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.