Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket

Title:  The Dark
Author:  Lemony Snicket
Illustrator:  John Klassen
Publisher:  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Year: 2013
Pages: 40
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Overcoming Fears
Age Range: 1st through 5th Grade

Laszlo is afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of Laslo. Most of the time the dark lives in the basement, except at night when the dark spread and covers the land.  The night that Laszlo's nightlight burns out, the dark invites Laszlo down into its lair to find what he needs, and in the process shows Laszlo that the dark doesn't have to be scary.

Being afraid of the dark is a pretty common childhood fear.  Most of us get over it with some degree of success, but who among us hasn't caught a faint reflection of ourselves in a mirror in a dark room and squealed in fright?  Well, Snicket and Klassen take this fear and use it for this charming story about Laslo and the dark.  Laszlo is not a wimpy crybaby of a kid, but he does have a healthy fear of and respect for the dark.  Every morning when it is safely back in the basement he stands at the top of the stairs and says hello to the dark, and he figures that maybe if he visits the dark every day, the dark will stay out of his room at night.  That works wonderfully-until that pesky nightlight burns out.  The story is engaging for young audiences, who may be struggling with their own fear of the dark, and the illustrations make great use of light and complete blackness to demonstrate the dark's power, both over the physical setting and poor Laszlo's mind.

The Dark won the Charlotte Zolotow Award for outstanding picture books for 2013, and it is a well-deserved honor.  Klassen won the Caldecott for his book This is Not My Hat, and the art is just as imaginative in this book.  Snicket is best known for The Series of Unfortunate Events books, which my daughter inhaled like oxygen when she was in elementary school.  Teachers can use the story to discuss the role of a narrator, and inanimate objects as characters.  And there are great opportunities for cross-curricular activities in writing, science, and art.  Definitely recommend this book as a mentor text, read aloud, or as part of a classroom library.

Teacher Resources: Guide
Interview with Lemony Snicket about The Dark

Monday, May 12, 2014

Sold, by Patricia McCormick

Title:  Sold
Author:  Patricia McCormick
Publisher:  Disney-Hyperion
Year: 2006
Pages:  263
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Novel in Verse
Theme:  Child Sexual Slavery
Age Range:  9th through 12th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads
Lakshmi is a thirteen-year-old girl who lives with her family in a small hut on a mountain in Nepal. Though she is desperately poor, her life is full of simple pleasures, like playing hopscotch with her best friend from school, and having her mother brush her hair by the light of an oil lamp. But when the harsh Himalayan monsoons wash away all that remains of the family’s crops, Lakshmi’s stepfather says she must leave home and take a job to support her family.
He introduces her to a glamorous stranger who tells her she will find her a job as a maid in the city. Glad to be able to help, Lakshmi journeys to India and arrives at “Happiness House” full of hope. But she soon learns the unthinkable truth: she has been sold into prostitution.
An old woman named Mumtaz rules the brothel with cruelty and cunning. She tells Lakshmi that she is trapped there until she can pay off her family’s debt—then cheats Lakshmi of her meager earnings so that she can never leave.
Lakshmi’s life becomes a nightmare from which she cannot escape. Still, she lives by her mother’s words— Simply to endure is to triumph—and gradually, she forms friendships with the other girls that enable her to survive in this terrifying new world. Then the day comes when she must make a decision—will she risk everything for a chance to reclaim her life?

The issue of modern day slavery is something that has been more and more on my mind in the last year or so.  A good friend of mine is working with an organization called Destiny Rescue, which rescues children in sexual slavery from brothels in Thailand, India, and Cambodia.  They also rescue children trapped in bonded labor situations, where they are working to pay of their family's debts in grueling, often dangerous situations. In fact, there will be several reviews of books dealing with indentured child labor or modern day slavery on this blog in the coming weeks-in one of those synchronous twists of the universe I've come into contact with the issue in my personal, religious, and professional life.  My friend came and presented about her own rescue trip to Thailand to my youth group, and I subsequently presented a workshop on the topic at a youth conference.  Social justice has always been a passion of mine, but the international slave trade and the way that it affects people in the developing world and right here in the United States is something that has a particular draw for me at the moment.

I've long thought that one form of "doing" social justice is raising awareness of issues through the use of high-quality literature.  While I am not in a position to go to Thailand myself, nor do I possess the wealth to donate gobs of money to organizations like my friends, I can and will read and share books on social justice topics with my students, the youth I work with, and any adults I can.  And since literature is my thing, I actively seek out fictional narratives with the emotional impact that may change people's hearts and minds, or that will help them take steps towards becoming involved themselves in the global justice movement in whatever way they can.

This book is a great example of the kind of high-quality social justice literature that I look for.  Sold is a genre bending novel, told in verse.  The verse is presented as a series of vignettes that show various aspects of Lakshmi's story.  We follow Lakshmi from her small village to the big city, from farm to brothel, and eventually to freedom.  Along the way we feel her sorrow, her fear, the numbness she must develop to deal with life as a sex slave, and eventually her hope.  McCormick does not shy away from descriptions of the sex trade, and more immature readers may find that difficult.  But the book is rich with opportunities for awareness and discussion.  It is clear from the narrative the combination of forces that lead families to send their young girls away into bonded labor or sexual slavery-poverty, lack of education, lack of national infrastructure, police and government corruption.  All of these have major implications on our fast-growing global economy, and our students-the future leaders of our society-should have an understanding of the inequality that results from lack of opportunity.  I would highly recommend this book to as a part of a larger unit that looks at issues of poverty.  I was very moved by it, and I think that students would be as well.

Teacher Resources:
Allen and Unwin Unit
CPalms Human Trafficking Unit
Global Literature Unit

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, by Neil Gaiman

Title:  The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish
Author:  Neil Gaiman
Illustrator:  Dave McKean
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  1998 
Pages: 64
Genre:  Realistic (?) Fiction
Themes:  General Silliness
Age Range:  1st through 5th Grade

The narrator of this silly story desperately wants his best friend's two goldfish.  So desperately, in fact, that he trades his father for them.  (His father wasn't that interesting anyway-all he ever did was read the newspaper.)  His little sister tries to tell him that it's a bad idea, but he doesn't listen.  When his mother comes home, she is understandably furious, and sends him on a journey to retrieve poor old dad.  Of course, Dad's now been traded to a string of friends for a variety of interesting items.  Finally, the narrator tracks down his father, sitting in a chicken coop-reading the paper!

Full disclosure:  Neil Gaiman could probably transpose the phone book and I would love it.  I have yet to meet one of his books-children's or adult-that I didn't want to gobble up with a spoon.  It is therefore no surprise that I adored this charming picture book.

The story is simple enough.  What brings it to life is the interplay between the narrator and his younger sister. She is dryly hilarious in a way no small person probably ever is in real life, but authenticity is not exactly what this story is going for.  There were a couple of points that I found laugh-out-loud funny, and you don't often find that in a picture book meant for children.

McKean's illustrations are darkly engaging, and they fit perfectly with the mood that Gaiman creates with his storytelling.  As always with Gaiman's books, there is a certain level of darkness present, but unlike some of his longer fiction for children it is not scary.  As an anglophile, the fact that the book is littered with British turns of phrase only added to the appeal, and provide good opportunities for conversation with kids about the difference in language.  The story structure is fairly straightforward, and there isn't a ton of depth there to mine for good discussion, but it is a funny story that I think kids would like, and could certainly be used for working on sequencing, plot structure, or examining how the illustrations enhance comprehension.  Overall, a solid choice as a read aloud for elementary age kids.

Teacher Resources:
Diana Wagner Lesson Plan (scroll down) Resources
Oh, Boy, Fourth Grade Writing Unit for The Day I Swapped My Dad...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Slob, by Ellen Potter

Title:  Slob
Author:  Ellen Potter
Publisher:  Philomel
Year: 2009
Pages:  208
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Dealing with Loss, Bullying, Self-esteem
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Twelve-year-old Owen Birnbaum is the fattest kid in school. But he's also a genius who invents cool contraptions? like a TV that shows the past. Something happened two years ago that he needs to see. But genius or not, there is much Owen can't outthink. Like his gym coach, who's on a mission to humiliate him. Or the way his Oreos keep disappearing from his lunch. He's sure that if he can only get the TV to work, things will start to make sense. But it will take a revelation for Owen, not science, to see the answer's not in the past, but the present. That no matter how large he is on the outside, he doesn't have to feel small on the inside.

Bullying has been big in the news in recent years.  School districts and states are trying to address bullying in a number of ways, both legislative and practical.  As a result, there have been many, many books featuring bullies published in the last few years.  Usually, the bully is another student, and teachers and parents are at a loss as to what to do to help the victim.  The plot often revolved around the victim finding ways to deal with the bully through improved self-esteem, or we discover the bully is actually in such emotional pain themselves that it is only through helping the bully overcome their own issues that the bullying is resolved.  But Slob takes the bully story another direction-what do you do when the person bullying you is a teacher.

To be sure, the other students at Owen's school are not exactly understanding of his weight gain and general clumsiness.  But the driving force behind Owen's fear of school, and his biggest detractor, was his gym teacher.  As a teacher myself, reading about the way that the coach went out of his way to make Owen's life miserable, humiliating him at every turn, made my stomach turn.  I have never really understood why there are some people who seem to take other people's weight (or physical appearance in general) as a personal affront, but the character of the gym teacher really seemed to feel personally offended by Owen's very existence.

Ultimately, however, this book is not really about the bullying, except as part of a larger issue for Owen. Owen's parents were killed in a robbery, and it is this event that drives the major events of the book.  His issues with food and dramatic weight gain are the result of emotional eating.  Most of us are guilty of it at some point-the pint of ice cream consumed after a break-up, the secret stash of chocolate bars for days when you want to punch everyone you meet in the face.  But Owen has taken emotional eating to the level of an Olympic sport in an effort to subsume his feelings of loss and guilt after the death of his parents.  It is these same feelings that cause him to obsess over making  the machine that he believes will allow him to see into the past, and find his parents' killers.  Owen thinks that by bringing these people to justice he will be able to move on, but it is the quest itself that is holding him back.

There are lots of interesting characters in this book-the boy who he thinks is stealing his oreos; his sister, who is a member of a club of girls who want to be boys; his Tibetian Buddhist friend who is trying to teach him different ways to deal with his emotions.  I think that middle grade students will find a lot of things to think about while reading this book, and there are lots of good topics for discussion.  I think this book would be well suited as a guided reading book, or as part of a classroom library for independent reading.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Anti-Bullying Activities for Slob Resources
Indie Library Discussion Questions for Slob

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mr. Wuffles, David Wiesner

Title:  Mr. Wuffles
Author:  David Wiesner
Publisher:  Clarion Books
Year:  2013
Pages:  32
Format:  Wordless Picture Book
Genre:  Science Fiction
Themes:  Aliens, Pets
Age Range:  1st-5th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads
In a near wordless masterpiece that could only have been devised by David Wiesner, a cat named Mr. Wuffles doesn't care about toy mice or toy goldfish. He’s much more interested in playing with a little spaceship full of actual aliens—but the ship wasn't designed for this kind of rough treatment. Between motion sickness and damaged equipment, the aliens are in deep trouble. When the space visitors dodge the cat and take shelter behind the radiator to repair the damage, they make a host of insect friends. The result? A humorous exploration of cooperation between aliens and insects, and of the universal nature of communication involving symbols, “cave” paintings, and gestures of friendship

Wiesner's book, Mr. Wuffles, was a 2013 Caldecott Award honor book.  The Caldecott Award is giving annually to the best picture book by the American Library Association.  Wiesner's book certainly belongs in the category of beautifully illustrated picture books.  His illustrations are sharp and engaging, with vivid colors and aggressive shading that provide depth and realism to an otherwise obviously fantastical story.  But what is most wonderful about this book is the juxtaposition of the adorable cat and the tiny aliens.  Wiesner cleverly takes the natural inclinations of a cat to bat around small objects, and uses it as a springboard for the trials and tribulations of a small group of ant-sized aliens.

This book is almost wordless, if you only consider Earth languages.  In reality, the aliens have a rich language that is scattered throughout the book, made up of symbols that are meaningless when viewed alone, but with the context of the wonderful illustrations it is pretty obvious what kind of things the aliens are probably saying.  The structure of the book is comic-book like, with multiple panels on most pages, and speech bubbles in place of traditional paragraphing.  The book could be used with younger students to emphasize the importance of using illustrations to look for comprehension clues.  Older students could be asked to "translate" the alien dialogue into English, inferring what the aliens are saying based on the context of the story and the illustrations, and essentially writing the text for Wiesner's illustrations.  Or, you can just put the book out for your students to enjoy, because even without words it is an engaging read.

Teacher Resources:
HMH Books Discussion Guide
TeachingBooks.Net Guide

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, Jordan Sonnenblick

Title:  Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie
Author:  Jordan Sonnenblick
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2004
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Coming of Age, Cancer, Family
Age Range:  5th through 8th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Thirteen-year-old Steven has a totally normal life: he plays drums in the All-Star Jazz band, has a crush on the hottest girl in the school, and is constantly annoyed by his five-year-old brother, Jeffrey. But when Jeffrey is diagnosed with leukemia, Steven's world is turned upside down. He is forced to deal with his brother's illness and his parents' attempts to keep the family in one piece.

Middle school is hard enough without having a brother with leukemia.  Jeffrey was already trying to negotiate the murky waters of boy-girl relationships when he finds out his brother is sick.  Suddenly, the life of the entire family revolves around hospital visits, side-effects, and medical bills.  Steven's mother takes on the bulk of the work, leaving Steven and his father alone to fend for themselves when his brother goes for treatment.  Sonnenblick always does an excellent job writing realistic middle school characters, and while Steven is certainly a sympathetic character, he is not without his moments of self-doubt and selfishness.

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie is not the only time that Sonnenblick has tackled the subject of childhood cancers.  In his 2010 release After Ever After he comes at it from the point of view of the best friend of the patient.  Both novels  he shows a sensitivity to the subject that I can only assume means that he has had similar experiences with a loved one with cancer.  One of the great things about both books is that they do not give the topic the "Lifetime movie" treatment.  There is nothing saccharine or schmaltzy about his treatment of the subject-all of the characters, including the ones with cancer, are written as three-dimensional people with flaws and strengths alike.  While there are certainly "awww" moments, especially towards the end, but Sonnenblick treats all of his characters like what they should read as, real people with real emotions and real issues.

There are some great opportunities for discussion with this book, making it good for guided reading or middle school book clubs.  Sonnenblick himself is such a prolific, high quality writer that I think he'd make a good author study.  He taught middle school English before he began writing full time, and if you get a chance to hear him speak, as I did at a reading conference in Illinois a few years ago, you should do it.  Especially if you are someone who has a love of teaching writing.  The man knows his stuff!

Teacher Resources: Lesson Plans
Discussion Questions and Read Alike List
Author Interview

Friday, May 2, 2014

Inside the Slidy Diner, Laurel Snyder

Title:  Inside the Slidy Diner
Author:  Laurel Snyder
Publisher: Tricycle Press
Year: 2008
Pages:  32
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Imagination
Age Range:  2nd-5th Grade

Meet Edie, who visited the Slidy Diner and was never able to leave.  She'd really like for you to join her there.  Edie recounts her many experiences living at the Slidy Diner, a place where the old men at the counter smell like mice, and you don't want to know what the crunchy topping is on the pumpkin asparagus pie.  Snyder has created a creepy, gross, slightly dark world that kids who are into creepy and gross will definitely love.

I LOVE this book!  I was introduced to it by a very good friend of mine as a part of a writing training, and I have used it every year since when teaching how to write good descriptions.  Snyder's use of language is stunning.  She describes the colors on the wall as "the color of your grandma's slippers", and some of the dishes on the menu are Lumps and Dumplins and Greasily Niblets.  This book is definitely sort of gross, but in a more mature way than your average Captain Underpants.  Not that I have a problem with Captain Underpants, mind you, but that grossness is more designed to appeal to the sense of humor of the average eight year old boy, whereas the grossness in The Slidy Diner is more designed to create this slightly malevolent, grimly humorous mood throughout the whole story.

After reading this book with students, I bring in a collection of restaurant menus, and we analyze the way that menu descriptions are different than, say, an essay.  Then the students imagine a meal that might be served at The Slidy Diner, and after they draw it they write their own menu description.  I have yet to have a class that didn't get totally into this activity.  They love coming up with gross meals like "spaghetti and eyeballs" or "toenail and booger stew".  The trick is to describe them so that people would actually want to order them!
Given the rich language of the story, I think that this book could also work as a close reading lesson, either as a read aloud or an independent read. So invite your students into the world of The Slidy Diner, where there are "dark blue secrets and silver whispers"

Teacher Resources:
Laurel Snyder's Website

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Children Make Terrible Pets, Peter Brown

Title:  Children Make Terrible Pets
Author:  Peter Brown
Publisher:  Hatchett, Little and Brown Company
Year:  2010
Pages:  34
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Pets, Letting Go
Age Range:  1st through 5th Grade

Lucy Bear find a little boy in the woods.  She takes him home and asks her mother if she can keep him.  Her mother warns her that "Children make terrible pets!", but Lucy is determined.  When the boy runs away, Lucy is heartbroken-until she finds him in his "natural habitat", back with his own family.  She decides that the boy is better off in his own environment.

This charming picture book has the look of an old fashioned children's book-but with a very post-modern feel.  Lucy Bear has the same traits as any human child-curiosity, stubbornness, the desire to have a small living thing of her very own.  When I have used this book with students, they find the story very funny, and the older ones get the "joke"-that humans often take animals out of their own natural environments for our own purposes.  Younger students don't usually make that connection, but they do recognize that the things that the boy does that make him a terrible pet are all of the things that human children are supposed to do.

I've mostly used this book in conjunction with opinion writing in an elementary setting.  After we read the book, and chart the evidence from the author that shows that the boy was a terrible pet for Lucy, I have them think of an animal that would make a terrible pet.  They then write an opinion piece describing the animals and listing the reasons that it would make a terrible pet.  The one time that I didn't specify that they should choose and animal, many of the students said that their little brother or sister would make a terrible pet.  Totally adorable, but not was I was looking for!

Teacher Resources:
A Tale of Two Teachers Lesson Plan Lesson Plan
Kids Wings Lesson Activities