Feb 1, 2016

THEME MONTHS: Black History and Others

I've long considered Theme Months to be double-edged swords, including BLACK HISTORY MONTH, right through to POETRY MONTH and beyond. I addressed the question, here, in one of my earliest posts on this blog. 
Some tools and strategies can do as much harm as good.

The double-edged sword, to me, springs from the fact that a spotlight is long overdue for many topics. Certainly theme months are a step to correct that situation. That's better than nothing, one might argue.
 True, a month of attention is more than those topics might otherwise receive, but then the calendar page flips and the spotlight moves on to the next topic. 
Why would I view that as a curse? Doesn't fairness count for anything?

My concern comes from years of experience in classrooms, at many grade levels. When a month is designated it is all too easy (and often happens) that a limited collection of books, poster images, and activities is "brought out" to be displayed and shared, then packed away again when the next topic rolls around. The very fact that topical themes, especially in history, gain such designations reflects the absence (or disproportionately small amount) of attention devoted to those subjects throughout the rest of the year. 

A fairly recent development has begun making inroads to changing that pattern. Just last week Multicultural Children's Book Day celebrated a vast array of books that feature our world-- our REAL world. By that I mean a world of diverse and unique people. When you click the link you'll connect to multiple posts with outstanding recommendations by teachers, librarians, parents, and kids. These books span genre, topics, and target audiences. What they have in common is that they are appealing, engaging, and thought-provoking books in which readers can find themselves and the people who surround them without waiting for an event or occasion to do so.

That is, indeed, a blessing. It's also sending the message we want readers to receive- that people (and books) offer world-views that defy categorization or limitation to a single day, week, or month of our attention. The deepest cuts of that double-edged sword come when a theme-month offers unstated but implied messages of "otherness". It arbitrarily declares  that certain topics or books offer nothing of merit apart from those designated periods, nothing that would engage our attention when offered freely throughout the year.

As you read in my opening lines, this isn't the first time I've raised the issue on this blog. As I was about to add "nor will it be the last", I stopped to reflect. Could the day actually dawn when the need for THEME MONTHS disappears? Yes, I believe it could. When multicultural, diverse children's literature is so ubiquitous, when books fully represent ALL people, a "history month" would suffice. 
We're a long way from that day, but we're closer than we've ever been before.
This is no time to rest. I've linked to just a few previous posts in which I celebrate books without an eye on the calendar. If you're new to this  blog, I hope you'll check them out.
Folk Tales and Facts: Marvelous Cornelius

Heather Lang and Floyd Cooper Launch a Winner: Queen of the Track 

Drum Dream Girl: A Trio of Titles
NON-Fiction Notes: Kid Athletes and Other  Biographies

If you have other titles to recommend, or other posts to suggest, please add your comments!

Jan 21, 2016

More Compare and Contrast: Finding THE PERFECT TREE

Note: This title was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. 

Here's another 2016 release from Running Press Kids. It's a terrific choice on its own, and also offers opportunities to compare and contrast. (Check an earlier post with more COMPARE and CONTRAST suggestions HERE.)

THE PERFECT TREE, written and illustrated by Chloe Bonfield, is a luminous creation. Using a combination of two- and three-dimensional papercut images, collage, silhouettes, and drawn figures on layered, glowing backdrops, the double-page spreads  reveal themselves like scenes in a multi-act drama. Aptly named young lumberjack Jack launches the story with a search for the perfect tree, but not one to draw or climb or hug. 
The ironic use of paper cuts, newsprint collages, and other wood-by-products in the visual story opens a world of potential discussion to the question, "Why would he cut it down?" 
A progression of animals, including birds, squirrels, and a spider, combine with ethereal effects to generate a dream-like quality to the story. As if waking from a dream, Jack's encounters open his eyes to more nature-driven values and he does, in fact, begin to recognize the forest AND the trees for purposes other than his original plans.
Harcourt Brace, 1990

The publisher invites readers to compare this to THE GIVING TREE and THE LORAX, but other titles came to mind when I read this. I was instantly reminded of  the talented author/illustrator/environmentalist Lynne Cherry's THE GREAT KAPOK TREE: A TALE OF THE AMAZON RAIN FOREST, originally published in 1990. When a woodcutter is assigned to chop down the giant kapok tree tree he is visited during a siesta by the creatures who make the tree their home. Speaking persuasively and entertainingly in voices that echo their rainforest sounds, they, too, persuade the tree-harvester to see greater benefits in letting the tree live on. In both books the creatures "reveal" their connectedness to the trees rather than emphasizing debate or argument. Their simple truths, once exposed, are convincing enough on their merits. 
Tuttle Publishing, 2015
A more recent picture book that also came to mind is one narrated by the tree itself. Author Sandra Moore and illustrator Kazumi Wilds share the story of THE PEACE TREE from HIROSHIMA: The Little Bonsai with a BIG Story. Inspired by fifty bonsai trees that were presented to the United States by Japan in recognition of our bicentennial in 1976, the author imagined one tree sharing its life story. It's a story  stretching back to its earliest life in a Japanese mountain forest at the time when the Pilgrims were colonizing Plymouth. 
The life  of a bonsai begins with someone's search for a perfect little seedling, one that reveals the potential  strength, shape, and promise of centuries of survival in dwarf form.
In its miniaturized life each bonsai tree loses its function as a habitat but gains a family spanning generations, each in turn devoted to making the tree as perfect and healthy as possible.

In these three titles the art is produced through different media, in very different styles, and for intentionally different effects to suit  the stories being told. In all three books the voices are equally distinct but powerful, channeling the life-forces of nature and bridging the gap between modern demands and planet-old truths.

One thought that stayed with me through all three books relates less to searching for perfection and more to opening our minds  and hearts to HEAR other voices, to SEE other interests and needs. Tuttle Publishing has a stated mission to bridge gaps between Eastern and Western cultures, to change minds one page at a time. Our sharing of books like these is an essential step in that process.
Take part by adding other related title suggestions in the comments, or any other comments about these titles.

Jan 12, 2016

Folk Tales and Facts: Marvelous Cornelius (One that got away)

Updating this with a link to one of my earliest posts, explaining why Martin Luther King, Jr is a personal hero of mine. Hope you'll read it here.

Awards season for books for young readers increases in intensity at this time of year. I'm truly a fan of the NERDY BOOK CLUB blog and its decision to name all top contenders as "WINNERS" of their self-named "Nerdies" rather than finalists or honorees or also-rans. Anyone who reads and uses books with others, especially with young readers, knows that as soon as a single "winner" is named, there's a ripple effect of heartache among those whose favorite title just missed the cut. 

Participating as a first round panelist for the Cybils Awards this year in the fiction picture book category was an exciting, demanding, positive experience and one I'd love to repeat in some future year. Narrowing the worthy contenders to seven finalists was far from easy, but was actually less stressful than if I had to name that list myself. I know that the titles we ultimately agreed to send forward (here)  represent a wide range of experienced points of view, a much more fair approach than placing that burden on a single set of shoulders.

One interesting complication, though, had to do with categorizing and defining books. Thankfully, there's a separate set of administrators who determine if books are considered fiction or non-fiction, picture books or early readers or graphic novels, and so on. Once they were in our hands we judged them as fiction. A few raised my eyebrows, appearing to be hybrids of more than one category. Still, that's the way of publishing these days, and I believe we're better off for it when books can be "crossovers", as in music becoming hits in both pop and country genres. Perhaps that genre-bending factor explains why this title wasn't mentioned among the amazing ALA Youth Media Awards (view here).
Chronicle Books, 2015

I'm proud to raise my voice in praise of a book that didn't make the Cybils Fiction Picture Book finalists list, in part because it presented some of those confusions: MARVELOUS CORNELIUS: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans. Written by Phil Bildner and illustrated by John Parra, it's a fictionalized version of an actual resident of New Orleans, a man who spent his life elevating his job as a sanitation worker into a shining inspiration.My second read (because I was still wowed by the quality of the book after the first read) made me wonder if it was or wasn't fiction. I knew it was "based on" a real man. 

The third time through I finally read the back matter. I'm a huge fan of back matter, but tried not too read too early so that the "author's insight" wouldn't shape my reactions in judging the work on its own merits. Too many kids/teachers don't bother with the back content and it shouldn't be exclusively the reason for choosing a book kids will love. However, if it made it into the book it provides a rare opportunity to get a message from the author aimed directly at the reader, almost as a colleague or partner.

In this case, it confirmed what I was thinking, which is that this is NOT biographical, any more that John Henry (which is based on an actual character) is biographical/nonfiction. Cornelius worked in the French Quarter, a place steeped in legendary stories of its own. This book clearly incorporates things that are exaggerated, uses the language and patterns of tall tales, and absolutely captures the larger-than-life quality of a legendary hero in text and image. It represents that amazing ability to appeal to older readers and adults yet the youngest adore its rhythmic, lyrical text, enhanced with repetitions and refrains. It offers delights for the ears and eyes, expanding the action and language with its exaggerated, kid-friendly folk-art illustration style.

This book bounces and  sings, capturing a city and culture as if they are characters. Scenes shift throughout, from the earliest pages where the grittiness is transformed to sparkling and appealing by the spirit (and hard work) of Cornelius. While the pastel and filagreed structures fill the background, mid-ground citizens reflect the vibrant impact of Cornelius and his energetic joy.
Katrina not only flattens the city, it nearly destroys the spirit of those residents. Eventually, the overwhelming destruction of nature's force is countered by even stronger determination, binding and building a community, inspired by the spirit of Cornelius.
Beyond all that, it offers connections to curriculum- geography, careers, infrastructures, the role of government, weather, community action, goal-setting, character development, and more. Young writers can experiment with turning their own local or pop heroes into mythical status using the simple advice offered in Bildner's notes at the back. 
This book incorporates excellent design features, too, with iconography of New Orleans on the end papers, shifting perspectives and proportions throughout, and an introductory quotation by Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. Before the first word about Cornelius there is a full page spread sharing a quotation by MLK, Jr. about the dignity of work. It's as if he had lived to know Cornelius.  His quote comes from his dealings with the sanitation workers strike, an active stance that resulted in his assassination. 

"All the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 
Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well."

As did Cornelius.

Harcourt Brace & Co.
August, 2015
A graphic nonfiction portrayal of the actual events surrounding Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area was written and illustrated by DON BROWN: DROWNED CITY: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. It is undeniably non-fiction and is the well-deserved winner of the NCTE Orbis Pictus award in that category. 

Pair this with Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans to make history come alive, to bring that time and place "up close and personal" in a very real sense. 

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.