Thursday, September 29, 2011

Monster Hunt: Exploring Mysterious Creatures

Monster Hunt: Exploring Mysterious Creatures
Hyperion Book, 2011

Want to go on a hunt for monsters?

Self-taught writer, artist, and natural scientist, Jim Arnosky, explores the mythical creatures Bigfoot, the kraken (the giant squid), giant sharks, and the Loch Ness Monster in the picture book Monster Hunt. In the brief introduction, Arnosky states, “I’m going on a monster hunt. Come along. Wonder with me.” Arnosky introduces the science known as cryptozoology, the scientific study of animals whose existence has not yet been proven. By recounting the history of these mythical creatures, and investigating prehistoric animals that have survived from present, Arnosky has supplied a fun and informative book for students in grades three through five.

There are times when Arnosky uses the scientific name for a creature. For example, a charcharodon is the largest shark to have ever swum in the ocean. He identifies the other names for Bigfoot (Sasquatch, Snunk Ape, and Grassman) and speculates about what creatures really do lurk below Loch Ness and Lake Champlain.

Arnoksy’s illustrations of these famous cryptids are at times menacing, but I feel that they heighten the effects of the adventure he takes us on as we explore the scary, mysterious mythical creatures. 

By inviting the reader to take the journey into the world of the unexplained phenomenon, students (and some adults) are eager to learn about the history of these creatures and delve deeper into the science that surrounds them. This book would be a great read aloud to introduce a lesson on any mythical creature or any mystery. Arnosky concludes the book by saying, "I hope we solve the mysteries of Bigfoot, Champ, and Nessie. And when we do, I hope new mysteries crop up to take their place. We need mystery." I agree. A good, healthy mystery can keep our minds active. That is just what Monster Hunt does!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Titanic: Book One--Unsinkable (Historical Fiction Chapter Book)

Titanic: Book One--Unsinkable
By Gordon Korman

This thrilling first of a three part series, Titanic: Book One--Unsinkable  takes us on board the fated  RMS Titanic while following the adventures of four of its young passengers.

We follow four young people and their strange journeys to the Titanic.  Street dweller Paddy, honest Alife, entitled Juliana, and driven Sophie all got to the Titanic in different ways, but their paths intersect as the doomed ship heads towards America.

Paddy Burns was living on the streets of  Belfast with his companion Daniel Sullivan. In a very Dickens manner, they survived as pick pockets. While scouting a crowd, they bumped into the famed architect of the Titanic, Mr. Thomas Andrews. Daniel, a bit of an inquisitor, asked Mr. Andrews if the Titanic was really unsinkable. Mr. Andrews then asked Daniel to think about ways it might sink. After stealing money from the biggest gang in Belfast, the Gilhooley's, Daniel and Paddy must face the consequences. In a fury of adventure, Paddy ends up a stowaway on the Titanic with only the blueprints that Daniel had produced for Mr. Andrews.

Juliana Glamm, daughter of the Earl of Glamford, was introduced to the ship Titanic as a passanger on her father's "flying machine." Although her father is kind and well meaning, he is trapped in the addiction of thrill seeking behaviors. He surprises Juliana with the news that they would be sailing on the Titanic's maiden voyage.

Alfie Huggins, son of coal shoveling John Huggins, lied about his age and applied to the White Star Line as a steward. His mother had just passed on and he was happy to be aboard a ship with his father in the boiler room.

Fourteen-year old Sophie Bronson landed on the Titanic after her mother, Mrs. Amelia Bronson, was thrown in a London jail after demonstrating in Piccadilly Circus about women's suffrage. Her father, back in Boston, had sent money for their release and transport.Sophie's mother is a staunch advocate and pioneer for women's rights. She has to "take care" of her mother at every turn. Embarrassed by her mother's passion, Sophie, without being brash, is the embodiment of the women's right movement.

John Jacob Astor IV and wife Madeleine 
This action packed book is ideal for the student who loves historical fiction. I was transported back to 1912 and felt the lives of these four young people come to life. The book begins with a prologue on April 15, 1912 aboard the RMS Carpathia. Knowing that the Carpathia is the rescue ship helped put this in context.
I was personally enthralled with the story. At first I thought I was going to get a rehash of the 1999 movie with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DeCaprio. Far from it! This action packed adventure book had me guessing at each turn. I'm quite excited to dive into the next two installments!

Titanic is a quick read. The language might pose obstacles for students who are unfamiliar with natucal terms, British-English, and the disaster of the Titanic. As a read aloud, I would make sure to review these ideas and concepts. With the looming one-hundred anniversary of the disaster, it would be a great book to build a social studies unit around.

This video, by Scholastic, previews the three Titanic books by Gordon Korman.

Gordon Korman Speaking at the 2011 National Book Festival   

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Alfred Zector: Book Collector

Alfred Zector: Book Collector
Illustrated by Macky Pamintuan 
HarperCollins Publishers, 2010

Alfred Zector is the epitome of a bookworm.  As a young boy, he wanted to belong.  But he soon discovers that books brought him extreme pleasure. However, Alfred’s bibliophilia begins to boarder on the side of bibliomania. Alfred's cabinets are devoid of dishes and crammed with books. He can clearly see the swaying stacks of books that surround him, but he proclaims, "Not enough. I must have them ALL!" 

Alfred searched high and low to collect all the books in town. The final book to collect was one from a young child. Alfred traded his shiny red bike for the book as, "His fingers, they trembled. His eye held a tear." Finally, as he was in possession of all the books in town, he stocks his house up with food and supplies and locks the door. There he stayed, for years, reading the books in which he had collected. Alfred read everything from, "Seuss to Shakespeare." 

Meanwhile, the other members of the community became, "quite dullish, plain dreary, and wholly humdrum." Children in the town had NEVER been read to before!

Eventually, Alfred had come to the end of his collection. Now an old man, he had read every book. When he realizes that the book collection is blocking the door to his house, barring him from exiting, the excitement books once gave him turned into panic. Alfred climbed up, out of the house through the chimney. Once outside, he spotted a rusty old bicycle coming over the hill. Then, like a light bulb, Alfred realized what he must do. He through the young boy a book and proclaimed, "There's more where that came from! Go spread the word." Soon, Alfred was out of his house and giving books away to the towns people. People started reading again as Alfred declared, "The best kinds of books are the books that are shared." 

Frightened that this children's book might take a twist like that Twilight Zone with Burgess Meredith, I was pleasantly surprised at the the turn of events in Alfred's life. For students, this book can show the dangers of overindulging in  anything. Truly, moderation would have been the best thing for Alfred. For a few pages in the middle, I thought his family and friends might call Hoarders

The vibrant colors and artwork of Macky Pamintuan keeps the fun going throughout this book. Accompanied by DiPuchhio's rhyming verse, the pace is fast. I enjoyed this book because of the fun and it was about books. But I can only hope that the message of temperance is not lost in the hurried tempo. Alfred is to be admired, but he should also stand as a lesson of self-control. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Dog Needs a Bone

A Dog Needs a Bone
Story and Pictures by Audrey Wood
The Blue Sky Press, 2007

Every wonder what your dog is thinking while you are going about your day? Audrey Wood's A Dog Needs a Bone delves into the inner thoughts of a dog. 

The request is simple: a bone. However, the granting of that request is hard fought battle for our main character. He asks simply for something to chew on from his mistress. His begging is accompanied by a list of house chores he will perform including treating his mistress, "like a queen on a throne," if he can only get his bone. Also included, are a list of thing he will not do, such as dig up flowers in the garden or play with the toilet paper. 

Suddenly, our dog friend finds that his mistress has left. During her absence he snuggles with her scarf and sleeps in her bed. But, HARK? What does he hear? His mistress has returned from the store bearing treats. She tries to give him carrots, broccoli, and peas. Rejecting the peas, the mistress reached in the bag and pulled out a bone!

Audrey Wood's Pugs: Sumo and Duffy
A straightforward narrative, A Dog Needs a Bone provides stylish illustrations and a pleasurable journey. There is no deep message or underlying symbolism in the books. Rather there is an entertaining tale of a dog wanting a bone. Based loosely on Ms. Wood’s own pugs, this anthropomorphic anecdote does deliver a moment for paws…I mean…pause. What do our animal friends think throughout the day? 

How To Heal A Broken Wing

How to Heal a Broken Wing
Written and Illustrated by Bob Graham
Candlewick Press, 2008

A simply written story with a big heart, How to Heal a Broken Wing tells the story of young Will and a bird that he found with a broken wing. 

As the bird fall to the ground after crashing into the glass window of a tall skyscraper, nobody noticed. Nobody, but Will. Pulling his mother to the wounded bird, Will stands vibrant in the crowd as he cradles the bird. Bob Graham's choice to have Will in a bright, red coat tells us that this special little protagonist has a compassion beyond the average. A little scattered, Will's mom finally nestles the injured bird in her scarf, places him in her purse, and departs for home with Will on the subway. 

True to every great father in the world, Will's dad is quite startled when the family walks into their apartment with a new addition. Dad and Mom execute some first-aid, while Dad and Will assemble a home out of an old cardboard box and newspaper. Equipped with some food and water, the family keeps a close eye on the ailing bird. 

The next day, Dad comes home with a new cage. Will and Mom struggle to help the bird fly again. But soon, with time, "and a little hope," it is time to return to the city square where Will rescued the bird. Dad, with the bird in the cage, Mom, and Will climbed out of the subway terminal. Will took the bird into his hands and then opened them. They all watched as, "with a beat of its wings, the bird was gone." 

Although the narrative is heavily reliant upon Graham's illustrations and the words are few, the power that this book can impart is immeasurable. A small act of kindness can have a big impact. Our little protagonist, Will, shows that noticing the things that are happening in the world around us can profoundly influence the course of nature. Teaching students about random acts of kindness will make the world a more compassionate place to be. A symbolic book, How to Heal a Broken Wing will captivate students and adults who stop to ponder the little things in life.

Queen of the Falls (Non Fiction Picture Book)

Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011

Two-time Caldecott Medal winner, Chris Van Allsburg,author of Jumanji, The Polar Express, and and The Widow's Broom, tackles the true tale of a formidable woman in Queen of the Falls. The story revolves around former charm school teacher Annie Edson Taylor. For many years, Ms. Taylor offered classes in "dance and fine manners(you know, like the concierge did for Julia Robert’s character in Pretty Woman?!). Van Allsburg describes the sixty-two year old widow as, "short, plump, and fussy." A resident of Bay City, Michigan, Ms. Taylor was eventually due to close her school and say goodbye to her final student. 

Worried about her future and the possibility of ending up in the poorhouse, Annie began to ponder what work she could do to strike it rich. She could not envision herself doing ordinary tasks like cleaning houses or working in retail. Annie dreamed of a "get rich quick" scheme. Finally, she got it! "Annie Taylor would go over Niagara falls in a barrel."

After reading an article on the tourists at Niagara Falls, she decides that she would go over the falls in a barrel. In the years before reality television shows and stunt casting, Annie seemed to realize that the sensational nature of a sixty-two year old woman doing a daredevil act would draw many spectators, and hopefully reap a large monetary reward. (Even Evel Knievel would be shaking in his jump suit!)

Annie knew that she would need a good strong barrel, and quickly drew up plans. At first she was turned away by the barrel maker foreman, but her tenacity soon changed his mind and he put his three best men on the project. Annie was very hands on in the making of the barrel. “Annie worked alongside them, picking out each piece of the thick white oak they used.”

After the completion of her barrel, Annie hired Frank Russell. Van Allsburg does a masterful job of making this character look slimy, but not evil. Annie actually lied to Mr. Russell, telling him she was a woman of fourty-two years old (correct me if I’m wrong, Ms. Charm School, but a lady NEVER reveals her age!) “She looked old enough to be someone’s grandmother and appeared to have spent considerably more time baking pies than climbing mountains.”

Mr. Russell knew that Annie was determined. So, he agreed to represent her. If successful, he could take Annie on the circuit to lecture halls and theaters across the country. "When Annie and her barrel finally arrived in Niagra, Frank Russell made sure there were newspaper reporters at the train station." Mr. Russell clearly new how to promote Annie, but the question remained: Would she survive the fall? 

After waiting ten days from her arrival at Niagara, the day finally came for Annie to take her plunge over the falls. Annie and her barrel  were rowed out into the river by Fred Truesdale and his assistant, Billy Holleran. The men and Annie landed on a small island downriver. She strapped herself into the barrel, cushioned by multiple pillows. Annie says, "So long, boys," and she begins her bumpy journey towards the falls. As the barrel, with Annie in it, gushed over the falls, the spectators cheered, gasped, and then fell silent in anticipation of her emergence. 

Annie soon is taken out of the barrel, in one piece! Although, bruised and sore, she was able to walk to the doctor waiting to examine her. Now a true legend, Mr. Russell and Annie set out to capitalize on her daring adventure. Sadly, Mr. Russell ends up stealing Annie's famed barrel. Annie has a new barrel made and then hires Mr. Billy Banks to manage her post-Niagara Falls career. Again, she is robbed by Banks of her famed barrel. Not defeated, Annie returns to Niagara and sets up her own stand to peddle her post cards and sign autographs. 

Children's literature stalwart Chris Van Allsburg has scored yet again with this remarkable tale.
Van Allsburg once said that:
Illustrating is simply a matter of drawing something I've already experienced in my mind's eye. Because I see the story unfold as if it were on film, the challenge is deciding precisely which moment should be illustrated and from which point of view (qtd. in Cullinan, 1989).  Van Allsburg's technical skill and imaginative recreation of Annie Taylor's quest for fame and fortune is nothing less than masterful. This book is such an inspiration, yet it has a cautionary tale: Everyone does have their fifteen minutes of fame, but what do you do when the clock runs out?!

I remember back to the excitement of Jumanji. How thrilling it was! And then getting to watch the movie was even more exciting! It is fansincating that Annie Taylor's story has been made into a play which is now playing off-Broadway. Queen of the Mist is now showing at Transport Group, a very progressive theatre with a strong mission towards developing new work. How wonderful for students in the New York area to read Van Allsburg's beautiful book and then to see the stage production! (My dreams come true!) 

Filled with struggle and genuine heartache, 
I personally loved this story. The perseverance and  the tenacity of Ms. Annie Edson Taylor can be an example of how to pick yourself up, and try again! 

Annie Edson Talor died in 1921 at the age of 82.

Great References! 
Niagara. Assisting [Mrs. Anna E.] Taylor out of the barrel[sic] after her terrible trip over the falls
Niagara: Helping Mrs. [Anna E.] Taylor over the rocks below the falls
Niagrara. The barrel[sic] with its human freight on the way to the dreadful trip

A GREAT TED Talk with Chris Van Allsburg !

Another video of Chris Van Allsburg discussing Queen of the Falls

Shrinking Violet

Shrinking Violet 
Illustrated by Giselle Potter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001

As a young child, I was never that outgoing. I listened attentively and always followed directions. I was quite shy up until I began acting in high school. Soon, everyone notice that I was quite talented, and I eventually transformed into a very gregarious character. In Shrinking Violet, we watch the blossoming of Violet from a shy spectator of life, to an active participant.

Violet just wanted to shrink-up in public. For as long as she can remember, all she likes to do is watch what is happening. During class she writes in the palm of her hand, “I AM ALLERGIC TO ATTENTION.” Irwin, the class bully, is always teasing and taunting Violet with crude comments like, “You have fat knees and hairy arms.” Violet would scratch her skin and twirl her hair when faced with these anxious moments. But, her best friend Opal remains a constant support and true friend.

In private, for an audience that included only Opal, Violet would do amazing impersonations of Elvis Presley, the President, and Captain Hook. When Opal inquired as to why she didn’t perform for the whole class, Violet shriveled into a dead silence and once again began itching her skin and twirling her hair.

Back in class, Mrs. Maxwell announced that the class would be performing a play about the Milky Way galaxy. Mrs. Maxwell assigned Violet to the part of Lady Space, an off-stage voice. Violet was not itching or twirling her hair anymore. She was excited and began reciting her lines all over her house. She even knew everyone else’s lines! In rehearsals, Mrs. Maxwell had trouble with the students, who were playing the planets of our solar system. None of them could remember their blocking. She then taught them the phrase: “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.” Even the mnemonic device to remind them of the arrangement of the planets from the sun could not keep their stage orientation together.

Opening night soon came, along with “opening night jitters.” Everyone remembered their parts well…everyone except Irwin, who was playing the part of Mars. He spun around and crashed into scenery. “Now the planets looked like this: My Very Excellent Pizza Just Served Us Nine Mothers.” When time to deliver his lines, Irwin just stood there. Violet, from off-stage and in a perfect imitation of Irwin, proclaimed, “I am Irwin the Alien, maddest Martian on Mars. Scientists think there is no intelligent life on my planet. And they’re right!”

ZING! Irwin was dumbstruck in the lights. All he could do was “fidget and burp and twiddle his thumbs.” However, the performance continued and was met with thunderous applause. Backstage, Violet was met by several visitors and well wishers. Irwin tried to thank Violet for helping him out, but ended up insulting her all over again. This time, however, Violet did not shrink away. No more itching and no more twirling of hair!

Shrinking Violet tackles two very important topics. The first is the anxiety that we feel about being social situations that might be uncomfortable. I am often reminded of a joke that Jerry Seinfeld would tell about public speaking: “Surveys show that the #1 fear of Americans is public speaking. #2 is death. Death is #2. That means that at a funeral, the average American would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Students need to be reminded that there is a time and a place to let their lights shine. You cannot hid your talents under a bushel, but rather find a vehicle in which you let your passions soar.

This book should also be a reminder to students that bullying is unacceptable. Irwin’s behavior towards the shy Violet was completely hostile. If not for the support of friends like Opal, Violet could have deeper recessed into her introverted state. That is a place that can be dark, depressing, and extremely dangerous. When speaking to the class or performing in a skit, students must be reminded of respect. The only environment that truly works is a judgment free-zone.

Highlighted by Giselle Potter’s illustrations, which have a crude beauty to them, Shrinking Violet is now anything but. She has found her voice (although off-stage) and will not be afraid to use it in the future. Just as I found my passions, so too will young Violet. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Little Boy Detective Blue

Little Boy Detective Blue 
Illustrated by Tedd Arnold 
Orchard Books/New York, An Imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2011

As a former “Little Boy Blue” in my Hickory Dickory Dock Nursery School class, I have always had a special connection to the famed trumpet-playing, napping child tending to his livestock. Steve Metzger’s book Little Boy Detective Blue has only help amplify that love as we watch the older Little Boy Blue solve mysteries of the whole Mother Goose nursery rhyme family.

The book begins with an introduction from Detective Blue. He let's us know that he had once blown a horn and took care of cows and sheep. He is quick to inform us that was the past, and presently he is a detective at the Blue Detective Agency. His first major work came after the Dish ran away with the Spoon. He "cleaned up that situation in time for lunch" and washed them both up in the sink. Detective Blue's second case was nabbing Mary's lamb before he could sneak into school with her. Blue proclaims, "You can't pull the wool over my eyes!" Suddenly, Detective Blue sees Jack Sprat running down the street shouting, "Miss Muffet is missing! Miss Muffet is missing!" Here is Detective Blue's major case--to find the missing Miss Muffet. 

Detective Blue begins at the scene of the crime. All that remained was a tuffet, a spiderweb, and a bowl full of curds and whey. He continues his investigation by interviewing Little Bo Peep, Humpty Dumpty, and Jack Horner. Jack, when asked about Miss Muffet's whereabouts thumbed a plum and said, "What a good boy am I!" Detective Blue was not having this. He demanded answers! Finally, Jack told Blue to try at Old King Cole's castle since Miss Muffet was such a lover of music. At Old King Cole's castle, a grand celebration was underway. The fiddlers were playing "Hickory Dickory Rock" and Jack Be Nimble was jumping the candlestick. While at the king's castle, Blue asked Mother Hubbard and Simple Simon about the missing Miss Muffet, but they simply had no information. 

Detective Blue then notices the Spider and intently questions him about Miss Muffet. The Spider says that Miss Muffet was tired of curds and whey and that he had told her where she could find delicious porridge. Startled, Detective Blue rushed to the one place he knew there was porridge, for it could mean certain danger for Miss Muffet. As Blue approached the cottage, a young, blonde girl is charging out the front door shouting, "Bears! Run for you life!" Detective Blue is able to chase the girl down and confirm her identity...Miss Goldilocks Muffet! She confessed her dislike of curds and whey and her love of porridge. She apologizes to the bears for the broken chair. Order has been restored as everyone retires back to Old King Cole's castle for grand celebration. 

Little Boy Detective Blue is an experiment in postmodern creation with what I feel is a positive result. The multiple allusions to the other members of the Mother Goose family (i.e. Old King Cole, Jack Sprat)is reinforced by the illustrations by Tedd Arnold (i.e. Contrary Mary’s Community Garden). The graphic novel-like illustrations seem to cement the more grown up Little Boy Blue and his high paced life as a detective.

Overall, this book would be ideal for the second or third-grade classroom. Students are both familiar with the original Mother Goose characters and ready to see those characters grow and transform as they tackle new and exciting adventures. 

As I mentioned before, I personally loved this book. Blue has jumped off the pages of the Mother Goose reader and into a life of solving mysteries. Perhaps this new found profession has cured his low-grade narcolepsy, for I never once saw a sleepy boy playing brass instruments. Little Boy Detective Blue is a chance to see our potential as we grow-up. Blue, a boy from the rural countryside, is now serving in a new capacity—as a sleuthing city-boy solving one case at a time!