The Sun is Also a Star

Natasha is a 17-year-old illegal immigrant from Jamaica who is going to be deported with the rest of her family at 10:00 p.m. Refusing to give up the hope of staying in America, Natasha spends her last day in New York City pursuing every last-ditch effort that will keep her family in the country.

Daniel is a Korean American high school senior who isn’t excited about the future his parents have planned for him. Instead of attending Yale and pursuing a career in medicine, Daniel would rather be a poet. After meeting Natasha, he falls head over heels in love with her, and his world is forever changed.

Exploring ideas of randomness, fate, and love, The Sun is Also a Star covers one intense day in the lives of practical, scientific Natasha and optimistic, passionate Daniel.  The story is written in alternating points of view (Natasha’s and Daniel’s), with occasional accounts from an omniscient narrator that provide backstory for minor characters. The result is effective and demonstrates how we are connected to one another.

The Sun is Also a Star is beautifully written and earned a National Book Award Honor for author Nicola Yoon. It would be a wonderful book to study in any contemporary literature or creative writing course. I recommend it for ages 14 and older, due to some mature themes and explicit language, though I believe it will especially resonate with young people ages 16 and older.

President Taft is Stuck in the Bath

If you are seeking a good laugh, then look no further. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen is a humorous interpretation of the speculative story that President Taft did indeed get stuck in his bath. Barnett’s prose is witty and comically irreverent. Van Dusen’s illustrations add another layer of hilarity to create picture book perfection.

Candlewick Press recommends this book for ages 4-8, but I believe all audiences will find great enjoyment in it. Young children will laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and the illustrations that play out Taft’s indelicate dilemma. Older children and adults will appreciate the incorporated wordplay as government officials are brought in to help Taft out of the bath.

There is some uncertainty as to whether Taft was ever stuck in his bath, but there are two pages in the back that recount some of the theories. In addition, there is a funny historical account of Taft’s factual interactions with bathtubs. As such, President Taft is Stuck in the Bath would be an entertaining supplement when studying this president in American history.

The Cat in the Hat – Elephant and Piggie

The Cat in the Hat forever changed the stigma of “early reader” in the best way. Challenged to write an engaging story that young readers could tackle themselves, Dr. Seuss created his masterpiece to promote literacy. The book has maintained “classic” status ever since it was published in 1957. Its popularity led to a sequel (The Cat in the Hat Comes Back) and spawned a whole series of easy reader books, some written by Seuss, some written by other authors. Many of these books are also classics in their own right (Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, Fox in Socks, Go, Dog. Go!), continuing to teach newer generations of children to read.

In 2007, fifty years after The Cat in the Hat debuted, popular author-illustrator Mo Willems introduced young readers to Elephant and Piggie. In under ten years, Willems created 25 books in his series, all done in comic-book style. Text is sparse and done in dialogue. The stories are engaging, full of heart, and always served with a heaping dose of humor. Adults and kids love Elephant and Piggie, and I know I am not alone in being seriously bummed that The Thank You Book, published last year, is the final book in the series.

Just like the Cat in the Hat, Elephant and Piggie have become iconic. Go out and find first and second graders and ask – they all know Elephant and Piggie! And just like the Cat in the Hat generated a new line of early readers, Elephant and Piggie now give their stamp of approval on early readers written by various authors.

The American Library Association (the same group awarding the Newbery and Caldecott Medals) created the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award in 2004 as a way of honoring Seuss’s contributions to children’s literature. The award is given annually to “the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished contribution to the body of American children’s literature known as beginning reader books published in the United States during the preceding year.” (For more information on the Geisel Award and to see past recipients, visit the ALA’s site here.) It’s fitting that several of the Elephant and Piggie books have either won or received honors.

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White

I’ve already mentioned several books illustrated by Caldecott Winner Melissa Sweet, but I didn’t want to leave this one out. In what was clearly a labor of love, Sweet wrote and illustrated Some Writer!, which is long enough to be a middle grade novel, but also has the feel of one of Sweet’s picture books.

Many will recognize E. B. White as the iconic writer of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan, but I doubt many know much about his life. Even though Charlotte’s Web is one of my favorite books, I admit I did not know what E. B. stood for. (Elwyn Brooks, for those interested.)

Sweet covers White’s life from beginning to end, enriching the narrative by incorporating writing from White’s letters, essays, and books. We read of White’s summers in Maine as a boy, and readers of Trumpet of the Swan will see how much nature inspired White, even at an early age. We learn about the connection to Professor William Strunk, Jr. that would later lead to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. We are introduced to White’s adventurous days in which he roamed from one end of the country, supporting himself by odd jobs and various writing gigs. We gain a deeper connection to White’s personal life in learning more about his wife, son, and stepchildren. White’s granddaughter, Martha, even provided an afterword and granted Sweet access to some of White’s personal items and letters.

There are chapters that discuss the background and making of each of White’s books. Young readers may be surprised to learn about White’s ongoing employment with the elite literary magazine, The New Yorker. Through captions and editorial comments, we witness White’s sense of humor and his love for playing with words.

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White is a great nonfiction read for those who love his work, and it is inspiring to future writers. The book is appropriate for ages eight and up, though I suspect older readers will catch more of the details that make the book so interesting.

The Canterbury Tales – The Inquisitor’s Tale

You’re probably scratching your head wondering why I’ve mentioned Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in a discussion of children’s literature. And if so, your confusion is well founded. No, I don’t believe The Canterbury Tales is a children’s book, but The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz is a beautiful middle grade novel that evokes the spirit of Canterbury.

In full disclosure, I must admit that I have not read The Canterbury Tales in completion, but I have read several of the tales. Here’s a quick background. The tales, many of which are written in verse, are a collection of stories that pilgrims share on their journey from London to Canterbury.

The Inquisitor’s Tale draws from this concept, but with a delightful twist. As in Canterbury, there are several storytellers, each with unique voices and points of view, but in this book they are providing pieces of the same tale. Set in thirteenth century France, the Inquisitor is assembling these stories to create a full narrative of three children, their holy dog, and their adventures.

Perhaps most remarkable, The Inquisitor’s Tale manages to feature Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and mysticism in a respectful way, without placing preference. Each of the children comes from diverse backgrounds. William’s parents are a crusading father and Muslim mother. He never knew his mother and has grown up in the care of a monastery, but his overall appearance is startling to the predominantly Caucasian medieval French population.  Jeanne (who the author named after Joan of Arc) is a peasant who has visions. Jacob is a Jewish boy who fled after a hate crime burned down his village and killed his parents. As to be expected, the children are first skeptical of one another, but they come to rely on each other, and eventually develop a deep friendship.

The Inquisitor’s Tale is a fresh story for kids, set in a time period and dealing with issues often overlooked in children’s literature. Gidwitz spent years researching, with help from his wife who happens to be  a professor of medieval history. Illuminations, drawn by Hatem Aly, enhance the story in the same way illuminations would have been added to medieval manuscripts.

The Inquisitor’s Tale would be a wonderful supplement to medieval studies, though the story is enjoyable on its own as well. Gidwitz provides several pages of his own historical commentary and a bibliography that includes sources appropriate for both kids and adults. The publisher recommends this book for ages 10 and up, which I agree with, but I do think it would be more appreciated by a reader at least 12 years old.

A Splash of Red

I had the pleasure of listening to Jen Bryant in a recent webinar. She has a passion for children’s nonfiction and finds interesting, but less known, subjects to feature in her narrative stories. After the webinar was over, I reserved all of the nonfiction picture books that my library had available.

The collaborations between Ms. Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet are especially wonderful. I will cover several of their books in future posts, but I thought I would first feature A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. I appreciate art, but I was unfamiliar with Horace Pippin before reading this book. I speculate that I am not alone in this.

Horace Pippin’s story is a wonderful example of perseverance. As a young boy, he loved to draw and paint, and showed promising artistic talent. After injuring his arm in World War I, however, Horace was no longer able to create the art he so loved. He eventually taught himself to use his left hand to support his injured right arm. As Bryant writes, “Pippin’s masterful use of color, form, and composition … is considered his greatest artistic strength.” His work was discovered by notable artists and critics during his lifetime, and today his paintings are displayed in museums across the country.

A Splash of Red would be a wonderful book to supplement studies in art, art history, and U.S. history. Although picture books are usually considered for younger children, older ones will enjoy this book as well, and it would serve as a fine starting point to introduce them to Horace Pippin.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie – When a Dragon Moves In

I’ve been highlighting a lot of books with heavy material, so I thought I’d lighten up the mood with a pair of fun books.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, written by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond, soon became a classic after it was published in 1985. It is commonly referenced as an example for not one, but two literary devices: the use of second person point of view and circular plot structure. The title phrase initiates the sequence of events that follows, and this simple action leads to comical situations as we read of a demanding mouse who continues to want more.

If you enjoy the “If you … , then …” cause-and-effect style of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, then you may like When a Dragon Moves In by Jodi Moore, illustrated by Howard McWilliam. This story starts , “If you build a perfect sandcastle, a dragon will move in.” We then follow a young boy’s day on the beach with his family and, of course, his dragon. The illustrations are cleverly done, and it’s left to interpretation as to whether the dragon is imaginary or real.

These are fun reads and there are others that follow. Numeroff and Bond collaborated on many more books, such as If You Give a Moose a Muffin and If You Give a Pig a Pancake, following their initial premise. Moore and McWilliam produced a sequel titled When A Dragon Moves In Again, in which our young boy copes with the arrival of a baby brother. All titles are appropriate for all ages, though the target audience is for kids 4-8 years old.

Freedom Over Me

Author Ashley Bryan used the Fairchilds Appraisement of the Estate document dated for July 5, 1828 as inspiration for his poetry collection Freedom Over Me. In this document, eleven slaves are listed for sale along with cows, hogs, and cotton. Bryan brings these eleven individuals to life with poetry. Each person has a pair of poems written from his or her perspective. The first poem describes his or her life on the plantation. The second relates personal dreams and hopes for freedom.

Bryan’s artwork is stunning. A portrait in neutral colors, along with the slave’s price and name, appears on the left with the coinciding poem describing everyday life appearing on the right. When we turn the page, we are captivated by a rich, colorful picture of the individual’s dream life, with the appropriate poem appearing on the left.

The use of poetry is profound in this book. It is a powerful way to connect us with the slaves’ humanity. Freedom Over Me would be a wonderful text to use in supplement to US History studies or in any discussion of slavery.

Owl Moon – Over and Under the Snow

Owl Moon is Jane Yolen’s story that details a young girl’s owling outing with her father. While its literary merit alone would make this picture book stand out, it solidified “classic” status when artist John Schoenherr won the Caldecott Medal for its illustrations. The story is simple and sweet, yet the language is rich and beautiful. It demonstrates the fullness of a loving parent-child relationship as the father introduces his daughter to the adventure of finding owls in the woods.

Fans of Owl Moon may likewise enjoy Kate Messner’s Over and Under the Snow, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. In this story, a girl and her father cross-country ski through wintry woods. They track evidence of animal life, while the father explains how the animals live and survive during the cold winter months. The illustrations juxtapose the exploration of the father and daughter against the hibernation and underground scurrying of the animals.

Both Owl Moon and Over and Under the Snow would be wonderful book selections to use in teaching poetic techniques. Owl Moon is indeed a free verse poem, and though Over and Under the Snow is written in prose, it is full of lyrical phrases. In particular, these books employ onomatopoeia, alliteration, and assonance, not to mention metaphor and simile. They both are peaceful, winter-themed, high-quality choices for younger readers, and older readers will benefit from reading them as models in writing style.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Wolf Hollow

Let me first say that I don’t believe Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird is a book for children. Many of the schools have kids read it in middle school, which baffles me. I suppose it is because the book’s reading level is fifth-sixth grade, and it is an American classic, but there are so many social and emotional nuances, that I think older readers benefit more from its content.

Similarly, I was shocked Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was given a Newbery Honor this year. I was not at all shocked that the book had received critical acclaim – it is masterfully crafted and praise is well due. Rather, I was shocked that it had been recognized for the Newbery as opposed to the young adult Printz Award, because the content seemed more appropriate for teenagers than elementary-aged children.

Personal opinions aside, both To Kill a Mockingbird and Wolf Hollow will be read by kids, and as such, I thought I would include them on this site. I am not the first person to make connections between these novels. The accolades on the back cover of Wolf Hollow even acknowledge its close similarities to Mockingbird. At their cores, these books are very much alike, each starring a young female protagonist who is forced to reckon with injustice and prejudice in an imperfect world.

Many will already be familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird, so I will focus on Wolf Hollow. Annabelle lives in a rural American community during World War II. The arrival of fourteen-year-old Betty upends Annabelle’s simple world. Betty is a bully in the fullest meaning of the world, with her actions leading to life-and-death consequences. Betty’s brutality and callous nature make for downright uncomfortable reading, though Lauren Wolk deserves credit for not shirking away from difficult material. Annabelle must learn how to stand up for herself and her special friend Toby, a misunderstood World War I veteran who Betty blames for various tragedies in the community.

The heavy themes in both books could lead to some wonderful discussions in older readers. To Kill a Mockingbird includes accusations of rape, racial prejudice, and social injustice. Wolf Hollow deals with prejudice and bullying (be warned this is full-blown, physical-threat harassment, not merely name calling). In addition, there are some difficult passages of physical injury to children and Toby’s horrific war memories.

I believe both books are incredible works of literature and should be read by young people at some point in their education. Having said that, due to the mature content in both, I think fourteen and up is an appropriate age to introduce these books, though very mature readers may be able to handle them at age twelve.