Sunday, December 10, 2006

An American Plague; The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, by Jim Murphy

In 1793, Philadelphia, then capital of the fledgling United States republic, was overpowered by a vicious killer. The mysterious disease descended upon the bustling city, driving it's wealthy residents to the countryside, and killing an alarming number of citizens. The prose of this non-fiction text flows like a gripping mystery novel, including gruesome details, heroic characters, and pivotal conflicts. The setting, post-revolutionary America, is brought to life through rich details, including the smells, sounds, and dialects unique to late 18th century Philadelphia. This well-researched book is an outstanding example of how I wish all non-fiction books were written---with a unique, flavorful voice and by employing elements of fiction, such as character development, plot, and conflict, in order to tell a true story.

I have not yet had the opportunity to share this book with a class of fifth graders, but I predict they will relish the suspense and enjoy the story, while also learning many true and important facts about this historical time period.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Becoming Naomi Leon, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Eleven-year-old Naomi Outlaw Leon has lived with her great-grandmother and younger brother Owen for most of her life. Her world is turned upside down when her abusive, alcoholic mother suddenly shows up and starts all sorts of trouble. Naomi is half-Mexican and half-American, and she learns many new things about her Mexican identity as she, Gram, and Owen travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, to find her father. This book is full of beautiful descriptions, endearing characters, and complex themes. Can someone be Mexican if they don't speak Spanish? What makes a family? What is true courage? Naomi tells her story in a voice that is careful, quiet, observant, and splendid.

Here are some comments from two former students of mine about this book:

"I really enjoyed Naomi Leon. Because it gave a lot of different stages that she went through. For example she became less shy, and came to her senses. She was a more opened person at school and at home. I also enjoyed it because it gave a lot of details, it had sad parts and happy and in the middle parts. And it was very interesting."

"This book was really good, because I think it had a good plot. I liked that it had a lot of details. I liked the author a lot so I decided to read other books from her. The plot was good because it was about a young girl who found herself. The details that were good was when they explained her soap carving of the animal family."

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I Could Do That: Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote, by Linda Arms White

This picture book biography is the true story of Esther Morris, America's first elected woman official and the driving force behind the first successful suffrage campaign in United States history. The story starts when Esther is a young child who sees to the necessary arrangements when her mother dies, as the rest of her family mourns. Esther goes on to start a small business, move out west, and to strategically negotiate between political parties to win women the vote in Wyoming. The lively illustrations capture the independent, fierce, feminine spirit of this remarkable woman. Linda Arms White represents the known facts about Esther Morris' life, without filling in details that have been lost through time, yet she also pulled the story and Esther's life together into a single powerful theme as Esther's buck-up-and-get-the-job-done refrain is repeated throughout the book: I could do that!

When I shared this book with my class I was delightfully surprised to see that my fifth grade boys were just as into this lively story as were my girls. They were all cheering for Esther and were quick to connect her struggle for equality to other familiar movements, such as the one championed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Posted by Picasa

The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan

A sixth grade boy named Percy Jackson is on a field trip when he suddenly discovers that he has some freaky, incredible super powers. It turns out that Percy is actually a demigod: a being who is half god and half human and that he must go to Camp Half Blood, a refuge for all demigod children. Olympus has followed the center of world power from Ancient Rome to contemporary New York City. The cast of characters includes gorgons and centaurs, Gods and Goddesses, and a handful of young friends who are struggling to define their identities, understand their parents, and save the world. Percy figures out who his father is and then gets caught up in a cosmic clash of egos--someone has stolen Zeus' lightning bolt and all hell is breaking loose (literally).

This story has plenty of references to Ancient Greek mythology and is told in a spunky, adolescent voice. In an email to Rick Riordan, after enjoying this book with my class last year I wrote: "Several of my boys were begging for more 'action and adventure' books and Percy Jackson provided us all with a perfect adolescent hero. I'm already having trouble keeping track of who has my two copies of [the sequel], The Sea of Monsters. Thanks so much for the excellent books. Thanks for helping me cultivate strong, thoughtful readers."

The Lightning Thief is one of those rare, wonderful finds that has enough action, fighting, and adventure to hook video-game addicts, but also has plenty of character development, fabulous word choice, a unique and interesting narrative voice, and many surprising plot twists. The third book in the series is scheduled to be released in May 2007. I am planning to host a "Percy Party" with my class to celebrate.

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Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse

When I started this book as an assignment for my Children's Literature class, I predicted that I wouldn't like it. I wasn't much interested in the setting---Okalahoma during the 1940s---and I anticipated that the poetry form would be full of abstract metaphors and difficult imagery. I certainly didn't think I would discover a stunning, tragic, beautiful, and powerful story; one that I would want all of my fifth grade students to have the opportunity to enjoy.

Billie Jo, the 14-year-old main character and narrator of this story, lives with her family in the arid, dusty, broken land that was Oklahoma in the 1940s. Throughout most of the story she is determined to "get out of the dust." The character development and plot are very engaging, and the setting is crucial---it shapes the story and creates a vivid, informative picture of life in this time and place. Many of the details are based on primary source materials from the time period, creating a historical backdrop that is both believable and accurate.

I haven't had the chance, yet, to use this book in my classroom. I am hopeful, however, that I will get the chance and that my students will understand the themes, become attached to the characters, and be transformed by the story. I hope, in short, that they will have an experience with this amazing book, that is similar to my own.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Me and Uncle Romie, by Claire Hartfield

Unlike many biogrpahies, this is a book told from the perspective of a child and told as a personal narrative. The information about Romare Bearden is all accurate, but the story format makes this information both interesting and enjoyable for children to learn. The book is illustrated in a way that honors and foregrounds Romare Bearden's unique style and contribution to American Art, but the illustrations are not as abstract and difficult to understand as Bearden's work. I used this book during a biography unit in my classroom and was delighted by how many students became interested in learning more about Bearden. Posted by Picasa

Martin's Big Words, by Doreen Rappaport

This biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uses words from his actual speeches and writing to tell the story of his life. Some of the words are repeated throughout the text, making it both accessible and enjoyable for younger audiences. The illustrations further this theme--making Martin Luther King into a character that is friendly, loving and accessible to very young children. While I believe this book is successful at what it aims to accomplish, I think it vital that children of all ages be given more comprehensive information after such a beautiful, but simple, introduction to Martin Luther King. Posted by Picasa

Speak To Me (and I will listen between the lines), by Karen English

Six third-graders tell the story of a single school day in a series of first-person poems that capture not only the unique and delicious flavor of urban classrooms, but also the developmental stage when children’s voices are beginning to become more mature, more observant, and more different from one another. Although these are very particular, individual children, their personalities, desires, fears, and troubles will be familiar to many middle grade students and teachers. The illustrations heighten the poems’ power and provide excellent visual accompaniment to the brilliant verse. This is the one book that I didn’t already own that I allowed myself to purchase after completing a picture book assignment for a children's lit class. I had one "rough-edged" fifth grade boy horde it for a week after I shared it with my students. Posted by Picasa

Once Around the Sun, by Bobbi Katz

This book has one elegant poem for each month of the year. The poems and illustrations work together to capture the unique flavor of each season, the innocence and playfulness of childhood, and the texture of a year as each spicy month passes by. LeUyen Pham’s richly colored and gentle illustrations are perfect for the sparse, elegant poems, and help make the whole book a reading and viewing pleasure. The children depicted are black, but their ethnicity and race are not central to the book—it is about the joy of childhood and the changing of seasons as universal, human themes. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sense Pass King, by Katrin Tchana, Illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman

Ma’a’anta is a remarkable heroine —she is strong, brave, and very smart. In this story Ma’a’anta sleighs a horrible sea dragon, outsmarts an evil King, and rescues a dainty princess. Her name means that she has more sense than a king, and in the end the villagers chase away the king and make this young heroine their queen. Part tall tale, part fantasy adventure, the story is brought to life by Hyman’s mixed media art, which captures a wide range of emotions: she makes each human vibrant, animated, and expressive. This is a perfect story to empower young girls, especially, but not exclusively those young girls who are wondering if it’s cool to carry things on your head—African style—and who need a heroine who looks like them. Posted by Picasa

My Feet Are Laughing, by Lissette Norman

My Feet Are Laughing is a story told in a series of poems in the jazzy, spunky voice of a Dominican American girl named Sadie. The events of the plot are actually quite tragic: Sadie’s parents split up and then Sadie and her mom and sister have to move into her Grandma’s place. But Sadie is a true poet—she sees happiness underneath the surface of things and uses her writing as a tool to reshape, soften, and invigorate her world. The illustrations further this reshaping—the characters are represented as silly, rambunctious, happy, and resilient. Sadie’s poetry, alone, is spectacular and funky enough to make a great book, but coupled with the fluid, vivid illustrations, My Feet Are Laughing is a rare, delicious gem. Posted by Picasa

Thunder Rose, by Jerdine Nolen, Illustrations by Kadir Nelson

The tall tale canon will never be the same with the addition of Thunder Rose. This bull- wrestling, lightening-wrangling, song-thundering girl legend is the stuff tall tales are made from. Thunder Rose is full of delicious descriptive language, unbelievable feats of strength and wit, and illustrations that add humor, beauty and grace. The text of this book is like a rhythmic, twisted, gyrating dance. Beware, it requires some practice to get all that tongue twistin’ perfect. But even nine and ten year olds delight in the illustrations, in the language, and in the knee-slappin’, foot-stompin’ story of Thunder Rose. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Jackie Robinson: Strong Inside and Out

This biography introduces children to an amazing man, who was not only a phenomenal baseball player, but who also had the inner strength to endure heaps of abuse as he single-handedly broke the color barrier of professional sports. The story of Jackie Robinson's life is set amidst the historical backdrop of racial segregation. When Jackie was a young boy, his family encountered discrimination when they moved to a recently integrated neighborhood in California. Jackie dropped out of college because he wouldn't have any realistic job prospects, even with a college degree. And the racial discrimination continued as Jackie served as a soldier in WWII. Although true to the history of racism and race based discrimination in the United States, it is Jackie's inner strength, his unbelievable ability to play great baseball in the midst of such hatred, that become this book's focus and also became Jackie Robinson's most important legacy. Jackie Robinson was not the best African American baseball player in 1947; there were more experienced and more skilled players in the Negro Leagues. But, just as the Brooklyn Dodger's manager Branch Rickey bet, Jackie Robinson was an athlete who also had the strength of character to "not fight back".

The pacing of this book, along with plenty of pictures, both historical and contemporary, kept my fourth and fifth grade readers very engaged. The book's baseball lingo and its historical context required that several of my students be given additional background information to support their comprehension. Sidebars tell the story of Roberto Clemento, the first Latino player to be elected to the hall of fame, and the story of Satchel Paige, a hall of fame pitcher who spent most of his career in the Negro Leagues. The final pages are a recent interview with Jackie's daughter Sharon, which makes immediate the fact that this story may be accompanied by many black and white photos, but it was only two or three generations back that countless sports fans watched in admiration as Jackie Robinson played major league baseball.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Harry Sue

Harry Sue is one of the best books I've read in 2006. Super tender, super funny, and very engaging. I don't think I'll ever assign it or use it with elementary aged kids (drugs and violence), but I've given up worrying about that all the time--it was worth the read for my own sweet pleasure. I certainly hope many of my former students, now middle-schoolers, however, will find it on their own.

Harry Sue is planning to become a con so she can join her mom in prison. She speaks con-speak, has a repitoire of con-looks, and has a crew she runs with, including a best friend who is also serving "hard time." She lives with an extremely abusive guardian and is all set for her life of crime--but try as she might, Harry Sue can't quite turn her tender heart evil.

The interacial couple composed of a 30 year old Sudanese man who cooks and his wife, a wild-spirited white woman was only icing on the cake of this wonderful story. Harry Sue's love of the book even made me want to read the original Wizard of Oz. Thank you Madame Esme, for the rec. Posted by Picasa

Mr. Chickee's Funny Money

This is the first of Chirtopher Paul Curtis' books that I predict my nine and ten year old students could handle on their own. The themes aren't as heavy as his other novels, and the content is totally appropriate for late elementary school kids. The voice of the narrator, though, is very reminiscent of Bud (not Buddy) and Kenny (from the Watsons go to Birmingham). Phrases like "crying like a kindergarten baby" made me fondly remember those other two narrators.

In this story old, blind Mr. Chickee gives young Steven a very large bill that looks like genuine US mint. The ensuing cascade of events take Steven, his family, and his friends on a wild adventure that ends in tragic comedy. The plot could be a comic book for all its wild turns and exaggerated characters, including a talking dictionary. There's also some very fascinating clues centered on true information about James Brown, The Godfather of Soul.

Can't wait for the paperback edition so I can assign it to reading groups! Posted by Picasa