"It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home."
-Lev Grossman, The Magician's Land

Friday, February 27, 2015

Take an Emotional Ride with Hidden

Frost, Helen. 2011. Hidden. New York: Frances Foster Books. ISBN 978-0-374-38221-6

Hidden is an emotionally charged novel in verse about two girls, Wren and Darra, and how their lives intersect at two dramatic points in time.  When Wren was eight years old, she was inadvertently kidnapped by Darra's father.  Unbeknownst to him, she was hiding in the back seat of her mother's car when he stole it.  For two terrifying days, Wren was trapped inside Darra's garage, hungry and thirsty and wondering if she was ever going to see her family again.  No one knew that she was even there, hiding inside a boat, except Darra.  When she finally manages to escape, a series of events unfolds that lead to Darra's father's arrest and subsequent incarceration.  Both girls are left emotionally scarred, and their lives will never be the same.

Now, six years later, Wren and Darra's lives converge once more.  They both, coincidentally, are sent to the same summer camp and end up sharing the same cabin.  The girls quickly recognize each other, but work hard to avoid any interaction or conversation regarding "what happened."  This doesn't last long, however, as they soon share an intense experience during a game of Drown Last.  A tentative friendship between Wren and Darra blossoms as a result.  Both girls realize they still have many questions about what happened all those years ago that only the other can answer.  As they grow closer, Wren and Darra are given some startling and unexpected news.  What the future holds is unclear, but they know they can face it together.   

Prior to Hidden, I had never read a verse novel before, and I wasn't sure what to expect.  I can tell you I wasn't expecting to be so emotionally affected.  Frost's story grabbed me instantly and didn't let me go until the last page.  I read this young adult novel in one sitting, completely riveted.  When I reached the end, I was sad that it was over.  I wanted to keep reading about these characters I had quickly grown to love.  I am actually jealous of other readers out there who have yet to read this beautiful novel; they still have the chance to experience it for the first time.

Frost's story unfolds by alternating between Wren's and Darra's points of view.  She uses a different poetic structure for each girl.  Wren's poems are written in free verse.  The reader is given her point of view during her entire "kidnapping," as well as her time at summer camp, six years later.  Darra's point of view gives the reader some backstory of her father's criminal activities as well as how her life is affected by her father's incarceration.  Additionally, we are given her point of view on how she experienced summer camp.

Darra's point of view is written in a structure Frost invented specifically for this book.  This innovative structure contains hidden messages that give the reader more insight into Darra's thoughts.  I found this to be truly brilliant.  The words at the end of the long lines form new sentences that tell the reader both about Darra's life when she was little and how she perceived the events that occurred six years ago.

The language Frost uses really brings this story to life.  The imagery was so vivid that I could almost feel the sand rubbing against Wren's face in the backseat of the car; I could almost smell the odor of cigarettes that clung to the gray sweatshirt.  When Wren heard Darra's and Stacey's voices for the first time in six years, I was feeling the same anxiety that she was.  Frost is truly a master of her craft.

Hidden is intended for readers ages 10 and older.  Therefore, this was one book I did not share with my much younger children.  I am, however, keeping it on a TBR list for when they get older.  In the meantime, I plan on immersing myself in Frost's other works.  She is a true gift to the world of children's literature.

2012 Lee Bennett Hopkins Children's Poetry Award Honor Book 

2012 ALA Notable Book

A Kirkus Reviews Best Children's Book of 2011

Sylvia Vardell's "Top 20 Children's Poetry Books of 2011"

From BOOKLIST - "Like Frost's Printz Honor Book, Keesha's House (2003), this novel in verse stands out through its deliberate use of form to illuminate emotions and cleverly hide secrets in the text."

From VOYA - "Many teen readers will identify with Wren and Darra and how events that happened to us when we were younger help shape the person we become."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "Frost's tale exhibits her trademark character development that probes the complexities of intimate relationships...Both tender and insightful, this well-crafted, fast paced tale should have wide teen appeal."     

Read other verse novels by Helen Frost.  Discuss similarities in form and which one students liked best.
  • Frost, Helen. Diamond Willow. ISBN 978-0312603830
  • Frost, Helen. Crossing Stones. ISBN 978-0374316532
  • Frost, Helen. The Braid. ISBN 978-0374300715
  • Frost, Helen. Keesha's House. ISBN 978-0312641276

Hidden is a fictional tale.  Have a discussion with your students about whether or not the events in this story could happen in real life.

Challenge your students to write a poem like the ones Frost used for Darra's point of view, where the last word of each line tells a "hidden" story.

Have your students write about which girl, Wren or Darra, they would like to be friends with and why.

Write a story that tells Wren's family's point of view.  What were they thinking when Wren disappeared?  What did they do?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Red Sings From Treetops - A Perfect Blend of Poetry and Colors

Sidman, Joyce. 2009. Red Sings From Treetops: A Year in Colors. Ill. by Pamela Zagarenski.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. ISBN 978-0-547-01494-4

Joyce Sidman's Red Sings From Treetops is a beautiful collection of poems about the colors that can be found all around us in each season.  Beginning with spring, Sidman vividly portrays each season through the variety of colors that can be found in nature.  She focuses on simple things, such as leaves, birds, and shadows, and really brings them to life.  Her poems concentrate on the beauty that each season brings.  This leaves the reader emotionally impacted, with a feeling of happiness and a greater appreciation for things that can easily be taken for granted.

I found this compilation to be an excellent example of quality poetry.  Sidman's use of personification makes each color appear to be alive and capable of human action.  Instead of simply saying that yellow and purple flowers bloom in spring, she says, "In spring, Yellow and Purple hold hands.  They beam at each other with bright velvet faces."  Another example of her clever use of personification is this description of fall.  "In fall, Green is tired, dusty, crisp around the edges.  Green sighs with relief: I've ruled for so long.  Time for Brown to take over."  This brilliant use of language helps paint vivid images in the mind of the reader.

The rhythm of Sidman's poems is as natural as the seasons she's writing about.  The verses flow seamlessly into each other.  She incorporates rhyming into some segments, but only where its use can have the most impact and not seem forced.  "Green trills from trees, clings to Pup's knees, covers all with leaves, leaves, leaves!"  This description of summer paints a delightful picture of lush green grass filled with dense trees and a playful puppy.  

As seasons come full circle, so does Sidman's poetry book.  She cleverly begins and ends her book with the same simile.  In spring, "Red sings from treetops: cheer-cheer-cheer, each note dropping like a cherry into my ear."  As the book concludes, winter is coming to an end, and Red is back.  It "begins to sing: and each note drops like a cherry in my ear."  The implication is that, of course, the colors that disappear will surely be back with the dawn of a new season.    

Pamela Zagarenski's illustrations will engage your eyes as much as Sidman's words engage your heart.  Her paintings have a textured look to them, as if you could touch them and actually feel it.  They are also full of incredible details.  The same character and puppy appear in every scene, always wearing a paper crown.  My daughter was quick to point out that sometimes they walked directly on the ground, while other times they had wheels on their feet.  Some paintings have what looks like newspaper embedded in them.  Others have the name of the season spelled out over and over, on the character's scarf or shirt collar.  In any case, Zagarenski's illustrations will grab you and encourage you to take a second or third look.  

I found this book to be truly magical.  When I first shared with my six year old daughter that we would be reading a poetry book together, she wrinkled her nose and told me she didn't like poetry.  The more we read, however, the more engaged she became.  She wanted me to pause after every page so she could really examine all the details in the illustrations.  When I finished the last page, she asked me if she could keep the book in her room so she could read it again before bed.  In short, this book single-handedly changed my daughter's perception of poetry.  And if that isn't magic, I don't know what is.  

2010 Caldecott Honor Book

2010 Claudia Lewis Poetry Award

2009 Cybil Award for Poetry

Booklist Editor's Choice

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "A charming inspiration to notice colors and correlate emotions."

From BOOKLIST, starred review - "As the title implies, the colors that surprise on every page, do sing."

From HORN BOOK, starred review - "Sustaining the playfulness of the text and its sense of awe, mystery, and beauty, the illustrations contribute gracefully to the celebration."

Read other poetry books by Joyce Sidman with your class.  Discuss what the students like and dislike about the poems and which poetry book is their favorite.
  • Sidman, Joyce. Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold. ISBN 978-0547906508
  • Sidman, Joyce. Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night. ISBN 978-0547152288 

Have students write about their favorite season.  Have them share why that season is their favorite and what kinds of activities they like to do during that season.

Ask your students to share with you their favorite colors.  Make a class bar graph showing the different colors and how many students chose each one.

Have your students choose a color and then brainstorm a list of things that are that color.  Next, they can use their ideas to write a List Poem, using descriptive words and imagery.

Take your students on a nature walk.  Have them write a poem about the objects and colors that they see.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mirror Mirror - Fairy Tales Like You've Never Seen Them

Singer, Marilyn. 2010. Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reverso Poems. Ill. by Josee Masse. New York: Dutton Children's Books. ISBN 978-0-525-47901-7

Marilyn Singer's Mirror Mirror is a delightful collection of poems about many traditional fairy tales we know and love.  However, these are not your average poems.  Singer has written poems that can be read both forward and backward, each way telling the fairy tale from the perspective of one of its characters.  In "In the Hood," for example, the poem is first told from the perspective of Little Red Riding Hood.  When read backwards, however, the poem's meaning changes to convey the tale through they eyes of the wolf.  There are 14 poems altogether, including an introductory one that offers an explanation to the reader of how to make sense of the poems in this book, and a concluding poem that encourages the reader to keep thinking long after the book has been closed.     

This was my first experience with Marilyn Singer, and I am blown away by her poems.  Her talent is remarkable.  She is able to manipulate language so that each line is vivid and meaningful when read both forwards and backwards.  There are only a few words on each line, sometimes as few as one, which serves to create a short, staccato rhythm.  The poems are free verse and give the reader a glimpse into the minds of different and/or opposing characters in each fairy tale.  Each page of text is literally divided down the middle.  The two poems are presented in different font colors and different backgrounds colors, as well.  This furthers the opposing nature of their meanings.    

Singer embeds humor in many of these reverse poems.  "The Sleeping Beauty and the Wide-Awake Prince," for example, tells us how upset Sleeping Beauty is that she has to sleep, while the prince is out in the world, doing all the work and having all the fun.  The prince, however, is unhappy with his lot in life, as he has been tasked with all of the work and never gets to sleep.  Neither character is happy to be in a fairy tale.  This pair of poems certainly brings a smile to the face of the reader.

In other poems, Singer causes the reader to sigh at the beauty of the language and the stories that are portrayed.  For example, the sweet poems in "Longing For Beauty" tell how Beauty and the Beast fell in love with each other.  The imagery is powerful and leaves the reader with a happy, contented feeling.

Singer's prolific poetry is beautifully complemented by Josee Masse's illustrations.  Her bright, colorful paintings bring the dichotomy of the poems to life.  In "Full of Beans," we see Jack beginning his ascent of the beanstalk, his face filled with hope and wonder at what he might find at the top.  We also see the giant, angrily looking down from the clouds, waiting to do something nefarious to Jack when he reaches the top.  The illustrations are so vivid that they grab the attention of the reader with every turn of the page.      

Mirror Mirror is likely to appeal to a broad range of children.  The theme of fairy tales and the beautiful illustrations are perfect to gain the interest of young readers .  The duality of the poems and the different viewpoints they offer will give older readers a new perspective on the traditional tales they've known since they were small.  My six year old daughter, falling into the former category, was enchanted by the paintings.  She loved going through the book and guessing which fairy tale each pair of poems were about, based on the illustrations.  I think she was too young, however, to fully appreciate the impact of the poems.  As she gets older, we can revisit this book, and she will gleam something new from it each time.  

2010 Cybil Award for Poetry

2012 Land of Enchantment Picture Book Award

Publishers Weekly's Best Children's Books of 2010

New York Public Library's 2010 Best 100 Children's Books

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "This appealing collection based on fairy tales is a marvel to  read.  It is particularly noteworthy because the poems are read in two ways: up and down.  They are reverse images of themselves and work equally well in both directions...The vibrant artwork is painterly yet unfussy and offers hints to the characters that are narrating the poems."

From BOOKLIST - "This ingenious book of reversos, or poems which have one meaning when read down the page and perhaps an altogether different meaning when read up the page, toys with and reinvents oh-so-familiar stories and characters, from Cinderella to the Ugly Duckling.  Matching the cleverness of the text, Masse's deep-hued paintings create split images that reflect the twisted meaning of the irreverently witty poems and brilliantly employ artistic elements of form and shape."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "A mesmerizing and seamless celebration of language, imagery and perspective."

Read Singer's subsequent book of reverso poems, entitled Follow Follow.  Discuss which pairs of poems the students liked best.
  • Singer, Marilyn. Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems. ISBN 978-0803737693

Read the last page in the book, "About the Reverso," to your students.  Challenge them to write their own reverso poems about topics of their choosing.

Have students choose one of the sets of poems from the book.  Giving them only a copy of the text, have them create their own illustration for it.

Discuss the elements of presentation in this book and how they are critical for its success - font choice, page layout, color choices, connections between text and illustrations.

Discuss the literary concept of point of view.  How can the meaning of a story change based on the point of view of the narrator?  Follow up by reading two different versions of The Three Little Pigs and discuss who's point of view they are told from and how that makes each story different.
  • Marshall, James. The Three Little Pigs. ISBN 0-590-45781-0
  • Scieszka, Jon. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! ISBN 0-590-44357-7

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Introducing Ella

Kasdan, Mallory. 2015. Ella. Ill. by Marcos Chin. New York: Viking. ISBN 9780670016754

Fans of Kay Thompson's Eloise will delight at this modern day version of her classic children's book. Ella, the titular character, is a precocious six year old who lives in the penthouse of The Local Hotel.  She spends her days having many adventures throughout the hotel and interacting with its multiple employees.  Ella has befriended the bell captains, Levi and Luis, the bouncer from the rooftop bar, Maverick, and the hotel's artist-in-residence, Topher.  Most of her time, however, is spent with her very hip nanny, Manny.  They sing songs together and have plans to start a band.  She also has a tutor named Judith who fosters her creative spirit.  In fact, Ella has her own online shop where she sells her artwork. 

When Ella finds herself on her own, her imagination keeps her very busy.  She spies on clients in the cafe, rides her scooter, and plays with her American Girl dolls.  Ella has the rare ability to find fun in any situation.  She can also be a bit mischievous, as one of her favorite things to do is steal the "Privacy Please!" signs from the doorknobs of the guests' rooms.  Despite the absence of her parents, Ella is very happy little girl who seems more than satisfied with her life at The Local Hotel.

First time author Mallory Kasdan has taken a familiar story and turned it into something that feels brand new.  While there are many similarities between this tale and the original Eloise, Kasdan has made it into something much more relatable to 21st century children and grownups, alike.  Pop culture takes center stage in this hipster version.  The men in the story wear skinny jeans and there are women in black leather riding boots.  Ella uses an iPad, texts on her cell phone, video chats with her mother on a laptop, and watches movies on a tablet.  She attends all the shows during Fashion Week and has been to a Hilary Clinton fundraiser.  Even the language Ella uses is representative of 2015.  She says, "OMG" and "chillax" and references bloggers, paparazzi, yoga, and her American Girl dolls.

It is worth noting that Kasdan also gives Ella some hobbies that are more simple and timeless that will surely appeal to all young readers.  Ella loves to draw, play with her pets, play pretend with her stuffed animals, and watch movies.  Kasdan also keeps to the original story in that it is told from the perspective of Ella, with her narration reading more like stream of consciousness rather than properly punctuated sentences.  This helps Ella's strong and endearing personality to shine through.

While this story may be categorized as a children's picture book, it contains plenty of humor for adults, as well.  Manny's desire to buy a grilled cheese truck, the screenplay Maverick is writing, and the debate of Scorsese versus Kubrick are just a few examples.  This serves to make this book appealing to both the child who is listening to it and the grownup who is reading it aloud.

Marcos Chin's illustrations give this book a real urban vibe and help bring this wonderful story to life.  Each character is portrayed wearing only the latest fashions, right down to their hairstyles and tattoos.  Many of them have looks of cool indifference on their faces, which is indicative of today's hipsters.  Ella is the only character who has been drawn as expressive, with a variety of emotions passing over her face.  It is easy to see when she is feeling happy, surprised, tired, and devious.  The style of Chin's drawings couldn't be more perfectly matched to Kasdan's text.

Given that we had just recently read Eloise, my children and I were very excited to read Ella.  I know that the 1955 book is widely considered a classic, but I found myself enjoying this version so much more.  I liked that Ella was not nearly as naughty as Eloise; she didn't kick or disrespect anyone.  I was drawn in more by Chin's full color illustrations compared to Hilary Knight's black and white ones.  My children related to the action and references in this story much more than they did to Eloise, and I found I was able to simply read and not have to stop and explain to them what was going on every few pages.  My four year old son especially enjoyed the part when Ella sticks edamame up her nose because that is one of his favorite foods.  My six year old daughter responded to this story by saying, "Eloise was naughtier than Ella, but Ella is funnier than Eloise.  It's funny when she makes fart noises with her mouth and then points to the best girl to show she's the one farting.  I like Ella better than Eloise.  I like it when the dog wakes her up with the leash and coat."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "Ella's mischief and cadence (and Kasdan's minimal punctuation) ring thrillingly familiar...Her self-descriptions are hilarious; the text winks with merry self-awareness...For hipsters of all ages."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "An entertaining spoof."

From TIME MAGAZINE - "What would Eloise at the Plaza do in modern-day New York?  Try yoga, join drum circles and visit food trucks.  For more on the 60 year old kiddie icon's hipster makeover, check out Ella."    

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Kasdan name checks urban standbys from edamame to Zumba, while fellow first-timer Chin's funny full-color vignettes of a multicultural downtown scene and a heedlessly energetic child are loving tributes to Hilary Knight's originals." 

Read Kay Thompson's Eloise and have students find similarities and differences between the two books.
  • Thompson, Kay. Eloise. ISBN 067122350X

Have students compare themselves to Ella.  What kinds of things does she like to do that they do, as well?  What is different about her life than theirs?

Ask your students if they've ever stayed in a hotel before.  What did they like about being at the hotel?  What didn't they like?

Bring in gold and silver glitter pens and have your students write in their journals with them, like Ella does in the story.

Ella is very artsy.  That is one of her special talents.  Ask your students to share what their special talents are.  Have them write about what they are best at.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Exciting News

I am thrilled to have been asked by a publicist from Tandem Literary to read and review a new book, Ella, on my blog.  This is a modern day version of the 1955 classic Eloise.  I will have this review posted soon!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Aloha From The Three Little Hawaiian Pigs and the Magic Shark

Laird, Donivee Martin. 1981. The Three Little Hawaiian Pigs and the Magic Shark. Ill. by Carol Jossem. Honolulu: Barnaby Books. ISBN 0-940350-19-X

This story is a Hawaiian variant of the traditional tale, The Three Little Pigs.  Set in Hawaii, the story begins as the mother and father pig send their three little pigs out into the world to become grownups.   Along the way, the pigs find various materials to use to build their houses, including pili grass, driftwood, and lava rock.  The first two pigs build their houses quickly, but the third pig takes his time to build a sturdy and safe house out of the lava rocks.

When the houses are completed, the three pigs go out to the ocean to fish and surf.  They catch the attention of the magic shark, who decides he would like to eat them.  The magic shark carefully plans out how he will go about accomplishing this goal.  He arrives at the first pig's house dressed as a shave ice man, but when the pig won't open the door, he blows down his house.  The first pig runs to the home of the second pig.  The magic shark then shows up at the second pig's house dressed as a beach boy.  Not fooled by this disguise, the pigs won't open the door, and once again the shark blows down the house.  The two pigs narrowly escape to their brother's house.

This time, the magic shark arrives dressed as a lei seller.  Again, the pigs won't let him into the house, so he attempts to blow it down.  However, being as it is made of lava rock, he is unable to do so.  He blows and he blows until he is all out of air and looks like a deflated balloon.  The pigs roll him up and throw him away at the dump.

The story ends with the pigs working together to build two more houses out of lava rocks.  They have a party and live happily ever after.

Donivee Martin Laird has created a culturally authentic story while staying true to the story pattern of its more traditional predecessor.  Instead of building their houses out of straw, sticks, and bricks, Laird incorporates materials that are native to Hawaii.  Their houses, of course, are built right on the beach.  The three pigs enjoy fishing and surfing, two popular Hawaiian activities.  Seeing as there are no wolves in Hawaii, Laird makes the antagonist a shark, who just so happens to have magical powers that allow him to walk on land.  He disguises himself as three different types of people who can be found on the islands.  When dressed as a beach boy, the shark even carries a ukulele.  A ukulele is an essential part of Hawaiian culture; it is associated with the hula, a traditional Hawaiian dance.  

Laird also has seamlessly woven into her story a plethora of Hawaiian words.  From the name the adult pigs call their children, to the names of the many creatures the pigs fish for in the ocean, the native language of Hawaii is found throughout the book.  What is especially helpful is the glossary she includes at the end.  This spells out the definition of each Hawaiian word, in case the reader was unable to glean its meaning from the context in which it was used.

The pattern of the traditional tale is still present in this Hawaiian variation, which makes it feel familiar to the reader.  The first two pigs choose flimsy materials with which to build their houses, while the third pig uses something strong and sturdy.  At each house, the shark says, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in," to which the pig replies, "Not by the hair on my chinny, chin, chin."  The evil shark "huffs and he puffs" and blows down the first two houses, but he is unable to blow down the third.  In the end, the shark is defeated, and the three pigs live happily ever after, thereby sending the reader the message that good will always triumph over evil.

Carol Jossem's colorful illustrations help bring this story to life.  They are very detailed and extend the influence of the Hawaiian culture; she draws indigenous plants and flowers, volcanoes, coconuts, and even pineapples.  The pigs have very simple expressions on their faces, either looking happy or scared.  This helps illustrate their simple, uncomplicated nature.  The magic shark has ferocious teeth and a devious glint in his eye.  His disguises are detailed and especially humorous.  The use of bright colors really grabs the attention of the reader.  

I am very familiar with this story, as I used it as part of a literacy unit focusing on different variations of The Three Little Pigs when I taught third grade.  I have always thought highly of this book and jumped at the chance to review it on my blog.  It was, however, a brand new book for my children, and I really enjoyed seeing their reactions to it as we read it together.  My six year old daughter especially liked the illustrations.  She said, "I liked the part when the magic shark pretended to be a lei seller because he wore LIPSTICK, and he's really a boy!"  My four year old son told me this book made him want to go to the beach and try surfing.

From a First Grade Teacher via AMAZON.COM - "This book was hilarious, and my first grade students absolutely loved it!  We used the book to compare and contrast the original fairy tale to this unique Hawaiian re-telling.  I can't describe to you the fun we had reading this story together.  It's a great addition to a teacher's collection of books dealing with Hawaii."

From the illustrator, Carol Jossem - "I am the illustrator of this book.  It is terrific in both storyline and ART.  It is a great way to introduce your children/classroom to the beauty and language of Hawaii."

Read the traditional James Marshall version of The Three Little Pigs, as well as other cultural variations of the story, with your class.  Discuss the differences and also what is similar across all versions.  Here are a few ideas:
  • Marshall, James. The Three Little Pigs. ISBN 0448422883
  • Lowell, Susan. The Three Little Javelinas. ISBN 0873585429
  • Kimmel, Eric A. The Three Little Tamales. ISBN 0761455191
  • Artell, Mike. Three Little Cajun Pigs. ISBN 0803728158
  • Brett, Jan. The 3 Little Dassies. ISBN 0399254994

Have your students write their own variation of The Three Little Pigs based on where they live.  What materials are common in your area of the world that the pigs could use to build their houses?  Is there another animal that is indigenous to where they live that could replace the pigs?

Use this story as an inspiration to learn more about Hawaii.  Research the state with your class and have them write about what they've learned.

Make shave ice for your students and have them try it.  Discuss whether they like it or not.

Read Laird's newest book that features the magic shark.  Talk about how his character has changed, if at all.
  • Laird, Donivee Martin. The Magic Shark Learns to Cook. ISBN 1573062332

Have someone come in to teach your students how to hula dance, while listening to ukulele music.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Journey to Japan with Three Samurai Cats

Kimmel, Eric A. 2003. Three Samurai Cats. Ill. by Mordicai Gerstein. New York: Holiday House. ISBN 0-8234-1742-5

This Japanese folktale begins with the canine daimyo, or lord, in distress over the evil rat who has taken over his castle.  His attempts to get rid of the rat have been unsuccessful thus far, so he decides  to seek outside help.  The daimyo visits a shrine where a group of samurai cats live and asks the senior monk for assistance.

The monk sends a samurai cat to do battle with the rat, but he is outsmarted and defeated.  The monk sends a second, fiercer samurai cat, and this one is also defeated by the rat.  Finally, the monk sends Neko Roshi, the "greatest living master of the martial arts."  This cat is old and in poor health, but he takes a different approach with the rat - passivity.  He does not engage the rat at all.  Instead, he waits for the rat to put himself in a dangerous position, and in exchange for helping him, Neko Roshi gets the rat to agree to leave the castle once and for all.

The tale ends with an important lesson; using force is not always the solution.  Sometimes, inaction is actually the best course of action.

Eric Kimmel is no stranger to folktale adaptations and retellings.  He is extremely successful in this genre, with numerous children's books published, and Three Samurai Cats is an excellent example of the authenticity of his writing.  Japanese culture takes center stage in this story.  Kimmel frequently uses the language of the country (i.e. samurai, daimyo, karigane, ryo kuruma, etc.).  The rat can be found practicing several styles of Japanese martial arts, including the use of a fighting staff, shadowboxing, and stick fighting.  The corps of samurai cats reside at a shrine, which is a building of great significance in Japan.  The second cat who comes to fight the rat is dressed in traditional samurai armor.

As is typical in traditional folktales, the characters in Three Samurai Cats can all be classified as "good", while the villainous rat is "bad."  The plot is fast paced and filled with action.  As the book comes to a close, the problem of the rat is resolved, thus giving the story a happy and satisfying ending.

Mordicai Gerstein's cartoon-like illustrations give this story a humorous spin.  The daimyo has a constant crazed look on his face, signifying his anxiety over getting his castle back.  The senior monk is depicted as a hound dog with a droopy face who looks like he is deep in thought.  The expressions on the rats face are thoroughly devious.  The third samurai cat looks so decrepit and pathetic, the reader can't help but laugh at the thought of him being of any help to the daimyo.  However, once the rat gets stuck underneath the rice ball, a Gerstein gives him a determined look, and we can see the intelligence that was hidden inside.

This was my first reading of Three Samurai Cats, but I can guarantee it won't be my last.  My children and I had so much fun reading this together.  In response to the story, my four year old son said, "I liked the cat with all the armor and the really cool sword.  I thought he could beat the rat."  He then proceeded to jump off the couch and start practicing his own samurai moves!  My six year old daughter was a bit more reflective when she said, "It was weird that the two strong samurai cats couldn't beat the rat, but the old, dirty cat could.  I never thought he would be the one to defeat the rat."  

From BOOKLIST - "Kimmel tempers the folktale's heavy message about passive resistance with humorous, perfectly paced language that is ideal for read-alouds, and the characters in Gerstein's colorful, detailed drawings are irresistible - the saggy-jowled hound in robes; the buffoonish, wildly costumed daimyo bulldog; the scruffy, sunken Neko Roshi; and, best of all, the pot-bellied, gleefully wicked 'barbarous rat,' who is more comic foil than villain."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - " 'Draw strength from stillness.  Learn to act without acting. And never underestimate a samurai cat' - is conveyed without any element of preachiness.  Gerstein's lively cartoon illustrations are at their best in depicting the loathsome rat.  The daimyo and the abbot are depicted as dogs, but there's no question as to who has the upper paw."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "The thoughtful reader may gain some insight into the quiet workings of a Zen master's teachings.  Others may simply enjoy the humorous pictures of the dogs and cats in medieval Japanese costumes, who enliven Gerstein's panels in this comic-book like format, without quite understanding the point of the story."

Use this story as an inspiration to discuss non-violent ways your students can solve problems.  Act out some common problems your students experience, and have someone demonstrate non-violent ways to solve them.

Begin a unit of study on Japan.  What are samurais and what did they wear?  What kinds of food are of importance in Japanese culture?  What is the purpose of a shrine?  In addition, read other adaptations of Japanese folktales.  Compile a list of what the students have learned about Japanese culture.
  • Nishizuka, Koko. The Beckoning Cat. ISBN 0823420515 
  • Krensky, Stephen. Bokuden and the Bully. ISBN 1580138470
  • Gregory, Steven. Chieko and the Pine. ISBN 098008802X

Read other folktales that have been adapted by Eric Kimmel.  Discuss similarities in his writing style in each book.
  • Kimmel, Eric A. Anansi and the Talking Melon. ISBN 0823411672
  • Kimmel, Eric A. Bearhead. ISBN 0823413020
  • Kimmel, Eric A. Medio Pollito. ISBN 0761457054

Use this tale to teach a lesson on story elements - characters, setting, plot, and theme.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Breathtaking Adaptation of Rapunzel

Zelinsky, Paul O. 1997. Rapunzel. New York: Dutton Children's Books. ISBN 0-525-456007-4

Zelinsky's adaptation of this traditional tale begins with a couple thrilled by the news that they are expecting a child.  In order to appease his wife's life-threatening craving for rapunzel, the husband steals some from the garden of their neighboring sorceress.  Enraged, the sorceress agrees that the woman may have the rapunzel, but only if she gives her the baby when it is born.  

Fast forward twelve years; the sorceress has taken care of the child, whom she named Rapunzel, and now decides to keep her locked in a tower deep in the woods.  This tower has no doors - the only way in or out is to climb from the window at the very top, via the girl's incredibly long hair.  As the years pass, Rapunzel remains in isolation, except for her visits from the sorceress.  One day, a prince rides by on his horse and hears Rapunzel's beautiful singing.  He falls immediately in love with the owner of the voice.  Once he figures out how to get into the tower and the two meet, Rapunzel falls in love, too.  The prince visits her often, and they even hold a wedding ceremony in that tower.

Unfortunately, the sorceress finds out about the prince when Rapunzel becomes pregnant with his child.  In a rage, she cuts off Rapunzel's hair and sends her to live in the wild all on her own.  When the prince returns to the tower to visit her, the sorceress is waiting for him.  Stricken with grief when he hears that Rapunzel is gone, he lets himself fall the long distance from the tower.  Miraculously, he survives the fall, but his eyesight is gone.

After the passing of a year, the prince wanders into the same wilderness where Rapunzel is living, with their twin children.  Reunited, his eyesight returns, and the family makes their way back to the prince's kingdom, where they all live happily ever after.

While there have been many adaptations of Rapunzel over the years,  I find Paul Zelinsky's to be one of the most mesmerizing.  His version shares many of the same elements from its Italian and French predecessors, published in 1634 and 1697, respectively.  The archetypal characters of traditional children's literature are present - Rapunzel and the prince are beautiful and wholly "good", while the sorceress is ugly and "bad."  The plot is fast paced and filled with action, as well as some violence.  The overall theme that good will triumph over evil is woven in, as well. 

His illustrations, paintings with oil on paper, are simply breathtaking.  They are true works of art, in the style of the Italian Renaissance, that one would expect to see hanging on the walls of a prestigious gallery.  Zelinsky is able to bring the text to life through his paintings.  The setting is not directly indicated through the text; it is the illustrations that tell the reader where and when this story takes place.  His attention to detail draws the reader right into this fictional world.  In fact there are several pages that don't have any text at all; the illustrations are strong enough to tell the story without words.

I love what Paul Zelinsky has done with his adaptation of Rapunzel.  His style of writing is so engaging that is almost makes this familiar tale seem brand new.  I had so much fun reading this with my two children.  Their experience with Rapunzel thus far had solely been through the Disney movie, Tangled, so I enjoyed seeing their reactions to the more traditional tale.  My daughter gave this book high praise when she said, "I loved it!  I liked when the prince finally got to see Rapunzel again.  This was different than Tangled because the boy who married Rapunzel was a prince, not a thief."  My son, who is very much into action and adventure, said, "I liked the part when the prince fell down from the tower.  That was really scary!"

1998 Caldecott Medal

1998 Carl Sandburg Award

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "A breathtaking interpretation gives the fairytale new art-historical roots, with illustrations that daringly - and effectively - mimic the masters of Italian Renaissance painting...The text, like the art, has a rare complexity, treating Rapunzel's imprisonment as her sorceress-adopted mother's attempt to preserve her from the effects of an awakening sexuality."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "An elegant and sophisticated retelling that draws on early French and Italian versions of the tale.  Masterful oil paintings capture the Renaissance setting and flesh out the tragic figures."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "Exquisite paintings in late Italian Renaissance style illumine this hybrid version of a classic tale."

Read other fairytales adapted and/or illustrated by Paul Zelinsky.  Discuss the similarities and differences in his writing style and illustrations.
  • Zelinsky, Paul. Rumpelstiltskin. ISBN 0140558640
  • Lesser, Rika. Hansel and Gretel. ISBN 069811407
Read other adaptations of Rapunzel.  Discuss the similarities and differences.
  • Gibb, Sarah. Rapunzel. ISBN 080756804X
  • Isadora, Rachel. Rapunzel. ISBN 0399247726
  • Berenzy, Alix. Rapunzel. ISBN 0805012834
Watch the Disney movie, Tangled.  Discuss similarities and differences.

Act out the story, with volunteers taking on the roles of the sorceress, Rapunzel's birth parents, Rapunzel, and the prince.

Use the rapunzel in this story as the basis to learn about other root vegetables.  Bring in some rapunzel, or rampion, to have your students try.

Write a story about what you think may have happened to Rapunzel's birth parents.  What did they do after their newborn daughter was taken from them?