It’s likely that only writing teachers are looking for a book about voice, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that Antony Browne’s Voices in the Park (DK Publishing, $8.99) is only of interest to writing instructors. However, the notion of voice and perspective is precisely what makes this book so interesting. Upon first reading, Voices in the Park, might be a bit perplexing. It contains four characters (Charlie and his mum, and Smudge and her dad), who take their dogs for a walk. Each character tells a short story about that afternoon in the park. Readers might feel like each story is a bit truncated; they might want to know more. They might be confused or even disappointed. That’s why you have to pay attention to all of the other ‘stuff’ that’s happening in Browne’s book. You have to start thinking about voices. What it means to have a voice. How voices can be different. And how an afternoon in the park can mean very different things to different people. It is the connections between the stories that make this book so interesting. It’s also the inconsistencies. Mum barely sees Smudge. Charlie doesn’t register Dad. Dad doesn’t notice anyone. Smudge sees each of them, including a very alarming version of Mum. No one character sees the whole picture and no story is right or wrong. This emphasis on perspective, in addition to voice, instructs readers to look harder. Those that do — the ones that move through this story slowly and carefully — will be rewarded with all kinds of visual entertainments. Pay close attention to the fonts. Look at the leaves and the trees. Think about the significance of that hat shape. Try to find as many references to children’s literature as possible (Mary Poppins and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are probably the most obvious). This picture book isn’t for young readers. I read this book with three groups of 5 year olds. All of them loved the whimsical illustrations, but only one of them actually understood what was going on. Instead, read Voices in the Park with kids ages 6 and up, even if they are already reading on their own. And be sure you make time to talk about it, because this book doesn’t just showcase voices, it will help your reader find theirs.
At Winter Institute, I had the pleasure of meeting Linda Urban, author of A Crooked Kind of Perfect. She is currently promoting her latest book, The Center of Everything (HMH, $15.99). I had sent a copy of A Crooked Kind of Perfect to my godbaby for her 9th birthday and she love it, so I asked Linda to sign a copy for her. That was weeks ago and I just got around to mailing it off today, because of course I wanted to read it first. Ruby, age 12, is also the Essay Girl for her town’s local parade, which celebrates Captain Bunning, the town founder and inventor of the donut hole (not really). Thanks to a rather complicated local tradition (successfully toss a quarter dated with the year of your birth through the outstretched hands of the founder’s statue on your birthday after repeating your wish 90 times), Ruby has earned herself a Bunning Day wish. Ruby’s grandmother, Gigi, has recently passed away, and Ruby wants something that can only come from a wish. But wishes are funny things and often have rules and guidelines just tricky enough to allude even the most accomplished wisher. Ruby’s wish — the one she wished on her birthday, and all the wishes she hasn’t dared to wish in case she jeopardizes her hard-won birthday wish — flits through the narrative. Her wish dances around her, carefully nudging her along, so that by the time she realizes her wish isn’t going to be granted, she’s found everything that she didn’t know to wish for.
Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang (Harper Trophy, $5.99) is a personal and store favorite. First published in 1983, the book won a Caldecott Honor award. It is the story of a girl and her father counting down to bed time. Each item counted is described in soothing words, starting with “10 small toes all washed and warm” down to “1 big girl all ready for bed”. The various items counted — toes, friends, windows, shoes, buttons, eyes — will be familiar to your young reader and perhaps you can add your own counting game. However, this is a book to be read while snuggling and should be the last book read before bedtime. The illustrations each interlock. The first picture focuses on those ten toes and the second illustration shoes ten toes plus the “9 soft friends in a quiet room”. We notice that one of those friends is a cat, and in the following illustrations the cat walks under a crib, looks at the mobile above the crib, then settles behind the chair of the girl and her father, looking down at the girl’s five buttons, Her toes, which we started with, are conspicuously outside the picture frame, and the next image zooms in closer to “sleep eyes”. In the final three illustrations, the girl and her father revisit now familiar places in the room, the crib and the stuffed animals, until finally she lays in bed with her bear. The illustrations are colorful, but just subdued enough to the convey the fading light.
Ten, Nine, Eight is officially becoming a classic. I happen to know that that little girl now has two boys of her own. I suspect this bedtime book will be read for many generations to come.
I don’t always catch it, but it’s Kid’s Lit Blog Hop time again. See the participants and guidelines for participation here.
I discussed Mies van Hout’s Happy not long ago and am delighted that she has a second book now available in the US, entitled Friends (Lemniscaat, $17.95). This book utilizes a similar structure as Happy; the double-page spreads feature an illustration of two monsters and one word of text. The oil pastels on black paper once again create vibrant and engaging illustrations. The words in the text identify different aspects of friendship and there is an overarching narrative, which starts with “play” moves quickly to “bore” and then all the problems that can sometimes arise in friendships: tease, fight, cry. The monsters soon start to recognize the error of their ways and experience embarrassment and hope, eventually leading back to laugh, trust, and finally cuddle. Despite the seeming simplicity of the one-word text, the subtleties of this narrative might be beyond a younger child, although they will probably appreciate the fun illustrations. I would recommend this book for ages 4-6, when kids really start experiencing the highs and lows of friendship. You might even want to read it with middle-school kids, when they feel like they’ve been abandoned and need to remember that true friends come back.
The Seven Silly Eaters, by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Caldecott winner Marla Frazee, is one of my all-time favorite read alouds (HMH, $7.00). This book shouldn’t be read in any way but aloud.
Not so long ago, they say,
A mother lived—just like today.
Mrs. Peters was her name;
Her little boy was named the same.
Now Peter was a perfect son.
In every way—except for one.
Sure, sure. You get it. It rhymes. But, assuming you’re not going to make a tool of yourself in public, go back and read it out loud. Do you hear it? Can you feel the words tumbling off your tongue? The entire story is written in this alternating trochaic trimeter (reminiscent of Blake’s “The Tiger”) alternating with iambic tetrameter. The meter loops back and forth driving the narrative forward.
So what is Peter’s problem? He’s a picky eater. As are his subsequent siblings. Peter likes warm milk; his sister Lucy prefers pink lemonade, hand-squeezed. By the time Mrs. Peters makes applesauce for Jack, oatmeal for Mac, bread for Mary Lou, and eggs (poached and fried) for the twins Flo and Fran, she is exhausted. For her birthday, the group of persnickety foodies decide to make their own individual dishes of choice for their lovely mother. The results are a catastrophe. Until, they discover something very peculiar about their collective eating habits.
The Wheel on the School, by Meindert DeJong and pictures by Maurice Sendak, is one of those books that I ignored for a long time (HarperTrophy, $6.95). It looks a little dated. I thought it was a strange title. I simply wasn’t interested. But every once in a while I go on a Newbery kick and try to read award winners from various decades, just to see. So far I have never been disappointed with a Newbery book. Isn’t that funny? There are so many issues that go along with the reward and I know how political it can be, but through it all, those librarians always manage to choose really good books! I love it. The Wheel on the School is about . . . well? . . . what it is about? Storks, I guess. I could try to describe the plot line, but I don’t think I could convince you that it was worth reading. Instead, I’ll say it’s about one child sparking a chain of events that eventually empowers an entire community to work towards a common goal. It’s about how little things can have a huge impact. It’s about never underestimating the residual effect of curiosity.
In the town of Shora, Netherlands, Lina wants to know why there are no storks in her village. Her teacher, probably one of my favorite teachers in children’s literature, asks the class to all think about what would happen if they started to think about storks. Eelka wants to know how anyone in the class can possibly think about storks if they don’t actually know anything about storks? Storks don’t come to their town, remember? To which the teacher replies: “True, true . . . We can’t think much when we don’t know much. But we can wonder! From now until tomorrow morning when you come to school again, will you do that? Will you wonder why and wonder why? Will you wonder why storks don’t come to Shora to build their nests on the roofs, the way they do in all the villages around? For sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen”. For a rather quiet book about storks, The Wheel on the School has a lot to say. Give it to a kid who is wondering. See what they create.
I got really excited when, after writing my last post, I noticed that my *next* post would be my 100th! woot! “What to write about?” I asked myself. I wanted to make it a good one and got so caught up in the milestone of it all, that I just couldn’t decide. I finally concluded that today’s post (the 100th I’ve written) should specifically be about promoting literacy, since that’s what this whole blog is about. In this case, I am using literacy in its broadest sense. Sure literacy means reading words, typed out, (usually) black marks on a (usually) white page. But to me, literacy is far more than reading words. It also includes reading images, situations, and even people. Literacy is about finding the connections, the meaning, the story, and sometimes the story behind the story. When people come in looking for books to teach their children to read, I recommend Rosie’s Walk and Handa’s Surprise. If you know these two books you might be surprised, since both of these books are picture books. Nevertheless, I think they are perfect for emerging readers because they teach literacy.
Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Brown (Candlewick, $3.99) tells a very straight-forward story of Handa, who puts seven delicious fruits in a basket for her friend Akeyo. As Handa walks to Akeyo’s village, with the basket of fruit on her head, she debates to herself which of the fruits Akeyo will like best: “Will she like the soft yellow banana . . . “. Unbeknownst to Handa, as she thinks about each fruit, various animals help themselves to the fruit in question. Just as Handa is thinking about the banana, a monkey up in a tree, lifts it out of her basket. Handa, lost in her own thoughts, is not aware of these events, but the reader/viewer is. Herein is the crux of why I recommend this particular book. Readers can practice sounding out unfamiliar words such as Akeyo, guava, avocado, and will learn about letters and sounds. But they can also learn about how words don’t always tell the whole story. In addition to reading the words, readers will also have to read the pictures. What do the words say? What do the pictures say? And as they start to recognize the disjunct between the two, they will also learn a little something about perspective. What does Handa know? What does the reader know? This book is ripe (forgive me) for conversation. It encourages conversation, debates, and long discussions. It is nuanced and multi-layered. It promotes literacy in all its forms. Plus the story is funny and the illustrations are excellent.
Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins (Aladdin, $6.99) functions in a very similar way. The text is one single sentence, broken up into various phrases. The text appears on every other page. In between, are wordless full-page illustrations that tell so much more than the text. I underestimated this book. I read it. I thought it was boring and that the illustrations were weird. Then I read it with a group of 5 year olds and I realized how wrong wrong wrong I was. The kids loved the illustrations. They loved the two parallel stories. They laughed out loud. We had such interesting discussions about what was happening in this book. They made up fascinating and insightful text for the wordless pages. They asked me to read it again. Because of that experience, I now rave about this book.
While writing this post (did I mention it’s my 100th?), I decided to look up the definition of literacy. I was curious if it actually did correspond to my usage. Definition 1 focuses on reading and writing, which are indeed the basics of literacy. Definition 2 mentions the possession of education and definition 3 addresses the concept of subject mastery. Handa’s Surprise and Rosie’s Walk encourage all three. They teach reading and writing. There is text to read, but there is also space to write more of the textual story. The books also engage with education via critical thinking. Readers must critically examine both the textual story and the visual story. Finally, readers who find the other story, the story between the textual and the visual or the story that combines the textual with the visual, will have develop mastery of reading. They will be truly literate.
Normally, I don’t post reviews on books that aren’t yet available, but I’m going to make an exception here. Yesterday, I discussed Book I in the His Fair Assassins series, Grave Mercy, which tells Ismae’s story. Dark Triumph, which is Book II, overlaps just a bit and we see part of Ismae’s story from Sybella’s point of view (HMH, $17.99). This is an ingenious writing strategy; I was hooked immediately and I enjoyed reading the same scene from two different perspectives. Fast friends, Sybella and Ismae were both novices at the convent of St. Mortain, where they trained as assassins and handmaidens of Death. Dark Triumph is Sybella’s story, and it becomes increasingly apparent that the third novel, Mortal Heart (due 2014), will focus on Annith, a third novice in the convent.
While there are several similarities between Ismae and Sybella — villainous fathers, questioning faith, and romances that develop during journeys across the country side — Sybella has a distinct voice. She is more worldly than Ismae and although Ismae’s body displays the scars of her past life, Sybella’s scars are all internal. As the name suggests, Dark Triumph is darker and in many ways more graphic than Grave Mercy. The subterfuge that Sybella must live is torturous to read about, because of the physical and emotional violence she endures. However, her strength, and eventually her understanding, are admirable. While each book contains its own story and does not end on a cliff hanger, the overarching story of politics, history, and the quest to protect the young duchess of Brittany insure that you will want to start with the first book first, and then will be as anxious as I am to read the final (?) installment. I do feel a certain foreboding, because this can’t end well. We all know what happens to Brittany and France, but I’m certainly starting to appreciate the independent spirit that persists in Brittany today. The series takes advantage of Brittany’s Celtic heritage and introduces a host of interesting old-world gods. Dark Triumph is further engaging because it contains strands of two fairy tales that are closely associated with France. “Blue Beard” was one of nine stories included in Charles Perrault’s 1697 collection, Contes du temps passé (generally known in English as the Tales of Mother Goose). The animal bridegroom story is a familiar motif that is woven throughout literature from the classical period, but appeared under the title “Beauty and the Beast” in a 1740 story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Vlilleneuve, who was one of the well-known circle of female writers of fairy tales in 18th century France. Although neither tale overshadows the innovative narrative that LaFevers has created, they demonstrate her engagement with Brittany’s mythology and folklore. Finally, there were a few minor plot points that were unnecessarily repeated from the first book. Nevertheless, I did develop an increasing respect for LaFevers’s writing in this second book. I rescind my apprehensive query about guilty pleasures. These books are good.
If you were looking for such a book there actually is a perfect one out there: soon to be two perfect books and eventually three. Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers is due in April and is the second book in the His Fair Assassin series. One of the HMH reps talked about it at Winter Institute and I was keen to read it even though I hadn’t read the first book. I read the first chapter of Dark Triumph with a sinking heart, because arg (!) I knew immediately I was going to have to go back and read, Grave Mercy, first (HMH, $9.99). While not necessarily a bad thing, I am on a mission to read through all the ARCs I picked up at Winter Institute. Instead, I’ve spent the past couple of days engrossed in LaFevers’s books and can barely get my brain to concentrate on anything else. These books are page-turners, to be sure. I’m still trying to decide if they are good or guilty-pleasure good. But who cares, because they are good and despite occasional anachronisms LaFevers, has clearly done her research, which I always respect.
In Grave Mercy, Ismae has lived a rather difficult life at the hand of her odious father, who tried to have her expelled from her mother’s womb. He resents that she lived in spite of his efforts. Fortunately this back story is summarized rather quickly and we can move on to the interesting part: when Ismae is transported to the convent of St. Mortain to train as an assassin. Again, LeFevers demonstrates her story telling acumen by giving enough information about Ismae’s time at the convent to provide a flavor of her training and introduce characters who become important in later books, but does not dwell too long on the details of Ismae’s education. Once again the story gets even more interesting when Ismae is sent out on her first assignment. Set in 15th century France, back before it was France, this series is filled with politics, old-world religion, intrigue, adventure, and not a little death. Ismae and the handmaidens of death are sworn to protect the young duchess of Brittany. From whom or what becomes complicated as even the duchess’s closest advisors have their own ideas about the best way to thwart the growing threat of a French invasion, and all the while another threat is already lurking inside the castle walls. Ismae is smart, interesting, and thoughtful. She is caring, but never weak. She is more than what the convent has trained her to be. She is Death’s true daughter.