Biographies

 

Fritz, Jean and Margot Tomes (illustrator).  What’s the Big Idea,

Ben Franklin?  Penguin Books:  New York.  1976.

 

          Ben Franklin was smart, inventive, vain and argumentative.  All of these aspects of his personality come out in Jean Fritz’s equally smart and inventive biography.  Fritz not only hits the high points of Franklin’s life (the print shop, almanac, role in the creation of the USA and, of course, the kite and key) she brings Franklin to life.  While describing his boyhood, Fritz describes the dilemma Franklin’s father faced in trying to find him someone to whom young Ben could become an apprentice.  The reader shares some of Ben’s dread at the thought of having to spend 9 years tied to one master, forced to serve his every whim.  The reader also shares in the glee as he escapes from his printer/brother and sails to Philadelphia.

          Franklin’s shortcomings also make an appearance, as does his self-deprecating humor.  Fritz notes that, while in France, Franklin chose to ignore one of his oldest rules, that one should “eat to live, not live to eat.”  This led to his habit of referring to himself as “Dr. Fatsides.”

          Margot Tomes irreverent illustrations match the tone of the story perfectly.  The pen and ink drawings include scenes of Franklin’s younger brother drowning in their father’s soap suds and Franklin returning to his brother’s print shop to show off his new gold watch and fancy clothes.

          This is a fun and educational book!

 

Le Tord, Bijou.  A Bird or Two:  A story about Henri Matisse. 

Eerdmans Books:  Grand Rapids, MI.  1999.

 

          Henri Matisse loved Nice, visiting there often while living in Paris and, finally, moving there permanently.  While there, he strove to recreate the intense colors of the sea and sun.  Bijou Le Tord tells the story of this part of Matisse’s life in lyrical text and simple and bright, Matisse-style, illustrations.  The text is laid out in a verse-like format, with no more than two or three words per line.  The bold, Gill Sans font stands out from within and alongside the bright illustrations.  The reader feels the joy that Matisse felt in his painting through lines such as, “‘He paints the sunshine everyday.  He draws everywhere, everyone, all the time.  He works joyfully, with a light heart.  He is enchanted.’”  The reader is also enchanted.

          Overall, this is a beautiful book!

 

 

Easy Readers

 

Baker, Barbara; Marsha Winborn, illustrator.  Digby and Kate and the

Beautiful Day.  New York:  Dutton Children’s Books.  1998

 

Digby and Kate are best friends and they like many of the same things:  eating snacks, playing checkers, making pictures and taking walks.  But they have very different ideas about each of these activities.  Kate likes to eat mice, but Digby convinces her pizza would be better.  Digby likes to play checkers, but Kate’s rules ensure he’ll never win.  And pictures, Kate takes an hour to draw the perfect picture of Digby while he whips out his camera and snaps a picture of her in a second.  This book is more like five separate short stories than one continuous narrative, which makes it perfect for beginning readers, who may not yet be able to follow one long story.  Kate is annoying in the first four chapters, insisting that Digby follow her lead.  But the book ends on a sweet note, as she convinces Digby that a walk in the rain can be just as nice as the sunny walk they’d had planned.  Readers will recognize themselves and their friends in this book and it could lead to a great discussion on what it means to be a good friend.  The realistic pictures complement the story.  They are brightly colored and engaging.

 

Rylant, Cynthia; Suçie Stevenson, illustrator.  Henry and Mudge:  The

first book.  New York:  Simon and Schuster.  1987

 

          Henry is lonely.  He has no brothers or sisters, no other children on his street to play with.  When Mudge arrives, Henry knows he will never be lonely again.  This “boy and his dog” story has everything:  Excitement when Henry’s parents agree that he can have a dog, the obvious love between the two main characters, the fear they both feel when they are separated and the relief of their reunion.  Rylant has written a sweet, touching book that beginning readers will love.  Being a sucker for drama, I loved the chapter where Mudge got lost and Henry thought he was never coming back.  Rylant’s words, especially when matched with Stevenson’s illustrations (watercolor?) evoke both characters fear and pain.  Their reunion is relief, not only for them, but the reader, too!

         

 

Parish, Peggy; Barbara Siebel Thomas, illustrator.  Thank You, Amelia

Bedelia.  New York:  Harper Collins.  1993

 

Great Aunt Myra doesn’t feel comfortable in anyone’s home but her own.  When she comes to visit her great niece and nephew, it’s up to Amelia Bedelia to take care of everything.  Even though she manages to misunderstand every direction she’s been given, her apple pie makes Great Aunt Myra feel right at home.  I have been reading long enough to know that, in books like these, everything will turn out right despite the main character’s mistakes, but I still don’t like books like this.  I feel too bad for Amelia Bedelia, even though she’s thoroughly clueless.  I think young readers will really enjoy her (mis)adventures …especially figuring out what she’s supposed to be doing as opposed to what she does.  Some of the misunderstandings are very funny, although I don’t think the average 6 or 7 year old would get all of the original meanings without some help.

The artwork, which was redone for the I Can Read version by the daughter of the original artist, is realistic in style and works well with the text.  The illustrations go along way to helping the reader get the joke – from illustrating Amelia’s mistakes to the horrified look on Mr. Rogers face when he sees that she’s “checked” his shirts…literally.

 

 

Fairy/Folk Tales

 

McDermott, Gerald.    Anansi the Spider:  a tale from the Ashanti.  New

York:  Henry Holt and Company.  1972

 

This retelling by Gerald McDermott introduces the reader to Anansi the Spider.  The story tells of how Anansi’s six sons rescue him after he gets lost on a long journey and eaten by a fish.  Each of Anansi’s sons possesses a special gift and all six gifts make it possible for them to rescue their father.  When he finds “a great globe of light” in the forest, Anansi gives it to Nyame, the Ashanti “God of All Things” to hold while he decides which son deserves the prize for actually rescuing him.  Nyame hears the sons arguing over who is most deserving and puts the beautiful light in the sky, where we see it still each night.  McDermott not only tells the story in a compelling manner, using phrasing more akin to verbal storytelling than written, but he teaches the reader a little bit about the Ashanti people both in the story and in a prologue which sets the stage.  His illustrations work with the phrasing to give the story an exotic, otherworldly feel.  About his illustrations, McDermott says, “Anasi required unique development, to fit his unique qualities.  Throughout [the design process] I went to the graphics of the Ashanti people…to their simple but sophisticated combinations of geometric forms, to their limited color schemes, to their stylized animals and plants.”

 

Egielski, Richard.  The Gingerbread Boy.  New York:  HarperTrophy. 

1997

 

“Run, run, run as fast as you can!  You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!”  And when he’s walking a clothesline/tightrope and hopping on the uptown E, there’s no way anyone is going to catch him!  Not the woman who baked him (who swoons in her husbands arms with a bangle braceletted wrist against her forehead as the Gingerbread Boy jumps out the window) or her husband.  Not the rat eating out of a garbage can off of Grove Street.  Not the construction workers who would like to snack on him during their coffee break.  Not the subway musicians singing “Yummy, yummy, yummy.”  And not the Central Park policeman or his horse!  But a fox from the zoo is too clever for the boy and eats him up in the middle of Bethesda Fountain.  I’m a sucker for picture books about New York and I discovered this one during my story time observation.  The kids loved the story, with its updated, urban setting and had quite a few comments about the E train (one boy, about 5 or 6, said it was his favorite train in the whole city!)  The realistic illustrations of the city are juxtaposed with a fairly traditional version of the Gingerbread Boy himself.  This works perfectly with the text, which despite the urban setting is not so different from the original.  The illustrations are bright and colorful.  There are single, full-page illustrations opposite each page of text and double-page spreads in between.  The spreads allow the reader to see the full scope of the boy’s ever-growing band of followers as he speeds through the city.

The Gingerbread Boy falls into the cumulative folktale category.  The boy picks up someone on each page who wants to eat him until the end when they are all (including the boy, himself) thwarted by the fox.

 

Brett, Jan.  Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  New York:  G.P.

Putnam and Sons.  1987

 

In this traditional retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks does find a way to placate the bears at the end of the book.  Nor do the bears call the forest police to come take her away to jail.  She eats the porridge, sits in the chairs and sleeps in the beds, just as she’s been doing for hundreds of years.  What makes this retelling unique, are Jan Brett’s amazingly detailed illustrations.  From the elegant, medieval garb worn by the bears (who look like they might have popped out of a non-fiction animal book!) to the little mice, who lurk in the borders of the pages, knowing witnessing the story along with the reader, every page is a delight to look at.  A reader could spend hours just trying to take in all of the little flourishes.  My favorites are the images of bears spread throughout the house and the borders on the page where Goldilocks is discovered:  As “the little, small, wee bear” stands over her, Mama and Papa (called here, “the great, huge bear” who only speaks in capital letters and “the middle-sized bear”) watch the scene from the border, while the mouse, who’s place they’ve taken, peers out from the headboard.  I love this version of the tale, specifically for the pictures, which are works of art.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears is an example of a beast folktale.  The three bears are (obviously) animals and they interact with Goldilocks without anyone thinking it’s odd.

 

Fantasy

 

Lowry, Lois.  The Giver.  New York:  Bantam Doubleday Dell.  1993

 

          How often have you wished that we lived in a world with no hunger or violence?  How often have you thought about how nice it would be if every time one of your students did something rude or mean, they would realize their error and apologize?  How often do have you been sure that if a child could just spend some “quality time” each night with his parents, his life would be so much better?  Jonah and his family live in this world.  Everything is carefully regulated.  Not only is there no lying, people don’t even exaggerate.  Parents and children not only share meals, but their dreams with breakfast and the emotions they experienced during the day after dinner.  There is no hunger, no hatred, no jealousy and everyone has his or her place.  Jonah is perfectly content living this life until he is selected as the next Receiver of Memory. 

          It is then that he (and the reader) discovers that one of the consequences of the necessity for sameness has been the loss of color.  The need to feed everyone has wiped away the seasons, and with it snow and sunshine.  The need for “appropriate” families has wiped out love.  Jonah finds that a full, rich life involves risk which can bring about pain.  But are Jonah and the Giver, who has transferred all of these wonders to him, willing to take the ultimate risk to prove this to the rest of the community?

          This is a fantastic book!  Like the best fantasy, it takes a premise that is hard to argue with, the “perfect world” and twists and turns it until all its sides are exposed.  We see that all of those things that we wish for have consequences and we must determine for ourselves whether we would be willing to accept them.  The best (and worst) part of the book is the ambiguous ending.  I WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED…FOR SURE…. 

         

 

Cooper, Susan.  King of Shadows.  New York:  Simon & Schuster.  1999.

 

          Days after arriving in London to perform Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the new Globe Theater with a group of American boys, Nathan Field falls ill with a high fever.  His host family and the doctor’s are shocked to discover that he is suffering from the bubonic plague.  How could someone catch the plague in 1999?  But is Nat really the person in that hospital bed?  Or is he actually in 1599, playing his Puck not with boys from the U.S., but with Shakespeare’s own troop before Queen Elizabeth I?

          I’ve always loved time travel novels and this is a great one.  Everything is consistent (If Nat is actually in 1599, then who is the kid in the 1999 hospital bed?  How come everyone in 1599 knows his name and no one suspects he’s not from that period?  It could be just a dream, but what about the paint he brought back to 1999?) and you’re kept guessing until the last page.  Along with the time travel aspect is an intense bit of realistic fiction regarding Nat’s father.  Of course, having Will Shakespeare fulfill the role of surrogate father probably takes it out of the realistic genre….  The use of lines from both Dream and The Tempest, as well as from the sonnets reminded me of the movie Shakespeare in Love, where a fantasy is made plausible using available evidence.

 

Historical Fiction

 

Yep, Lawrence.  Dragon’s Gate.  New York:  Scholastic, Inc.  1993

 

          In his home village in China, Otter is one of the chosen.  He is the adopted son of the wealthiest family in the village and everyone defers to him.  His father and uncle are two of the most respected men in the village, mainly thanks to his uncle’s foresight in being one of the first to become a “guest” in the Land of the Golden MountainAmerica.  But when Otter accidentally kills a soldier who is a Manchu, he finds that nothing is quite what it seems.

          Though his uncle may be a visionary at home, he is nothing but another “John” in America.  The “golden mountain” turns out to be a granite behemoth which Otter and the other “guests” must fight their way through so the westerners can have their transcontinental railroad.  And the Americans may have fought a war to free the slaves, but it did nothing for the T’angs, who slave away in the mountains of California.

          This book works on many levels.  First and foremost, it is a classic coming-of-age tale about a boy who must deal with the realization that the adults in his life are only human.  It is also a gripping adventure story about a boy who must battle not only those who despise him for what he was at home, but those he loves and himself in a hostile environment where the land itself seems to be trying to kill him.  Finally, it is an accurate and involving history lesson on the lives of those who gave their lives, both figuratively and literally, to connect the country and were treated like dirt for their trouble.

          History is more that just names and dates.  It is the lives of those who lived it, both great and small.  Yep’s novel brings a period of American History that I, for one, knew little about, to life.  Through Otter, we learn not only about our own history, but we see what was happening in China at that time also.  We learn why so many Chinese were willing to make the long, hazardous journey to America.  And we see yet another example of how those who were not of European descent were treated in this country.

 

Magazines

 

National Geographic World.  Washington, DC:  National Geographic Society

 

          This has been one of my favorite magazines since I was in grade school.  World features articles on the natural world and historical subjects as well as general non-fiction.  In the November 2001 issue (I know, it’s out of date, but we had it at school and…) featured a cover article on wolves, information on the reopening of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and interviews with the stars of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  The articles are informative, well-written and interesting.  They are filled with challenging vocabulary, but short enough that students won’t get discouraged before the end.  The illustrations are mainly live photographs, with color graphs used to illustrate certain points and puzzles.

         

Cricket.  Peru, IL:  Carus Publishing Company

 

          This monthly magazine presents a variety of “fiction, nonfiction, book reviews and activities” (Tomlinson, p. 332).  The articles are approximately 3-7 pages interspersed with poetry and other features.  They encompass many different styles.  The April 2000 issue includes a tall tale, historical and realistic fiction, fantasy and non-fiction.  The articles are all well-written and interesting and, thanks to the variety of styles, will appeal to many different students.  The “Cricket Readers Recommend” section allows readers to send in reviews on their favorite books.  The five books in this particular issue included Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit, The Twits by Roald Dahl and Holes by Louis Sachar.  The reviews are great, letting the writer’s love of the book show through and written in such a way as to make you want to read the books.

         

Multicultural Fiction

 

Coerr, Eleanor and Ronald Himler, illustrator.  Sadako and the

Thousand Paper Cranes.  Scholastic, Inc:  New York.  1977.

 

          Sadako is one of the fastest girls in the bamboo class.  She is full of joy and energy and excited about everything, especially the chance to be a part of the junior high school racing team.  But the effects of the atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima when she was just a baby, take away her chance and her life.  Her only hope is to try to fold 1000 paper cranes and then maybe her wish to get well will come true. 

          Based on a true story, Coerr’s tale is devastating.  Her introductory chapters, portraying Sadako as a vibrant, lively girl, make the ending all the more difficult to take.  She educates the reader on the effects of the a-bomb not with a lecture, but through the death of a character who the reader truly cares about.  She also briefly introduces the character of Kenji, who “caught” the illness even though he was not yet born when the bomb was dropped.

          Coerr is not Japanese, but, according to the author’s note, did live in Japan.  The story seems to ring true, although I’m not sure if the terms such as “junior high school” are accurate or approximations used to bolster the understanding of American readers.  This is a great book and an accurate and powerful historical novel.  The paintings by Ronald Himler, which are reproduced in black and white compliment the serious nature of the story nicely. 

         

 

Steptoe, John.  Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.  Scholastic, Inc:  New

York.  1987

 

          This Cinderella story leaves out the evil stepfamily and replaces it with one nasty sister.  Manyara and Nyasha are both beautiful, but Nyasha’s beauty is within as well as without.  Manyara spends her days taunting her sister with the belief that, someday, she, Manyara, will be queen while Nyasha must settle for being her servant.  But Nyasha is too kind to care about this.  When the chance arrives for one of the girls to marry the king, Manyara is determined to get there first.  The predictable ending comes about not because Nyasha is beautiful, like the western Cinderella, but because she was kind enough to provide food, shelter and kindness to those less fortunate than she.

          John Steptoe’s retelling of this African tale is filled with beautiful prose.  This is outdone only by his even more beautiful illustrations.  The pictures are so realistic; you almost expect the characters to move.  The story and paintings together make for a memorable reading experience.

         

Jeffers, Susan, illustrator.  Brother Eagle, Sister Sky:  A message

from Chief Seattle.  Dial Books:  New York.  1991.

 

          Susan Jeffers takes the words of Chief Seattle and illustrates them with her beautiful, realistic paintings.  Jeffers sets the stage, describing the chief sitting down with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Territory to sign away his people’s land.  (the book jacket points out that, though the text is attributed to Chief Seattle, it may have been conveyed in a different manner)  Before doing so, he explains the beliefs held by his tribe regarding the land and issues a warning that the Europeans must continue to honor the land or suffer the consequences.

          Seattle’s words are pure poetry, beginning with, “How can you buy the sky?  How can you own the rain and the wind?” through to his admonishment that “We did not weave the web of life….  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”  Jeffers’ paintings compliment the words, depicting the beauty of the land and the animals (including humans) that live on and off of it and the ugliness that humans can make of it.

 

Non-fiction Books

 

Lourie, Peter.  Hudson River:  An adventure from the mountains to the

sea.  Boyds Mills Press, Inc:  Honesdale, PA.  1992.

 

          In 1981, Peter Lourie set out to travel the Hudson River from its source in Lake Tear of the Clouds to the Atlantic Ocean.  Lourie and his guide “paddle around” the lake before taking their canoe down the mountain to where the Hudson first becomes navigable.  After three days of whitewater canoeing, Lourie’s guide leaves him and continues the journey alone, commenting on the dams which he has to navigate (some by walking around, others by paddling through the locks), the docks and factories that sit side by side with greener areas along the banks, the untouched beauty of the Palisades and the grandeur of New York City’s skyscrapers.  He also share historical tidbits from the voyage up the river of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon in 1609 to the Big Boom which filled the river with logs on their way to the sawmills in the 1880’s.

          The text is accompanied by “full-color photographs” as advertised on the cover.  Though the photos, which range from beautifully framed shots of the river and its natural surroundings to interesting views of the cities and bridges along the way, are the perfect accompaniment to this “true-life adventure,” the pictures seemed washed out and not nearly as awe-inspiring as they should have been.  The story itself also needs something more.  The historical facts are interesting and informative, but the tale of the voyage itself was bland.

         

 

Cherry, Lynne.  A River Ran Wild.  Harcourt, Brace and Co:  New

York.  1992.

 

          For centuries, the Nashua River flowed through Southern New Hampshire and Northern Massachusetts providing food, through both the fish that lived in it and the silt it deposited along its banks during the spring floods, for the Native Americans who lived along its banks.  But when the English came and settled along side, that changed.  First the natives were cut off from the river, then the factories of the industrial revolution began to pollute it.  The river was officially “dead” when, in the early 1960’s local activists began a clean-up campaign that stretched to the halls of Congress and saved rivers across the country.

          Lynne Cherry’s “biography” of the river is a fascinating and enjoyable tale.  Through the text and illustrations, the reader sees the river deteriorate and then come back to life.  Cherry’s illustrations, a combination of watercolors and colored pencil, portray the river in its pastoral beauty and in its darkest days, as toxic-looking red sludge.  The illustrations are surrounded by small squares showing items and scenes to put the time period in context.  This adds an extra dimension to the book, helping readers to place what’s happening with the river in the text within its historical time frame.

         

 

Tanaka, Shelley and Greg Ruhl, illustrator.  Secrets of the Mummies: 

an I was there book.  Madison Press Books:  Toronto.  1999.

 

          This book provides the reader with a wealth of information about Egyptian mummies.  It illustrates where mummies have been found, how they were preserved and what has happened to those that have been discovered.  Included are narratives on the discoveries of several mummies followed by their life stories.  The mummies include the emperors Ramses II and Tutankhamen as well as a worker named Nakht.  The stories are enhanced by realistic drawings by Greg Ruhl who has illustrated several other “I was there” books.  The rest of the text is accompanied by both period and modern photographs of the subjects they discuss.

          Overall this is an excellent source of information.  There are a variety of subjects and pictures (some of which were pretty hard to view right after dinner).  I know that my students would devour this book!

         

 

Kalman, Maira.  Fireboat:  The heroic adventures of the John J.

Harvey.  Penguin Books:  New York.  2002.

 

          In 1931, “Babe Ruth hit his 611th home run in Yankee Stadium.  The tasty candy treat, Snickers, hit the stores,” and the John J. Harvey fireboat began serving New York City.  Kalman’s story takes us through the high points of the fireboat’s career, up to its decommissioning in 1995.  But that’s not the end of the story, or Kalman’s book.  The Harvey is purchased by private investors and refurbished to spend the rest of its life as a pleasure craft for its owners.  But the events of September 11, 2001 changed all that.  The catastrophe made it impossible for the trucks to fight the fire and made it necessary to call the John J. Harvey back into service. 

          Kalman’s book is a fun, interesting and touching story.  Kalman’s use of other “big events” from the year of the Harvey’s christening helps the reader form a connection with the subject which lasts throughout its career.  The reader can’t help but rejoice as the boat is rescued from the scrap heap.  The scenes regarding the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center bring tears to the eyes.

          Kalman’s gouache illustrations are the perfect compliment to the story.  The bright colors illuminate the pages.  The spread which illustrates September 11th is breathtaking; an expanse of bright blue with the two white towers to the right and two black planes coming from the left.

         

Picture Books

 

de Paola, Tomie.  Bonjour, Mr. Satie.  New York:  Scholastic.  1991

 

          This book is the story of Mr. Satie and his faithful friend, Ffortesque Ffollet’s visit to Paris.  While there, the two attend Gertrude Stein’s salon and Mr. Satie ends up judging a contest between the paintings of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.  Tomie de Paola introduces readers to the art of Picasso and Matisse by reproducing their works in his illustrations.  He gives readers a lesson in appreciating differences along with a taste of the controversy caused by the introduction of abstract art.  The book provides children with a fun and interesting story and adults with the challenge of identifying the inhabitants of Mr. Satie’s Paris of the 1920’s.  De Paola’s illustrations evoke the feel of the period and mirror the story nicely.

         

Shannon, David. David Goes to School.  New York:  Scholastic.  1999

 

          David is the type of student teachers tell funny stories about for years after he or she graduates…assuming they’ve made it through the year without wringing his or her neck.  David is ALWAYS in trouble.  Every reader can come up with a “David” situation, that one thing they can’t seem to stop doing, even though they know it drives the teacher crazy.  This connection, combined with Shannon’s hysterical illustrations, makes this a great read aloud.  The situations are easily identifiable and the size of the book and its large, brightly colored pictures make it easy to see in a group setting.

          The cartoonish illustrations, a more sophisticated version of a child’s drawing, suit the text, as does the font, the equivalent of 1st or 2nd grade writing, presented on the lined paper commonly used at that level. 

         

 

Sis, Peter. Madlenka’s Dog.  New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux.  2002

 

          Madlenka wants a dog, but Mom and Dad say no.  When an imaginary dog comes to stay, the two journey around the block greeting Madlenka’s friends and meeting the dogs from their childhoods.  Before the story even begins, the reader is drawn into Madlenka’s world – the grid of lower Manhattan represented on a globe with New Jersey on one side and the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges shooting off to Brooklyn on the other.  About 3/4ths of the way down, we see a little pink dot which is Madlenka’s home.  The text of page one snakes through the streets of a close up of the grid, around the blue/gray block, leading to the pink glow in the window of the apartment building on page 2 – Madlenka’s apartment.  What a great book!  Madlenka and her empty dog leash (at least it LOOKS empty…) are the only color on the pages that follow, except for faint splashes alerting the reader that Madlenka’s friends have secrets of their own.  Lift up the baker’s pan of croissants, open the musician’s bass case, turn the page of the artist’s tablet and there they are!  The animals each remembers from childhood.

          Sis’ illustrations come alive when Madlenka and her dog meet her friend Cleopatra and her horse.  The following pages are awash with bright, bold color as they make their way through the ages and Manhattan fades to a small gray building in the background, only to come rushing back at dinnertime.  The story is wonderful, but without the pictures, it is merely another story.

         

Wiesner, David.  Freefall.  New York:  Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books. 

          1988

 

          In this wordless book, a young boy falls asleep while studying a book of maps in bed.  He floats from his bed through a continuous ribbon of dream sequences which, we discover, are influenced by items in his room.  The art is the story here.  Wiesner turns his characters gingham bedspread into checked fields on a plain then into a chessboard where he’s greeted by the pieces.  His realistic drawings make the reader feel as it they are dreaming along with the boy.  The way the pictures flow into one another across the pages is mesmerizing.  It’s almost more like a meditation than a story.

         

George, Jean Craighead; Anna Vojtech, illustrator.  Elephant Walk. 

          New York:  Hyperion Books.  1998

 

          Elephant Walk is the story of Odon, a baby elephant, who learns to “use his nose” on the way to an elephant family reunion.  As she does in her chapter books, George gives the reader a great deal of “real” information about her subject through the main character’s story.  Readers learn about the elephants’ habitat and habits.  An “elephant talk” dictionary at the end of the book helps the reader to interpret the movements of elephants.  Unfortunately, this is followed by an ad for Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  The story itself is cute and well told.  Even though I trust George’s research skills, I would like to read more non-fiction about elephants to verify facts before using it with my students.  The illustrations by Vojtech are done in a realistic, if Disneyish, style.  They match the informational nature of the story very well.

         

Maestro, Betsy; Giulio Maestro, Illustrator. Taxi:  A Book of City Words. 

New York:  Clarion Books.  1989

 

          A taxi makes its way around a city, picking up and dropping off many different people in many different places.  Although it is never identified as New York City, I enjoyed trying to identify the different buildings and streets.  As far as I could tell, only New York, in the United States at least, could encompass all of the different views.  This taxi gets around!  From department store to airport, from office building to cruise ship, it was interesting seeing all of the different people and all the different places they need to go.  This book is a great introduction to a city and its words, especially for children who don’t seem to make it out of their borough very often.  The art is rather generic, although its realistic nature fits the story.  If the reader weren’t trying to find familiar sights in the book, it would be pretty boring to look at (though I did like the perspective on the skyscraper page.)

         

 

Olaleye, Isaac; Ed Young, illustrator.  Bitter Bananas.  Honesdale, PA: 

Boyd’s Mills Press, Inc.  1994

 

          Someone is stealing Yusef’s palm sap!  Who could it be?  How can he stop them?  Though I enjoyed Ed Young’s cut paper illustrations, I found this book boring.  It starts off sounding like a folk tale or a song with the stanzas ending with multicolored “Oh Yes!  Oh Yes” and “Oh No! Oh No!”  But it soon looses that pace and seems to drag on and on as Yusef tries to come up with a way to defeat the baboons who are stealing his sap.

          On the other hand, the black backgrounds and cut paper flora and fauna make the reader feel as if they, too, are in the rainforest and are much more interesting than the story.

         

 

Martin, Jr. Bill; Eric Carle, illustrator. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do

You See?  New York:  Henry Holt and Co.  1992

 

          In this pattern book, the reader asks animal after animal, “ What do you see?”  The animals that the reader sees are the big, brightly colored tissue paper creations of Eric Carle.  Each animal leads to another until the reader reaches the teacher and, finally her class.  The class then recounts all of the animals that came before.  The text and pictures are fun to look at and read, respectively.  Children ages 2-4 will enjoy the repetition and rhyme of the text, which is short enough to fit their attention span.  The pictures, which consisted of, for the most part, one animal per spread, will help young children with identifying and labeling animals.  The pattern would also be helpful to an older, struggling reader.

         

 

Ringgold, Faith. Tar Beach.  New York:  Crown Publishers, Inc.  1991

 

          Cassie Louise Lightfoot can claim anything in New York, all she has to do is fly over it from her base on the “Tar Beach” which is her apartment building’s roof.  In this seemingly simple story, Faith Ringgold touches on issues as big as prejudice and as small as a little girl’s wish to have ice cream every night for dessert. This magical story takes the reader all over Harlem and up around the George Washington Bridge, which Cassie claims as her own, since it opened on the very day she was born.  I loved this story and the illustrations, acrylic on canvas paper, that accompany it.  The medium gives the pictures the feel of the quilt that inspired the story.  That fact, too, seems to add something to this family story.  The border at the bottom of each page, patchwork squares topped by a band of canvas on which the words are printed, maintain this feeling.

           

 

McCloskey, Robert.  Make Way for Ducklings.  New York:  Viking Press,

Inc.  1941

 

          I remember this book from grade school and couldn’t resist going back to it for my “Caldecott Book” to see if it stood the test of time.  It is still a sweet story about a family of ducks who literally stop traffic in Boston on their way to a new home.  The illustrations are wonderful, realistic pencil sketches, that work well with the text.  The large size of the book and the spread design of the artwork make it perfect for read alouds.  The pictures are obviously dated, from the make of the cars to the clothes worn by the bystanders.  The book is also dated by the fact that all of the bystanders are white, all of the policemen (emphasis on “men”) seem to be Irish and, in the story itself, Papa Duck goes off (to work?) while Mama Duck raises the kids…oops, ducklings.

         

 

Poetry

 

Gunning, Monica.  Fabricio Vanden Broeck, Illustrator.  Under the

          Breadfruit Tree:  Island Poems.  Honesdale, PA:  Boyds Mills

          Press, Inc.  1998

 

          Monica Gunning’s collection is subtitled “Island Poems” and those two words say it all.  Everything about this book makes you feel as if you were far, far away in Jamaica.  With names like Aunt Mae’s Breadfruit Trees, Mangoes Are Ripening and Ocean Breezes, Gunning sets the stage.  Her language and phrasing transport the reader.  But her poetry isn’t just picturesque images from the islands.  In The City Cousin, she tells about a cousin who comes to visit…

                             dressed in socks and patent leather,

                             fancy ribbons, fancy dress.

while the narrator “…squirm[s] in old T-shirt and shorts.”  But the cousin hates being all “fancy” and the two change clothes, leaving her free to go out and play while Gunning stands “…frozen by the mirror” transformed.

          Gunning also includes a series of poems about her best friend which begins with My Friend Connie.  Gunning describes running a three-legged race with Connie:

                             Hobbling in last, it doesn’t matter,

                             we grasp each other’s hands and smile.

The image is revisited in The Wake.  Connie has died after an illness and the narrator wants to say good-bye:

                             I stare at her just lying there.

                             She’s stiff and still, with lifeless hands.

                             Rush like the wind, far from her side,

                             afraid to touch my best friend’s hand.

The poems in this collection took my breath away.

          Gunning’s poems are complemented by Fabricio Vanden Broeck’s scratchboard illustrations.  They are simple, black and white illustrations that elaborate on the poems without getting in their way of the reader’s interpretation.

         

 

Baird, Audrey B.  Patrick O’Brien, illustrator.  Storm Coming!        Honesdale, PA:  Boyds Mills Press, Inc.  2001

 

          This collection of 22 poems about storms takes the reader from rising heat and wind that indicate the onset of a summer storm to the fresh and refreshing smell and feel once it’s gone.  In between, we see the Firebolt of lightening, represented in a concrete poem.  We hear the Matinee Storm Concert by the Midsummer Philharmonic, punctuated by ...

                             CRESCENDO!

                             DELUGE!

                             CLOUDBURST!

We feel the boredom of a Dull, Dumb Day when you can’t go outside and experience the wonder of the rainbow in Our Sponsor Is….

          Despite the power of Baird’s subject, I felt that the poems were, overall, simplistic and cutesy.  The exceptions are the “small poems,” the ones not about the storm itself, like Dull, Dumb Day, Reflections, about the reflections in puddles and Puddle.

          O’Brien’s illustrations, which serve as background to the poems, are to literal and inescapable.  They include almost every image in each poem and, since you have to look at the picture to read the poem, leave nothing to the reader’s imagination.  Overall, I was very disappointed in this collection.

         

 

Realistic Fiction

 

Fox, Paula.  Monkey Island.  New York:  Dell Yearling.  1991.

 

          First his father, who has been out of work, disappears.  Then he and his pregnant mother are forced to live in a welfare hotel.  Then his mother disappears.  And now 11 year old Clay Garrity is all alone.  He is afraid of the police and of the bureaucracy that did nothing but force his mother to spend hours filling out forms and “waiting a hundred years” to talk to someone.  What if they take him away and his mother returns?  She’ll never be able to find him!  Clay’s fear leads him to a life on the streets and a new family comprised of two older homeless men who take care of him.  But can he survive the winter?

          I found this book terrifying as an adult.  Probably because one of the men who Clay finds is a former high school math teacher who’s apartment burned down.  He lands on the street because he has no savings and his pension isn’t enough to save him.  Maybe that hits a little too close to home…?  The fact that Clay is able to persevere and survive his ordeal is heartening.  And his trip through “the system” is shorter and sweeter than many.  The novel points out the helplessness of being a child and being forced to depend on others, but it also brings to light the many reasons why people do what they do.  Upon their reunion, Clay’s mother talks about the panic that led her to leave, the feeling that he’d be better off without her.  Clay’s emotions during this period are disturbing, but realistic.  Fox doesn’t smooth over the fact that he is a child and he was deserted by the people he should have been able to count on no matter what.

 

Non-print

 

Scholastic.  The Magic School Bus In The Rainforest.  WarnerVision

Entertainment.  2000

 

          Based on The Magic School Bus series published by Scholastic, this video features a wild fieldtrip to the rainforest.  The class has rented a cocoa tree in the rainforest for Ms. Frizzle in honor of Earth Day (her favorite holiday).  In addition to the good the students are doing, contributing to the care of the tree, Ms. Frizzle also gets all of the cocoa beans from the tree for the whole year.  As everyone knows, cocoa beans are the base for chocolate, Ms. Frizzle’s favorite food!  But there’s a problem, the cocoa beans from Ms. Frizzle’s tree have disappeared!  It’s up to the class to figure out what’s happened.

          Though the animation isn’t “Disney” quality, it matches the illustrations in the series of books and it’s a good background for this educational and amusing story.  The video not only introduces viewers to various animals of the rainforest, it makes a point of portraying the “web of life.”  Students are urged to look at the big picture, not just the problem at hand.  The video ends with an “ask the producer” section, where viewers phone the producer (who is in the process of making hot chocolate out of Ms. Frizzle’s cocoa beans) to ask about loose ends in the video or make comments.

           

 

DK Interactive Learning.  My First Amazing History Explorer. 

Dorling Kindersly.  1998

 

          My First Amazing History Explorer gives players a chance to explore a number of historical periods while searching for Professor Timestein.  The Professor was deposited somewhere in history by the Historical Fugitive, who is irritated that not enough people are studying history.  After a rather lengthy introduction, the player is asked to check the mission log and begin.  The player must visit each historical period, which include ancient Greece, medieval Europe and the Roman Empire, to collect pieces of the time log.  Each period contains a number of links which, when clicked on, give information about the period.  Areas such as religion, what it was like to be a kid in the era and family life are covered.  One link in each period includes the time log piece which the player clicks on to insert it into the log.  While looking for the pieces, the player can fill her journal with stickers which she earns by answering questions, pictures of herself taken in different eras (the player chooses how she wants to look at the beginning of the game), and other fun facts such as the translations of common Roman nicknames and which sports were played in the ancient Greek Olympics.

          This is a really great game!  The graphics are excellent.  They are clear and, though not lifelike, definitely up to Playstation standards.  The video moves smoothly and the sound is clear.  The disk (which I checked out of the library) installs automatically and can be used on Mac or PC.  The game saves automatically under the player’s name, which is entered at the beginning of the game and more than one player can have their game saved.

          Though this is the only game on the disk, it will definitely keep kids involved for a while.  Even just looking for the time log pieces (I was trying to see what happens when you win) after an hour, I only had two, and I had not completed any of the journal pages (though I have a great picture of my alter ego in front of the Forum!).  If a player really tries to fill up the journal as well as solve the puzzle, he will be busy for days.  The icons that the player clicks on to find out information are animated and hilarious and make it nearly impossible to go by without finding out who they are and what they’re doing.