Friday, July 25, 2014

The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now: Two Endearing Reads for the Ages!

Do you know what it's like to find a book that you absolutely fall in love with?  In love with every word?  Every event?  Every character?  (Well...almost.)  And can you imagine what it's like to find not one but two of these books, written as companions to each other?  Do you know what that feels like? 

Gary D. Schmidt swept me away with the stories in The Wednesday Wars, published in 2007, and Okay for Now, published in 2013.  Both books have strikingly similar elements and themes with endearing characters that I want to keep reading about!  Taking place in the 1960's during the roaring Vietnam War, each book is told from the perspective of a different middle school boy with impossibly egocentric fathers, quiet mothers, and annoying older siblings.  And both books showcase the companionship that adults can form with children, even in the most unlikely of circumstances.  

The Wednesday Wars was written in 2007.
In The Wednesday Wars, Holling Hoodhood is just trying to survive seventh grade with a teacher, Mrs. Baker, who he is sure absolutely hates his guts.  (She makes him clap the erasers after school every Wednesday, for crying out loud!)  Meanwhile, he has to deal with Doug Swieteck's older brother's antics, which include posting pictures of Holling around the school wearing yellow tights with white feathers on the...well...you'll just have to read to find out.  His sister wants to be a flower child, his father is obsessed with his architecture firm and seemingly little else, and his mother does not have a voice in their family anyway.  Plagued with the escape of his classroom's rats, enamored with the words of Shakespeare and baseball, fearful of being drafted into Vietnam in just five years, Holling navigates the oft rugged landscape of middle school with some unexpected heroes.

Okay for Now was published in 2013.


In Okay For Now, the author has crafted a new novel about Doug Swieteck himself who moves to Marysville, New York with his family after his father loses his job in Long Island.  Before he leaves, Holling Hoodhood comes to say good-bye and to share a special gift with Doug.  When Doug arrives in Marysville, he feels like an absolute chump until he bonds with Mr. Powell, the librarian at the Marysville Free Public Library, over an original book of John James Audubon's bird drawings.  Besides developing an interest and talent for himself, Doug is employed every Saturday at Spicer's Deli as a delivery boy, and the money he earns is, of course, taken away by his father to help support the family.  In the meantime, his brother returns from Vietnam much different than the way he left, his gym teacher's personal mission seems to be to torture poor Doug, and he does not want to read stupid Jane Eyre in class because...well...you'll just have to read it yourself to figure that out!

I absolutely admire the way Gary D. Schmidt has crafted both of these novels to be endearing, hopeful, and sweet, while still speaking to the hearts and passions of middle school boys.  Featuring grand coincidences in each novel and siblings who are not given names until the end of book - when Holling and Doug realize that their siblings do have identities after all - Mr. Schmidt writes in a way that makes me want to read more.  He embodies what it means to have voice as a writer, and I look forward to reading more of his books in the future. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Counting by 7's: A Review

Counting by 7's was published in
2013 by the Penguin Group.
This summer, I am working as a summer reading assistant at the Williamsburg Regional Library.  My primary job includes conferencing with young readers about the books they've recorded, which gives me an opportunity to learn about new and popular children's literature.  One of the books that has frequently appeared on the lists of middle school readers is Counting by 7's by Holly Goldberg Sloan, a novel that focuses on a young genius - Willow Chance - who is obsessed with skin diseases and gardening. 

When she was a baby, she was adopted by her mother and father and has grown up in the Southern California desert.  She doesn't have many friends, but she prefers listening to the wind bellow between her extraordinary garden in the backyard, which is more a result of her scientific research than a green thumb.  She understands more about the lives of plants than she does the lives of her peers, and she is skeptical of formal education ever since her kindergarten teacher read her a book about saying "good night" to the indifferent moon. 

However, when Willow scores 100% on a standardized test and is accused of cheating, she is sent to a behavioral counselor, Dell Duke, who is a highly unmotivated individual content to play games on his computer while his clients sit in his office and sulk.  Worlds collide when Dell meets Willow and categorizes her as a "genius" and when Willow meets another of Dell's clients named Quang-ha and his sister, Mai.  After the sudden death of her parents in a car crash, Willow's world comes to an end, as she loses the two people she has loved more than anything.  She searches for books at the library about children who lose two parents at the same time, but of course, she can't find any because it just isn't possible!  But with the help of her new friends, and with friendship blooming in unlikely places, Willow just might survive the heartbreak, while those around her experience their own transformations. 

The cast of characters in Counting by 7's are diverse and lovable, shocking and inspirational.  They each have a permanent impact on each other and progress as people in believable ways as the novel continues.  Willow has been crafted in the vain of other recent literacy geniuses I have encountered (such as Colin Singleton in John Green's An Abundance of Katherines), only without any conceit or arrogance.  She doesn't seem aware of her genius.  She notices and appreciates the small nuisance of other people around her and is sensitive to their needs.  At times, she filters her thoughts so as not to offend anyone, though she is not always successful at these attempts.  (For example, she tells Mr. Duke to check his blood pressure after their first meeting; she also saves her taxi driver's life by suggesting that he have a small mole on the back of his neck removed and thereby becomes his "angel" in another side story that is woven seamlessly throughout her tragedy.) 

When Willow considers Pattie, the mother of Quang-ha and Mai who agrees to care for Willow temporarily, she praises Pattie's silence, writing, "She is like me.  Silent.  I admire that in a person.  The ability to keep your mouth shut is usually a sign of intelligence.  Introspection requires you to think and analyze.  It's hard to do that when you are blabbing away."  Interestingly, it is true that most of what readers know about Willow is what they learn from her narration, as she really does not speak a lot through the novel, especially after undergoing tragedy.  But when she does use her words, she has the power to make a difference.  Although some of the characters' actions are quite despicable (Dell Duke pretending to rescue a cat and then letting it fend for itself in the school garbage bin, for example), I found myself rooting for them in the end. 

Along with intriguing characters, Counting by 7's is a great read because it is told in a poetic voice by an introspective twelve-year-old that entices readers to believe in hope.  Throughout the novel, I told myself that the connections between the characters wouldn't last.  It's impossible, I thought, yet I hoped.  I hoped that the characters could continue to live life, day after day, just as they were doing.  I didn't want to turn the pages for fear that their pretend perfect life would come crashing down.  Hope is a common theme present in this novel, along with the theory that all actions are related to each other.  The themes of this novel make it comparable to the most recent book I have blogged about, The Tale of Despereaux.  Although the stories inside are drastically different, both feature smaller-than-average heroes navigating through the "mine-field" of life.  The difference is that the people around Willow keep hoping before and long after she has given up, while Despereaux must remain hopeful even when the odds are against him.

The only criticism that I have of the book is that some of the events are almost too unbelievable; some elements of the characters just don't connect.  For example, (spoiler alert!) readers learn that Pattie has quite a lot of money saved and is rather wealthy, yet she and her children live in a one-room garage on the "wrong side of the tracks."  Pattie's actions prove that she is a loving, pro-active, and hardworking mother, yet I wonder why she would submit her children to this difficult and uncomfortable lifestyle if she was able to provide them something better.  Certainly, the rent of a two-bedroom apartment would be feasible for a woman with her means and would certainly accommodate her teenagers better than the small, cramped space that they are forced to call home. 

I also wonder why the principal accuses Willow of cheating on the standardized test in the first place.  I mean, this isn't the nineties, so I feel like there should have been two-way communication regarding this matter.  (And the story takes place in present day to be sure with references to Facebook and other present-day commodities.)  Wouldn't she have at least been tested for a gifted program?  At this point in her education career, wouldn't she have been identified as a gifted student?  Certainly this standardized test wasn't the first activity at school that made her stand out amongst her peers!  Of course, if the principal hadn't jumped to conclusions, Willow would not have met Dell, and the story would not have transpired as it did.  But still, as a teacher, it's difficult to read about other teachers and workers in education short-changing students in such ways.

Despite these small inconsistencies, the characters of Counting by 7's make for an interesting literacy bunch that I will not soon forget.  If you'd like to spend some time with them, check out the novel for yourself at your local library.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Tale of Despereaux: A Small Mouse with a Big Heart

The Tale of Despereaux was published in
2003 by Candlewick.
Image courtesy of barnesandnoble.com
In The Tale of Despereaux, author Kate DiCamillo once again explores the power of love and the transformative relationships that can occur between humans and animals; in this case, that relationship involves a mouse called Despereaux and a princess with a heart of kindness, empathy, hate, and sadness.  By weaving multiple stories together to create one complete tapestry, DiCamillo has written a unique, fantastical tale. 

Despereaux is a different mouse.  He is about half the size of a regular mouse at only two ounces but has rather big, velvety ears.  He enjoys listening to music and can read.  He especially enjoys fairy tales.  It is his penchant for music that gets him into trouble in the first place, as it causes him to sit at the foot of the king and later, in the hand of the princess, as he sways in tune with the music.  It is during this serenade that he falls in love with the princess and hopes for his own "happily ever after" just like in the books he reads.  When the other mice see Despereaux romancing the princess and sitting so close to a human, they call an emergency meeting and send him to a dungeon, a dark maze at the bottom of the castle filled with rats.  Oh, yes, and no mouse that has ever gone into the dungeon has come back alive.   When Despereaux learns about a rat's plot to steal the princess and keep her locked up in the dungeon, he realizes that he must be her knight in shiny armor to save her, a big act of bravery and courage to match his heart, if not his physical size.  

The plot of Despereaux has rich elements of fantasy that would make this book an interesting read for any author to write: talking animals; a deep, dark scary dungeon; comical characters, such as Cook and her constant "Ho-hee-"ing or Miggory Sow and her redundant use of the word "Gor;" and a counsel of mice to list just a few things. However, any author didn't just write this novel; Kate DiCamillo did, and it is her examination of good vs. evil and light vs. dark that make this tale so memorable.  

In fact, DiCamillo writes that she hopes her readers were able to find some of their own "light" after reading the novel.  This notion is suggested by Gregory the Jailer when Despereaux first arrives in the dungeon.  You see, Gregory promises to save Desperaux's life if the small mouse can tell him a story, as stories are beacons of light.  Other characters create their own light by having "hope."  This is true for Mig, a poor girl without a family who hopes to be a princess one day to get out of her miserable life of servitude and abuse.  Even if everyone else thinks it's impossible for Mig to be a princess - she's "not the sharpest knife in the drawer," after all - having hope "really makes no difference to anyone but you."

Further, DiCamillo teaches readers to be empathetic for the characters that she has crafted by revealing their "heart maps" and exploring what has shaped each character's personality.  She even uses the word "empathy" within the novel and provides an example of Princess Pea's empathy, allowing young readers to use context to infer the meaning of this rich word.

In fact, DiCamillo allows readers to do the same thing for words like "perfidy."  It is the personable conversation that she has with readers as she tells the story that sets this novel apart from all others.   For example, when demonstrating the horror of the dungeon, she even suggests that she and the reader go into the dungeon together and hold tight to one another so as to feel secure!  While reading, I felt connected to the author, as if we were on a journey together.  I felt that she truly cared about me as I learned about Despereaux's tale, and young readers will surely feel the same.  

The Tale of Despereaux is a reminder that there is light and darkness within all of us; however, all humans are capable of shedding light onto the world.  Some people, too, are missing that light and need others to reveal it to them through kindness and empathy.  For me, the message of Despereaux will live on long after I have closed its cover.  

To check out The Tale of Despereaux, a Newberry Medal winner, or other books by Kate DiCamillo, visit your local library. 






Saturday, May 10, 2014

Reading: Now I'll Tell You Eveything (The FINAL Book in the Alice McKinley Series)

The FINAL Alice book published in 2013
Courtesy of Simonandschuster.com  




As soon as I finished reading Now I'll Tell You Everything, the final book in the Alice McKinley series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, it started to rain.  Not just metaphorically but literally.  Along with the rain came hail pounding at the window and strong gusts of wind stirring up mini-hurricanes on the Chesapeake Bay outside my patio.  How timely this rainstorm came to align perfectly with my conclusion of the Alice series, a set of books that I have been reading since I was thirteen years old.

The series began in 1985 and includes twenty-eight follow-up books that focus on Alice and her life in Bethesda, Maryland, with her father, the manager of a music store, and older brother, Lester.  Along with her two best friends, Pamela and Elizabeth, Alice explores the ins-and-outs of growing up, asks the questions that everybody wonders but dares not say, experiences her fair share of awkward and embarrassing life stories, and through it all, comforts her readers, young and old.  

Besides being well-written, fast-paced, humorous, and super relatable, the Alice series made me feel like I had three best friends across the country.   They weren't fantastical superheroes, or girls being chased down by werewolves or hungry vampires, or famous celebrities hopping from one party to the next.  Instead, they were seemingly regular kids navigating the throes of middle school, and then high school, with Naylor spending chapters and pages of books devoted to poolside conversations, dressing room horrors, or sibling banter. 

But in Now I'll Tell You Everything, there is not a lot of time devoted to one particular thing, as this book follows Alice from her first day as a college freshman to a sixty-something wife and grandmother.  On the one hand, I like knowing how Alice's future unfolds and how it mimics the Alice in the past book.  Sixty-year-old Alice shares, "I wanted to write some books about what it was like to grow up without a mother and about all the things Dad and Lester had to teach me.  I wanted my children and grandchildren to know that no matter when you are born or where you life, happiness and disappointments have the same flavors the world over.  I think that Mom, and the girl I was back in seventh grade, would have been pleased."  And while the book concludes in a nicely, neatly sealed way, I almost wish I didn't know so much.

Most of the Alice books span four months and spend more time developing character and detailing certain events for pages and chapters!  With this book covering over forty years in just over 500 pages, there are many details that are left out.  It almost reads like a summary of Alice's life after high school.  Perhaps this was done as a promise Naylor made to fans: that she would reveal everything about Alice!  Perhaps this parallels the common thought that life just seems to go faster as people get older, and with the blink of an eye, Alice transforms from an eager college freshman at the University of Maryland to an eager grandmother.

As a fan of Alice McKinley, I am sad to see the series end.  I feel antiquated, and to console myself after the conclusion of this series (a literary crisis if I've ever known one), I am considering making a purchase of every single Alice book ever written from Amazon.  (They all have real pretty covers now, too.)  Many of the events in the final book warmed my heart, and I appreciated how the author brought up several details that had occurred in past books to show how moments that occur when we are young  can still impact us in the future.  (There's Patrick promising to call Alice on her twenty-first birthday, for example, or the memory of Alice meeting Patrick for the first time in an embarrassing moment at The Gap.)  Yet, like time itself, I wish this book would have slowed down and spent more time focusing on Alice in college.  I would have been content with the series concluding with Alice as an early twenty-something and then could have imagined the rest of our lives unfolding together.  But I think I'm just sad to let go of the dear friends I've known for so long. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Reading: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Courtesy of soundcloud.com
"Sometimes, I think I am the saddest boy in the world." 

These words are shared by Aristotle "Ari" Mendoza in the novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a recent Stonewall and Printz Award winner written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a cultural insider to the Hispanic characters.  Except for books in which dogs die, this one was the first that made tears stream down my face with that line alone.  

Growing up in the desert of El Paso, a city that is cherished in my heart, sixteen year old Aristotle just wants to be alone.  His mother, a teacher, always "hovers," and his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, never wants to talk.  His older sisters are too grown up for him, and his older brother, Bernardo, is a mystery.  The only thing that Ari knows about his brother is that he is in prison but for what reasons, Ari doesn't know.

The absence of his brother is haunting to him, along with several other insecurities that Ari has.  Uncomfortable dreams.  Annoying boys.  Pestering girls.  And then one day, he meets Dante at the pool who offers to teach Ari how to swim.  The two boys instantly connect and become best friends.  Their friendship is so deep that when Ari sees a car slide around the corner after a slick rain and nearly run over Dante, he rushes to the middle of the road to push his friend out of the way, nearly paralyzing himself in the rescue.  

Throughout the novel, this event torments Ari.  He doesn't want to talk about it, and he doesn't consider himself a hero.  When Dante moves away for eight months with his parents to Chicago, he regularly writes to Ari, who irregularly responds.  As their friendship unfolds, Ari begins to questions his thoughts about Dante, his loyalty to his family, and his own normalcy.  He makes reckless decisions to help him cope with his insecurities - driving out in the middle of the desert and drinking beer, for example - and becomes acquainted with his parents in ways that he never know.  When Dante admits that he wants to grow up and marry a boy, Ari is certain that he will always be friends with Dante, even if he doesn't really want Dante to talk about these things with him. 

In a time when the Gay Rights Movement is making strides like the Civil Rights Movement did in the 1960's - and still does today - Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a comfort to young adults who might be coping with their own insecurities.  It also helps cultural outsiders to be empathetic to the feelings that people who are gay experience.  The development of the characters is rich, making me fall in love with Aristotle and Dante.  There are many times in the novel when Ari's family and friends tell him to "love himself the way that others do" and to stop being so hard on himself.  I felt this way towards Ari, too, as I got to read about what a selfless, unique person he was.  Reading about Ari's internal battles hurt my heart, and I found myself rooting for him and praying that the author would please do him justice at the end of the book; I just couldn't stand it if he was sad for one more day!    

The author writes in his dedication, "To all the boys who've had to play by different rules."  Throughout the novel, Ari sets rules for himself to try to conform to societal standards, but these rules just aren't going to help him win.  Mr. Sáeiz has written an influential, insightful novel with compelling characters that tells a coming-of-age story for all readers.  He includes beautiful phrases (like when Ari talks about how he wants to kiss the raindrops, for example), and the lexile makes this lengthy book accessible for struggling readers, as it is readably appropriate for third graders.  (The content, of course, is for older readers.)  To check it out for yourself, visit your local library.  

Monday, April 28, 2014

Reading: Tuck Everlasting

Courtesy of goodreads.com
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
in 1975
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit is one of those books I've always wanted to read.  I always saw it at the library or on the bookshelf, but it seemed my hands were always filled with titles and that book got "saved for later."  Well, no longer was I going to save it anymore!  I finally read this long-awaited book, and while it was different than I was expecting (um, yeah, I was expecting more of a love story, I suppose, BUT this was way better), it was totally worth the wait!  

The Tuck's are a family like no other because they won't die.  They unknowingly drank from the Fountain of Youth and haven't aged a day since.  It sounds great, doesn't it?  But for the Tuck family, it's not. While they don't have to meet the ultimate fate that befalls all of mankind - death - they also don't get to live fulfilling lives.  

“You can't have living without dying," they explain. "So you can't call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”  And that is how the Tuck's live.  They can't go into town too often or people will recognize them and wonder why they don't age!  They can't get married because people will find out their anti-aging secret and get suspicious!  And while they themselves go through life unchanged, their other friends pass on, and the Tuck's are lonely.  

This is obvious when ten-year-old Winnie goes wandering into her family's forest and almost drinks from the fountain when seventeen-year-old Jesse Tuck stops her. Despite their age difference, Jesse tries to persuade Winnie to drink from the fountain when she turns seventeen so that the two can get married and stay young together forever.  Meanwhile, the Tuck family sweeps her away on their horse to tell her the story about the fountain when a devious man in a yellow suit overhears their story and plots to capitalize on the Fountain of Youth.  His first order of business:  Reveal Winnie's whereabouts to her worried-sick family in exchange for their forest. The deal is set, but when the man in the yellow suit approaches the Tuck household to "save" Winnie, Mae Tuck takes her husband's gun and kills the man in the yellow suit.  Because he brought the town's constable with him, he is witness to the crime, and Mae's punishment is to be hung.  But if she is hanged, the whole world will find out her secret.  

I like Tuck Everlasting for many reasons:  It showcases a relatable main character coming-of-age and going through many changes with conflicting opinions; it causes readers to question if the Tucks are really crazy (which I believe they are, though I suppose anyone would be with eternal life); and it illustrates an empathetic young girl with a thoughtful head on her shoulders.  

Throughout her time with the Tuck's, Winnie has diverse feelings, from feeling mistreated by the crazy kidnappers who had no right to take her from her family to feeling that they are her friends.  At times, she wonders if the Tuck's are crazy.  At times, I wondered if they were crazy!  Certainly, they were lonely, bored, wistful.  And these things certainly may have drove them a little crazy, but by the end of the novel, Winnie has decided that the Tuck's are indeed her friends after all.  

I especially enjoyed the final event of the novel with Winnie showing compassion for a friend and heeding the advice offered by her "crazy" friends.  I don't like to reveal spoilers, but I found her actions to be heart-warming.  Years later, the response of the Tuck family is heart-wrenching and illustrates how painful eternal life could be. 

While reading, I couldn't help but wonder what the Tuck's would be doing today! Would they have learned how to drive cars?  What would their occupations be?  It would be interesting to pose these questions to students and have them extend this story to reveal a modern-day version of the Tuck family. 

Tuck Everlasting is an unforgettable story for me that has been turned into a Disney movie and even a musical.  According to the ALA, "it should have won a Newbery," but even though it didn't, it still has the power to transform lives.  For more information about Natalie Babbit, including a book list and interview, click here.  To check out Tuck Everlasting, visit your local library.   

Reading: A Time of Miracles

Courtesy of goodreads.com
In 1997, I was in the fourth grade at Webster Elementary School in attendance with one of the most transformative teachers I ever knew.  After a summer spent at the swimming pool with my sister and our neighbor friends, I began the year alongside my best friend and fell in love with the book Shiloh.  I got to have lunch with my teacher and ride in the front seat of her car (major big deal), I went ice-skating for the first time, and I spent a weekend fishing with my uncles, in which I got the greatest quantity and largest fish of any of my (boy) cousins.  It was also the year that I lost my first dog to old age and my grandmother to cancer, the first year in which I experienced what it felt like to lose somebody.  At this time, I had no concept of the word "refugee" or of the predicament young Blaise Fortune encountered as he traveled with Gloria, his mother by chance, across the countryside and cities of the Caucasus, walking "straight ahead towards new horizons," losing almost everything he ever knew - except for hope.   

In A Time of Miracles by Anne-Laure Bondoux, a Batchelder Award winner originally written in French and published in 2009, tells the story of Blaise, a boy reportedly rescued from a wrecked train.  His travel companion and maternal figure, Gloria, rescued the boy from the train wreck and believes his mother to still be alive after being taken to a hospital due to the unfortunate incident.  Gloria says that she is from a wealthy fruit orchard and fell in love with a man named Zemzem when Blaise came along.  Although they are no longer together, Gloria tells Blaise that Zemzem left her with the greatest gift of all but won't reveal what it is. 

As she and Blaise travel, their ultimate goal is to arrive in France, where people have civil rights, and the two companions won't have to spend cold nights at campsites anymore, breathing in unhealthy, corrupt air.  In France, Blaise will have a chance to reunite with his birth mother and go to school.  But the journey to France is not easy with war following in their footsteps, and Blaise finds himself saying "good-bye" to many friends that he meets along the journey - Hoop Earring, the gypsy boy; Emil; Baska; Rebeka; and Fatima, who he hopes will remember him by his heart and violin. 

As I read A Time of Miracles, I was not expecting the story to span from Blaise's childhood (age eleven) to his college career, but it does.  Although the story spends most of its time with Blaise as an eleven-year-old, I enjoyed reading and watching the timeline of his life unfold.  Throughout his journey, I felt rather smart, as I was able to piece together the clues early into the story to figure out the mysteries behind Blaise's unknown life.  Who was his mother?  What was Zem-Zem's gift?  Why did Gloria often sneak away when the two weary travelers arrived somewhere new?  If students are reading carefully, they too should be able to piece together the clues and make many inferences and predictions and enjoy having their thoughts challenged as they journey through the book with Gloria and Blaise.  It was a journey that I was deeply engaged with, as I had trouble putting the book down and probably stayed up too late traveling with them.  

Yet, I also had to keep reminding myself that this story takes place in the 1990's, and when Blaise is in college, it is actually 2005 - the year I was a junior in high school!  I feel ashamed that I had no idea that this war was even occurring during my lifetime, and it shows me how I must educate myself about these issues.  Besides telling an engaging story with characters that are easy to care about and befriend, A Time of Miracles shines on a light on issues that are not always on the front page of newspapers or on the evening news.  

I am so grateful that I discovered this book and would like to read more of Anne-Laure Bondoux's books, especially if they follow the same theme as A Time of Miracles.  This book opens the door to further research for students and tells a story that will not be forgotten.  To check it out for yourself, be sure to visit your local library

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Reading: Time for Kids - X, Why, Z?

Published by Time for Kids Books in 2013
Photo courtesy of babyrazzi.com
Why do so many houses have a pointed roof? 

Why does an igloo keep people warm? 

Why do dogs dig holes?

If you've ever wondered about any of these questions, you can find the answer in Time for Kids - W, X, Why?, a book of questions and answers for children.  I purchased this book last month for my classroom library, and since then, it has been a big hit among my students.  This child-friendly informational text is filled with vibrant photographs, intriguing questions, and answers written in a simple form that even struggling readers can decode and comprehend.   While it is an excellent non-fiction book for struggling readers, it only answers questions at a surface level but does open the door for further research. 

With this text, students can practice using non-fiction text features in a meaningful way; they can use the table of contents to find sections they want to peruse, an index to find common words in the text, headings, and photographs to further expand their knowledge.  The contents of this text include human body, animals, nature, earth and space, inventions, places, and history.

For my own personal use, this book is great to go to as a reference.  For example, if we are studying animal adaptations and a student asks, "Why are flamingos pink?" we can quickly turn to this book to find a quick and simple answer.  The answers in this book are quick and simple, but they still leave me with many more questions to ponder.  In fact, some of the answers seem too rushed, too obvious, and if the authors of this book wanted to take the questions even deeper, I think they should have asked, "How?"  

For example, one of the questions that the authors explore is, "Why do cats purr?"  Their answer: "Purring makes cats feel good.  Cats will purr when they are happy.  Kittens purr to tell their mom, 'I'm okay!' "  Now, I have known for most of my life that cats purr when they are happy, but I still want to know: How can they purr?  Is it automatic, or is it something that they conscientiously do?  From one perspective, this book does not dive deep into rich answers that really give students a thorough understanding of anything.  From another perspective, it touches upon many subjects and cannot possibly go too deep without becoming an encyclopedia; however, it can open the door for further research if a child finds that he/she is especially interested in something.  The best thing open this book is that it encourages children to ask questions, as that is the way they will learn more and the way they will discover information about the things they are interested in. 

As a teacher, I love finding books that my students are engaged with, and this book has certainly been a favorite!  There are many other books in the Time for Kids series that you can find at your local library. 

Reading: Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea

Courtesy of betterworldbooks.com
Named a Siebert Honor Book, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea, was written by Sy Montgomery and includes beautiful photographs by Nic Bishop.  Including maps of New Guinea and discussions with actual scientists working in the field, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo shows children what a day in the life of a researcher is like, as the scientists in this book try to understand one of the "rarest, strangest, and least understood creatures on the planet."  (Have you ever heard of a tree kangaroo?  I hadn't!)  

As more and more trees in the Cloud Forest of New Guinea are destroyed, so too are the homes for many trees kangaroos.  Because there is little known about these rare creatures, and because they are becoming rarer with the demolition of their habitat, researchers went on a journey to learn more about them.  This journey is outlined in Quest, an excellent book for use alongside a unit about conservation.  

One of my favorite elements from this informational book is the photographs revealing many creatures that I have never seen or heard of before, including the blue-headed cassowary bird and, of course, the adorable tree kangaroo which "looks like a stuffed animal, or like something that Dr. Seuss might have dreamed up.  Impossibly soft with a rounded fact, button eyes, pink nose, pert upright ears, and a long, thick tail, it's about the size of a  small dog or an overweight cat with plush brown and golden fur."  Isn't that such an amazing description?  I wouldn't normally expect to find something so poetic in an informational book, but I did, and it allowed me to visualize the tree kangaroo before even observing the photos of it! 

And that is how Quest reads, like a book of poetry complete with photos of the researchers, the animals they see, the landscape of New Guinea, the village homes and people of New Guinea (including school-children attending classes), and the journey through the Cloud Forest.  Obviously, Quest is about more than the tree kangaroo.  It introduces children to a land they are probably unfamiliar with, to people that live in a place unlike their own homes but still do the same things!  It emphasizes the importance of conservation, while showing a real scientific journey that just might inspire some young readers to study science and grow into researchers that can continue to work for conservation like the researchers they read about in Quest. It even includes the translation for common words in New Guinea.  Other text features include an index, maps, photos, and captions.  

I found Quest for the Tree Kangaroo to be an engaging read for myself, as it introduced me to a topic that I knew little about.  Children will be more interested in the pictures, especially since the text is rather small, but I would encourage mine to read the captions and to read each page if the captions pique their interest.  To check out this informational book for yourself, visit your local library.  You can also learn more about conservation efforts for the tree kangaroo by visiting treekangaroo.org 

Reading: The Journey - Stories of Migration

Courtesy of www.barnesandnoble.com
As a third grade teacher, one of the learning objectives that I am required to teach in science is that of animal adaptations.  Migration is one of the topics that is covered in this unit, and my students enjoy learning about animals and how they are able to survive.  As a review for the upcoming SOL, and certainly for my group of students next year, I plan to share the book The Journey: Stories of Migration by Cynthia Rylant with my students.  Not only does this picture book, published in 2006 by The Blue Sky Press, include useful, in-depth information about animals species and how/why they migrate, it also features beautiful paintings by Lambert David that bring the animals to live.

In her book, Rylant outlines the migration of the following species: locusts, whales, eels, butterflies, caribou (my favorite illustrations!), and terns.  For each species, Rylant begins by describing where they live, where they migrate to, and why they must migrate.  She explains how migration helps each species to survive.  For example, the whales must migrate from the Arctic waters to southern waters to give birth to their calves.  Caribou must migrate to have their babies because it is not safe to have them in a forest filled with wolves!  While this book is filled with information, it is told with the same feeling of a story.  About the butterflies, Rylant writes, "The monarchs will settle themselves thickly over the limbs of the great California evergreen trees - thousands of butterflies to a tree - and the forests will be transformed.  What a wondrous sight!  Here on the tall trees, the beautiful monarchs will hibernate through the winter months safely away from the freezing snow and ice of their northern homes."  What a wondrous way to write non-fiction!  Rylant's words are much more engaging and personable than those of a science text book; this book is quite effective in presenting the idea of migration to children through many examples and details.  If I were sharing it with my students, I would share it story by story, instead of all at once.   

The element of this book that made it most memorable are the beautiful pictures included with each story!  Each story of migration includes full-bleed illustrations that are vibrant in color and show the same details of the animals as a photograph would - perhaps even mores!  On the caterpillar, for example, readers can glimpse fringed hair on the caterpillar feet.  The colors are rich and engaging and immediately drew me to this book.  

If you are teaching migration to your students or just want to learn more about it for yourself, I highly recommend The Journey!   You can check it out at your local library. To view more illustrations by Lambert Davis, visit his personal website, too. 

Reading: Unlikely Friendships

Unlikely Friendships was written by National
Geographic writer, Jennifer Holland. 
I know it's said that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but when I saw a photograph of a monkey and a pigeon cuddling on the front of the photographic book Unlikely Friendships by National Geographic writer Jennifer Holland and published by Workman Publishing in 2011, I judged.  I judged this book to be sweet.  I judged this book to be filled with cute photographs that would make me go "Aww!"  I judged this book to contain real-life accounts of unusual friendships between animals.  And this book lived up to its expectations!  
My own unlikely friendship pair
at home! 

Unlikely Friendships includes several photographs of unlikely friendships between animals that usually operate as predator/prey in the food chain.  A story is included for each photograph to tell how the animals became friends and what the creatures are doing today.  While I enjoyed reading about all of the unusual pairings, a few that stuck out to me include: 

•The Black Bear and the Black Cat: This friendship was born with a sneaky stray cat snuck into the black bear exhibit at the zoo.  When zoo staff found her, she was cuddled up with the black bear, and when the bear's exhibit was renovated and the cat could no longer see her dear friend, zoo staff reported that she appeared deeply distressed.  Once the repairs were made and the bear was brought back to the exhibit, bear and cat resumed their friendship which, at the time of publication, had lasted for a decade. 

•The Bobbed Tail Dog and the Bobbed Tail Cat:  After the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, rescue workers discovered a dog with a bobbed tail and a cat with a bobbed tail traveling the streets together.  The dog, who had been tied up, had apparently gotten away and still had pieces of the chain link around his collar, which constantly clanked to the ground.  The animals were sent to a rescue center where dogs and cats were housed separately; however, this upset the dog (named Bobbi by rescue workers), causing him to howl out in anguish.  The rescue workers allowed the two friends to stay together and discovered that the cat was totally blind (and probably had been that way prior to the disaster).  They believe that the clanking of the dog's collar helped the cat along as the two walked through disaster-torn streets together and eventually were adopted into the same home. 


Tink and Pink make an unlikely friendship pair.
Courtesy of moderndogmagazine.com
•The Dachshund and the Piglet: Pink was a baby pig born early and too small to survive with the rest of her piglet brother and sisters.  At the same time she was born, a litter of dachshund puppies was born inside the farmhouse to a mamma named Tink.  Tink nurtured Pink to health, and Pink grew up in a similar fashion to other dogs.  While she now resides in the barn, Tink and Pink still visit each other from time to time.  (This story was also written as a children's book in Little Pink Pup by Johanna Kerby, the owner of Pink and Tink.  

Unlikely Friendships is the kind of book I always wanted to read in school but was never allowed to.  Every year, our science teachers would open with, "What do you want to learn about in science this year?"  Every year, I said the same thing: "Animals."  But we never did, so soon, I stopped asking.  My students love reading about animals and would enjoy the stories in this book that show how animals have feelings, emotions, and the capacity for friendship.  Reading a passage from this book from time to time will show my students that they can get along with others, just like the unlikely friends in this book!  For more unusual pairings to share with your students, visit the website of Unlikely Friendships! 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Reading: Coral Reef

Courtesy of panmacmillan.co.za
Every year, it seems that the non-fiction books in my class library are the first to be selected by eager hands.  They are passed around with anticipation, as students await diving into the deliciously rich photographs.  In Coral Reef, a photographic journey of coral reefs and written by Steven Parker for the Priddy Books company (Big Ideas for Little People), readers can explore the depths of the ocean ecosystem through vibrant, enchanting photos that consume entire pages.  Even as an adult, I enjoyed reading Coral Reef, though like many non-fiction books, it does not have to be read like a traditional book from front to back.  

Each page in Coral Reef includes a bold heading in interesting, bubble-letter font.  The text is almost overlooked amongst the amazing photos, but each page includes a short paragraph to tell about coral reefs with the most important words highlighted in blue, yellow, pink, purple, green, brown, and orange.   These words also appear in the glossary at the back of the book.

Besides photographs and headings, this informational book is chock full of other non-fiction text features that students can use in meaningful ways.  There are various charts and diagrams found throughout the book, including a double-page spread of a world map.  On this map, each coral reef is numbered, and an accompanied chart is on the same page with a name for each number.  Color coding is used to indicate warm reefs and cold reefs, and this key is included on these pages, as well.  Circular photos are displayed beneath the map, and their content is explained with helpful captions.

On other pages, boxes containing "fun facts" pop out at students, as well as a rating scale to indicate the endangered level of particular plants and animals, such as coral polyps and the green turtle.  These ratings are shown with seashells.  Other creatures that are explored in Coral Reef are the moray eel, the parrotfish, a sea snake, sea slugs, cleaner shrimp, sea dragons, lionfish, stingrays, and many others!   

Coral Reef not only enhances students' knowledge about various sea animal and plant species, it also explores dangers to this fragile ecosystem and can be used to integrate geographical knowledge.  The beauty and wonder found within each page make books exciting for children - Coral Reef has been a "buzz-book" among my students since I added it to our classroom last month, and I was excited to take a look at it for myself!  To consider adding this book to your library, or to look at more informational and engaging books for your students, check out the Priddy Books Website!

Reading: But I'll Be Back Again

Courtesy of www.ebay.com
I didn't grow up in the 1960's, but I have sometimes wished I did, mostly because of all of the flowers that were around.  In another life, I'd like to think I'd be peacefully trapezing the streets of San Francisco, a flower tucked behind my ear, catching trolleys to work among the wind-blown hills of my favorite city.  I know this is a rather romanticized notion, and yes, I've been influenced by my mother's vintage pins and antiques (not to mention my own love for flowers), but I have always been interested in learning about the past, particularly the 1960's and the culture of the United States at that time.  Reading But I'll Be Back Again, an autobiography by children's writer Cynthia Rylant, gave me a peek into that world and taught me more about one of the most well-rounded writers today.  

As I was reading, I wanted to make connections between Rylant's early life and some of the books she has written.  It seems as if some of her childhood experiences have affected the books she writes, while other books she has written seemingly for pure entertainment and enjoyment.  For example, When I Was Young in the Mountains is told from a reminiscent perspective about life in the mountains.  Growing up, Cynthia Rylant spent time with her grandparents in the mountains of West Virginia.  Of her time in the mountains, Rylant writes, "I had big stacks of pancakes and hot cocoa, hound dogs and chickens, teaberry leaves and honeysuckle, and aunts and cousins to sleep with at night and hug until someone could return for me."  This particular line makes me feel that Rylant thought fondly of her time in the mountains; further, it connects me to another famous Rylant book: The Relatives Came.  

In this book, the relatives come "up from Virginia" and there is a lot of laughter and hugging as the family spends time together.  Rylant has written several other books about Appalachia or featuring country settings, including Appalachia: The Voices of Singing Birds and Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story.  Many of Cynthia's children's books focus on older people, including The Old Woman Who Named Things, An Angel for Solomon Singer, and Mr. Griggs; Work. I wonder if any of these stories are meant to honor her grandparents, who raised her for four years while her mother was at nursing school.  Sometimes, it seems as if Cynthia Rylant has written a story for every occasion, but it is important to note how her own life experiences have inspired her to write more.  This makes her an authority about many of the books she has written. I am sure that there are many other connections between her own childhood and the books she writes, in which she tries to right the wrongs that she experienced when she was young, but I have not read enough of her work to make these links.

The element I found most fundamental in Rylant's writing is that she shares with young adults that her childhood was not perfect; her father was an alcoholic, her parents were divorced, and there was not always electriicity or running water in her home.  (Think about the latrine in When I Was Young in the Mountains!)  Not to mention all of the growing pains and coming-of-age encounters she had: an eternal crush on Paul McCartney, kissing boys, and the art of shaving.  A line in the book that I found most compelling has nothing to do with any of these incidents, however, but is a revelation that Rylant learned (and that I still need to figure out for myself sometimes):  "I believe I grew up with this big feeling inside that said, 'Whenever anyone who is with you is unhappy, it is you fault.' I didn't know, growing up, that I didn't have to make people happy."   This is such an important thing to know, that we must find happiness within ourselves and cannot make other people be happy, nor must we always look to others to make ourselves happy.  Certainly, we can contribute positivity to a person's life, but if we ourselves are not content with ourselves, then it seems that we never will be. But I'll Be Back Again is an encouraging read for all students, as it lets them know that they can achieve greatness despite their circumstances (and that they can feel happy, too, despite those obstacles).  

I also appreciated how each chapter of this book began with a related Beatles quote.  I thought that this was a unique link with a topic that was important to her and also showed how she connected with the Beatles and why they were so essential to her life.  What a challenge it must be, too, (or perhaps not if you're well-versed in their music) to find lyrics that mesh perfectly with your own thoughts!  

I enjoyed reading But I'll Be Back Again to learn more about a famous author.  I love teaching my students about their favorite writers (Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Patricia Polacco, Jan Brett, Louis Sachar) and love learning about writers on my own, too.  If you are interested in reading this autobiography, or any other book written by Cynthia Rylant, visit your local library! 




Sunday, April 20, 2014

Reading: A Splash of Red - The Life and Art of Horace Pippin

Courtesy of a splashofredbook.com
Recently awarded the Schneider Family Book Award, an honor given to books that embody the "artistic experience of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences," A Splash of Red is a beautifully crafted book in ways that I never thought about a book being beautiful before.

First, and most obvious, are the illustrations by Melissa Sweet.  Since Horace Pippin was an artist, it only makes sense that the drawings in a biography of his life as an artist be beautiful and colorful, splashed with red.  Created with watercolor, gouache, and mixed media, each page contains sweet surprises hidden within the drawings.  The illustrations of Horace's home as a child invite me inside and make me want to stay with bright colors on the wall and vibrant patterned curtains decorating each window.  Many of the pictures made me want to reach out and try to touch them, to feel the texture.  Upon doing this, I realized that all of the illustrations are two-dimensional, but oh!  How they appear otherwise.

For example, there is a page revealing a "funny face in a magazine" that Horace recreated to win his first prize as an artist.  It looks as if his actual drawing had been attached to the page, as if I could feel the creases of the blue-lined stationary he used that sat atop a glossy scrapbook background.  The following page shows some of Horace's art supplies - paintbrushes and a box of paints, for example - and I feel as if I could pull each colored pencil off the page, one by one.  There is another page detailing Horace's entry into the army in which a boat is sailing on the Atlantic Ocean.  The word "Atlantic Ocean" is written in what appears to be cut-out letters.  They look as if they have an uneven, rough paper, but upon feeling them, they are merely two-dimensional, just as every other image in this magical book.  

The breadth of media used to create the aesthetically indulgent book makes it a tactile experience for young readers, who will want to touch each page to fully experience it.  It will inspire your artists to be creative in their own illustrations.

I also enjoyed the beautiful writing that was found on each page, as well.  Usually, I find biographies that are written for the purpose of educating children about a person's life but are not really written for children.  In A Splash of Red, author Jen Bryant tells about Horace's life in a meaningful way.  This biography unfolds like a story.  

Even though Grandma's hards are big, like Horace's, they "were just fine for giving Horace hugs."  The story of Horace's life begins by telling readers what Horace does with his "big hands."  First, he uses them to help his family around the house.  Then, he uses them to draw at school (sometimes on his spelling tests).  Later, he uses them to go to work when his father leaves home.  No matter how busy he gets, when someone says, "Make a picture for us, Horace," he does.  

When Horace is away at war in Germany, he is shot in the shoulder and can no longer make pictures.  When he returns to the United States, he meets Jennie, "a hard worker.  She loved to cook.  Horace was a hard worker, too.  And he loved to eat!  It was a good match."  (I delighted in this short scene of the book!)  Every time Horace walks down the street, he sees things he wants to draw: flowers, curtains, cats!  He slowly attempts to start drawing again by using his left hand to help his right.  Eventually, he regains strength in his hand and begins to paint famous pieces of art.  

This biography serves many uses in a classroom.  There are many events that lightly skimmed but not dived into.  Why did Horace's father leave?  Students might wonder.  Did Horace have any kids?  (For some reason, my third graders always want to know this question!)  Is he still alive?  (That's another they're always curious about.)  This book will open the door to many questions that students have, allowing them to explore more books and credible websites on their own.  

This biography is also authentic, as it provides more biographical information about Horace in the book, as well as an author's note and illustrator's note in the back detailing the entire process of creating A Splash of Red.  It also includes a list of other books for further reading.  Personal quotes attributed to Horace also grace the pages of A Splash of Red, helping readers to understand more about this talented man. 

After viewing the map in the map of the book, indicating where audiences can see Horace Pippin's work, I was disappointed to note that Virginia does not have any art galleries with his work at the moment!  However, his work can be viewed in Fort Wayne, Indiana, about an hour from my other home, so perhaps I will have the opportunity to visit this summer.  If you would like to see some of Horace Pippin's art for yourself, visit Museum Syndicate Online. For more information about his biography, A Splash of Red, visit the book's official website. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reading: Pocket Poems Selected by Bobbi Katz

Courtesy of bobbikatz.com
"With a poem in your pocket and a pocket in your pants, you can rock with new rhythms.  You can sing. You can dance.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, [...] that poem in your pocket will be a part of you," Bobbi Katz writes in the introduction to Pocket Poems, a compilation of 54 children's poems published in 2004 by Dutton Children's Books.  

I like Pocket Poems because the poems are short and easy to memorize for young readers.  I can imagine this poem book being utilized throughout the year with each student receiving an assigned "pocket" cut-out on a bulletin board with new poems in place to read or to hold new poems that the child has written to become a part of him, as Katz suggests in the opening poem.  

Pocket Poems includes a variety of poems, from shape poems to rhyming poems to bilingual poems!  I like this variety and think that all of the poems, while different, include poetic language and will be easy for students to decipher.  One of my favorite poems is called "Jack Frost" written by Helen Bayley David and goes like this: 

"Someone painted pictures on my window pane last night - Willow trees with trailing boughs and flowers - frosty white.  And lovely crystal butterflies; But when the morning sun touched them with its golden beams, they vanished one by one!"  

I love the rhythm of the above poem, and think it's an excellent poem to be used when teaching the comprehension strategy of visualizing!  Imagine: Crystal butterflies!  Willow trees with trailing boughs!  And the touch of sun beams!  Children would enjoy drawing what they see when the poem is read-aloud to them.  Perhaps teachers could save the title for last and let the students try to piece together the clues and figure out what the painted pictures are from.   

There are also poems that can be used across the curriculum to extend students' learning.  For example, the poems "The Period" and "The Question Mark" are rhythmically enjoyable and short with only four-sentences each.  They will be easy for students to memorize, and also emphasize the importance of these punctuation marks.  Some of the excerpted poems are written from authors that I am familiar with, such as Emily Dickinson and Carl Sandburg.   These poems could lead themselves to further study of these authors.  And all of the poems include some sort of colorful, vivid, child-appropriate illustration that helps breathe life into each piece of writing.  

I enjoyed reading Pocket Poems and found it to be an easily-accessible book for my third graders to read and understand, too.  There are a variety of poems for any occasion that children will enjoy and remember.  To find a poem for your pocket, visit your local library to check out this winning compilation. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reading: Mister Orange

Published by Enchanted Lion Books
Courtesy of laurawatkinson.com
The year is 1943, and World War II is in full-swing.  For pre-teen Linus Muller, the pendulum of life is swinging from one direction to the next.  His older brother, Albie, has volunteered to leave for Europe and go to war, leaving Linus new responsibilities and a bunk to share with his other older, yet less fun, brother Simon.  At first, Linus is proud of his brother's bravery about going off to war but soon learns that war is not all fun and games, as he once thought.  In this coming-of-age story, he befriends an older gentleman that he fondly calls "Mister Orange" who helps Linus to rediscover the power of imagination in an age when it could be a dangerous possession.  

Like many young boys, Linus loves superheroes, and he often daydreams about Mister Superspeed.  The author highlights these daydreams in italics, showing Linus often having conversations with this imagination being that his brother created.  Linus turns to Mister Superspeed for strength when his brother first departs for war, admiring his fictional superhero for his agility, speed, strength, and ability to defeat the enemy.  It is this same quality that Linus admires in Albie and causes him to question why his parents just won't put a blue star in their market window to tell the whole city of New York that they have a son at war, and they are proud!  

As the story continues, Linus is responsible for delivering produce to homebound customers, a job that he inherited from Albie, when he befriends Mister Orange, a customer whose real name confuses him.  He learns that Mister Orange came to America to escape the war in Europe and is able to confide in Mister Orange in a way that he cannot do with anyone else.  As the war progresses and Linus learns that people can't be saved from make believe superheroes like Superspeed, he expresses his frustration at the powerlessness of imagination to Mister Orange, an artist, who in turn expresses his hope in the powerfulness of imagination to transform the future!  
Mr. Orange's real artwork, "Victory Boogie Woogie"


In reality, author Truus Matti created Mister Orange in the likeness of artist Piet Mondrian who actually created the same artwork that Mister Orange is credited for in this book - "Victory Boogie Woogie"!  After reading Mister Orange, the first thing that I did was google this famous artwork to see what it looked like, to see if it bared a resemblance to the way I had imagined it to look based on the author's description.  If I had seen this artwork without knowing about its creator and being ignorant to what the artist intended it to mean, I probably wouldn't pay much notice to it.  But since I know what the artist was trying to convey, and since I came to adore "Mister Orange" in this novel, I do have an appreciation for what the artist did and an understanding for why he did it.  

Indeed, I did adore Mister Orange and his wise persona.  Never quick to anger - in fact, never seeming angry at all - he was a calm gentleman who seemed to never waste words.  He thought "outside of the box" and sought to do something purposeful with his artwork.  The only reason that Mister Orange came to America in the first place was so that he could create the artwork he wanted to without worrying about it being destroyed or burned by the Nazi Party.  Besides being a deep thinker and a creative soul, Mister Orange was also empathetic towards the feelings of other and extremely sweet-natured.  When he tossed Linus an orange, causing Linus to fall down the stairs, he asked, "Did you very much hurt yourself?"  Then, he immediately set out to bandage Linus' scraped knee.  When he introduced Linus to his friend, Harry, he heartfully explained, "Linus asks the best questions in all of New York."  This was after Linus had expressed concern about asking "stupid" questions.

Further, young Linus was also a character that I adored and that I could achingly relate to as a young, nearly-a-teenager myself.  He so badly wants to be respected and to prove himself, yet something always seems to stand in the way!  His brother sends him on an important mission, detailed in a letter from war, that involves a milk carton, spiders, and a birthday card.  Linus is determined to do it right and to do it himself.  But when the family receives Albie's follow-up letter, Linus thinks that he ruined the whole mission.  He later realizes his selfishness and forces himself to grow up, only to find out that he may have had the right mindset to begin with!  Not sure of his place in the world, and stuck somewhere between childhood and adulthood, Linus struggles to prove himself, loses a friend, gains a friend, and even develops a hopeful sort of crush that never really develops anywhere.  Most young readers will be able to relate with Linus, too. 

One of the most interesting aspects about Mister Orange to me is that it was originally published in Dutch before being translated in English.  Its translation by Laura Watkinson earned it the Batchelder Award in 2014 for translated texts. (See the website for more information.)  In the back of the book, the author cites research that she did to create an accurate portrait of the artist, the war, and life in New York City in 1943.  I often read books by American authors, or at least initially written in English, about people in other countries, and it's uncommon for me to read a book about Americans that was not written by an American author or an English-speaker!  The translation of this book makes it a delectable, enriching read, and I truly enjoyed the story of Mister Orange and the message that it conveys about imagination.  As a teacher, I often wonder why standardized tests often emphasize recall of information.  Certainly, basic knowledge is important, but the highest level of thinking is creation, and we progress as a society when people create new things - new thoughts, new books, new ideologies, new pieces of art, new technological devices, and so forth!  I am often perplexed as to why research shows that creativity dwindles when children age and that most people reach their creative peaks at the age of six - the same age when children usually enroll in school.  Coincidence?  

While Mister Orange does not discuss the implementation or absence of creativity in school, it does have an important message for readers of all ages.  To check it out at your local library, visit the WorldCat website.  And to view more artwork by Piet Mondrian, click here.