Thursday, November 14, 2013

Pushing the Limits

I think that what makes Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry appealing to so many teens (to the extent that it made the teen top ten list) is that it blends fantasy and realism so well.  There is the romantic fantasy mixed with elements every teen can relate to.  The tendency to say one thing while thinking another, the cliques and the difficulties inherent to high school, the inability to control one's life, the desire to rebel mixed with the desire to please others, I could go on.  I think the relationships portrayed here - Echo and her father, Echo and her stepmother, Noah and Echo, Noah and his brothers, Echo and her friends (the public ones and non-public ones), Echo and the counselor, the counselor and Noah, Noah and his two "roommates" - along with the struggle to discover oneself outside the family dynamic make this a story most teens can relate to.

In fact, of all the YA novels I read this semester, Pushing the Limits and Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers were my favorites. For me, both novels were romances and I thoroughly enjoyed them for that very fact.  I think that teens especially enjoy the fantasy element and many often want a romantic element threaded through their story as well.  It's something I struggle with in my own writing - how much romance to include in the YA fantasy novel I'm writing when I really never intended to have any romance at all.  Beta readers have made it clear, though, that they expect romance!  As a result, I've been trying to find a balance - enough of a romantic thread to appeal without having the romance overtake the plot (thus turning it into an actual romance novel).

Ultimately, I would declare Pushing the Limits a success.  Though there were some rough spots that pulled me from the fictive world, overall, I was hooked.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Amelia Anne

In my opinion, the beauty of its prose is what makes the YA novel,  Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield stand out.  I think Rosenfield made a conscious choice in how she wrote this novel, in terms of style and layout.  The end result is certainly an effective and almost poetic read.

Regarding the characters in the book, a number of my classmates felt that Amelia Anne stood out as a more vibrant character than Becca.  I actually found James to be the most interesting and dynamic character in the novel.  I certainly found him to be the most likable. One student in our group raised the question of how the author managed to make us care so much about Amelia Anne when we know from the first page (and the title) that she is dead.  Does the knowledge of her impending death somehow imbue her scenes with more urgency?

Ultimately, those who were not satisfied with the book attributed it to the fact that, in their opinions, it did not fulfill their expectations of the mystery genre, which raised the question of whether conventions are as well established in the YA market.  We seemed to agree that there is more flexibility in genre expectations of a YA novel, which allows an author to experiment a bit more in the writing of a YA novel.


I think it’s interesting that some readers found the added scenes about the town or about Brendan’s death to be extraneous and perhaps unnecessary.  In my opinion, these were the scenes that added true depth and originality to the story.  The charm of this book, I think, lies in its depiction of the small town, which certainly served as a character in and of itself.

The idea that gossip is the lifeblood of the town and that everyone knows everything literally seeps from the pages.  In fact, this is why the death of Amelia Anne is so disturbing to the inhabitants of the town.  Her identity, her killer, the reasons behind her death are all unknown.  The town’s inability to keep anything secret is a nice contrast against the one event no one talks about - the day three women visited the house of a mother in mourning, an outsider who is like a ghost wandering their town. The fact that James was one of the boys who witnessed Brendan’s death, to me, makes that scene critical to the book.  James has known too much death in his lifetime and in two cases, has been asked to become a participant in the act of dying, to provide a victim the ease of death.  In many ways, this too is the poetry and beauty of this book - that death is horrible and often violent, but in some cases, can become a blessing in and of itself.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Fault in Our Stars / Not a Test / Ashfall

In The Fault in Our Stars (WARNING - MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD), we see Hazel on a journey toward acceptance, not of her own mortality, but rather of that mortality in others.  Hazel has lived with the knowledge of her own death for quite some time and has accepted her own mortality, from that moment in the hospital before we ever met her on the pages of this book, when her mother asked if she was ready and she answered yes.  We read The Fault in Our Stars, knowing that Hazel has already accepted her own mortality.  It is the journey toward acceptance of Augustus’ death that is truly her coming of age journey - the acceptance that some will go before her, including the boy she loves.

In This Is Not a Test (WARNING - MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD), Sloane too has already accepted her own mortality.  She is ready to die.  She has decided on a day and time and it is only through sheer circumstance that she ends up surviving beyond the moments of her intended death.  She is somehow caught up in the race for survival, even as she has convinced herself she is in a race toward death.  She must somehow achieve an acceptance of the loss of Lily before she can truly embrace the idea of life.  She must somehow reach a point in her coming of age story where her will to live drowns out her will to die, where she is able to see that there is something worth living for, even in a world defined by the words “zombie apocalypse”.

I’m going to throw in a third book here, simply because I just finished reading it and it is on my mind as I grapple with the issue of death in YA novels.  Ashfall by Mike Mullin is another end-of-the-world, apocalyptic YA novel.  The main character, Alex, is on a coming of age journey as well.  As he treks through a post-volcanic world, trying to reach his family, he encounters people willing to help in times of terror and others who wish to harm.  Along his journey, he is continuously forced to make decisions that may not only impact his chances of survival, but also his ability to retain a sense of humanity.  His journey isn’t necessarily one toward an acceptance of death, or of Being-toward-death, but rather one of living with strength and honor.  He is continually confronted with the idea that it isn’t how we die that matters, but rather how we live.

As for my own writing, my thesis project is a YA fantasy that features quite a bit of death, some of which happened offstage before the novel begins, and more that occurs as the novel moves us forward.  I don’t know that I am dealing with death in a way similar to either John Green or Courtney Summers.  Death hovered over The Fault in Our Stars persistently.  There was always an awareness that death was coming for many of the characters, sooner rather than later. Hazel and Augustus spend much of their time ignoring its presence until they are unable to avoid its reality any longer.  Courtney Summers had death occurring offstage for much of the novel, then ruthlessly killed two-thirds of her cast in the final chapters of the book.

In essence, our characters struggle to accept the mortality of others. Though our methods for dealing with death are quite different, the journeys of our characters may be the same -  Hazel must accept the loss of Augustus, Sloane must accept the loss of Lily, Alex must accept the loss of his parents, and my own characters must accept the losses in their lives.

In the end, I think that it is the willingness to live, the act of turning away from death and embracing life, that truly represents the shouldering of adulthood and is truly representative of the stories being told in YA literature today.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Grave Mercy

We were asked as a class to assign a genre to the YA novel, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers.   The choices we were given were Fantasy and Historical.  When it came time for me to vote, I was very frustrated because I did not want to vote for either of those choices.  Why?

Because for me, Grave Mercy was clearly a romance novel.  Certainly it was set in a historical time period and had a number of paranormal elements, but at its core, I felt this was more a romance than anything else.  In fact, if this were marketed for an adult audience, I believe it would have been placed in the romance section, rather than in fantasy or even historical fiction.

Having said that, I would be more likely to label it historical romance than paranormal romance, which is what led me to choose the genre of historical novel, rather than fantasy/paranormal.  The history flavors every page, the plot line is woven with political intrigue, and we have a hero and a heroine who warily circle around each other, uncertain whether they can trust the other.  They worry about betrayal to be certain, but they also struggle against trusting the other with their heart.
At its core, the story is about love and trust.  Our heroine learns much about herself and essentially grows up through the course of this novel, which helps to place it in the YA genre, but truthfully, it would fit quite neatly amidst any number of historical romances on the shelves today.

I don’t think the cover art influenced me either way, nor did the jacket copy because I began reading this story expecting one thing and ended up with something else entirely.  It truly was the story itself that led me to my conclusion.  The jacket copy led me to believe this would be a historical novel embedded with political intrigue.  The cover made me think “kick-ass heroine-assassin” and I was several hundred pages in before I finally clued in to the fact that I was basically reading a historical romance.

I think the beautiful thing about the YA market right now is that it transcends genre.  People who affiliate themselves with one genre (mystery, romance, sci-fi, etc.) end up reading books outside of “their” genre because YA does not really attempt to classify its novels.  You end up with a mish-mash of genres, which in many ways, enriches the stories we read.  I think YA offers writers the opportunity to write those cross-genre novels that they’ve always wanted to write.  That paranormal-mystery-western-romance that’s been plaguing them for years.  Set it up as a YA novel and you have an instant market.

Does genre matter?  I think genre only matters in the mind of the reader.  The industry has created an expectation for what a mystery novel will contain.  It has created that expectation of the happily-ever-after in romance.  What expectation is there in YA?  We certainly expect a great story.  And if there’s a girl on the cover in a long flowing gown, we expect a bit of romance, even if she is carrying a crossbow.

Ultimately though, a well-written story that defies genre may go further in the YA market than in the adult one.  It’s what I love about YA.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Unwinding Unwind

I ended the novel Unwind by Neal Shusterman with only one certainty - that despite my compulsion to finish the book, I would not be recommending it to ANYONE.  Trying to figure out why has been a struggle.  Why, if it was such a compelling read, do I not also feel compelled to recommend it to others?


In the end, I think it came down to the underlying main idea or theme of the novel, which in my opinion centered on the value and nature of both life and death.  For much of the novel, the reader understands that unwinding is death.  Proponents of unwinding couch it in politically correct terms, claiming that those unwound will continue to live in an altered state.  We as the readers, however, understand that this is simple posturing, a justification that has no basis in reality or fact.  We are rooting for the children of this novel, whether that child is a tithe, a ward of the state or a bully, because we understand that at their core, each child is a potential victim.

Although the author poses a number of questions and seems not to provide any answers, the reader is guided by the narrative toward an understanding that those who support unwinding are either misguided or self-serving or evil.  The concept of storking on the surface may seem acceptable, but once we have been exposed to its dark side, we understand it is yet another corrupt facet of this society.  We understand, perhaps even more clearly than the protagonists of this novel, that children are being killed in this world - not unwound - but murdered for their parts.  We understand that the harvesting of organs, tissue and body parts is clearly big business, just as we understand that those who have been unwound are no longer alive, in any sense of the word.

As a result, the themes of this novel completely break down for me in the culminating scene with Embry and the admiral.  When I am suddenly witness to a scene with hundreds of people acting as one body, providing the admiral and his wife with one final moment with their son, my entire understanding of life and death, at least as they occur within this society, have been turned around.  I am left with a foul taste in my mouth as I wonder - has the author just proven the enemy’s point?
I am complete aghast that I am now witness to the “altered state” proponents of unwinding have been spouting all along.  The fact that each body part somehow retains the memory of its original owner does nothing to alleviate the horror of the unwinding process.  However, I am still undeniably disturbed that the counselor’s final words to Roland were somehow true ones:  “You’re not dying — you’ll still be alive, just in a different way.”

I honestly believe that this novel was attempting to accomplish too much.  First, we are treated to a society that has gone to extremes when dealing with issues like abortion.  There are convoluted (and at times completely unrealistic) laws regarding storking, tithing and unwinding.  Questions regarding the soul and life after death are raised.  And no real answers are ever given.  Perhaps this is the strength of the novel, though for me, it is its ultimate weakness.  All kinds of questions are raised and we think we have our answers, at least in light of the unwinding and what it is truly accomplishing (spare parts for the wealthy and death for those unwound) and then we are slammed with the truth - Wow.  The unwinds really are still alive in an altered state.

In the end, I am left wondering what will happen to Embry after his unwind’s brithday celebration - will he get to go back to being Embry?  Even worse, I am left with the disturbing image of Conor with Roland’s zombie-arm (after all, if it still retains a part of Roland’s consciousness, even if it’s only skin-deep, what else can it be but a zombie?)

The result is that I am convinced that the themes of life and death that are pervasive in this novel have been undermined completely by the author’s unexpected decision to turn this unique concept into yet another zombie story (though I suppose it could be argued that zombie stories are masters at death themes… and yet).

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Diarrhea of Books

I have, over the years, taught preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school and adult students.  This has resulted in what can only be described as an illness when it comes to acquiring books for the classroom.  That is to say, I pretend they’re for the classroom, but really, mostly they’re for me.  The sheer, vast number of books that I own has become epic and now that I am no longer in the classroom (as of last Nov., I’m working with teachers more than students in my district) all those books had to find a home inside my (very small) house.  As a result, I declared a moratorium on purchasing picture books, middle grade books, YA books, educational books and anything else that had to do with adolescent literature.  Then, I signed up for a picture books class last semester and a YA lit class this semester.  This ended the moratorium, of course, for I now an excuse to buy some more books - they don’t count because I needed them for class, you see. (The illness is becoming more apparent, isn’t it?)

The truth is, it’s very difficult for me to resist purchasing kids’ books because I love them all.  I particularly love YA literature, though I do think the industry lacks clarity when it comes to what constitutes a YA novel.  This results in a lot of books being marketed to 12 year olds and to 18 year olds, as if they should both be exposed to the same ideas and content.  As a result, I think that authors of kid lit in general, but particularly of YA lit, must be conscientious, not only of the overt messages their books contain, but also of any hidden messages they may not intend, but that readers absorb anyway.

This is the beginning of the semester (my 2nd semester at Seton Hill University in the Writing Popular Fiction program) and my Readings in Genre course this semester is YA literature.  I plan to continue writing my reviews / book journals for the books we read in class as part of this blog.  We’ll see how that goes.  Now I must head off and acquire some of the books we are to read this semester (so excited to add to the plethora of books currently overtaking my household).

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Cat's Toothbrush

Mama Dru loves to play with the various cat toys around the house. She attacks and “captures” her toy, then stalks around the house with it in her mouth, announcing her achievement. She woke me up with her howls of success this morning, leaping onto the bed with her latest capture dangling from her mouth. It was my toothbrush.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

My First Anniversary with Skittles

It’s close to a year since Skittles joined my household and I no longer wonder whether I made the right choice in adopting her.  There are those who would say that I should have left her to live her life outside, a feral kitten I once failed to rescue.  That the most I could hope to accomplish for her was providing her with food, water and shelter. 

I couldn't do it though.  Perhaps it was the guilt, that I had rescued her mom and sister, adopting them into my home, but had failed to capture her.  That eight months had passed before I managed to trap her and by then she was fully wild, a teen mom with three kittens to protect.  That I had separated her from her babies, giving them over to The Animal Rescue Alliance.  That T.A.R.A. had found homes for the kittens while Skittles was deemed unadoptable due to her feral nature.  The sweet spot of rescue before eight weeks had long since passed. 

Despite all of this, Skittles was not unadoptable to me.  I had fallen in love with her long before I managed to trap her.

And every day, as she acclimates more to my household, as she finds her courage to allow me to pet her, as she purrs for me and scoots closer to me on the bed each night, I know that I have made the right decision.  Here in this household, she has shelter and food and water, but beyond those basics, she has the peace and safety of a home where she doesn't have to fight each day simply to survive.

Sure, she's still a ball of skittish behavior, but who knows what another year will do for her or for her relationships with me and the rest of the Culey Crew.  I can't wait to find out.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Stealing a Dog

Barbara OConnor, in a guest lecture for the Readings in Genre course I am taking, identified specific story elements that she tends to focus on in the creation of realistic fiction for children.  For her, these elements are dialogue, characters, family relationships and economic class.  She discusses the character Georgina in How to Steal a Dog, and highlights how Georgina is constantly making the wrong choices in the book How to Steal a Dog.  For me, Georginas character is intrinsically tied to the dialogue of the work.  Yes, we are treated to spoken dialogue a lot, but the entire book in many ways is a collection of Georginas internal dialogue.  From her journal entries to her first person narrative, we are constantly in Georginas head, sunk deep into her perspective.

OConnor also mentions that she constantly struggles with the question, Is this too real for my intended audience?  This question is one I imagine that most writers of childrens realistic fiction must struggle with.  It is one I often struggle with in writing young adult fantasy.  At what point, does the portrayed reality or fantasy become too real?  For most of this book, I was fine with the reality portrayed.  Though they probably do not realize the reasons why, most students today have been exposed to that child the one who comes to school dirty or in the same clothes as the day before, who smells or whose hair is unwashed.  Reading a story from the perspective of such a child can help foster understanding and acceptance. As OConnor puts it, careful depiction of reality can help open eyes, and thus, the door to tolerance and empathy.

I consider How to Steal a Dog to be, at its heart, a conscience tale.  From start to finish, Georgina is struggling with her conscience.  She wants to escape her terrible circumstances and has come up with a plan to do so.  Though she knows this plan is wrong, she cannot bear to back down.  She is desperate for a solution.  I loved the use of the journal as a method for recording her thought processes.  This was a perfect device for the reader to really experience Georginas planning and plotting, and to ultimately experience her dilemma, her struggle to do the right thing.  Georgina captures the focus of the story perfectly when she writes, THAT is the decision you will have to make.  This is the story we have read and the theme we have internalized the choices we make determine the people we become.


For Georgina, the person who stole a dog is not the person she ultimately decides to become.  There is power in this decision because the reader is aware of how hard she struggled to make it.  Ultimately, although I enjoyed reading this book, I was unhappy with the ending.  I think, as a child, this is the kind of book I would not have enjoyed reading.  Even as a child, I was not much for realistic fiction.  Bridge to Terabithia left me sobbing my eyes out and depressed for days.  I was angry at the author of the book and mad at myself for reading it.  I was the child who needed that happily ever after, who wanted things wrapped up neatly at the end of my books.  I wanted to know that everything made sense and that everything was okay with all of my characters.  Too much reality and I was unsatisfied. 

How to Steal a Dog was just that for me an overdose of reality, which is unfortunate because I enjoyed much about the book.  I thought Georginas struggle with her conscience was very well done and I loved her journaling through that struggle.  However, at the end, what I was left with was the powerlessness of Georgina.  All that she could control was her own decisions and her own actions.  Everything else was not hers to control.  Children already know this.  They feel this lack of control viscerally.  To have it painted so thoroughly in a book was depressing for me.  Georgina was a pawn of the adults around her, homeless and then not homeless, not because of anything she did, but because of life and fate moving her family to its own rhythms. 

For me, this was entirely too much reality.  Too much like real life, not enough of a happy ending.  The fact that they had a place to stay at the end was not enough of a happy ending for me.  In fact, in some ways, this turn of events made everything worse.  All of the effort that Georgina had gone through, that entire struggle with her conscience, and in the end, their homelessness was ended much as it began, through no control of her own, through the vagaries of fate. 

I wanted the ending that would make things neat and connected for me.  I wanted Georgina to make peace with Mookie, not for him to simply disappear from their lives, much as her father had.  While I think the scene with Carmella was well-done (she did not make excuses for Georginas actions, but held her accountable to them, and in the end, forgave her), I was still left wanting more.  I wanted an acknowledgement of all that Georgina had been dealing with, that homelessness was nothing a child should ever have to endure.  I wanted lonely Carmella to offer Georginas family a home and for all of them to find forgiveness and peace together.  And I wanted Mookie to know where they were and to come back to visit every now and then. I wanted a happy ending that would de-emphasize the powerlessness that Georgina felt.  Instead, for me, the ending simply highlighted it.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Winn Dixie

I read an interview with Kate DiCamillo once.  What was interesting about this interview is that it was conducted by a student reporter at the premiere of the movie of this book.  The student asked her if she liked to write while listening to music or if she preferred the quiet.  Her answer was music, always.  She then told the student that she not only listened to music, she spent some time figuring out which song was the perfect song for what she was working on, and then, once she had the song figured out, she listened to it over and over and over again while writing the book. 

I found that to be amazing.  I cannot write with music in the background.  It is very distracting to me.  Well, I can write, but I tend to recite what I’m writing out loud as I write it, in order to drown out the distraction of the music.  Therefore, why bother, right?  More than the music in the background, though, was the idea that the music would repeat itself on an endless track over and over and over again. I think I’d go insane, especially if the book took a while to write!  Of course, I had to know what song she listened to while writing Because of Winn-Dixie.  Apparently, so did the reporter because he asked and she answered – Enlightenment by Van Morrison.

When I was getting ready to read this book again, I remembered that interview and looked up the lyrics to Enlightenment.  I then tried to keep those lyrics in mind while reading.  (I was unable to force myself to listen to the song while reading because it about made me insane after only two repeats!) 

In any case, when I read Opal’s description of her daddy, the preacher – “Sometimes he reminded me of a turtle hiding inside its shell, in there thinking about things and not ever sticking his head out into the world.” (p. 16) – I understood why DiCamillo chose Enlightenment for this book.  The lyrics of Enlightenment seemed to have been tailor made for several of the characters in Because of Winn-Dixie.  The following lyrics seemed particularly appropriate: “Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.  It says it’s non attachment, non attachment, non attachment.  I’m in the here and now, and I’m meditating and still I’m suffering, but that’s my problem.  Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.  Wake up!”  I had to wonder if DiCamillo always pictured the preacher or a different character each time these words came over the speakers. 

DiCamillo’s characters were so vivid, as told through Opal’s eyes.  The preacher, in particular, as seen by Opal, is in desperate need of waking of, of re-connecting with the outer world, of connecting with his daughter.  He is detached, or non-attached, as the song proclaims.  The preacher is not the only one, though.  I think these lyrics could be applied to Otis’ character as well.  Otis is so afraid of the outer world that he only plays his guitar to the animals.  He too is non-attached and in need of both enlightenment and to wake up. 

As we travel through Opal’s world, we meet many new people who share these qualities, people she befriends over time; even those she never imagines as friends become friends in the end.  Opal believes that Winn-Dixie is the catalyst for everything.  In some ways, this is true.  However, I see Opal as the center of this universe, as the child who found the courage, in many ways because of Winn-Dixie, to reach out to those around her.  Winn-Dixie gives her the courage, but Opal is the one who must be brave and ask her father questions about her mother.  Opal is the one who must find the courage to reach out the hand of friendship to Amanda, Stevie and Dunlap. 

Ultimately, this book is about friendship and loss.  It is a treatise on not being detached, on reaching out to others, on risking your heart to feel again, even after terrible loss.  For Opal, it is about finding the courage to reach out to her father.  For the preacher, it is about finding the courage to connect with his daughter and face the memories of what he has lost.  For Otis, it is about risking everything to step into the outer world, to play his guitar for humans again.  The list goes on and on.  These characters feel real because they grapple with real problems.  Their problems are not solved in a day, but they become easier to bear as each individual discovers enlightenment through friendship.  Ultimately, we are given a very satisfying ending, with all of the characters gathered in one location, celebrating friendship and companionship and love.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Holes by Louis Sachar weaves us in and out of a reality that seems at best far-fetched, stitching together a story that spans generations, with coincidences piled upon coincidences.  And yet, this storytelling is done so incredibly well that our ability to believe is not once in question.  We, as readers, are simply along for the ride, willing to accept anything put forward to us.  Why? Perhaps because this is the essence of a good tale, one that almost defies description or categorization.  We are left to ponder whether this is a folktale, a fable, a fairytale, a story of fantasy, a tall tale or something entirely different.  It is hard to categorize and yet, this does not bother us.  We are thrilled with the storytelling and are willing to embrace all of its quirks.Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the novel (at least for me), was the narrator’s voice, and the fact that at certain times (particularly at the beginning and end of the novel), the narrator would actually acknowledge the reader’s existence.   Even more interesting, the narrator would sometimes choose to use the second person to speak directly to us and at other times would use the third person to talk about us.

When speaking to us, in the second person, we are drawn into the story, so that in some ways, we become participants in the story itself.  For example, in the beginning, the narrator provides some advice about rattlesnakes, stating the following:  “If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.  Usually.” Right from this moment, we are participants in the story, in possible danger of being bitten, perhaps by a rattlesnake, or perhaps, we are warned in the following paragraphs, by a yellow-spotted lizard, in which case “you might as well go into the shade of the oak trees and lie in the hammock.  There is nothing anyone can do to you anymore.” (p. 4)

By contrast, at other times, the narrator refers to the reader in the third person, which interestingly enough, almost has the opposite effect of the second person references.  By referring to us as “readers”, we are instantly aware that we are being told a story.  In some ways, it removes us from the role of participant and firmly re-establishes our roles as consumers of the story.  For example, at the beginning of the novel, the narrator states, “The reader is probably asking:  Why would anyone go to Camp Green Lake?” (p. 5).  Later, toward the end of the story, in one of my favorites lines in the book, the narrator states that, “The reader might find it interesting, however, that…” (I won’t continue this quote for fear of spoiling the novel for some who have not yet read it).

In any case, I think because of this narration style, where we, as consumers of the story, are being referred to as both “the reader” and as “you”, I am constantly reminded of oral storytelling traditions.  Holes is written in such a way that one could almost imagine someone else is reciting the story to us, that we are not reading it at all, but instead are listening to it, as it is being passed down from generation to generation, from elder to great-grandchild.

Because it feels like a story that has been circulated orally for generations and because that story intertwines families and fates seamlessly, Holes has a very folktale feel to it.  In addition, even though we do not have any talking animals, as are usually found in fables, we do have a mystical donkey and some lizards, not to mention the required moral lesson to be learned (always keep your promises, loyalty pays off, greed will be punished… take your pick).

Ultimately, though hard to categorize, Holes pleases the reader because it provides a true sense of justice being well-served, in so many different ways (again, I will refrain from detailing the ways, to keep from revealing spoilers!)  I think this is an important element to the story, however, because children have very strong ideas about justice.  In many ways, their sense of right and wrong is much more acute than that of an adult’s because when things go wrong, when things are not just, children have extreme difficulty accepting.  They want the world to be just, they want things to be equal and fair.  Books with a strong sense of justice, where all that is wrong is ultimately set to right, are extremely popular among this age set because they meet the expectation that good will be rewarded and that evil will be punished.  While children of this age have most likely learned that life is not always fair, they are constantly seeking out proof that it is, in their books, in the movies they watch, in their lives.

I think perhaps, this is what makes superhero stories so exciting and compelling for so many children, and perhaps even, for so many adults.  We want a world where fair is fair and justice will be served.  Holes has given us that and more.  We are thrilled to know that in Stanley’s world, justice, long in coming, has finally prevailed.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


As a child, I loved Judy Blume’s books featuring Peter and Fudge and I have found that I still love them as an adult.  I recently re-read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing with a smile on my face, anticipating that moment (the moment I still remember 30+ years later) when Fudge swallows Peter’s turtle.  What makes these books so relatable?  The characters are completely understandable to children and adults.  Their actions are utterly believable.  Peter’s unhappiness and disgust at the adults around him who are completely besotted with Fudge’s behavior is palpable.  The sibling relationship is one everyone who has siblings understands.  Whether a younger child or an older one, we all have those memories of a sibling making us crazy, of a sibling breaking into our room to touch things that are ours, of being blamed for something that a sibling did.  The parents who do not understand us, who give more attention to the other child, who have no sympathy for our wounds when we are clearly devastated is also relatable to children and adults.

This is a story (a series of stories) about a family that is real, a family with real-life problems and real-life situations.  We are completely riveted to the story of Peter and Fudge.  Whether the story is told from the older brother or the younger brother’s perspective (as is done in later stories), we can relate to the angst and the trauma and the ultimate feeling of family that prevails in all of the books.

Judy Blume often broke with tradition in writing her novels.  In her books, Blume often dealt with taboo subjects like divorce, racial equality (as in Iggie’s House), and in the case of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, a young girl’s first period.  When I think of Blume’s groundbreaking novels, I often think of Blubber.  This book placed a spotlight on bullying when it wasn’t even acknowledged as an issue. 

Ultimately, I think what makes Judy Blume such an incredibly gifted writer is that she takes ordinary events and places a spotlight on them, shining this light on the minuscule moments of existence.  She brings what is taboo or forbidden into the light and allows all of us to experience these things, through the eyes of a child or a pre-teen or a teenager or one on the cusp of adulthood.  We see these events, we experience them through the eyes of a child and we relate, intensely, intricately, profoundly with the lives of the people she has brought to life for us.  How does she do this?  How is she able in one novel, some of them quite short, to make us completely relate to her characters and the events of their lives?

In the case of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, she sinks us into the first person narrative of Peter.  When I compare this novel to Charlotte’s Web, I am amazed at what Blume was able to accomplish in a very short 120 pages, something that E.B. White was unable to accomplish in 184.  E.B. White’s narrative is detached in many ways, distant from the experiences of its characters.  We see them as if from afar.  Even when Wilbur is wailing because he does not want to die, or when Charlotte quietly passes away, we do not feel this viscerally because in many ways, we are not sunk into any one individual’s perspective.  We are kept distant from the narrative, perhaps through the use of its formal and stiff language.

By contrast, Judy Blume has us with Peter every step of the way.  We are not set apart from him.  We are Peter.  We feel with him, we endure with him, we mourn for his turtle with him.  And again, with him, we are outraged that no one, not once, acknowledges the tragedy of his turtle’s loss.  Somehow the gift of a puppy is supposed to make up for the fact that a turtle has died.  No one has any real respect for the life of that turtle.  No one but Peter.  We are gratified with him, when he names his dog Turtle, to remind himself, and perhaps to remind his entire family, of the turtle who once lived in their home and whom Fudge so thoughtlessly consumed.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Charlotte's Web

What is interesting to me when reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White is that I am as little impressed with it as an adult as I was as a child.  I know so many people love this story and it is a great, imaginative story.  However, I have always founds something lacking in the reading of it.  As a child, the stiff and formal language bothered me, as did other things I couldn’t quite identify.  As an adult, I know exactly what it is.  There is at times an inconsistency in the storytelling that drives me nuts.  We are several chapters into the story before we are given Wilbur’s perspective.  It is not until that moment that we have any inkling that he will be a talking pig (well, of course, I knew this from my memory, but in writing, it was very jarring).  We are receiving a very wordy description of the family, the farm, the saving of Wilbur by Fern, his move to the Zuckermans’ farm and her visiting him.  Finally, finally, on page 16, we have a scene with Wilbur and he thinks, “There’s never anything to do around here.”  Suddenly, the tone of the entire novel is changed.  This is no longer the story of a young girl and her pet pig, but it is the story of a barnyard full of animals who can talk.  Perhaps this is the genius of this piece, but I find it disconcerting.  Why did we not have Wilbur’s perspective from the moment he was born?  Why were we not treated to his observations of Fern and her aunt and uncle’s farm?  Why now at the Zuckermans?

Other small things like this would bother me as well, in the reading.  For example, we have multiple scenes with Fern observing everything that is happening in the barn except we are not even aware that she is there.  The first time she leaves and goes home and tells her family about the animals talking, I am amazed.  While we were told that Fern visited the farm regularly, she was not actually placed in the scene and we did not have her impressions of that scene.  She never joined the conversation or said anything, so we had no idea she understood their conversation (or frankly that she was even there, unless we took note of the picture placing her in the scene).  It was only when she repeated the conversation to her aunt and uncle that we realized she was there and that she had understood the entire conversation.  Even when she shares it with her aunt and uncle, we don’t really get any sense that Fern understands that it is unusual for animals to be talking or for her to understand them.

Another example of this is on page 104.  We have an entire scene with the animals trying to decide which word to write into the web next and Wilbur performing tricks for Charlotte to help her determine if he is radiant.  We then have two stories from Charlotte and she sings to Wilbur to lull him to sleep.  The text then says, “When the song ended, Fern got up and went home.”  Really??  I had no idea Fern was even there.  She wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the scene.  It’s like E.B. White suddenly remembered that he was telling a story, not just about the animals, but about the little girl who could understand them, and threw her in at the last minute, just to remind us that Fern existed.

These inconsistencies and in my opinion, lazy writing, are what keep me from fully enjoying Charlotte’s Web.   I do find the story itself to be enchanting and there is a sort of hypnotic rhythm to the words that pulls you in and does not let you go.  However, I am consistently and constantly jarred away from the story by these little moments and it severely limits my enjoyment of the story as a whole and, as a child, kept me from re-reading the book endlessly.  I was always the type of child (and adult) who would re-read my favorite books until they fell apart.  This book never qualified for such love and attention.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Pigeon!

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is another favorite among my students.  They absolutely love to shout no to the pigeon when he’s begging to drive the bus.  What makes this book so funny and entertaining for kids? The pictures are definitely a huge part of it.  Somehow the simplicity of the pigeon is immediately relatable to the students.  The simple lines, with the extremely expressive eye and wings, give the pigeon emotion and complete relatability.   Then there is of course, the two-page spread where the pigeon absolutely loses it.  Children love this page.  They giggle and giggle and giggle because they completely relate.  The pigeon is not getting what he wants and it’s just NOT FAIR.

The simplicity of the pictures somehow gives added power to the speech bubbles that make up the story’s text.  A number of students in my class complained that these pictures were too simplistic and not very impressive.  I would argue that it is the very simplicity of the pictures that makes them so very powerful.  The pigeon is absolutely relatable to the students. For me, the text of this book is told in very simplistic, childlike language.  The pigeon is bargaining – repeating words like please and why not and I’ll be … Therefore, for me, it is very natural that the pictures would be simplistic as well.  The simplistic lines of the illustrations match the simplistic wording of the text. 

The pigeon is drawn much like a child would draw him or herself, as a simple line drawing, not quite a stick figure, but pretty close.  The words are exactly as a child would say them – “I’ll be good.”  The bargaining has begun.  For me, the text and pictures work seamlessly together, to create a story infinitely reasonable to all children who have been in that position – trying to convince the adults in their lives that their request is a reasonable one and that they deserve for it to be granted.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

If You Give...

I love this entire series of books by Laura Joffe Numeroff.  They are fabulous books for teaching cause and effect as well as circular storytelling.  The pictures themselves are fun for kids, as in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, when they detail the utter chaos the boy creates in responding to each of the mouse’s demands.  Then, of course, just as the boy has finished cleaning up the chaos, it all begins again, with the mouse’s request for a glass of milk (and by extension, a cookie to go with it). 

This book is wonderful in its predictability, though it is not always predictable in the ways that we expect.  For example, the boy stares in the mirror, decides to give himself a trim, after trimming, wants a broom to sweep with, then a mop for cleaning, then wants to take a nap, but needs a bedtime story that leads him to request some crayons so that he can draw a picture.  As each request is delivered, we understand and find the request to be a natural one, though we didn’t necessarily anticipate that particular request at the time.  It is only at the end, as he arrives at the refrigerator to post his picture, that we can anticipate what the next request will be – milk! 

There are any number of fun extension activities that can be done with this book, particularly around cause and effect.  I don’t just mean cause and effect in the text, but also within the pictures.  The request for a straw leads to a mess that we can see spilling out onto the page.  The request for a broom leads to dust clouds in every room and the request for a mop leads to suds across the floor. It’s chaos unending and it is quite enjoyable for students to analyze and talk about.

While the text indicates what the mouse is requesting, it is only through the illustrations that we understand the results of these requests. Similarly, without the text, we would not know what the boy’s motivation was, nor would we understand that the mouse was the driving force behind all of the boy’s actions.  Without the text, we would have only half the story. 

In essence, the text and the pictures work together to tell the complete story.  The text complements the pictures and the pictures complement the text.  Without both working together, we would have an incomplete story at best. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013


I had never actually read the story Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg.  It is hard to read it now, as an adult, without picturing the movie starring Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt.  I read this book and immediately wanted to go watch the movie again.  I find the story itself to be absolutely charming.  The concept that a board game can affect reality is quite appealing.  Though the book is more simplistic than the movie, I was quite impressed to realize how true to the book the movie had remained.  I also found it impressive that the creators of the movie managed to expand what is arguably, a quite short story, into a full feature-length movie, without losing the feel of the book.  I absolutely love the fact that Judy and Peter are still the stars of the movie, and that the guide they release in the book turns out to be Robin Williams character in the movie.  Truly the movie did a superb job of transforming the book into live-action.  The characters in the movie are dressed much as they were dressed in the book and the set resembles the Van Allsburgs illustrations as well.  Fans of Jumanji, the picture book, must have been thrilled to experience it as a movie.

Jumanji won the Caldecott award for its black and white charcoal pencil drawings.  The drawings show an immense amount of detail, to an extraordinary degree at some points.  For example, the drawing of Peter and Judy facing the adults at the end of the story is incredible.  Judys hair is finely drawn, each individual strand rendered in exquisite detail.  Similarly, her brother, Peters hair is carefully drawn, as is the expression on his face. In fact, I think the profile of Peter is incredibly well done.  The smile on his face, the shaggy cut, the look in his eyes all of these combine to make an amazingly realistic portrayal of a young child looking up toward his older sister.  By contrast, the adults in this picture are featured from their necks down, with very little detail drawn.  They are very much in the background, while the children remain the focus of this picture.  It is an incredibly powerful rendering because ironically, the children stand with their backs to the reader, while the adults face the reader.  And yet, the children are the ones our eyes are drawn to, while the adults remain a faded background to the childrens vibrancy.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Good Night, Moon

Personally, Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown has never been a favorite of mine.  I am not fond of the transition between the color pictures and the black and white ones, particularly as the transition never made sense to me.  At first, I thought the color pictures represented what was real and the black and white ones what was not real (i.e., the pictures hung on the walls).  However, this pattern was broken immediately with the second black and white set of illustrations. 

I also did not like how the original picture changed.  There was no old lady in the rocker originally and then there was.  This bothered me as a child.  While I understood the old lady was capable of moving and had obviously sat down in the rocker, I wondered where she had been originally, why she hadnt been seated in the rocker to start with, or standing next to the bed.  Why did she suddenly appear out of nowhere?  This was unacceptable to me.  She should have been somewhere!  I remember, as a child, flipping back and forth from the first pages to the later ones, trying to find where she would have been.  She just wasnt there.  And then she was.  It just didnt make sense to me and that pretty much ruined the book for me.

In addition, even as a child, I had a strong sense that a book should tell a story.  To me, this book excelled at telling me nothing.  It was a book about nothing.  About saying good night.  I did that every night and I wasnt much interested in reading about the process of saying goodnight, even if it was said to all the inanimate objects in the room.  I found it uninteresting in the extreme. 

For me, this book has always been the book you read to infants and to extremely young children before they are able to express their desire for a real story, and frankly, for real illustrations.  This was a book of the same illustration, over and over again.  The bunny moves in tiny ways, as do the cats and the mouse, but otherwise, everything is the same.  Except the old lady disappeared again!  From one frame to the next.  I didnt like that.  It might be realistic, but it annoyed me.  She had the ability to just disappear and we were not shown that.  Where was the love between the mama / grandmama / nanny rabbit and the child?  Where was the goodnight kiss?  Where was the picture of the old lady leaning over the child in tenderness at the end of the night?  I didnt like the appearing and disappearing old lady who only ever said, hush.  There was so much wrong with this story that when I re-read it as an adult for this class, I had the same, exact, visceral reaction as a child I immediately began cataloging its failings.  I am left to question why so many people love this story, when for me, it is (as my middle school students would say) an epic fail.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Click, Clack, Moo!

Click, Clack, Moo, Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin is a favorite among my elementary school students.  They love the repetition of the words “click, clack, moo; click, clack, moo; clickety-clack, moo” and will often read that part for me during a read aloud.  They giggle through much of the book.  What makes this book so funny?

I think perhaps what makes Click Clack Moo so unique and funny is that these are farm animals living where we expect them to live:  on a farm.  The cows and the hens are in the barn.  The ducks are in their pond.  They demonstrate a few crucial human characteristics, but otherwise are perfectly normal cows, hens and ducks.  Unlike other stories where animals exhibit human characteristics, these animals do not attend school, they do not live in houses, and they do not speak English.  The cows speak Moo and they produce milk.  The ducks live in a pond.  The hens produce eggs.  For the most part, they act as one might expect cows, hens and ducks to act.  Except for one small issue:  they think and they type.  They make demands and they act as neutral parties.  They go on strike!

Click Clack Moo is a Caldecott Honor book.  The illustrations are unique and arresting.  They capture the attention with sprawling, painted images.  The image of the cow quite daintily typing away on a small typewriter (and later, the ducks doing the same) is hilarious.  The image of the note from the cows tacked to the barn down overlaid with Farmer Browns silhouette is amazing.  The image of fury is there, without actually seeing Farmer Brown at all.  And of course, what child doesnt love the gigantic picture of the cows backside, with a hen peaking from under the cow, both of them watching Farmer Brown in the background read the note?  Every page has a picture the title page has a picture of a typewriter and the copyright and second title page have a picture of cows sprawling across the two-page spread,  Even the final, end page, has a payoff picture a ducks backside disappearing into the water, having sprung there from a diving board.  It becomes clear, as one analyzes the pictures, why this particular book won the Caldecott.

I have always wanted to have the opportunity to use this remarkable childrens book in a high school or even college class.   However, as I have only ever taught elementary school students (and middle school ESL students), I have never had the opportunity to teach this book to his fullest potential.  Of course, with my students, we discuss the power of the written word (of literacy), the concepts of bargaining and being neutral, and the results of this very specific negotiation.  However, we are not able to discuss some of the other, perhaps more subtle, but also more interesting aspects of this work the cows and hens are female and Farmer Brown is male (a gender role discussion perhaps re the power of the male over the female workers?)  The cows and hens, in effect, unionize for basic rights, and they strike when they do not receive what they want.  Ultimately, however, the most intriguing aspect of this work (and the one aspect of it that I never liked) is that Farmer Brown ultimately wins.  Yes, he has to give in and purchase blankets and a diving board, but the cows and the ducks, in order to receive these things, have given up their voices.  The typewriter is the one tool in their arsenal that provides them a means to escape their fate, and they blithely give it up.  I find this to be a very intriguing book, with so many layers to peel away.  Whoever said that picture books are only for children never read this particular book!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Good Night, Gorilla

I have always enjoyed Good Night Gorilla, mostly for its secondary storyline involving the mouse.  My students also enjoy that storyline and enjoy seeking out the mouse in each story frame to figure out what the mouse is up to this time.  They love the story of the poor mouse, dragging his banana behind him, all the way through the zoo, to the zookeeper’s house, using his banana as a pillow, then back to the zoo, then back to the zookeeper’s house.  They shake their head and commiserate with the mouse along each page of his journey, and in the end, they will often giggle and cheer when the mouse finally gets to eat his banana. 

In some ways, the mouse’s story is much more entertaining than the outer story of all the zoo animals following the zookeeper home to sleep with him and his wife.  This is probably because the mouse has captured his audience from the very first frame, when he works diligently to cut off a piece of string from a balloon, so that he can tie it to the banana and use the string to lower the banana and then drag the banana wherever they go.  The mouse raises sympathy as he changes the way he carries the banana in a few frames, letting the reader know his banana is getting heavier and heavier.  But, determined mouse that he is, he will have his snack (and does!)

This isn’t to say my students don’t like the gorilla because they do.  They especially like when the gorilla steals the keys and then unlocks all of the cages one by one.  They love that the gorilla is always directly behind the zookeeper and that the gorilla looks straight at them to hold a finger to his lips.  They love that the gorilla has brought them into the secret simply by acknowledging their presence as an audience to the story.

The only writing within the story are the speech bubbles where the zookeeper tells everyone goodnight (and the animals eventually answer) and the word zoo above the entrance to the zoo.  The story is truly being told via the pictures.  In many ways, the writing is superfluous, and yet, without it, the zookeeper’s wife would not realize the animals had followed her husband home and so the writing is necessary to move the story forward, and yet, it is secondary to the story told in pictures.

Although Good Night Gorilla is not a wordless picture book, in many ways, it operates as a wordless picture book would.  Without its illustrations, the story is inaccessible to its readers, and thus the illustrations are crucial for the true meaning of the story to be derived.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

You Wouldn't Want To Be...

I love the entire series of these books, but You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Pyramid Builder:  A Hazardous Job You’d Rather Not Have by Jacqueline Morley is my absolute favorite.  I have used these books over and over again in my classes, with students from 2nd grade through 9th grade, because I think they teach wonderful information in a fun and dramatic way.  In this particular edition, my students love all of the reasons why they would not want to be a pyramid builder and they enjoy gasping over the facts revealed as they turn the pages.

The books are fabulously laid out, with a table of contents for each topic covered.  In this book, readers learn all about the various aspects of the job pyramid building.  The first page is an introduction to the setting.  The entire book is written in second person, so that the reader is immediately drawn into the world.  “You are living in Egypt around 1500 B.C.  … each pharaoh gets his subjects to build him a gigantic tomb - a pyramid - which will preserve his body forever.  Thousands of Egyptians are forced to work on it, including you.”  This is the same type of introduction that each book in this series has, only each introduction orients the reader to a different life (A Slave in Ancient Greece:  A Life You’d Rather Not Have; A Roman Gladiator: Gory Things You’d Rather Not Know; A Medieval Knight:  Armor You’d Rather Not Wear, etc.)

Each two-page spread has a new topic, fantastic illustrations (often with labels and captions), and my students’ absolute favorite part — a Handy Hint.  An example would be on the two-page spread entitled “Wrapping Up the Pharaoh”.  The Handy Hint for this page was “Don’t throw any body bits away.  Their owner will need them later.  Store liver, intestines, stomach and lungs separately in four jars.”  This particular handy hint was always good for a few groans, as were the instructions for removing the brain.

What makes these books so interesting and fun for kids is that they aren’t afraid to play up the gross factor (in a way that will make them shudder without being graphic).  In addition, the illustrations are funny and interesting.  On one two-page spread, you could have as many as eight separate illustrations.  There is usually one large illustration on the right-hand page, along with a small box in the top right-hand corner with a small illustration and the handy hint.  Then along the bottom of both pages, there might be a sequence of pictures with a caption for each picture, or there might simply be two or three smaller pictures on the left-hand page around the writing.

Every two-page spread has a summary paragraph on the let-hand page that introduces the topic of that page (for example: “Carvers and Painters”). On the right-hand page is the Handy Hint and on both pages are a number of illustrations (as mentioned before, as many as eight per two-page spread).  My students love this series of books and will spend a lot of time pouring over the pages.  They will often miss something the first or second or even third time reading, but will eventually discover everything there is to discover within the pages of these books.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A River of Words

A River of Words by Jen Bryant is an incredibly visual experience.  The collages and paintings of illustrator Melissa Sweet absolutely draw the eye. I honestly cannot figure out where the illustrations end because they seem to encompass the story and add power to it.  The story and the poetry and the illustrations all work together seamlessly to create this amazingly rich reading experience.

In the illustrator information at the back of the book, Melissa Sweet mentions that her initial efforts did not match the power of the poetry and that she ultimately ended up creating her artwork on the endpapers and book covers of discarded books.  I examined the illustrations and just cannot figure out how it all worked together.  She has pages of text from books as backdrop for some of her paintings, but it doesn’t seem to me that she has actually painted on these pages of text.  Instead, it seems there is something on top of them that she has painted upon.  The complexity of the pictures is incredible.  We have a couple pages from an old spelling book, one page turned sideways, with a painting on top of it.  On another page, we have two pages from an atlas, both turned sideways, a picture of a shooting star, also sideways, a weekly report and then a painting.  At times, I have difficulty determining which part is a painting and which is simply backdrop.  Regardless of what is collage and what is painting, the end result is powerful and beautiful.  The end result is definitely as powerful as the poetry William Carlos Williams created.

Like Snowflake Bentley, A River of Words tells the story of Willie’s life (another Willie!) in a narrative fashion, so that children might be drawn into his world.  Unlike Snowflake Bentley, the timeline of Wille’s life is included at the end of the book.  I love this timeline because it not only tells us of specific events that occur in Willie’s Life, but it separates those events into his poetry publication dates, life events, and world events so that students can truly gain an understanding of the context of Willie’s life. The inside of the front and back covers of this book include excerpts from Willie’s poetry, making good use of all available space in the book.

A River of Words was a 2008 Caldecott Honor Book, for obvious reasons.  The illustrations are entirely unique and draw the reader into the story of Willie’s life and allow the reader to experience that life in a very visual and verbal way.  Words are a part of the illustrations in a way that honors Willie’s love of words and poetry.  Ultimately, this book is an incredible example of the possibilities inherent in non-fiction picture books. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Snowflake Bentley

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin is a truly unique book.  The illustrator, Mary Azarian, apparently used woodcuts to illustrate it. Although I had read Snowflake Bentley to my students previously, I had never realized the illustrations in the book were anything other than standard paintings.  Now that I have read about woodcuts and understand that this medium was used to created the illustrations for Snowflake Bentley, I see a great deal more when I examine the book this time around.  What I had previously thought to be a stylistic choice on the illustrator’s part, I now realize is the grain of the wood she used adding effect to the illustrations. 

What I enjoy about Snowflake Bentley and many other non-fiction picture books is that the story of Willie’s life is told in a narrative form, as a story.  Children are able to connect with the material because the information is being presented in a format that draws students into the story being told.  These books, in many ways, make history come alive for children of all ages.  What I also like about Snowflake Bentley is that expository information is still provided, in the sidebars of a number of different pages.  The story of Willie Bentley’s life is told in a narrative format and the facts of his life (his birthdate, where he lived, the experiments he conducted, quotations that he shared, facts about snowflakes themselves, the finances of his work, etc.) are shared in sidebars interspersed throughout the story.

Snowflake Bentley is a 30-page picture book (32 pages if we count the cover and copyright pages) with an interesting layout.  The layout completely varies form page to page.  Some pages have a two-page spread with an illustration that spans both pages and writing on both pages (usually on top of the illustration, so that the illustration forms a background).  Some pages involve an illustration across two pages with a sidebar of expository text and the writing in a white box beneath the illustration.  Some pages have an illustration on one page and writing on the other page, usually with a sidebar of expository text next to the writing.  The sidebars all have a blue background with snowflakes on the top and bottom. Some pages have an illustration on each page, sometimes with a sidebar of expository text on one page, and both pages with writing superimposed on top of the illustrations.  Regardless of the layout of each page, the beauty comes in the variety and unpredictability of each individual page, much like the variety and unpredictability of each individual snowflake.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Stinky Cheese

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Sciezka and Lane Smith is so incredibly clever in its layout and in the way that other characters act as narrators, as much of the narrator himself does, that it just begs a reader to chuckle while reading.  I was surprised to learn that this particular book had an actual book designer (Molly Leach) who played a huge role in determining how the book would be laid out.  I find it sad because I think perhaps the most clever aspect of this book is its layout and yet Molly Leach who is responsible for the layout is not given credit for her input, at least not on the cover.  I would argue that she is as much an author to this story as Sciezka and Smith were, particularly as I feel the layout defines the book in many ways, and yet her name only appears in tiny print on the copyright page (which is the last page of the book).  I just think it’s an interesting thing to consider - who are the true authors of this book?  Are there two?  Or are there three?

What aspects of the layout are so unique?  You do not even have to open the book to know this book will play with layout and story to the greatest of effects.  The back of the book has the hen pointing to the ISBN barcode and demanding an explanation.  She refers to the “ISBN guy” as ugly and the book itself as “fifty pages of nonsense”.  The title itself is tongue-in-cheek with the play on words, changing fairy tales to “fairly stupid tales”.  The cover page has some pretty hilarious illustrations along the left side (including the really ugly duckling) and a list of all the titles found inside the book on the right.  If one takes the time to read these titles, one will have to agree with the title - “fairly stupid tales” indeed.  All of this before we’ve even cracked open the book.  Then we have the hen starting her tale before the cover page and the narrator calling her on it, we have the title page titled “TITLE PAGE” with the true title in parentheses and we haven’t even gotten to the story yet.  Everything we know about how picture books should be laid out is being turned on its ear.  What fun!

We then have an upside down dedication page, with commentary from our narrator, followed by an introduction by Jack with a surgeon general’s warning that the tales are “fairly stupid and probably dangerous to your health”.  Then, finally, we get to the first story, “Chicken Licken” with some truly atrocious, hilarious, downright ugly illustrations, only to have the story interrupted by the narrator who declares that he forgot the Table of Contents and… they fall and squash everybody from the chicken licken tale.  And of course, because they fell, the table of contents are a bit scattered, with at least one story having fallen from the page entirely.  It’s truly brilliant.  And it’s what makes kids love this book so much.  Yes, the stories are funny.  Yes, the illustrations are hilarious.  But the fact that the narrator keeps interrupting, the table of contents crash down and squash people, the hen keeps trying to tell her story out of turn (not to mention the blank page that the hen squawks about in dismay midway through the book), Jack is stuck telling his story to the Giant over and over again, and his story is printed in increasingly minuscule script at the bottom of the page, and so forth and so on (did I mention the giant eats the hen and her bread?), is what makes kids LOVE THIS BOOK.  Kudos to Molly Leach, whose name should be in giant bold letters on the front cover.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Three Pigs

To continue our theme around the three little pigs, I examined The Three Pigs by David Wiesner and found that I absolutely loved it.  I think the illustrations are part of why I enjoy it so much.  The use of white space in the book is unique and incredible and I can see why it won a Caldecott award.  My favorite illustration is the one of the three pigs perched atop a paper airplane, their tails pointed our way, as they head off the page in the upper lefthand corner, surrounded by an incredible expanse of white, somehow giving the illusion of an endless sky.

My least favorite illustration is the two-page spread of the nursery rhyme Hey DIddle Diddle.  The funny thing about it being my least favorite is that, in some ways, it is the most powerful.  It’s the first story they jump into and the color change is completely jarring, but it’s also brilliant.  The way that the pigs are one color within the nursery rhyme and their natural color outside it is incredible.   Similarly, I love the black and white drawings of the dragon, and how his head starts to turn a natural green as he begins to leave his story.  I also love that the cat from Hey Diddle Diddle followed them.

Honestly, though, the true brilliance of these illustrations is in the pages of the traditional three little pigs story and how Wiesner manipulated those pages, wrinkling them, twisting them, turning them, folding them, and still somehow managing to figure out what the picture would look like twisted and turned and folded and wrinkled in such varied ways. 

This has become one of my favorite fractured fairy tale stories.  I love reading these types of stories to my students.  The younger ones enjoy comparing the fractured tales to the traditional ones and different fractured tales to each other, while the older students often enjoy writing their own fractured fairy tales after reading a few examples.  The one issue I do have when teaching fractured fairy tales is that my students are not always familiar with the traditional tale.  It often requires some pre-teaching and some exposure to the original tale before delving into the fractured ones.  Still, when done right, the students always walk away with a true appreciation, not just for the fractured tales, but for the original ones and how easily they can be manipulated into entirely new tales to enjoy.

The Three Pigs has 38 pages (40 if you count the cover and copyright pages).  I think it could not have been accomplished in fewer pages and every single page adds to the story, but it does make me wonder if this is an exception to the rule.  I seem to remember a long time ago, learning that there were maybe three different formats for picture books and if you did not adhere to the exact number of pages in one of those formats, your chances of being published were very slim.  Of course, for a successful author, or a truly unique presentation like Wiesner’s in The Three Pigs, achieving an exception to these rules might not be as difficult as for others.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Three Little Pigs

I have always been a fan of the three little pigs, since I was very little, when my father would tell my brother and I the tale right before bedtime.  He would, of course, tell it from memory, with lots of embellishments and fun voices, for the wolf and for the pigs.  As an adult, I rediscovered the story in many different incarnations.  I have read to my elementary school students many versions of this story, but had never heard of the version by Stephen Kellogg.  I was looking forward to reading it, but truly was not very impressed by it. 

Despite the wafflery and the wolf being wolffled in the end, I simply did not enjoy it very much. Perhaps I found it to be too traditional, but I’m not even certain that’s the right word.  The illustrations of the wolf trying to blow down the houses were certainly not traditional, but I didn’t like them either.  I think the real issue is that the illustrations (the colors, the style, etc.) all seemed traditional, but then the author would throw in these illustrations with the traditional colors, the wolf looking like a superhero and a word like “seeeyooow” spread across the page in comic book style.  It just seemed too out of place and haphazard.

I did think it was interesting that in this version, the three little pigs were given names - something which I believe is rare (the pigs are usually simply referred to as “the first little pig” and so forth.  The addition of the names (Percy, Pete and Prudence) not to mention their mom’s name (Serafina) and the continuing role of Serafina throughout the story (Serafina comes back to save her children) is a definite twist on the traditional tale.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Pumpkin Latte adopted!

Pumpkin Latte has been adopted!

If you remember, PL was the tiny abandoned kitten, no siblings or mom in evidence who hung out on my front porch last October, meowing at Mama Dru to let him in, then settling quite happy in my arms once allowed inside:

Look how tiny he was!
Well, Pumpkin Latte is all grown up now.  Check him out in his new forever home with his adoptive sister, Kristin. 

So happy for this sweet boy.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion was one of my favorite books growing up.  I thought Harry was simply adorable and I loved the idea that his family did not recognize him when he came home, no longer a white dog with black spots, but a black dog with white spots.
What strikes me now as an adult are the pictures which illustrate a very traditional family - one boy and one girl (the girl in pigtails, skirt and blouse), one dad (in suit and tie) and one mom (with an apron and mop in hand).  The story itself is fun and timeless, though some of the ways that Harry gets dirty - sliding down a coal chute - and the illustrations are reflective of the times (the book was originally published in 1956).

The language is mostly timeless, though the use of the words “mummy” for “mommy” and “scrubbing brush” seem a little outdated to me.  There were several Harry books published, but this is the one that I always remembered and associated with Harry.  I always thought of Harry as the little dog who loved to get dirty and who hated to take a bath, something that I think is universal and that children continue to relate to, even to this day.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Mr. Rabbit

I found the repetitive nature of the text in Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow, along with the more formal, stilted language, to be a part of this books charm as an adult.  As a child, however, I did not like this book.  Therefore, I consider it a minor miracle that it is still sitting on my shelves today.  As a child, I was impatient with the book.  Their conversation was stilted and I knew exactly what each participant was going to say before they said it, so why was I reading it?  I also was very frustrated by the fact that the little girl was only choosing fruit for her basket.  Were there no flowers to be found?  Of course, there were.  There were flowers on practically every page in fact.
Even as a child, I was annoyed by the inconsistencies and inaccuracies of the book.  Somehow they managed to find apples, pears, bananas and grapes, all growing within the woods they wandered.  Well, actually, they found the bananas on someone’s leftover picnic blanket.  On the blanket were dishes and a wine bottle and two not-so-lovely looking bananas.  Which they took.  Really?  Because even as a child, I called that stealing.  And even as a child, I was offended by the fact that someone had just left their entire picnic leftovers on the ground.  That was called littering.

We never actually saw where the rabbit found the grapes, but I didn’t really believe that somewhere within those woods were also some grapevines.  And I was deeply offended by the fact that the grapes were an example of blue.  In what world?  As a child, I wondered why they didn’t pick blueberries.  Why were grapes easier to find than blueberries?  Everyone knew that blueberries were blue and grapes were purple.  Besides which, by that point, I was annoyed with the whole fruit excursion.  I wanted the girl to pick some flowers for her mom and I was really tired of hearing how her mom liked birds in trees.

It’s true. I definitely did not appreciate this book as a child.  As an adult, I still find the book to be annoying.  When I re-read it, I shook my head at the abandoned picnic and mentally rolled my eyes when we got to the blue grapes. 

This book originally came out in 1962 and I think it provides an interesting view into the types of books that were being published at the time.  There was clearly no real checks-and-balances for logic and accuracy.  The illustrator was Maurice Sendak, which was not at all surprising to me, as his style was recognizable.  For some reason, it’s never been a style I truly appreciated.  As a child, I did not like the close-up pictures of the little girl and the rabbit.  They seemed distorted and wrong.  The further away the girl was and the less we were able to see of her features, the more natural she seemed.  The rabbit never seemed natural, given he stood upright like a man. 

Overall, I do not think this book would be published again in our times.  In fact, I am surprised it was re-released in 1990.  I simply do not think it holds up against the much higher expectations we have for children’s books and literature today.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dr. Seuss

Who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss?  I’ve certainly been a fan since before I could read myself.  In the case of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, though, I simply could never understand why the father was always encouraging his son to observe what was happening and to feel excited about it, but then to always tell the truth without any embellishments.  Im not sure why, but as a child, this seemed illogical.  In my childish view, by experiencing excitement over what he saw, the child was able to create something incredibly beautiful.  In not sharing that with his father, he failed to share the truth of what he fully perceived.  His father encouraged him to see and feel excitement about the world, but then did not actually want to hear the embellishments this boy came up with in his excitement over what he saw.  Interestingly, I did not see this as a father encouraging a boy to appreciate what was really there, but instead a father encouraging a child to never share what he truly saw. 

As an adult, I am certain this is not what Dr. Seuss intended with this book.  Perhaps instead it was about appreciating the simplicity of what was truly there, about not feeling the need to embellish, but rather to rejoice in what truly was.  Still, for me, as a child, this was a father who did not appreciate the unique perspective of his son - not in these words, of course, but for me, this book was about injustice and the unfair lens that adults often imposed upon children.  This book made sense to me because after all, wasnt I always, as a child, being misunderstood, told what to do and not to do, without anyone ever asking why I did what I did.  Wasnt I always somehow the victim of adults around me, my every thought and action dictated by the ones who knew better, who were older and wiser than me? 

Perhaps more than the text though, I truly loved the pictures.  The idea that this boy, with imagination alone, could embellish a simple cart and horse into what it became was magnificent.  Always, this book for me, was about the power of imagination.  As an adult, I think the simplicity of the changing pictures really make the book.  The transition from what we see on pages two and three to what we see in the final pages is amazing. I think, in fact, this book gives us a perfect example of how the white space on a page can become a part of the story being told.  The sheer amount of white space in the beginning that is overtaken by colors, that grow and grow and grow, throughout the book, tells as much of the story as anything else.  As the color spread from one page to the two, as the words are condensed into smaller spaces and the colors of the pictures expand, the reader is taken on a journey through this childs imagination.