Friday, April 12, 2013

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (Children's Literature)

Ende, Michael. The Neverending Story. Illustrated by Roswitha Quadflieg. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Penguin Books, 1979. (396 pages)
It was quite an experience reading this book. There were times when the reading of it came easy, other times when it was slow-going. There was an irritating section of the book where I never finished a chapter without falling asleep. Then I had to sort out which things I read and which things I created myself during my dreams. But also, my optimistic side (which almost always trumps my critical side) found things to love and use all throughout the meta-narrative. For example, I thought about how a language arts teacher could use untold endings as creative writing prompts for his or her students.
The first half of the book was easy and enjoyable to read. That's the part of the book that is just like the 80s movie. Once Bastian entered Fantastica, I became less interested and even annoyed at points. I did not like how disjointed the action was, I didn't like all the loose ends dangling out there with the tired cliché “that’s another story for another time”, I did not like Bastian being skinny and power-hungry. I was getting downright grumpy about the book (this was the time when I kept falling asleep while reading). However, I really loved the last few chapters in which Bastian searches, grows, works, and loves. This short section is very deep and I wish I had more time to think about it. The city of old emperors, the sea of mist, the house of change, the mine of pictures, and the water of life were all wonderful pictures of what journeys we all go through in life. It was good to think about a question like: What sorts of things need to happen to us in order to make us content with life as it is? Perhaps we need to see the emptiness of where our own blind ambition may lead us, perhaps we need to experience a time of loneliness so that we desire relationships, perhaps we need to conform to a crowd for a while so that we desire individuality, perhaps we need to be children again for a time so that we desire self-giving, perhaps we need to work hard for a time and learn the value of work, perhaps we need to mine deeper, perhaps we need pictures in our minds of people we want to love.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Children's Literature: Number the Stars, Lois Lowry

 Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars. Sandpiper; Reissue Edition, 2011. (156 pages)
In this work of historical fiction, Lois Lowry tells the poignant story of a family in occupied Denmark who endanger themselves to help their Jewish friends escape from the Nazis. The heroine is a ten-year old girl named Annemarie who is willing to be brave like the brave adults she observes in her life.
Lowry includes an epilogue explaining to her readers which parts of her story were written purely from her imagination and which parts were based on true events. She goes into detail about documents she read, a picture she saw, and research concerning the fateful handkerchief which Annemarie delivers in the story. This section would be fabulous for children to read and a great way for educators to show young readers what an author of historical fiction does to create these sorts of books. I was very struck by Lowry’s description of the photo she found of the boy who was a very young resistance fighter.
The story itself was easy to read although it covered serious subject matter. I like the discussions on bravery and looking out for human rights, as the real life people which this story celebrates are people with such an important lesson to teach all of us.

Gene Stratton-Porter, A Girl of the Limberlost

Stratton-Porter, Gene. A Girl of the Limberlost. Illustrated by David Hendrickson. Triangle Books, 1909.
Gene Statton-Porter was a woman who lived in the woods and loved moths, birds, and trees. I read a bit about her biography since I read this book for my inquiry project. It turns out that she was a non-fiction writer who wrote fiction books to pay the bills and make her publishers happy. I think it’s interesting that she is so well known for her fictional books, yet her true passion was ecology and non-fiction writing. Her personal passion is very evident in her writing as a reader learns as much about moths from a story like this as they would reading a non-fiction moth book – maybe even more since moths are a central part of the plot in this story.
The story is about a country girl, Elnora Comstock, who decides to go to school. Her mother is very harsh, cold, neglectful, and unloving. Elnora struggles as she goes to school and is teased for her poor clothes and she almost has to quit when she finds out that people outside of town have to pay tuition and book costs in order to attend school. However, she finds a woman (the Bird Lady) who will pay money for moth specimens and she becomes self-sufficient as she puts herself through school collecting natural items to sell. In the climax of the book Elnora’s mother, who has never helped her with anything, destroys a rare moth specimen that Elnora needed to complete a set which would sell for $300. At this, Elnora finally confronts her mother and the relationship is broken and then restored as her mother realizes what a fool she has been to treat her daughter so poorly. There is also a romance in the book, Elnora falls in love with a naturalist she meets in the woods on one of her nature walks.
            A Girl of the Limberlost is a very old-fashioned story, written in 1909. I think the style is very modernistic and may not appeal to a current-day audience, but for others it will remain a timeless classic. Re-reading this story for the first time as an adult was a wonderfully nostalgic experience for me, and I was glad to find that I still really enjoyed it. It reminds me of other book series such as the Corfu Trilogy by Gerald Durrell and the All Creatures Great and Small series by James Herriot. They are books which a nature lover would love, but others might find boring.

Children's Literature - David Petersen Mouse Guard Fall 1152

Petersen, David. Mouse Guard; Fall 1152. Villard, 2008. (192 pages)
Peterson succeeds in setting up an interesting world complete with maps, commerce, towns, trade, and conflict. This book seems to be part of a series, and reading the whole series would probably shed more light on this particular book.
The mouse guard has made a discovery in the woods: there is treachery which threatens the home of the guard and its matriarch, Gwendolyn. Many characters, both wizened and young, band together to stave off the attacking army of Midnight - a rogue mouse guard. Along the way, larger creatures pose a danger to the mice, including crabs and a snake. However, the right side has a victory in the end.
Petersen’s illustrations are brilliant. The value of the drawings is fairly dark, as is his subject matter. Like many graphic novel writers, I think the drawings may outshine the story. But, this story may have been more compelling if read in its entire context (which I have not had the opportunity to do). I thought that this may be a book for older children since some of the script writing may be difficult for a young one to navigate. But, the tale is not too much for a young reader – it brings to mind series which my children have read and loved such as Brian Jacques’ Redwall series and Erin Hunter’s Warriors series. I think that readers would be able to get into this and read all the books; the makings of an addictive series are present.

Children's Literature - more picture books

1.      Carle, Eric. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Philomel; BRDBK Edition, 1994. (13 pages)
A hungry caterpillar eats more and more before transforming into a butterfly. This book is vivid and fun, the holes where the caterpillar “ate” things and the pages of different sizes would be interesting on a physical level to young children.
2.       Brown, Margaret Wise. Over the Moon; The Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, and My World. Illustrations by Clement Hurd. HarperCollins Publications, 1942, 1947, 1949.  (102 pages)
This collection of three books in one includes classic favorites featuring a sweet young bunny as the main character. All three stories feature themes of home comfort as the bunny is shown what a good home has. He sees what a mother will do for a son, he sees the comfortable elements of a bedroom at night, and he sees what elements of house and yard make up a happy home. The stories are simple and teach a simple vocabulary of objects that young children would be able to observe in their own homes.
3.      Lakin, Patricia. Snow Day. Illustrations by Scott Nash. Scholastic, Inc., 2004. (30 pages)
Sam, Pam, Will, and Jill are four young crocodiles who get to go sledding on a snow day when school is cancelled. This story celebrates friendship and an unexpected break from the daily grind of responsibilities. It’s a bit repetitive and preachy as it makes a point to recommend safety helmets and safety goggles for those who want to sled, so it was not a favorite for me. It seems to be geared toward toddlers, but toddlers may not appreciate a snow day from school the way older kids would – so in my opinion, it’s a bit mismatched.
4.      Galdone, Paul. The Little Red Hen. Clarion Books, 1973. (37 pages)
A hardworking hen goes through the rigors of farm life to prepare some bread without the help of her lazy animal friends. In the end, she’s the only one who enjoys the spoils of her work. This tale is repetitive in a fun way, it teaches the sort of lesson that even the very young can understand. As Sir Walter Scott puts it, “He that climbs the tall tree has won right to the fruit.”
5.      Rey, H. A. Curious George Takes a Job. Houghton Mifflin, 1947. (47 pages)
A curious monkey escapes from the zoo and tries his hand at different vocations with disastrous results until he finally decides to become a movie star. I love the illustration of George painting a jungle scene in a woman’s apartment when he was supposed to be washing the windows. I thought that the most controversial page was the page in which George gets into the ether at the hospital and goes on a little drug trip! Some parents might not like that particular page.
6.      Berenstain, Stan and Jan. The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Commercials. HarperCollins Publishing, 2007. (30 pages)
This tale teaches young ones to think critically about what they see on TV and not buy into ideas which may be exaggerated. The Berenstains do a good job of illustrating that children and adults alike may fall prey to commercialism and naiveté. These authors know how to portray believable and flawed adult characters. They also include a short poem in the beginning of some of their books which describe the moral of the story, this reminds me some of how Aesop would leave a moral at the end of some of his fables.
7.      Hoban, Russell. Best Friends for Frances. Illustrated by Lillian Hoban. Scholastic Book Services, 1969. (31 pages)
Frances excludes her little sister Gloria at first, but when she is excluded by boys in her neighborhood she decides to make a best friends club with Gloria and in the end the boys join it too. Hoban does a great job of broaching the dramas of childhood friendship, including sibling friendship and friendships between boys and girls. The scenarios seem very accurate and relatable. One thing that might bother some readers is the fact that Frances engages in name-calling and calls her friend Albert fat several times.
8.      Glaser, Higashi. Hello Kitty. Hello World! Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1976. (33 pages)
This children’s book doesn’t really have a story for me to summarize, but rather has a two-page spread for each major geographic area with many cultural relics and facts illustrated so that the reader may appreciate world culture. It’s a book that little girls who are into Hello Kitty would appreciate, although I don’t know that boys would care for it. One of the coolest features is that it gives translations of the greeting “hello” in many languages and offers a translation guide in the back where children can teach themselves a few vocabulary words and phrases in many languages.
9.      Sidman, Joyce. Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors. Illustrated by Beckie Prange. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010. (40 pages)
Why is it that some species outlive all their contemporaries, barely changing for millions of years? This book of poetry explores and celebrates some of nature’s most “fit” species. In the poem, “The Lichens We” Sidman describes lichen as having “a slow but steady growing pace; resemblance to both mud and lace” and also offers concrete information about lichen (for example that lichen is in the kingdom fungi and has remained relatively unchanged for 400 million years).
10.  Sidman, Joyce. Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems. Illustrated by Beckie Prange. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2005. (32 pages)
A pond is full of life and wonder, as this gorgeously illustrated poetry book highlights. In the poem “Spring Splashdown”, the words “leaping, leaping” take the form of a baby wood duck leaping down from a hole in a tree after hatching. Then on the following page after the poem, there is a short text describing the fun facts about the birds in the poem. I love how the author is able to blend literature and science in this book.
11.  Jenkins, Steve. What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? Sandpiper, 2001. (32 pages)
Each page of this vivid book shows a predator species and a prey species; each page highlights a defense mechanism in the prey and teaches readers how animals adapt to survive. Jenkins uses an illustration technique that looks like cut paper scrap collage; I think it’s really effective. The colors are bold and the contrast is very strong. The illustrations are large – a full bleed with words printed right on the picture.
12.  Lauber, Patricia. You’re Aboard Spaceship Earth. Illustrated by Holly Keller. HarperCollins, 1996. (32 pages)
This book describes planet Earth as a giant spaceship, communicating in a way children will understand that earth is a closed system. Readers realize that the resources we use are recycled versions of the things that the dinosaurs used millions of years ago, and we will need recycled versions of what we have now sometime in the future. While it may feel a bit preachy, it is an important lesson and it’s communicated in a unique way children will really comprehend.
13.  Mansbach, Adam. Go the F**k to Sleep. Illustrated by Ricardo Cortes. Akashic Books, 2011. (32 pages)
Mansbach has an interesting and edgy concept for a picture book, I can’t see many parents of toddlers going for this although maybe parents of pre-verbal babies could read it in a sweet tone of voice and laugh to themselves. The summary is simple: this book is a rhyming sing-song plea filled with cuss words. I think this is more for a parent’s entertainment than a child’s. I loved the illustrations which were very cool, and I could envision some really trendy parents having some fun with this book, but I don’t think young children would care for it.
14.  Gaiman, Neil. Instructions. Illustrated by Charles Vess. HarperCollins, 2010. (40 pages)
I really loved this book in which Gaiman gives instructions for how to travel in a fantasy story. This book was one of the most unique and engaging picture books I’ve read all semester, I’m sure I’ll remember it. I think that, like many modern fantasy books, this book has a timeless quality. I could see toddlers enjoying it and older children finding deep messages within the instructions. A young one would think it’s cool to hear that all dragons have a soft spot, an older child may be able to think about the metaphor – how there are weak spots in the big problems in our lives – ways in which those problems are vulnerable to defeat.
15.  Chin, Jason. Coral Reefs. Roaring Brook, 2011.
A girl gets enveloped in a book about the sea before bringing her friends into the ocean world she has discovered. The text of this book was somewhat dry, but the illustrations brought another wordless story to the pages. It’s cool that her ocean journey began in a library and that the story ended with her showing her friends the portal to the new world she found. This communicates a real love of books, and how books have the power to transport us.
16.  Sidman, Joyce. Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night. Illustrated by Rick Allen.
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010.
This book follows the same format as Sidman’s other books (reviewed previously) although she has chosen a different illustrator for this book. The theme of this book is night, and the poems reflect about animals that prefer to move around through dark woods when most of us are sleeping. There is an author’s note in which Sidman talks about how the woods at night can be creepy to most humans, “But” she writes, “there are all sorts of creatures that prefer the night. Why? And how?  This book is my exploration of those questions.”
17.  Postma, Lidia. The Stolen Mirror. McGraw-Hill, 1976.
A boy who will soon be an older brother finds himself in a world of magical creatures and despondent people who have lost their mirror (the thing they look to in order to know who they are). He embarks on a quest to face the dragon and recover the mirror, and after he meets with success he decides that he will teach his younger sibling (regardless of its gender) to fight dragons too. It was especially interesting to me that the dragon said that there was only one mirror and that the boy’s despondent friends let the dragon have it, this could hold deep meaning. Overall, I loved it – beautiful and scary illustrations, thought provoking ideas about depression and identity, and an overall story that “has it all”.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. (Children's Literature Novel)

Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. Illustrated by Donna Diamond. Scholastic Inc., 1977. (128 pages) 
This book is a tear-jerker, and very memorable for anyone who read it as a child. Paterson does a great job developing the characters in this realistic fiction based in a rural community close to a wild woods where the two main characters run off and imagine up an entire world for themselves - Terabithia. I will just admit right now that when I read the last page I totally cried even though I have read it before and seen the movie. It's not the sadly surprising events of the story that made me tear up, but the relationship between one of the main characters and his younger sister - and how it evolves after serious hardships (I won't spoil the book for those who haven't read it).

Peter and Wendy by J.M. Berrie (Children's Literature Novel)

 Berrie, J. M. Peter and Wendy. Charlie Scribner’s Sons. 1911. Illustrated by F. D. Bedford. (267 pages, and 122 pages for the online version)
     This classic tale is a story about Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up and never wanted to grow up. He brings Wendy and her two younger brothers to Neverland, an island full of fairies, pirates, animals, and more. Neverland is a dreamland – a place for adventure, but the lost boys on this island still long for the structure and nurturing that a mother can give. Wendy is commissioned for the task, and does well until the day when she and her brothers return home with the lost boys in tow. Only Peter Pan refuses to stay and grow up, although he visits an aging Wendy and her descendants.
     Peter and Wendy is a story with some vocabulary and content that may offend modern sensibilities. The portrayal and name of “redskins” seems a bit unflattering, and at one point the fairies are described as “some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy” (p. 104) Some modern readers may even be put off by the strict gender role assignment that the author engages in throughout the book. However, none of these things bother me personally. If there is value in the story, one can see past the controversial sections and even use them to foster healthy discussion. “Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them.” (p.14).