. The two eldest try to marry the dreamy man of the village but he doesn't want them and instead wants to marry the oppressed, lonely but beautiful youngest daughter. The illustrations are very dark and almost have a spooky feel to them. Based on the cover, I actually thought this would be a scary story! The dark theme adds to the authenticity and mood of the story. The illustrations are framed with a thin black line but still very large and the text is not framed and on the other side. The illustrations are very different from what I am used to seeing from David Shannon like in his No, David books and A Bad Case of Stripes. Illustrative style has an enormous impact on the tone of the story! The recurring colors are shades of tan, brown, and red which go perfectly with the story. There is a fuzziness to the pictures that makes the reader feel like they are in a dream or witnessing the story being retold.

In the author's note, Martin explains that this Algonquin Cinderella story is actually part of a much longer, complex, and traditional story that has been passed down for generations. He also said, "Grown on native soil, its mystery is rooted in our own place. I am happy to pass it on to children and parents today." (Martin). I really enjoyed this Native American Cinderella story. I am not sure about it's cultural authenticity but it seemed accurate to me. I would do a little more research on the accuracy of the book before reading it aloud to my students. But overall, this unique retelling of Cinderella would be a great addition to a classroom library and I highly recommend it!

Fairly Fairy Tales

Fairly Fairy Tales by Esme Raji Codell and illustrated by Elisa Chavarri was published in 2011 by Aladdin. This book is unlike any I have ever read! It is a collection of very short fairy tales. It begins with a boy asking his mother to read fairy tales aloud to him before bed. Then the book goes into a checklist pattern where one can tell the pair is reading the regular fairy tale. They mention three parts that are usually part of the fairy tale and always answer "Yes." as in yes, that is included in the story. But then at the end of the pattern the child asks about something silly and modern that is not usually part of the tale. Then they say "NOOOO!" but on the next page the text reads, "Well, maybe." and there are beautiful, two page spreads of what could have been in the modern fairy tale. The tales included in this collection are The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and finally Goldilocks and the Three Bears. At the end of the story the mother says it is bedtime and the boy falls asleep.

The endpages are bright lime green and it really energizes the reader for what is to come. The background on the pages is a simple white which helps the reader focus on the whimsical illustrations. The illustrations are very traditional in design but the colors are extremely bright and energizing. I really enjoy how Chavarri perfectly balanced a simple background with intricate illustrations. Children, parents, and teachers will enjoy making inferences from the busy illustrations. One of my favorite parts about this book is the back inside flap where the biography of the author and illustrator are shown. Instead of real photographs they are shown in cartoon form. How kid friendly is that?! I love it.

This is an excellent fairy tale collection book for children who have heard all the original fairy tales. It is a wonderful read aloud book for parents to read with their children before bed time. This book would be excellent for making inferences and rewriting fairy tales in school. It is an easy read and young readers of all ages would really enjoy it! Fairly Fairy Tales is a light and interactive read that should be part of any fairy tale collection.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman is a Caldecott Honor book. Published in 1983, Hyman decided to recreate the classic Grimm tale because it was always her favorite as a young girl. She even wore a red cape as often as she could! The book is obviously a bit dated now but it is enjoyable nonetheless. The story is extremely Grimm-traditional and follows Little Red Riding Hood on her way to her grandmother's house. She is stopped on her way by a wolf who engages her in friendly conversation. While he encourages her to go pick flowers, he runs ahead to her grandmother's house and eats her. When Little Red Riding Hood arrives she is quickly eaten by the wolf. Then a hunter that was looking for the wolf popped by to check on the grandmother. When he saw the wolf he cut open his belly and out popped Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. The wolf was dead and everyone was happy. They all lived happily ever after!

The endpapers of the text are white and the front matter and back matter are appropriately deep red. The title page shows a young Little Red Riding Hood reading this same book by Hyman. The illustrations are true to Grimm style and framed perfectly. One page is a full picture while the other has text and extremely detailed borders. The colors are darker with deep recurring shades of brown, green, and a pop of red. The use of line is absolutely incredible. I love the Grimm illustrations and their classic theme although bright colors are more my style.

Children and adults are sure to love Hyman's version of Little Red Riding Hood. It is classically told and so beautifully illustrated. It is a tale to be read and retold for ages!

Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse

Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse was written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Josee Masse. Published in 2010 by The Penguin Group, Mirror, Mirror is a magical collection of children's fairy tale poems. It consists of 14 reversible fairy tale poems. One each page, there is a poem on one side and the same poem but backwards and with a completely new meaning! It is brilliant! The original poem is told from the protagonist's perspective. For example, in the poem the book is named after called Mirror, Mirror the actual poem is:

"Let me help you get some rest.
Mother knows best.
Listen to me,
Snow White.
Sleepy, Dopey, Happy,
you've been working day and night. 
You look worn out.
A long nap?
A blanket?
An apple to eat?
What would you like?
Time to get off your feet?"
And the reverse poem is:
"Time to get off your feet.
What would you like?
An apple to eat?
A blanket?
A long nap?
You look worn out.
You've been working day and night.
Sleepy, dopey, happy
Snow White,
listen to me.
Mother knows best.
Let me help you get some rest."

The reversed poems are from the perspective of the other character (usually the villain) in the story. The fairy tales are traditional and include Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, The Frog Prince, and Beauty and the Beast. The illustrations are phenomenal! The pages are split in half to represent each poem respectively. The colors of the text are extremely bright and colorful. The pages are glossy and magical.They are full bleed and throw the reader right into the story. The use of line, contrast, and balance is absolutely perfect and every part of the illustration has meaning. 

We begin our poetry unit next month and I plan on reading this text to my second graders. I think they will be amazed by the craft of writing that Singer used and equally enthralled with the illustrations! I know that most of them would love to attempt to write their own reverse poem just for fun.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Looking for Alaska


No one prepared me for Looking for Alaska by John Green. This is the type of book that changes you. I can't pinpoint exactly how I feel about it because my feelings are so conflicting. I loved it and hated it all at the same time. But isn't that makes good literature? That which makes the reader feel and over-analyze? I seriously cannot wait to explore and dissect this text in class. My book is full of sticky notes.

Looking for Alaska was published in 2005 by Speak. Let's start with a synopsis although mine will not do the book justice. You just have to read it! The book is split into two parts: one entitled "Before" and the other, "After." Each chapter is a countdown to something, beginning with "One hundred thirty six days before." 16 year-old Miles "Pudge" Halter gets sent to Culver Creek Prep School in Alabama by his parents. He is happy to leave his Florida life behind and is in search of the "Great Perhaps." He is intelligent and a bit quirky being that he is obsessed with the famous last words of people before they die. Morbid, right? Anyway, Miles meets his roommate, Chip "Colonel" Martin who quickly introduces him to his small circle of friends including the gorgeous, Alaska Young. Pudge is immediately infatuated with the beautiful, self-destructive, intelligent, and sassy Alaska but she has a boyfriend named Jake that she is utterly in "love" with. The small group consists mostly of Colonel, Pudge, Alaska, Takumi, and Lara. They would smoke excessively, engage in pranks on campus, and drink heavily together. Pudge is in a religion class that he is particularly fond of. It focuses on three major religions and the afterlife associated. The theme for his class mirrors his life and he doesn't even realize it at first. The major question for this class for the semester was: "What are the rules of this game, and how might we best play it?" (Green 32). It ties in perfectly with his future relationship with Alaska. The antics and relationships within the group of friends are very entertaining but none so much as Alaska and Pudge's. You will watch as Pudge quickly falls in love with her while at the same time knowing she is self absorbed, destructive, and depressed. Pudge longs to be with Alaska but she always plays the, "I have a boyfriend" card, although she clearly likes Pudge also. The night of the group's first huge prank together (that Pudge describes as the best day of his life), Alaska talks about her mother. She explains that on January 9, 1997 her mother took her to the zoo and it was the best day of her life. But the worst day of her life was the next day, when her mother fell to the floor with a brain aneurysm and Alaska failed to call 911. The group sat, silent and shocked, as none of them had ever known this fact about Alaska.


The first half "Before" ends with Pudge and Alaska finally making out one night during a game of "Truth or Dare," to which Alaska abruptly ends with a, "To be continued." Alaska, Pudge, and Colonel fall asleep heavily intoxicated and Alaska receives a phone call. She leaves the room and returns frenzy, hysterical, and clearly upset. She is continually apologizing and yelling that she needs to leave. The boys distract the Eagle so that she can make a get away in her car but remember, she has been drinking. The next half begins with the page entitled "After." After what you may ask? Well, the following morning Pudge and Colonel wake up with Alaska nowhere to be found. When the Eagle calls everyone into the gym and announces that Alaska Young has been in a terrible car accident and has died. Everyone is shocked. Pudge throws up. Colonel starts yelling. One can only imagine the pain that they are feeling and especially Pudge. Now he is left with so many questions: What could we have been? Did she love me? Was it really an accident? Did she commit suicide? The boys, with the help of Takumi, try to solve the mystery of Alaska's death. They mostly hit dead ends and decide to celebrate Alaska's life and legacy with a huge prank. They hire a male stripper to pretend to be a professor for Speaker Day and once he has stripped off his clothes he yells, "This one's for Alaska Young." Bravo!

After many phone calls, trips to the police station, cigarettes, booze, and the help of Takumi, they come to the conclusion that Alaska realized it was the anniversary of her mother's death and she missed it. So, while on the phone with her boyfriend and drawing her favorite flower doodle, she jumped up and grabbed the flowers he gave her to put at her mother's grave site. She needed Pudge and Colonel to distract the Eagle so she could get away in her car. She drove, with a .24 BAC onto the freeway to get to her mother's grave with flowers. But there was a truck in the middle of the freeway and a police car was there. The police car turned on the lights but Alaska's car didn't slow down or brake, and she went straight into the police car. The impact killed her instantly. 

Once Pudge found out the story behind Alaska's death and that he and Pudge had not actually been the last ones to let her go, Takumi was, he felt closure. He was able to say his peace and accept that he would always love Alaska. He could finally move on. "So I know she forgives me, just as I forgive her. Thomas Edison's last words were: 'It's very beautiful over there.' I don't know where there is, but I believe it's somewhere, and I hope it's beautiful," (Green 221).

I screamed when I read that Alaska died and then consequently threw my book across the room. REALLY JOHN GREEN, REALLY?! I was completely and utterly taken off guard. Not many authors are brave enough to kill off a main character mid-story. Why did Alaska have to die? Why couldn't the story have played out and Pudge and Alaska could ride off happily ever after into the sunset? Ok, I get it. Alaska needed to succumb to her self-destructive life style and Pudge needed her to die in order to find his "Great Perhaps." But I'm not happy about it. I wish she had lived...

However, I do enjoy John Green's beautiful writing and how poetic Pudge himself was. The ending of the book when Pudge finally comes to peace with Alaska's death is beautifully written. Ok, the whole book is beautifully written. Here are my favorites lines from the book that do not have curse words in them:

"She had the kind of eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavor," (Green 19).
"So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane," (Green 88).
"People, I thought, wanted security. They couldn't bear the idea of death being a big black nothing, couldn't bear the thought of their loved ones not existing, and couldn't even imagine themselves not existing. I finally decided that people believed in an afterlife because they couldn't bear not to," (Green 100).
"After all this time, it still seems to me like straight and fast is the only way out-- but I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but I choose it," (Green 217).

Looking for Alaska is a controversial realistic fiction novel and I can understand why. There is strong language, sex, drugs, religion, and rebellion of all sorts. It is definitely a contemporary story and relatable for many high school students and adults alike. There is something about this book that makes me absolutely love it, and completely despise it, all at the same time. Is it because Alaska Young reminds me of myself? Is it because I'm so infuriated with John Green's killing her off? Is it because I'm a "happy ever after" type of person and cannot handle reality? I'm not sure I'll ever know the reason. Despite my personal conflicts with the text, Looking for Alaska is a quick and enticing read. At the end of the day, I absolutely loved it.

"...and I would always love Alaska Young, my crooked neighbor, with all my crooked heart,"

Saturday, March 15, 2014


“You really are a wonder, Auggie. You are a wonder.” (Palacio 2012)

Wonder by R.J. Palacio was published in 2012 by Random House Inc. It is a realistic fiction, young adult novel about a fifth grader named August. Auggie is a normal ten year old boy who loves Star Wars, video games, and his family. But there is one thing about Auggie that is not so normal: he has a significant facial deformity. Wonder is truly remarkable.

Auggie’s family consists of himself, his mother, father, older sister Olivia or “Via,” and his elderly dog named Daisy. Auggie’s extreme facial deformity and health issues have restricted him from going to regular school. He has been home schooled and is actually extremely bright. One day, Auggie’s mother and father decide it’s time for him to begin school at Beecher Prep just in time for his fifth grade school year. One can imagine how unbelievably nerve wracking going to a new school can be but can you imagine how terrifying it would be if you knew everyone would stare at you?

August understandably has a great deal of anxiety about his face and people staring at him. Most people scream in horror when they see him. Can you imagine? My heart breaks for him. But as he begins his first few weeks of school, the students and faculty get used to his face and Auggie begins to like school. One of August’s first friends is Jack Will who is a kind, honest boy that sits next to Auggie in most of their classes. They quickly become best friends. Another friend of Auggie’s is a beautiful girl named Summer who randomly starts sitting with him at lunch on his first day. She feels bad for Auggie and once she starts sitting with him at lunch she actually sees how wonderful he is. EVERYONE sees how great August is when they stop judging him by his face. However, August of course has an enemy also, named Julian who goes out of his way to be cruel to Auggie about his deformity as well as any friends of his.

The story is told from multiple points of view and each chapter is only a page or two. Part One’s perspective is of Auggie, Part Two is Via, Part Three is Summer, Part Four is Jack, Part Five is Justin (Via’s boyfriend), Part Six is Auggie again, Part Seven is Miranda, and Part Eight is Auggie. On the page for each new perspective, there is an illustration of the character’s head with their precepts or lyrics/quotes that relate to that person. Interestingly, August’s face changes a bit each time. It begins with nothing on him, then for Part Six we see Auggie with what appears to be his new hearing aids, and then in Part Eight he has his infamous space helmet on. The different points of view show interesting twists of what each person is thinking during the same event.

I don’t want to give away the entire story to anyone wanting to read this book. So let me just say that the story follows August, his family, and his group of friends through their struggles and victories this school year. I cannot pick a favorite line from the book because I have so many. My copy of Wonder is completely marked up in sticky notes but I think that says something. I know it is cliché to say, but this book made me laugh, it made me cry, and it really had an effect on me. Wonder is sure to touch your heart in every way.

I have an early childhood special education endorsement from my undergraduate teacher program. I spent many summers through college working with students with special needs of all kinds. There is a special place in my heart for people with disabilities, special needs, and deformities. Therefore, Wonder was especially wonderful to me. I will forever hold this book close to my heart and will someday share it with my own children. The themes of this book are kindness,being true to oneself, and friendship. I am a strong believer that kindness and empathy alone can save the world and Wonder is an example of that.

I saw on that R.J. Palacio is releasing The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story in May! I am THRILLED! He is by far the villain of the story and it really bugged me that Palacio didn't include a part on his perspective. I cannot wait to read Julian's chapter and I plan to blog and report back on how/if it has changed my view of Wonder

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Extra Yarn

Extra Yarn was written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by the extremely talented, Jon Klassen. It is a Caldecott Honor Book. Published in 2012, Extra Yarn is a tale about a young girl named Annabelle who lives in a colorless town of black and white. One day she discovers a box with yarn of every color. She knits herself and her dog beautiful sweaters and amazingly still had extra yarn. As she walked through the town and went from place to place; people would make fun of her for being different with her colored sweater. But then she started to knit sweaters for many people and animals in the town and they loved it! Most miraculously though, the girl NEVER ran out of yarn! It was special, magical yarn. Before long, the quaint little town was extremely colorful and news spread fast about this yarn’s special powers. Then, an archduke arrived on his ship and tried to buy the yarn from Annabelle but she wouldn't have it! He offered her millions and she just said, “I won’t sell the yarn.” But that night the archduke hired three robbers to steal the box of yarn from Annabelle’s house. When the box made its way back to him, he opened it, and to his surprise there was no yarn! He cursed Annabelle’s family and said that she would never be happy again! The archduke threw the box overboard and it safely made its way back to Annabelle. On the last page, we see Annabelle sitting on a tree that is completely covered in yarn! Her box is next to her and we can only assume that although there was no yarn for the archduke; there will always be yarn for Annabelle. Her optimism and hope saved the day!

To be honest, I wasn't a fan of the ending with the archduke. I thought the story was great before he was introduced and that the ending could have been when we saw how colorful the town had become. I didn't feel like the problem with the archduke went well with the story at that point in the book. Maybe if it was a different type of character that was a bit more logical and not so fantasy-like. But I have a feeling that children LOVE the archduke part. I will read this book to my students this week and see what they think. Perhaps I just don’t have the imagination that I used to as a child!

The cover of the text is mostly white with the title spelled out in multicolored yarn. We see Annabelle leaning against the “T” with her multicolored sweater on and surrounded by animals in their sweaters. The backgrounds of the pages are purposefully very monochromatic to emphasize the colors of the yarn. The skin on all the people is extremely white and they all have dark black hair. The only pages with a dark background are the ones with the archduke; probably to emphasize that he is the villain of the story. Although I agree that the illustrations fit very well with the story, they are not my favorite illustrations. I think I still have a sour taste in my mouth from the archduke character being thrown into the story. I just wasn't impressed.
All in all, Extra Yarn is a sweet, creative story about imagination, hope, and optimism. The world can be whatever you want it to be if you are optimistic enough. I will update this post with my students' reactions to this story!

*UPDATE: I read this book to my second graders and they absolutely loved it! ESPECIALLY the ending with the arch duke! They mentioned that they actually wished he was in the story more than just the ending. I had a feeling they would really enjoy it. I think I need to remember there is a difference between reading children's literature as an adult and reading it as a child!

Each Kindness

Each Kindness is a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book for 2013. It was written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E.B. Lewis. Published in 2012, Each Kindness tells the realistic fiction story of a new girl at school named Maya.  The story is told from the perspective of Chloe; a girl in Maya’s new class. Maya is brought into Chloe’s classroom with the principal and she chooses the seat next to Chloe. She smiles a warm, friendly smile at Chloe and consequently Chloe quickly scoots her chair away from Maya to give her the cold shoulder as she judges her clothes. As the weeks pass, Chloe explains that Maya would try to play with her and the other children but they always said, “No.” She would bring toys from home to try to bridge the gap between them but it was no use. No one wanted anything to do with sweet Maya.

Sadly, this continued for months. Once spring arrived, Maya showed up to school one day with new clothes for Maya but they were definitely used before by someone else. Kendra, Chloe’s best friend, whispered that her new name for Maya was, “Never New.” Maya definitely heard this new name but continued to jump rope on her own. Then, the next day Maya didn't come to school. Their teacher, Ms. Albert taught a lesson about kindness that day. She brought a big bowl filled with water and dropped a small stone into it. She said:

“This is what kindness does. Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world.”

The children stared into the bowl of water silently. They each were told to hold the stone and say one kind thing they had done recently. When the stone arrived in Chloe’s hand, she couldn't think of one kind thing she had done. Many days passed and Maya had still not returned to school. This displeased Chloe because she desperately wanted to smile back at Maya when she returned. Apparently the kindness lesson worked! But then one day, Ms. Albert announced that Maya’s family had to move away and she wouldn't be returning to their school. That same afternoon, Chloe walked home alone and stopped at the pond to throw small stones and watch the ripples. She was sad that she had missed her chance to smile back at Maya and have each act of kindness ripple out into the world.

“I watched the water ripple as the sun set through the maples and the chance of a kindness with Maya became more and more forever gone.”

On the last page of the text, we see the same image as what is on the cover but flipped. Maya is standing with her head down, back pack on her back, and staring longingly into the pond. 
It is important to note that this story does not have a happy ending. That is what makes this a realistic fiction story. The real world is not made of happy endings! Maya moves away from her school with the painful memories of being bullied and ignored. Chloe is left with the memory of what she did to Maya and the pain of not being able to fix it. This story has such a powerful message and teaches kindness in the perfect way. Everything we do affects the future of our world. If we are kind then kindness will ripple out into the world.

The front dust jacket appears to have a very serene and safe theme. We are overwhelmed with shades of green and notice a little girl staring into a pond. My first thought was, “This will be a happy story!” But once I read the book I realized it was not and it actually teaches an imperative lesson. The end papers are a rich, forest green to match the back and front covers. All of the illustrations are full bleed and realistically portrayed which makes this story feel extremely real. I felt like I was literally part of the story as I read. The position of characters throughout the story emphasizes their feelings and elicits empathy in the readers. I found myself extremely angry at Chloe and her bullying girlfriends and wanted so badly to console Maya.  I plan on reading this book to my second graders this week because we have had a bullying issue going on the last two weeks. I hope that the message of the book will speak volumes to them, like it did to me. 

Exclamation Mark

Exclamation Mark was written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. Published in 2013, this book is about an exclamation mark on the path of self-discovery. He first encounters periods and tries so hard to be like the other periods but the more he pretends to be like everyone else, the more he feels confused and unfulfilled. Until one day he meets a question mark who, understandably, asks a LOT of questions! This completely confuses exclamation mark who ends up becoming very annoyed with all the questioning and yells, “STOP!” This surprised both the question mark and the exclamation mark. So then question mark asks, "How'd you do that? Can you do it again?" Exclamation mark takes off with sentences that are true to himself:

"Hi! Howdy! Wow! Yippee! This is fun! Way to go! Bravo! You're it! Yes! Home run! Cool! Congratulations! Happy Birthday! Yum! Encore! Go! That's great! Look out! Wake up! Thanks! Boo!"

Exclamation mark is so elated by this new discovery that he goes to show off his abilities to the periods and they are just as excited and happy for him as he is. This simple and sweet story teaches the lesson of being yourself in celebrating your uniqueness. You will be happiest and most fulfilled with you are true to yourself!
The design of this book is actually quite simple.  The dust jacket is a golden yellow with a smiling exclamation mark in the center. The end papers are a solid, deep burgundy color and I am not sure the reason for that color choice. The pages of the book mimic primary, lined writing paper which gives the story a very academic, child-centered theme. I enjoy the simplicity of the cover and illustrations and it works perfectly with the story line. 
As a second grade teacher, I plan on reading this book to my students for a writing lesson on using punctuation. Although this text would also be excellent to use as a reading fluency mini-lesson read aloud for reading the punctuation.  I have found that my class this year are very fluent as a whole but are still struggling to remember to use the proper punctuation at the end of their sentences.