"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!

First Big Book of the Ocean

First Big Book of the Ocean by Catherine D. Hughes was published in 2013 by the National Geographic Society. The book is split into sections for each of the oceans: Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, and Arctic, and includes animals found in that ocean. Some of the animals are likely to be very familiar to children such as the sea otter, walrus, and great white shark. But there are numerous less common animals as well that the children are bound to enjoy, such as the yellow-bellied sea snake, long-spine porcupinefish, and lion's mane jellyfish! The introduction page gives a sensational explanation on how to use the nonfiction text features in this book. Why don't all information children's books have this guide?!

The photographs are bright, lively, and beautiful! The backgrounds of each page are also bright and perfectly contrast the photographs. The font is black throughout the book but with lots of colored text boxes overlapping. There is a perfect, organized balance of text, color, and shape on every page. I didn't feel overstimulated at all!

At the end of the text there are Parent Tips for every parent including games and activities to conduct with their children. This is followed by a large, two-page spread of a world map. Each continent and ocean is labeled and there is a corresponding text box that identifies which animal lives in which ocean. The glossary and index are both very organized and child-friendly to manipulate. This nonfiction text could be easily enjoyed by all elementary aged children! Although the younger students will definitely need assistance decoding and comprehending some of the larger ocean specific vocabulary words.

On the back title page is the dedication of the book. Normally I wouldn't focus too much on the dedication but I found this one to be extremely touching and beautiful. It reads:
"Dedicated to Ana, Allison, Avielle, Benjamin, Caroline, Catherine, Charolette, Chase, Daniel, Dylan, Emilie, Grace, Jack, James, Jesse, Jessica, Josephine, Madeleine, Nash, and Olivia, the Sandy Hook Elementary School teachers and staff who bravely tried to protect them, and their loving families." Is that not cause enough to buy this book?

Friday, April 11, 2014

TIME For Kids: X Why Z?

TIME For Kids: X Why Z? was written by Mark Shulman and James Buckley Jr. in 2013 by Time Home Entertainment. It is an information book that answers a multitude of kids' most commonly asked random questions. To be honest, I learned A LOT from this book! It was fascinating!

The Table of Contents splits the book into seven main sections and colors entitled Human Body (pink), Animals (orange), Nature (green), Earth & Space (blue), Inventions (purple), Places (red), and History (brown). Once you turn the page into a section, the questions and facts are spread out in random areas. The question being answered is in bold font and color with the answer underneath. The facts are accurate and child-friendly which is sure to engage younger students of all ages. Additionally, each question and answer is accompanied with a real photograph that effectively corresponds to the text. There is also a "X Why Z? Fact" on almost every page that has a bonus interesting fact. For example, did you know walrus tusks can be three feet long? Me neither!

The photographs, fonts, and pages are all very vibrantly colored. The questions and answers are spread out enough on each page that they are still easy to read. There is a lot going on with each page visually and the reader will definitely be engaged. Also, the headings are very helpful in navigating around each section since one could get lost after a while. There is a small index in the back of the book that helps the reader with locating specific information and topics. I would recommend this book as an interesting read for second grade and above. I think all students would find X Why Z? fascinating and engaging, just like I did!

Tales of Famous Heroes

Tales of Famous Heroes by Peter and Connie Roop, and illustrated by Rebecca Zomchek, was published in 2010 by Scholastic Inc. This text is a collection of short biographies of famous heroes and their contributions to the world. The influential people featured includes: Paul Revere & Sybil Ludington, Sacagawea, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Florence Nightingale, Mohandas Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Rosa Parks, Jonas Salk, Nelson Mandela, Neil Armstrong, Jane Goodall, The Tuskegee Airmen, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Sonia Sotomayor, and Barack Obama.

There is a Table of Contents in the beginning of the book that is very brief and simple to navigate. The title page for each person has a photograph or very realistic illustration pertaining to the person's life as the background. There is an illustrated portrait of the famous person in the foreground of the background. Each person is drawn with a "bobble-head" type head which makes them seem more child-friendly. On this same title page is the person's name in bold print, their dates of living, and an influential quote from that person. The historical information on each person is 3-5 pages long and very detailed, but in child-friendly terms. The biographies explain the person's childhood, family, personality and character traits, major events in their life, accomplishments, and contributions. There are also cartoon illustrations to coincide with the text that are labeled very nicely. The pages and illustrations are vibrantly colored and spark a reader's attention. This same pattern continues throughout the book and is very visually appealing and engaging. The index at the end of the book is very lengthy and helpful for any child searching for specific information.

Tales of Famous Heroes is very child-friendly and enthusiastic. I am not a history buff but the information about each person seems very accurate. Overall, I really enjoyed reading Tales of Famous Heroes and I think upper elementary students will as well. There were even a few people in this book that I'm embarrassed to say I had never heard of!


Rainforest by Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris was newly published in 2013 by Scholastic Inc. It is an informational, nonfiction book that goes into great depth about the rainforest! This text is definitely for upper elementary students and above because of the level of complexity.

The Table of Contents lays out the topics/headings for each page in the beginning of the book.  The book is split into three major parts: All about rainforests, Rainforest animals, and The essential rainforest. Then once you turn to that page... wow, there is a lot going on here! The page is overwhelmed with beautiful photographs of real rainforest animals, landscape, plants, and people. The page numbers are clearly labeled and the titles are emphasized. There is also a great deal of nonfiction text features on each page including headings, text, interesting facts, text boxes, labels, definitions. There are some pages where the orientation of the book needs to change so one can read the page (Kids LOVE that!). I especially love that the last few pages are dedicated to saving the rainforests and encourage children to help. Afterward there is an in-depth glossary that is very child friendly and a very detailed index.

Rainforest does not follow a predictable pattern or layout but this does not make it harder to read. It actually makes it more fun! There is SO much visual information to process through the photographs and text that it is virtually impossible for a reader to get bored. Rainforest would be a great text for teaching nonfiction text features or even for students to use for independent research. I definitely recommend this nonfiction book for grades 3 and above as they will find it fascinating!

National Geographic Little Kids: African Animal Alphabet

National Geographic Little Kids: African Animal Alphabet by Beverly and Dereck Joubert was published in 2011 by National Geographic. It is an informational alphabet book about animals for young and elementary readers.

The Introduction page has a topographical map of Africa with a clear map key and labeled oceans. On the opposite page there is a paragraph introducing the book and encouraging the reader to join the authors on an alphabet safari. There is also a small photograph of the authors, Beverly and Dereck Joubert, on their own safari they experienced in Africa. The caption explains that they spent more than 25 years living with the wild animals of Africa. Wow, talk about credibility and authenticity on the topic!

Each page has a stunning, real photograph of the animal being discussed. It follows the typical pattern of: "A is for _____" for each letter, followed by a couple sentences of descriptions of that animal. There is also a small, colored "Did you know?" box on each page with a fascinating fact about that animal. For example, my favorite page is the "E is for Elephant" page since it is my favorite animal. It reads,

"E is for Elephant. A mother elephant and her elegant herd watch an energetic calf as he eagerly tries to stay just out of reach of his mom's elongated trunk."

Then the "Did you know?" fact reads: "Elephants weigh up to 14, 000 pounds and have more than 40,000 muscles in their trunks."

The photographs in this book are all vibrantly colored and make the reader feel like they are really on a safari! The page numbers are clearly labeled for easy reference. In the back of the book after the Z is for Zebra page is the "Animal Facts" pages. There is a small box for each letter and animal that was featured in the book, with more detailed facts about the animal. The facts include home, size, food, sounds, and babies. On the next page there is a very colorful and simple glossary featuring some of the more difficult vocabulary in the book. Lastly, there is a "More Information" page with additional books and websites that children and their parents can access to learn more about these African animals and more.

I absolutely adore this book! It is perfectly designed for young and elementary aged children. The pattern of the book is predictable and steady. The photographs and contents are brightly colored and very visually appealing. Overall, the nonfiction text features are simple and easily to use. The information isn't too complicated for a child to decipher and comprehend.  I could see a young child curling up with this book at bed time with their parents as well as an elementary aged student reading it during independent reading time.


Boy is the autobiography of Roald Dahl! It was published in 1984 by Heinemann and covers his life from birth until his first job working for Royal Dutch Shell. There is a second book that is a memoir, entitled Going Solo that picks up where Boy left off. Roald Dahl was one of my favorite authors as a little girl so naturally, I wanted to know about his life!

Roald Dahl had a more interesting life in his childhood than I have in my whole 25 years of living. I'm serious. This autobiography begins with the history of his family including his Uncle, Papa, mother, and five brothers and sisters in Wales. We then are introduced to Dahl's childhood from ages 6-7 in Kindergarten and then 7-9 at Llandaff Cathedral School in Wales. It is then that we hear the stories about the "Sweet Shop" with the nasty Mrs. Pratchett and his infamous "Great Mouse Plot." We also learn about the family vacations to Norway to visit family. In the next section entitled "St. Peter's," Dahl  is 9-13 years old and at boarding school. We hear stories of the terrible Headmaster, Matron (which reminded me very much of Matilda),  Captain Hardcastle, and Dahl's adventures in school. While there, he was actually in a brutal "motor-car" accident which sliced his nose almost clean off! The next section is entitled Repton and Shell where Dahl is ages 13-20. We follow him  as he goes to Repton "big school" and plays numerous sports (of which I've never before heard of). He also gets to be a taste tester for Cadbury chocolates (Pick me!) and gets the job of toilet seat warmer (No, thanks). I couldn't make this stuff up, right?! This all really happened to Roald Dahl. In the end of this book we learn that Dahl has gotten a job with the Shell Company and has made it as a businessman. At least for now...

Boy had me laughing at loud because of Dahl's hilarious recounting of his experiences. However, what I think I enjoyed the most was all the history and interesting facts about those times. Teachers used to "spank" children with canes?! No anesthesia for taking out tonsils and adenoids?! Outhouses?! The real photographs combined with Dahl's infamous sketches really were the icing on the cake. I was completely interested in the book at all times. No wonder he has been such a successful writer. If there is ever a fun autobiography to read, it's this one!

I have to say though, at first, I wondered how interesting Roald Dahl's life could really be. I was wrong! Boy is written with such humor and honesty that one can only expect from Roald Dahl. It was historically accurate and the technique of storytelling was fascinating for readers. I truly enjoyed reading about his life and I plan on reading Going Solo as well.

Earth to Clunk

Earth to Clunk was written by Pam Smallcomb and illustrated by Joe Berger. It was published in 2011 by The Penguin Group. It is a hilarious and light-hearted science fiction picture book that is sure to be a hit with young audiences. This is the story of a young boy who is given the writing assignment in class to write to his pen pal Clunk from the planet Quazar. At first, our young narrator is annoyed with the assignment and decides to send Clunk his big sister (hilarious). But in return, Clunk sent him a "Zoid," which is a weird dandelion-looking creature that follows him around. So, naturally, our friend sends Clunk his old dirty socks which is reciprocated by three "Forp" creatures. This pattern continues until one day his Mother says that he needs to get his sister back. Our narrator then realizes how much fun he is having with his alien pen pal. Just when he is afraid he will never hear from Clunk again, he visits for a sleep over. Oh, and the narrator's bossy big sister is returned, also. I guess being pen pals with an alien isn't so bad, after all.

This story line is sure to charm children of all ages. It was nice to read a science-fiction picture book that could easily be enjoyed by both boys and girls. The illustrations are bright and lively! They are full bleed and most span the full two pages. There is a lot going on each page that is sure to capture the attention and interest of young readers. The endpapers tell a short story all on their own also. Children will definitely love this short story of aliens, mischief, and fun!

This book serves not only as a funny science-fiction book also teaches important lessons for kids. The moral I received from the story was to always try new things because you could be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps you will even become best friends with an alien! I plan on reading this book to my second graders as soon as possible!

One Candle

One Candle by Eve Bunting and illustrated by K. Wendy Popp, was published in 2002 by Joanna Cotler Books. From the cover, endpapers, and front matter, we can tell this is a story about Judaism and Jewish holidays. The narrator is a young Jewish girl who is celebrating Hanukkah with her family. We see them all smiling, cooking, eating at the dinner table. Then Grandma and Great-Aunt Rose begin to tell their story from WWII and how they were taken from their families. The entire family is silent as they listen to their incredible story.

"'Well, it happened when we were young. We were separated from our families and put into a camp. it was called Buchenwald. That was in Germany. There was a war on at that time, and the Germans didn't like the Jews."

We find out that both women were 12-13 years old and worked in the kitchens making food for Nazi officers. One day Grandma stole a potato, two matches, and margarine after work. When they got back to the barracks, Grandma made a candle out of the potato to celebrate Hanukkah. Which is why the family still creates a candle from the potato today. "'That Hanukkah candle lifted us,' Grandma says, and there are tears in her eyes. 'It lifted us to the stars.'" The story ends with the young girl putting the potato candle on the windowsill next to the menorah and watching the glow from outside.

I am not Jewish and only know about Judaism and WWII from what I've learned in school, but this book seems to be very historically accurate to me. Eve Bunting is not Jewish either but she is known for her books about diverse, controversial topics. I really enjoyed Popp's illustrations for this story. They are muted colors and extremely realistic which fits the story perfectly. Most of the colors used are shades of brown, black, and maroon. The illustrations mimic photographs and have a dim, almost sad theme to them; although the story itself is uplifting. I especially love the pages where we see flashbacks of what the women experienced. The side by side comparison of the two times was absolutely fascinating. It gives the story a deeper meaning and impact for the reader.

This is a great story for teaching students about Judaism as another religion people celebrate as well as WWII. For older students, it would be a wonderful way to generate deep questions WWII and Nazi Germany.

The Other Side

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E.B. Lewis was published in 2001 by G. P. Putnam's Sons. The story takes place in a small town during the summer time. Our narrator explains that white people lived on the other side of their house fence. "And Mama said, 'Don't climb over that fence when you play.' She said it wasn't safe." This was definitely a historical fiction story about race. Our narrator, Clover, is outside one day when she sees a white girl sitting at the fence staring at her. She would sometimes see the girl out i public with her Mama too but the two girls were to allowed to talk to each other, though they really wanted to. One day, the girl's go up to the fence and introduce themselves as "Clover" and "Annie."

"'My mama says I shouldn't go on the other side,' I said.
'My mama says the same thing, But she never said nothing about sitting on it.'"

The girls quickly develop a friendship of fun and trust. They sit on the fence all summer and talk with one another. A group of girls stare at the two but do not participate at first. Then one day all of the girls decide to play together and have a great time. They had crossed to the other side of the fence and found friendship. My favorite part of the entire book is the last page for both text and illustration. The text reads,

"'Someday somebody's going to come along and knock this old fence down,' Annie said. And I nodded, 'Yeah,' I said. 'Someday.'" 

The fence divides the black people from the white people in town and is a metaphor for the old way of thinking that they should be separated. The girls were correct in their prediction that someday the old ways of dividing people up by race would be knocked down and instead children of all colors could play together. I also love this illustration so much because it shows the girls altogether and hanging off the fence in different ways in positions, showing their defiance to this old rule. I also love the sunset in the distance showing a new horizon is coming for these girls, and the world.

The illustrations are muted and dulled which gives them an extremely realistic feel. While reading, I felt like I was looking at real photographs. The illustrations and story seem very historically accurate. The author, Jacqueline Woodson, is an African-American woman in her 50's. She has been quoted saying, "I wanted to write about communities that were familiar to me and people that were familiar to me. I wanted to write about communities of color. I wanted to write about girls. I wanted to write about friendship and all of these things that I felt like were missing in a lot of books that I read as a child." Woodson writes about what she knows to be true, and I adore this about her. I would love to share this book with my second graders and I think students of all ages will adore this story of bravery and friendship.

The Wall

The Wall by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Ronald Himler was published in 1990 by Clarion Books. The story follows a little boy and his father who have come to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington D.C. The story is narrated by the boy and he says, "This is the wall, my grandfather's wall. On it are the names of those killed in a war, long ago."They have traveled far and begin searching for his grandfather's name on the wall. While they are searching, the boy notices a few different people. A veteran with no legs in his uniform, an elderly couple crying, a boy with his Grandpa, a class of young, noisy girls. He also notices all the gifts left behind alongside the wall. His father finds the name and uses a paper and pencil to get a rubbing of it. Then he switches out the paper for a picture of the boy from his wallet. The boy leaves his picture under his grandfather's name as a gift and the two walk away.

The illustrations are beautifully realistic with shades of gray, blue, and brown mostly. The wall is always depicted as very vast and almost in a dream like state to help portray the seriousness of the topic. I love the use of shadowing in the illustrations which make the text feel very sad and almost spooky. All of the illustrations are full bleed as we are thrown into the story to experience the deep sadness and pride of this family.

This historical fiction text is extremely touching. The final page is a note from Bunting in which she explains the meaning of the wall to young readers. This is a text that I would love to share with young readers if they are reading for it. Bunting does a beautiful job portraying the impact the Vietnam War has had on the world and their families.

My favorite part of the text is the very end. The father is being positive and saying he's proud that grandfather's name is on this wall and the boy agrees. But then the boy gets very honest and remembers the boy and his grandfather he saw earlier. "But I'd rather have my grandpa here, taking me to the river, telling me to button my jacket because it's cold. I'd rather have him here." I love this part because Bunting exhibits truth in spite of tragedy. Yes, of course they are proud of Grandfather and his greatest sacrifice for our country. But at the end of the day, they still would rather have him here. Wouldn't we all?

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

"The problem with my life is that it was someone else's idea."

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz was published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster. It has already won many awards and I can definitely understand why. This is the story of two, Mexican fifteen year old boys on the journey of self-discovery.

Aristotle or "Ari" is always angry and has virtually no real friends. His brother is in prison and his father is a Vietnam veteran. He is very close with his mom. One day Ari meets another fifteen year old named Dante at the pool, who offers to teach him to swim. He is attractive, an only child, and an artist. Ari and Dante develop a beautiful friendship full of laughter, fun, and feelings. Dante is sure of himself from the beginning and seems to fit in everywhere he goes. One particular day, Dante is in the middle of the road trying to save a dying bird when a car comes zooming by. Ari pushes Dante out of the way and gets very seriously injured himself. He couldn't understand why he shoved Dante out of the way and why he felt so upset about it. The story develops as Dante ans his family move away to Chicago for his father's business and they have to communicate through letters. They both try to experiment with girls, alcohol, and smoking. Dante admits to Ari that he would rather be kissing boys and Ari is adamant about kissing girls only; though the reader can sense he may not know himself fully yet. After a year, Dante and his family move back to Texas and the boys pick up their friendship where it began. Dante is seriously injured in a fight with some boys who spot him kissing another boy in an alley and Ari goes on a massive revenge streak. In the end, the boys drive out to their favorite star-gazing spot in Ari's truck and discover the real secret to their universe.

It is imperative to realize that "the secrets of the universe" are different for everyone. There is no singular "secret." The secrets of the universe are whatever makes you, you.The painful part of being a teenager is that one doesn't know themselves yet and so that leads them down the path of self-discovery. Dante knew he was gay and so did his parents but Ari had not realized that he was also gay until the very end of the book. The themes of this book are strong and being true to yourself is the main message.

"As Dante was watching me search the sky through the lens of a telescope he whispered, 'Someday, I'm going to discover the secrets of the universe.'
That made me smile. 'What are you going to do with all those secrets, Dante?'
'I'll know what to do with them,' he said. 'Maybe change the world.'
I believed him," (Saenz 42-43). 

This novel is so truthful and honest. Every young adult/teenager, no matter their sexual orientation, should read this book. It is empowering and everyone can relate to the struggles these two boys face. I also really enjoyed learning more about the Mexican culture through this book. The author, Benjamin Alire Saenz, is of Hispanic heritage and is gay himself. I enjoyed the book a million times more knowing it was authentic and from a cultural insider. It was very realistic! While reading other reviews on his text, I stumbled across one from a gay Mexican man who praised this book for relating to his culture and experiences he went through as a struggling boy. That really warmed my heart to read! I highly recommend this book to young adult readers!

Missing May

Missing May by Cynthia Rylant was published in 1992 by Orchard Books. It is the story of a young, 12 year old girl named Summer who is still grieving the death of her Aunt May, alongside her Uncle Ob. Summer had gone to live with May and Ob in West Virginia when she was six years old after her own parents died. All three of them were happy and finally a family for a few years before Aunt May passed away.

"We wanted a family so bad, all of us. And we just grabbed onto each another and made us one. Simple as that," (Rylant 87). 

We only get to know May through the flashbacks and memories of Summer and Uncle Ob. They are struggling immensely to get their lives back together, though it seems impossible. On top of it all, Summer is so worried about her Uncle Ob that she cannot fully grieve herself. Just when all hope seems lost, their young friend named Cletus comes up with a plan for a special trip that may just heal them all. Or, at least begin the healing process in a healthy way.

I am forever a fan of Rylant's eloquent way with words. Her descriptive language is as beautiful and relatable as ever. "The capital building sprawled gray concrete like a regal queen spreading out her petticoats, and its giant dome glittered pure gold in the morning sun. I felt in me an embarrassing sense of pride that she was ours," (70). Additionally, her ability to dig deep into your heart is unmatched. "I had no reason to fear bats, and as I grew and discovered how people are deathly afraid of them, it made me wonder about fear. Whether it all just starts with the people who raise us," (57-58).  Was Summer really talking about the fear of bats here or rather the fear of death? Did May and Ob fear death and therefore Summer has been affected? Why does Summer feel so much fear for what will happen to Ob? The book leads to many deep conversations that can be experienced by upper elementary students and young adults. 

Missing May would be an excellent uplifting choice for any upper elementary and beyond child. Rylant's ability to console a reader through the tough topic of death is calming.The book's theme is sad and about death but the underlying message is one of hope and positivity. Rylant effectively teaches the lesson that it is good to grieve, it is normal, and it will hurt. 

Love That Dog: A Novel

Love That Dog: A Novel by Sharon Creech was published in 2001 by Harper Collins. It is a fictional novel in which a boy named Jack tells the story of his dog. He is studying poetry in Miss Stretchberry's class and the entire novel is written in short poems by Jack to his teacher.

I couldn't help but giggle to myself from the very first page. Our narrator, Jack, is writing to his teacher Miss Stretchberry through poems:
"September 13

I don't want to
because boys
don't write poetry.

Girls do."

Each entry written by Jack has the date and his thoughts as a poem. The text spans throughout the school year. He begins as a reluctant writer and doesn't have ideas for any poems. He struggles to understand the mentor poems in class. Yet as the text goes on we quickly see a change in Jack as he becomes more analytic and interested in the mentor texts. He even begins writing some of his own and Miss Stretchberry enjoys them so much she wants to share them with the class. Jack's reaction is one I can envision all young boys having:

October 4

Do you promise
not to read it
out loud?
Do you promise
not to put it
on the board?

I don't want to spoil it for you but Jack's poems begin to tell the story of a dog he had once and he gets really into writing poetry. He even begins to develop his own sense of voice:

"January 31

you can type up
what I wrote
about my yellow dog
but leave off the part
about the other dogs
getting killed dead
because that's too sad.

And don't put
my name
on it

And maybe 
it would look good
on yellow paper. 

And maybe
the title
should be

Jack slowly becomes a wonderful poet and it is fascinating to see his skills and talent develop throughout the school year. He even becomes a huge fan of a famous poet named Mr. Walter Dean Meyers and gets him to visit the school! This book touched my heart in few ways as a teacher and dog lover myself. We get to witness this young boy blossom as a reader and writer of poetry in all aspects of the craft. If you love this book or are more of a "cat person," there is a sequel to this book entitled Hate That Cat: A Novel. I haven't read it yet but I definitely plan to!

I do have one, and only one, criticism of the text. I didn't like that copies of the mentor poems were provided at the end of the book instead of the beginning. I didn't know they were even there until I finished the book and found myself wishing I could refer to them throughout the story. My poetry unit for my second graders is beginning next week and I plan to read this book aloud to them. However, I will provide copies of the mentor poems from the back of the book for my students from the beginning so they can construct more meaning from the text.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is truly amazing. It was published in 2005 by Knopf and is a historical fiction text about WWII and the holocaust.  It is narrated by Death who has been personified and recounts the life of the book thief, Liesel Meminger, a young and poor girl in Nazi Germany.

I have a bad habit of recounting every single thing that happens in a story and ruining the endings so, I will try not to do that here! Liesel is forced to move in with foster parents after the death of her brother and her mother being taken away. At her brother's funeral, one of the grave diggers dropped a copy of A Grave Digger's Handbook and she stole it. She was hooked on books ever since.

Her new parents are Rosa, a small and boisterous woman and Hans, the tall, kind, artist. Liesel encounters many new people in her new town including her best friend Rudy and other neighbors on Himmel Street. Death explains in great detail all of Liesel's adventures including soccer with Rudy and friends, stealing books and apples, and learning to read with Hans. Her family even ends up taking in a "Jew" named Max and hiding him in their basement. Every character is explained in great detail and you become a part of Himmel Street yourself.

Through Death's narration of Liesel's life we fall in love with her, her friends, and her family. Death also explains a great deal about Hitler, WWII, and the Nazi treatment of the Jews. I think that this novel is very historically accurate and would be an excellent novel for high school children to study. It is eye-opening and beautifully written. I absoutely loved Death as a narrator because he spoke the truth and was unbiased. He gave us a perspective that we otherwise would not have heard and added great meaning to the story. I especially enjoyed all of his asterisk notes that let us know insider information. For example, near the end of the story when he told us what the last few words were of Liesel's book she was writing entitled The Book Thief, "I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right," (528). We would not have found out this information if not for Death's telling us behind the scenes. Overall, I believe that Death as a narrator was the perfect decision for this brave book. The Holocaust in Nazi Germany was a nightmare and only Death himself could tell that difficult story. He is the only one who saw everything that happened, everywhere.

It is imperative to discuss how important words are in this book. Liesel Meminger was infatuated with books and words since she found her first book even though she was illiterate. "Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain," (80). Liesel was taught to read by her foster father and she used her words for good like reading stories to Max and the townspeople in the bomb shelter. Zusak made the comparison of using words for good like Liesel, to using them for evil like Hitler. He was able to manipulate the masses into murdering the Jews with just his words. Words are powerful and they always have been, always will.

Let me say that this book is not considered light reading! It is very long and on top of that the content is very heavy. I recommend reading this book in parts and then revisiting it after reflection. Honestly, it took me until around page 300 to get really interested in the book. At the time, I felt that Zusak was explaining a bit too much about the characters and story even though in retrospect I now understand why he did that. I bawled crying at the end of this book. I cried so much that my dog had to come check on me. But why? It was because Zusak had took his time introducing me to the story that I felt so attached to and so connected to. So although it may be a slow start, it is worth it!

Death said many lines in this book that really made me think about mortality, about death, about our time on Earth. He discussed collecting the souls of people who had died and how he saw so many colors when he did, "So many humans. So many colors. they keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. there is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. They are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-colored clouds, beating like black hearts. And then. There is death," (309). Most people do not think of death in this way and it really helped me visualize the process of death and its effect on the world. Another line I particularly liked was how Death described war. He said, "**A SMALL BUT NOTEWORTHY NOTE*** I've seen so many young men over the years who think they're running at other young men. They are not. They're running at me," (174-175). It is so morbid and sad to think about but it is so true, especially in WWII.

Lastly, I have a significant personal connection to this story. In 2005, I visited Dachau concentration camp in Germany with my family. Reading about the Jewish prisoners marching to Dachau gave me chills knowing I have been there. I still remember the eerie and depressing feeling while walking around the camp and seeing the showers, the bunks, the yards. After reading The Book Thief, I have an even deeper understanding of WWII and Nazi Germany that I hope people all over the country can experience as well.