Schooled by Gordon Korman

A yellow schoolbus with rainbow tie-dyed windows is shown sideways over a large peace sign on a yellow cover

Cover of Schooled

Captain’s Log:Module 7

Port of Call: Korman, G. (2007). Schooled. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children.

First Lines: I was thirteen the first time I saw a police officer up close. He was arresting me for driving without a license. At the time, I didn’t even know what a license was. I wasn’t too clear on what being arrested meant either.

Summary: Capricorn “Cap” Anderson has been raised in a hippie commune all his life. He is completely unfamiliar with what most of us would consider to be commonplace, “normal life” occurrances. However, when his grandmother, who has been raising him in solitude, has to go to the hospital, Cap is placed in a local high school until she gets better.

Claverage “C Average” High School is a typical midwest school with its fair share of cliques and high school drama. When Cap arrives, it doesn’t take long for the entire school to realize he is very different. As a joke, he is nominated to be class president, and everyone expects him to crash and burn for the entertainment of all. Sure enough, Cap’s strange ideals get him into lots of troublesome situations, such when he thinks checks are free money and spends all the Halloween dance funds on charity. This is a humorous story about high school power struggles and culture clashes as Cap struggles to understand his place in the modern world.

First Impressions: This story has an entertaining pretense, and so I found it quite easy to get drawn into this book. This story is definitely aimed at middle school students, and the characters are not particularly complex, but their motives and ambitions are carefully constructed which makes the character interactions mesh well. I finished this book quickly and thought it was an interesting and fun read.

Suggestions for use: This is a great book about being true to yourself and dealing with social challenges in high school. While this book can seem intimidating (high school can be scary!) I think Cap is a character kids can learn from. Cap undergoes difficult times, but he never doubts himself and doesn’t let what others think or say change his ideals. I suggest this book for anyone who has had to deal with bullying in school, or has had trouble fitting into a new situation.

Reviews:

BookList:

“Gr. 6-9 /*Starred Review*/ Homeschooled on an isolated “alternate farm commune” that has dwindled since the 1960s to 2 members, 13-year-old Cap has always lived with his grandmother, Rain. When she is hospitalized, Cap is taken in by a social worker and sent—like a lamb to slaughter—to middle school. Smart and capable, innocent and inexperienced (he learned to drive on the farm, but he has never watched television), long-haired Cap soon becomes the butt of pranks. He reacts in unexpected ways and, in the end, elevates those around him to higher ground. From chapter to chapter, the first-person narrative shifts among certain characters: Cap, a social worker (who takes him into her home), her daughter (who resents his presence there), an A-list bully, a Z-list victim, a popular girl, the school principal, and a football player (who unintentionally decks Cap twice in one day). Korman capably manages the shifting points of view of characters who begin by scorning or resenting Cap and end up on his side. From the eye-catching jacket art to the scene in which Cap says good-bye to his 1,100 fellow students, individually and by name, this rewarding novel features an engaging main character and some memorable moments of comedy, tenderness, and reflection. Pair this with Jerry Spinelli’s 2000 Stargirl (the sequel is reviewed in this issue) for a discussion of the stifling effects of conformity within school culture or just read it for the fun of it.”

Phelan, C. (2007). Starred review of schooled by gordon korman. BookList, 103(22), 71.

School Library Journal:

“Gr 6–9— Capricorn, 13, lives with his hippie grandmother on a farm commune. He’s never been to school, never watched TV, and doesn’t even own a phone. When Rain falls out of a tree while picking plums and is sent to rehab for several weeks, Cap stays with a social worker and is sent to the local junior high school. There he is introduced to iPods, cell phones, spit balls, and harassment. Cap, with his long frizzy hair, hemp shoes, and serene ignorance of everything most of the kids care about, is the dweebiest of the dweebs, and it’s the custom at this school to elect such a kid to be eighth-grade class president (which offers extra humiliation opportunities). The story is told from multiple points of view, adding depth to even the most unsympathetic characters. Korman’s humor is a mix of edgy and silly, the plot moves along at a steady pace, and the accessible and smooth writing style brings all the elements together to make a satisfying whole. The plot is not long on plausibility, but maybe that’s not important in this case. Will Cap’s ingrained peacefulness and sense of self win out in the end? Will it matter that he’s entrusted with writing checks to help pay for the eighth-grade dance, even though he’s not clear on the concept of what a check is? Readers will stay tuned to the last page, and Korman’s many fans won’t be disappointed.”

Persson, L. (2007). Review of schooled by gordon korman. School Library Journal, 53(8), 118.

Frindle by Andrew Clements

Cover of Frindle

Captain’s Log: Module 6

Port of Call: Clements, A. (1996). Frindle. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

First Lines: If you asked the kids and the teachers at Lincoln Elementary School to make three lists – all the really bad kids, all the really smart kids, and all the really good kids – Nick Allen would not be on any of them. Nick deserved a list all his own, and everyone knew it.

Summary: In an attempt to stall his English class, Nick Allen starts thinking about the origins of language. Partially out of curiosity about the way language changes, bu mostly in an effort to test the boundaries of his teacher – who thinks the dictionary is the most important book children can read – Nick convinces his classmates to begin calling pens ‘frindles’. The ensuing story covers the range of reactions Nick faces as part of his experiment, from the initial punishment by his teacher in reaction to the perceived prank, to the mass-involvement of the student body in perpetuating the ‘frindle’ mayhem, to the eventual media coverage and reverberation of ‘frindle’ usage nationwide. Nick Allen’s experiences teach him about activism, and promoting what you believe in through healthy behaviors. Testing the limits placed on us by society and doing it gracefully without hurting others in defense of your beliefs. This book has a wonderful message that encourages children to think, and the ending is heartwarming with Nick and his teacher realizing the mutual respect they have for each other regardless of their differing viewpoints.

First Impression I love stories about troublemakers, and this book certainly was light and easy reading with a subtle message about testing boundaries in a healthy way. I liked the illustrations by Brian Selznick and think this is a great, non-intimidating book to recommend for middle-schoolers.

Suggestions for use: I would recommend this book to any middle-schooler, but especially those with an abundance of energy and drive, but little direction for useful application of that energy. Students unhappy with their status quo, or those who are thinkers and brave enough to do something to make a change will find inspiration in this book. Certainly though, this book can teach any student a lesson about what greatness can happen with a cool head and a willingness to experiment.

Reviews:

School Library Journal:

“Gr 3-6– Nick’s idea to invent a brand new word is both a challenge and a tribute to his dictionary-loving, language-arts teacher. He devises ingenious ways to encourage people to start referring to pens as “frindles.” Chaotic events follow as the word becomes a national phenomenon and, finally, an actual dictionary entry. Along with the humor, there are plenty of thought-provoking insights about the nature of words and their importance to the lives of regular people.”

Engelfried, S. (2004). Frindle (Book). School Library Journal50(6), 56. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

Horn Book Magazine:

“The author has created a fresh, imaginative plot that will have readers smiling all the way through, if not laughing out loud. Nick, a champion time-waster, faces the challenge of his life when confronted with the toughest teacher in school, Mrs. Granger. Always counted on to filibuster the impending test or homework assignment away, Nick has met his match in “Dangerous Grangerous,” who can spot a legitimate question in a second and has no patience with the rest. In answer to “Like, who says that d-o-g means the thing that goes ‘woof’ and wags its tail? Who says so?” she replies, “You do, Nicholas. You and me and everyone in this class and this school and this town and this state and this country.” And thus is born frindle, Nick’s new name for pen, promising and delivering a classic student-teacher battle along the lines of — but far funnier than — Avi’s Nothing But the Truth (Orchard). The battle assumes the proportions of a tall tale, and although outrageous and hilarious, it’s all plausible, and every bit works from the premise to the conclusion. The brisk narration is rapid-fire, and Nick is one of the most charming troublemakers since Soup. The merchandising future of this one is too terrible to contemplate; the cutting-edge gift this Christmas has got to be a frindle.”

E.S.W. (1996). Frindle. Horn Book Magazine72(6), 732-733. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Captain’s Log: Module 4

Port of Call: Gaiman, N. (2008). The Graveyard book. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

First Lines: There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife…

 

Cover of The Graveyard Book

Summary: An assassin has murdered a family sleeping in their beds, all except for the baby who likes to crawl out of his crib. Luckily, he has escaped the night of the murder, and toddled up the road to a nearby graveyard. The assassin is hunting for the child, but the citizens of the graveyard decide to protect him and raise him as their own. The boy is named Nobody, Bod for short, and is given the Freedom of the Graveyard, the ability to move as the dead do, and walk through walls, and more, so long as he remains within the graveyard’s walls.

The assassin is still looking for Bod though, and as the boy grows older and wonders more about the world outside the graveyard he finds himself wanting to explore outside his childhood home. Bod makes friends, but faces dangers too, and in the end he must face the killer who murdered his family.

First Impressions: I had not read any of Neil Gaiman’s works before, though I knew quite a bit about him as an author, since I follow his blog. I was not surprised at how well the story flowed, and I think also that this book managed to remain light-hearted and not particularly scary in spite of the grisly intro and the macabre setting.

Suggestions for use: This book is perfect for middle-schoolers and is already quite popular with many children that age. Wonderful reading for Halloween time, or for entertainment at any time. Many teachers talk about reading this book to their class with great success.

Reviews:

“With best-selling books for adults and children — including “Coraline,” a brand-new animated movie — Neil Gaiman has carved out a passionate following in the world of fairy tale and fantasy. Now his latest novel for children, “The Graveyard Book,” has won a top literary honor as well: this year’s Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature. After the prize was announced last month, a debate ensued among teachers, librarians and critics about whether the selection of a popular author was a departure for the Newbery, one of the most prestigious prizes in children’s books — and, if so, whether it was a welcome one. Gaiman himself seemed surprised by the honor. “There are books that are best sellers and books that are winners,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.

But none of this will matter to readers — for “The Graveyard Book,” by turns exciting and witty, sinister and tender, shows Gaiman at the top of his form.

The story opens with a pretty terrifying situation: a man has slaughtered a family in the middle of the night, all save a toddler who escapes unnoticed, walking out the front door and away from the mayhem. (Parents may worry about the violence, but they shouldn’t. The action isn’t described, and the fourth-grade class I read the book to had no problem whatsoever.)

Up the hill trots the toddler, to a graveyard full of ghosts who take him in. The tone shifts elegantly from horror to suspense to domesticity, and by the end of the first chapter Gaiman has established the graveyard as the story’s center. Within its reassuringly locked gates, the boy finds a safe and cozy place to grow up. (Gaiman has said that “The Jungle Book” was one of his influences.)

Among the dead are teachers, workers, wealthy prigs, romantics, pragmatists and even a few children — a village ready to raise a living child. And they do, ably led by Silas, an enigmatic character who is not really one of them, being not quite dead and not quite living. In this moonlit place, the boy — who is given the name Nobody Owens, or Bod for short — has adventures, makes friends (not all of them dead), and begins to learn about his past and consider his future. Along the way, he encounters hideous ghouls, a witch, middle school bullies and an otherworldly fraternal order that holds the secret to his family’s murder. When he is 12 things change, and the novel’s momentum and tension pick up as he learns why he’s been in the graveyard all this time and what he needs to do to leave.

While “The Graveyard Book” will entertain people of all ages, it’s especially a tale for children. Gaiman’s remarkable cemetery is a place that children more than anyone would want to visit. They would certainly want to look for Silas in his chapel, maybe climb down (if they were as brave as Bod) to the oldest burial chamber, or (if they were as reckless) search for the ghoul gate. Children will appreciate Bod’s occasional mistakes and bad manners, and relish his good acts and eventual great ones. The story’s language and humor are sophisticated, but Gaiman respects his readers and trusts them to understand.

I read the last of “The Graveyard Book” to my class on a gloomy day. For close to an hour there were the sounds of only rain and story. In this novel of wonder, Neil Gaiman follows in the footsteps of long-ago storytellers, weaving a tale of unforgettable ­enchantment.”

Edinger, M. (2009) New York Times book review of The Graveyard Book. Retrieved September 9th, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/books/review/Edinger-t.html.

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Captain’s Log: Module 4 

Port of Call: McCaughrean, G. (2005). The white darkness. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 

First Lines: I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now – which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way. In ninety years I’ll be dead too, and then the age difference won’t matter. 

Cover of The White Darkness

Summary:  Fourteen year old Symmone has been obsessed with Antarctica for a long time, and she knows just about everything there is to know about that continent and the famous explorers who walked and died on its icy surface. One of those explorers lives in her head, Titus Oates, who she confides in. She also has a mother, and a smart-crazy Uncle Victor who knows a lot about everything. Victor takes Sym and her mother on a trip to France that he won, but when Sym’s mother loses her passport she has to stay behind and then Victor asks Sym if she’d like to take a trip to Antarctica instead. Thrilled, she agrees, and so they go to Antarctica where, not too surprisingly, it is revealed that Victor (and some acquaintances who have since appeared) have plans to do more than just look at penguins and see where Captain Scott died. What begins then is a story of adventure, self-discovery and survival across the frozen wild. A journey which tests everything Symmone has within her, her relationship with her Uncle, and with Titus. 

First Impressions: This book sucked me in almost immediately. I loved Sym’s ‘imaginary friend’ Titus who really is more of an imaginary boyfriend. I loved her passion for the antarctic and that she was so painfully shy around others. And once the story really got going, I could not put it down. This is a powerful book and it kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. 

Suggestions for use: Recommend this book to teenagers looking for an adventure, to shy students, to girls, and to anyone who is interested in Antarctica. 

Reviews:

“Fourteen-year-old Symone is obsessed with Antarctic exploration. Ever since the death of her father, she has read every book and watched every movie she can find about Antarctica. She is particularly enamored with Capt. Lawrence “Titus” Oates, one of the explorers lost in the doomed Scott expedition. Titus is her companion and confidante, an imaginary friend who fills in for her grieving family and distant friends.

Outside of Titus, the only person to take an interest in Sym’s life is her Uncle Victor, a family friend who has cared for the family since her father’s death. Uncle Victor feeds Sym’s interest in Antarctica and arranges for a trip to the frozen continent. There, Sym must face the White Darkness, a phenomena of the polar summer where the sun never truly sets and the only indication of night is white, unmarred by shadow.

Sym identifies with the purity, isolation and silence of the white continent. She sees herself as particularly suited to a place that others see as dead:

“God sketched Antarctica, then erased most of it again, in the hope a better idea would strike Him.” Sym observes, “At the center is a blank whiteness where the planet isn’t finished. It’s the address for Nowhere…it mesmerized me. The idea of it took me in thrall. It was so empty, so blank, so clean, so dead. Surely, if I was ever to set foot down there, even I might finally exist. Surely, in this Continent of Nothingness, anything — anyone — had to be hugely alive by comparison!”

Sym does not know that she is a pawn in a larger conspiracy, subject to the fanatical beliefs of one man. Uncle Victor is obsessed with his own theories about discovery and becomes unhinged. He is less concerned with their ability to survive than in securing his place in history. Nasty secrets start to emerge as they travel across the ice. Sym must choose between trusting her uncle and listening to the inner voice she has always regarded as imaginary.

THE WHITE DARKINESS is told entirely from Sym’s point of view, offering her wry observations of the other travelers and sharing her expertise on the subject of the Arctic. Author Geraldine McCaughrean’s biggest challenge is convincing the reader that a smart girl like Sym would be taken in by the suspicious circumstances of her trip with Uncle Victor. McCaughrean succeeds by invoking other polar explorers, many of whom might be regarded as madmen, making discovery at the expense of their own lives.

The juxtaposition of Sym’s adventure next to the Scott expedition — which McCaughrean wisely summarizes in an appendix at the end of the book — asks if death is too high a price to pay for discovery. The irony of the Scott expedition was that, as they chose to push on to discover the South Pole knowing they were unlikely to return, another explorer, Roald Almundsen, already had beaten them to the Pole by two weeks and lived to tell the tale. Had the Scott expedition survived, they would not have been the first to reach the Pole. They found more notoriety through death than they would have in life.

The Arctic regions are ideal for asking the big questions about ethics and morality because one’s decisions, which might be regarded as opinions in ordinary life, hinge on life or death in such a harsh environment. Many 19th century writers were fascinated with the Arctic as a place representing the unexplored regions of the human psyche. In FRANKENSTEIN Mary Shelley sets the final showdown between creator and monster on the polar ice. Henry David Thoreau wrote about the Arctic explorers of his time in WALDEN saying, “…explore your own higher latitudes…there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold, storm and cannibals…than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific of one’s being alone.”

THE WHITE DARKNESS manages to ask some of these big questions without compromising plot or pace. It is a book filled with action, mystery and the slightest touch of the supernatural. Its strange story will be appreciated by readers interested in survival tales and the shadow side of human nature.”

Wood, S. (2005) Teenreads.com review of The White Darkness. Retrieved September 9th, 2010 from http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/0060890355.asp.

The Blacker the Berry by Joyce Carol Thomas and Floyd Cooper

Captain’s Log: Module 4

Port of Call: Thomas, J.C. (2008). The blacker the berry. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

First Lines: Colors, without black,

couldn’t sparkle quite so bright…

Cover of The Blacker the Berry

Summary:

This book is a collection of poems about skin color but truly are also about embracing who we are and what heritage has made us. Each poem speaks of our skin in vocabulary overflowing with  colors and tastes and smells. The poems are tied to a common theme of fruit/food as in, “I am red raspberries stirred in to blackberries”. And the ultimate message is that we are so much more than just the color of our skin, eyes and hair.

The poems are of medium length, and are accompanied by a full page illustration that portrays the character who is the topic of each poem. I thought every poem was lovely, skillfully crafted so that the book was interesting, vibrant, easy to read and full of sensory language that really made you feel the essence of each poem/person.

First Impressions: I’m not a big fan of reading poetry, so this book intimidated me a bit before I opened it. However, I was sucked in with the first few lines and flew through the poems in one sitting. I also loved the illustrations and spent time looking at each picture and picking out the elements that were representative of the poems they accompanied.

Suggestions for use: This is a book about celebration. This book’s message will most likely resonate loudest with African American children, but truly its message of acceptance and individuality can be a powerful message to all ethnic groups. I liked that this book taught the beauty that exists within all of us, and how we can wear our skin proudly and feel comfortable in who we are. Read this book to children who may feel they are not beautiful, and help them to point out the ways in which they are incredibly wonderful and special.

Reviews:

School Library Journal:

“Grade 1–4—The varieties of African-American ethnic heritage are often rendered invisible by the rigid construction of racial identity that insists on polarities. This collection of 12 poems makes the complexities of a layered heritage visible and the many skin shades celebrated. Read-aloud-sized spreads offer luminous artwork that complements the verses in which children speak of their various hues: “I am midnight and berries…” a child says in the title poem. In another selection, a boy recalls his Seminole grandmother who has given him the color of “red raspberries stirred into blackberries.” In “Cranberry Red,” a child asserts that “it’s my Irish ancestors/Who reddened the Africa in my face,” understanding that “When we measure who we are/We don’t leave anybody out.” The large illustrations match the lyrical poetry’s emotional range. Cooper’s method includes “pulling” the drawing out from a background of oil paint and glazes. With his subtractive method, he captures the joy of these children—the sparkle of an eye, the width of a grin, the lovely depths of their skin, and the light that radiates from within. This book complements titles that explore identity, such as Katie Kissinger’s All the Colors We Are (Redleaf, 1994).”

Pfeifer, T. (2008) School Library Journal Review for The Blacker the Berry. Retrieved September 9th, 2010 from http://www.amazon.com/Blacker-Notable-Childrens-Books-Readers/dp/0060253754.

Golem by David Wisniewski

Captain’s Log: Module 3

Port of Call: Wisniewski, D. (1996). Golem. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

First Lines: Within the beautiful city of Prague, fierce hatreds have raged for a thousand years. People of differing beliefs in God and nation have clashed violently here: Czech against German, Protestant against Catholic, Christian against Jew.

The cover of Golem

Summary:

During a time when the Prague Jews are being persecuted by others a Jewish rabbi, Judah Loew ben Bezalel is searching for a way to bring relief to his people. He is given a dream in which a hand appears and writes the word ‘GOLEM’, a creature made from clay and brought to life with mystical Jewish words. Seeing this as a sign of an answer from God, Rabbi Loew sets out to make such a creature. He successfully brings the golem to life and charges it with protecting the Jews of the city from those who want to harm them. The golem is incredibly good at this task, and fiercely defends the Jews and destroys the attacking enemies. However, the golem is also a tragic figure, wistfully he just wants to watch the sunrise, and when the Jews are safe and the Rabbi prepares to disable the spell keeping the golem alive, the golem does not want to be turned back into clay. Nonetheless, he is dismantled with the promise that he will be brought back when the Jews need him once more.

First Impressions: Immediately I liked the heavy and dramatic illustration style of Golem. I also found the story to be intriguing as I had heard stories related to the myth of golems in other books. I did find parts of the book to be a bit scary or even depressing, so I wouldn’t recommend this book for very young children.

Other notes: The end of the book has a very informative section on the historical information this book was based on. This is a great resource for parents and children alike who want more information about the scenario described in Golem.

Suggestions for use: In addition to being a historical story, this book can also teach about the preciousness of life, the benefits and detriments of using another being as a ‘protector’, and the responsibility we have for the people in our care and our creations. This story could easily be a cautionary tale for anyone being persecuted or persecuting others.

Reviews:

Publishers Weekly:

“Elaborately composed cut-paper spreads give a 3D, puppet-show-like quality to a retelling of a Jewish legend. Rabbi Loew has a prophetic vision in 1580 when the Jews of Prague are accused of mixing the blood of Christian children into matzoh: he must create a Golem, “a giant of living clay, animated by Cabala, mystical teachings of unknown power.” Brought to life with apocalyptic explosions of steam and rain, the Golem seeks out the perpetrators of the Blood Lie and turns them over to the authorities. Thwarted, the enraged enemies of the Jews storm the gates of the ghetto, but the Golem grows to enormous height and violently defeats them with their own battering ram. Once his work is done, he pitifully (and futilely) begs the Rabbi: “Please let me live! I did all that you asked of me! Life is so… precious… to me!” Wisniewski (The Wave of the Sea Wolf) emphasizes the Golem’s humanity and the problems with his existence; instead of reducing the legend to a tale of a magical rescuer, the author allows for its historical and emotional complexity. The fiery, crisply layered paper illustrations, portraying with equal drama and precision the ornamental architecture of Prague and the unearthly career of the Golem, match the specificity and splendor of the storytelling. An endnote about the history and influence of the legend is particularly comprehensive. Ages 6-10. ”

Publishers Weekly (2006) Review of Golem retrieved September 9th, 2010 from http://www.amazon.com/Golem-Caldecott-Medal-David-Wisniewski/dp/0395726182.

Shark VS. Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld

Captain’s Log: Module 5

Port of Call: Barton, Chris, & Lichtenheld, Tom. (2010). Shark vs. train. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group.

A shark and a train face each other in a display of bravado

Shark VS. Train cover

First Lines:  “SHARK VS. TRAIN Who will win?

 Well, that depends on if they’re…

in the ocean… 

or on railroad tracks.

If they’re on a seesaw…” 

Summary: Two little boys are playing and each picks up a different toy. Naturally, they then have to decide whose toy is best, in this case, shark vs. train. The ensuing competitions are all entertaining and ridiculous, illustrated cleverly and embellished with frequent humourous quips from the shark and train involved. In the end, the boys are called to lunch, and the competition is put on hold. (Until  fate pits shark vs. train against each other once more!) 

First Impressions: When I saw the title of this book on my booklist, I immediately started snickering. The title is funny, and reminds me of ‘CRAB BATTLE’ or ‘LOBSTER VS. MAGNET’ comedy on the internet. The title is an instant hook that makes you wonder ‘what the heck could be inside that book?’ and ‘who wins?’. 

Suggestions for use:  If there is a lesson to be learned from this story, it might be that each individual (be they shark or train) has scenarios in which they excel and scenarios in which they will fail, but there is a balance of each. I would use this story for its entertainment value – it’s a very cute rendition of the way children play and compete together – and it’s very funny and creative. I also think this book would be a good way to teach a lesson about healthy competition. In Shark VS. Train both shark and train take turns ‘winning’ the different scenarios.  This book can also teach us to laugh at our failures, and see the humor in them without getting too discouraged to go on and try something new.

The train successfully toasts the marshmallows over its smokestack, but the shark has drenched his with seawater

Roasting marshmallows...

 Reviews: 

From the Washington Post: “Also not to be missed is Lichtenheld’s visually clever take on the power of play in Chris Barton’s “Shark vs. Train.” Two lively young lads excavate the toy box. One grabs a shark (“GRRRRR”), the other a train (“CHUGRRR-CHUG”), and each instantly disappears into his chosen persona. Who wins the ensuing battles depends entirely on who chooses the game. Riding in a hot air balloon? Train’s weight sends him plunging earthward (“AAAiieee!”). Roasting marshmallows? Shark’s drippy fins put out the fire (“drat!”). And if detente and lunch are synonymous, well, that’s what kids (and happy endings) are all about.” Kristi Jemtegaard 

 Jemtegaard, K. (2010) Washington Post review of Shark VS. Train. Retrieved September 4th, 2010 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/04/AR2010050404661.html

 From the San Francisco Review: “Literature, sports, politics… they all have their great rivalries, ones where competition stirs the spirit of the masses and drives the contenders to greater heights than ever. And to the pantheon of truly epic rivalries, Chris Barton proudly introduces two new worthy combatants in Shark Vs. Train

 As shark and train do battle in pie-eating contests, card games, and physical and intellectual challenges of all kinds, they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, even coming to question where the rivalry came from in the first place. Tom Lichtenheld’s illustrations are marvelously simple, offering funny little background details for the sharp-eyed reader while never detracting from the main imagery. 

Shark has smashed all the bowling pins

It depends on whether they're bowling...

 I could choose to see all kinds of context behind those words and images–a battle between the makings of man and the forces of nature, technology matching wits with the best evolution has to offer–but, come on, it’s a kid’s book. Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle. 

 Shark Vs. Train is the best struggle to come out of nowhere since “Monkey vs. Robot.” I just couldn’t bring myself to pick a side.” – Glenn Dallas  

 Dallas, G. (2010) San Francisco Book Review of Shark VS. Train. Retrieved September 4th, 2010 from http://www.sanfranciscobookreview.com/childrens/shark-vs-train/.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

Captain’s Log: Module 2

Port of Call: Briggs, R. (1978). The Snowman. New York, NY: Random House, Inc..

First Lines: n/a

Cover of The Snowman

Summary: This is a beautifully illustrated story told entirely in pictures. Drawn in what looks like colored pencil, each page is filled with panels of varying sizes that tell the story of a young boy and his snowman. Beginning with him waking up and discovering it’s snowing, the boy runs outside and builds a snowman. He dresses it, and when he goes to sleep, he can’t stop thinking about it. He gets up to go check on his snowman, who tips his hat very courteously. Greetings exchanged, the boy invites his snowman inside, and proceeds to give him a tour of the house and all the novelties inside that a snowman would never have seen before. The snowman then returns the favor, taking the boy by the hand and leaping into the sky to fly over the world until morning comes when they both return and the boy goes back to bed. When he wakes up the next morning, he runs outside to see the snowman again, only to discover that he has melted.

More than the story, the best part of this picture book is the illustrations. Some pages have 12 small panels, while others are full page spreads. It’s always easy to tell what’s going on in each picture, and the book reads smoothly and quickly. I think this book would be a great bedtime story, with its theme of adventures while you sleep. I also love that a child who can’t read will fully be able to enjoy this book. Finally, it’s a great wintertime story, and I bet children will want to make a snowman after finishing it!

First Impressions: I did not know that this book had to words, so the first couple of pages were amusing and surprising. I thought the comic book-style illustration strips were fun, and I flew through the book very quickly.

Suggestions for use: This is definitely a winter story, so reading it around that time of year – first snowfall – would be a great use. Also, this is somewhat a story about imaginary friends and dreams, so reading it to children can stimulate their imaginations or help them understand a dream they themselves had.

Reviews:

The boy and his snowman take off into the night sky

“Who needs words to tell a story? In Raymond Briggs’s charming tale, told with 175 softly hued, artfully composed frames, a little boy makes friends with a snowman. He wakes up on a snowy day, tells his mother he’s going outside, then begins a flurry of snowman-building. That night, he can’t sleep, so he opens the front door and lo! the snowman has come to life. The amiable yet frosty fellow enjoys his tour of the boy’s cozy home; he admires the cat, but is disturbed by the fire. The boy shows him other wonders–the TV and a lamp and running water. Predictably perhaps, he is disturbed by the stove, but likes ice cubes quite a bit. Soon it is the snowman’s turn to introduce the boy to his wintry world. They join hands, rise up into the blizzardy air–presumably over Russia and into the Middle East–and then safely back to home sweet home. The boy pops into bed before his parents get up… but when he wakes up the next morning he races outside only to find his new buddy’s melted remains, scattered with a few forlorn lumps of coal. Since the book is wordless, you can make up any ending you want… like “Then, in a puff of pink smoke, the snowman recomposed himself and went to live in the boy’s garage freezer.” Or you could just resign yourself to a peaceful “And that was that.” Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and this wintertime classic continues to win the hearts of kids every year. (Preschool and older)” Karin Snelson

Snelson, K. (2001) Goodreads.com review of The Snowman. Retrieved September 6, 2010 from http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/489972.The_Snowman

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

Captain’s Log: Module 2

Port of Call: Taylor, S. (1951). All of a Kind family. New York, NY: Follett Publishing Company.

First Lines:

“That slowpoke Sarah!” Henny cried. “She’s making us late!”

Mama’s girls were going to the library, and Henny was impatient.

“If it was Charlotte, I could understand,” said Ella, who was the eldest and very serious. “I’d know Charlotte was off dreaming in some corner. But what can be keeping Sarah?”

Summary: This is a story about a young Jewish family living in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. Each chapter tells about a different adventure or even that happens in the lives of these five little girls, but there is also an overarching continuity that moves the story line through the book. In one chapter, the girls go to the beach to escape the summer heat and one gets separated from her family in the crowd. Another story talks about the girls’ trip to the library and the friendship they strike up with the new librarian there.

A family, father, mother, and five young girls are walking down a street in New York City, 1912.

Cover of All-of-a-Kind Family

My favorite chapters were the ones about the Jewish traditions the family celebrates in their homes. I do no know very much about these holidays and customs, so I thought they were a fascinating insight to that religious culture. We meet characters from outside the family too, Papa’s friends, particularly a young man named Charlie who brings the girls gifts frequently.

This was a very sweet book, and its 1950’s writing style lends the book a laid-back, homey feel of a century past. I was reminded of the Bobbsey Twins books I read as a child and enjoyed very much. For being a bit dated, it was never hard to read, and I think it was a very easy book to get wrapped up in.

First Impressions: I was not drawn in by the cover, but thought the setting looked historical and so I would give it a try. The first chapter didn’t really have much action, but was interesting enough that I decided to keep reading. Truthfully, I don’t think this book really hits its stride until chapter 3 or so. I think it’s because the first two chapters seem to have been written solely to introduce certain characters, but the real story doesn’t start rolling til later.

Suggestions for use: I would use this book to teach about an older era in American history, especially if children are interested in life at the beginning of the 1900’s or early New York City. It’s also a more ‘traditional’ story that might appeal to young girls who like Little House on the Prairie and other period books. Finally, this would be a story that could teach about Jewish holidays and traditions to both Jewish and non-Jewish children alike.

Reviews: (audiobook version)

School Library Journal:

“Gr 3-6-Five young sisters experience life in New York’s Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century in this reading of Sydney Taylor’s story (Follett, 1951). The close-knit group encounters everyday realities such as boring chores, missing library books, and trips to the Rivington Street market, as well as those details which bring the early 1900’s to life–scarlet fever, peddlers, and bathing at Coney Island. Woven into the story are the traditions and holidays of the Jewish religion. The girls celebrate the Sabbath with Hebrew prayers, and dress up for Purim so they can deliver baskets to friends and relatives. Suzanne Toren delivers flawless narration, using different accents to distinguish between characters of various cultures and backgrounds. Her intonations and pacing ably reflect the actions and emotions of the characters and fully convey the warmth and humor of the story. This excellent audiobook will find an eager audience in schools and public libraries which need materials reflecting the Jewish culture or serve children who enjoy family stories such as Little Women and Little House on the Prairie.” -Paula L. Setser, Deep Springs Elementary School, Lexington, KY

Setser, P. (2001) School Library Journal review of All-of-a-Kind Family. Retrieved September 6, 2010 from http://www.amazon.com/All-Kind-Family-Sydney-Taylor/dp/0385732953.

The Providence Journal:

“Here’s a book in which nothing much happens, over the course of four hours… and which absolutely charmed my kids on a recent family car trip.

It’s the story of a family on the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the 20th century. There are five daughters, plus Mama and Papa, and their adventures are simple — they go to Coney Island on a hot day, or to the library or to the market. They dust the house and get sick.

But the market they go to is alive with sounds and smells of a different time, and when scarlet fever strikes there’s no simple trip to the doctor’s for a few antibiotics —the doctor comes to them and places the house under quarantine for weeks. There’s a plot involving two family friends and their problems with love, but it’s the least believable and sappiest part of the story. Much better are the moments when the family celebrates Jewish holidays, each described with loving care as it was celebrated a century ago.

Taylor wrote the book in 1951, based on her childhood memories and it was out of print for some years before being issued last year. The time between her experiences and the recounting of them undoubtedly colored the stories with sentimentality.

But this is a gentle tale of a very different time, and there’s value to that. Toren, a theater and TV actress, reads with an attention to accent that helps create characters from the daughters and those who surround them.” – Retrieved September 6, 2010 from http://search.barnesandnoble.com/All-of-A-Kind-Family/Sydney-Taylor/e/9780440400592

Bats at the Library by Brian Lies

Captain’s Log: Module 1

Port of Call: Lies, B. (2008). Bats at the library. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

a number of bats pulling a book off library shelves using headphone cord

Cover of Bats at the Library

First Lines:

“Another inky evening’s here-

the air is cool and calm and clear.

We’ve feasted, fluttered, swooped and soared,

and yet… we’re still a little bored.”

Summary: A colony of bats has an unexpected night of fun and reading when they discover someone has left a window open at the local library. Apparently this happens every year or so, and the older bats get to show the bat pups what fun the library has to offer. Making shadow puppets on the overhead projector, to making batty photocopies, swimming in the drinking fountain…. the bats explore everything but eventually they find themselves enthralled by the books and stories all around them. So immersed, in fact, that they almost don’t notice when morning comes!

Bats at the Library

Bats hang upside down from a lampshade, reading

First Impressions: I immediately loved the full-color illustrations of the cover and was not disappointed to see the same style continued within the book. The dark colors and bat theme give this book a Halloween atmosphere (and in fact I found it in the holiday books at my library) but the story itself is not a Halloween book. I thought the bat illustrations and font were fun and cute. A few amazingly memorable pages show illustration montages from highly recognizable children’s classics.

Suggestions for use: This book would be great for sharing with children the excitement of reading and how wonderful it can be when you are sucked into a story so completely. Also a great book for Autumn thanks to the Halloween-ish atmosphere which does not overtly promote that holiday.

Other Notes: Apparently Lies has a series of books featuring the bats, including Bats at the Ballgame and Bats at the Beach. So if you liked the bats (and I did!) there are a few more ways to see them again.

Reviews:

School Library Journal: “In this companion to Bats at the Beach (Houghton, 2006), Lies pays homage to the pleasures to be found within libraries and books. The story opens on three winged creatures clinging to an autumnal branch against the backdrop of evening.

 

 

 

 

A bat flies through the air on a bed saying, no more melted cheese for me, no

Part of the children's classics montage

Observant readers will recognize the young bat with yellow “water wings” from the earlier title and notice that the chimney and trees at the top of the page point downward—a cue to attend to perspective. The bats are bored, but an antidote is announced: someone left a window open in the library. The golden glow from spotlights on the side of the building and an Arts and Crafts-style reading lamp illuminate the nocturnal adventures in this handsome, traditional space. The bats cluster according to interests. Some peruse “guides to fancy foods” (insect books) and form literary discussion groups. The younger mammals make images of themselves at the copier, frolic in the fountain, play at the computer, and explore the gingerbread castle in a pop-up book. An impromptu storytime brings everyone together, however, and after the pint-size protagonist is literally drawn into the featured book, two spreads reveal a montage of scenes from classic stories, with bats in the starring roles.

Lies’s acrylics are a successful fusion of fantasy and reality. The rhyming narrative is generally smooth, with enough humor and sophistication to propel readers along. And who can argue with the message?”

Lukehart, W. (2010)  School Library Journal  review of Bats at the Library. Retrieved August 28th from http://www.amazon.com/Bats-at-Library-Brian-Lies/dp/061899923X.

Worcester Telegram and Gazette News:The creator of “Bats at the Beach” has brought his endearing band of flying mammals back for a nocturnal visit to the public library, a stimulating trip made possible by news that a window to the building has been left ajar. The older members of the group — you can tell them by their spectacles — are content with seeking out favorite titles such as “Goodnight Sun.” Some bats, in “munchy moods,” will study “guides to fancy foods.” Others — quite literally — “hang out” by the lamps to schmooze, while a few of the youngsters play shape shadows with an overhead projector. Brian Lies clearly has a passion for libraries and the world of wondrous treats that they have to offer, an enthusiasm he shares by way of his wonderfully sophisticated chiaroscuro paintings.”

Worcester Telegram and Gazette News (2008) Review of Bats at the Library. Retrieved August 28th, 2010 from http://www.brianlies.com/brian_lies_library_bats_reviews.html.

a full page spread from the book