Thursday, August 30, 2012

In pursuit of the big idea 'perspective', I've been reading many middle grade novels like a mad woman .  Last night I gobbled up Sugar Falls: a residential school story by David Alexander Robertson (823 R545S8 FIC).

This short graphic novel is a gem.  In 40 pages we come to know Betsy, a little girl taken in by a loving family after her mother abandons her. In time, Betsy's foster father tries to prepare her for  when she will go to a residential school run by Catholic priests and nuns.  He does not say "you will have to go to a residential school" but tries to warn her that a dark time will come and that she has the strength and resiliency to endure.  She must remember who she is, connections to her family, and her culture.

Betsy's time at the residential school is horrible, to bluntly understate it.  The teachers are cruel and abusive.   Betsy is slapped and kicked by a nun when she doesn't get her Latin right or speaks Cree.  Sexual abuse is touched on, as well, but not too graphically.  The priest enters the girls' dormitory at night and leads one of them away.  Betsy's friend Flora counsels her to close her mind, numb her body and pretend it was 'only' a nightmare.

The story is told from the perspective of Betsy as an adult.  She's telling her story to her niece and her niece's friend, who has been given a school assignment to interview a survivor of the residential school system.  Betsy has survived her experience and motivated her to become a  teacher of Cree and a language consultant.

Now back to perspective.  A couple of questions given to me to think about were What shapes our perspectives?  How do perspectives change over time [as in a historical context]?

I think Sugar Falls provides insight into both of these questions. An experience like the one Betsy lives through would certainly shape many aspects of her life.  Betsy's own mother had been through the residential school system and came out damaged enough to be unable to care for her daughter.  These are defining moments without a doubt.

Also, we can make comparisons between contemporary times and times when residential schools  were prevalent in Canada (roughly 1840s to mid 1990s).  Historically,  it was government policy to look for opportunities that would 'civilize' First Nations peoples. Removing children from their families and communities was one way that they could be Christianized and 're-educated' to be more white and less 'savage'.  Today this policy is unconscionable.   

For the teachers of Nellie McClung Elementary School this might be a book to consider.  They had asked me for books about residential schools.  This one may not be appropriate for their purpose but I will let them decide.  Unpacking this with their students will take some work.

Other books that may be less contentious are:
Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton
Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell
Shin-chi's canoe by Nicola I. Campbell
My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Word Play 2

Last Monday I posted a recommendation for Word Images by Ji Lee.  This week I’m sticking with the whole playing with words and letters theme with Alphabeasties and Other Amazing Types by Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss.

This is not your average alphabet book. Besides each letter being represented in animal-form, constructed from the first letter of its name the reader is treated to an exploration of font, as well.

For example, ‘A’ is for alligator.  The alligator is made up of many letter ‘A’s, both in upper and lower case.  Now think about alligators for a moment.  What are some of its characteristics? The font chosen is Volta EF.  The ‘A’, especially the capital ‘A’ when used to outline the alligator shape is rather spiky or bumpy sort of like its skin.  The peak of the ‘A’ is also reminiscent of the snapping jaws of the alligator.  We can get a very good sense about the nature of this animal from the type of font selected and how it is arranged.

Along the bottom of each page is a bit of further exploration of the letter ‘A’ in different typefaces.  Instead of a pointy peak, the top might be rounded bringing to mind an arch or an alien.

‘E’ is for elephant and as rendered in Cooper Black font, we get the sense that there is a certain blobby roundness to this elephant.  But sharpen up some of those corners and tilt it to the right and maybe your ‘e’s are looking to escape.

A few of the pages have extra bits that fold out adding to the whole artistic feel of the book.  The octopus has a couple of wavy tentacles that must be accommodated and the unicorn definitely needs extra space as it rears up to shake out its very sumptuous mane.  Whoa, Baby!

Some of the fonts are pretty typical and can be found on most word processing packages such as Helvetica Rounded, Goudy Italic, and Bodoni Poster.  Some I’m unfamiliar with like Wave Weekend, Giddyup or Filosofia.  They’re all fantastic.

There are lots of playful bits to this book that really bring home the fanciful nature of word play and design.  The authors encourage kids to think up some of their own fonts to convey or enhance their writing. Like Word Images, it encourages us to think a little more about the attributes of a word and display it in a very creative way.

I would recommend Alphabeasties for students Kindergarten to grade 9. Upper grades will get more out of this for book design elements and ideas for using fonts.

Today's Nonfiction Monday event is being held at Simply Science.  Check out other blogs to learn about additional nonfiction children's literature.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Big Idea – Perspective.

This really is a great topic and I'm making the most of this opportunity trying to find different perspectives or characters who represent different perspectives.  To clarify – that would be perspectives different from my own.  This is one of those topics where individuality plays a significant role. (If you don’t know why I'm writing about perspective go to July 5th’s blog. )

A common question  the Nellie McClung Elementary School teachers came up with, was--

What's it like to walk in someone else’s shoes?

The purpose of most stories is it give the reader some kind of insight into the lives of other people. So, short of pulling almost all the books off the Doucette Library's shelves, I'm trying to be a little more controlled and selective in the books I'm recommending.

I’ve already mentioned Wonder by R.J. Palacio  that captured both my imagination and my heart.  Along the same lines is Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper (823 D791O FIC). Melody is in grade five but faces additional challenges with cerebral palsy.  I really liked this story and particularly enjoyed the character and voice of Melody.  I felt as trapped as she did in her own body, looking to live life like ‘normal’ kids.  She has tremendous spirit with an upbeat outlook, great sense of humour and bunches resiliency.  When she is given the ability to communicate through a computer device, and her world opens up, I felt like I was able to communicate again.  This is a strong story that brings us into Melody’s world. We learn what it’s like to live with severe, physical restrictions and how to go about living the best life you can.  Both Wonder and Out of My Mind place readers into the skins or ‘shoes’ of two unique souls and will help students emphasize with someone else’s lot in life.

Trash by Andy Mulligan (823 M9165T FIC) was an interesting read that took me into a community that lives by and from a vast garbage dump in a Southeastern Asian urban centre.  It is told primarily from the point of view of three boys who live and work at the dump.  This is a mystery that revolves around a package that one of the boys discovers that leads them into heaps of trouble as they help to expose a corrupt official. Eventually they have to leave the dump and their families to start new lives. The action and tension slowly builds, drawing you through the book. The conditions in which the boys live are mind blowing and told in a very matter-of-fact way.  Though a work of fiction, it is based on an actual garbage dump and the people who work and live there in Manila.

The Other Half of My Heart by Sundee T. Frazier (823 F8698O FIC) is a beautiful exploration of sisterhood.  A pair of twins of interracial parents gives us the opportunity to think about identity, belonging and how race plays into both.  A beauty pageant for black girls is the setting where sisters, light-skinned Minnie and dark-skinned Keira, begin to see that the colour of their skin often dictates how people will treat them.  Told from Minnie’s point-of-view, she begins to understand how her sister feels when pageant organizers and contestants, assuming she’s white, suggest she doesn’t belong in the pageant.  Keira often feels that she doesn’t belong in their predominantly white community, experiencing racism that Minnie doesn’t have to deal with.  Minnie is a very thoughtful girl and the set of circumstances she finds herself in allows her to grow and become stronger.
I’ll be recommending each of these three fabulous stories to the teachers from Nellie McClung Elementary School

Monday, August 20, 2012

Word play

I can’t say enough good things about Word as Image by Ji Lee (793.734 LeW 2011) – but I’ll try.

It’s wonderfully creative, brilliantly playful, and just out-and-out unique.

The book is a compilation of words that somehow incorporate an attribute of that word just using the letters it’s made  from.

Let me give you a few examples:

Elevator:  the letter ‘V’ becomes a down button, the letter A without the crossbar become the up button. (See the image on the above book cover.)

Rabbit: The capital letter ‘R’ is turned upside down so that we see the rabbit ears sticking up.

Parallel: all the ‘l’s’ are made to run the whole length of the page running parallel with each other. The remaining letters are just normal.

These are all fairly straight forward examples that show the playful side of these constructions.  There are some word-images that are really, really clever but are a little more difficult to describe so that you’ll ‘see’ their impact.

Pollution: The word is located on the bottom edge of the page.  The two ‘l’s represent smokestacks  spewing out black smoke that colours in the top of the page.  The page is most black with graduations of grey.

New Orleans:  only the top half of these words appears on a write background and the missing bottom half are submerged.

China/Tibet:  Against a red background the huge, yellow, capitalized letters of China dominate the page. The word Tibet, in small white letters is engulfed in the ‘C’ in China.

My favourite is Israel/Palestine which you will just have to see for yourself.  Too much would be lost in trying to describe it.

I hope I’ve given enough description that you can get a sense of what some of the constructions entail both visually and metaphorically. Check out the author's website for more examples.

The author includes the ‘rules’ for constructing the word images which are basically to use only the shapes of the letters without adding extra parts.

What great potential for a classroom activity to demonstrate understanding for a topic.  Language arts, social studies and art could all be connected with this little book and the extension it provides.  The book is entertaining for many age levels but you should note that a couple of word-images, with more adult connotations, might make some people uncomfortable. 

Makes you want to start making your own word-images, doesn't it?
Today is Nonfiction Monday at the Jean Little Library.
Check out this round up of children's literature focused on nonfiction.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Summertime reading update: Lots of time off = Lots of reading

Here are some of the reading highlights I enjoyed over the last few weeks while I was on holiday.  You’ll notice that a good many of the titles listed are appropriate for middle grades.  I purposely choose many books with this age in mind as I'm preparing to present a book talk at the end of the August to elementary school teachers focused on the big idea of ‘perspective’.  (See posting from July 5th for more information.) Many of these books will be included in the book talk.


Amulet: The Last Council, book 4 by Kazu Kibuishi (823 K533A4 FIC)
The action continues in the 4th instalment in this graphic novel series.  A young girl continues to outwit her enemies with her quick thinking, powerful amulet, and the help of her companions.  High quality production.  Suggested for grades 5-9.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 amazing authors tell the tales by Chris Van Allsburg (823.008 Chr 2011)
I’ve always loved the picture book They Mysteries of Harris Burdick and was more than happy to spend time with this collection of short stories written by various authors that interpret the fine illustrations from the picture book.  Suggested for grades 5-9.

The Conductor by Laetitia Devernay (823 D493C PIC BK)
A beautiful, wordless picture book that reads like a poem.  A conductor arrives in a grove of trees and begins to entice the trees to bend and swirl until the leaves take flight in bird form. Suggested for all ages.

My Name is Mina by David Almond (823 Al68M9 FIC)
This companion book to Skellig tells the story of Mina as she writes in her journal.  She’s creative, forthright, bold but sometimes insecure and looking to make a new friend.  Beautifully written.  Suggested for grades 5-9.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow (823 B671P FIC)
A fantasy with an orphan who’s on the run with a talking cat who eventually learns to trust people.  Good adventure and tension build up that kept me interested.  Suggested for grades 5-9.

The Red Blazer Girls by Michael D. Bell (823 B398R FIC)
To solve this mystery, clues involve math, literature, logic and cornering less-than-honest people.  Great group of girls who are smart, adventuresome, and loyal.  Suggested for grades 5-9.

Redcoats and Renegades by Barry McDivitt (823 M144R FIC)
An historical novel that takes us back to when the Northwest Mounted Police (the early incarnation of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) or Mounties) trekked through the United States to get to the Canadian West.  The trip was fraught with many problems mostly due to inexperience and poor planning.  The book reads like an adventure story as it is told through the eyes of a teenage boy.  This was a good read that manage to blend a good story with lots of history without making it heavy going.  Suggested for grades 6 and up.

Stolen Child by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (823 Sk68S6 FIC)
A solid story that highlighted an aspect of WW II I knew nothing about.  Nazi’s would kidnap children who fit their ideal of looking Aryan from non-Germans, including Jews.  Nadia has recently immigrated to Canada but is troubled with memories of people who may or may not be her parents. Suggested for grades 4-7.

Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson (823 T596T FIC)
Based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, this retelling is placed in pre-colonial India.  Two sisters, both blessed and cursed by a goddess (one has gems and flowers fall from her lips when she speaks and the other, snakes and toads) struggle to understand the meaning behind the goddess’s actions as well as stay alive.  Suggested for grades 7 and up.


Chuck Close: face book by Chuck Close (759.13 ClC 2012)
Very cool book.  A look at this very interesting artist and how he goes about creating his work.  Loved it!  Suggested for grades 4 and up.

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone (688.7221 StG 2010)
This has been on my to-read-pile for quite sometime.  I’m glad I didn’t pass it over.  Very interesting account of the history of the doll but with lots of anecdotes relating the impact, both positive and negative, of Barbie on the girls (now adults) who played with the dolls.  Suggested for grades 7 and up.

His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg by Louise Borden (940.5318 BoH 2012)
 A fascinating account of this Swedish war hero who save thousands of Jews in Hungry during World War II. Suggested for grades 7 and up.

Lone Hawk: the story of air ace Billy Bishop by John Lang (940.44941 LaL 2011)
A graphic novel, biography of Canadian war hero, Billy Bishop.  It briefly covers with his childhood and his incredible marksmanship.  When World War I starts, he signs up and quickly moves from the mud filled trenches to the wide open, but dangerous skies.  He is accredited with 72 official victories (taking down German planes).  This reads as high adventure but makes us realize the danger and trauma associated with war.  Suggested for grades 5 and up.

Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan by Rick Bowers (973.91 BoS 2012)
I found this to be totally engrossing.  Learn about the history of Superman, history of KKK and how in the 1940s the radio show featuring Superman, raised awareness about this terrorist group while promoting tolerance.  Suggested for grades 7 and up.

Witches!: the absolutely true tale of disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer (973.2 ScW 2011)
Highly readable account of the witch hunts and trials in Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1600s.  I particularly loved the illustration style of woodcuts that added to the whole feel of olden times.  Suggested for grades 6 and up.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Top 10 on the 10th Event

I decided to participate in this year’s event again as a challenge to myself to see what I would change about my list from last year.   All the books from last year's list are still big-time favourites.

In case you’re new to this, The Top 10 on the 10th is a blogging event that challenges teachers, librarians, parents and other children literature aficionados to come up with a list of just 10 titles of all time, can’t-do-without children’s books.  It’s not an easy task.

So, with that in mind what would my list look like this year?  What will stay and what would go?  (Okay, not really go.  I mean, who could get rid of Mo Willem’s Pigeon? And would he leave anyway?)

So, the titles that stay are:

My People by Langston Hughes
Shadows by Suzy Lee

The Rabbits by John Marsden
Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin.

Each of these is indispensable in my teaching.  When exposing undergraduate, student teachers to the wonderful world of children’s literature, I feel these offer some of the best examples of beautiful books (both for the writing and illustrations), present unique perspectives and really play with our expectations about what constitutes a 'good' book.

So, that’s four down, six to go.

New books that I fell in love with this year that I also feel are exemplary for my teaching purposes include,

Swirl by Swirl: spirals in nature by Joyce Sidman.  This is a beautifully composed and illustrated book about a natural phenomenon that crosses boundaries between science, math and literature.

Ten Birds by Cybele Young is the 2011 Canadian Governor General’s Award winner for illustration.  This one allows me to draw attention to the idea that sometimes picture books are better suited to older readers rather than to young children.  Ten different birds must figure out how to cross a river. Most go to great, elaborate lengths to construct contraptions that will allow it to cross over. But, with the last bird, we realize that sometimes the simplest solution will work, too.  Subtext is a commentary on labeling and individual ability.

Picture a Tree by Barbara Reid is one of those books that really draws you in and keeps your attention with her plastercine illustrations.  This is a celebration about, well you know – trees.  Their beauty, essentialness to life, and ability to provoke imagination, is here to inspire teachers and kids to look closely at their world.

And, the last three books I’ll include in this list are slightly older.

How Smudge Came by Nan Gregory is a touching and well told story about a young women living in a group home who finds a stray pup. The story never really describes Cindy’s disability only suggests in the illustrations that it might be Downs Syndrome.  The story remains strongly focused on the premise about wanting to keep and love this dog not about Cindy’s impairment.

14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy is another touching story based on a true event.  A book like this really brings home to student teachers that children’s books are not all fairy tales, adventures, sweetness and light which surprises some.  Sometimes deep and dark subjects like the destruction of the Twin Towers can be told without overwhelming a young audience.

Tsunami by Joydeb Chitrakar is just awesome.  The unique production of this book is fantastic.  It  is entirely handmade, an accordion-style foldout book representing the traditional storytelling method in Bengal, India showing us the devastation left in the wake of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia.  Very big cool factor that has potential in art and social studies classrooms.  This one isn’t for young children. 

Check out the Top 10 on the 10th event to read what others are writing about and come away with new 'must-have, can't-live-without' titles.
A web Jog has been created that will list all blog participants.  I suspect that this year's list will exceed last year's 63 blogs.  Otherwise, go to one of the two hosts - Reflect and Refine or Enjoy and Embrace Learning.

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