Friday, February 28, 2014

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart (Pictures by David Small)

Published in 1997

Sarah Stewart's The Gardener is a sentimental story about a little girl who brightens the lives of everyone she meets. The story is told in first-person point of view by Lydia Grace Finch through a series of letters she writes to her Uncle Jim, her Mama, her Papa, and her Grandma.

Set during the Depression, Lydia discovers that she has to go live in the "big gray city" because her father is out of work, and her mother's seamstress business has waned. They can no longer afford to take care of her, so they send her to live with her Uncle Jim who is a cantankerous, old man who owns a bakery. He has two employees who work for him, Ed and Emma Beech. Even though she loves her family very much and doesn't want to leave, Lydia packs her bags and heads to the city with all kinds of seeds, stationery on which to write her letters, and a passion for gardening that she inherited from her grandmother.

When you first open the book, there is a picture of Lydia and her grandmother picking tomatoes in their garden. In the illustration, she is seen smiling and handing a ripened tomato to a jovial woman. Although she is completely happy living at home and doesn't want to leave, she decides to head to the city with a positive attitude.

The entire story is told through the letters Lydia writes back and forth to her family while she is on this journey. The first two letters she writes to her Uncle Jim explaining why she is coming to live with him. The first letter, dated August 27, 1935, she writes from home while she is packing for her trip. The second letter she writes to her uncle, dated September 3, 1935, she mails from the train station. In this letter, Lydia shares "three important things" with her uncle that she is too shy to share with him face to face.

Once Lydia is on the train, she begins writing letters to her family at home. She writes one to her Mama, one to her Papa, and one to her "dearest" Grandma. Her letters to her family back home are full of gratitude for all they have done for her. Despite her circumstances, she is not bitter.

Once she arrives in the big city, for a brief moment, the mood changes. She arrives at the station, and she is all alone. There are no words on the two-page illustration to explain what she must be thinking and feeling. In the only dark picture in the entire book, the train station is depicted as being dark and overcast with shadows; however, in the bottom left-hand corner Lydia is seen looking up and is surrounded by light. Her uncle finally arrives to take her home, but he is not smiling. He is not mean or anything; he is just not happy. When she gets to the bakery, Lydia writes a letter home saying she is so excited because there are window boxes attached to the bakery windows where she can plant her seeds. She will not have to give up her passion for gardening after all.

Through her correspondence with her family back home, Lydia once again thanks them for everything they do for her and tells them how she wrote a long poem for her uncle trying to make him smile. Although he didn't smile, he read the poem aloud, put it in his shirt pocket, and patted it. He must have a heart after all.

Lydia becomes friends with Ed and Emma Beech, her uncle's employees, and becomes attached to a little grey cat that sleeps at the foot of her bed. She begins planting her seeds everywhere. Several months have passed, and Lydia writes home about a secret place she has found. She has planned a big surprise for her uncle. She is determined to make him smile, and Emma becomes involved as the excitement grows. Uncle Jim's business seems to pick up because of the cheerful atmosphere Lydia has brought into the bakery. I won't tell you what the surprise is that Lydia finally reveals to her uncle, but I will say the story has a happy ending.

Nearly a year has passed, and things have improved for Lydia's family back home. In the end, she is reunited with them once again. The final illustration shows Lydia hugging her uncle at the train station. The train station is no longer dark but is bright yellow. Ed and Emma are standing in the background as Emma wipes a tear from her eyes.

I highly recommend this book for young children. The message is positive and uplifting. The illustrations are delightfully drawn by Stewart's husband David Small. They are full page illustrations with the text on each page written in letter form, dated, with a salutation, and a post script. I enjoyed reading this book about a little girl who doesn't let tough times bring her down. She remains positive despite her circumstances and brightens the lives of everyone she meets. Reading this book will make you smile.

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Video Source
Reading Rockets: A Video Interview with Sarah Stewart and David Small

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs As Told To Jon Scieszka by A. Wolf (Illustrated by Lane Smith)

Published in 1989

Scieszka's book The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs is a parody of the traditional tale and would be a great book to use for teaching point-of-view. Alexander T. Wolf, but you can call him Al, claims he has been framed by the cops and thrown into jail under false pretenses. Al, the wolf, tells the story of The Three Little Pigs from his point of view to a reporter who publishes it in the local newspaper the Daily Wolf. As you can see, the cover of the book looks like the front page of a newspaper, and the lead story is titled "The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!"

According to Al, "Everybody knows the story of the Three Little Pigs. Or at least they think they do. But I'll let you in on a little secret. Nobody knows the real story, because nobody has ever heard my side of the story" (frontmatter). Al claims the real story is about "a sneeze and a cup of sugar."

On the inside front cover dust jacket, Scieszka encourages his readers to read his book for themselves and then decide what really happened:
"You may think you know the story of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf--but only one person knows the real story. That person is A. Wolf. His tale starts with a birthday cake for his dear old granny, a bad head cold . . . and a bad reputation. It ends in the Big House: the Pig Pen. What really happened when A. Wolf was at the door? Was it an historic pig out or a Mother Goose frame-up? You read it. You decide." 
Scieszka recommends The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs for ages 3-8, but I think readers of all ages would enjoy his unusual twist to this well-known tale.

The "Big Bad Wolf" begins his story, "Way back in Once Upon a Time, I was making a birthday cake for my dear old granny. I had a terrible sneezing cold. I ran out of sugar." He doesn't want to let granny down, so he decides to visit his neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar. When he comes to his first neighbor's house, whose house is made of straw, he comments, "He's not too bright." After all, "[W]ho in his right mind would build a house out of straw?"

Al knocks on the door, but no one answers. When he opens the door, his nose starts to itch, and that's what causes him to huff and puff and blow the house down. He acts as if the entire event happens by accident. He finds the first pig laying in the middle of the pile of straw. When he discovers he is dead, he decides to eat the pig. It seems like such "a shame to leave a perfectly good ham dinner lying there in the straw."

Al still doesn't have his cup of sugar, so he ventures to his second neighbor's house, the first little pig's brother who has built his house out of sticks. When he knocks on his door, the second pig yells, "Go away wolf. You can't come in. I'm shaving the hairs of my chinny chin chin." As Al grabs the doorknob, he feels another sneeze coming on and blows his house down too. When the dust clears, the second little pig is "dead as a doornail" laying upside down in a pile of sticks. He decides to eat him as well because "you know food will spoil if you just leave it out in the open."

When Al visits pig number three, he discovers his house is built out of bricks. He accuses the third little pig of being impolite because he won't give him the sugar and says his granny "can sit on a pin!" Al responds by saying, "I'm usually a pretty calm fellow. But when somebody talks about my granny like that, I go a little crazy." He begins trying to break down the Pig's door when the cops drive up and arrest him. The next thing you know, the news reporters appear on the scene and unfairly make the wolf out to be the "Big Bad Wolf," and that's how it's all supposed to have happened. The reporters destroyed his reputation; he claims he was framed!

Lane Smith's illustrations are hand-drawn sketchings and present the wolf in a positive light. For example, when Al is approaching the first little pig's house, he is depicted walking in a carefree manner, whistling a tune, and simply tossing a cup into the air. He doesn't have any intention of harming anyone. In another illustration, he is politely wiping his snout with a napkin as he contemplates eating the dead pig. After all, polite wolves have manners. When the cops appear on the scene and arrest Al, news reporters can be seen at the bottom the the illustration racing towards the house with microphones in their hands. The illustrations using the newspaper reporters and articles are brilliant. They place the blame of the wolf's bad reputation on the media, probably where it belongs, according to his point of view. The images are light and humorous in tone.

I believe this book could promote interesting discussions in the classroom, especially with older students. In order to make the story relevant to today's students, teachers could lead a discussion regarding the media's impact on today's culture. Does the media have the power to destroy a person's reputation? Has this been done in the past? Could it happen in the future? Can you think of any examples? Thought provoking questions could make the story interesting and relevant to today's teens.

I highly recommend this book for all ages. Comparing and contrasting the two versions of this timeless tale could engage students in critical thinking skills and could promote meaningful discussions. For younger children, the book could just be plain fun! If you haven't read Jon Scieszka's book The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, consider adding it to your read-a-book list.

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Published in 1999
Ten years after The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs was published, a bilingual flip-over book was released in Spanish and English. This edition of the book could be used to reach out to ESL students.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes (With Music Videos)

Illustrations Copyright 1983 by Charles Mikolaycak
Picturebook / Poetry

Alfred Noyes was born in Staffordshire, England, in 1880. Although he is most famous for his narrative poem The Highwayman, he also wrote essays, biographies, and  novels. His most famous poem was first published in 1906, and in 1907, it became an instant success when it was published in Noyes' collection Forty Singing Seaman and Other Poems (BBC Wales, June 2012). It didn't take long, however, for his book to become famous around the world.

I've been teaching this poem for years because of its lyrical quality and the fact that it is filled with similes, metaphors, and other figurative language. However, I didn't realize the poem had been published in book form until I was browsing through my school library recently and stumbled upon it. I guess I didn't know about this book because I teach high school and don't normally venture into the picturebook section. As soon as I saw the book, I knew I had to read it and learn more about it.

The basic plot of the unnamed highwayman (or robber) who is in love with Bess, the landlord's daughter, is probably familiar to anyone who loves reading poetry. The poem begins with the following stanza, which is repeated at the end of the poem, and sets the tone for this tragic tale:
"The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees. / The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. / The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, / And the highwayman came riding-- / Riding--riding-- / The highwayman came riding, up to the old-inn door." 
The highwayman, described as wearing a "French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin, / A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin," visits Bess at the old-inn to declare his love for her once again. However, Tim, the jealous ostler who is also in love with Bess, overhears their conversation and reports him to King George's men. Perhaps with the highwayman out of the way, Tim would have a chance with the woman he loves. However, his misguided notion, ends in tragedy for them all.

King George's men come to inn saying no word to the landlord. They drink his ale without paying for it and gag his daughter and bind her to the foot of her bed with a gun placed beneath her breast. They plan to use her as bait to catch the highwayman, but as he approaches, Bess pulls the trigger and shatters her own breast, sacrificing her life for the man she loves. The highwayman hears the shot and flees to safety.

However, the next morning when he hears what has happened, he loses control and heads back to the inn to seek revenge. Tragically, he is shot down on the highway and dies in a pool of his own blood. In the final stanza, the reader gets the "ghostly" impression that this scene is played over and over until the end of time. The highwayman comes to the inn to declare his love for Bess, Tim betrays them, Bess takes her own life, and the highwayman is shot down on the highway.

I will definitely use this book with my students in the future when we are reading and analyzing this poem. Mikolaycak's black and white illustrations add a sense of drama to the text. Each illustration has just a touch of red to emphasize certain elements in the poem. For example, the highwayman's red mask, Bess' dark-red love knot she is plaiting in her hair, the ropes that tie her hands and feet, King George's men's red coats, and the tragic scenes where Bess shoots herself and the highwayman is shot down on the highway are painted red to contrast the cold black and white images. The use of black and white illustrations with just a touch of red are very effective in the presentation of the poem. It's interesting to note that the illustration with Tim, the ostler, spying on the highwayman and Bess declaring their love for one another is painted only in black and white. The way Mikolaycak illustrates this scene could be symbolic of the lovers' betrayal.

If you haven't read The Highwayman I highly recommend it. Also take a look at the YouTube music videos below.

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Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales Told by Virginia Hamilton (Illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon)

Published in 1995
Folktales / Fairytales

Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales told by Virginia Hamilton is a book of 19 tales that won the Laura Ingall's Wilder Award and a Coretta Scott King Award in 1995. The book is told from a nostalgic perspective and is filled with stories of strong-willed, determined, legendary women.

In the opending pages, Hamilton dedicates her book to "our mothers and grandmothers, aunts and great-aunts. To all the women who stood before us, telling us about where they came from, what they saw, did, and imagined. They let us know they stood for us. Talking, they combed our hair, rocked us to sleep, sang to us, told us tales of then and now--and tomorrow. They worried about us. They hoped for us and showed us the way. They cared."

In her author's note at the end of the book, Hamilton explains how much the women in her life meant to her as she was growing up. She recalls a time when her mother calmed her fears during a dangerous storm and the way her mother's talking often made her forget her fears. She says, "All of Mother's stories taught things, little things about life and nature. [Her stories] were family stories--how her brother, my uncle, had been swinging with me on the porch swing moments before he got in his car and was killed on the highway. She told about the day I was  born; how she lived in Canada and had met my father there. My sister, Nina, was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. My mother and father together told stories about their lives. But it is the women of my family I was most attuned to."

All the tales in Her Stories are about women. The book is divided into three major categories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales. Most of the stories are written in prose fiction, but three true tales are included at the end of the book. Four are animal tales, like "Lena and One Big Tiger." Four are fairy tales, like "Catskinella," which was one of my favorites. Four are supernatural tales, like "Malindy and the Little Devil." Four are Folkways (which I had never heard of before) and Legends, like "The Mer-Woman Out of the Sea." At the end of each tale, Hamilton provides a "Comment Section" which provides the history of the tale, how it came about, and how it was collected. Other noteworthy facts are included. The comments at the end of each tale really add meaning and substance to the book.

Here is just a taste of the authentic language often used in the book. This example comes from one of the true tales and is told from a slave's perspective, "Millie Evans: Plantation Times":

"MY BIRTHDAY always comes in the fodder-pulling time. My mama told me she was pulling fodder until the hour before I was born. Me, born in 1849. At the time of Surrender, I was a young lady.

Don't remember the owners' names. But I remember there was about a hundred of us kind. The owners were rich. Mistress tended to us, the women. The Master took over the men.

At four-o'clock each morning, he would ring the bell for us to get up. Oh, you could hear that bell all over the plantation. I can hear it now--ting, ting-aling-aling. I can see all us stirring, getting up in Carolina.

Mistress raised me. But I stayed with my mama every night. My mama had to work very hard. And if Mistress thought the little black children like me were hungry between the meals, she would call us up to the house to eat.  We had johnnycake sometimes and plenty of buttermilk to go with it" (Hamilton, 93).

Later in the story, Millie remembers being freed, but recounts the fear many of the slaves felt. They didn't know what to do or where to go. The Master and Mistress didn't want them to leave, so they all decided to move west to Arkansas. However, the Master died along the way, and his body was taken back to North Carolina. The Mistress begged the slaves to stay with her, and they did stay until she died and was taken back to North Carolina. After her death, the slaves went on with their lives and lost track of the rest of the family. The comment at the end of the tale provides the source of the tale and additional background information.

Although the stories themselves are memorable, the framed paintings by award winning illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon are absolutely beautiful. The Dillons have been awarded the Caldecott Medal twice, the Boston Globe Horn Book Award four times, the New York Times Best Illustrated Award three times, the Society of Illustrators Gold Medal, and were nominees for the international Hans Christian Andersen Medal. They are considered two of America's most creative and prized illustrators (back book jacket cover). The illustrations in Hamilton's book were painted with acrylics on illustration board and were printed on eighty-pound Mymolla Matte paper, which gives the book a strong, sturdy feel to it.

If you enjoy reading folktales, fairy tales, or true stories, you will enjoy this book. Although the book is recommended for ages 4 & up, I believe it would be best suited for older children and adults.

Virginia Hamilton's Official Website

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady (Illustrated by Michele Wood)

Published in 2012
Poetry Collection

Cynthia Grady, who enjoys writing and quilting during the summer, is a middle school librarian at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C. I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery is her first published book. In the author's note at the beginning of her book, she explains that quilt making and poetry are similar in two ways: "In one, color and shape are organized into an overall pattern; in the other, sound and structure create the pattern." She goes on to explain that "each poem in her book is named for a traditional quilt block and reflects a metaphorical patchwork of circumstances encountered by enslaved people in America. The poems are written in unrhymed verse, ten lines of ten syllables, to mimic the square and shape of a quilt block." She includes three references in each poem: "a biblical or spiritual reference, a musical reference, and a sewing or fiber arts reference in addition to the imagery the poem calls for." Her goal in writing and designing her book this way was to mirror the structure of a quilt as well as the symbolism that quilts often express.

Grady uses a consistent structure throughout the book that makes it easy for her readers to follow. The poems are located on the left page, while the illustrations, which also look like quilt patches, are located on the right. Underneath each poem, she has a row of quilt patches that represent or symbolize some aspect of the poem. For example, the first poem is titled "Log Cabin," so she has a row of log cabin quilt patches that divide the page nearly in half. Under each row of quilt patches, she adds a note that provides additional historical information regarding the poem and the situation in which the slaves found themselves.  The poems are typeset on a white background, and the historical notes are typeset on a creme colored background. The illustration and quilt patch color combinations are coordinated throughout the book. The author suggests that her book be read by children ages 10 & up.

The titles of the poems are simple and cover a wide range of topics: log cabins, cotton balls, the Underground Railroad, broken dishes, the North Star, the Tree of Life, a basket, a rail fence, an anvil, and my favorite, a schoolhouse. Although I enjoyed reading the poems and looking at the beautiful illustrations, I enjoyed reading the historical notes the best because I learned a lot. I learned that slaves, like navigators, used the North Star to guide their way to freedom, that although in many states slaves were forbidden to read and write, there were some white people who inherited slaves and then educated them privately so that when they were freed, they could go into the world with knowledge and skills, that archaeologists have discovered artifacts resembling West African religious practices while excavating where enslaved Africans and African Americans lived, and that basket-making is one of the oldest forms of West African art still practiced in the United States today.

Cynthia Grady's collection of poems of American Slavery is not only beautifully written and illustrated but it provides valuable historical information and expresses a wide range of emotions experienced by slaves: pain, sorrow, joy, hope, weariness, and strength. I highly recommend this book for all ages.
Cynthia Grady's Website (Author)
Michele Wood's Website (Painter, Illustrator, Designer, and Writer)
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Monday, February 24, 2014

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (Odyssey Award Winner 2013)

Published in 2012
Realistic Fiction

John Green's book The Fault In Our Stars was not my first choice of an Odyssey Award winning book that I am required to read for my literature class at the College of William & Mary, but when a teacher at the school where I teach said her daughter had a copy and that I could borrow it, I decided to give it a try.

I heard that a film based on the book will be released soon, so I thought I'd like to read the book before seeing it in the theater. I knew the book was about teenagers who meet in a support group for cancer patients and was at first hesitant to read it because of the personal loss of my husband after a six-year battle with cancer, but I thought it might help to get another person's viewpoint of their battle with the disease. Well, the book did, in fact, bring back memories, but not like I expected.

You see, my three boys, Justin, Christopher, and Jonathon were only 5, 8, and 11 years old when their dad was diagnosed with colon cancer; they were 11, 14, and 17 when he passed away. For six long years, our family lived with this disease and fought it in every way possible. Most of their childhood was spent with their father in and out of hospitals, with multiple surgeries, chemo, and radiation treatments. It was painful to see my husband deteriorate during the final months of his life when the cancer finally reached his brain.

During his first surgery, my husband had 13 tumors removed from his colon and rectum which left him with a permanent colostomy bag. His second surgery left him with one lung, and his final surgery left him without his bladder, his prostate gland, and part of his tailbone. He ended up with a urostomy bag in addition to his colostomy bag and was in constant pain for the remainder of his life because the nerves in his legs had been damaged during his final surgery. I didn't realize a person could live with so many organs removed from his body. It was devastating for my husband; it was devastating for our family, but I can honestly say that my husband never once complained about the pain he was going through. Not once. I couldn't have been that strong. I couldn't have been that noble. My children never complained either. We did what we had to do . . . together. We had to go on living. We had to survive. We had to have hope for the future.

When the cancer finally reached my husband's brain in December of 1999, I knew it wouldn't be long before his battle would be over. The tumor was located in the center of his brain and was inoperable. He began to deteriorate quickly, and he was no longer the man I had married or the father my children had grown to love. His behavior and appearance changed so drastically, that my children, it's sad to say, seemed afraid of him. But this IS the hard reality of OUR family's battle with this disease. It was devastating. Three months later, my husband was gone.

As you can see, this book did bring back memories, but not like I had expected. Rather than being inspired or encouraged by what I read, I found the book to be depressing, very depressing. I would not recommend this book to a child or teen fighting cancer unless you want them to become sarcastic, bitter, depressed individuals who are mad at the world. I would not recommend this book to anyone who doesn't have a deep and abiding faith in God and friends they can depend on who will see them through to the end. It just won't do them any good, and it could make their situation even worse.

The Fault In Our Stars is about Hazel Grace, a sixteen-year-old girl who is diagnosed with Stage 4 Thyroid cancer, which has metastasized and spread to her lungs. She has always been terminal and sinks into a deep depression. After a visit to her doctor, she is forced by her parents to go to the basement of an Episcopal Church to meet in a cancer support group, and it's obvious she doesn't want to go.

Hazel's friend Isaac is also a cancer patient and attends the group. He has lost one eye and is about to undergo another operation to remove his second one, leaving him blind. The first time Hazel attends a meeting in the basement, which they sarcastically and repeatedly refer to as "The Sacred" or "Literal Heart of Jesus," Isaac brings a friend, Augustus Waters, who has been diagnosed with osteosarcoma. Augustus, also known as "Gus," has had one leg amputated, but is in remission.

Augustus and Hazel end up falling in love, and Augustus gives up his dying wish from the "Genie" foundation (or so it seems) so they can take a trip to Amsterdam to meet Hazel's hero Peter Van Houten, the author of a book called An Imperial Affliction, which Hazel refers to as "the book that was as close a thing as I had to a Bible" (13). Ironically, her "hero" Van Houten turns out to be a bitter, old man who has become an alcoholic because he has lost his own six-year-old daughter to cancer. After the death of his daughter, Van Houten's family falls apart, so he turns to the bottle for comfort.

I found the sarcastic attitudes of Hazel, Augustus, and Isaac annoying and tiresome. I felt the same disdain toward Hazel's "hero" who was even worse. I felt sorry for Hazel's parents who were trying to do the best they could for their daughter.

I can sum it up by saying I had a love-hate relationship with this book. I couldn't put it down, but I wanted to shake them and say it IS possible to deal with a difficult situation with humility, dignity, and grace. The scene at the end of the book where Augustus dies brought tears to my eyes; it was almost too much to take.

All I can say is that I hope the movie is not as depressing as the book. I'm not even sure I want to see this film when it comes out. I hope the director chooses to portray the teenagers in a more favorable light and focuses on their more redeeming qualities.

Perhaps there is some truth and significance to the book's title alluding to a line in William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. Angry, jealous, and resentful that Caesar is so powerful and so admired by the people, Cassius says to Brutus

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings." (Act 1 Scene 2)

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

King Midas: A Golden Tale Retold by John Warren Stewig (Paintings by Omar Rayyan)

Published in 1999
Folktales / Fairytales

John Warren Stewig's modern-day retelling of King Midas: A Golden Tale would be a great book to read to children of all ages. Most adults and adolescents are familiar with the story of King Midas, the Phrygian king, whose greed almost destroys his life because everything he touches turns to gold. I remember reading this myth as a child, and I would read it over and over again. I also remember reading it to my children when they were young; my three sons loved it!

Stewig's version begins, "Once upon a time there lived a king of Phyrgia. His name was Midas. He was fonder of gold than of anything in the world, except for his daughter Marygold." It is important to note that Phrygia, the
Map of Phrygia, Modern-Day Turkey
setting of this story, was located in what is now known as modern-day Turkey. This is important because the Phrygians are best known for their Greek mythology, and there was an actual King Midas who reigned around 725 B.C. The fact that this king was so wealthy probably attributed to the rising of the myth of the king's "golden touch." Unfortunately, the real King Midas committed suicide because of a nomadic invasion. His story didn't have such a happy ending. Archaeological evidence continues to separate fact from fiction regarding the myth of King Midas and his actual reign.

Stewig's retelling of this story follows the same plot of a king whose greed utlimately leads to regret. The queen has died, and he is left to raise his daughter Marygold alone, whom he loves very much. The king has more gold than he knows what to do with, but he is still not satisfied. One day a "stranger" appears who grants the king his wish. At first the king is thrilled that his wish has come true, but then he becomes despondent and more depressed as time goes by when he realizes his wish will cost him everything he loves and will eventually cost him his life.

Sadly, King Midas' daughter turns to gold when he kisses her forehead, and he regrets that he ever 
made the wish in the first place. The "stranger" appears throughout the story asking questions like, "Well, Midas . . . how do you enjoy the Golden Touch?" Midas responds, "I am miserable." The stranger tells the king that he is "wiser now than yesterday" and directs him to "plunge into the River Pactolus which glides past [his] garden." He is told to take a large vase, fill it with water, and sprinkle the water over any object he wishes to "change into its former condition." The king bows low to the stranger, but by the time he lifts his head, the stranger is gone.
Of course, there is a "happily ever after" to the story, and everything is turned back into its former condition, including his beloved daughter Marygold. In a humorous scene, the king takes the vase and pours water over Marygold's head. As she is transformed into her former self, she has no idea what has happened to her and wonders why she is dripping wet.

The moral of the story is, be careful what you wish for; it might come true. Greed can destroy a person's life. King Midas will never forget what has happened, and "[f]or as long as King Midas lived, two things reminded him of the Golden Touch: the sand of the River Pactolus sparked like gold and Marygold's hair retained a golden tinge he had never noticed before. When Midas grew old, he delighted in telling Marygold's children this story. Stroking their hair, which was also a rich shade of gold, he would declare, 'Ever since that morning, I cannot stand the sight of gold, except in your hair.'"

The illustrations are really what make the retelling of this classic tale interesting; however, I enjoyed the text as well. The paintings by Omar Rayyan are absolutely incredible. Filled with images of Greek mythology, the illustrations are representative of a classic mythical tale. Every time you turn a page, you will see something new in the paintings that you haven't seen before.

There are also humorous images in the illustrations that would be familiar to modern-day readers, especially older readers, and these images might be recognized by some children. On the very first page, the king is sitting on his throne, and by his foot is a bowl for his pet leopard with the name "Spot" inscribed on it. Next to the bowl, is a bag that reads "Leopard Chow," a play on today's Purina Cat or Dog Chow. There is a bright, yellow rubber duck floating in one of the water fountains, and in another illustration, there is a box of "Plato Poseidon Puffs" on the table. However, the king can't eat the cereal because everything he touches turns to gold. In this illustration, he is holding a cup that has already turned to gold in his hand, and the look on his face is one of absolute horror.

I highly recommend that you take a look at this book to see if it would be appropriate for the students in your classroom or for your own children.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's Version
of King Midas & his daughter

               Learn More About John Warren Stewig
               Greek Myths for Children Website
               Archaeological Institute of America
               King Midas Commits Suicide
               Other Images for King Midas by Stewig
               Image Source for King Midas
               Source for Nathaniel Hawthorne's Image

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Only Passing Through by Sojourner Truth by Anne Rockwell (Illustrated by R. Gregorie Christie)

Published in 2000
Picturebook / Historical Fiction

Anne Rockwell's historical, nonfiction book Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth tells the story of Isabella, a slave girl who was only nine when she was sold for the first time, and how she grew to become one of the most powerful voices of the abolitionist movement during the 1800s. Although Rockwell used many sources for her book, she relied on Sojourner Truth's own autobiography as her main source. Her book won a Coretta Scott King Award and was selected as a Best Illustrated Children's Book from the New York Times Book Review after it was published. The book has no page numbers.

This book is truly inspirational; it is about a woman whose faith and determination helped change the course of a nation. Rising from humble beginnings, Sojourner, a name she chose for herself, dedicated her life to traveling around the country telling her story and describing the horrors of slavery. Some hearts were changed; others were not. Despite angry threats to burn the places where she intended to speak, she vowed she would be heard "speaking from the ashes." Wherever she spoke, she posted a sign that read, "Proclaim Liberty" (Rockwell).

The illustrations in Rockwell's book are brightly colored, framed-pictures that fill an entire page and alternate from left to right throughout the story. The text is on one side of the page, while the illustrations are on the other. There is a picture with each turn of the page, which adds to the story as it unfolds.  I was surprised at how much the book focused on Sojourner Truth's faith; it was the driving force of her life.  Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth's faith and deeply held convictions were what gave her the strength to take the stands she took against the evils of her day. Sojourner wandered for many years and spoke to as many people as she could telling her story. She was, indeed, what she claimed to be, "a sojourner only passing through."

The author's note at the end of the book sums up the significance of Sojourner's life and the importance of her story being shared with others:

"When evil rules a time and place, certain good people are called upon to tell the truth to those who don't want to hear it."

"I've always loved stories of people who understood in one miraculous moment exactly what they had to do to confront the evil around them--Moses, Saint Paul, Joan of Arc, Saint Francis of Asissi, Sojourner Truth. Such stories fill me and many others with wonder. They live on and spark our imaginations, as they should. . . . I've told her story only up to when her transformation took place, for that part of the story moves me most. But there is more to tell of Sojourner Truth's life. On her long journey, she crossed paths with many of the great people of her time--Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott. I hope readers will go on to find out more about her and the times she lived in" (Rockwell).

After the Civil War, Sojourner Truth continued to travel around the country speaking on behalf of freed slaves and women's rights. She was "one of the first African Americans to demand, and win, the right to board public transportation along with white people" in Washington, D.C. (Rockwell).

Rockwell describes Sojourner Truth's final words at the end of her book, "In 1883, when she was dying, Sojourner told friends and family who had come to say good-bye not to cry. She told them she was going home, 'like a shooting star.' She'd always looked to the night sky, finding comfort and guidance there, as her mother had taught her. Her time on earth had been long. Now it was time to stop wandering. It was time to go home" (Author's Note).

One final fact that Rockwell shares in her book worth noting is that more than 100 years after Sojourner Truth's death, the United States launched a small vehicle to explore the surface of Mars. After a competition was held among schoolchildren to name the Mars rover, a girl from Bridgeport, Connecticut, won. The rover was named after "another American wanderer": Sojourner.

I believe everyone should read about this true American hero.

This Far By Faith
Learn More About Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth's Biography
Books About Sojourner Truth
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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Glass Slipper Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella by Paul Fleischman (Illustrated by Julie Paschkis)

Published in 2007
Traditional Literature 

Paul Fleischman's Glass Slipper Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella is definitely a book for readers who are familiar with the classic fairy tale. His book combines text from 17 different versions of the story from around the world. When you open the book, the first thing you see on the front and back endpapers is a picture of a world map. The 17 countries or areas that are featured in the book are identified on the maps. The symbols placed in the oceans, other bodies of water, and around the borders are an indication that this tale is told from a world-wide perspective. The author's note at the beginning of the story provides a  brief history of Cinderella explains Fleischman's vision for his book:

"A chameleon changes its color to match its surroundings. Stories do the same. The earliest recorded Cinderella tale is thought to date from ninth-century China. Traveling across the globe, it changed its clothes but not its essence. Rivalry, injustice, and the dream of wrongs righted are universal, no matter our garments. When the story reached France, it acquired the glass slippers and coachmen-mice familiar to Western readers. More than a thousand other versions are known. I pictured a book that would let us listen in on the tale-tellers we don't often hear, who've breathed this story to life around fires of peat and pinion pine, swinging in hammocks and snuggling under deerskins."

The illustrations in this book are what make it truly unique. The story begins with a picture of a mother and a child sitting on a couch reading Fleishman's book Glass Slipper Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella. Next to the mother and child, a globe is sitting on a small table, which is clearly an indication that Fleischman's version of the tale will have worldwide appeal. The framed picture is brightly colored and is set on a solid, white page. Then the story begins, "ONCE UPON A TIME there lived a wealthy merchant whose wife had died. They had one daughter, gentle-eyed and good-hearted."

As the story unfolds, it makes a transition to brightly colored pages with symbols that represent the countries from which the text is taken: Mexico, Korea, Iraq, Russia, and so on. The colors change every time a new country is introduced, and the name of the country is listed on the page or panel. With the turn of each page, the reader comes to understand how the story changed over time as it traveled across the globe.

I couldn't help laughing when I got to the part of the story from Laos when the stepmother is trying to keep Cinderella from the prince as he tries to find the beautiful woman he met and fell in love with at the ball: ". . . until he came to the stepmother's house. When she saw him approach, she grabbed her stepdaughter, wrapped her in a mat, and hid her." In the illustration, Cinderella's stepmother is seen wrapping her in the mat; all the reader sees is Cinderella's hair and feet protruding from the sides. Her stepmother has a smirk on her face as if she is thinking, "I got her now! I will keep her from the prince!" But of course, we all know how the story ends. This is a classic example of dramatic irony.

Another humorous variant on this classic tale comes from Indonesia and Ireland. The clock strikes midnight; I mean the "first rooster crow[s]" (from Indonesia), and she remembers her promise. Then in the illustration from Ireland, Cinderella is seen riding on a horse as she flees from the prince who is running behind her. Her foot is bare, and the prince is holding a glass slipper in his hand in fast pursuit. The text reads: "She leaped onto her mare's golden saddle. 'Who are you?' called the prince. The girl had no time for words and charged down the lane. The prince sprinted beside her, got a hand on her shoe-and the dainty thing pulled off in his fingers as she galloped away." The cultural twists and turns in this tale make it truly delightful.

I enjoyed reading this version of Cinderella and highly recommend it; however, it is definitely for readers who are familiar with the tale and have a thorough background knowledge of how the story unfolds. The folk art illustrations from the different countries are absolutely stunning, but the text doesn't flow as smoothly as the more classic versions.

Other versions of Cinderella from around the world:

More About Paul Fleishman (Author)
More About Julie Paschkis (Illustrator)
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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cinderella: The Graphic Novel Retold by Beth Bracken (Illustrated by Jeffrey Stewart Timmins)

Published in 2009
Traditional Literature

Cinderella: The Graphic Novel retold by Beth Bracken is another modern day version of this classic fairy tale that, I believe, would be enjoyed by all ages. The book is based primarily on Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's version of Cinderella (Ashputtle). It opens with a "Cast of Characters" and, at first, seems as if it will read more like a play than a typical graphic novel or book: The evil stepsisters, the evil stepmother, the prince, the fairy godmother, and of course Cinderella, all appear in the story; however, Cinderella goes by the name Ella in this version.

Unlike some versions, Cinderella's father actually appears in this story, and there are panels where Cinderella visits her mother's grave when she is sad and lonely. One scene, in particular, contrasts Cinderella and her stepmother and stepsisters' character. When Cinderella's father announces he is going to the city and asks what he should bring home for his wife and daughters, her stepmother says, "Dresses! As many as you can fit into your carriage!" The stepsisters, in turn, request, "Jewels! As many jewels as you can fit into your pockets!" Cinderella simply asks her father to bring him the first twig that knocks against his hat on his way home (Bracken 10).

Several "miserable" days later Cinderella's father returns home bearing gifts for his wife and two newest daughters and a hazel twig for his dear Cinderella. The evil stepsisters make fun of Cinderella because of her simple request, but when she plants the twig on her mother's grave, it grows into a "handsome" tree that buds with leaves and becomes a home to many kinds of birds, which later play a significant role in the story.

When the king issues a proclamation that there will be a ball, Cinderella's evil stepmother makes a deal with her. She dumps a bowl of seeds into the ashes of their fireplace and explains to Cinderella that she may go to the ball only if she completes the "impossible" task of picking every seed out of the ashes and placing them back into the bowl. Realizing she will not be able to complete the task, Cinderella rushes to the tree on her mother's grave and pleas with the birds nesting in its branches to help her.

Miraculously, the birds complete the task, but Cinderella's evil stepmother still won't allow her to attend the ball. Similar to other versions of this classic fairy tale, Cinderella's fairy godmother comes to the rescue, and Cinderella does attend the ball. The prince falls in love with her immediately, and they dance for hours. At the stroke of midnight, Cinderella, once again, loses a glass slipper as she flees the scene. In this story, however, it is not a duke who searches for the mysterious maiden; it is the prince himself. We all know how the story ends. Ella and the prince marry and live happily ever after.  However, in a unique twist to the ending of this version, Cinderella's stepsisters are punished for their wickedness in a humorous way. Her stepmother yells, "Run!" as her stepsisters are chased into the distance by Cinderella's protectors, the birds.

The illustrations are what make this version of Cinderella truly unique. They appear in a mixture of light and dark brown colors, with light shades of brown gradually becoming darker as the colors bleed out to the ends
Inside Panel
of each page and panel. The colors represent a sad, ominous tone to the story. The cover is another indication of this sad tone. Cinderella and her stepsisters' appear with their eyes closed and looking down; however, there is a tiny glimpse of hope. Cinderella is placed in the forefront, and there is a tall stick with a bird sitting on it that separates Cinderella from her evil stepsisters.

Also, the background scenes where Cinderella is seen attending the ball are bright white, signifying this joyful occasion in Cinderella's otherwise "miserable" life. Although this comic book version of this classic fairy tale is unusual and may seem strange at first, it grows on the reader as the story unfolds. The unique twists and turns in this version make it quite interesting.

At the end of the book, Bracken provides a section about the author and illustrator, a glossary, a brief history of the story of Cinderella, as well as discussion questions and writing prompts that would be helpful to any teacher who chooses to use this book in the classroom.

I believe readers of all ages would enjoy reading this version of Cinderella. I sure did!

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The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle (Pura Belpre Award Winner)

Published in 2008
Poetry Collection

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle is a Pura Belpre Award winning historical novel that is divided into five parts and includes a series of poems written in first person point-of-view. Although there are no illustrations, the book is easy and enjoyable to read because of its poetic structure. Engel begins her book with the following historical notes:

"On October 10, 1868, a handful of Cuban plantation owners freed their slaves and declared independence from Spain. Throughout the next three decades of war, nurses hid in jungle caves, healing the wounded with medicines made from wild plants."

"On February 16, 1896, Cuban peasants were ordered to leave their farms and villages. They were given eight days to reach 'reconcentration camps' near fortified cities. Anyone found in the countryside after eight days would be killed."

"My great-grandparents were two of the refugees" (Opening Page).

The two main characters in the story, Rosa and Jose, who eventually marry as the plot unfolds, established and served as nurses in make-shift hospitals that were forced to move from place to place and were often hidden in forests or caves during these wars. This book is about their experiences; however, Engle notes, "So little is known about the daily routines of Rosa and Jose that I have taken great liberties in imagining their actions, thoughts, and feelings" (161). The actual Lieutenant Death, who appears in the story as the antagonist, calls the rebels "little witches" and sought to kill them in real life. Only two of the characters are purely fictional: Silvia and the oxcart driver.

Although this book is beautifully written, I found it difficult to read and write about because I lack a good understanding of Cuban history. As I read each poem, I had so many questions: Who were these people? What were these wars truly about? How does Communism fit into the picture? What is going on in Cuba today? And why have so many Cubans fled their country to come to America? Why didn't things get better after three decades of war?

Without the author's note, the historical note, and the chronology at the end of the book, I wouldn't have had a clue as to what was going on in the story. A great deal of historical research would have to be done in order for this book to be truly meaningful for its readers, especially for children or young adults. This is the kind of novel that would have to be read and reread several times to truly understand its meaning.

It is obvious this book holds a special place in the heart of the author because she dedicated the book in memory of her maternal great-grandparents who survived the wars, but I believe it would be difficult for young people to place this book in its historical context. However, this book could be used to encourage students to learn more about Cuba and its history. Curious students who love history and would be willing to spend the necessary time conducting research would find this book fascinating.

Margarita Engle
Pura Belpre Award

Friday, February 14, 2014

In Memory of Leanne Bearden: Update

I would like to express my deepest sympathy to the family of Leanne Bearden. I am so sorry to hear of your loss. I know the past four weeks have been devastating for your family as you have prayed for and have searched for Leanne. May God be with you through this difficult time.

Catherine Fisher

Update: Leanne's Death Ruled a Suicide
CNN Breaking News About Leanne Bearden
Leanne Bearden's Travel Blog

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Walt Disney's Cinderella Retold by Cynthia Rylant (Pictures by Mary Blair)

Published in 2007
Traditional Literature

Walt Disney's Cinderella retold by Cynthia Rylant is a modern day version of the classic story Cinderella. The unframed illustrations throughout the book are actually pictures by Mary Blair, one of Walt Disney's "most brilliant conceptual designers." Mary Blair, who was born in 1911 and died in 1978, "helped define the look of such classics as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan during her thirty-four years as an artist with the company. In addition to her work on animated films, Blair brought her unique style to children's books, advertisements, theatrical set designs, and theme park attractions. She remains one of the most respected artists in the history of animation" (back book cover jacket). The illustrations are really what make this picturebook special. They are pictures readers would be very familiar with if they have seen any of Walt Disney's cartoon classics.

Rylant's retelling of the story is basically the same as the classic version of Cinderella, except in a few instances. The opening lines reveal her primary focus: "THIS IS A STORY about darkness and light, about sorrow and joy, about something lost and something found. This is a story about Love." In this version, Cinderella wishes for only one thing: Love, and Rylant makes this clear at the very beginning. 

The wicked stepmother and stepsisters still despise Cinderella and try to prevent her from going to the ball, but her fairy godmother, once again, comes to the rescue and turns a pumpkin into a coach, four mice into horses, and a "child of rags [becomes] a vision." As Cinderella rushes off to the ball with a promise of returning at midnight, one question stands alone on a golden page: "Who can say by what mystery two people find each other in this great wide world?"

Cinderella does, in fact, make it to the ball. She and the young prince fall in love and dance the night away until the clock strikes midnight. Then Cinderella remembers her promise, takes one last glance at her prince, and runs away losing one of her glass slippers on the palace steps. A massive search begins in the kingdom for the beautiful woman who captured the prince's heart. The duke is sent out "on an order from the palace" and goes from house to house searching for the lovely maiden. When the duke arrives at Cinderella's home, her stepmother will not allow Cinderella to speak to the duke or try on the slipper. However, in this modern day version of the tale, Cinderella takes matters into her own hands.

As the duke turns to leave, Cinderella appears at the top of the stairs and softly but boldly asks, "May I try on the slipper?" Unlike other versions, this duke is clumsy and drops the glass slipper to the floor, and it shatters into a thousand pieces. Cinderella calmly explains to the duke that all is well. She has the other slipper, and as the duke slips her foot into it, the shoe fits! Cinderella returns to the palace "where Love had always been waiting," the prince takes her in his arms, and they live happily ever after.

I like this version, because unlike earlier versions, Cinderella is beautiful, soft-spoken, and humble, but when it really matters, she is strong. She doesn't allow her wicked stepmother to control her life any longer and takes matters into her own hands. She takes charge, and her life changes dramatically. She has finally won the Love she has always longed for.

Mary Blair
Cynthia Rylant
Children and adults alike will never tire of the story of Cinderella. Even though there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of versions of this story told around the world, the story will always speak to the heart: The one thing we all long for is Love.



Cynthia Rylant's Official Website
Mary Blair Gallery
Image Source

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Erika's Story by Ruth Vander Lee (Illustrated by Roberto Innocenti)

Published in 2003
Picturebook / Historical Fiction
Erika's Story is a nonfiction picturebook, or biography, that tells the powerful story of Erika, a German, Jewish survivor of the Holocaust during World War II. The author's note at the beginning of the story explains how the book came about:

"In 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I met the woman in the story. My husband and I were sitting on a curb in Rothenburg, Germany, watching a clean-up crew gather shards of broken roof tile from the city hall. A small tornado had ripped through this lovely medieval village the night before and scattered rubble everywhere. An elderly merchant standing nearby was telling us that the storm left as much devastation as the last Allied attack of the war."

"When the merchant went back to tending his store, the lady sitting next to us introduced herself as Erika. . . . I noticed she was wearing a Star of David on a gold chain around her neck, so I mentioned that after our stay in Israel . . . we had driven through Austria and visited the concentration camp in Mathausen. Erika told me that she had one time gotten as far as the entrance to Dachau but could not bear to enter."

"Then she told me her story . . . "

Erika tells her story of how, as an infant, she was thrown from a moving train by her mother in

Erika is thrown from the train by her mother.
an effort to save her life.  Her mother knew she was destined for death and felt the only way to save her child's life was to throw her from the train window with the hope someone would find her. Someone did find her, and that woman, who is never identified in the story, risked her life in order to raise Erika as her own child. Erika did survive the war. She survived because of her mother's sacrifice and the kindness and courage of a woman her family didn't even know.

The yellow Star of David in the center of the book's cover powerfully symbolizes what happened from 1933-1945, when six million Jews were killed, shot, starved to death, burned in ovens, or gassed in chambers. The book's title simply states: "Erika's Story." The word Verboten, which means forbidden in German, is touching the yellow star to remind us that Jews were forbidden in Germany under the Nazi Regime. The muted colors, browns, blacks, and whites set the Star of David apart from the other images on the cover. When the book is opened, the endpapers are yellow, and the reader sees that the star has been cut-out so that the color of the star is revealed only by what is underneath the cover. The star is there, but it isn't.

Most of the illustrations throughout the book are in black and white, except for a few. The illustration where the author meets Erika is in color and is modern in its representation; the image of Erika being thrown from the train is in black and white, except for the infant shown wrapped in a pink blanket; and the final double-page illustration is of Erika depicted as a small child (about five or six) watching a train pass by in the distance. Erika is standing on a bridge with her back facing the audience, and a woman is hanging clothes nearby. The impression is left to the reader's imagination; this woman must be the one who saved Erika's life. Her back is also facing the audience, and her face is not revealed to protect her identity.

The gray clouds in the distance and the wind blowing Erika's hair and dress create an ominous tone and represent the horror of what has happened to Erika and her family. The final sentence in Erika's story is on a solid, white page and stands alone in the top left-hand corner. It simply reads, "My star still shines." Beneath the sentence is a small, yellow star. Nothing else needs to be said.

Ruth Vander Zee Website
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Resources for Educators
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Faith by Maya Ajmera, Magda Nakassis, and Cynthia Pon

Published in 2009

Faith is a nonfiction book that was developed by The Global Fund for Children, a nonprofit organization located in Washington, D.C. that is committed to "advancing the dignity of children and youth around the world."  Their primary purpose is "to teach young people to value diversity and help them become productive and caring citizens of the world." Part of the proceeds from this book are donated to the organization "to support innovative community-based organizations that serve the world's most vulnerable children and youth" (back endpaper). This book definitely meets that objective.

This beautifully illustrated book is about the size of a sheet of paper, 8.5 X 11, and is set in landscape orientation, which would make any reader feel comfortable and at ease with its size and shape. The illustrations are actual photos taken by various copyright holders, which make the book appear realistic. As I read the text, looked at the pictures, and turned each page, I felt like I was reading a National Geographic Magazine. As a matter of fact, the jacket front cover photo was taken by Joel Sartore, a National Geographic photographer.

Many religions from around the world are included in the text. Most of the illustrations are framed photos of children and are strategically placed on each page to indicate the differences between each faith. Each photo has a caption that identifies the particular religion and provides a country where the religion is practiced. Some photos bleed to the end of the page, which make them appear larger than life. Religious practices are also depicted in the text and pictures, and the children appear joyful as they practice their faiths.

There were several aspects of this book that I found particularly helpful. There is a world map at the end of the book that identifies the countries from where the children portrayed in the book actually live and practice their faiths. The countries are labeled in bright colors, and the entire world is represented. In addition to the map, there is a section which includes "Elements of Faith." This section describes and defines how the children actually practice their faith. Finally, there is a "Words to Know" section, similar to a dictionary, that I found beneficial. Many religious terms that might be unfamiliar to readers are defined in this section.

Faith would be an excellent way to introduce world religions to children because it doesn't get into the more controversial aspects of faith such as intolerance, religious persecution, and terrorism, which is, in fact, taking place all over the world.

I am grateful to live in a country where diversity is often celebrated and embraced, but I couldn't help wondering while reading this book, how well this book would be received in countries such as China, Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, where women's rights and religious diversity are not so freely celebrated and embraced. It doesn't surprise me that this book was published in America.

Maya Ajmera Website
The Global Fund for Children
National Geographic Magazine
National Geographic Magazine for Kids
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Sunday, February 2, 2014

The House by J. Patrick Lewis (Illustrated by Roberto Innocenti)

Published in 2009

J. Patrick Lewis' book The House is an incredible book, especially because of the beautiful illustrations by Italian artist and Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Roberto Innocenti. Lewis, an American poet, wrote the text in a series of rhyming quatrains, and the story is told over a time period that spans 100 years. The book is unique in that it is written in first person point-of-view from the house's perspective and has an interesting introduction that provides a glimpse into the story's possible theme:

"The lintel above my door reads 1656, a plague year, the year of my construction. I was built of stone and wood, but with the passage of time, my windows came to see, my eaves to hear. I saw families grow and trees fall. I heard laughter and guns. I came to know storms, hammers and saws, and finally, desertion. Then, one day, children ventured beneath my shadow seeking mushrooms and chestnuts, and I was given new life at the dawn of a modern age. This is my story, from my old hill, of the twentieth century. ~The House, 2009" (opening page).

The House is a sentimental story that reminds me of the books that were written in the early 18th and 19th centuries that were not intended to be read by children but are now considered children's classics. This book could become a children's classic, but I believe it has been written for adults rather than for children. It is a story, however, that should be read by children because of the beautiful illustrations and altering rhyme schemes. Although "the house" was built in 1656, the actual story begins in 1900:

"I listen as the gossip-wind exhales,
Behold! The House of twenty thousand tales.
No longer shut away, a doomed outcast:
The children have discovered me at last."

For more than 300 years, the house stands strong despite the ravages of time, but within a period of just 30 years, the house falls into disrepair and eventual destruction. With the turning of each page, the house serves as a witness to what takes place within and around the house, and the reader sees and feels what the people in the house experience with each changing season. As the years pass, 1900, 1901, 1905, and then a year into World War I (1915), the reader begins to understand that life goes on even for those thrown into the uncertainties of war:

"Midsummer's dress is maid-of-honor green.
The hill girl takes her future by the hand--
A mason-soldier from the bottomland.
Life holds its breath when weddings intervene."

Despite war, weddings take place, children are born, Easter is celebrated, altar boys flee two angry geese, but by the year 1918, the war has taken its toll:

"From wife to widow . . . and the depths of grief.                        
My furnace burns as children leave for school,
Bundled in virtue, books, and classroom fuel.
How beautiful their innocence, how brief."

The third line in this quatrain could be a reference to the "virtuous" books that were written for children in early America, but the exact location of the house is somewhat ambiguous. Although the book is written by an American poet, the setting of the story could be somewhere in Europe because of the appearance of the illustrations.

Winters come and go; the Great Depression hits, the world is thrown into another unprecedented war, World War II. With each passing year, the reader experiences life as it is lived and witnessed by the house:
The House 1936

"Catastrophe, despair and hatred chase
Victims far from the flames that light my face.
I am the final refuge of the poor,
Who suffer but in suffering endure."

And the result of The Great War? More widows who are forced to continue to perform their daily duties despite their pain and suffering; children grow up and move away; all "vestiges of yesterday" seem to disappear, for life must go on. Eventually in 1967, the widow of the house passes away, a funeral is performed, and "quietly tolls the bell." Reality sets in:

"A House without a heart is like a flower
Without the dew."

The sixties and seventies come and go; they are decades of experimentation for the youth who tenant the house. Images of flower children are visible in the illustrations. The children seem to have lost their way, and the house begins to fall into disrepair and questions its future:

"This generation has much youth to spare,
Yet old stones youth alone cannot repair.
I am a House but I am home to none;
My voyage to destiny is nearly done."

Twenty years later after the house has been abandoned, it says, "Mold is my master. . . . And I am captive to this solitude." The wild creatures and the elements have intruded, and the cobblestones are about to disappear. The dark image of lightening striking a tree near the house is symbolic of what is taking place.

The very next page reveals, what I believe to be, the theme of the book. The illustration is dated 1999, the final year before the turn of the century, and shows a bulldozer after it has destroyed the house; it is making way for the new. The theme of the story is beautifully revealed "on the breath of nightingales." Notice how the words are italicized for emphasis:

"Where is the House of twenty thousand tales?                       
I do not recognize my new address.
What became of the maxim, More is less?"

I couldn't help but to think while reading this book, is change always good? Should we totally do away with the old to make way for the new?

As the story concludes, a dramatic shift occurs with the entrance of the "modern" age. The final illustration shows a new house standing where the old house once stood. Every illustration thus far represents the past, but this illustration would be very familiar to the reader; it represents the new. Although the story of the house seemed sad to me at times because I became attached to it as we got to know each other on our journey through time, the final picture provides a glimpse of hope. Time goes on, and a new generation will pick up where the old one left off, but perhaps, just perhaps, we should be careful as to how quickly we embrace this change.

Read The House by J. Patrick Lewis; you will never forget it!

J. Patrick Lewis' Website
Pictures of The House by J. Patrick Lewis
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