Sunday, May 3, 2009

Because of Winn-Dixie

Choosing a book to read that has been made into a feature film can be a bit tricky. Often times the book is much better than the movie. Sometimes the film is better but leaves out a lot of the plot from the book. Sometimes the film is only a glimpse of what the book was about. When I selected Kate DiCamillo's Newbery Honor book, Because of Winn-Dixie, I had already read The Tale of Despereaux and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, two other titles also written by DiCamillo. I thoroughly enjoyed both of those books and I couldn't remember why I hadn't read her Newbery Honor book. I was skeptical because I had heard that the film version of The Tale of Despereaux did not follow the book and wondered if Winn-Dixie would have the same fate. I'll admit that I was also curious about a book with "Winn-Dixie" in the title. Having lived in Florida for 17 years, I knew that the Winn-Dixie was a well-known supermarket chain in that state.

The book was wonderful and a really easy read. Opal is a charming character that claims a mangy-looking ownerless dog at the Winn-Dixie. She finds a friend in the dog and meets a host of unusual characters through the book that need a friend just as much as she does. Throughout the book Opal is also trying to understand why her mother left her father (the preacher) and her. Opal comes to understand that "you can't hold on to anything - you can only love what you've got while you've got it." With Winn-Dixie around, her father begins to come out of his "turtle shell" and Opal begins to realize that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to her friends Ms. Gloria Dump, Ms. Fanny Block, Otis, the Dewberry boys, Sweetie Pie Thomas, and pinch-faced Amanda.

Overall, the movie stayed true to the book and I enjoyed it. Jeff Daniels plays the preacher dad and Cicely Tyson and Eva Marie Saint play Miss Block and Miss Dump, respectively. A few characters, such as the trailer park manager and the local policeman, had extra parts in the movie. The policeman had some comical scenes and Mr. Alfred, the trailer park manager came to tolerate Winn-Dixie after a rocky start. The Dewberry boys also had some funny scene-stealers. The part of Otis, the pet shop clerk, was played by the musician Dave Matthews. He plays the socially awkward guitarist who has a calming effect on all the animals. I would recommend reading the book first (Kate DiCamillo's first book is as awesome as the other two I read!) and then seeing the movie. Readers will not be disappointed with the movie version.

The Lorax, Didactic Literature, Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big, and The Great Kapok Tree

The Lorax
is considered didactic because it teaches the consequences of misusing the environment. Today, didactic children's books are published more as cautionary tales of what happens when we make inappropriate choices. Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big, by Berkeley Breathed, tells the story of Edwurd and his reputation of fibbing. As it turns out, his sister Fannie is the culprit of the lie this time. Readers will appreciate Edwurd's fantastic creation of the chain of events that leads to the broken pig. They will also learn the importance of telling the truth and not following in the footsteps of someone who is making poor choices.

Another title, The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry, is also a great piece of didactic literature. The story could be used to teach students about the destruction/conservation of the rainforest and the plants and animals of this ecosystem. The beautiful illustrations are also great teaching tools. Although this title was written in 1990 I chose it because the students in my class really enjoyed the book and gained a greater understanding of the effects one person can have on the rainforest habitat.

Dr. Seuss and Tension In Today's Literature

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems contains a bit of tension! As students read the book they realize that the pigeon has been told not to drive the bus. They also realize that the pigeon is pleading and begging, using every possible reason that seems to make sense, to get permission to drive. I'm certain that readers of all ages can relate to this type of persuasion! Students will also relate to the story because they know that the grown pigeon, just like their parents, has good reasons for not allowing the pigeon to drive the bus. They also have an idea about what will happen if the pigeon gets behind the wheel. I believe that this book appeals to readers because they envision themselves driving a big bus!

David Goes to School. by David Shannon also contains tension. School-age readers will read about David's behavior and think "He shouldn't be doing that!" The readers know and follow the rules. They do not like getting into trouble and I believe it makes them a bit nervous when they see David making more and more poor choices. This book appeals to children because they are able to see what happens and how other students react when someone doesn't follow the rules.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Caldecott and Newbery Awards

The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually to an illustrator of children's picture books who provides a child with a "visual experience." In this case "children's" refers to children up to the age of fourteen. In order to qualify for this prestigious award the illustrator must be a United States citizen or resident. The work must be published in English and considered "original work." The award may be given posthumously. The Caldecott Medal is given to illustrators for distinguished work or excellence in artistic technique, pictorial interpretation and appropriateness of the story, theme, or concept. Selection committee members also consider delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood, or information specifically as they apply to picture books written for children.

The John Newbery Medal is awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature published in English in the United States. The author must be a citizen or resident of the United States and may be awarded posthumously. Authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry are considered. Selection committee members consider interpretation of the theme or topic, presentation of information (accuracy, clarity, organization), delineation of characters and setting, development of the plot, and appropriateness of style. The decision is based primarily on the text of the book and its contribution to literature. The Newbery is the best-known and most discussed children's book award in the United States.

Is one award better than the other?

In my personal opinion one award is not better than the other. The authors and illustrators who are selected to receive these awards are phenomenal on their own and are selected because of their excellence and distinguished quality of work. The recipient of the Caldecott Award is an illustrator who creates authentic work that complements text. Not only does the illustrator need to have great artistic ability, he or she must be able to make the connection between the illustrations and text. On the other hand, the Newbery Award winner must be able to write a story that stands solely on the text without regard to illustrations. The recipient of either award must be a standout in his or her category with incredible talent.

Nim's Island

As I read Nim's Island, written by Wendy Orr, I was drawn to the life that Nim and her father have created on the island. The two live in seclusion and have many modern amenities such as cell phones, computers, and satellite capabilities. Their life is very similar to the characters in Swiss Family Robinson (a favorite classic), only Nim and her father choose to live alone and are very happy with their circulstances. The book is a great little read and children (and adults) will enjoy the details of their adventures. Readers will also find Nim's island/animal friends delightful.

When comparing the book and movie I found that they were slightly different and that the translation to film added details that enhanced the book but didn't take away from the story. The film version gave more information about the writer's life. Alex Rover has quite a few "conversations" with the hero of her novels and the hero encourages her to leave her apartment and take a chance in order to help Nim - even though adventure is something that Alexandra only writes about. Nim, on the other hand, is a real adventurer and is relying on her email connection with Alex, the hero, to get her through a scary time. Throughout the movie, Alex's father is portrayed as the adventurer in the novels. The movie gives more scenes to him (played by Gerard Butler) than the book allows, but it also shows more of the father-daughter relationship and the special connection the two have.

The "bad guys" that are trying to take over the island are tourists in both the movie and book but they have different names. At one point in the movie they come ashore and have a big party/luau. Nim meets a boy (not mentioned in the book) from the ship as she is setting up her own attack to get rid of the intruders. Even he understands the importance of keeping the island secluded.

The entire book and movie is full of fun adventure and survival action. I believe this would be a great book for students to read and compare/contrast with the movie. Comparing and contrasting the two would lead to a opportunity to discuss creative license and leaving out sections of the book that might have been important to the story or made the movie even better.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ruby's Wish

Ruby's Wish, written by Shirin Yim Bridges, is an true story about a young girl in China who wants to go to the university to get an education instead of following the tradition of growing up and getting married. This inspiring story tells of a determined little girl who works hard to make time for studies as well as learning how to cook and clean house. The mothers, at that time in China, thought that learning to cook and clean house so that they could get a good husband was much more important that studying for a chance to go to the university. As Ruby tries to "do it all" many of the other girls give up the studies. Ruby's grandfather continually encourages her as he notices her talent in calligraphy and poetry. He finds out that Ruby believes that the boys are better looked after than the girls but he tells her to continue with her studies. Eventually she is rewarded for her hard work when her grandfather presents her with a letter of acceptance to the university.

I believe this would be a wonderful addition to every elementary collection. All children, boys and girls alike, will appreciate the story of Ruby and be encouraged to work hard to achieve their dreams. The story also shows the rewards of being independent and determined while being respectful of traditions and culture. The story, illustrated in beautiful watercolors, gives readers a look at the Chinese culture and how it has changed just in the past 80 years. The readers will also see that even when your wishes and dreams seem impossible you shouldn't give up on them. If a small girl can change her destiny and how her culture percieves a girl's place in society then the readers will see that they can accomplish great things, too.

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Moose Flanagan, a 12-year-old boy, lives on Alcatraz Island, a maximum security prison near San Fransisco, California. He lives there with his father, a guard and electrician at the prison, his mother, and his sister Natalie. Natalie has special needs that the doctors in the year 1935 have not been able to diagnose. Moose's parents are trying to get Natalie accepted into a school that will help "cure" her. This story is more about Moose's relationship with his parents and sister, and how his family and new friends on the island address Natalie's condition, than about Al Capone.

Moose is very protective of his sister and at the same time overwhelmed with the responsibility that he is given to take care of her while his mother and father work. The two meet some unusual friends on the island in a Theresa, a 7-year-old and Piper, the warden's sneaky daughter. Despite Moose's best intentions trouble follows as well as some unusual adventures. Gennifer Choldenko, the author, skillfully shows Moose's balance of frustration in a situation he has no control of and his love for his sister.

While this story is completely fictional, the families of workers actually lived on Alcatraz while it was open and the details of the book are realistic. As I read the story I was drawn in immediately. I had no idea that the book was about autism and how this family and the medical world tried to understand the disease. Growing up I had a sister with special needs and found that, just like Moose, I could not communicate with her as I would another person. I often had babysitting duty and I remember trying to teach her things that I thought would help her along. I understood Moose's frustration and his unconditional love for Natalie. I highly recommend this book and will read Choldenko's first novel Notes From a Liar and Her Dog and her future titles!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Jar of Dreams

A Jar of Dreams, written by Yoshiko Uchida, is a lovely story about a young girl learning to appreciate her heritage and culture. As I read this book I tried to remember if I'd read any historical fiction like this as I was growing up. I don't believe I did and if I had it would have made all the difference in the world. Too often we are limited in the resources we have to find out about history. We are often stuck with textbooks and facts. Rinko's story would have been a welcome reprieve from the dry information I sorted through in middle school and I would have been able to compare her life with mine as I learned more about the Depression and the Japanese-Americans that immigrated to the United States for a better life.

This story helped me to realize that many families changed their religious beliefs and some of their traditions to something totally different than those of family members from their native country. Many of the family's Japanese traditions stayed the same but Uchida's story also told of the family's day-to-day activities that mirrored my life at that age - fighting with your brother, helping with chores, having friends and neighbors that are like family, and wondering if you will like a family member you have never met.

I really enjoyed this story and found some important topics that everyone can connect with. Uchida reminds us that family and education is important, and that our heritage is something to be proud of - just as we should be proud of the person we are becoming. She also helped the reader understand the prejudice the Japanese-Americans were subject to during a time when life was difficult for everyone. Uchida also wrote The Magic Listening Cup, The Best Bad Thing, The Happiest Ending, Journey Home, and The Bracelet.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

I chose the Newbery Honor Book An American Plague by Jim Murphy because I was intrigued by the story of the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia. I was born and raised in Pennsylvania and find myself drawn to any newsworthy event, current or historical, that took place in the Keystone State. I'll admit that I am not a big fan of nonfiction but wanted to give this award-winner a chance. As I began the read I was drawn in immediately. The story reads like fiction and kept my interest throughout. I thought it was most interesting when Murphy told about the great historical figures and everyday folk that were affected by the fever and the general thoughts about how to cure this horrible disease.

Honestly, I have read only a handful of nonfiction books on purpose. An American Plague reminded me of two nonfiction titles in particular: The Hot Zone and Lincoln: A Photobiography. Both of those titles were extremely well written and enthralling from the very beginning. The Hot Zone, like An American Plague, told the story of disease and the feeling of helplessness as the epidemic took hold. Doctors in both situations were racing to find the cause and cure of a deadly infection. Lincoln: A Photobiography, on the other hand, written by Russell Freedman, reminded me of the fact that there are writers who are so skilled in their craft that they are able to pull the reader into the story and keep them enthusiastically turning the pages to the very end.

I would certainly recommend An American Plague. History buffs will find the facts about our nation's capital in 1793 an interesting read as they discover George Washington leading the nation from outside the capital and our government faltering slightly under the strain of the plague. Others will find the history of yellow fever and its effects on Philadelphia gripping. They will also realize that there is still no cure for this horrible disease and know that those who contract it will have to endure the same symptoms described in this book.


Aquamarine, by Alice Hoffman, was a fun and mystical read about two 12 year-old girls, Claire and Hailey, that find a mermaid at the local beach club. At this point the movie and book differ quite a bit. The Capri Beach Club is closing for good at the end of the summer (not so, in the movie) and the girls are dreading Claire's move to Florida with her grandparents. In the movie Hailey is moving to Australia and Claire stays in Florida (where the movie is taking place).

The girls meet Aqua when a storm splashes her into the pool at the club. They befriend her and their adventure is the best thing the two can imagine, considering their life will change dramatically at the same time the Club closes. The book tells of the girls' wide-eyed excitement as they become friends with a mermaid. Aqua never leaves the water. The movie takes Aqua out of the water and gives her legs. Her goal in the movie is to find out if love really does exist. Enter Raymond. In Hoffman's version the girls and Raymond are friends and they introduce him to Aqua because she asks them to before she goes back to the sea. The movie has Aqua falling for Raymond, but the girls have crushes on him, too.

I thought the book was a great short read, but I can see that 8-12 year-old girls would enjoy both the book and the movie. The story about friendship is sweet and magical. I thought the movie added a few fun twists as it included starfish earrings that whispered encouraging and uplifting thoughts ("suck-ups") to the girls and Aqua's changing toenail polish colors. The movie also tied Claire's parents death to Aqua in that Aqua remembers seeing a couple on a boat (very much in love), which leads her on a search for love herself.

The book and movie end with Aqua finding that love exists in the friendship she has found with the girls and Raymond. As I read this book I thought that the girls in my third grade class would really enjoy the read and the fantasy of finding a mermaid. Of course, all the students could relate to having a long-time friend that is about to move. Aquamarine is a story about growing up and the end of certain chapters in our lives.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sam and the Tigers

When I checked for titles by Julius Lester and found Sam and the Tigers I had a brief recollection of a story that was read to me as a child. I remembered the story of tigers chasing one another around a tree and a boy with brightly colored clothes having pancakes at the end of the story. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sam and the Tigers was a re-telling of Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo. As a child, and even as an adult (up until about ten years ago), I didn't realize the original was criticized for racial stereotyping. I remembered the book about the boy that lived in a faraway place who got to see tigers every day just like I saw cows and other animals on a farm every day. It seemed magical to me at the time. Just like the original, Sam encounters tigers and trades his beautiful new clothes for his safety. Children will enjoy this picture book, and as an adult I found the re-telling a fun read with beautiful illustrations. I also found the author's notes at the end of the story the best part of the book. I enjoyed the history of both books that included information about the re-telling of the story and re-inventing the illustrations. More stories by Julius Lester include: To Be a Slave, The Long Journey Home: Stories From Black History, This Strange New Feeling, The Tales of Uncle Remus, Say of Tears, A Novel in Dialogue, and John Henry (also illustrated by Jerry Pinkney). Pinkney also illustrated Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, The Sunday Outing, Back Home, and The Talking Eggs.


Feathers, written by Jacqueline Woodson, tells the story of Frannie and her life in the early 1970's. This book touches so many themes that it would be a wonderful addition to every school library media center collection. Frannie's story has a multitude of characters from Trevor, the class bully, and Samantha her church-going friend, to Jesus Boy, the new white kid in an all black school, and her deaf brother Sean. Also, Frannie's mother is pregnant and the rest of her family worries about this pregnancy as they remember previous miscarriages. All the characters in the book share a common thread in that they have the thing with feathers - hope, and the desire to move forward. The book also addresses the end of segregation, but the characters note the continued separation and refer to the "white side of the highway." I really enjoyed this book. It reminded me of growing up in the 60s and 70s with bell-bottoms, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and The Jackson 5. I would have been ten at the time and Frannie's life in the city was quite different compared to my life in the country. I also liked the fact that Woodson included a teacher, Ms. Johnson, that influenced Frannie and brought out the writer in this young character.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, is a lovely story and a visual treat. The illustrations really are stunning. Initially when I chose the book I thought it might be a Newbery winner because of its length. I had no idea that a Caldecott medal winner could be a chapter book, let alone a 500+ pages chapter book. Two hundred eighty-four of the pages of Hugo's story are illustrations. The black border reminds me of a graphic novel but the black and white illustrations remind me of a silent film. The reader sees the story transform from illustration to illustration as each "pane" moves the story along. I felt as if I were following someone with a camera that was chasing after, or peeking in on, the characters of the story. When the story begins we find Hugo, a 12 year old, taking care of himself and all the clocks in the train station. His parents are dead and his uncle, who is supposed to be taking care of the clocks and Hugo, left months ago and has not returned. He is staying within the walls of the train station. He has no food, no friends, and no family. He finds himself in trouble with a man that runs the toy booth next door. Hugo has been stealing from him. He meets the man's goddaughter, Isabelle, and eventually befriends her. Hugo is interested in magic, movies, and the interworkings of clocks and all types of machines. He is working on a "mechanical" man that his father left for him and he is trying to solve several mysteries. As the mysteries unfold we find out that the magic, movies, and machines play an integral part in the telling of the story. The bits and pieces of information we learn about early filmmaking and the director Georges Melies and his role in the start of the film industry is very interesting. Films, just like books, take you to places and times you've never been and may never be able to go. Melies understood that and appreciated the wonder of being taken to another time and place. Selznick takes the reader of this story on a visit to 1931 Paris. The illustrations more than move the story along, they give the reader a glimpse into life in Paris at that time. Years and years ago I visit France with other students from my high school French Club. I fell in love with the magic of it all and remember it fondly. Reading about Hugo's adventure with Isabelle and the mystery surrounding Isabelle's godfather reminded me of my own fun adventure years ago!

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Mordicai Gerstein wrote and illustrated this story that is a tribute to a daring man and the towers. As I read the account of Philippe Petit's plan and follow-through of this exciting and dangerous act I felt a little nervous. Heights have that effect on me. Petit was a quarter of a mile high when he completed the walk from tower to tower on the morning of August 7, 1974. He stayed on the wire for over an hour and even lay down to rest for a short time. Several pages of the artwork shows the beautiful and breathtaking view from the top of the towers. One page depicts his walk from steeple to steeple of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris with great detail. Two other pages open up and fold out into a four page spread. This must have been a pretty exciting scene to behold for onlookers below on the streets of New York City. As I read this book I tried to imagine what I was doing back in 1974. I believe that Philippe Petit's year may have been a bit more exciting than mine!

Thursday, February 26, 2009


I read this book to my third grade students. I had knowledge of Rosa Parks but didn't know much of the story behind her challenge. As I read to my students we stopped and talked about the difficulties and suffering that took place at that time in history. Of course, the students could not believe that people were treated with such disrespect or that segregation could ever have existed. We also discussed the Supreme Court ruling and its message that we are all equal under the law. I really appreciated the background information given about Mrs. Parks. Her fight for equality started on a day like any other. She was able to leave work early and planned to make a nice meatloaf dinner for her husband. The bus ride home was life-changing for Rosa and people all over the world. This truly amazing woman who said "No" took a stand for for what is right and just. Nikki Giovanni tells the story beautifully and Bryan Collier's stunning collage and watercolor illustrations are the perfect companion to her words.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sector 7

Sector 7, a Caldecott Honor Book written by David Wiesner, relies solely on the illustrations to tell the story of a boy that takes a fantastic journey from the top of the Empire State Building to a station in the sky that gives clouds their destination for the day. The boy's imagination and creative drawings stir up some trouble with those in charge of cloud arrivals and departures. As I "read" Sector 7 it reminded me a bit of Chris Van Allsburg's work. Where does he come up with those incredible ideas? Wiesner's illustrations and story idea gave me that same thought. I really enjoyed the glimpse into his magical world. Children and adults will remember, as I do, a time when they gazed at the sky and searched for fanciful shapes, pictures, and animals. Students would have a fun time writing their own version of the story for Sector 7.

Zen Shorts

I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I read Zen Short's. Of course, the title is a play on words - the panda, Stillwater, wears shorts. There are also "short" Zen/meditation stories within the picture book. Stillwater appears outside the house of three children. Each child shares an adventure with Stillwater, their new neighbor. Stillwater tells stories about life, the choices we make, and our perceptions about life. I really enjoyed the illustrations. The story about the children is illustrated with watercolors and the "shorts" are drawn in ink. Jon J. Muth, author and illustrator, captures the wide-eyed curiousity and excitement of a toddler (on tiptoes) that cannot believe his eyes! I have a nephew that has that same "tiptoe" excitement when he is trying to share something incredible. Muth's illustrations in the short "Uncle Ry and the Moon" also made me smile as I read about a robber - illustrated as a raccoon. I will remember to read this book to my third grade students when we talk about fables and other selections that encourage the students to think about the author's purpose for writing. I also found the Author's Note at the end of the book very helpful. Muth gives a short history of "Zen" and explains that his characters' names come from Japanese and Zen history.

My Friend Rabbit

This story, written and illustrated by Eric Rohmann, about Rabbit and Mouse is a wonderful reminder of friendship and how, as children, we loved to be around and worshiped our older brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors, etc. The illustrations are such an integral part of the story and show the fun and excitement that Mouse gets to experience just by being part of Rabbit's life. I had older cousins and thought their lives were so much more interesting and exciting than mine. Rabbit, like any older and wiser friend, has a plan. The plan does not work as anticipated, but Mouse knows that Rabbit means well and realizes that the "trouble" they encounter is worth it because he gets to spend time with Rabbit. My Friend Rabbit could be used to introduce cause and effect and students familiar with The Napping House will appreciate the antics that lead to the tumble at the end of the book.