Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Historical fiction - Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Curtis, Christopher Paul. ELIJAH OF BUXTON.

Buxton was a town established for escaped slaves from the US, just across the border from Detroit. Elijah is the first free-born child in the town of Buxton in Canada. A well-loved only child, he is naïve, carefree, and innocent. He gets taken in by the cons of an adult known as Preacher, but when Preacher steals the money that another resident, Mr. Leroy, had saved to purchase his family out of slavery, Elijah goes on a journey that will force him to grow up fast. He and Mr. Leroy follow Preacher, but Mr. Leroy dies shortly after reaching the US. Elijah continues on his own after Preacher. He finds Preacher, but only after Preacher has been tortured and killed by some slavers. In the barn where the slavers left Preacher’s body, Elijah also finds some chained up slaves who steal the pistol Elijah carries. Elijah learns that they plan on shooting themselves rather than returning to slavery. As Elijah tries to make sense of this “secret…growned up language,” he finally understands what it means to be a slave, what it means to be free, and what it means to grow up. He takes the young baby of one of the chained slaves with the mother’s blessing, and returns to Buxton with the baby to give her to a woman who lost her child and consequently became “touched in the head.” At the end of the book, Elijah is carrying the child, Hope Too-mah-ee-nee, back to Buxton, and welcoming her to Canada and freedom.

In Mr. Curtis’s Author’s Note, he explains how Buxton was founded, why it succeeded where so many other towns like it failed, and tells us how we can get more information on Buxton by visiting the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum.

Awards and Honors:
  • Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2008 Winner Author United States
  • IODE (National Chapter of Canada) Violet Downey Book Award, 2008 Short-List Canada
  • Jane Addams Children's Book Award, 2008 Honor Book Books for Older Children United States
  • John Newbery Medal, 2008 Honor Book United States
  • NAACP Image Award, 2008 Nominee Outstanding Literary Work-Children United States
  • Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Book Award, 2008 Shortlist Young Adult/Middle Reader Canada
  • Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 2008 Winner United States
  • TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, 2008 Finalist Canada


Carolyn Phelan (Booklist, Sep. 1, 2007 (Vol. 104, No. 1))
Starred Review* After his mother rebukes him for screaming that hoop snakes have invaded Buxton, gullible 11-year-old Elijah confesses to readers that “there ain’t nothing in the world she wants more than for me to quit being so doggone fra-gile.” Inexperienced and prone to mistakes, yet kind, courageous, and understanding, Elijah has the distinction of being the first child born in the Buxton Settlement, which was founded in Ontario in 1849 as a haven for former slaves. Narrator Elijah tells an episodic story that builds a broad picture of Buxton’s residents before plunging into the dramatic events that take him out of Buxton and, quite possibly, out of his depth. In the author’s note, Curtis relates the difficulty of tackling the subject of slavery realistically through a child’s first-person perspective. Here, readers learn about conditions in slavery at a distance, though the horrors become increasingly apparent. Among the more memorable scenes are those in which Elijah meets escaped slaves—first, those who have made it to Canada and, later, those who have been retaken by slave catchers. Central to the story, these scenes show an emotional range and a subtlety unusual in children’s fiction. Many readers drawn to the book by humor will find themselves at times on the edges of their seats in suspense and, at other moments, moved to tears. A fine, original novel from a gifted storyteller.

Horn Book (The Horn Book Guide, Spring 2008)
Eleven-year-old Elijah is the first child to be born free in Buxton, a refuge for freed slaves established in 1849 in Canada. When a con man takes off with the funds Elijah's friend saved to buy his family out of slavery, the two pursue the thief across the border to Michigan. The book is an arresting, surprising novel of reluctant heroism.

Karen Coats (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, October 2007 (Vol. 61, No. 2))
Eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman is the first free-born child in Buxton, Canada, a community formed by Reverend William King in 1849 as a refuge for any slaves that could manage to make it there. The community has a strict set of rules and expectations, but that doesn’t stop the occasional snake from slithering his way in amongst the hard-working folk. The trouble is that naïve, good-hearted Elijah doesn’t recognize a snake when he walks on two legs: taken in by a con artist who calls himself the Preacher, Elijah narrowly escapes being sold to a traveling circus, though he really doesn’t seem to ever grasp his peril. When the Preacher steals all the money that another man has saved to buy his family out of slavery and crosses the border, Elijah feels obligated to go after him, since it was he who said that the Preacher could be trusted. Things go from bad to worse on his journey, and Elijah learns the hard way that the stories the escaped slaves tell are grounded in more horror than he can possibly imagine. Curtis’ storytelling style shines here; he establishes Elijah’s character through energetic first-person narration and fixes him in readers’ hearts through comic, sometimes even slapstick episodes. Only then does he open up the serious, at times horrific side of the story. Elijah spends a lot of time trying to figure out the ways of grown folk; in particular he tries to learn how to lie like a grownup, since that seems to him the way they get things done. This story does the best that children’s historical fiction about tragic times can do—it paints an unflinchingly honest picture of the past, while providing a glimmer of empowerment and hope through an engaging and resourceful hero. An author’s note with more information about the story and the Buxton settlement follows the text Review.

1. Have the students construct diorams of what they think Buxton looked like.
2. Reader's Theatre - Have the students break up into small groups and each act out a different episode in the book.
3. Discuss how prejudice is still present in our world, just not as obvious. Have any of your students ever expereinced prejudice?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Historical fiction: Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata

Kadohata, Cynthia. WEEDFLOWER. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006. ISBN 0689865740.

Sumiko is a 12 year old orphan who lives with her younger brother on her aunt and uncle's flower farm in California in 1941. Feeling different from her classmates because she is the only Japanese girl in her class, she consoles herself with dreams of owning her own flower shop someday. But then comes December 6th, and the events of Pearl harbor. Overnight, Sumiko's whole life changes again. Her grandfather and uncle are sent away to a prison camp for the crime of being born in Japan. Sumiko, her brother, cousins, and aunt are shipped to the internment camp in Poston, Arizona. There, her younger brother runs wild because there's no school. Sumiko starts growing a flower garden with her neighbor, Mr. Moto. She meets a boy, Frank, from the nearby Indian reservation and the two of them become friends, even though the Indians resent the Japanese, who don't want to be there in the first place. Sumiko's cousins joij the US military, to fight for a country that ostensibly doesn't even want them because of their ethnicity. Sumilo struggle sto make sense of all these conflicting occurences, scrapes away at the dirt of her flower garden and survives.

In an author's endnote, Ms. Kadohata tells us about how the internment camps actually improved life for the Indians, since they inherited the facilities once the Japanese internees began returning to return to their homes.

Awards and Honors:
  • Cybils, 2006 Finalist Middle Grade Fiction United States

  • Jane Addams Children's Book Award, 2007 Winner Books for Older Children United States

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2006 (Vol. 74, No. 6))
Post-Pearl Harbor Japanese-American internment is seen from the eyes of a young girl who eventually manages to bloom after she is uprooted and planted in the Arizona desert. Twelve-year-old Sumiko and her little brother Tak-Tak live with their aunt and uncle on a flower farm in California. The only Japanese student in her class, Sumiko longs for friends and acceptance. She loves the fields of "weedflowers" and dreams of owning her own flower shop. After Pearl Harbor, Sumiko and her family are removed from their land and transported to an internment camp on an Indian reservation in Poston, Ariz. Surrounded by fields of dust, Sumiko's "dream was gone and she didn't know what would take its place," until she teams up with her neighbor Mr. Moto to make the desert bloom and escape the "ultimate boredom" of the camp. And when Sumiko meets Frank, a Mohave boy who resents the Japanese on his land, she finds an unlikely, but true friend. Like weedflowers, hope survives in this quietly powerful story.

Claudia Mills, Ph.D. (Children's Literature)
Newbery Medalist Kadohata (Kira-Kira) presents another story of a Japanese-American family: Sumiko’s family are flower farmers in California; too poor to afford a glass greenhouse, they grow kusabana, or weedflowers, flowers grown in the open field, hardy enough to bear changing weather conditions. Sumiko and her family are forced to find a way to survive and flourish during the intolerably harsh conditions of relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although this painful and shameful chapter of American history is now familiar to many readers, Kadohata excels in accumulating the heart-piercing details that make it all too vividly real: Sumiko’s excitement about finally being invited to a classmate’s birthday party, from which she is subsequently uninvited because of her race; farewells to a beloved horse and dog; the crushing heat, dust, and boredom of life in the camps, where Sumiko tries to grow flowers again in the barren, sandy soil. Sumiko’s emerging friendship with a Native American boy, resentful of the relocation camp’s presence on his reservation, adds another dimension to the internment narrative, which builds to an unsettled, but somehow still hopeful, conclusion.

This book lends itself well to Readers Theatre. Some recommended chapters to start with are Chapter 4 where Sumiko gets turned away from her classmate's birthday party, Chapter 10 where Sumiko and her family leave for the internment camp, or Chapter 28 where Sumiko and her cousin meet with Frank and his older brother and find out that the Japanese and Indians have a lot in common.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sonya Sones

Sones, Sonya. STOP PRETENDING: WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MY BIG SISTER WENT CRAZY. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0060283874.

Sonya Sones’ debut book of poetry is a verse novel accounting of her own childhood experiences. For years, Sones buried her feelings about her big sister’s mental illness in her very private journals. Finally, according to her author’s note, she took a poetry class at UCLA taught by Myra Cohn Livingston, where this collection of free verse poems was born.

These poems contain many examples of poetic language: metaphors (“when the sun/licks through the gauze/fluttering at my window”), alliteration (“shrouded with a sheet”),and simile (“holding tight/like feathers to the wing of a bird.”). Sones uses an occasional ending rhyme (“I could have been the one./Run, Sister, run!”) or repeated phrase to emphasize her point (“Stop pretending./Right this minute./Don’t you tell me/you don’t know me.”). And even though they’re written in free verse, some of these poems have a very regular meter:
     “Suddenly I’m running, stumbling,
     Sister’s demons chasing after,
     Leering, laughing,
     right behind me
     lurching at my heels
     remind me...”
Other poems, because of their choppy, irregular rhythm, invoke the anguish that mental illness must bring to both the patient and those close to her:
     “’Isn’t that what Alice did
     in that Disney movie?
     Isn’t it?’ she demands. “Alice was the one
     with the ruby slippers. Wasn’t she?”
     Sister stomps her foot,

     Then she clicks her heels together three times
     and whirls and twirls
     like she’s caught in a cyclone
     until she collapses onto her bed,
     curling up into a tight fist.”

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Sones explains that her sister has led a productive life even though she has continued to need occasional hospitalizations, and has given Ms. Sones her blessing for sharing her experiences. Sones even provides a list of addresses and websites for readers who have further questions about mental illness or need help for themselves or a family member.

Like most of the genre of verse novels, this book is aimed at primarily high school aged readers. These poems can be read alone, but together they create an ongoing story of a family’s struggle with mental illness and a sister watching her beloved older sister’s illness and feeling totally helpless. The storyline moves from disbelief to anguish to finally cautious hope. My favorite poem is one of the very last ones:

     I’m tucked
     Between my mother and father,
     snuggling on the couch
     under the quilt that Grandma Ruthie made,
     watching an old movie on television,
     eating popcorn.

     And tonight,
     for once,
     it feels okay
     to just be


Awards, Honors, Prizes:
Christopher Awards, 2000 Winner Ages 12 and up United States
Claudia Lewis Award, 1999 Winner United States
Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 1999 Finalist Young Adult Fiction United States
Myra Cohn Livingston Award for Poetry, 2000 Winner United States

Michael Cart (Booklist, November 15, 1999 (Vol. 96, No. 6))
One Christmas Eve, 13-year-old Cookie's big sister has a nervous breakdown…. Following this manic moment, the sister is institutionalized. This haunting novel, told entirely in Cookie's first-person poems, is the story of what happens in the wake of this emotional disaster…. The poems--some as short as five lines, none longer than three pages--have a cumulative emotional power that creeps up on the reader, culminating in a moving, unexpected line or phrase: "I blink / and there you suddenly are / inhabiting your eyes again. . . and I'm feeling all lit up / like a jar filled / with a thousand fireflies." Such small moments become large in the context of their promise of healing and their demonstration of life's power to continue. Based on Sones' own family experience, this debut novel shows the capacity of poetry to record the personal and translate it into the universal.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, 1999)
Individually, the poems appear simple and unremarkable, snapshot portraits of two sisters, a family, unfaithful friends, and a sweet first love. Collected, they take on life and movement, the individual frames of a movie that in the unspooling become animated, telling a compelling tale and presenting a painful passage through young adolescence. The form, a story-in-poems, fits the story remarkably well, spotlighting the musings of the 13-year-old narrator, and pinpointing the emotions powerfully. She copes with friends who snub her, worries that she, too, will go mad, and watches her sister's slow recovery.

Horn Book (The Horn Book Guide, Spring 2000)
When her older sister becomes mentally ill, an adolescent girl describes her own tumultuous feelings in a series of free verse poems. The simple verses are occasionally glib, but more often sensitively written, gathering cumulative power as they trace Cookie's feelings of loss, despair, and loneliness as Sister is institutionalized, undergoes shock therapy, and ultimately makes small steps toward recovery.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Marilyn Singer

Singer, Marilyn. IT'S HARD TO READ A MAP WITH A BEAGLE ON YOUR LAP. Ill. by Clément Oubrerie. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993. ISBN 0805022015.

Marilyn Singer has created a humorous collection of dog poems. Most of her poems go unnamed but can be identified by the breed of dog she’s writing about. There are also poems about mutts and mongrels, and the daily routines of dogs.

These poems all have a regular meter and rhyming scheme. There are couplets, quatrains, and limericks in this collection. Singer even includes four concrete poems. Some of her most amusing poems are the ones which describe specific parts of dogs, like Ears, Fur, and Tails, which are the only three poems in this collection which have titles.

Singer makes frequent use of alliteration (“have to hoot,” unnamed poem about a bulldog), consonance (“When a Rottweiler feels rotten,” unnamed poem about a rottweiler) and internal rhymes (“He stinks at rinks and also links,” unnamed poem about a dachshund). Oubrerie’s illustrations also add to the poetic imagery, as he extends the illustration for the dachshund poem over four pages, and alternates fence posts and dog in the Dalmatian poem. As a final touch, there’s a poem that has one line at the top of each page, sort of like a poetry version of a flip book, and is, ironically enough, about the many ways dogs wait.

My favorite poem from this book is Ears:

     Standing high
     Mr. Spock’s

Deborah Stevenson (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June 1993 (Vol. 46, No. 10))
... a collection of twenty-six silly dog poems.... Oubrerie's scratchy lines and mixed-media art emphasizes the variety in both dogs and poetry by depicting the protagonists sometimes in cartoonish exaggeration and sometimes in highly detailed realism..... always energetic. Kids won't exactly take these up as chants, but the tilted investigation of the doggy world has a giggle-provoking appeal.

Horn Book (The Horn Book Guide, 1993)
Stalwart bulldogs, waltzing bloodhounds, plain old mongrels, and other varieties of man's best friend scratch, fetch, sleep, sniff, and romp through a volume of amusing canine doggerel. Mixed-media illustrations capture both the playfulness of the poems and the sometimes oh-so-human nature of the dogs.

My 13 year old daughter (July 7, 2009)
"Mom! Marilyn Singer's funny! Can we check out some more books by her?"

1. Have a 'Bring your pet to the library" day. Serve dog treats, cat treats, and cookies
    in the shape of dog biscuits.
2. Have each child in your class illustrate and write a poem about his or her pet. If a
    child doesn't have a pet, have them use the pet they would like to have.
3. Connect this book to math. Conduct a class-wide survey of favorite pets, then
    have the class work in groups to plot this information into bar graphs and interpret
    the bar graphs. Have each group present their findings to another group.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Douglas Florian

Florian, Douglas. DINOTHESAURUS: PREHISTORIC POEMS AND PAINTINGS. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2009. ISBN 1416979786.

Douglas Florian, in his latest poetry book, has brought the long-dead world of dinosaurs to life. The collection begins with a poem that introduces the prehistoric epochs of Earth’s history (The Age of Dinosaurs) and ends with a poem asking the reader what he or she thinks happened to the dinosaurs (The End of Dinosaurs). In between are poems about the more commonly known dinosaurs such as Triceratops and Brachiosaurus, as well as dinosaurs I’d never heard of before such as Troodon and Minmi.

The poems have several different rhyming schemes. Florian makes use primarily of couplets (rhyming schemes of aabbccdd, etc), quatrains (four-line stanza with rhyming schemes of abcb, aabb, or abab), and sextains (six-line stanzas with rhyming schemes of aabccb or aaabab). For his rhymes, Mr Florian uses primarily ending rhymes. He also uses twists on the dinosaur names to end his poems, as in the following 3 examples:

     “But if one day Iguanadon
     I came upon, I’d wanna
     Ask that big IguanoDON:
     Where is IguanoDONNA?” (Iguanodon, lines 3-6)

     “When it was hungry or got into fights,
     It opened its jaws and took giga-bites.” (Gigantosaurus, lines 5-6)

     “I find it terrific
     That it’s T-rex-tinct.” (Tyrannosaurus rex, lines 11-12)

His meter is primarily iambic tetrameter, but there are also poems that have irregular meters and rhyming schemes, such as Micropachycelphalosaurus (abccdd).

Florian has chosen his words carefully. As an example, in his poem, Stegoceras, he repeats the word head 3 times in each line. Through Florian's emphasis of this word, we learn that Stegoceras had an unusually shaped head instead of having to read it in an ‘educational book.’ This masterful trait is characteristic of his other natural history poetry collections, as well.

Florian uses the arrangements of his poems to illustrate his point. For example, in Mimmi, the entire poem reads, “What’s Minmi’s BIGGEST claim to fame?/It has the smallest dinosaur name.” His use of imagery is very effective also. In the final poem, The End of Dinosaurs, one line reads, “The climate on the Earth grew c-c-cold,” You can almost hear the dinosaurs’ chattering teeth.

Florian has illustrated his poems with collage and crayon illustrations of the various dinosaurs. They appear together with modern day items such as computers, IPods, and newspaper clippings. The poems appear in no discernible order, but the ‘Glossarysaurus’ entries in the back of the book are listed in the same order the poems are presented. Florian also provides a list of ‘Dinosaur Museums and Fossil Sites’ and a ‘Selected Bibliography and Further Reading’ page. As reviewer Deborah Stevenson puts it, “This will serve equally well to liven up paleontology or to dinosaur up poetry” (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, February 2009).

Gillian Engberg (Booklist, Mar. 1, 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 13))
Starred Review* Florian, whose previous picture-book poetry collections have covered the animal kingdom, from dogs and cats to lizards and pollywogs, takes a few evolutionary steps back in this exuberant verse roundup of prehistoric creatures…. Even as they are delighting in the lines’ silliness, children will absorb solid facts, as in a poem that introduces earth’s epochs: “The dinosaurs / First lived outdoors / During the time Triassic. / While most died out, / Some came about / Later in the Jurassic….” this is a standout title on a perennially popular subject that has inspired surprisingly few poetry collections for kids. Grades K-3

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2009 (Vol. 77, No. 2))
…. a set of dinophile-pleasing verses penned by a poet with a rare knack for wordplay and silly rhymes finds apt visual setting fronting playful images of monsters rearing up from extinction to grin toothily at young viewers…. closes with an informative "Glossarysaurus," plus museum and source lists. Spectacularly depicted (as is his frequent custom) on paper bags in crayon and collage, the poet's dinos are easily recognizable despite being freely rendered and, often, semitransparent. Collage elements add to the visual excitement, often to great effect—a skeletal, iPod-sporting T. Rex prepares to chow down on a heap of cut-out dinosaur bits....

Deborah Stevenson (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, February 2009 (Vol. 62, No. 6))
…Florian returns here with a score of new poems about the legendary great and gone of the animal world. Aside from the intro and closing poems, each verse is devoted to a particular species of dinosaur.… As usual, the poems are brisk, skilled, and entertaining, suitable for reading aloud or alone, and they offer dinosaur lovers an easily crossable bridge into the world of poetry while providing a sparkling overview for kids with limited interest in dead reptiles. The illustrations are remarkable even by Florian’s standards: he’s added more elaborate detailing, varying moods, and a more complex palette to his usual quirky mix of limpid watercolors and touches of lettering and found materials, resulting in a gleaming gallery of otherworldly prehistoriana. This will serve equally well to liven up paleontology or to dinosaur up poetry. End matter includes a glossary—excuse me, “glossarysaurus,” a list of dinosaur museums and fossil sites, and a brief, accessible bibliography. A book of special distinction.

1. If your school is close enough, plan a field trip to one of the museums or fossil sites listed in the back of this book.
2. Contact your local natural history museum and ask a paleontologist (a scientist who specializes in dinosaurs) to come speak to your reading club or class.