Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bug in a Vacuum

This is a wonderful picture book that not only has an amusing story about an insect (and a dog's toy) sucked up into a vacuum cleaner, but also a primer on the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief, as the bug (and the dog) go through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in turn.

This book could be used with many ages to explain the stages of grief and help one going through death or another loss, disappointment, or traumatic event.  The very first page (even before the title page) sets the stage:

Bug (buhg)
  • An insect
  • An unexpected glitch

Vacuum (vak-yoom)
  • A cleaning machine
  • A void left by a loss

Each stage of grief is presented as a household item.  Denial is a can of repellent spray that “wipes out the ugly truth.” Bargaining is a box of detergent to “wash away your troubles.” Anger is a frozen dinner that is “quick and messy.” Despair is a book with "an unfair tale with an unhappy ending." Acceptance is a box of "gentle and comforting" facial tissues.  Then the reader sees the bug's reactions to each stage inside the vacuum cleaner, and the dog's reaction just outside it.

Mélanie Watt uses mixed media to create a winsome bug (and dog) against a background of old-style furnishings and equipment (like the vacuum cleaner). Children will enjoy spotting items, on the floor in the earlier pages, inside the vacuum cleaner (and used in delightful ways by the bug) as the story progresses.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[Bug in a Vacuum is available on the lower level of the Dick Smith Library in the Curriculum Collection, call number EDUC PZ7 .W33225 BU 2015.]

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate

This is a sequel to The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly's 2010 Newbery Honor Book, but you don't need to have read it in order to enjoy this one.

It takes up right where the previous book left off - the beginning of the year 1900, in the Tate home in Fentress, Texas.  Twelve-year-old Calpurnia Virginia ("Callie Vee") Tate, the middle child among six brothers, is thrilled to find it snowing - a rarity in Central Texas in the winter.

This book continues the Darwinian theme with epigraphs for each chapter from Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle.  Fitting, too, because this time, Callie's scientific explorations - mostly conducted with her grandfather - focus on animals instead of plants, as well as the weather and stars.

Callie's younger brother Travis (all but the oldest brother are named for various early Texas heroes) plays a big part in this book, with his quest to find the ideal pet.  He adopts a series of inappropriate ones - an armadillo, a blue jay, a raccoon - and finally a half-coyote dog he names Scruffy. Callie's involved in (trying to) help him keep them hidden from their parents, and in caring for them when they are ultimately discovered.

In an interview, Kelly said she'd wanted to write a sequel,  "but our big old house in Fentress, Texas, which served as the inspiration for so much of the first book, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 2010.  It was a horrible experience and it took me some time to get over it."  She also said she "drew a lot of inspiration from our dog Laika, a stray living near the San Marcos River, who we are pretty sure is half-Chow and half-coyote." Laika is the inspiration for Scruffy.

Kelly, who lived for a while in Galveston, works the 1900 hurricane that devastated that city into the story. Callie sees a coastal gull that's flown far inland, and her grandfather has her build a homemade barometer and make observations.  They predict the big storm and try to warn their family in Galveston.  After the storm, Callie's father and oldest brother go to help, and return with Callie's older cousin Agatha who comes to live with the Tates for a while - getting the bed in Callie's room while our heroine sleeps on the floor - while her family home is being rebuilt.  They are accompanied by a veterinarian who sets up practice in Fentress.  Callie assists him with some of his patients, and is frustrated by 1900s customs that would seem to prevent her from becoming a veterinarian herself.

The gentle reminders that girls didn't have the kinds of opportunities in the early 1900s that they do today, plus Callie's interest in science, encouraged by her grandfather (she even dissects a worm and a frog, and builds astrolabe to learn about latitude and longitude), make this book especially appropriate for girls age 11 and up, as well as "all nature lovers, and all curious kids, and all strong readers," according to Kelly.

Once again, the beautiful silhouette on the cover was designed by the talented Beth White.  And native Texan Natalie Ross also reads this audiobook, with her soft but musical Southern-accented voice, perfect for Callie, who tells her own tale.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate is available on the lower level of the Dick Smith Library in the Curriculum Collection, call number EDUC PZ7 .K296184 CU 2015.  The audiobook is also available in the Audiovisual Collection on the lower level, call number AV-AUDIO PZ7 .K296184 CU 2015B.]

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Absolutely Normal Chaos

If you've read Sharon Creech's 1995 Newbery Medalist, Walk Two Moons, you might recognize some characters from that one in Absolutely Normal Chaos, Creech's 1990 novel, which is built around the journal assignment that also appears in Walk Two Moons. The Finney family, as well as some of Phoebe and Sal's classmates from Walk Two Moons, made their first appearance in this book.  Absolutely Normal Chaos did not seem to have much press until after Creech won the Newbery, which is why many seem to think it was written after Walk Two Moons.  Nope.  It came before.

Mary Lou Finney, the second of the five children, is the journal writer in this book.  And what a journal it is!  She writes "on and on" sometimes, just like her best friend Beth Ann talks "on and on" about her latest boyfriend.  I would hope thirteen-year-old Mary Lou just got caught up in the journal writing and didn't really intend to turn all this in to her teachers.

Author Sharon Creech says the inspiration for the book came when she was living in England and missing her family.  Just like Mary Lou, she actually has three younger brothers named Dennis, Doug, and Tom, but the book characters' behavior is fictional, just like those of her parents, older sister, and cousin (the latter two not named Maggie and Carl Ray in real life).  Creech "did have a cousin who came to live with us when I was Mary Lou’s age, and he was quite like the character Carl Ray is," and "Mary Lou gives her address in this book as 4059 Buxton Road—and that was my real address," although it was in South Euclid, Ohio, and not the fictional Easton of the book.

While some of the plot isn't too plausible (especially Carl Ray's story), the portrayal of family life at the unnamed time is.  There's a bit of timelessness in the setting of this novel that makes it appealing even today, 25 years after it was written, and nearly 60 years after the author was Mary Lou's age.  The only real clue it's not set in the present is the many references to telephones that are *not* cells (or smart) - the kids call each other and don't text.

The book addresses some serious issues - death (the next door neighbor, who is not elderly) and poverty (Mary Lou travels with Carl Ray back to his home in Appalachia - no electricity, no flushing toilet).

Besides the summer journal to keep, Mary Lou also has a summer reading list.  She picks out a book of poems by Robert Frost and the Odyssey to read, and makes comments and writes notes about them in this book as well.  Her commentary is quite amusing.

Probably the funniest part of the book was the stretch in the journal where Mary Lou's mother tells her to stop saying "God," "stupid," and "stuff" so much, and to expand her vocabulary.  So Mary Lou uses a thesaurus to find synonyms and starts using those instead, even in her journal.  The results are hilarious (from page 139):

Not much elixir happened today.  Alex had to work all day, so I stayed home, watched Tommy, read some more Odyssey, and quintessence. 
Mrs. Furtz came over again, all crying and nub, about some cabbageheaded letter she got....I do feel sorry for her and all, I really do, but Omnipotent!

I like this book cover, with its with its flying pages of journal-writing.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[Absolutely Normal Chaos is available on the lower level of the Dick Smith Library in the Curriculum Collection, call number EDUC PZ7 .C8615 AB 1995.]

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

2010 Scott O'Dell Award

The Storm in the Barn, a graphic novel written and illustrated by Matt Phelan, won the 2010 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction written for children or young adults.  It was also a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee in 2011-2012.

It's set in Dust Bowl Kansas in 1937, and it hasn't rained in four years, since now-11-year-old Jack would have been old enough to help around on the family farm.  Since there's no farming possible, Jack's father seems to perceive Jack as being useless.  Being picked on by the town bullies doesn't help.  The general store owner tells him stories of Jacks of folklore to bolster him.  His sister Dorothy suffers from dust pneumonia, and it seems the only bright spot is when she reads aloud from some of Frank Baum's Oz books. Like Oz, the only illustrations in the book that are not monochrome occur when Jack's mother reminisces about the past.

Otherwise, Phelan's pencil, ink, and watercolor drawings use muted tones, browns and beiges in the daytime, and blues and grays at night, inside the barn, and during the rain that finally comes.  In an author's note at the end, Phelan says some of his inspiration was the black-and-white images of Works Progress Administration photographers of the era such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.  He wrote,  "I began to imagine what the experience of living in the Dust Bowl must have been like through the eyes of a kid. Without the complicated explanation of the history of over-planting, soil erosion, and other factors, a young boy or girl would only know ... The rain had gone away. But where?"

While graphic novels are often good for struggling readers, the sparseness of the text in this story might be difficult for some.  It was difficult to interpret what was going on in a few of the textless panel sequences.  For this reason - and because of a (thankfully not-too-graphic) section about killing off jackrabbits that were overwhelming the area - this book would be best for somewhat older readers, age 11 and up.  The fantasy element in the book (the "storm in the barn" pictured on the cover), might make it more appealing for children.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[The Storm in the Barn is available on the lower level of the Dick Smith Library in the Curriculum Collection, call number EDUC PZ7.7 .P485 ST 2009.]

Monday, August 31, 2015

1958 Newbery Medalist

Rifles for Watie won the Newbery Medal for "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" in 1958.  Unlike most Civil War novels, it is set on the western front, specifically in (what is now) Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Jefferson Davis "Jeff" Bussey is sixteen-year-old farm boy in Linn County, Kansas, when the war begins in 1861.  Inspired by his admiration for Abraham Lincoln and an attack on his family by pro-slavery Missouri bushwhackers, he joins the Kansas Volunteers at Fort Leavenworth.

Jeff is eager to see battle, but has only a background role initially.  Later he learns the harsh realities of combat, moves from the infantry, to an emergency participation in the artillery, to the cavalry, and becomes a scout.  His time "undercover" on the Confederate side was one of the most interesting parts of the book.  He learns that the Rebels are people just like him, and when he falls in love with a Confederate Cherokee girl, he feels torn between the two sides.

This book held the interest of a non-fan of war fiction throughout.  It's well-written and provides much insight into the day-to-day life of soldiers in the Civil War's western front.  The reading level and content of this book makes it more appropriate for grade six and up.

Author Harold Keith, a native Oklahoman who had a master's degree in history, interviewed 22 Confederate veterans then living in Oklahoma and Arkansas as part of his research for the book.  He also read diaries and journals of mostly Union veterans, and hundreds of letters, including many from the mixed-blood Cherokees who participated in the war, such as family members of the Confederate general Stand Watie of the title (although there is no evidence Watie ever attempted to get the repeating rifles of the title and the fictional plot).

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[Rifles for Watie is available on the lower level of the Dick Smith Library in the Curriculum Collection, call number EDUC PZ7 .K255 RI 1957.]

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Two Picture Books About Acceptance

These two books are about acceptance and tolerance - but of the LGBT community and young boys who like to dress up.  They were the subject of a book challenge at my local public library recently - fortunately, the books are still on the shelves.

My Princess Boy, written by Cheryl Kilodavis, is subtitled "a mom's story about a young boy who loves to dress up" -- in this case, her four-year-old son.  The narrative is a bit pedantic, but there's an important message about compassion and tolerance. Suzanne DeSimone's illustrations are notable for the lack of features on the faces.  I like to think that is so the reader or listener can imagine anyone's and everyone's faces on the characters - further promoting acceptance of others and one's own uniqueness.

This Day in June, written by Gayle E. Pitman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, won the 2015 Stonewall Book Award - Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award, given annually to "English-language works of exceptional merit for children or teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience.'
This was the first time in the award's 44-year-history that a picture book won (or was even named an honor book).

The book portrays the sights, sounds, and emotions of a colorful gay pride parade with short rhyming text and intricate illustrations by Kristyna Litten.  Young children who look at this book will see a fun parade; older children and parents will see some of the subtler messages in the shirts and signs of parade participants and watchers (the latter generally rendered in simple outlines and pastels).  Pitman also included an interesting four-page reading guide that provides more background for the images in each of the double-page-spread illustrations, as well as a four-page "note to parents and caregivers" with ideas on using the book and talking to children of various ages about the issues it might bring up.  I would definitely recommend this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[My Princess Boy and This Day in June are available on the lower level of the Dick Smith Library in the Curriculum Collection, call numbers EDUC HQ1075 .K535 2010 and EDUC PZ8.3 .P5586836 TH 2014 respectively.]

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler

This is the true story of the book's subtitle, Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club.  Pedersen founded the group, consisting of himself and seven other teenage boys, to perform acts of sabotage against the Germans occupying Denmark in World War II.

The story is told primarily through Pedersen's words.  National Book Award winner Phillip Hoose worked with Pedersen in 2012 to create an English version of his story, little-known outside Denmark.  Hoose conducted 25 hours of face-to-face interviews and exchanged nearly 1,000 e-mails with Pedersen.

The narrative is exciting and should hold the interest of the target teen audience, especially boys.  The book can definitely be used in history classes on World War II (there's a teacher's guide from the publisher on the author's web site), and could also spark some interesting discussions on courage, on the morality of sabotage in wartime, and on taking risks and keeping secrets.

The book includes photographs, maps, and other illustrations, as well as a bibliography, end notes, and index (useless in the e-book as there are no page numbers or links).  An audio version (narrated by the author as well as actor and voice artist Michael Braun) is also available, and  would enhance understanding for any struggling readers in the targeted high school age group.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is available on the lower level of the Dick Smith Library in the Curriculum Collection, call number EDUC D802 .D4 H645 2015.]
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