Monday, May 9, 2011

Crow Call

Written by Lois Lowry

Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

I was fortunate to have stumbled upon Lois Lowry’s, Crow Call, as I was looking through the picture book section for another book written by an “L” author.  I did not realize Lowry had ever written a picture book—and realized later through her website that this was her first.  I was immediately drawn to the book because there was something about the title and the illustrations on the front and back cover that reminded me of one of my favorite picture books, Owl Moon, written by Jane Yolen. 

Through the story of Crow Call, Lowry retells a true story from a childhood—an early morning when she went crow calling with her father in 1945 after his return from World War II.  Early on, we realize that the young girl is rebuilding her relationship with her father and hardly feels like she knows him anymore.  She says, “I practice his name to myself, whispering it under my breath.  Daddy.  Daddy.  Saying it feels new.  The war has lasted so long.  He has been gone so long.”  Later, the father asks, “What’s your favorite thing to eat in the whole world?”  The young girl responds, ““Cherry pie.”  I admit.  If he hadn’t been away for so long, he would have known.”

As the story continues, the young girl Liz becomes more and more comfortable with her father.  Similar to Owl Moon, Crow Call shows the powerful relationship between father and daughter and the importance of bonding.  The story is told through the perspective of the young girl, and Lowry incorporates a lot of dialogue between the young girl and her father in addition to the young girl’s innermost thoughts.  For example, a conversation about war: ““Daddy,” I ask shyly, “were you scared in the war?”  He looks ahead, up the hill, and after a moment he says, “Yes.  I was scared.”  “Of what?” “Lots of things.  Of being alone.  Of being hurt.  Of hurting someone else.”  “Are you still?”  “He glances down.  “I don’t think so.  Those kinds of scares go away.””  What a powerful conversation for the two of them to be having—it provides a chance for Liz to get to know her father on a deeper level—and a chance to understand an aspect of war.

Lowry writes using poetic and descriptive language.  For example, “I try not to laugh, wanting to do rabbits next, but I can’t keep from it.  He looks so funny, with his neck pulled away from his shirt collar and a condescending, poised, giraffe look on his face.”  We can visualize this special moment where Liz’s father is being silly making a giraffe call and we feel the warmth of the relationship between the father and daughter.  Also, “I want to scamper ahead of him like a puppy, kicking the dead leaves and reaching the unknown places first, but there is an uneasy feeling along the edge of my back at the thought of walking in front of someone who is a hunter.”  We can now sense Liz’s uneasiness as she relates to her father being a hunter in the war.

As Liz and her father approach the woods, Ibatoulline creates tension through his full-bleed, double-paged spread illustrations.  The full-bleed illustrations keep us at a close-distance.  Just like in Owl Moon, we feel like we are intruding on this very special moment between a father and the daughter.  The perspective of the illustrations does change throughout the book.  At times, we are close enough to hear the conversations of the characters.  At other times, we are watching from as if we are an animal peeking from their burrow. 

The colors throughout the story make readers think of fall—shades of brown, black, and light blue saturate each page.  The trees are bare in the woods, reminding us that winter is on its way.  The trees mostly consist of diagonal lines—again creating tension and evoking emotion in the reader.  The representational style of the illustrations reminds us that this story is real as we can sense the subtleties in the expressions of the characters and understand their feelings.

Although this story is nostalgic of an event in Lowry’s childhood, I feel it is relatable to anyone—young or old.  Children today are still faced with losing their fathers to war.  Many fathers do come back, but the bond between father and daughter must be recreated in order to make up for the time that has been lost.  Lowry’s Crow Call reminds us all what it is like to get to know a loved one for what seems like the first time.

Dear Mr. Henshaw

Written By: Beverly Cleary

Illustrated By: Paul O. Zelinsky

Life is tough for Leigh Botts as he struggles to deal with the divorce of his parents, the feeling of being abandoned by his father, and the everyday difficulties that go along with being in the sixth grade. 

Beverly Cleary, author of Dear Mr. Henshaw, writes the full story in the form of letters.  What is interesting; however, is that the letters are only written from the perspective of the protagonist, Leigh.  Readers can only assume how author Mr. Henshaw responds to Leigh’s letters, as sometimes Leigh leaves little hints in his next letter.  For example, on page 35, Leigh writes to Mr. Henshaw, “I’ve been thinking about what you said on your postcard about keeping a diary.  Maybe I’ll try it.”  We know from this that Henshaw has obviously suggested to Leigh that he begin a diary to write down some of his feelings—we can assume that the diary is meant to be therapeutic for Leigh. 

Cleary strongly develops Leigh as a character that many children can relate to.  Unfortunately, many children will either indirectly or directly experience divorce and feelings of abandonment.  The book can help young readers to cope and to understand that they are not alone—there is always someone to talk to—even if it is in the form of a diary.  The book can provide insight for those who are indirectly affected by divorce.  Leigh is an only child and cannot help but feel like he is to blame for his parents getting divorced.  Through his conversations with his mother and Mr. Henshaw, Leigh begins to realize that things are not his fault.  Many children can also relate to the social challenges associated with starting middle school.  This story can either help children to develop empathy for those they may be picking on, or comfort that it will end—for those who are being picked on.

What is best about the book is the fact that the issues and topics presented in the book are truly timeless.  This story was published twenty-eight years ago in 1983.  Unfortunately, the issues that are presented in this story are still issues of today and are still relatable.  Cleary kept a neutral setting and did not include anything that would cause the book to be outdated.

Although there are not too many illustrations throughout the book, illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky did include pencil illustrations, which help readers to visualize the book.  The very first illustration on the title page is a collage of all of the major events that will occur throughout the story.  As readers read through the story, connections can be made and brought back to the beginning of the book.

There are some things in life that we cannot change and we can always look to a book to help us get through difficult times.  For some, reading may be therapeutic.  For others, writing may do the trick.  In Dear Mr. Henshaw, Beverly Cleary shows us that both have the power to help us develop and grow.


Written by Jacqueline Woodson

Feathers, a realistic fiction novel written by Jacqueline Woodson that takes place in the 1970s, is about children who are trying to find their place in the world.  The protagonist of the story, Frannie, is eleven years old and much like her friends is not sure how to take it when a white, “Jesus-Boy” shows up in her classroom—one that is all black.  Sean, Frannie’s older brother, deals with being deaf in a community of people who can all hear.  Another young boy from Frannie’s class, Trevor, is biracial, but has difficulty dealing with this and in turn, becomes a bully.  The Jesus Boy, although he looks white, does not identify with being so.

Woodson develops a plot that is engaging and realistic to today’s youth.  People are constantly judging each other because of their looks, skin color, disabilities, etc..  The plot is full of different situations and problems that the children face.  For example, Frannie’s brother Sean deals with the reaction of young girls when they find out he cannot hear.  For some reason, they are no longer interested once they find out he is deaf. 

Woodson never names the setting, but according to her website, she was envisioning the story to take place between the Queens and Brooklyn border.  The biggest thing that makes this evident is that Frannie and the other children are always talking about the other side of the bridge.  Since they are living on Long Island, they would have to cross a bridge to get into New York City and another one to get beyond New York City.  Interestingly though, Frannie would not have had to travel beyond the bridge in order to see how the other side lived.  From what I know about Long Island, Frannie could have also just traveled further east and would have also been in a different world.  Woodson writes After Tupac & D. Foster in a similar setting to Feathers.

Although this story won the Newbery Honor Award, I did not feel as much of an emotional connection to the story and found it difficult to get through at times.  In comparison to some of the other Newbery Award winning books, I feel like others are overall much stronger.  For example, I feel there is a world of difference between the story, One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia and Feathers.  Regardless though, I found it intriguing to read about a boy who was the only white kid in the class—this is certainly different from what I am used to—although, the story did remind me of when I taught in a predominately African American school.

Born Yesterday: The Diary of a Young Journalist

Written By: James Solheim

Illustrated By: Simon James

Have you ever wondered what goes on in the minds of babies?  What are they really thinking when they suck their thumb?  What makes it appealing to them to stick their fist in their mouths or bite their ankles?  The story of Born Yesterday: The Diary of a Young Journalist, written by James Solheim, is a journey kept by a newborn baby in the first year of life.  Everything is written from the baby’s perspective and it is for lack of a better word—hilarious.

For example, on March 22nd the baby writes, “Finally—I have it figured out.  Some things are noses, some are taxicabs, and some are Belgians.  The up end of people is their hairstyles and the down end is their tootsie-wootsies.  These tootsie-wootsie things are fascinating.  I plan to write a book about them. My sister paints her tootsie-wootsie nails a special color called striped.  I can’t wait till I can paint my tootsie-wootsie nails the color called striped, and thus become a super-chick person like my sister.  For now, I just lift them to my mouth and suck.”

The illustrations in the story are simple and are very cartoonish.  The cartoon-looking characters add to the overall mood and humor of the story and the brightly colored watercolors attract the eye—making it perfect for young readers.  The pages are made to look like lined paper, giving the appearance of a real diary.  The illustrations are dispersed throughout the pages and are drawn as vignettes—adding meaning to the text surrounding it. 

A book review by Booklist on Amazon did not give Born Yesterday a positive review simply because the reviewer felt that some of the humor in the book may be over the heads of the intended age group.  The intended age group for this book is ages four through eight.  I do agree that this story will mostly appeal to children in the upper level of the age group because they will better be able to understand the humor—especially if they are an older brother or sister to a new baby in the household.  I read this story to my third-grade students and found that they were all rolling on the floor with laughter—actually, they thought it was much funnier than I had originally anticipated.

The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark

Written By: Carmen Agra Deedy

Illustrated By: Henri Sorensen

The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark, written by Carmen Agra Deedy, is a powerful story of heroism, strength, pride, and unity.  During World War II, the Nazis invaded Copenhagen, Denmark.  King Christian X was said to be a strong leader who stood strong for his people.  As told in the legend, the Nazis ordered anyone who was a Jew to wear a yellow star to be visible at all times.  The people of Denmark were frightened because they had heard stories of Jews being taken away once they wore the yellow star.  King Christian X decided that all of Denmark would wear yellow stars in order to protect the Jews. 

Carmen Agra Deedy begins her story with a strong and intriguing lead.  “Early in the year 1940, in the country of Denmark, there were only Danes.  Tall Danes.  Stout Danes.  Old Danes.  Silly Danes.  Cranky Danes…and even some Great Danes.”  Deedy immediately catches the attention of readers and makes them want to continue reading.  Deedy also uses the technique of making a long story short in order to maintain the interest of young readers while providing enough information to give understanding.  For example, when letting readers know that the Nazis invaded Copenhagen, Deedy writes, “Soon Nazi solders gathered like dark clouds at the Danish border.  Their arrival in Copenhagen brought food shortages, curfews, and a new flag, which was hung at the palace.”

Deedy’s repetitive words and phrases throughout the story emphasize their importance.  For example, “If King Christian called on the tiny Danish army to fight, Danes would die.  If he did nothing, Danes would die.”  The emphasis is on King Christian’s dilemma—that regardless of what he did in order to solve the problem, Danes would die.  Deedy emphasizes the unity of the Danes when she states, “…there were only Danes.  Tall Danes.  Stout Danes.  Old Danes.  Silly Danes.  Cranky Danes…and even Great Danes.”  Deedy writes her story using simple, yet poetic text that is very easy to follow and understand.  For example, “The terrible news arrived quietly, with leaflets that fluttered down on the city of Copenhagen.”  She creates an image in our minds of people spreading both the news and their worry.   

Danish illustrator Henri Sorensen paints in a style that is both representational and impressionistic.  This combination of style is able to evoke strong emotions from readers.  At some points in the story, he illustrates with fine details—particularly in the faces of the people of Copenhagen.  Readers can see the fear and the worry in their eyes.  It is at these points where we are pulled in emotionally to the scenes.  In the beginning and the end of the legend, where there are only Danes, his style is more impressionistic—emphasizing light and movement over the fine details.   Sorensen also shows powerful images of war, which he illustrates in shades of black and white.  These colors help to distance the reader from the horror of war—as we see images of tanks, sinking ships, and groups of Jews walking towards Concentration camps.   Overall, the illustrations are paintings that look as though they should be on display as artwork—he is an unbelievable artist.

The Yellow Star is perfect to use in conjunction with Lois Lowry’s, Number the Stars.  The setting of Number the Stars is in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the same time period as The Yellow Star.  The legend of Christian X is a further extension to the character portrayed in Lowry’s novel.  Lowry does a phenomenal job of portraying the setting of Copenhagen accurately in her novel.  Having the background information from Number the Stars makes The Yellow Star all the more powerful.

Carmen Agra Deedy includes an Author’s Note in the back of the book that explains the authenticity and accuracy of the legend.  She mentions that unfortunately, there is only unauthenticated proof that the story of King Christian X and his legendary defiance ever occurred against the Nazis.  Deedy gained much of her perspective on the setting of Copenhagen from Lois Lowry’s, Number the Stars.  Through Deedy’s research, she did find that King Christian X did ride through the streets of Copenhagen without guard, no Jews were ever forced to wear the yellow star, Denmark was one of the only places that rescued the majority of its Jews, and the king did support the Danish Jews.

Although only a legend, through her Note, Deedy encourages us to think what would have happened if every Dane had worn the yellow Star of David in order to protect the Jews.  She further encourages us to think about what would happen if we could still follow the same example.  She states, “What if the good and strong people of the world stood shoulder to shoulder, crowding the streets and filling the squares, saying, “You cannot do this injustice to our sisters and brothers, or you must do it to us as well.””  Deedy leaves us with the powerful question, “What if?”


Written By: Paul Fleischman

Illustrated By: Kevin Hawkes

Wesley is an outcast from the civilization around him.  He does not like pizza or soda, he thinks professional football is stupid, and he refuses to shave half his head like the other boys have done.  His parents are worried about him, but Wesley has accepted the fact that he is different, and does not care what other people think of him.  As a result of a summer project, Wesley ends up creating his very own civilization, which he rightfully names, Weslandia.  Through it all, Wesley proves that it is all right to be different.

Fleischman’s creativity is richly evident in this picture book that opens our eyes to the world of fantasy.  Fleischman’s descriptive style allows readers to create vivid images in their mind.  For example, he describes Wesley’s newly created clothing as, “Unlike jeans, which he found scratchy and heavy, the robe was comfortable, reflected the sun, and offered myriad opportunities for pockets.”  He also notes the change and curiosity in Wesley’s tormenters, “His schoolmates were scornful, then curious.  Grudgingly, Wesley allowed them ten minutes apiece at his mortar, crushing the plant’s seeds to collect the oil.”

Illustrator Kevin Hawkes, who also pairs with Fleischman in the creation of Sidewalk Circus, creates full-bleed, double-paged spread illustrations that are saturated with vivid colors.  Bright shades of orange, yellow, green, red, and blue jump off the page and bring the illustrations to life.  Just like in Sidewalk Circus, Hawkes brings our attention to different perspectives.  For example, in the beginning of the story we are invited to watch the magic begin as seeds blow into Wesley’s newly plotted yard.  The moving curtains, light, and trees give us the sense of movement and we sense that the story will unfold.  As Wesley’s civilization begins to develop, we are insiders to all of the fascinating secrets of Weslandia.  We feel as though we are sitting amongst the tall stems of the plants right along with Wesley.  Throughout the entire story, the illustrations help us to sense Wesley’s happiness and success.

At the end of the story, we find that Wesley has created a new language complete with an 80-letter alphabet.  We can see that Hawkes has clued us in to this special language with an emphasis on the number eight by illustrating the endpages in what we can only assume is the Weslandian language.

Once again, Fleischman shows his versatility as an author as he takes readers through the eventful journey of a boy who everyone will come to admire.  It was interesting to find out on Fleischman’s website how his childhood related to Wesley’s.   Fleischman does relate to Wesley on some levels.  He did feel different from his peers because he was the shortest boy in his class all the way through tenth grade.  He also made up an alternate world with his friends—just like Wesley.  Unlike Wesley, however, Fleischman says that he wasn’t an outcast and had a great group of friends.  Regardless of how Fleischman’s inspiration of Weslandia came to be, this imaginative story captures the attention of all those who read it.

Smoky Mountain Rose: An Appalachian Cinderella

Written By: Alan Schroeder
Illustrated By: Brad Sneed

“Now Lis’en.  Smack in the heart o’ the Smoky Mountains, there was this old trapper livin’ in a log cabin with his daughter.  One night, while Rose was fryin’ a mess o’ fish, the trapper, he starts lookin’ dejected-like.  “I reckon it’s hard on ye, not havin’ a ma,” he said.  “Tell me, Rose, would ye lak me to git hitched again?  There’s a widow woman with two daughters down the road a piece.  Way I see it, we’d all fit together neater’n a jigsaw.”

And with that, the story of Smoky Mountain Rose begins.  Author Alan Schroeder bases this sidesplitting tale on Charles Perrault’s, “Cendrillon.”  Perrault’s tale is one of the most popular versions of the classic Cinderella and is the one that most Americans are familiar with.  Schroeder kept many of the familiar elements of Cinderella in his version, Smoky Mountain Rose: An Appalachian Cinderella.   For example, the glass slippers, evil stepsisters, and the midnight curfew are all a part of Schroeder’s tale.  He also kept the overall plot the same—although, he did change the ending a bit by telling readers that Rose and Seb are still living happily ever after to this day—as they are sitting on a swing happily in their old age.

Although many of the classic elements of Cinderella are the same, the variations he made are what made this version special.  For example, a prince would be quite unrealistic, so instead, Schroeder created Seb who was a, “real rich feller—made his fortune in sowbellies and grits.”  Instead of having a fancy ball, Seb hosts a party—a shindig if you will.  To give the country feel, Smoky Mountain Rose’s godmother is a hog—and her carriage was made from mushmelon. 

Another difference in this tale is that the stepmother and stepsisters recognize Smoky Mountain Rose when she arrives at the party.  As they watched Rose and Seb having a great time, “Gertie and her two daughters stood off to the side, madder n’ blazes.  “Look at her,” sneered Gertie, “sashayin’ round lak she’s the belly o’ the ball.  I’ll fix her when she gits home—giver her a list o’ chores she won’t never finish.”  Similar to the Disney version; however, the stepsisters do have a change of heart once Seb and Rose get married.

The language and dialogue of this story is what makes it so comical.  This is definitely a book that needs to be read aloud in order to appreciate the full humor of the story.  Most reviews for this version were very positive; however, there were two reviewers on Amazon that did not appreciate the book at all.  One reviewer stated, “This book is a mockery of Southern Appalachian people.  Not only is the dialogue incorrectly conveyed, but the pictures are demeaning as well.”  Another reviewer writes, “The dialect is less Appalachian and more like something straight from an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies.”  It appears as though one reviewer is from West Virginia and the other does not specify.  Without being a cultural insider myself, it is hard to say whether or not this book is overall offensive to the Appalachian people.

The brightly colored illustrations by Brad Sneed are unique and expressionistic.  The figures are drawn very angular and disproportionate.  For example, the characters have narrow upper bodies and tall skinny necks, but have very wide lower bodies.  Sneed also uses a lot of perspective in his full-bleed illustrations.  Sometimes, we are brought in close to the action and other times we are kept away—but we are always kept close to the action through Sneed’s use of angles.  A reviewer from the School Library Journal writes, “The paintings are realistically rendered but slightly distorted figures are elongated and angular, features exaggerated, and perspectives askew. People are clad in fashions of the 1940s and the lush Appalachian landscape is always in evidence. The fanciful, but decidedly quirky artwork effectively informs readers, in case they didn't already know it, that there's magic in them thar hills.”  Booklist writes, “Sneed's watercolors are rich and intense; his angular lines draw readers into the action, whether the perspective is up close for Rose's feet or set back for scenes from a distance.”

Smoky Mountain Rose: An Appalachian Cinderella is a valuable tale to add to any Cinderella collection.  However, it is important to keep in mind that the dialogue and representation of the Appalachian people may not be accurate throughout the story.  Therefore, it is critical that if this book is made available to read, other books that accurately depict Appalachia must also be made available in order to void any stereotypes that may present themselves through the reading of this book.