Apr 27, 2013

Everyone Can... Succeed... Again and Again

SCREEN-FREE WEEKApril 29-May 5, found me curtailing (but not eliminating) my own screen time, which leads me to re-post last week's feature on picture books for graduates, augmented with one additional title. After all, it is still graduation season, and books like these can become legacy keepsakes, lasting long after a gift card is spent. Don't get me wrong, a gift card might rise above a picture book on wish lists, but still, give these some thought.

Graduation season is upon us: from kindergarten paper diplomas and cupcakes to high school to stadium-filling university events with President Obama or Ellen Degeneres delivering the commencement address. Each is a landmark, honoring significant accomplishments and  the transition to a new life phase. Reaching that transition involves investments of time, energy, learning, and courage, equipping the graduate with the skills and experience to face the prospects of new challenges ahead.

Fiewel and Friends, 2009

Graduation marks a significant conclusion, but also the beginning of a never-ending cycle of challenges. That's why I recommend PEEP: A Little Book About Taking a Leap, by Marie Van Lieshout. Young or old, readers are launched on a dramatic story arc when Mother Hen warns, "PEEP, don't fall behind." Waylaid by distractions, worry, frustration, loneliness, and a sense of defeat, PEEP resorts to a plea for help. His eventual success is all his own, though, and generates pride and praise. He barely sighs "I did it!" before  he finds himself steps away from the next challenge.

Does this trajectory remind you of any graduates you know?
I've also shared this book at the end of a school year as my classes celebrate hard won-successes and face the prospect of the next grade with a mix of excitement and a sprinkling of anxiety. 

Schwartz & Wade, 2013
Which brings me to this April release, EVERYONE CAN LEARN TO RIDE A BICYCLE, written and illustrated by two-time Caldecott winner, Chris Raschka. Raschka's vivid, loose illustrations and straightforward second-person voice engage the reader as a partner in the experiences and reactions of this small child. We share her goal, her exuberance, and her frustration, determination, and ultimate success.
Raschka's minimal text combines with major energy and emotional content. Expressions and actions tell more than words. This is a must-have for novice bikers, and a parable of sorts for recent graduates or others embarking on new life challenges. The parenthetical last line is the take-away: (And now you'll never forget.) This new title has earned starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, and School LIbrary Journal.

Random House Books for Young Readers,  1990

Another title that often makes its way into the hands of graduates of every age is the rolicking OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO, by Dr. Seuss. (<< Don't miss this website!)  It is similar to Raschka's title in its suggestion that we should embrace adventure, challenge, and learning goals for ourselves, whatever might lie ahead. In fact, rather than bemoan the wobbles and bumpy roads, these actually make the process richer and the ultimate successes more satisfying. The struggle itself constitutes the bulk of our lives, allowing us to arrive at these landmark moments as masters of our own accomplishments.

Take a look at the trailer for this classic.

Whether the graduate you know is matriculating from preschool into "real" kindergarten, taking exams early to allow rehearsal time for high school ceremonies, or transitioning to a career in engineering (Way to go, Brandon!), these picture books have the power to reflect their own lives. And don't be surprised when their parents find themselves in there, too, reliving their own transitions and crossing fingers that the bumps, wobbles, and gloomies faced by their offspring are survivable and strengthening.

I'll be back next week with a brand-spanking new post, and I'd love to hear your thoughts about these and other "just right" books for graduates, as well as your experiences in sharing picture books with older readers. Any other suggestions for end-of year titles for classroom use?

Apr 21, 2013

Interesting Non-Fiction Picture Books (and a plug for I.N.K.)

The recent release of the movie, 42 (The Story of Jackie Robinson) has garnered accolades from all quarters. Some reviewers have commented that Robinson's story is "new" to younger generations, but is deeply ingrained in the DNA of the boomer generation. The hallmark of the movie's success is its ability to be relevant, instructive, and entertaining across audiences of any age or prior knowledge.

Sandpiper (Paperback), 1992
 I haven't seen the movie yet, but my favorite picture book depicting Jackie Robinson's story is TEAMMATES, by sports journalist and author, Peter Golenbock, illustrated by Paul Bacon. It has that same capacity to touch all ages with the facts and the heart of Robinson's story.
The brutal racist attacks leveled at Robinson when he integrated major league baseball far exceeded what we call bullying. His strength of character and resilience in the face of such attacks serve as a beacon for anyone being bullied. Of equal importance in this book is the role of PeeWee Reese, who  put his own popularity (and safety) at risk to step forward and take a stand against the vicious assaults against his teammate. Another life lesson for discussions of bullying.

Carolrhoda Books, 2013
A recent release portrays the equally cruel but longterm attacks of racism in the years before Robinson's courageous breakthrough. SOMETHING TO PROVE: The Great Satchel Paige vs. Rookie Joe DiMaggio, by Robert Skead and Rob Skead, illustrated by Floyd Cooper tells the story of rookie DiMaggio being tested against the best. He would have to try to get a hit against the undisputed (and unhittable) best pitcher anywhere- who just happened to pitch in the Negro League.
You don't need to be a baseball fan to appreciate the intensity and imbalance of the challenge game. Paige and DiMaggio shine through as personalities, and as extraordinary talents. Di Maggio passed his test, and Paige was told he'd be signed in a minute at top salary for the time, if only he were white.
The final pages and the author's note provide further details about segregation and Paige's eventual arrival in the Major Leagues and in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Albert Whitman & Co.,
Paperback, 1996
This next title suggests I'm moving the discussion of baseball to Chicago, but WHITE SOCKS ONLY, by Evelyn Coleman, illustrated by Tyrone Geter is a story of Jim Crow segregation in the south.
When a young girl heads into town to test the theory that you can fry an egg on hot summer cement, she's dressed for the occasion. Experiment over, she needs a drink. The "Whites Only" sign is no problem, because she wore her best white socks. The confrontation that ensues involves the whole town, an ancient neighbor rumored to have magical powers, and the disappearance of the Whites Only sign.  In this case the story is fictional, but the situation is an accurate reflection of the practices of the time and place.

Atheneum Books for Young Readers
An Anne Schwartz Book, 2001
Another fictional story is based on real events of the 1964 civil rights work in Mississippi. In this case the author's note precedes the narrative, setting the stage for  FREEDOM SUMMER, by Deborah Wiles, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue. The author experienced questions and confusions as a white child in the deep South when the Civil Rights Act was passed, planting the seed for this story.
It depicts a common situation: two young boys, one black and one white became friends, but no amount of denial erased the fact that changing the law could not change the attitudes of the adults. The boys might now have equal rights, but they would have to take a stand for equal treatment and equal respect. 
The illustrations are a remarkable blend of detail and blurred edges, pulling the reader into the situation to fill in the blanks and participate in the situations.

In each case the books, like the movie, have the capacity to transport readers back through time to situations that are otherwise inconceivable to today's youth. Whether non-fiction or historical fiction with author notes, they turn dry facts, names and dates into vibrant characters and events. They stir the soul, stimulate curiosity, and generate empathy. 

I hope you'll click on this link to another blog, I.N.K. (Interesting Non-fiction for Kids). This collaborative effort by non-fiction writers for kids is always worth reading, but this particular post calls attention to the diverse and valuable topics in the posts. Along the right margin you'll find active links to the many award-winning contributing-authors' websites. Do yourself a favor and explore even a few. Then subscribe to the blog. It's a great way to get to know some of the finest writers and titles you'll ever want to read or share with kids.

Apr 14, 2013

An "Anti-Theme-Month" Post

One of my earliest posts after launching this blog addressed the question of "Monthly Themes". If you've been a loyal reader, don't bother to link back, because you're already aware of my conflicted views on this practice. But if you're new around these parts (or posts) I urge you to take a moment to read the link above and give some thought to this longstanding literary practice.

Back in March, the official "Women's History Month", I became aware of these three titles but made a conscious choice to save them for now.

Harcourt Children's Books, 2003
It's pretty easy to see why I'd save MAMA PLAYED BASEBALL, by David Adler, illustrated by Chris O'Leary. I'm an avid baseball fan and proud to say that the number of quality picture books featuring baseball greats is extensive and growing. 

David Adler's success with picture book biographies is indisputable, in part because of his ability to cover all the essential details of lives while seamlessly revealing the background and the mid-ground of the world surrounding those lives.

In this case he presents a generic version of a player in one of the women's baseball teams that arose of necessity during World War II. Generic, but only in that it is not an individual's biography, and yet it's so very specific I feel as if I know this family. You will, too, including the daughter who helps Mama practice, the quirky grandparents, and the proud dad returning from war. (Fans of picture books and baseball should check out Stephanie Lowden's recent blog posts, too.)

Paula Wiseman Books, 2013
World War II forced society to rethink the expectations and limits of gender, but no such force was in place in the previous century. LOOK UP: Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Raul Colon offers an accessible and appealing look at a remarkable woman of that time. Henrietta Leavitt pursued her lifelong fascination with the stars, unphased by being the only woman in her astronomy and other science classes.  She worked at Harvard Observatory for years, despite the fact that women were consigned to essential computational analysis tasks but denied access to the telescopes. Women served as human computers and were expected to "work, not think". 
Leavitt's remarkable capacity for detailed observation, measurement, and comparison of the daily star images, coupled with her insatiable desire to understand the universe, led her to make paradigm-changing discoveries about space, stars, and the Milky Way. Her work changed forever our understanding of the size and relationships within space, and she is acknowledged as a landmark figure in the study of astronomy.
Backmatter in this book is a rich resource, including further details of her life and accomplishments, a glossary, other women astronomers, and resources for further study.

Calkins Creek Books, 2012
Back our time machine up another half century to the early 1800's to meet legendary  Molly Williams, an African American servant (not slave) in New York City. A well-researched version of her story is offered in MOLLY, BY GOLLY: The Legend of Molly Williams, America's First Woman Firefighter,  by Dianne Ochiltree, illustrated by Kathleen Kemly. 
Molly's story blends her traditional roles (cook, servant) with her very untraditional sense of self, especially for the times. The precise details of her assistance in fighting a fire in the midst of a winter storm aren't nearly as important as are her confidence and commitment. The fact that the firefighters felt such respect for her competence and courage is seen in the backmatter research notes. The patterns of firefighting described are also well-documented and offer readers real insight into the vulnerabilities of city dwellers in those times. 

Molly, Henrietta, and Mama are women who shaped the world around them rather than conforming to the expectations of their times. By so doing, they changed history, and their stories are far too important to be shelved, waiting for another "Women's History Month" to roll around. 

My concerns about the limitations of theme months, though, do not apply to "appreciation" events. In particular, I  encourage everyone to celebrate National Library Week, April 14-20. In fact, why not head over to your library this week and check out any or all of these titles. While you're there, thank a librarian. The library is often the first (and frequent) stop individuals make as they begin their own journeys to changing history for themselves.

Apr 7, 2013

The Timeless Triumph of Poetry

Here I am again , whining about the double-edged swords of monthly themes (Black History, Women's History, Hispanic Heritage, etc.). In my opinion the sharpest of those double-edged swords is the designation of April as POETRY MONTH.  The benefit, of course, is the likelihood that kids (and adults!) will experience poetry more often and with more attention this month than is usually the case. 
My HOPE is that some will encounter a category of language and literature that reaches out and grabs them by the heart and never lets go.
My REGRET is that so many kids (and adults!) do NOT experience poetry daily, despite its power and potential to reach our hearts and minds in a matter of moments using only a few artfully chosen words.
Just a few examples are shared here, with more to follow in the weeks to come.

Books for Young Readers, 2011
Let's start with poetry collections that reach back several centuries: 
I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN: Poems of American Slavery, written by Cynthia Grady and illustrated by Michele Wood. Awards and recognitions for this title include Parents' Choice Award in the poetry category, New York Public Library, Children's Books 2012: 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
I wrote on Goodreads:
With my love of quilts, southern heritage, and appreciation for both poetry and art, this oversized offering from Eerdmans BYR earns the highest rating. Each free-verse poem is ten-by-ten (ten lines, ten syllables each) to mimic the structure of a quilt. Each left spread includes the title of a traditional quilt pattern, a poem, a strip of the quilt pattern, and an historic note about the role of quilts in slave history. The right side spread combines the abstraction of the pattern with an artistic image of the slave life that inspired it. Brilliantly done!

Chronicle Books, 2012
Moving on to the past century brings us to WHEN THUNDER COMES: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders, by J. Patrick Lewis, Children's Poet Laureat. This collection has the unusual distinction of being illustrated by multiple artists, including Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engel, John Parra, and Meilo So. (Each of these links is worth a second look.)

My Goodreads notes on this title:
Of the many books written about civil rights leaders, some lesser known than others, these poems capture their voices and spirits better than anything else I've read. These are definitely for an older audience, not only because of the challenging vocabulary and language, but because of the depth of conflicts, emotions, and issues explored.

Disney Press, 2013

When it comes to history, nothing matters more to each of us than personal history. Hearing poems, reciting poems (individually and in chorale groups), and memorizing poems are experiences that stay with us for life. That's why I'm such a fan of POEMS TO LEARN BY HEART collected by Caroline Kennedy with paintings by Jon J. Muth.

I'm also a fan of Kennedy's previous anthology of poems: A FAMILY OF POEMS (below). This more recent collection exceeded my expectations. Once again Jon Muth's illustrations serve the poems well, subtly extending and exploring meaning. The organization by themes is effective, back matter additions are helpful and well organized.
Given its premise of rote memorization and oral recitation, the collection offers something for everyone, from Langston Hughes's eleven word "Bad Morning" to the epic "Casey at the Bat".

Disney-Hyperion, 2005

The earlier anthology by this duo should be in every family and classroom collection, too: A FAMILY OF POEMS: My Favorite Poetry for Children collected by Caroline Kennedy with paintings by Jon J. Muth. Poetry anthologies are always an asset, but some offer more than others. In this case the poets represented range from the Bible to Anonymous to Edward Lear- and on and on and on...
In addition they are wisely arranged (About ME, So Silly, Animals, The Seasons, The Seashore, Adventure, and Bedtime). The forward, first line index, and foreign poems in original languages make it all the more useful and informative.

The title of this post reflects my conviction that poetry transcends time- reaching back into history, capturing voices from the past, and easily evoking our own personal memories. 
Poetry is powerful for the same reasons as picture books are. 
Make poetry a part of every day, starting TODAY!
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.