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.