Monthly Archives: October 2011

So You Want to Be an Explorer?, by Judith St. George, illustrated by David Small

Here’s another old review of mine.  This one is less for the preschool crowd and more for elementary.

So You Want to Be an Explorer?, by Judith St. George,
illustrated by David Small
(2005, Philomel Books, ISBN 0-399-23868-9)

So You Want to Be an Explorer? is the third book written by Judith St. George and illustrated by David Small.  It follows on the heels of So You Want to Be an Inventor? and their first, the Caldecott Award-winning So You Want to Be President?  It takes the reader on a rapid-fire tour of exploration through the ages, spanning the continent and the centuries.

The text, in an eye-catching, slightly enlarged font, will attract students in the intermediate grades with its light-hearted approach to what could be a fairly dull topic if written differently.  Nearly every spread contains a new descriptor for what explorers are (“Like it or not, explorers are risk takers,” claims the page describing the feats of secretary-turned-mountain-climber Barbara Washburn and airman Chuck Yeager), followed by brief, one-paragraph summaries of the accomplishments of a few explorers who fit the bill.  Sentence structure varies greatly and informal language abounds throughout the text, creating a feeling that is both conversational and exciting.  Although the details on each explorer are scant, readers will learn more than they bargained for in each short page and will be introduced to both famous and little-known characters from history as a result.  The contents will open students’ eyes to the possibilities of being an explorer, from a king who explored vicariously without ever leaving his country to scientists who explored the very make-up of the human body, and the vast potential of what is left to be discovered.  In addition, they will be intrigued enough by the tempting pieces of information to continue their research into these historical figures in more depth in other texts.

David Small’s ink, watercolor, and pastel drawings are reminiscent of amusement park caricatures, and they will provoke just as much interest in young readers.  The colorful, dramatic sketches add interest to the large block of text on the page.  Each spread features a single large scene depicting one of the explorers described.  This may put younger, less critical readers at a disadvantage in trying to determine which explorer is being illustrated, but more sophisticated readers will pick up clues from the text to relate to the illustration (such as realizing, on pages 26 and 27, that adventurer Bjarni Herjolfsson is missing an American treasure by looking the other way).  The endpapers are illustrated to look like tools of the explorer trade (from binoculars to a biplane!) scattered over a gridded map and will draw the reader in from the start.

A glossary of the explorers mentioned appears in alphabetical order at the end of the text, giving the birth and death dates (when appropriate) along with a straightforward, one-sentence description of each explorer which often gives information in addition to what was included in the text.  It is, therefore, an invaluable resource for readers wishing to know just a little more.  The author has also included a brief bibliography of her sources which may be used to begin further research for readers needing or wanting more information than that which was provided in the text.

Post Script:

I taught fifth grade for several years, and I used this book as a read-aloud and discussion starter with my class when we studied explorers.  Because of the fun style and the fact that so many of the explorers are less known, it really kept their attention well, and the book was checked out of my classroom library after the read-aloud by students who wanted to peruse it on their own.  It’s listed on Amazon as recommended for grades 1-4, and I agree that the reading level is probably lower than upper elementary, but the somewhat easier reading level (still not necessarily what I would consider independent reading for first and second grade level readers) makes the vast amount of new subject matter more accessible since it’s slightly below the grade level of students who are likely studying explorers.

The author’s informal style and the unusual (for nonfiction books) art make these books both informative and fun.  For an introduction to the topics (because they’re not really meant for serious research resources!), I absolutely love this series of books!

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Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, by Mo Willems

Just to get things started, I’m going to go ahead and post a few of my old reviews that I did during library school for assignments.  They are unnecessarily wordy and formal, but they cover everything from the text to the illustrations, so they may still be useful to someone!  I’ll post this one about Knuffle Bunny first since I’ve read it aloud to GirlChild and can tell about how she interacts with it!

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, by Mo Willems
(2004, Hyperion Books for Children, ISBN 0-7868-1870-0)

Trixie is a typical little girl who loves her stuffed bunny, and the book takes place “not so long ago, before she could even speak words.”  One day, when she and her daddy go on an errand, Trixie experiences a tragedy with which many young children will identify: her bunny goes missing.  In the end, Trixie’s tragedy is averted and she speaks her first words: Knuffle Bunny.

Children will easily identify with the young heroine, as many a child has misplaced a favorite toy and suffered terribly for the duration.  Trixie’s attachment to Knuffle Bunny is familiar in its ferocity as this situation is standard to most childhoods.  How many quirkily named stuffed animals have taken an unexpected or unappreciated trip to the washing machine?  Even as adults, we can remember the trauma of seeing our “friends” submerged in suds or, even worse, having had our parents sneak the beloved toy away for washing!  When we see Trixie and her daddy walking away from the machine with Knuffle Bunny’s blank eyes peeking out, we adults immediately anticipate the tantrum that is to follow and feel like calling out, “Wait!”  In fact, many adults will see themselves in the positions of Trixie’s parents, moving swiftly from frustrated to frantic as the truth of the situation reveals itself.  What parent hasn’t tried desperately to soothe a child whose needs or wants were unclear, only to discover suddenly, and quite by accident, what the problem was all along?  The dawning realization hits us like it hits Trixie’s father: the world simultaneously stops and shatters, and we see what the big deal was all along.  While every parent hopes to hear the words “mama” or “dada” first, isn’t it too often another word that seems to put the child’s true love into perspective?

The visual presentation of this book is unusual and accessible on many levels.  The font is large and reminiscent of a kindergarten teacher’s practiced hand.  The text often spreads several pages, and there is just enough per page to maintain interest while reading aloud.  In addition, as a way to imply mood and movement, the placement of the text and illustrations change throughout the story, and the size of the font varies from page to page or scene to scene.  For the very young, the clear, two-dimensional characters make a simple, eye-catching focus in the foreground.  For older readers, the real-life, sepia-toned background photographs will provide many opportunities for visual exploration, and the subtleties of the drawings create the chance to notice something new each time the book is read—which it will be, over and over!  Knuffle Bunny is a book in which children and adults both will see themselves, which will, in turn, help carry parents through the many readings their children will demand.

Post Script:

GirlChild’s reactions: GirlChild loves to ask questions now about the backgrounds and the characters and where they are and what they’re doing and how they’re feeling all throughout the book.  She has always loved the overly dramatic wailing her daddy and I do when we read about Trixie’s temper tantrum, and she likes to do the “snurp” herself.  She seems to have learned from this book a good deal about reading facial expressions and body language to express her own and understand other people’s feelings, and she still often proclaims, “Look!  I’m sad!  I have a tear!”–just like Trixie!–when she wants us to know how truly heartbroken she is about something.

This was written back when I was expecting GirlChild, so, of course, her reactions aren’t from when the review was written but are more recent.  However, I was right in thinking this one would make a great read-aloud and that little ones would love it!  This is a perfect book for any child who has a favorite lovey, and I would recommend it for the toddler and preschool crowds in particular.  There’s also a story DVD called Knuffle Bunny… and More Great Childhood Adventure Stories (2007, Scholastic Storybook Treasures) with a version of the book that the author, Mo Willems, and his daughter, the real Trixie, narrate.  Mo Willems–a former writer and animator for Sesame Street–has written quite a few other fun books for young kids including Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity, and the Cat the Cat series.

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Pressed for Words

I want to read, and I want to write. I want to write about reading. I quit my teaching job to stay home with my daughter (GirlChild) three and a half years ago, and I earned my degree in Library and Information Sciences a year and a half ago. My son (BoyChild) arrived earlier this year. Going back to work (other than the freelance proofreading I do now) began to seem a more and more distant possibility, and I began to fear that I wouldn’t be in the library loop anymore once I was ready to return to work.

Enter the blog.

I got the idea that after library day each week I could do a full review of one of the books we bring home and read together. GirlChild in particular loves us to read to her, and I will definitely record her response to what we read as well as my impressions. I’ll try to do a mixture of random selections off the shelf and new books that I specifically choose to keep up-to-date. I hope someone finds this blog and likes what I have to say, and if I can help parents find great books for their families, I have done my job!

Happy reading!

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