Monday, March 31, 2014

Reading: The Mighty Miss Malone

Courtesy of
The Mighty Miss Malone, published by Scholastic in 2012, is the second book that I have read that is authored by Christopher Paul Curtis.  Just like The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963 (the focus of my last post), this novel includes meaningful moments that tell the story of Deza Malone and her family during The Great Depression.

Times are tough, but the Malones are on the journey to something "wonderful."  Deza's father is always out of work, and her mother works hard at cleaning the house of the wealthiest family in town.  Deza's older brother, Jimmie, hasn't grown an inch since he was twelve years old, but what he lacks in height he makes up for with his beautiful singing voice.  On top of the struggles that families endured during The Great Depression - bugs in the oatmeal, scarce food to go around, no medical care - the Malone family has an even more severe crisis to deal with when Mr. Malone goes fishing on Lake Michigan and survives a near fatal accident that causes him to lose his teeth, his strength, and his spirit.  In a quest to find work, he leaves his family behind in Gary, Indiana and travels to Flint, Michigan.  Soon, Mrs. Malone finds herself unemployed and packs up the few belongings that the family has to search for him.  After hitching a ride on a railcar, they spend their nights in a small hut that eventually becomes home for Deza.  The family is always on the move, but in the hut, they have not yet found wonderful, as their journey continues.  Soon, Jimmies leaves his family behind to go looking for his own wonder, and Deza continues to be alarmed at the absence of Jimmie and her father.  But when Deza does learn of her brother's whereabouts, she is determined to find him and reunite her family once and for all.

The Mighty Miss Malone is a unique book because it is the only book that I have read that shows an African-American family enduring the effects of The Great Depression.  I also liked this book because the characters are introduced to readers in an in-depth way and showcase many unique personality traits that are enjoyable to read about.  Deza is in love with words and is a sweet-natured girl, but she does have a "second brain" that sometimes persuades her to do things that most girls don't do -  like beat up people in defense of her older, but smaller, brother.  She and her best friend, Clarice, are true buddies and only feel sincere happiness for one another; they are not jealous of each other as characters often are in children's books.  Jimmie is adventurous and often gets into trouble, but he always has good intentions and is determined to be the man of the family when his father leaves.  Their mother is good-hearted and hard-working and makes jokes with her children that are smooth like butter.  And their father loves to tell stories and use alliteration, although he seems a ghost of his former self when he returns from the fateful trip on Lake Michigan.  It is also a book that brings into consciousness the importance of having well-written books to represent people of all cultures.  While living in Gary, Indiana, young Deza was able to read many books about African-American children like herself.  When she moves to Flint, the teachers assign books about white children that she cannot relate to.  I am grateful that Christopher Paul Curtis writes books starring African-American families that are well-written, insightful, and historically accurate.

I often discuss books that are packaged nicely together, leaving no ends undone, and  The Mighty Miss Malone is one of those books.  And after reading it, I feel more understanding for, and more empathy towards, people that lived during The Great Depression.  Interestingly, the author's note expresses that many African-American families are still living with the effects of the depression, as are Hispanic families.  It seems that it was mostly white families that regained their financial strength.  I have been aware of the socioeconomic differences among different races, but I had never thought about how particular races were able to bounce back after the Depression, while others were not.  In writing this book, Christopher Paul Curtis had two purposes: to write a book for readers to enjoy, which I did, and to give a voice to the children that live in poverty each day.  In fact, many of the ideas incorporated into his book were gleaned when he was reading through old letters that children of the depression wrote to President Roosevelt.  Reading his afterword was affecting to me, as I have always taught in schools where the majority of children do live in poverty!  It is a tough battle to fight, but the Malone family gives it everything they've got to overcome. 

Introducing students to The Mighty Miss Malone would be an excellent literary addition to the study of the Great Depression, as it focuses on the struggles of children.  It is well-written, entertaining, thought-provoking, humorous (at times), and heartbreaking (more often).  If you would like to read this book on your own, you can check it out at your local library!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Reading: Watson's Go to Birmingham, 1963

I am obsessed with moments.  

My fondest memories revolve around small moments with big meanings that I have carried with me.  I don't tend to remember or think about large events with the same adoration I have for small moments.  There was the moment on Webster Avenue when we ate dinner at the picnic table outside.  There was the moment my sister told me she had chicken pox and my heart sank to my feet like an anchor.  There was the moment that my kindergarten teacher's assistant and I bonded over a shared distaste for Oreos.  It made me feel connected to a leader in my classroom since my teacher was always yelling at us.  (Or so it seemed.)  There was the moment I brought my sweet dachshund home when I was ten years old.  I'll always remember how she sat beside me on a yellow towel in my mom's old Toyota pick-up.  There was the moment while I was running my first marathon in 2008 that I looked at the clock when approaching mile 25 - 3:19:00, it said - and I realized that I could finish the darn thing in my goal time!  Then, there was the moment just yesterday when my new baby bunny ate a dandelion out of my hand!  It is these moments, and many more, that I didn't plan to remember - that I didn't plan at all - that have helped shaped me into who I am, that have given me the things I am most appreciative for, and that have become my most special memories!  

The thing that my favorite authors do, I've noticed, is take these unplanned moments and weave them together in a seamless, engaging, thought-provoking story.  Christopher Paul Curtis did this when writing The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963 (published in 1995 by Yearling), which features a medley of young Kenny's memories growing up in Flint, Michigan.  Some are pleasant, some are hurtful, some are horrific. Whether it's a comical event, like the time his old brother, By, got his lips frozen to the side mirror on his father's "brown bomber" in an attempt to kiss his perfect reflection, or a heart-wrenching moment, like the time By unintentionally killed a bird by knocking it off a telephone wire, Kenny's memories flow together to create an unforgettable story that illustrates good and evil.  It is at times humorous (I read it while on the elliptical and about fell off for laughing too hard) and at other times heart-breaking. In all of the moments that Kenny has, he learns much about the human condition, about cruelty, love, bravery, and family.  It is this medley of moments that has joined this book with To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bell Jar, and Shiloh on my list of favorite, unforgettable, dare I say life-changing, novels. 

Kenny, known as "poindexter" for his brilliance, tells us about his family's trip in 1963 to Birmingham, Alabama.  After his brother's antics go too far and his parents worry about him choosing the wrong path, they decide to take the family down south to spend the summer with their grandmother, a strict but loving lady.  If By doesn't transform, they might even make him live there.  But while they are down there, an unexpected moment occurs that changes everyone's perspective, particularly Kenny's.  In fact, this event causes him to retreat into himself and transform from a fun-loving kid to a scared, shy child.  Based on a true event, I was completely shocked when I read this climatic point in the story and almost fell off the elliptical, this time in shock.  I was in disbelief that the author could do this to me when I had been having such a good time!  To me, this sudden turn of events paralleled the sudden loss of innocence in childhood.  In a moment, Kenny learned that cruelty does exist in the world and saw how damaging it can be.  

Still, moments of absolute cruelty, hatred, and prejudice do exist in our world, and they cannot be ignored and shoved under the rug, especially if we want to do something to change them!  I appreciated how Christopher Paul Curtis provided information at the end of his book regarding civil rights so that young readers can keep researching this topic.  Speaking of young readers, I feel like all children would enjoy this book in late elementary or early middle-school.  The characters are funny and relatable, and those "Weird Watson's" are quite likable. 

My absolute favorite part of the book is when the Watson's are driving through the Appalachian Mountains at night.  They stop to get out of their cars and stand under a "blanket of darkness."  I had such a vivid image of this scene in my mind and felt as if I was standing there, huddled with them.  However, the author allows us to see how scared the children are to be in the mountains at night.  People in Appalachia were known for being unkind towards African-Americans, and the children even feared sneaking into the woods to take a restroom break in case there were white men nearby.  I have made the trip through Appalachia many times myself and often at nights through winding mountain roads, but I do not have this fear that the Watson children had.  It breaks my heart that young Kenny, By, and Joey had to be afraid.  There they stood, overlooking one of the most beautiful regions in the country!  Yet the fear of cruelty still haunted them.  I feel that such a beautiful scene shrouded in fear reminds us that there is good and evil in the word.  Books like The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963 remind people to choose goodness.  

Currently, I am reading another book written by Christopher Paul Curtis, which is also strung together by small moments with big meaning. He has become one of my favorite authors, and I highly recommend Watson's. If you would like to find some other books that he has written, check out his website or your local library for more information. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Reading: The Wizard of Oz

An early cover of The Wizard of Oz
courtesy of
The Wizard of Oz is one of the most popular movies and theatrical plays of all time.  However, some people do not realize that it was actually a book before it became a movie!  (The best films tend to be!)  When I was in elementary school, I remember reading a book called Return to Oz, but I never actually read THE original version of Frank L. Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Until now, of course!  The great thing about having a blog devoted to books is that it causes me to read books that I've always wanted to read but never have and has helped me to discover new titles, too!  Of course, The Wizard of Oz is far from a new title after being published 114 years ago by Puffin Books, but there are many unfamiliar events in the book that do not appear in the film version; I have gleaned a greater understanding of the story from reading the novel.

As a novel, I enjoyed The Wizard of Oz, but of course I visualized everything in my head to go along with what I saw in the movie: the landscape, the characters, the twister!  Still, there were a lot of details in the novel that brought the setting even more to life.  Perhaps these elements are included in the movie and I just never noticed them.  For example, all of the characters in the Emerald City wear green glasses so that everything appears to be green.  It's the first time I actually considered why the Emerald City is green, and when we learn more about Oz, we understand how the name for this city came to be.

Speaking of Oz, the novel provides more insight into the Great and Powerful and how a, er, phony, could take on the role of a magical wizard.  There are also many characters in the novel that are not in the movie.  I preferred the characters that I was familiar with in the film over the characters I didn't know about; perhaps that was because I had a greater vision of these characters, but it did seem like the unknown characters were more imaginative and unbelievable than the others.  For example, in one scene, Dorothy and friends are chased by the Kalidahs, animals that have bear bodies and tiger heads.  When Dorothy falls under the spell of poppy flowers, she and her companions are rescued by a group of field mice.  And the flying monkeys actually are not evil at all and help to lead Dorothy back to Oz!  

After reading the novel, I am reminded of how much more stimulating reading is than watching a movie.  While reading the book, I noticed things that were not apparent in the film, as I stated above, and the theme of love, family, friendship, and courage was more noticeable and meaningful, as well.  These themes are also timeless and relevant, even a century after its first publication.  Most of my students have seen The Wizard of Oz, but I would like for them to hear the novel and think about which story provides more details and information about the characters, setting, and story.  I think that comparing and contrasting any movie with its book would yield the same discussion.  With many high-profile current books being turned into movies, I'll stick to reading the book first if I decide that I also want to see the movie.  If you'd like to read the book of this classic story you're probably familiar with, check it out at your local library! 

Reading: Flora and Ulysses

Courtesy of
Every Saturday morning, my perky-eared dog, Randy, wakes me up in a quest to bark at squirrels outside the window.  They taunt him, shaking their bushy little tails while staying put in their branches and munching on acorns.  I haven't slept in on a Saturday for months!  Even though those pesky rodents mimic my pup and make him cry and bark, even with the windows closed and curtains drawn, I have to admit: They're still kind of cute.  I still care about squirrels as living beings, even if they did chew the wires apart underneath my car and charge $600 of service fees.  I would never wish illness or harm upon any squirrel anywhere.  But I do wish they would stop teasing Randy.

In the book Flora and Ulysses, the latest novel by Kate DiCamillo and winner of the 2014 Newberry Award, Ulysses the squirrel isn't the mocking type.  No, he's a poet.  After being sucked up into the organs of a fancy vacuum and then saved by Flora, Ulysses seems to possess superhero powers.  At least, that's what Flora thinks, and she often compares Ulysses to her favorite superhero, Alfred T. Slipper (otherwise known as the famous Incandesto).  She later learns that Ulysess is a poet and that her mother is an arch-nemesis who wants Ulysses to meet his demise with a sack and shovel, respectively.  Oh, and one more thing:  Flora is a cynic.  We are reminded us of this quite often while reading the book.

As I begin to blog about this particular book, I'm not sure that there is one succinct word I could use to convey my thoughts about it.  As a novel, it contains elements of quality literature: complex vocabulary, interesting characters that develop and transform over time, a timely theme, adventure.  While I don't personally enjoy reading about superheroes, the themes in this book left my heart fluttery, and I can tell that the author had a lot of fun playing with words as she concocted this fantastical read.

First of all, the characters in the book are compelling and mostly relatable for young readers.  Due to its extensive vocabulary, Flora and Ulysses is suitable for middle school years (perhaps even high school), but elementary students are sure to be interested in it, as well, especially students who love comic books and superheroes.  (There are even a few chapters illustrated as comics, but this novel is not read with the ease of a graphic novel like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Babymouse.) Flora's parents are divorced, and her quirky mother is a romance writer that seems love her shepherdess lamp more than she loves Flora.  Her father, the loneliest man in the world, always sighs and introduces himself when he enters a room (even if he knows everybody there).  Readers are given the impression that Mr. Buckman did not want to divorce his wife and that he lost much of zeal for living after the split.  Flora is a cynic, and she befriends her neighbor's great-nephew, William Spiver, who is quite veracious though rather likable in the end.  He claims to be temporarily-blind due to traumatic stress.  Young readers might not understand the depth of the characters, but they don't need to in order to understand the breadth of the text.  As an adult, I found the characters to be richly depicted and, despite all of their quirks, sad representations of reality.  Flora's mother tries to get rid of Flora's seemingly only friend - the squirrel - and attempts to use lies, deceit, and murder to do it!  Her rationale is that of love, but she seems to fail to realize that 1) the fate she is trying to protect her daughter from is actually the same life in which she herself lives and 2) Flora's seemingly only friend is beloved by Flora and taking it away would be cruel and hurtful.  My favorite character, though, is Dr. Meescham, a neighbor to Mr. Buckman.  She teaches Flora that cynics only exist because they are afraid to believe, and that believing does nothing to hurt.  Why not believe in God? she questions.  Even if he is not real, believing will not hurt me.  I was touched by this sentimental, wise, and yes, still quirky character who made me feel at home.  This paragraph is just a glimpse of the colorful characters included in Flora and Ulysses and the adventures that they have together.

Through all of their adventures, the characters understand what it means to love - to really love, not to love like the kind of love that Mrs. Buckman writes about in her romance novels.  According to Dr. Meescham, love is having "someone bring you a can of little fishes in bed and staying up with you as you eat them.  To hum to you.  That is love."  Flora discovers the meaning of love throughout this unique novel when she listens to her father's heartbeat, holds the hand of William Spiver, watches Ulysses sleep curled up at her feet, and considers herself to be "beloved."   What's more is that Flora loves people/squirrels for who they really are and encourages the characters, particularly Ulysses, to just be as they are.  At the end of the novel, Flora isn't so much of a cynic anymore; she's isn't afraid to hope or to believe.  After all, her best friend is a superhero squirrel!  What's not to believe?  

Flora and Ulysses is certainly a memorable book unlike any others that I have.  The themes of the story are probably most going to be appreciated by adults, but children will still love the action that unfolds and will enjoy rooting for Ulysses as they read.  For younger students, this novel might be better-suited for an interactive read-aloud than an independent reading book.  Whether you want to read it to your class or read it for yourself, you can check out Flora and Ulysses at your local library! You can also catch the book trailer here

Reading: The Giver

Courtesy of
I'm not sure how twenty-one years have passed by, and I have just now read The Giver.  I've seen this book on shelves since before I was even old enough to read it, but I'd never even picked it up to read the back summary.  I didn't even know what it was about!  But FINALLY I sat down and read the book cover to cover, and I have since dreamed about it.  What has made this book so endurable sine its 1993 publication by Houghton Mifflin? It has many relevant, timeless themes appropriate for children who are coming-of-age and beginning to question the beliefs that they have long held.  And it is that self-questioning that has made some adults challenge the publication of this young adult novel.

For those who don't know about The Giver (just like myself last week), this novel tells the story of Jonas and his community of "sameness."  We learn that his entire world is in black and white, that the precision of speech is of utmost importance, and that the option of making choices is obsolete because, well, there are no options.  Or choices.  It's just easier that way.  Imagine choosing the wrong spouse or having children who are less than ideal.  Instead, this new community assigns community roles to individuals, and these roles serve as their careers.  These roles are assigned to children when they are twelve years old and upheld dutifully for the rest of their lives.  Breaking three major rules in the community leads to one's "release," a mysterious practice that we learn more about as the book progresses.  And families are not families but "units" whose bonds are broken when children reach adulthood and leave behind their parents, never to see them again.  The people in this community choose to live this way to avoid pain and suffering, words that they can't even remember.  When Jonas is given his special task, he meets with The Giver, who transits memories of the days before the community's creation.  At first, the memories are sweet - sledding, snow, Christmas! - and then they become more difficult to bare - war, hunger.  But it is important for Jonas to retain these memories to keep the community from repeating its past mistakes.  However, Jonas begins to question life in the community and its lack of morals. There has to be more out there, he thinks, and he yearns to live in a world filled with colors and feelings and truth, even if that means living in a world also with fear and suffering.  Will Jonas be daring enough to make the escape? And if he does, what will finally push him to do it?  I would tell you, but I don't want to spoil this amazing fantasy story for you!

The Giver is indeed a fantasy, but it brings to mind events of the not-so-distant past and even the present.  The community in which Jonas lives seems driven by a methodology created by Hitler himself.  Only the strongest are allowed to survive, and those who do not make the cut due to size or sleeplessness or helplessness are not. Children in the community are given pills to suppress their "stirrings," which I at first thought was a way to keep the children innocent.  I later learned that it is to prevent children from feeling or to prevent them from making mistakes that will upset the community's operations.  Still, when I hear about people wanting to ban The Giver without even understanding its message, I am reminded of the anti-stirrings pills and feel that they operate along the same wavelength.  As I've said before, families do not have to allow their children to read certain books if they don't feel it is appropriate. However, they cannot take the books away from other people's children.  And denying the messages of The Giver is hurtful, I feel, as this book teaches children that it is okay to make their own choices, to take "the road less traveled," especially if it means doing the right thing.  When Jonas learned about the ills in his community, he decided not to follow the road of sameness and to instead take his own path.  This is an important message for children, especially middle-schoolers, the target audience of this book, as they will be faced with many choices and pressure from their peers. Teasing, lying, cheating, and stealing are things that my own students deal with today in the classroom, but if they are equipped to make their own choices and to question what the majority may be doing - especially when it is morally and ethically unjust - they will be able to prevail!  

Along with teaching an important lesson, The Giver shows pride and respect for the elderly by building a relationship between Jonas and The Giver.  Although The Giver is older than Jonas - though younger than he physically appears - he and Jonas become friends, confidants, supporters.  The cover of the book even shows the face of an old gentleman, and the message that memories passed down from older generations are priceless and fundamental to the shaping of a person is also woven throughout this novel.  When Jonas acquires memories from The Giver, his world literally brightens up! He sees colors, and he feels things, such as empathy for others.  He tries to pass this on to his friends when they play a game of "war," but they do not understand because they do not have the memories.  Older generations can speak to younger generations to help them understand their world, to develop complex feelings for others, to avoid making the same mistakes.  This is what The Giver does for Jonas, and this is hopefully a message that readers of The Giver will take away so that they can make connections with families and friends older than they are before it is too late. 

It has recently come to my attention that Lois Lowry has written three more books to extend upon The Giver.  Curiosity causes me to read these books, but at the same time, I imagined my own ending and am not sure if I am willing to change that. Perhaps you would like to read and decide the ending for yourself or take part in the debate about The Giver by checking it out at your local library. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Reading: Mary Poppins

After watching the movie Saving Mr. Banks out of a devotion to actor Tom Hanks, I was curious to know more about author P.L. Travers and the Mary Poppins books that she wrote.  The movie version of Mary Poppins sure was a delightful thing with dancing penguins (oh my gosh, yay!), but I was perplexed as to the content of the book after watching the film.  In a nutshell, Saving Mr. Banks is about Walt Disney's struggle to change the Mary Poppins novel into a film - a struggle because of the author's constant refusal to sign over the rights. The author was portrayed as being curt and straight-forward with little imagination, it seemed, and she actually said she would only agree to have her book transformed into a movie if there were no dancing penguins! (Obviously, she succumbed.)  After reading the original version of Mary Poppins, I realize that while the author may been particular about her works, she was actually filled with imagination and wrote a delightful story that is enjoyable for children across decades.

Mary Poppins blows into Number Seventeen Cherry Street as a new nanny for Jane, Michael, and the twins.  She is fashionable and well-known and takes the Banks children on many adventures, after which she always seems to pretend that they never happened and never talks about them.  I almost think that she has all of the ingredients for a great teacher: She makes life exciting for the Banks children by introducing them to her zanny friends, yet she remains strict and mysterious.  When the children visit her uncle at his birthday, they find him floating around in air after having a good laugh.  The children find the sight to be so comical that they, too, float up into the air.  Of course, it is only proper for Mary Poppins to float up there and join them!  But when the children must leave, Mary Poppins acts as if the whole ordeal did not happen and scolds the children for making fun of her uncle.  It is evident that the children adore Mary - falling asleep beside her on the bus is evidence of this - and are fascinated by her adventures, yet they also abide by her rules so as to stay in her good graces.

While all of the chapters contain interesting stories, from Andrew the dog who orders his master to let his ordinary dog friend take shelter in the same abode to the thousand-year old gingerbread makers, I feel that P.L. Travers has created Mary Poppins to be a wise speaker - and listener - to all.  She can speak the language of the wind and the birds, and her special gift is that this language was not taken from her when she was a baby, as it is for everyone else.  Because Mary Poppins can speak and understand the language of so many, she is friends with so many.  She can be an adult when stepping into the role of "nanny," but she can also take the children on unforgettable, unbelievable, super-imaginative adventures, including a trip around the world in sixty seconds.  She is friends with zoo animals (I'm jealous) and can hang stars in the sky.  She knows the people of the clouds and seems to have an abundance of friends and/or admirers, young and old.

In the movie Saving Mr. Banks, Mary Poppins is revered by young P.L. Travers, as she comes to save the Travers' family at a time when the father is not well.  The backstory of this film is that Travers' created Mary Poppins in the likeness of her own nanny, who was not a magical person by any means but had the ability to rescue her from a lost childhood. Perhaps Ms. Travers created Mary Poppins, the fictional character, in the same way that she imagined her own nanny: a fantastic, mysterious heroine capable of doing anything.

Whatever the reason, I connected many of the events in Mary Poppins to other events that I have read in other books or seen in children's movies.  For example, when Maia, a girl from the sky, encounters her first revolving door, she runs through it over and and over again, just like Will Ferrell's character from the North Pole in Elf does when seeing his first revolving door.  In the chapter titled "Bird Woman," the children encounter a mysterious, somewhat frightening lady in the park covered in pigeons. This reminded me of the mysterious lady that Kevin McAlister meets in the film Home Alone 2.  And after celebrating her birthday party at the zoo, the only way that the children can be assured it wasn't a dream was by the remnant that Mary Poppins has left: a belt given to her by the snake.  This reminded me of The Polar Express and how the only proof the child has that he actually went to the North Pole is a remnant of his trip: a belt given to him by Santa.  I couldn't help but notice these similarities and wonder if any of these other events were influenced by Mary Poppins.  

After reading Mary Poppins, I am perplexed as to why P.L. Travers did not want Walt Disney to include magical elements in the movie version of Mary Poppins, since the book itself is filled with magical happenings.  I am not sure how accurate Saving Mr. Banks really is, though it was an entertaining movie.  However, if I were to choose between watching the movie for a second time or reading the novel again, I would certainly choose the novel!  I hope to introduce it to my class as a read-aloud so that they can hear a fantastical novel that they otherwise would probably not read.  I also want to do more research about the author to find out her true story.  If you would like to read Mary Poppins for yourself, check it out at your local library

Friday, March 21, 2014

Reading: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Courtesy of
This afternoon, I sat down with a child who had just completed reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane before the rest of his novel study group members.  We discussed his final thoughts about the book (he was absolutely surprised and delighted), and I asked him what important lesson he felt Edward had learned throughout his journey.

"Love," he replied quietly. 

My heart fluttered.

We continued to talk about what Edward learned about love and how the toy rabbit was able to come to this conclusion.  I was thrilled that one of my young readers not only enjoyed The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane as an exciting, though heart-wrenching fantasy story, but he was also able to extract the message embedded in the pages.  Before introducing a reading group to this novel, I read reviews that suggested this book, written by Kate DiCamillo and published by Candewick in 2006, is not a book for children.  As an adult, I appreciate the story of Edward Tulane and might be able to make deeper connections with it than my own students due to my having more life experiences.  But even at nine years of age, my students still can infer the meaning of the book: Without love, the journey is pointless.  They might not understand what journey that is, but Kate DiCamillo shares her message successfully for readers of all ages to hear.  

In the very forward of the book, DiCamillo includes the line, "The heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking." From there, we are invited into the life of Edward Tulane, a well-loved but unloving China bunny - I mean, rabbit.  (Sorry about that, Edward.)  Edward was a gift from Pellegrina to Abilene, and he is adorned with the best fashions and invited to sit at the family dinner table, where he must wallow in the condescending looks from adults.  From the very beginning, we witness Abilene spoils Edward with love, from the time the maid haphazardly vacuums him and sucks up his special gold pocket watch (which gets fished out of the vacuum as fast as the maid is dismissed) to the time when she sheds her tears into his rabbit-fur ears as she and her parents depart Pellegrina and their home on Egypt Street via the Queen Mary ship.  During these instances, Edward can only think of his clothes getting wrinkled or his ears getting wet and doesn't consider Abilene's feelings.  And personally, he won't miss Pellegrina who tells scary stories about unloving princess with unhappy endings because, as she says, stories without love cannot possible end happily.  (Foreshadowing for the end of this particular book, I must add!)  It is on the Queen Mary ship that Edward's selfish ways change and that his journey begins when he is tossed overboard and spends over 200 days at the bottom of the ocean.  Eventually, he is fished out from the ocean by an old fisherman named Lawrence and brought home to his wife, Nellie.  But that is just a snippet into Edward's harrowing journey in which he always has to let go.  

It is through the letting go that Edward learns to love, and I am reminded of people in my own life who I have had to let go of.  Often, it seems that we realize how much we truly love someone until it is too late. My grandfather was recently diagnosed with cancer, and although he lives 1,200 miles away from me, I wish I had visited him more or written more letters to him or made more phone calls to him just so he knows how much I care.  But I didn't, and I didn't think of making these connections until faced with the possibility that there might be a day when I cannot.  In the same way, Edward's life is continuously saved and threatened by people, and the more he loses, the more he is able to love, miss, and remember.
Edward Tulane is loved but not loving.
Photo courtesy of

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane includes all of the elements necessary in a quality novel for children and more.  Its ending it satisfying, and the story if brimming with action and imagination.  Its lessons of love are aplenty, and it can be intertwined with the study of character and setting and plot structure seamlessly.  While beginning this novel study, some of my students described Edward Tulane as "loving."  When I inquired further into this, they said, "Well, Abilene loves Edward, and look at the picture.  She is hugging him, so I know he is loving."  This conversation allowed us to go deeper into the text and piece together the author's clues to understand that, in the beginning, Edward is not loving.  He is loved, for sure, but he himself does not extend affection to others.  
Besides striking up thought-provoking conversations for young students, 
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is a novel 
that showcases the richest of language.

I mean, just think about the title!  And the name of the toy bunny - er, rabbit.  Edward Tulane. And the names of the characters: Abilene!  Pellegrina!  Amos!  Lawrence!  Nellie!  Lolly!  Not only does this novel take place years ago, it also feels as if it was written years ago.  Its vocabulary is complex, and while it's impossible to discuss every word and to decipher each meaning with context clues, there are always valuable words in each chapter to pull and decode with students, such as jaunty, ennui, unsavory, fashioned, and commissioned all within the first chapter.  While even five words might be a lot for one chapter, most of these can be easily configured with the clues, and some words, like jaunty, are repeated twice!  I also love when stories wrap around, when the beginning somehow ties in to, or connects with, the end.  While much happens to change Edward, he learns to love, and as Pellegrina hinted, the only stories that can end happy are those that end with love. 

It's difficult to serve justice to a book like The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  I actually just welcomed a baby bunny to my home this very afternoon, and I have been considering the name Edward to pay homage to the beloved bunny, er, I mean rabbit, that I read about.  If you would like to read about Edward, too, check out this book at your local library! 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Reading: The One and Only Ivan

"The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated." - Ghandi

"A righteous man regards the life of his animals." - Proverbs 12:10

"Whoever is kind to the creatures of God is kind to himself."  - Prophet of Islam

Animals speak in a universal language that humans do not often understand.  In the book The One and Only Ivan, Ivan the Silverback Gorilla chooses his words very carefully so as not to waste them to share his story.  Author Katherine Applegate has crafted one of the most heart-wrenching animal tales I have read and reminds me of the importance of teaching our children about advocating for those whose voices are not always heard: animals.  

In The One and Only Ivan, the gorilla Ivan has been kept in a "domain" at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade for 9,855 days.  He shares his space with a stray dog, Bob, and a wise, old elephant named Stella.  Mack, the owner of Big Top Mall, is feeling desperate with the current state of his business and brings a new baby elephant, Ruby, who was stolen from her family in the wilds of Africa.  Ivan begins to remember his own past when he looks at Ruby, who is chained to the floor for 23 hours a day in order to build her stamina so that she may balance in the circus show and make Mack some money, money, money!  But he isn't making enough, so he is forced to cut his budget and eliminates vital resources for his animals, including the care of a veterinarian.  When Stella gets an infection in her foot without the proper care, she makes Ivan promise that he will save Ruby by taking her to a zoo.  In The One and Only Ivan, the creatures consider the zoo paradise, and Ivan uses his artistic talent to advocate that Ruby go to the zoo.  With the help of the Big Top janitor and his daughter, his art is shared with the public, and Ivan is able to fulfill his promise and seek a better life for himself (and Bob, too).  

As Ivan tells his story, he speaks lowly of the humans that allow this business to happen, making me feel ashamed to be a member of this species!  Ruby shares that not all humans are bad; in fact, it was humans who saved her when she fell in a well. But it was also humans that kidnapped her from her family, and it was humans who kidnapped Ivan and his sister, Tag, when they were just babies.  Ivan's caretaker, Mack, seems to have a special bond with Ivan since he raised him like a child, letting Ivan ride around in his convertible with ice-cream wearing a baseball hat.  But he also kept Ivan isolated in a concrete box and he showed violent behavior toward Baby Ruby by hitting her with her a sharp claw when she was too tired to work.  His ignorance also resulted in the death of Stella, and the careless disposal of her body brought tears to my eyes.  Mack may care for Ivan in some way, which is evident by his sorrowful demeanor that he displays on his last evening with the gorilla, but he doesn't understand.  He doesn't understand the needs of wild animals and was simply capitalizing on their cuteness to make money.  Unfortunately, it was the public who supported his business by paying to see the cute animals, unaware of the misfortunes that they faced or of the needs that were absent in their lives.  
The One and Only Ivan is based on a gorilla
named Ivan, held captive in a Tacoma
mall for twenty-seven years. 

Courtesy of 

However, it is also the public that advocates for the release of Ivan and trains him to feel comfortable in a zoo setting.  With education of animals' needs, and empathy towards animals' feelings, people are able to work with animals in a way that does not deprive them of their needs.  Animals are more than just cute faces, and more and more, our society seems to becoming more accepting of this fact.  But there is still work to be done.  

Children need to be aware of the needs of animals at a young age so that they can develop habits that will not harm animals.  Many products sold in our country are still tested on animals, particularly products from the most popular and often cheapest companies.  I learned about animal testing in a research project that I completed for eighth grade, and ever since then, I have been haunted by products that do no bare a "Cruelty-Free" label on the back.  Had I not completed this project, I probably wouldn't be aware that some businesses still engage in this cruel practice.  I feel that in the small things that I do, such as buying cruelty-free products and volunteering at the animal shelter - a task I've done since junior high - I am making a difference and others can learn from these actions.  Children can make these same small decisions to make a big difference. Sharing The One and Only Ivan with children not only allows them to read an engaging story but also encourages them to be advocates for animals and to think about the difference between right and wrong.  The One and Only Ivan teaches empathy for animals, for the meek, for those who have no voice. 

It was humans that captured Ivan
and humans that sat him free.
Photo courtesy of
Interestingly, The One and Only Ivan was based on a true account of a gorilla that lived in isolation for twenty-seven years and was then released in the Atlanta Zoo, where he was allowed to thrive.  I was absolutely baffled by the story and relieved that Ivan was able to live his latter days in glory, though I wish he had never been subjected to isolation in the first place.  I was perplexed by how the animals in the story seemed to glorify zoos.  On the one hand, animals living in a zoo do not have to live in isolation.  But I do not think it is right to capture an animal in the wild so that it can live in a zoo, where it will not be able to develop independence and instinct and an ability to live in the wild on its own.  For animals being rescued or for animals that may be injured and have a slim chance of surviving in the wild, like Ivan and Ruby after their senseless capture, I feel that zoos are the best option.  I am curious to know if the animals in a zoo are there for these reasons or if they have been captured from their natural habitats.  The purpose of a zoo is to protect animals for human education, so I hypothesize that the animals in them are probably there because they would not be able to survive on their own.  But I want to do some follow-up research just for my own education.  
Ivan enjoys flowers in the Atlanta Zoo.
Courtesy of 

As an animal advocate, I love The One and Only Ivan.  I want to share it with my students to help them understand the importance of caring for our voiceless creatures.  I am thankful that author Katherine Patterson created such a wonderful story and gave the animals in it their voice.  To view more images of Ivan's life from baby gorilla to adult, visit the online archived pictures at Tacoma Public Library.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Reading: Eleanor and Park

Courtesy of
One of my earliest memories is sitting on a step at our gingerbread house on Webster Avenue listening to the joyful noise of U2 emitting from my dad's stereo.  It was the song "I Still Haven't Found what I'm Looking For," song number two on The Joshua Tree album, and it's remained one of my favorite songs since I was three years old!  Needless to say, I do appreciate most music from the 1980s, and when I discovered Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, a forbidden love story tangled with eighties music and given the Odyssey award in 2013, I was eager to read it! (Or in this case, listen to it.)  

Listening to an audiobook was a new experience for me because usually when I drive, I always always always listen to music, often from The Joshua Tree, as a matter of fact!  But with a pretty packed schedule, I can see how listening to a book on audio is convenient, though I prefer to hold a book in my hand and spend time mulling over the words to really grasp the story.  With this particular story, I still am grappling with some questions that I have about the characters and making connections from the beginning of the book to the end. 

It's the first day of school when Eleanor and Park meet at the back of the bus.  Park makes room for Eleanor on his seat, even though he can't help but notice that she is dressed strangely and has bright red curly hair, which the other students tease her about.  They soon bond over shared comic books and music and take their new friendship to a relationship.  Meanwhile, Eleanor has many secrets at home, including the fact that her step-father, Richie, is an abusive alcoholic who won't allow Eleanor to do anything.  In fact, Richie is one of the most deplorable characters I have ever read about - he's worse than an Ewell, actually.  I also felt angry with Eleanor's mother for allowing Eleanor and her four other children to live with Richie.  He didn't provide any safety, comfort, humor, love, compassion, fun, or financial stability for the family, so I just couldn't understand why she would allow the stepfather of her children to be so cruel.

Park, on the other hand, lives with his endearing family: his mother, an Avon lady from Korea, and his father, an ex-solider who seems to want Park to be more manly.  His parents are so in love and openly express their affection for each other.  Park loves music and wearing black and is a very heartfelt, sweet character. Yet, Eleanor constantly pushes him away, and even when he risks his own safety to save Eleanor's life, she insists that they just "stop."  Which is pretty much what they do.  I understand that Eleanor has lived an inconsistent life void of love and compassion and nurturing, but when she finally meets somebody who is caring, she insists on just making things "stop."  

So, I did get a little frustrated with the characters, but perhaps if I stood in their shoes, I would understand their rationale for feeling the way that they do and making the choices that they make.  Eleanor felt like she would be forever stuck in an unloving, unjust world wearing clothes that didn't fit her and showering behind a door made from a sheet, but she didn't seem keen on finding a way out until she absolutely had to.  She was portrayed as being a creative, smart individual, so I wonder why she and Park never even broached the topic of college or the future.  I suppose that just wasn't a part of her life; her life was so inconsistent and complicated that focusing that far ahead in the future was impossible.  Perhaps she didn't even know what there could be to focus on because she didn't know what dreams were possible to have.  I once read an essay in which a teacher explained that, yes, it's wonderful to encourage our students to dream.  But it's also important to keep in mind that not all of our students are aware of what they can dream about!  Some of my students might be living in situations similar to Eleanor, who admits that her goal is to "make it through the night."  This book allowed me to be more empathetic to those situations and also reminds me how important it is to teach my students to not only dream but to show them what there is to dream about.  Having just read Looking for Alaska, I am reminded of Alaska's words that people dream about the future to forget about the present.   In the case of Eleanor and her classmates, they fall in love to escape the present, as that seems better than everything else for them and thinking about the future is questionable and/or scary. 

Reading Eleanor and Park also reminded me of the famous forbidden love between Romeo and Juliet.  Except in this case, Park's family is wealthy in every sense of the word and welcomes Eleanor into their lives, while Eleanor's family is complicated and unloving and acts as if a girl having a boyfriend is illegal.  And nobody dies in this story, either.  But ultimately, Eleanor and Park do want to be together, but Eleanor's past experiences with love and her lack of self-confidence make their union a - well - complicated one.  Not to give away any spoilers, but there is a glimmer of hope in the last two paragraphs of the novel, which saved me from dire disappointment after reading.  Interestingly, Eleanor and Park actually talk about Romeo and Juliet on the bus one day, with Park claiming that its fame comes from the fact that it reminds readers what it feels like to be young and in love; Eleanor, on the other hand, says that it makes fun of love by making two wealthy teenagers fall head-over-heels in love in a matter of hours.   

Overall, the characters in Eleanor and Park are well-developed and offer me insight into a decade and home situation that I know very little about.  The book was engaging, and while I felt agitated with the characters from time to time, the end of the book leaves me feeling hopeful.  If you would like to learn more information about Eleanor and Park, visit the website, or check your local library to see if its available! 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Reading: Looking for Alaska

For the past couple of years, I have heard many things about acclaimed young adult author John Green but consciously refrained from reading his books.  Well, I just read Looking for Alaska, as it was assigned to me, and it served as a gentle reminder that sometimes jumping on the bandwagon is a good thing and that, sometimes, there's a reason the bandwagon exists in the first place.  When it comes to Looking for Alaska, the reason is simple: It's good.  Of course, there are many other reasons why this novel has been in print by Speak Publishing since 2005, and I am going to share the reasons why this book has been added to my list of favorite reads.  

Miles Halter has just moved to Alabama to attend Culver Creek Boarding School, where he hopes to stumble into the Great Perhaps.  He is obsessed with famous last words and quickly makes a good group of friends at the Creek, particularly his roommate, Colonel, and Alaska, a mysterious beauty that he, like everybody else, falls in love with.  Throughout the book, he and his friends engage in bouts of reckless behavior, thought-provoking conversations, school pranks, study sessions over plates of soggy french fries, and questions of mortality.  

After reading about Miles and his friends, I feel changed in a way - in a good way, or at least I feel like I have a few new friends that I would like to keep up. with  The friendship between the characters is magnetic; while they may not always get along perfectly, they always stand up for one another and show that they genuinely care.  For example, although his mother is poor, the Colonel invites Alaska and Miles to his humble home for Thanksgiving dinner, and when Miles get in trouble and has to go in front of the student jury, Alaska and the Colonel take the blame for him, as they feel that he has more to lose than they do.   Their dialogue sounds familiar, like something you would overhear in any group of friends, though perhaps a bit more intellectually stimulating with the Colonel or Alaska leading the conversations.  While my friends and I were never reckless like the characters in this book (seriously, I think the most rebellious thing we ever did in high school was decorate lockers for birthday parties, which isn't really rebellious and actually quite festive), I felt that I could connect with these friends as they found comfort in each other's company.  Even sitting beside the Colonel on the old couch after tragedy strikes is a comfort to Miles; no words need to be exchanged.  

But when words are exchanged in this novel, boy, are they exchanged!  I enjoyed reading a young adult novel with stimulating vocabulary featuring kids who value knowledge.  Not all of the characters are represented as super-genuines, and I surely could relate to Miles who worked really hard to get that C+ in pre-calculus.  But in an age when individuals are often glued to their technological devices at the dinner table, it is refreshing to read a book in which the characters have real conversations and practical debates among themselves.  The end of the book made me hopeful, and the idea that forgiveness is the way out of the labyrinth is suffering is so thought-provoking; when I read it, I was deeply affected and had to pause to think about how forgiveness could have changed Alaska and did, eventually, change the Colonel and Miles - or at least grant them acceptance.  I don't want to go into too much detail so as to not to spoil the book, but I did feel that this thought, and so many others in the novel, are quite profound.  

Although it is a well-written novel with a diverse cast of characters, Looking for Alaska appears on many banned-book lists.  In a recent article that I read by John Green, he explains that he is not trying to corrupt any of his young readers.  On the contrary, I think he provides relatable, stimulating material for them to read.  The content of his books is familiar to many teens, and the message between the lines is so powerful that I would hate for kids to miss out on it!  Of course, parents are entitled to monitor what entertainment their students consume, and as an elementary teacher, I can't help but wish more families would monitor the time children spend playing videos, as well as the type of games that they play.  But I think that it is important to highlight the lessons that can learned from a book such as Looking for Alaska.   If a parent doesn't wish for his/her child to read the book, I think it's important to emphasize that individuals who do want to read the book are not "bad people," nor are they themselves corrupt.  

There are so many more words that I could write about this novel that I read it in the gym, while waiting at the DMV (which just so happened to have the shortest lines ever that day; I was so disappointed), and in the lobby of the William and Mary education building before class started.  (I may have left home intentionally early just to get a few more pages in.)  For the sake of not spoiling anything, I'll instead share a few last words:  After reading Looking for Alaska, I think I am a better person.  I can't ask for anything more from a book. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reading: Julie of the Wolves

Courtesy of
Julie of the Wolves, awarded the Newbery Medal in 1973, was one of those books that always caught my eye from the library shelves when I was growing up.  One time, I even checked it out and made it to about the sixth page before giving up and moving on to something else.  I was a strong reader, but I just couldn't connect with Julie of the Wolves.  With all of my failed attempts at reading it, I decided to give it one more go.  Surely, as a twenty-six year old, I would be able to successfully finish reading this prized novel by author Jean Craighead George and published by Harper Trophy Books.  And I did!  While I certainly became engrossed in the novel and in the struggle that Miyax endured in the Arctic tundra and with her family, and while the wolves in the story took up a large space in my heart, I still found myself struggling to enjoy the writing and had a difficult time maintaining focus on the text.  

The story of Julie of the Wolves is quite compelling.  Miyax is raised in an Eskimo village, and when her mother dies, her father, Kapugen, takes her to a seal camp.  The two live happily observing "traditional" Eskimo ways and living according to nature. One day, Miyax's Aunt Martha goes to the seal camp with a letter stating that Miyax must go to school where she is known as "Julie." Kapugen tells his daughter that she must live with her Aunt Martha in a more Americanized village.  At first, she struggles to assimilate into her new school but eventually makes new friends.  She has a pen pal named Amy in San Francisco that she desires to meet; Amy, she says, is "daylight." When she is 13, she is arranged to marry a boy named Daniel, who appears to have some sort of mental disability.  After he forcefully tries to "mate" with her, she runs away and lives on the Arctic tundra with a pack of wolves.  After observing the wolves, she learns how to communicate with them and how to live as a member of the pack.  

Besides telling a story, Julie of the Wolves is a commentary about the decline in traditional Eskimo culture.  American culture is greatly disregarded by Miyax, who shuns things such as "frozen dinners" and electricity.  The decline in traditional Eskimo culture also created an increase in killing animals for sport, including the lead wolf of Miyax's pack, Amaroq, in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the book.  The Eskimo culture is completely unfamiliar to me, so I appreciated having the opportunity to read about it.  There is also so much more that I want to know after reading this book.  I wonder how Eskimos live today and how the majority of their lives have changed due to Americanization?  And has that change been by choice, or was it forced upon the Eskimos?  Further, are there any Eskimo tribes that are traditional in the same sense that Miyax was?  Julie of the Wolves seems to paint a true portrait of Eskimo life and was written by an authority on the subject who studied and researched animal behavior extensively.  It leaves me wanting to know more, and as I have stated in previous posts, I feel an author that leaves its readers thirsty for more knowledge has created something special.  

However, as I mentioned before, there were times when I struggled to focus on the content of the book.  Unfamiliar names and places often crept up, and at times, I felt like I was reading a research paper instead of a realistic fiction novel for children.  It's commendable to educate even through fiction, but I felt that many of the facts were isolated against the rest of the text and didn't fit seamlessly with the story.  Further, many of Miyax's actions were written about in detail, such as creating new boots or cooking caribou stew.  I got bogged down in some of the details and a little bit bored, admittedly.  But those details didn't take away from the greater message that I abstracted from this book. 

Julie of the Wolves was written for children ages ten and up.  As a third grade teacher, I wouldn't read this book to my students, as it would be beyond most of their comprehension levels.  While the incident between Julie and her husband, Daniel, is briefly mentioned, I would not feel comfortable reading this to my students. Interestingly, this short paragraph has caused Julie of the Wolves to be banned from many libraries and schools.  This incident is more violent than anything else and provides the rationale for Julie leaving her husband.  The author states that she feels honored to be on a list of banned books with other great reads and that she used this incident to show how motivated and independent Julie is, just like the wolves she lives with.  It is her independent spirit and intelligence that make Julie a role model for impressionable readers.  

Still, for older students, Julie of the Wolves is a great book to use across the curriculum with a study of ecosystems, particularly the arctic tundra, or about food chains.  This book also teaches the lesson that there is not always going to be a happy ending; Miyax has many struggles to face in her personal life outside of the wolf pack, and I feel that she relates to the wolves more than the people in the story.  I was disappointed with the ending, as it certainly did not make me feel good!  I would have really liked for Julie to make it to San Francisco to visit her friend Amy and learn that not all Americans are bad.  But the ending of the novel allowed the author to make her message more prominent.  

After reading this novel, I feel slightly more understanding of Eskimo culture and of the behaviors seen in a wolf pack.  But I still have a lot more to learn!  I am also interested in reading the sequel, Julie. If you would like to learn more about either of these, you can check out Julie of the Wolves at your local library!  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Reading: Dear Mr. Henshaw

Courtesy of
Published in 1983 by Avon Camelot books, Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary is a timeless novel about a young boy named Leigh who finds solace in writing to his favorite author.  His parents have just divorced, and Leigh hasn't made any friends at school.  As if that's not bad enough, somebody keeps stealing the best things out of his lunchbox, and his father never calls when he says he will.  At first, Leigh writes to Mr. Henshaw as a fan and then later writes for a school project.  Eventually, he confides to Mr. Henshaw that he wants to grow up to be a famous author, and Mr. Henshaw offers him the best advice: Write.

Told in letters and diary entries, Dear Mr. Henshaw is a relatable read for older elementary students, as many children have divorced parents themselves or know of somebody whose parents are divorced.  It is not an easy adjustment for Leigh to make, and at times, he feels frustrated with both of his parents.  But he does find that writing in his diary, and writing in general, helps him to sort out his feelings.  Sometimes, he is angry and doesn't understand why his parents just can't get back together.  Sometimes, he is jealous.  Who is the little boy that he overhears talking to his father while on the phone, something about pizza?  How dare his father be irresponsible and lose his dog, Bandit, while stuck in the snowy Sierra Mountains!  By writing to Mr. Henshaw and by memorializing one of his favorite moments with his father and his eighteen-wheeler delivering grapes to a winery, Leigh is able to accept his parents' divorce and becomes a pretty good writer, too.  Later, he becomes more sympathetic for his mother, realizing that she works and studies hard just to pay the rent.  He is thankful that his father comes to visit and that his father truly does miss him; even if it does make him feel a little better, he still feels really sad.

And that's that; the book ends with Leigh feeling sad, the illustration making him appear even sadder than I had imagined from the words.  Awarded the Newbery Medal in 1984, Dear Mr. Henshaw is appealing to young readers for its subject matter and voice.  It is told from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy and is a very quick read. Besides connecting to readers and showing them that they are not alone, Leigh also shares the importance of working towards a goal (in his case, becoming a famous writer) and acknowledges that it cannot be obtained overnight but can come to fruition by taking steps at a time.  As a famous writer tells him, his writing will get better when he has more experiences.  Leigh is certainly poised to have meaningful experiences, as well, since his character shows initiative and intelligence.  To curtail any more students from stealing from his lunchbox, Leigh goes to the library to learn how to configure a lunchbox alarm.  After creating a workable alarm, he becomes a rather popular student at school, at least for a little while, and makes a solid friend named Barry, who actually appreciates Leigh's quiet home life away from pesky sisters.  Leigh Botts is a memorable character and, in my opinion, a well-rounded role model for the initiative, work ethic, and positivity that he displays!  

Even twenty years after its initial publication, Dear Mr. Henshaw remains in print for a new generation of students to read, enjoy, connect with, and learn from.  Perhaps many of these students have even been inspired to write to their favorite authors!  For a thorough list of Beverly Cleary's other relatable books, check out her interactive website. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Reading: The Year of Billy Miller

Courtesy of
Recently awarded a Newbery Honor, The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes has been a must-read on my list, as I have always loved the mouse stories and picture books written by Kevin since I was an elementary student.  The Year of Billy Miller is a well-written story about Billy Miller and his year in second grade.  Interestingly, most second-graders would probably be able to relate to the adventures he has throughout the book.  Billy's year is composed of moments, and I appreciate how Kevin takes these simple moments and turns them into chapters; it's the little moments of my own childhood that I look upon so fondly, and I feel that Kevin is enveloping Billy's special moments so he can open them at a later time and be happy to remember. 

The Year of Billy Miller is told in four parts: Teacher, Father, Sister, and Mother.  In each quarter, Kevin writes about a special bond that Billy develops with each person.  At the beginning of second grade, Billy worries that he has accidentally offended his teacher and decides to do something special for her so that she will know he's really a "nice kid."  In the early fall, Billy's father helps him and his best friend, Ned, build dioramas for science class, and Billy influences his father to create something new from found-objects, since his father is a struggling artist.  During the winter, Billy pledges to stay awake all night long and can't do it without the help of his sister, whom he realizes he really does love after all.  And at the end of the school year, Billy decides to honor his mother with a poem at the end-of-the-year assembly and is determined to memorize it, unlike the other children in his class. Each section includes a small problem and solution, as Billy grows in his own character and develops a closer bond with his family.  Throughout the book, Billy mentions a girl named Emily that he has to sit by in second grade, and this is the only problem in the book that is not resolved.  I almost wonder if Kevin is planning a series about Billy? 

Billy does not do anything to make him a stand-our hero, but he stays true to himself and tries to navigate second grade as best as he can.  Because of his relatability, children will love  reading about Billy.  The book itself has over 200 pages, but it is double-spaced and includes small illustrations by Kevin throughout the book.  It is a manageable read for second and third graders, and they are sure to feel triumphant after completing such a lengthy book.  The Year of Billy Miller is also a wonderfully-written book with some challenging vocabulary and a variety of rich synonyms.  For example, when Billy's mama takes a bite of his papa's toast, the author writes, "Mama rushed about the kitchen, stealing a bite of Papa's toast and a gulp of his coffee."  If I were to use this novel in my classroom as a read-aloud, I would certainly discuss the strong writing exhibited by Kevin, which is evident in all of his books.  

The Year of Billy Miller is an excellent novel for young readers and may make an excellent first chapter book that also represents solid writing.  A series of this book would certainly enlighten young readers, book after book, particularly boys.  For more information about this book, including more reviews and a teaching guide, visit Billy's official website! 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Reading: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Always be kinder than necessary.  -J.M. Barrie 

Courtesy of
Ten year old August Pullman is like any other ten-year-old; he likes eating ice-cream, and he has a dog named Daisy.  He has an older sister, and he is obsessed with Star Wars and playing his X-box.  He loves music, grilled cheese sandwiches, and chocolate milk.  But he also makes people stop, stare, and gasp.  Born with a rare craniofacial deformity, August has endured many surgeries and was unable to attend school.  When fifth grade begins, his parents suggest enrolling him in Beecher Prep Academy.  At BCA, August befriends a boy named Jack Will and a sweet girl named Summer.  Life in fifth grade isn't always easy for him, as he has to endure bullying from Julian, the most "popular" boy in the fifth grade.  When he takes an overnight camping trip with his fifth grade class and ventures into the woods with Jack for a short bathroom break, he and Jack encounter a group of seventh grade bullies and are rescued by Amos and Miles, making August feel like an emperor surrounded by guards.  In a world where test-scores are often emphasized in public schools to teachers and students alike, and where books that offer sheer entertainment while capitalizing on stereotypes often dominate, it is refreshing to read a book that inspires readers to do something: Be kind.  

As I read Wonder, I experienced a wide range of emotions.  I felt hopeful for August when he began school and made a new friend in Jack Will and Summer.  I felt anxious for him as he sat alone in the cafeteria, wondering who would sit with him at lunch, and as he waited for the empty seats surrounding him in homeroom to fill.  These scenarios are stressful enough for the average fifth grader, and with people pointing and whispering, August demonstrated the utmost courage.  When August comes to school as the "Bloody Scream" on Halloween and hears Jack Will speaking unkindly about him, he rushes to the bathroom in tears and stays there until he can go to the nurse's office and call home.   August says this made his heart sank to his sandals, and it caused my heart to sink to my feet.  I felt betrayed by Jack Will, just as August did.  When Summer felt uncomfortable at Savannah's birthday party with Julian in attendance and called her mother to pick her up, I admired her for doing what was right.  When the other boys in fifth grade decided to ignore Julian and stick up for August, I felt victorious!  And when August went on stage during fifth grade graduation to accept the prestigious Henry Ward Beecher medal for courage, I truly began to cry and could imagine the excitement his family must have felt. 

Wonder encourages readers to "choose kind."
Courtesy of
Readers of Wonder will certainly feel this same range of emotions and reflect on how they demonstrate kindness to others and what they can do to create more kindness in this world. I know that I certainly thought about ways in which I share kindness in my own life and what I can do to be "kinder than necessary."  It also causes me to reflect on how I discuss kindness in my own classroom.  Before I became a teacher, I knew that I wanted to emphasize kindness and character-building in my curriculum.  While I know that these skills can be easily embedded into the curriculum, especially with interactive read-alouds, I feel that I have not emphasized them as much as I would like to, nor have the districts in which I have worked particularly emphasized them either with a push for academically-based activities at all times of the day.  Wonder illustrates how some children do need character education, as they do not receive this at home.  For example, Julian's reaction towards August was certainly influenced by his parents, who believed that August should not attend Beecher Prep because it was not an inclusion school.  On the other hand, Jack Will's mother encouraged him to befriend August, and Jack Will did!  And even though he spoke negatively about August on that fateful Halloween, we later learn that he wasn't being himself and truly missed August's friendship.  I would love to share this story with my third graders for the direct lessons that it teaches about kindness (though there are certain sentences here or there I would need to omit, as they are more "middle-school" and I don't want anybody to get mad at me).  August is a relatable boy to all of them; he just looks different.  I believe that Wonder would inspire them all to share kindness with one another and with the people in their school and community.  After reading it, we could brainstorm ways to share that kindness, and each child could choose a specific task in which to engage.  From my observations, children love being kind but may not always know how.  Like August points out, they don't always know when they're being mean or hurting somebody's feelings.  It is important to teach them these things, and a book like Wonder does an exemplary job of teaching kindness without being "preachy."  

Along with kindness, another common theme that I saw embedded throughout Wonder is that of starting over.  Even at the end of the book, Julian's precept is that, "Sometimes, it is good to start over."  Perhaps this is hinting to the fact that he wants to start over with August and not be a bully to him?  Perhaps it just means that he recognizes that starting a new boarding school will be good for him, as he has harmed his reputation by being cruel to August and Jack.   August and Jack rebuild their friendship in the midst of the book.  Olivia and Miranda restart their friendship after going through misunderstandings.  After the death of beloved dog Daisy, the Pullman family adopts a new puppy they call Bear.  I feel that this a call to readers that it is never too late to be kind.  If a wedge has been driven between a friendship, or if unkindness has been shown to another person, there is always time to turn around, fix it, and be kind.  

While I enjoyed reading Wonder and feel that it teaches a timeless lesson, I couldn't help but notice the way "good looks" are still discussed in the book.  I mean, I understand that the book wouldn't have been written if there wasn't such a focus on appearance in our society.  The reason August is bullied is because of his appearance.   However, there are times throughout the book when Jack Will calls Olivia and Summer "hot," a term used by most middle-schoolers, I'm sure.  And then there's an emphasis on August's handsome father and beautiful mother, and Miranda and Olivia both recount which of their friends is the prettiest.  I feel that Wonder is showing how appearance shouldn't matter; in the end of the book, nobody seemed to care what August looked like and had the same attitude towards him as his dog, Daisy.  Yet, even at the end of the book, being "hot" is deemed as a good thing.  I know that that's how it is in reality, but I feel like those small snippets could have been omitted to help emphasize the message that it doesn't matter what a person looks like because he/she could be really cool no matter what!  

Interestingly, author R.J. Palacio was inspired to write Wonder after an incident at an ice-cream shop with her young sons that was identical to the incident that occurred between Jack Will with his baby-sitter and young August.  Inspiration is all around, and Palacio chose to take a moment in which she was unhappy with her decision and turn it around by transforming it into a best-selling book about kindness.  I think she would agree that it is never too late to start over. For more information about Palacio, the book, or teaching resources, check out R.J. Palacio's website!