Mar 17, 2015

A Gumbo of Goodies...

In the nearly four-week lull since I last posted here, I've read quite a few picture books, each of which deserved enough attention for its own post. Since I haven't managed to find the time for that, despite my best intentions, I decided to share a patchwork of reflections in a single post.

(Don't bother looking for a central theme or brilliant concluding comment. Just know that  I wouldn't be pushing the pause button on my life to post these titles if they weren't worth your attention. Come on, folks, if I can make time to share these with you, you can find the time to check them out, right? And the sooner the better!)

So, here goes, in no particular order, rhyme, or reason...

Morris Mickelwhite and the Tangerine Dress, by Christine Baldacchino, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant. 
Stereotyping and gender expectations result in bullying and changing a happy, school-loving kid into one with school avoidance and stomach aches. 
This is a strong story that emphasizes the sensory/creative impulses of a very young boy rather than gender identity. When Becky snipped, "Boys don't wear dresses," Morris confidently replies "This boy does." It's really about an unconventional thinker in a a rigidly conforming culture. This will pair well with Fleischman's WESLANDIA for older readers.

Wolfie the Bunny, by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Zachariah OHoro.
The synopsis on Goodreads says:
"Families of all kinds will delight in this sweet tale of new babies, sibling rivalry, bravery, unconditional love...and veggies!
The Bunny family has adopted a wolf son, and daughter Dot is the only one who realizes Wolfie can--and might--eat them all up! Dot tries to get through to her parents, but they are too smitten to listen. A new brother takes getting used to, and when (in a twist of fate) it's Wolfie who's threatened, can Dot save the day?"
I looked forward to reading this, but I'll admit I'd made some predictions about how the story would play out, based on the many and glowing reviews I read before its release. Once I was able to get my hands on a copy and read it for myself (several times through) I was delighted to find it held surprises of the happiest kind. It is going to delight young readers/listeners, and the adults who read t them as well. What's more, it serves as a shining example to would-be writers of the very best that picture books have to offer. 
What may seem like a simplistic or predictable premise instead plays out on multiple levels of meaning and JUST PLAIN FUN!!

Right in step with "JUST PLAIN FUN" comes 
I'm My Own Dog, written and illustrated by David Ezra Stone. 
Goodreads offer this synopsis:
"Many dogs have human owners. Not this dog. He fetches his own slippers, curls up at his own feet, and gives himself a good scratch. But there is one spot, in the middle of his back, that he just can’t reach. So one day, he lets a human scratch it. And the poor little fella follows him home. What can the dog do but get a leash to lead the guy around with? Dog lovers of all ages will revel in the humorous role-reversal as this dog teaches his human all the skills he needs to be a faithful companion."

I say it's outright entertaining, but also a master class in irony/word play, voice, point-of-view, subtext, and characterization. Kids will love it, and so will everyone else.

So, that's it for now, but I'll continue reading and making notes and return with more, sooner rather than later. That's a promise.

Feb 24, 2015

A Lifetime of Dreaming- in Thirty-Two Pages.

I'm the first to admit that I'm averse to labeling anything as "favorites". There are entirely too many wonderful things in the world to start ranking one better than the next. When it comes to books I often find something of value in a title whether it suits my personal taste or not. If I can't say something positive about a book, I refrain from saying anything at all. 
I'll admit, though, that I approach certain "types" of picture books with a wary eye and anticipate disappointment. 
A case in point: picture books in which a child character grows to adulthood (and some mature insights or convenient answers) within those few colorful pages. 
I'm popping in for this short post to recommend a recent release that takes on the challenge of aging a character without losing real story excellence and comes out a winner. 
Harcourt Brace and Company, January, 2015

And that winner is: A VIOLIN FOR ELVA, by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Tricia Tusa.
The synopsis from Indiebound says: 

"A young girl longs to play the violin in this lyrical story that shows it's never too late to pursue your dream. More than anything, Elva wants a violin--but her parents say no. So she pretends. When she should be brushing her teeth, Elva rehearses for recitals. When she should be learning subtraction or going to sleep, she imagines playing all the music in the world. The years pass, but Elva never forgets her childhood wish, and so one day she takes a deep breath and follows her heart . . ."

Here's what I had to say about it on GOODREADS:

This is the rarest of rare picture books- one that features a child growing into adulthood yet retaining appeal and eliciting empathy from even the youngest child. Elva's yearnings for music, and for learning/playing the violin in particular, are a metaphor for any unfulfilled personal passion. What might have been a maudlin or adult-centric "don't wait too late" life lesson is told with graceful prose, rhythmic repetitions, and a strong sense of seasons and time (think a kid-friendly version of "Turn-Turn-Turn"). That text combines perfectly with illustrator Tricia Tusa's childlike take on adulthood, including simple-lined identifiable facial expressions, body postures, and winning details. When Elva is finally making music on a double page spread, her feet, in white anklets, come right out of her Mary Jane shoes in an ecstasy of ageless bliss. Readers of any age will celebrate her dream-come-true moment.

Feb 15, 2015

New takes on Nursery Rhymes

I've been posting here, (honestly, I have), but less often in recent months. Having a debut release in 2014 proved to be as time-consuming as it was exciting. During these hectic months I rely on the many outstanding (and frequently posted) blogs about picture books and other books for young readers and occasionally share them through links here. And here, and here. The reason for this approach, naturally, is the ever-ticking clock.

In my classrooms I would ask all students what they would choose as a super power, if they could, and why. (Try it! It's  one writing or discussion prompt eagerly pursued and it often reveals insights you'd otherwise miss or require much more time to discover.) 

My own response to that prompt is that I'd like to have the power to control time. If someone felt ill, I'd make the time pass quickly until they recovered. The clock-crunch of class demands limit spontaneity and little bonus rewards like extra recess. My super power would permit me to make a ten minute break feel like twenty minutes, or allow an engaging discussion to continue as the clock hands held their positions long enough to explore ideas further before the bell rang. 

Alas, I never acquired that power. 

That domineering clock has an even more powerful effect in classes (and, I fear, in families) since high-stakes testing and Common Core demands restrict flexibility and choices. As a result, many cultural and literary experiences are relegated to a short, measurable checklist of exposures and competencies rather than occurring naturally and often. 

This is true for nursery rhymes, traditional tales, and mythology. Verses and stories that are common cultural touchpoints in older generations are often unrecognized by kids emerging from our current educational system. I'll save the debate about the cost/benefits of this approach for another forum, but it leads me to the topic of this post. 

The ability to  recite traditional nursery rhymes has value in and of itself, especially at an early age. Rhythm and rhyme, patterns and repetition, word play and predictability are all essential components in early language and reading development. References in brief excerpts, parodies, and as models for early writing rely on familiar verses to be embedded in young minds. 

One way to develop this in later years (with enthusiasm rather than groans about "baby" work) and still address the demands of controlled curricula is to share these books. The first is NURSERY RHYME COMICS: 50 Timeless Rhymes from 50 Celebrated Cartoonists (First Second Publishing, 2011) I agree with this review  by Marika McCoola, posted at Indiebound:
“Take 50 incredible artists, give them each a classic nursery rhyme, and let them run! Lucy Knisley turns the 'Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe' into a rock-and-roll baby sitter whose charges form the band 'The Whips.' Raina Telgemeier sets 'Georgie Porgie' at a birthday party that ends with a cupcake fight. Dave Roman depicts a surreal, sci-fi 'One, Two, Buckle My Shoe' that is completely different from Patrick McDonnell's sweet 'Donkey.' A fabulous introduction to the comics format for young and old alike.”

The second is this 2015 release. It provides older readers an opportunity to use nursery rhymes as writing inspiration and opens a discussion of character traits, parody, and literary allusions. Take a look at MONSTER GOOSE NURSERY RHYMES, co-written by Henry, Josh, and Harrison Herz, illustrated by Abigail Larson.

This debut traditionally-published work (Pelican Press) is written by and for elementary readers. Henry's sons seem to be as deeply entrenched in reading and writing fantasy and science fiction as their father. His blog (here) offers a menu of interviews with some of the most outstanding authors and illustrators working today. Click on the "BLURBS" tab to read what they think of these clever twists on traditional verses. 
After reading both books young readers are likely to find themselves hooked on reading and creating spin-offs and twists of other nursery rhymes. Those who haven't yet discovered the wonders of fantasy and science fiction might well be tempted to give it a try after reading this new book and examining its colorful illustrations. Those who are already fan-fans (fantasy fans) will enjoy finding their fantastic friends and fiends in these verses.

I'm someone who enjoys reading these genres but I'm currently focused on historic and contemporary themes. Even so, I'll make a prediction: Whatever your taste in reading, when you get your hands on both of these books you'll enjoy them as much as the young readers in your lives. 
Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.