Friday, February 25, 2011

Small Persons with Wings

Usually on this blog I try to give you a list of books, but I can't wait to create a list to tell you about a book I just finished reading.

Small Persons with Wings
by Ellen Booraem was a true joy to read. The story has it all--humor, school with its many social issues, hints of romance, art, science, French, Latin, and fairies. The first thing you will learn is that the little folks in this story prefer to be called "small persons with wings" or Parvi Pennati from the Latin parvi homines (small persons) and pennati (with wings). Call them parvi, for short. Mellie, who narrates in a voice that rings true, had a friend who was a parvi pennati until one fateful day when she was in kindergarten. It was then that, in an attempt to make friends and get invited to a popular girl's birthday party, she told the other children that she had a fairy and would bring him to school for show and tell. Fidius, her parvi friend, was aghast at the idea and flew off in a huff, leaving behind nothing but memories and a little toy man made of china. Her school friends promptly named her Fairy Fat adding the fairy story to their previous taunts about her weight. They tormented her mercilessly for years in a classic example of bullying at its worst.

Mellie did not give up easily. In face, she talked so much about her small person with wings that she was sent to the school counselor to talk about her "issues". When her parents were called in to drive home the point that fairies were only in one's imagination, Mellie felt she could no longer trust herself and fell to memorizing lists and learning interesting facts about artists in attempt to no longer worry about her social problems or her memories of Fidius. These facts appear throughout the rest of the book. I learned artist trivia that I am sure I will be sharing for years. (Did you know that Vincent Van Gogh had a sunflower named after him or that someone made a portrait of Queen Elizabeth out of 1,000 tea bags?)

Things change when Mellie is thirteen and her family quite unexpectedly inherits the tavern that had been run by her paternal grandfather who no one in the family really liked. The family moves to the tavern where they meet a cast of interesting characters and Mellie learns about the family pact with the Parvi Pennati that must now be addressed some 1300 years after first came to be.

There is so much to this book that I could go on for pages. Girls in grades five and up should especially enjoy this book, but I can not imagine anyone not finding something to enjoy here. Find it! Read it! You will believe in small persons with wings--or at least hope that they have more stories to share.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

All School Read In

Yesterday, February 18, the school was amazingly, beautifully quiet as all students, teachers, and administrators spent half an hour reading. It was almost magical.

Also almost magical was the introducing of books by African American authors to the students. Wednesday afternoon a fifth grade class came to me. During their check out time, the kids looked at my displays of books by African Americans and picked out ones that they thought they would like to read. I was so glad I had put out my multiple copies of The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis because two girls chose copies to read. Later in the day, they came back with two classmates who wanted to read the same book. "We are going to read it," they said, "and then have our own book discussion." This was all on their own. I am proud and hope to hear soon of the success of their book discussion group. It could lead to even more discussions.

Other children have already come back to me to tell me how much they enjoyed what they read and asked for similar books to read over break. I was thrilled when an eighth grade boy rushed over to put dibs on a biography of Spike Lee. Another brought back The Old African by Julius Lester and stopped to tell me how interesting it was.

The only drawback to the day came with the realization (I keep forgetting this obvious fact) that if I pull out 200 books for display they will eventually all need to be put away. Although many of the books will go home with kids over the break, I put away an awful lot of books yesterday afternoon.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Books by African Americans

The morning of Friday, February 18, will find a hush falling over our school as we engage in an African American Read In sponsored by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The goal is to have everyone in the school from the youngest kindergarten student to the head of school take 30 minutes to Drop Everything and Read. The NCTE encourages us to take this time during Black History Month to read a book by an African American author.

The goal of finding reading material for each member of our school community got me thinking about many issues. Last spring when I heard Christopher Paul Curtis speak at a luncheon, he pointed out that there are still only two widely published male African American authors for young men in grades three to eight, Curtis and Walter Dean Myers. As I found books in our collection that comment kept coming to mind.

Our middle grade fiction by African American authors is something that I think about often as a part of collection development. Pulling books by African American authors makes clear how difficult it is to find good books--perhaps any books--that fit in this category.

Bud, Not Buddy, The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 and Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis are all popular in our collection though his Mr. Chickee books are a bit harder sell, perhaps because they do not have the historical aspect and the more intense stories or simply that they are aimed at a big younger audience. I have met Curtis and listened to him talk several times and he seems to be just what we want as a model for our young men. He is caring, thoughtful, philosophical, and filled with energy, enthusiasm, and humor.

Walter Dean Myers is amazing but harder to get young men in our school to read. I am not sure why. My favorite of his books is Monster, but that is only for the oldest of our students as it is a difficult topic, dealing as it does with a young man standing trial for robbery and murder. Fallen Angels and Handbook for Boys are also good titles that I clearly need to promote more actively. Myers has a wide array of titles in addition to his fiction. Poetry, history, picture books, and even a memoir (Bad Boy) are brought to us by this talented author. Don't miss Walter Dean Myers son Christopher Myers' exciting adaptation through illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky. It is a book that any basketball player will love.

We have a few fiction works by Julius Lester (Days of Tears, This Strange New Feeling), but, once again, they are for older readers and a hard sell for me. Lester has done one of the most beautiful versions of an African American legend in The Old African and has some history and even a picture book discussion of race, Let's Talk about Race, in our collection. I have great admiration for everything that Lester has created and urge you to seek out his writings.

Other fiction African American fiction for middle grade readers is almost exclusively written by women--Virginia Halmilton, Pat McKissack, Jacqueline Woodson, Mildred Taylor and Sharon M. Draper. All of these authors well deserve the accolades that they have received for their many works of fiction.

We have more non-fiction by African American authors than we do fiction. Not surprisingly, I suppose, many of them deal with the civil rights movement and the history of slavery. There are a few titles that I must mention that fit in this category. Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High by Melba Beals is a just what the title promises. Being among the first to integrate a hostile high school was an honor of sorts but also a horrible experience. Picture, if you will, being escorted to high school with the National Guard not always willingly being called in to protect you from jeering and threatening fellow students.

Toni Morrison offers a somewhat gentler look at school integration in Remember: The Journey to School Integration though the stunning black and white photos will grip at your heart on each page.

Two other historical works that are worthy of your consideration: Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage by Walter Dean Myers which looks at the the 369 Infantry of World War I, an African American regiment that had to fight both the war and the battles of racism. They stood up for democracy when few American would stand up for them. Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African American Whalers by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack looks at another under-recognized group when they look at the impact of African Americans on whaling ships and how they helped shape the abolition movements.

Non-fiction by African Americans is not limited to history and social movements. Wynton Marsalis has a beautiful book about jazz called A-B-Z Jazz which uses poetry and modern art to present brief looks at 26 jazz musicians. This is not a simple picture book, but a work of art and biographical collection for readers with the time and interest to pursue it in detail.

Sports lovers will find that many of their favorite athletes like Tiki Barber and Venus Williams have written about their sports. Other people have written biographies of some of the greats. Walter Dean Myers has written ultimate boxing biography in The Greatest:Muhammad Ali. The most beautiful sports book I have ever seen is We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson. Pick it up just for the pictures and you will soon be drawn into the narrative.

There are some beautifully illustrated works of some poetic greats. The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes is beautifully illustrated by E. B. Lewis in a book which drew accolades when it was published in 2009 and has drawn many to discover this moving work. Maya Angelou's Life Doesn't Frighten Me is perfectly suited for the bright and powerful paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. I wish I had Angelou's voice to read this aloud with the proper impact, but whatever your voice it cries to be read out with emotion. Ntozake Shange uses poetry to remember growing up in presence of African American leaders like W. E. B. DuBois, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Robeson and others. It is history told with love and lyricism.

The most beautiful new art book is an award winner this year (Coretta Scott King Award, Caldecott Honor Book). Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill uses amazing illustrations by Bryan Collier to supplement the text about a slave who created beautiful pottery. Dave has no last name because he was a slave, but he left his simple poems on each pot he created so historians are able to trace a bit of his story. This is a must have book for anyone who loves pottery, especially those who have had the chance to use the wheel.

Don't forget the beautiful folk tales by such people as Verna Aardema (Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain), Ashley Bryan (Beautiful Blackbird), Virginia Hamilton (The People Could Sing, Her Stories), and John Steptoe (Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters). There are many, many more that fit in this section, but this will give you a start.

Finally, look to the picture book section. This section offers much from which to choose, so I will simply list a few of my favorites. My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me by Maya Angelou, The Big Box by Toni Morrison, Precious and the Boo Hag by Pat McKissack, Dear Mr. Rosenwald by Carole Boston Weatherford, and Sweet Music in Harlem by Debbie A. Taylor, an Ann Arbor author.

While the number of African American authors for young people is slowly growing, the books that are currently available will offer something for every reader and listener. Consider joining us at 8:30 on Friday, February 18, 2011, to take some time to enjoy some fascinating writing by an African American author.

Lunar New Year Greetings

The start of the Year of the Rabbit got notice in my library classes but it has been sadly overlooked here. Of course, it is never too late to enjoy some good reading or wish you all the best in the coming year.

Most of the books you will find about the Lunar New Year will focus on Chinese customs. It might be easy to miss a beautiful story of New Year's celebrations in Korea. New Clothes for New Year's Day by Hyun-Joo Bae will first attract the reader with its lovely illustrations that delicately depict the donning of new and very special clothes. The words are spare and gentle while capturing the excitement of a child's first chance to wear these tradition-laden clothes. I was thrilled the first time I shared it with a class to have a young Korean girl bring me her New Year's clothing to show me the next day. This book is a real treasure.

One interesting Chinese New Year book is The Day the Dragon Danced by Kay Haugaard. I will concede, as one reviewer complained, that it can be wordy at times, but I will counter that it is a wonderful melding of cultures and universal worries. A young African American girl takes her grandmother to the Dragon Dance parade celebrating the New Year in their city's Chinatown. Grandmother is a bit reluctant but the girl is persistent. Then she has to watch carefully for the shoes under the long, long dragon for one of the dancer is the girl's father. She even has the opportunity to do her part to keep the dragon moving smoothly along.

For amazingly beautiful illustrations it is always a safe bet to turn to Ed Young who has many retellings of Chinese and Japanese tales as well as some that are original stories. One of the many stories of the origins of the Chinese Zodiac is the focus of Cat and Rat: The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac. The illustrations are dark, not ominous but simply set in the night or int he water, so not so great for group readings, but they are also stunning and well suited to sharing one on one. The excitement of the race to win the twelve coveted spots on the zodiac is strong. I have read many very different stories about the selection of the animals to be part of the twelve year cycle. This is a favorite for both story and illustrations.

If you want to understand the customs and traditions that surround the Chinese New Year, D is for Dragon Dance by Ying Chang Compestine may be just what what you want. It is a simple A-B-C book which offers 26 points of interest about the holiday along with bright, vivid illustrations that will keep that young person on your lap interested when the words are more than they want. Yes, this is the same Ying Chang Compestine who brought us The Story of Noodles, The Story of Chopsticks and many others. All of these books are a good jumping off point for a look at Chinese culture in general.

Finally, local author and China expert Carol Stepanchuk has compiled a collection of stories, recipes, and information about four Chinese festivals in her book Red Eggs and Dragon Boats: Celebrating Chinese Festivals.

There are many websites to help you delve further into the Chinese Zodiac, which is something all of my students love to do. Here is just one of them. Remember when you are assigning an animal for year of birth that the Lunar New Year by definition is not a stable date and moves from mid January to mid February. If you were born before the middle of February, be sure to find a zodiac that will tell you exactly when the New Year began the year you were born.

Whatever you zodiac sign, this is the year to be hoppy all year long.

Happy Valentine's Day

While everyone hopes for a wonderful celebration of Valentine's Day whether it be a romantic dinner out with a special someone or the joyful exchange of cards at a classroom party, it is doubtful that you will find many Valentine's related books to share with your children. The reading of romance novels is one option for older readers, but finding picture books that address Valentine's Day in any but the most saccharin manner is a difficult task.

A trip to the local bookstore yesterday suggested that they, too, were struggling to find anything worthy of a good display. Most of their books were about kisses for parents or hearts for someone else. Not much depth or plot was shown in any of them, though they may inspire a good exchange of hugs and kisses as part of the bedtime story ritual.

The one Valentine picture book that I have found that I am willing to read more than a couple of times is Love, Splat by Rob Scotton. Splat, as many of you already know, is a lovable but shy cat. In this book, he has his eye on a lovely, fluffy white cat as the one who should be the recipient of his one homemade Valentine's card. Unfortunately, a big, burly, something-of-a-bully cat has the same idea and gets his card to Kitten first. Who will Kitten choose, Splat or Spike? The story is one of good over the less well intentioned and as such is enjoyable and filled with just enough conflict to keep the interest of readers and listeners aged four to seven or so. As with all of Scotton's books, it is the illustrations that steal the show. It is impossible to resist the friendly, soft cats who inhabit this and all of the other Splat books.

Use Valentine's Day to snuggle up with that favorite young person, but don't dwell on finding a book that directly addresses the topic at hand. It is just not worth the effort.