Friday, January 31, 2014

Reading: Love Monster

If the Love Monster, a slightly-hairy and googley-eyed thing living in a land of cute and fluffy bunnies, had a theme song, it might sound like this: 

Each morning, I get up.  
I die a little. 
Can barely stand on my feet.
Take a look in the mirror and cry.  

(If you would like to hear more of Love Monster's theme song, you can do so here.)

Poor Love Monster!  He finds it hard to live in a land of cuteness and cuddles when nobody there seems to think he's cute!  He really wants somebody to love, so he decides to go on a quest to find that someone - and not just any someone, mind you, but somebody that will love him just the way he is!  He looks high.  He looks middle-ish.  He looks low.  But he just can't find anyone to love!  

I may have squealed a few times while reading Love Monster because I frankly feel that the fluffy red guy is actually rather heartwarming!  He carries a stuffed monster friend and even sports a purple heart pinned to his chest!  His innocent eyes are warm and kind, albeit misunderstood, and his underbite reminds me of my dog, Ralphie.  I found it interesting to learn that author and illustrator Rachel Bright actually created the monster through "solar etching, which uses ultraviolet light to create printing plates."  (You can learn more about this technique by watching the video here.) So while he might seem a little frightening to some, he's actually just a fluffy ball of sunshine in reality!  I was unaware of this technique's existence, and the illustrations throughout the book are certainly unique and are appropriate for the book's content. For example, the outlines of each picture are rather bold, something that readers might expect to find in a monster world.  However, the setting is also filled with colorful butterflies, flowers, and kites, a surprise to those expecting to find darker things in a monster's habitat. Additionally, small illustrations are hidden on each page, and there is nothing I love more in picture books than going on a good scavenger hunt! (Try to find the cuddling ladybugs!  What about the suitcase filled with self-help love books?  The heart-shaped stars in the night sky?)  The love monster himself is small, usually standing in the right or left corner of the page, leaving the setting to consume most of the page space.  Perhaps the small size of the monster is intended to show how he feels compared to the rest of the creatures that surround him in Cutesville. Maybe it's to illustrate that he is NOT a monstrous beast at all but a small, sweet guy with bright red hair. The contrast between bright hues of purple, pink, and yellow with dark red, deep gray, and black make the illustrations appeal to both boys and girls.  These color discrepancies reveal the hope that the Love Monster has in his heart as he begins his search to find love, while also corresponding with the despair he feels when he just cannot seem to uncover it.  My favorite illustrative feature in Love Monster, however, is the unusual font that the author uses to tell the story.  The mixture of capital letters and lowercase letters, some with hearts in the middle, looks as if it was written by a monster!  I have never seen this font in any other book, and children will enjoy observing what I assume to be the monster's handwriting as they read.

Finally, I adore Love Monster because of the story that it tells!  While the theme of loving others no matter how different they may be is not new, it never gets tiresome! Readers can't help but feel empathy for the Love Monster as he searches for love, gets ambushed by a rainstorm, and becomes stranded in the dark, which was "scary, and, well, not very nice." I appreciate that this book teaches children to be empathetic for others.  The author even writes "Poor monster" after showing an illustration of kids impolitely pointing at him.  I imagine the conversations that parents and their children, or teachers and their students, can have as they feel for the monster.  What could you do to help the monster? I might ask.  Although he may have been down on his luck, don't just expect the monster to sulk around! "Not being the moping-around sort," Love Monster decided to be proactive and find a resolution for his own problem!  How wonderful to read about a young hero exhibiting courage in the face of adversary, another important lesson illustrated in this charming children's tale.  

As I think about bringing Love Monster into a classroom, I can't help but consider its potential in building classroom community.  The theme of loving and caring for others is potent throughout the entire year, and Love Monster showcases this perfectly. There are a myriad of ways students can construct written responses to Love Monster, perhaps by writing the forlorn monster friendly love notes.  And with an easily identifiable problem and solution, Love Monster is an ideal book for summarizing, though probably best suited for grades K-2.

Because of its central message, unique illustrations, and appeal to children, Love Monster is an excellent read.  I am happy to learn that he is part of a three-book series and that the author of Love Monster has written and illustrated several other books!  I am excited to investigate these new stories as I heartily welcome Love Monster into my library. 

Image courtesy of 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Reading: Something Beautiful

"Tell me something that you consider beautiful," I instructed my eager class of first graders.

"A big, red purse!" one exclaimed.

"High heels!" offered another.

"Um, Miss Holt?" suggested a little one, eager to please.

When I taught first grade, I read the book Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth to my class.  I remember thinking that it would be quite relatable to them.  The city we lived in was touted for its beauty, but not everyone got to see that beauty when they looked out of their bedroom windows.   I hoped that by reading Something Beautiful, I could help my students to broaden their world view about what makes something truly beautiful.  As I re-read this book for the first time in two years, I found myself captivated once again by the story inside and by the inspiration that it offers to ALL readers.

The young narrator in the story recounts what she sees when looking out her window: trash in the courtyard, writing on the walls, and a broken bottle that looks like "fallen stars."  She longs to have something beautiful, something "that when you have it, it makes your heart happy."

So, she sets off on a pursuit for something beautiful!  She first stumbles upon a lady sleeping on the street and covered with a plastic sheet.  Then, she stops at Mrs. Delphine's Diner and learns that Mrs. Delphine's something beautiful is her delicious tasty fried fish.  She visits a fruit stand, where the owner prizes his beautiful red apples.  She asks her friends to describe their beautiful somethings: jump ropes, shoes, and beats. The narrator recalls that, "Mommy says everybody should have something beautiful in their lives.  Where is mine?"

After her quest for something beautiful, the narrator returns home and decides to make it beautiful by scrubbing the writing off the walls and clearing the trash away.  She dreams that one day, she will be able to give something beautiful to others, including the lady she saw sleeping on the street. When her mother arrives back at home, the narrators ask what is her something beautiful.  And to her delight, her mother says, "YOU!"

I admire how the author in this book shows how "something beautiful" can be defined differently from person to person, as long as it "makes your heart happy" when you have it.  The narrator looks beyond her immediate environment for something beautiful and makes her surroundings beautiful!   In the process of looking for something beautiful, she communicates with friends, neighbors, and family, and resolves that her something beautiful is to help others!  Especially for children living in urban environments, Something Beautiful shows that everyone can have something special of their own and instills pride for one's community.  And the illustrations in this book are something beautiful for certain!  They are bright and detailed with the appearance of shadows and lighting contrasts.  It almost looks like a book of photographs!  I felt like I was walking through the neighborhood with the narrator and visiting with her at Mrs. Delphine's Diner for a fish sandwich, the sounds of cooking grease snapping in a pan!  I felt like I was walking the colorful city blocks, the breeze in my face, and stopping at a pleasant fruit stand.  I felt like I was really seeing the writing on the wall and the broken glass and the trash and the ungrown garden behind the fence in the alley where she wasn't supposed to go.  The children in the book look authentic, and many of my first graders were pleased to read a book in which the main character had braids in her hair, just like they did!  I am eager to introduce this book to my third graders so that they can reflect on what makes their lives something beautiful, too!

Something Beautiful is an excellent book for building character.  It tells a thorough story with many characters and depicts a young girl being proactive to make a difference when she sees something wrong.  It shows a world where family and friends matter, and it is told in a poetic way that students may be inspired to emulate.  As I think about what standards teachers could intertwine within Something Beautiful, I am drawn to the idea of having students analyze the actions and citizenship of the narrator (who is never given a name).  Maybe they could even get a one-page list of names and their meanings, and then choose a name for the narrator by thinking about which meaning best embodies her character!

After reading this book with my first graders,  I asked them to tell me again something that they consider beautiful.

This time, they recalled, "My mom."

"The flowers outside!"

"My friends!"

"Miss Holt?"

The message of this book is something beautiful indeed.

"Something beautiful is something that when you have it, it makes your heart happy!"  What is your something beautiful?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reading: Diary of a Wimpy [Mean-Spirited] Kid (Picture Book)

So, I have to tell you something super exciting:

After being deployed since July 22 of last year, my fiancee is finally coming back on Friday!  Although he's been thousands of miles away, he has devotedly contacted me in some way every day, either by email or by "text-talking" (which is completely different from texting, in my opinion), Skyping at ports (though I am totally not a skyper), and by sending me lots of presents!  In turn, I sent him emails and packages with letters, too!  These exchanges of words have been so meaningful for me, and while an email doesn't replace the absence left by a person, it still allows me to get a small glimpse of him each day!  Thus, I am ever grateful for words and the ways in which they can be exchanged, be it slow mail, email, Skype, text-talk, or by a note included in a package from Amazon!  In an ever-evolving world, it seems that the ways to "keep in touch" is growing boundless.

The same is true for books.  Readers can consume their books in a variety of ways, from E-readers to audiobooks.  And now more than ever, there are a variety of books to read! While an old-fashioned book containing a story between the covers will always make my heart feel most content, other types of reading materials can still be a comfort!  I find that many of the students in my class love reading graphic novels, a type of book that was not even in print when I was an elementary student. Babymouse,  Bone,  and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are constantly on circulation from the school library and are the books that my students typically try to sneakily read under their desks.  While I am pleased that my students are engaged by reading, I have been concerned about the overconsumption of these books, as they do not represent quality literature or help children to subconsciously acquire writing skills.  I read Diary of a Wimpy Kid for the first time and expected to read a funny story about a shy student who somehow becomes the victor among his classmates.  Instead, like junk food, I feel like this book and its series should be devoured in small doses, partially because of the quality of literature and mostly because I feel like Greg Heffley is no role model.

Like junk food, I feel like this book and its series should be devoured in small doses.

First, I don't like how Greg treats his best friend, Rowley.  It seems that Greg bullies his best friend the way the high school kids or school "jocks" in the story bully him.   Greg seems to befriend Rowley just so he can go play video games when he is punished from them at home, and he even expresses concern throughout the book that Rowley is suppressing him from reaching his full social potential.  He doesn't stick up for Rowley when he is wrongly accused of scaring the kindergartners with worms, and when Rowley does take a stand for himself, Greg feels belittled!  How does Gregory cope with this?  Well, he decides to be nice to Rowley anyway so that (hopefully) Rowley will invite Greg along to the year-end Safety Patrol celebratory trip to Six Flags, an entitlement that Greg just doesn't deserve.  And when Rowley moves on and befriends another student, Gregory feels jealous and he, in turn, tries to make a new best friend, too, who ends up consuming too much sugar and pestering Greg so that he spends most of his night locked in the bathroom.  (Who would you rather be friends with?)

Further, it seems that Diary of a Wimpy Kid is another book that perpetuates stereotypes and places people into categories.  For example, Greg expresses an interest in helping the school cheerleaders get a new van for away games but has no intention of assisting the football players receive new footballs.  The high school kids are depicted as threatening beasts that apparently stalk youngsters for their Halloween candy and force them to eat months-old cheese off the playground. High achieving students are annoying and should be pelted with apples.  Common stereotypes are presented in this book, and after finding little validation for these ideals in reality, I just cannot stomach anymore!
Because boys can't carry bags.  Or sew.
I know that middle school students might relate to Greg on some levels - feeling constantly bossed around by their parents, embarrassed by their younger siblings, and hopeful that they may be positively recognized by their peers - but I feel like Greg does nothing to help his situation!  Perhaps he is just a tormented middle-schooler, but I have read other books in which the characters have many obstacles to overcome and do so with much more stamina, poise, and class than Greg Heffley does.  For example, in Louis Sachar's novel There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, Bradley Chalkers might seem displeasing at first, but the more readers get to know him, the more they understand his situation!  They realize why he is a bully, they learn to feel empathetic for him, and what's more is that his character progresses throughout the book and does become a victor, a title he so much deserves!  Greg Heffley, on the other hand, is static, which is one of the main reasons I am not a fan of his diary.  Throughout the book, he discusses slacking off in school and failing another quiz, and when his parents finally treat him to a special Christmas gift - a weight bench of his very own  - he couldn't be more ungrateful!  Now, perhaps it is unfair for me to label Gregory as "static," as there is a possibility for change in other Wimpy Kid books.  But the first book, spanning the course of one school year, yields no change, and I think that's just sad!  Books are impressionable, and I know we can't expect writers to create gold-star characters in all of their books because that's just not reality, and nobody is perfect, and it is comforting to read about characters who share the same flaws as we do, and yes, children do enjoy reading about colorful characters different from them.  But the fact that Gregory doesn't change or grow is startling to me. 

If Gregory wants to pelt the young girl playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz play at school with apples, fine.  If he wants to pass his unwelcome nickname to another innocent student and let that child take the brunt of it at school instead of him, fine.  If he wants to bully his best friend, fine.  But the fact that Gregory doesn't feel empathy for anyone or express regret for his rude actions or even receive any form of consequence (except for a loss of video game privileges, which didn't even happen when he ruined the entire play production and, more importantly, hit a girl, for Pete's Sake!), really bothers me!  Greg is not the type of role model that I would prefer my young, impressionable students to be learning from.  In fact, I would prefer for them to analyze the Wimpy Kid books and think about ways that Greg could have been proactive and solved his problems or ways that he could have demonstrated good citizenship instead.  It is called The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and I don't believe that anyone wants to be considered "wimpy," so perhaps this book is a lesson for students about how to not be wimpy?  

When I walk down the halls at school, I see posters promoting this book in several upper-grade classrooms.  I feel like I might be the only person that doesn't absolutely adore these books, but I just cannot promote them when I want my students to be inspired by role models!  Sure, I understand that The Diary of a Wimpy Kid is entertaining for students with its scatalogical humor and annoyance for all things adults. And I would rather my students read these books than nothing at all.  But I hope that along with The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, they also read quality literature that teaches them what it means to have character.  I hope they read books that challenge stereotypes.  I hope they read books in which characters' actions are based on their own aspirations and not just to make it onto the "Class Favorites" yearbook page.  I hope they read books that can teach them about quality writing.  Children can naturally learn so much about writing by reading books that are well-written, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid is not a strong example of writing.  Adjectives, similes, and dialogue are noticeably absent from this book.  I almost think I could provide my students each with a different journal entry from the book and allow them to make it better by adding in elements that we talk about in writing everyday!  In fact, they'd probably enjoy that activity!  Hmm...

In conclusion, it is evident that I am not a fan of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  I am not going to banish them from my classroom library, as everyone is welcome to write and read what they would like.  But I hope that in my own teaching, I inspire my students to read quality literature and introduce them to some other books and series that they love to try to sneakily read, too!  In their reading, I hope they can find a true victor. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reading: Dog Heaven (A Post Dedicated to Nellie - Picture Book)

I have always loved dogs, and I have had the pleasure of six wonderful dogs sharing their homes with me: Oscar, a miniature dachshund that belonged to my mom long before I was born and was quite a good sport when I came along to disturb his peace; Nellie, a dachshund that I got to pick out in the summer when I was ten years old; Linus and Lucy, twin dachshunds who live in Indiana with my mom and dad and always greet me at the door when I come home; and Ralphie and Randy, my sweet little boys who love kisses and cuddle time and walking the boardwalk at Virginia Beach.  I have loved all of the dogs in my family, but when I think about Nellie, I feel bittersweet.  She was a sweet girl with a disability, Addison's Disease, which affected her adrenal glands and caused her to take medicine for her entire life.  The medicine also made her slightly overweight, and someone once rudely referred to her as a "bratwurst dog!"  But I loved her just the same.  

When I began college, I moved away from home and saw less and less of Nellie.  I rejoiced during school vacations because it meant that I got to see my dog!  I noticed her growing older and grayer and less playful, and I felt that my time away from home was a disappointment to her.  Although she was most fond of my mom, I was her best friend!  (Well.  Actually, I was probably her second best friend, as she carted around a stuffed lion for eleven years!  She would take time to find the perfect hiding spot for it  - behind the curtains, underneath the TV stand - and if anybody saw where she hid it, by golly, she'd have to relocate the thing and cry until she was sure that her baby was safe!)  

One summer, I went on a trip to El Paso to earn six college credit hours and to have teaching experience in an ESL classroom.  I constantly called home asking about Nellie and reminded my parents to bring Nellie with them when they picked me up at school in the beginning of August.  When I finally arrived back in Indiana, I rushed to my parents' car and immediately asked about my sweet girl.  Hadn't I reminded them all summer to bring her?  To my dismay, Nellie had died a week before I returned.  I felt like a heavy weight had been placed on my shoulders.  I couldn't comprehend what had happened, and I still feel that my absence may have somehow contributed to her demise.  Perhaps she died of a broken heart or loneliness.  Perhaps she felt that I had abandoned her!  My parents told me that she lived a long, happy life, especially for having had to endure the effects of Addison's Disease, but even today, my heart sinks when I think about how I wasn't there to say good-bye to my sweet little friend.  She is buried in my parents' backyard under a cement lamb with her stuffed lion, and I hope that she is running around in Dog Heaven, eating kitty-shaped biscuits and sleeping in clouds with God watching over her so she doesn't have bad dreams.

Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant, is a comfort to readers like me who have ever lost a faithful four-legged friend.  While it is intended for children, the idea of Dog Heaven, where dogs that never got to have a home on Earth can finally get one, is soothing, and I hope with all of my heart that it does exist! I hope that Nellie's spirit does get to visit the backyard, check in on the cat (who misses her dearly), and dig in the fallen tree branches out in the woods.  I hope that she is in Dog Heaven, being petted and reminded a thousand times a day that she is a good dog.  I hope that she gets an extra biscuit under the table because she did always like food!  I hope that she has made buddies with Oscar.  I hope that the dogs that never got a chance to be good dogs on Earth get to fulfill their destinies in Dog Heaven.  

Nellie joined my family on June 17, 1998.  Her lion,
seen in the picture with her above, joined us that
August, and the two were inseparable. 

The acrylic paintings in Dog Heaven are colorful and hopeful, my favorite being the one in which the dogs are sleeping peacefully in their fluffy cloud pillows.  I was surprised to see a painting of God, as I've never actually seen an illustration of God in any children's book I have ever read!  He seems like a nice gentleman and is wearing bright yellow pants, a blue sweater, and a bow-tie.  He also has gray hair and a gray mustache on a friendly face slightly covered by a brown hat.  Still, I'm not quite sure how I feel about this depiction of God in a children's book.  God is white, and while Dog Heaven is based in imagination, I'm not sure how students of color would feel seeing God being depicted as a white man.  Perhaps they have always imagined God to share their skin color, and seeing a depiction of God at such a young age in this way might be startling to them.  It makes me feel that maybe Cynthia Rylant intended this book to be written for white children, as it doesn't particularly represent a multicultural Heaven. (I realize that many cultures do not believe in Heaven or believe in a different type of Heaven, but people from all cultures can, and I feel like there should have been more representation.)  It reminds me of a child that I met while teaching in the Mississippi Delta a few summers ago.  He wished that he could be white because it seemed to him that the most powerful people in town were white men; they were the ones who owned the businesses, the ones that made the rules, the ones who seemingly operated the community in that child's eyes.  If that child were to read this book, the image of a white God only seems to perpetuate his believe and may disappoint him or make him think that he is not as important because of his skin color.  The images that children see in the media and in books can become imprinted in their minds and be hard to shake away.  Do I think it was wrong to create an illustration of God?  Well, no.  But I do think it is a bold move to create this image in a children's book with God representing one human race.  

The story in Dog Heaven shows the power of children's literature to not just entertain or to teach but to inspire, to imagine, and to comfort.  Any child that has ever lost a pet will be comforted by the story in Dog Heaven.  While it does not change the pain caused by the absence of a friend, it does instill comfort knowing that one's companion will always be loved.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reading: Henry and Mudge (The First Book - Picture Book)

Henry was lonely.  He didn't have any brothers or sisters or friends on his street.  But when he asked his parents for a dog, he received Mudge, Henry's perfect, floppy-eared, short-haired companion that grew out of seven collars before reaching the great height of three feet!

When I taught first grade in Charlotte two years ago, my students loved Henry and Mudge!  The use of sight words and predictable, repetitive text made the books easy for students to read, and the stories between the covers made the books engaging!  Even as a third grade teacher now, I find that my students still love Henry and Mudge, and I have used some of the books for my struggling guided reading groups, along with a dog craftivity on which the students retell the book in a sequence.  I'd never actually read THE first book until this analysis, and as I did, I took note of what elements make it so popular among children.   
What child wouldn't want to have a lovable,
loyal, GIANT friendship like the one shared
between Henry and Mudge? 

First, as I mentioned briefly already, Henry and Mudge is a manageable read for children just learning how to read due to its repetition.  For example, in the beginning of the book, Cynthia Rylant wrote, "I want ____," he told his parents.  "Sorry," they said.  These two lines are repeated three times on the first few pages.  This sort of repetition is used throughout the book, and I think students will want to read it over and over again because of that.  

While Henry and Mudge is labeled as a "Ready-to-Read" book by its publisher and does contain mostly simple language, the story is still interesting to young audiences.  Further, it includes the common elements seen in a fiction book: characters, settings, a small problem, and a simple solution. Thus, it's an excellent choice to teach summarizing with students, and there are opportunities for students to predict what will happen next as they read through a suspenseful scene in the book. 

Henry and Mudge is a book that children will be able to relate to.  Henry is a young boy that wants a friend.  He finds a friend in his pup!  Most children that I have worked with love dogs and either have a pet canine or wish to.  They enjoy seeing a child just like them getting to take on this responsibility. Additionally, the series of Henry and Mudge lets children take a deeper look into the friendship of Henry and Mudge so that they, too, feel a part of it. 

Of course, this book also feels special for students because it is probably one of the first "chapter books" that they will ever read.  It shows them what a Table of Contents is and gives them direct experience using it.  

Pointy-eared dogs are special, too!  
Well, I can't very well share one
pup and not the other!
Lastly, Henry and Mudge shows how sweet it is to have a friend.  Before Mudge, walking to school was scary.  With Mudge, walking to school became a happy task!  My only wish is that Henry wouldn't have listed what he didn't want in a dog and would have refrained from telling Mudge, "I'm glad you're not short."  No matter how he looked, Mudge proved to be a loyal companion, and loyalty is more important in a friendship than ideal looks!  Further, with so many shelter dogs needing homes just as they are - straight-eared, curly-haired, short, some with disabilities - and with many dogs being bred in unhealthy ways just to be "cute," it's important to teach children to be loving towards all animals.  That was the only moment that sours this book for an extreme animal cuddler like me, as I currently sit with one of my floppy-eared, curly-haired, kind of short, squirrel-chasing dogs on my lap!  Mudge loved Henry, lemon hair and all, and I think Henry would have loved Mudge even if he did have pointy ears. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Reading: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Picture Book)

"Once there were two towers side by side."  This line introduces readers to The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, a children's book that is certain to evoke questions and conversations about why the twin towers are no longer there.  The answer to that question is not found in this book, however, as Mordicai Gerstein chose to honor the memory of the towers by writing about the feat (and the feet, too, I suppose) of Philippe Petit, an independent spirit who walked a high wire "between the towers."  

Just thinking about walking between two towers and what lies beneath is enough to make me queasy, and the image in which Philippe is walking high in the air, balancing himself with the wind blowing his hair and cars driving furiously on the New York City roads below, remains imprinted in my mind, helping me to comprehend the magnitude of this act.  At that point in the book, the text also mentions the wind, so the illustrations capture the details in the text perfectly!

Although I know that Philippe was an adventurous, seemingly fearless man, I feel like I never really got to know him personally.  What was his childhood like that caused him to grow into such a daring person?  Why did he leave Paris?  Was he planning to cross the towers when he lived across the Atlantic? Who were the friends that were with him, and did they get punished for helping Philippe?  And what about the boys mentioned at the end of the book who pulled on Philippe's wire and almost made him fall!  Did they get in trouble?  They could have hurt him badly!  It seems I'm getting bogged down into wanting to know more details, but the author simply chose to tell the story of Philippe walking between the towers, and his illustrations do an - for lack of better word - illustrious job conveying that. 
The illustration of Philippe walking
between the towers reveals
that the wind is blowing, a
perspective that makes me a
little queasy - and a lot impressed!

Since I do have so many questions after reading this book, I think about the opportunities that await young readers to take this story and expand it!  What happened to Philipe after he walked between the towers?  What was his childhood like?  There are so many possibilities for writing and/or making predictions, as well as drawing conclusions.  AND students interested in knowing more about Philippe can begin their own independent research to learn more about him!  I know that I am going to!  Finally, Philippe achieved his dreams, no matter the naysayers, and he did what made him feel "alone and happy and absolutely free."  While I do not walk thin, high wires between tall buildings, my hair swaying in the breeze, I experience those same feelings when I run.  I have competed in several marathons, and nothing has been more exhilarating than running down historic, hilly streets of Boston or across the Pacific Ocean on the Golden Gate Bridge (my hair sticking to the sides of my anguished face, I'm sure).  I wish that feeling for all of my students and hope that they could now, or someday, connect with Philippe as he walked between the towers. 

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers was published in 2003.  I wonder if this is a book that the author started working on before or after September 11, 2001?  And if it was a task taken on before that fateful Tuesday morning, how did the story change?  After reading this book, I have many questions, which will lead me to more reading and research.  When an author's book leaves readers wanting to know more and searching for knowledge, then I think he has created a masterpiece.  

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reading: Owen by Kevin Henkes (Picture Book)

Every time I visited the library at Webster Elementary School in first grade, I knew exactly where I would find it: the second shelf in the front, always at the end of the row, its blue spine glistening in the fluorescent lights of a public school library.  The book was Owen by Kevin Henkes, and although the story never changed from week to week, I was always amused by the cute little mouse and the obsession he had with his favorite fuzzy yellow blanket.  I credit Owen and his blanket for imprinting a love of literacy into my heart, so I was delighted (and eager) when I found this book waiting for me in the library at Captain John Smith School, this time on the bottom shelf, somewhere in the middle, its blue spine glistening in the fluorescent lights of a public school library.  But this time, I read the book with a critical eye as a graduate student and elementary school teacher, yet still with the same joy that I had when I first devoured it, week after week, as a student in Mrs. Keister's class.

Like all of the books written by Kevin Henkes, Owen takes readers to a magical, mousical world brimming with new and challenging vocabulary, including absolutely wonderful, positively perfect, and especially terrific all in the same sentence!  Not only will many of these words be new to young listeners, but this use of repetitive meaning helps students to build early skills, such as learning how to use context clues or understanding synonyms.  Children might not have the names for those skills yet, but they will have experiences with rich language through Kevin's use of language.  (Note: I like to think that we're on a first name basis, as I've been a fan since the young age of six.)  From a teaching standpoint, I also find that there are many activities embedded into this book for learners of all ages!  There are many opportunities for young students to make connections, whether it be thinking about something that they treasure in the same way that Owen treasures his own fuzzy yellow blanket or by the teacher allowing his/her students to smell a sample of vinegar so that they can understand just why Owen had to switch his favorite corner of the blanket anyway!  There are opportunities for students to make logical predictions, and of course, Owen tells a clear story easy for young readers to picture sequence or older readers to write and sequence.  Owen is also a prime choice for teaching older students to write stories.  It has a clear plot, rich dialogue, and emotional characters.  While I do think that emulating a story like Owen is not an easy task (as evidenced by this video), the story that it tells, and the way in which it tells the story, can teach students about elements seen in strong story-telling. 

As I think back to my own enjoyment of Owen as a child, I instantly remember being captivated by the pictures.  Each page is a scavenger hunt for children and adults.  Kevin Henkes always creates the world of his mice to mimc the beauty in the human world.  I enjoy the bright colors present in Owen, the tall sunflowers in his backyard, the leaking dryer in the basement, the handmade drawings dotting the wall of Owen's bedroom (similar to the drawings a person might see on the walls of a kindergarten classroom), the copy of Edvard Munch's famous Scream painting hanging in the family room (and featuring a mouse screamer, of course), and the bright clothing worn by Owen's mother.  (Where does she get her clothes?)  

Each page is a scavenger hunt.

Finally, one of the greatest aspects about Owen is that it teaches children that it's okay to hold on to special treasures.  Even Mrs. Tweezers, the nosy neighbor next-door, reveals that she once had a fuzzy blanket, too (and still carries its remnant with her).  Children that are just beginning school often have to let go of a lot - their security at home, eating lunch at home, the training wheels on their bikes, nap time after snacks, their favorite fuzzy yellow blankets.  Sometimes, it's exciting to let go!  But other times, clinging on to their favorite blankets, or whatever it may be, makes them feel safe in a world that's always changing.  Owen shows that it's okay to hold on.  The way that Owen cherishes his own yellow blanket is the way that I will forever cherish Owen: an absolutely wonderful, positively perfect, and especially terrific book.