By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Retold with rich, musical narration, and illustrated with Mr. Bryan’s distinctive paintings, these tales are full of fun and magic and a few lessons to be learned. They are tales of tricksters, chieftains, and both wise and foolish creatures. You will learn why Frog and Snake never play together, or why Bush Cow and Elephant are bad friends, or of the problems that a husband has because he likes to count spoonfuls. Although the stories come from many parts of Africa, they are full of the universal human spirit, to be shared and treasured for every generation, uh-huh.
African Tales is actually a compilation of three of Bryan’s collections of African tales. It’s one of those books that would be perfect for kids who are into reading folk tales. You know the ones, they check out all the different books of Greek, Roman and Egyptian myths and Aesop’s fables. Full disclosure, I was totally one of those kids. The reading level in this makes it maybe a bit more difficult (5th+) but younger audiences will also enjoy the tales.
Bryan’s writing style also make this an excellent read aloud. He’s really focused on retelling the stories in a way that tries to replicate the oral tradition of story telling. There has been a lot of research that says how important it is to read aloud to children until way past when they can read to themselves. (Jim Trelease argues that you should read aloud all the way through high school.) The combination of individual tales, the humor, and orality of the stories make this a perfect African Tales would be a great book to continue the tradition of reading aloud to your children.
Many of the stories are funny and a few have obvious morals or lessons in them, but, by and large, this is just a good collection of folk tales perfect for reading aloud.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: “Sing to the sun
It will listen
And warm your words.”
In this beautiful collection of art and poetry, Ashley bryan celebrates all aspects of life–from a rainshower at the seashore to a beloved grandmother gathering fruit. Perfect for reading aloud, these joyful, heartfelt poems will touch all who read them.
In his autobiography, Words to My Life’s Song, Ashley Bryan said his elementary school stressed poetry recitation. They had to memorize a poem a week and share it with their class. This practice helped focus Bryan on the sound of the spoken word. I think it also drew him to poetry as many of his books are about poets or written in poem form.
Sing to the Sun is a lovely little collection of poems perfect for reading aloud and for sharing with elementary age kids. The poems have a bit of depth, symbolism, and imagery, but are not so complex they would baffle that age group. In fact, because of this, they would probably make for a good poetry study where you can take them apart and look at them. The more I read children’s poetry the more I realize I don’t hate poetry, just contrived adult poetry that is required in high school. The poems in Sing are about a variety of topics and while not all of them are strictly for children they will appeal and be relatable to children. It’s important for children to read all types of literature (plays, poetry, fiction, nonfiction), but we need to make it good quality so they aren’t turned off by it. Choosing poetry, like Sing to the Sun, that is relatable and understandable, but also plays with language in an interesting and beautiful way is exactly what children need exposure to.
The illustrations in the book are absolutely gorgeous. They have movement to them that really brings them to life. And paired with their poems the words also come to life through the pictures. I’ve said this before with Bryan’s art, but it has a quality that makes if feel as if a child could recreate his style, despite his clear expertise with art. As with poetry, seeing art they could recreate children will want to enjoy and try their hand at it instead of being turned off by it.
If I have one complaint it was the layout and the library copy I had. The layout feels a bit dated. I think the simple poem and art that accompanies it is a good idea, simplicity will draw your eye to the picture and focus the reader on the poem, but I wonder if a child would pick the book up of their own accord. The library copy I have out is also yellowed. If the white pages and the cover were nice and bright it would seem more inviting. I also wonder if reprinting the pictures with a touch more saturation would help brighten and modernize the book.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Ashley’s autobiography is full of art, photographs, and the poignant never-say-never tale of his rich life, a life that has always included drawing and painting. Even as a boy growing up during the Depression, he painted — finding cast off objects to turn into books and kites and toy and art. Even as a solder in the segregated Army on the beaches of Normandy, he sketched — keeping charcoal crayons and paper in his gasmask to draw with during lulls. Even as a talented, visionary art student who was accepted and then turned away from college upon arrival, the school telling Ashley that to give a scholarship to an African American student would be a waste, he painted — continuing to create art when he could have been discouraged, continuing to polish his talents when his spirit should have been beaten. Ashley went on to become a Hans Christian Anderson Award nominee, a May Hill Arbuthnot lecturer, and a multiple Coretta Scott King award winner.
Another winner of a book from Ashley Bryan. I liked this so much I ordered my own copy. Bryan grew up during the Depression Era, but his family was happy and seemed to make the most of their circumstances. His parents, born in Antigua on the island of St. John, immigrated to Brooklyn and lived in a small apartment with their six kids and three orphaned nieces and nephews. The way Bryan describes his home and his parents is almost magical. His mother sang from morning until night. His parents encouraged Ashley’s artistry and all their kids. They were able to take free WPA music and art classes. His mother also grew plants where ever there was light in their apartment and made paper flowers to brighten darker spaces. Who wouldn’t want to grow up there and who wouldn’t find inspiration in that? When Bryan was older his parents bought the house across the street from their apartment building and made a home there.
When Bryan was 19 he was drafted into the army during WWII. Because he was black he was stuck doing service work, but was present at the D-Day invasion on a supply boat. After traveling to Scotland, England, and then France, Bryan returned to the US, but was haunted by questions of war. He decided, after a summer art scholarship, to study philosophy and got an undergraduate degree from Columbia. (I have to note biographies of this time period make it seem that it was considerably easier to get an education back then, especially a college education). After that he decided to use the GI bill to continue his education and went to France where he painted and studied French. He was even able to see Pablo Casals in concert! Bryan also got a Fulbright scholarship and studied in Germany.
Bryan did not set out to be a children’s book author/illustrator. He was a practicing artist and taught at the college level. He was approached by Pantheon books, who ultimately did not use his work, and then later by Atheneum. He has published a ton of books since then!
The interesting thing about the layout/format of Words is that it could have gone very wrong. It’s chock full of pictures of his drawings and paintings over the year, photographs of Bryan as a child and young man, pictures of his letters and photos of the places he grew up, as well as pictures of the Cranberry Isles where he lives now and his studio there. There is also the story of his life, his autobiography, and a parallel story of him inviting the reader along to see his island home and how he draws inspiration from it. The three pieces, pictures and two stories, could have felt jumbled, disjointed, and incongruous, but nothing interrupts anything else. It all flows so beautifully together and is so inspiring and lovely. At the end you feel as though you have spent a relaxing day chatting with an amazing artist who has led a full and interesting life.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Mar 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I was first introduced to Ashley Bryan a few months ago through the amazing Ashley Bryan’s Puppets. I saw the book on a blog and thought it looked intriguing so I got it out of the library. I was taken with it, but my daughter was really taken with it, so I thought I would look into Bryan a bit more. You can read my review of Puppets here on this blog and here on my mommy blog (I take a slightly different, more personal angle with the later).
Schedule for the week:
- Monday: Words to My Life’s Song
- Tuesday: Sing to the Sun
- Wednesday: African Tales, Uh-Huh
- Thursday: Who Built the Stable?: A Nativity Poem
Links of interest:
- Ashley Bryan Center, a center dedicated to celebrate and share his art
- A video interview in nine short parts on Reading Rockets
- Update 8/20/2015: An interview with Roger Sutton of the Horn Book and Ashley Bryan focusing on his new book Sail Away
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Harriet’s Hare written by Dick King-Smith, pictures by Roger Roth
From GoodReads: Hares don’t talk. Everyone knows that. But the hare Harriet meets one morning in a corn circle in her father’s wheatfield is a very unusual hare: a visitor from the far-off planet Pars, come to spend his holidays on Earth in the form of a talking hare. Wiz, as Harriet names her magical new friend, can speak any language, transform himself into any shape – and, as the summer draws to its close, he has one last, lovely surprise in store for Harriet…
I know this one isn’t as old as some of the other books I’ve read, but I think it counts as a throwback. I was interested in this one for a couple reasons. The first is, the author is the author of Babe: A Gallant Pig another great book. The second is that it had a hare in it and I’m a sucker for animal books. Third, I was curious how something more recent, something I could have read new as a kid, held up.
This is a quiet story. No loud action here. Harriet lives on a small farm with her dad in England. Her summer break has just begun when she hears a strange noise outside. An investigation of the wheat field reveals a crop circle and large hare who hops out and begins talking to her. The hare is actually an alien in the form of a hare and he sets Harriet up for a delightful surprise.
I really enjoyed the story and its languid pace and simple story are perfect for young readers. While it does center around Harriet and the hare, they don’t do a whole lot of interacting and what the story really reveals are the people involved in the story- Harriet, her father, the new lady in town, and the housekeeper. Adults will easily figure out the surprise the hare hints at, but the ending will give you warm fuzzy feelings anyway. I would give it to kids who like animals stories, fantasy (although it’s really more science fiction), and kids who like stories about family. It would make a great read aloud, too.
For me personally the story would have worked with just a magical hare that could talk. I am just not a science fiction fan, at least not the type with outer space and aliens in it. But if I had read this as a kid it might have made an excellent entree into world of science fiction. Especially since I so loved (and love) animal stories. In other words, this would make a good introduction to the science fiction genre.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Dog Days written by Karen English, pictures by Laura Freeman
From GoodReads: It’s tough being the new kid at Carver Elementary. Gavin had lots of friends at his old school, but the kids here don’t even know that he’s pretty good at skateboarding, or how awesome he is at soccer. And when his classmate Richard comes over and the boys end up in trouble, not only does Gavin risk losing his one new friend, he has to take care of his great aunt Myrtle’s horrible little dog as punishment.
To make matters worse, Gavin seems to have attracted the attention of the school bully. Will he be able to avoid getting pounded at the skate park? And how is he ever going to prove he’s cool with a yappy little Pomeranian wearing a pink bow at his side?
Dog Days nails the kid perspective. Gavin is an all around nice kid, but a kid nonetheless. While sneaking into his sister’s room to eat her candy with his friend they manage to break Danielle’s prized snow globe. Gavin is worried, but more for himself than for his sister who he sees as a pain. His punishment, walking his aunt’s dog, seems so unfair and he gripes about in exactly the way a kid would.
His new friend Richard is not the best friend around, but again Gavin uses his kid logic and doesn’t seem to mind too much. He gets irritated, but most of the issues roll off his back and even when he is mad he is quick to forgive.
The book would be perfect for kids who love realistic fiction and while it has a message in it that comes through Gavin’s realization that he might care for his aunt’s silly dog, it never feels heavy handed. This is the first in a series too, which makes it a good fit for the third/fourth grade crowd. The reading level is a bit high, but manageable and Freeman’s cute illustrations break up the story perfectly.
As an adult reading the story you can see where it’s going and you can tell that Gavin isn’t seeing the whole picture. This is particularly funny when his Aunt comes to stay and his mother is suddenly not home nearly as much. From her sighs and body language, which Gavin notices, but doesn’t understand, it’s clear that his mother is not happy about Aunt Myrtle’s visit. Gavin just sees her absence as abandonment and doesn’t think much past himself (not in an annoying way), which is totally something a kid would do. This second layer would make it a good bedtime read aloud for parents and kids to share together.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Christians, Jews, and Muslims all pray. So do Hindus and Buddhists. Many others pray too. So begins Everyone Prays, a bright and colorful concept book celebrating the diverse ways that people pray. In a vibrant yet accessible manner, young readers are transported on a visual tour across the globe. They will discover the Native American sun dance ceremony, visit the sacred sites in Jerusalem, behold the Shinto shrines in Japan, watch Maasai dances in Kenya, see pilgrimages to the river Ganges in India, and much, much more.
I have to add a personal spin to this review, especially since I read some of the reviews on GoodReads and was surprised by the criticism. We’re a pretty a-religious family. The holidays we celebrate are tied to cultural tradition and significance rather than religion for us. That being said I don’t want my daughter to think religion isn’t okay if she’s interested and I want her to know about other faiths beyond our vaguely Christian one. I also think you need some conception of religion to really be culturally literate. So, I often seek out books that share religious stories, figures, and other religions (especially Islam since one of my closest friends is Muslim) to share with my daughter so she is exposed to the idea of religion. That is why I picked up this book.
I know this type of book, one that presents religion, can be really hit or miss. Some people on GoodReads complained that it was too didactic. I agree the book is didactic, but it’s essentially seeking to do what I am seeking to do with my daughter: expose her to religion and how it’s similar and different across faiths and cultures. Nonfiction is, at its heart, didactic. I did not get the impression here that there was a Message with a capital ‘m’, nor did it feel like there was some agenda underlying the text.
The other complaint I saw was that the text within the book was sparse and there wasn’t much information except in the back matter. This is true, but I didn’t see it as a downside. In fact, it made it the perfect book to share with my three-year-old. I love nonfiction books, but the more text heavy they become the less interested my daughter is and I think this is true for younger audiences in general.
We both liked the bright simple illustrations and I thought they complimented the text nicely. I was relieved to see that the pictures have a white field and modern feel rather than the bland, watery or cutesy illustrations that seem to plague religious picture books. It’s also refreshing to see a mix of people in a book, a mix of people that are primarily brown, not white.
So, the long and the short of it is, I think this is a great book for exposing kids to different religions to see how they are the same and how they differ. It’s probably best for the younger set 3-7ish (preschool up into first grade). Certainly older kids might be drawn in by the extra information at the back and it would make a good read aloud because it doesn’t get too bogged down with tons of information. There is a lot here to spark discussion about different religious ceremonies, traditions, and rituals and because it’s not all included in the picture book part of the book the audience can pick and choose what they are curious about. Return visits to the book would spark more questions and discussion.
Half way through the book my daughter asked if we could buy our own copy of the book once we returned the library copy and if that isn’t a ringing endorsement I don’t know what is.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 04, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family.
The more I read novels in verse the more I like them. I just haven’t had the experience of getting them into kids hands to know if they are liked by their target audiences.
Inside Out & Back Again is a lovely, but sad, story of Ha’s immigration to the US. I was particularly pleased to see the Vietnam War, a time period I don’t recall seeing tons of books on, tackled from the Vietnamese/immigrant perspective. We hear a lot about the draft and how awful the war was for American soldiers, but seem to forget it was awful and disruptive (to say the least) for the people living in Vietnam.
Lai has done an amazing job of telling Ha’s story and has apparently woven in experiences she had after escaping Vietnam. I was particularly taken with the idea that we see everything through Ha’s eyes so the reader often has to infer or guess about some of the things she describes, but doesn’t understand or comprehend. For example, the neighbors bring over wiggly food which I presume is Jell-o. The story it bookended by their Tet celebrations and both are hopeful. While the final celebration is bittersweet things are looking up and the family is holding together and beginning to make the best of their situation.
Despite the events nothing is grisly or explicit. I think it would be fine for kids in fifth grade, even possibly interested fourth graders and up into seventh and eighth grade. It’s an easy and quick book to read, but there is a lot to think about and explore in it as well. While I think kids interested in the Vietnam War era or realistic fiction will enjoy the book by itself, it would make an excellent classroom book as well for the themes and ideas it touches on through Ha’s experiences.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
The Rescuers by Margery Sharp, pictures by Garth Williams
From GoodReads: Miss Bianca is a white mouse of great beauty and supreme self-confidence, who, courtesy of her excellent young friend, the ambassador’s son, resides luxuriously in a porcelain pagoda painted with violets, primroses, and lilies of the valley. Miss Bianca would seem to be a pampered creature, and not, you would suppose, the mouse to dispatch on an especially challenging and extraordinarily perilous mission. However, it is precisely Miss Bianca that the Prisoners’ Aid Society picks for the job of rescuing a Norwegian poet imprisoned in the legendarily dreadful Black Castle (we all know, don’t we, that mice are the friends of prisoners, tending to their needs in dungeons and oubliettes everywhere). Miss Bianca, after all, is a poet too, and in any case she is due to travel any day now by diplomatic pouch to Norway. There Miss Bianca will be able to enlist one Nils, known to be the bravest mouse in the land, in a desperate and daring endeavor that will take them, along with their trusty companion Bernard, across turbulent seas and over the paws and under the maws of cats into one of the darkest places known to man or mouse. It will take everything they’ve got and a good deal more to escape with their own lives, not to mention the poet.
With these Throwback Thursday posts this year I’m revisiting books I read in my youth and previewing a few classics I might want to share with my daughter. Mostly I’m curious how the books I read when I was young hold up over the years and to see how I like other classics as read alouds. This time I stumbled upon this gem of a classic through the Disney movie The Rescuers, which we watched the other night with my daughter.
I was unaware that the movie was based on a book, let alone a series of books, so being the librarian I am I requested it from the library. The two are fairly different and while the book was incredibly enjoyable, I see why they made the changes they did for the movie. For example the book has the mice as part of the Prisoners’ Aid Society where they comfort and aid prisoners. The movie has them form the Rescue Aid Society where they help people in need of assistance. I think this made the story a bit more modern, less grim, and required less exposition. The movie also combined at least two of the books from the Rescuers series, which again, I’m not sure this story, although good, is exactly box-office-hit material. Some stories adapt better to the visual narrative than others.
Here is where I admit I am an animal-story person. I never clicked with the princess movies or books about people. When given the choice I pick animal books over people books all the time. This is actually why reading diverse kidlit, particularly picture books, has been difficult for me. I am drawn to the stories with wee animals. And those are certainly the books I buy when building our home library. (This is NOT to say that’s an excuse for not reading diverse stories or for not buying them. I just have to make a conscious effort to pick up a book with people and I am doing just that.) My daughter is the same way and I know there are tons of kids out there like that. This is a book for those kids. It’s full of suspense and action, friendship and humor and mice. Garth Williams has drawn darling illustrations to go with the story. I will say Bianca is portrayed as a bit of wimp and silly girl used to creature comforts, but while she never really overcomes that part of herself, she does discover a braver, pluckier side and I think that’s a good message. One that acknowledges that you might be a girly girl, but still have it in you to do what duty requires of you and find an inner strength when necessary.
The Rescuers has quite the vocabulary and syntax in it which makes it great for upper elementary (fourth or fifth grade). It would also make an incredible read aloud. The chapters are each divided into sections (something I don’t think I’ve seen before) and make breaking off very easy. The Lexile for the book is 880L which is high, but not nearly as high as I expected. The length, 150 pages, is also perfect. Give this to fans of adventure and animals. It appears that many of the books in the series are readily available, my library has several copies of each and this first book was republished by The New York Review Children’s Collection. Being a classic, albeit maybe a bit forgotten one, it reminds me of other books from that era like Ben and Me and Charlotte’s Web.
I probably should have just written my own book blurb here because the book description provided by the publisher (and found on GoodReads) is not exactly accurate. Let me clarify a few plot points. Bianca is not selected to go on the mission but is asked, because she will be flying to Norway and will reach it sooner than a boat trip, to find the bravest mouse in Norway to undertake the mission of rescuing this poet-prisoner. When she arrives in Norway and finds a band of mice in the embassy where she lives she is told all mice are the bravest mouse in Norway and is given Nils who happens to be standing close to the mouse she speaks to. Nils agrees to go. Bianca’s part in the mission is done, but she thinks back to Bernard, the mouse who asked her to recruit the bravest Norwegian mouse, and decides she wants to see him again. Back at the Prisoners’ Aid Society Bernard volunteers to go with Nils in order to impress Bianca and Bianca decides she too will volunteer. The three then set off to free the prisoner kept in the Black Castle. Does it really matter for the purposes of reviewing the book? Probably not, but I hate inaccurate book descriptions.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Ten-year-old Sugar lives on the River Road sugar plantation along the banks of the Mississippi. Slavery is over, but laboring in the fields all day doesn’t make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar has a knack for finding her own fun, especially when she joins forces with forbidden friend Billy, the white plantation owner’s son.
Sugar has always yearned to learn more about the world, and she sees her chance when Chinese workers are brought in to help harvest the cane. The older River Road folks feel threatened, but Sugar is fascinated. As she befriends young Beau and elder Master Liu, they introduce her to the traditions of their culture, and she, in turn, shares the ways of plantation life. Sugar soon realizes that she must be the one to bridge the cultural gap and bring the community together. Here is a story of unlikely friendships and how they can change our lives forever.
Sugar is a lovely story about acceptance and friendship in the Reconstruction South, but what it’s really about, as you might suspect from the title, is Sugar, the girl. Jewell Parker Rhodes really shines, and probably delights, in creating these spunky and smart girls.
Sugar is a trickster like Br’er Rabbit in the stories she so loves. She’s also curious and impulsive. These characteristics continually get her into trouble, but they also make her a trailblazer. She brazenly accepts the offer of friendship from Billy, the plantation owner’s son. They lead her to befriend the Chinese workers brought to the plantation. She often speaks her mind even when she knows she shouldn’t, although when she speaks up it’s to make a valid point that really needs saying.
I think Sugar is an incredibly relatable kid. She never tries to get in trouble, but her impulsivity and her need to question often irritates the adults in her life and she ends up disappointing and frightening them. She’s the kid you ask “what were you thinking” and they can’t exactly articulate it because they were acting from their heart and gut, not from a clear place of logic. And really, that’s most kids. The book also shows those kids that good things can come of those “bad” behaviors. It’s Sugar who makes Billy open his eyes to the reality of the situation on the plantation. It’s Sugar who proves she is a true friend to Billy when he’s sick and she tries to help him hold on. It’s Sugar who first bridges that gap between the Chinese workers and the former slaves. She helps build their family and community. You can’t help falling for Sugar and wishing she lived in better times, under better circumstances.
This book would be an awesome addition to fifth or eighth grade curriculum when students study the Civil War. I really dislike how most traditional school programs approach history, particularly American history. There is often such a focus on several major events (primarily The War for Independence, the Civil War, and WWII) and the rest in between is seen as filler. There isn’t a focus on the often important changes and developments that take place, the people who were important, and everyday lives that happen between those wars. Maybe because we’d have to focus less on dead white men? And yet, it’s those things that made our nation. In my school career Reconstruction was covered in less than a day if it was covered at all. And yet, it’s an interesting and important part of history.
Sugar introduces readers to how things did and didn’t change for the people, white and black, in the South. Who knew that the Chinese were brought in to work plantations? I had never heard that, but it’s fascinating. Sugar gives a glimpse into a historical period when attitudes were changing, the make up of the South was changing, and the economics were changing too. Besides being a good human interest story, it can pique interest in a rich historical period and lead to further discussion. The former slaves are technically free, but they have so few options that they are still enslaved to their jobs and the land they were brought to. Kids are so attuned to injustice and I wouldn’t be surprised if the historical aspects of this story really strike a chord.
A little bit of a spoiler alert: I was a little disappointed that the ending came the way it did. I wanted the plantation to continue on in harmony as it was, but I think it was realistic to have things change. And I think the friendships they built strengthened the people who made them, giving them a clearer sense of what they wanted out of the rest of their lives and how they wanted to be treated. You also leave, if not knowing how things will ultimately play out, knowing that Sugar has found peace with herself and that’s a great note to end on.