Tag Archives: literacy

The Beasts and Children, Day 7: A Letter to Santa Claus

A Letter to Santa ClausA Letter to Santa Claus, story by Rose Impey, pictures by Sue Porter (1988)

Charlotte lives in a rural area with no other children around except her infant brother. She spends her time like many small children, drawing, watching television, playing dress-up, and visiting the animals around her home. Her favorite thing to do, however, is write. Charlotte doesn’t yet know how to read, though, so she often copies lists, notes, and addresses from envelopes. Charlotte writes a letter to Santa Claus by copying what her mother has written for her, including a request for a surprise gift and a mention of the Christmas list she plans to send with the letter. When she starts to clean up for dinner, she drops several papers on the floor, and–since she can’t read–she picks up the wrong list to include with the letter to Santa and seals them into an envelope for her father to mail up the chimney. When Santa receives her letter, he is a little confused by the list (which is actually a copy of one of her mother’s shopping lists). As Charlotte impatiently waits for Christmas to come, she spends time watching her animal friends in the cold and snow outside, and she worries about them, hoping to get one of the busy adults at home to find some food she can give them. While she is lying awake with excitement on Christmas Eve, she sadly remembers that she hasn’t yet fed her animal friends and hopes that Santa sometimes brings something for the animals. Santa visits after she falls asleep, eager to “see this little girl who had sent him such an unusual Christmas list” and hoping she won’t be disappointed by what he has brought. When Charlotte wakes in the morning and begins to open the parcels in her stocking, she finds a loaf of bread, a bag of carrots, a package of raw fish, a bag of nuts, a carton of milk, and a hot water bottle. She feels like “Santa had been able to read her mind” and has brought her just what she needs…to take care of her animal friends! Before her parents even get up, she is outside with the animals in order to distribute the gifts she has received. And for her surprise, Santa has brought her a farm playset, “the perfect present for a little girl who liked to look after animals.”

This is another oldie-but-goodie in my opinion. Modern enough to mention television in passing, the rural setting is (as I’ve mentioned before) a kind of timeless backdrop; Charlotte could be a child sending a letter to Santa this year just as well as she did almost 30 years ago when this book was published! The pictures help make the story and sometimes include significant information that the printed text does not. While this book could be enjoyed independently by readers up to the middle elementary years, young pre-readers would probably love to have this book read aloud by someone who would let them take the time to explore the pictures and to point out important clues found there. I haven’t yet read this to BoyChild, but I’m considering asking him to find some environmental print to copy just to see what kind of a crazy Christmas list he might come up with if he wrote a letter to Santa like Charlotte did! (My guess is that he’d have a nice copy of the to-update list for our home that hangs on our refrigerator or a note to schedule a doctor’s appointment!) Animal-loving readers might be inspired to make a list of their own for things to help make the animals they love more comfortable this Christmas. As much as you can, help them out–encouraging compassion and generosity at Christmas time is important!

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Themed Third Throwback Thursday: 1980-1989

The 1980s were my childhood decade. I went from infant to tween in the space of those ten years, and it seems obvious that the books of the decade would stick with me since I was both an early and indiscriminate reader.

[1980-to-1989-book-list]

Here’s a sampling of the historical events of which I was probably completely unaware while I was being a child:

1980–Pac-Man video game released
1981–First woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor, who spoke at my university years later!)
1982–E.T. released
1983–Cabbage Patch Kids popular (now this I remember!)
1985–Titanic wreckage found
1986–Chernobyl disaster
1989–Berlin Wall falls, World Wide Web invented

Newbery medalists of the decade include a number that I remember reading (but not all), and the honor books (some of which I’ll address later in the post) were also standard fare:

1980–A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-1832, by Joan W. Blos
1981–Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson
1982–A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by Nancy Willard
1983–Dicey’s Song, by Cynthia Voight
1984–Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary
1985–The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley
1986–Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan
1987–The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman
1988–Lincoln: A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman
1989–Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, by Paul Fleischman

Caldecott medalists, including some of my most remembered illustrators (like Trina Schart Hyman, Stephen Gammell (whose more recent work I didn’t connect to these books), and Chris Van Allsburg):

1980–Ox-Cart Man, by Donald Hall, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
1981–Fables, by Arnold Lobel
1982–Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg
1983–Shadow, translated and illustrated by Marcia Brown (French text by Blaise Cendrars)
1984–The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot, by Alice and Martin Provensen
1985–Saint George and the Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
1986–The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
1987–Hey, Al, by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Richard Egielski
1988–Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr
1989–Song and Dance Man, by Karen Ackerman, illustrated by Stephen Gammell

While a number of the above titles have stood the test of time, my personal favorites will show up again in the reviews below!

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book EverRichard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever: New Revised Edition, by Richard Scarry (1980): Okay, I know that this was not published originally in the 1980s, but it was such a giant in my vocabulary development as a wee lass that I had to include it! My brother, born in the previous decade, had the 1963 version for his edification, but I learned about the bear twins’ clothing, shapes and colors, and parts of the body with a few more females in male-dominated fields and a few more gender-neutral job titles (fire fighter as opposed to fireman, for example). Love, love, love this book. My mom made sure to get each of her sets of grandchildren a copy so they, too, could examine each page diligently as they grew!

Fables, by Arnold Lobel Fables(1980): This book of one-page original fables was a favorite of mine as a child. I’m not sure where I got my paperback copy–either a book fair or a RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) give-away, I think–but I treasured it! It was a Caldecott Medal winner, and each fable has a large, detailed illustration to go with it. Each fable comes with its own explicitly stated moral, such as “Satisfaction will come to those who please themselves” and “Advice from friends is like the weather. Some of it is good; some of it is bad.” It would be a great mentor text for writing stories with a moral (or even just a message), and I might suggest covering the morals up, reading the fables aloud, and letting the class brainstorm what each moral might be. Because the animal characters are so silly, the fact that there is a message to each one won’t ruin the fun!

If You Give a Mouse a CookieIf You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond (1985): I apparently missed this as a kid, but the Kohl’s Cares reprints and accompanying toys were a big hit with my children when they were smaller! (In fact, this particular title was the one we didn’t own, and BoyChild–age 5–discovered how much he loves it when he found it sitting with our library books and made GirlChild read it to him!) It’s a cause-and-effect story that has just enough silliness to disguise the fact that it is a great literacy learning tool!

Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan Sarah, Plain and Tall (30th anniversary edition)(1985): This Newbery Medal book tells the story of a father and his children who are hoping that the father’s advertisement for a wife will bring songs back to their home and hearts. Sarah from Maine answers the letter and comes to the plains for a trial period. Anna and Caleb hope that Sarah, who describes herself as plain and tall, will learn to love their home and stop missing the sea. When she goes into town alone one day, the children are worried that she has decided against staying and is buying a train ticket home to Maine. However, Sarah returns with special gifts and tells them that although she misses the sea, she would miss them more. The book is a fast, simple read and would be a good choice for historical fiction for middle grade readers starting around third grade. I’m going to give it to GirlChild to try! (The book flap says the story is based on “a true event in [the author’s] family history”–always a great way to get story ideas!)

The Whipping Boy (updated cover)The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman (1986): Our cat, a kitten we rescued from the storm sewer on our street, was named Jemmy after this book; it’s one of those that my mom read aloud to us in that memorable way (where she used different voices for different characters but didn’t even realize it) that made the book come alive! An orphan named Jemmy catches rats in the sewer to earn money. He is snatched from the streets to live in the castle as the whipping boy for Prince Brat (not his given name). When the prince tires of Jemmy’s stoic response to whippings and his father’s lack of attention, he makes Jemmy help him run away. There is a circus bear, a pair of kidnapping highwaymen, and a chase through a city sewer–all the ridiculousness and excitement a middle grade student needs! This historical fiction book (quite possibly more popular with boys but obviously something I quite enjoyed!) won the Newbery Medal.

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Dianna Wynne Jones Howl's Moving Castle(1986): I have to admit that I checked this book out and still didn’t get a chance to read it! So many of my fantasy-loving friends have mentioned it, however, that when I discovered it had been published in the ’80s, I had to include it. I have read another of her fantasy titles for young adults, The Dark Lord of Derkholm (which is not quite as dark as the title might imply!), and Wikipedia (that monolith of solid information!) says that she has been compared to Robin McKinley and Neil Gaiman, both authors whose books I have loved (although I can’t read Coraline and look at the illustrations at all!), so I am going to keep my borrowed copy of this book until I actually get it read! It was made into a movie in 2004, so we’ll see if I have to look that up, too, after I’ve finished!

Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters (updated cover)Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale, by John Steptoe (1987): Steptoe retells a folktale first recorded in published form in 1895. The moral points out that being kind and caring is more important than being beautiful (and reaps better rewards), but the illustrations that earned it a Caldecott Honor are worth the purchase price of the book even without the story! Another positive aspect of the book is that the author clearly did research, not only citing the first printed version of the story that inspired his book but also the origins of the names he chose, the inspiration for the scenery in the illustrations, and the people (and related institutions) that assisted him in his research. Additionally, unlike many books where there is a king seeking a bride, there is actual mutual consent and respect shown between the king and the woman he asks (not just chooses!) to be his bride. Definitely a lasting title great for any home, school, or classroom library!

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen Hatchet (updated cover)(1987): When I discovered many years ago that my husband had never read this Newbery Honor book, I actually read it aloud to him while we traveled! It’s the kind of book I can’t believe a boy in the ’80s would have missed! So many things from the book still linger with me, and the survivalism depicted–both his physical survival and emotional survival–could be empowering to modern readers as well. I’m sure some of the aspects of the story haven’t aged well–Brian would have had a cell phone handy, for one thing, although he might not have gotten a signal in the woods!–but the overall themes and internal struggles still ring true. Gary Paulsen is a master of realistic survival stories (and has lived a rather adventurous life to get the credibility and experience needed to do them real justice), and this is a classic. I think the youngest reader I’d suggest would be probably fifth grade, but the protagonist is thirteen, and there is real meat to the story, so middle and high school readers are likely to get the most out of it.

The MittenThe Mitten, by Jan Brett (1989): I’ve blogged about Jan Brett’s books before, and part of it is because she has just written so very many! The exquisite detail in her illustrations, her lifelike but anthropomorphic animal characters, and her gravitation toward snowy scenes and retellings of traditional tales make her the quintessential author for a primary school library. Because of the way part of the story is told in words and part in pictures, (particularly the images featured around the borders of each page, in this case made to look like decorations pinned to a birch bark panel), readers get several layers of story when the story is read versus when they are able to spend time examining the illustrations. Another great thing about Ms. Brett is that her website contains links for pages to color among other things! The Mitten–the story of how a variety of cold animals squeeze into one lost mitten–is one of her most well-known and loved books.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, True Story of the Three Little Pigsby A. Wolf, as told to Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith (1989): I’m not sure if I’ve said this before (I’ve said this before), but I love Jon Scieszka! While my first introduction to his work was The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, this book was actually his first picture book! Fractured fairy tales are a genre I have always enjoyed, and this title is a great example. In it, Al Wolf (from his prison cell) defends himself against the claims that he cold-heartedly ate the first two little pigs when what he really did was have a sneezing fit while trying to ask to borrow a cup of sugar to make his granny’s birthday cake (and then eat the pigs when their homes fell down so as not to let them go to waste!). He has been framed! Like much of Scieszka’s work, young readers will need to have somewhat sophisticated reading skills to really get the story independently, but these books are also great to share and discuss with kids (and then let them explore them alone to see the nuances and clever details that might be missed in a first read-through)–great for discussing inference, voice, and point-of-view!

Number the StarsNumber the Stars, by Lois Lowry (1989): Set in Denmark in 1943, this Newbery Medal book tells how a young Danish girl helps her Jewish friend during the Nazi occupation of her country. The family’s determination, inventiveness, and bravery in spite of reasonable fear are clear throughout, and I know that my mother has used this book as a literature supplement to her history lessons in her sixth grade classroom. (Another World War II historical fiction book I can suggest for upper elementary and middle school aged readers would be Michael Morpurgo’s Waiting for Anya (1990).)

I obviously have quite a few favorites from the decade, and the bloggers over at What Do We Do All Day? had a list with even more forgotten favorites on it! (My kids just finished listening to the Wayside School books on audiobook during our summer travels this year!) I do notice a few common threads on both our lists: silly/slapstick, folktales, and historical fiction. I don’t know whether these things were just en vogue at that time and really dominated children’s literature or if we bloggers just have similar taste in our ’80s books!

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Themed Third Throwback Thursday: 1910-1919

Many of the authors that were publishing in the 1900-1909 range continued to publish through the next decade. A whole lot of series adventure books were published, from the Bobbsey Twins to the Boy Scouts and Outdoors Girls. (Tom Swift books, a science fiction/inventor series, were first published in this decade as well, but the only knowledge I have of that character is of the Tom Swift puns, Tom Swifties!)

[1910 to 1919 book list]

Here’s our “when-in-the-world” reference from about.com to understand what was going on in real life while these books were being published!

1910–Boy Scouts established in the U.S. (which might explain all the Boy Scouts books published!)

1911–the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurs (I can’t remember where I learned about this tragedy–a social studies text?–but here’s a graphic novel an upper elementary to middle school reader might benefit from reading!)

1912–the Titanic sinks (and Oreos are first introduced!)

1913–Henry Ford invents the moving assembly line

1914–World War I begins

1915–the first transcontinental phone call is made

1916–Jeanette Rankin is the first woman in the U.S. Congress (and Piggly Wiggly opens as the first self-service grocery store in the U.S.)

1917–the U.S. enters WWI

1918–Daylight Saving Time introduced

1919–end of World War I with the Treaty of Versailles

That’s a lot of heavy stuff going on, so it’s really no wonder that there were so many adventure and inventor series being written! The stories that I best remember, though, being a timid child growing up in small-town USA, are the stories of hope and perseverance, childish goodness and wisdom, and “safe” adventures in fantasy! Here’s a list of some of the stories from this era that were most memorable to me and have stood the test of time!

Peter and WendyPeter and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie (1911): While Peter Pan as a character is pretty pervasive in modern culture (peanut butter, Geico commercials, and the many iterations in movies and on stage, just to name a few examples), the actual book from which the character arises is perhaps not as well known (nor, perhaps, that he first appeared in a book for adults and that this book where he is featured is actually an expansion on a long-running play written by the author and is not the original source material). The different versions of Peter don’t all agree on his personality or characteristics (even among Barrie’s works there are some discrepancies), but he is generally portrayed as young, brave, and carefree. Tinker Bell, likewise, has different characteristics among versions, but she is almost always shown to be both fiercely jealous and loyal (although I’m pretty sure the jealousy aspect is either toned down or missing in the Disney Fairies version of her where she isn’t with Peter Pan). Much of the book has a decidedly silly tone to it, despite dealing with such serious ideas as lost babies and murderous pirates. The Darlings have a somewhat ridiculous discussion about their finances while Mrs Darling holds the newborn Wendy, but they finally decide that they will keep their baby and hope for the best cost-wise. They hire a Newfoundland dog as their nanny because they can’t afford a human version but still want to keep up appearances, and the dog bathes the children and walks them to school, but she also lies on the floor in the nanny waiting area and is chained outside when Mr Darling (in a sullen temper and with the guilty understanding that he is being unreasonable) is offended by her supposed disrespect. (She also has dialog, but it’s hard to tell if the author intends for her to be actually speaking or if it is assumed that what she “says” is what she would be thinking or conveying with her demeanor.) Peter’s heavy-handed and obviously manipulative flattery convince the otherwise responsible Wendy to trust and follow him. All in all, I can’t help but think of the avowed absurdity of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland being passed off as absolutely reasonable in this book. My mother read this aloud to us when we were young, and I remember being heartily confused by the nanny/dog bit, but it certainly helped to have a reader who could explain the archaic or confusing parts to us! For independent reading, I’d suggest at least upper elementary age, and there are a vast number of YA books inspired by the story and characters if your reader falls for Peter, too!

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911): The Secret GardenThis character begins her story as both similar to and wildly different from Burnett’s other classic female character, Sara Crewe. Where Sara, the only child of a doting British officer in India, is sweet-tempered and wise and generous, Mary, the only child of self-centered British parents living in India, is angry and selfish and demanding. Both are orphaned at a young age, and both end up living with a wealthy guardian (after Sara’s stretch at Miss Minchin’s, of course). Both sincerely befriend children who are their social inferiors (Betsy for Sara and Dickon (as well as the servants) for Mary). Where Sara uplifts her fellow students through her goodness, imagination, and inclusiveness, Mary brings her hidden cousin Colin out of his misery with bluntness, stories, and shared secrecy. One theme of the story that seems obvious to me would finding life where there seems to be only death: Mary’s survival when her household is struck down by cholera, the garden being coaxed back to bloom from its abandoned state, and Colin and his father being drawn out of their pain and misery into a more abundant life. I loved this book as a child, and we loved the 1987 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie version (although I know it to be full of inaccuracies, it was what we had, and we loved it!). It is, like the others from this list, an enduring classic, and it would be a good read-aloud for elementary aged children and independent reading from upper elementary on.

PollyannaPollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter (1913): All that I really recall from reading this book a million-ish years ago (or, you know, maybe 25 or so) is that Pollyanna is cheerful (which may also have something to do with her lasting literary legacy and not my actual memories of the book) and some sort of accident near the end of the book. It actually came to my attention when my daughter mentioned that a friend from her class (a bit of a Pollyanna herself!) was reading it. While the exact plot of the book may not have gone down in history (the basics of the storyline are pretty familiar and common to many books from this era: an orphaned child or child in otherwise desperate straits is sent to live with with better off relatives (usually spinsters or a childless couple) or friends of the parents and brightens their lives considerably), the character of the main character has created a lasting impression, a shorthand way of saying that someone is almost foolishly optimistic (and can, therefore, be used as a bit of an insult). The characterization comes about because of how Pollyanna approaches life, as taught to her by her father, in that she always looks for the bright side of things (which she calls playing “The Glad Game”) and teaches others to do so as well. Pollyanna is so very guileless (she reminds me of GirlChild in this way!) that there are frequent misunderstandings between herself and the people from her mother’s hometown that have secrets they’ve been keeping and feelings they’ve been hiding. When she is gravely injured in an accident and can’t manage to summon up a reason to be glad, all the people in the town visit or send messages to her about how she has changed their lives so that she can have something to be glad about. This is actually a somewhat easier read than many juvenile books from the era, and although some of the inferences might be missed by a young modern reader, I think a middle to upper elementary child could manage the contents decently, even better if read with an adult.

Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914): Tarzan of the ApesI will freely admit that I have never actually read this book. Does that, however, mean it isn’t a book with staying power? Of course not! There are many readers who are not me, after all! Besides, the character of Tarzan has been immortalized in film, and I would imagine that most adults in the English-speaking world could at least identify some characteristics of Tarzan (if not reproduce his yell). Not having a good acquaintance with the book character, I have little to no idea how far the Disney version strays from the original (although, from the fight with Kerchak that I happened to open the book to, I would guess the answer is “pretty darn far”). Still, the man who was raised by apes from infancy, discovered and brought to civilization by Professor Porter and his daughter, and has adventures, marries Jane Porter (although, apparently, not in this book), and has more adventures–his legend lives on. Judging from the bits of the book that I browsed and the hints gleaned from the introduction, I’d say it would be best for readers of at least middle school to high school age, and readers would need to be able to suspend disbelief on a semi-regular basis.

The Real Mother GooseThe Real Mother Goose, illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright (1916): To me, at least, the cover of this book is the iconic Mother Goose image; it is what I think of when I think of Mother Goose despite all the different available compilations and adaptations of the rhymes contained within. In the interest of full disclosure, I do not remember a lot of the rhymes (“Three Wise Men of Gotham,” really? and “Needles and Pins” about the risks of marriage??), but the image has stuck. Nursery rhymes can be pretty brutal 😉 , but these weren’t composed during this time period, just illustrated. (I prefer Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever in terms of contents, actually! Richard Scarry is kind of second only to Dr. Seuss in terms of my childhood reading memories, and Sandra Boynton joins them in my children’s collection of sure-to-be-classics!)

Raggedy Ann Stories, by Johnny Gruelle (1918): Raggedy Ann StoriesI don’t know that I ever read the stories themselves before, but I most definitely knew of Raggedy Ann and Andy! (My kids even have a metal jack-in-the-box that has Raggedy Ann in it!) The stories remind me very much of the Toys Go Out series by Emily Jenkins or the Toy Story movies. Raggedy Ann, despite being just a rag doll passed down to the little girl, Marcella, from her grandmother when she found the doll in her grandma’s attic, becomes the admired leader of the dolls in the nursery. She watches out for them and is the voice of wisdom and reason and love. There is a wealth of quotes in the stories that show what an upbeat and positive doll Raggedy Ann is, like: “So all the other dolls were happy, too, for happiness is very easy to catch when we love one another and are sweet all through.”

ArcolaFestival

A former Sunday school student with Raggedy Ann and Andy at the Raggedy Ann and Andy Festival in Arcola, IL.

It’s clear that the author also had some marketing in mind, however, when he wrote the story of the dollmaker taking Raggedy Ann in to use as a pattern for mass-production and having another doll say to Raggedy, “For wherever one of the new Raggedy Ann dolls goes there will go with it the love and happiness that you give to others.” The afterword, written by the author’s grandson, states that after the success of this first Raggedy Ann collection, the author wrote at least one new Raggedy Ann title per year until his death 20 years later. He also says, “His books contained nothing to cause fright, glorify mischief, excuse malice, or condone cruelty,” and that is probably why his characters for children endure today! While there used to be a museum and annual festival in the author’s hometown, they have recently suspended operations due to low turnout and volunteers.

1981SebbyFamilyPhoto (2)

The blogger as an almost-3-year-old with a Raggedy Andy doll

I had a couple more books slated to be shared today, but I realized that they may have had a more limited audience than these other books have had, so they may have only been memorable to me (and other readers like me). Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs (1912) and Dear Enemy (1915) were books my mother read to us that were published during this decade. Understood Betsy (1916) I discovered on a similarly-inspired book list on the blog What We Do All Day, and I loved that book as a child as well! (You should definitely check there for more books-by-the-decade as the blogger there is trying to emphasize books that might have been forgotten! I promise that I’m avoiding looking at the corresponding lists before I compile my list so I’m not unfairly influenced and so I can compare what we’ve found.)

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BoyChild Chooses: The 12 Reviews of Christmas, Day 8–Carl’s Christmas

Carl's Christmas

Carl’s Christmas, by Alexandra Day (1990)

In this endearing tale of child neglect…

Wait, no. I’m just kidding. As confused as I was as a child realizing that Nana in Peter Pan was actually a dog (I thought J.M. Barrie was just going overboard with the characterization and apparently missed something important as my mom read it aloud), the idea that people might leave their young children with just a dog for supervision (in fantasy books, at least!) should not continue to surprise me! I’m willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of my son (who thought this book was hilarious)!

Carl is a Rottweiler whose owners apparently entrust him regularly to watch their toddler child (simply called “the baby”) while they go out and about. In this book, they’re off to Grandma’s and church on Christmas Eve. Who would possibly consider bringing a baby to either of those places?! 😉 Other than the first page where the father tells Carl this (and to take good care of the baby), the only other text in the book is environmental print (signs, gift tags, etc.) to help explain certain events in the plot. The rest of the story is told entirely in beautiful oil paintings of the enterprising dog and his trusting charge. Carl gets the baby out of her crib and brings her downstairs to see the Christmas tree, then they decorate a houseplant together. Carl gets the baby ready for an outing, blue snowsuit and purple hat and all. They go downtown to check out the stores, and they win a Christmas basket full of goodies. The baby donates her hat to a bell-ringer dressed as Santa, and a caroler whose group they join gives her a scarf to warm her head again. (By this time, a scruffy stray dog has started following them.) When they see a couple children inside a house checking the fireplace for Santa, they rush home again (where an apparently stray cat is waiting near the door). They all go inside and enjoy a fire, and they fall asleep on the floor (where they are joined by two mice). Carl hears something and wakes up, rushing out the front door to greet his owners…except it’s not them–it’s Santa and his reindeer in the front yard! Carl helps Santa bring in and distribute gifts to all the inhabitants of the house and is given a new collar himself. Then Santa disappears up the chimney, and Carl brings the baby (wearing her brand-new hat to replace the one she gave away) up to bed, settling in for the night on the floor next to her crib.

The paintings really are gorgeous, but BoyChild just thought it was funny that the baby and dog were out and about on their own! I should have had him do the storytelling for this one, but I had forgotten that these books are basically wordless, so I did the narrating myself while I kept expecting more text to come up! (I would have needed to explain the signs or he probably would have thought that Carl stole the Christmas basket and wouldn’t have understood why the baby was giving her hat to the Salvation Army bell-ringer, but I wonder what else he would have noticed to talk about in the pictures!) As long as you don’t fear that you will raise a child who will become an adult who thinks it’s okay to leave just a dog as a babysitter, these are sweet and funny books to share with your early readers and pre-readers! They give many opportunities to apply reading comprehension strategies (previewing, predicting, asking questions, making connections, etc.) despite the lack of words, and this book (or another in the series) may be a good mentor text for teaching some of these strategies without the distraction or intimidation of large blocks of text. Another possible extension for this text would be to have a child illustrate a story of what he or she would do if left alone with a pet in charge! (BoyChild loves our little French bulldog, so this could be a really funny story. He refuses to draw, however, so it might have to be a story he dictates to me instead!)

(Good Dog, Carl is the original, and there are at least ten books in this series!)

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BoyChild Chooses: The 12 Reviews of Christmas 2015, Day 3–And Then Comes Christmas

And Then Comes Christmas

And Then Comes Christmas, by Tom Brenner, illustrated by Jana Christy (2014)

This book takes the anticipation children feel when something big is coming up and turns it into a sort of guidebook to watching for signs that Christmas is soon to arrive!

The first page shows a scene of late fall, bare trees, a few remaining leaves, and people starting to bundle against the cold. It references shorter days, “red berries [that] blaze against green bushes,” and the bare trees, and the following page suggests that hanging a wreath “welcoming winter” is the next step. Each page says “WHEN” followed by nature’s cues and things children might observe happening in their home and school environments (boxes arriving and being hidden at home, decorations going up in stores, winter programs and gift-making at school) and then gives a suggestion of what to do “THEN” (like hanging lights, choosing a tree, and wrapping up handmade gifts). The final scene says that when all the hubbub of the morning is over, families should gather to “bask in the magic of Christmas.”

The illustrations are done digitally, but they give the impression of collage and watercolors and colored pencil drawings all in one. There are many details in each picture, giving children plenty to pore over and new discoveries to make as they spend time with the illustrations. There is movement and action on some pages, restrained eagerness on others, and peaceful contentment on others still. While there is a lot to look at in each image, there still doesn’t seem to be a sense of chaos or confusion, just bustling activity and vibrant life. I wish I could watch this illustrator create one of these pictures so I could see how it’s accomplished with a computer as the tool!

One thing I really like about this book is that it gives the sense of a kind of natural progression for children to observe and participate in, and predictability and order are helpful things for children when anticipation threatens to overwhelm them! Even though there is anticipation, the ending of the story doesn’t allow for the letdown that people sometimes feel after something they’ve been waiting for arrives; the instruction that basking is the next logical activity gives closure that isn’t abrupt or disappointing. The other thing that I really like about the book is the beautiful, rich vocabulary! Words like blaze, romp, treasures, dwindles…they are part of the pervasive descriptive language that makes the read-aloud experience perfect for creating mental imagery, but they also supply a sizable diversity of words to assist in the literacy and language development of blossoming young readers. (I had to explain “romp” to BoyChild a couple times; he seemed to like how it sounded and wanted to try it out himself!) Exposure to a complex vocabulary is a huge predictor of future reading success, and who doesn’t love to hear a little one who still can’t say his R sounds repeat a lovely, precise word in everyday conversation?

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Chalk, by Bill Thomson

Chalk, by Bill Thomson

Chalk, by Bill Thomson (2010)

This wordless book has become BoyChild’s favorite this week!

What drew BoyChild to this book initially was the dinosaur (well, dinosaur ride-on toy) on the cover. We picked it out once before sometime last year, and he and GirlChild both browsed it, but this time, it has been an every day request! We started by just looking at the pictures and discussing what was going on in them, but then BoyChild asked me to make up a story to go with it. Janelle, Christina, and Billy are the children’s names in my story, and if I forget to roar in the right places, BoyChild lets me know! Because there aren’t any printed words at all, the reader can make up any storyline at all and include as much dialogue or as many sound effects as necessary to hold the listener’s attention (or let the little “reader” make the story up him or herself–I love listening to BoyChild tell stories to himself!). The basic plot is that some kids are out on a rainy day and find a bag of chalk that makes drawings come to life!

The illustrations are nearly photo realistic, and the back pages contain a note assuring the reader that the artist is not using photographs or computer illustrations…these were done in acrylics and colored pencil! It’s almost hard to believe when you look at the sheen on the dinosaur toy, the texture of the concrete, the level of detail given to even the smallest things (like the back of an earring). The illustrator plays with angles and perspective so you feel like you’re sometimes spying from above, sometimes in the thick of things, sometimes looking on from the sidelines. There’s a distinct Jumanji feel to the story and the illustrations, but it is definitely still a unique work!

Although the illustrations are amazing and the appeal obvious, one of the best things about this book is, I think, the variety of possible extensions beyond the pages. I have asked BoyChild what he would draw (a dinosaur…but that’s pretty much all he does draw!), where he thinks the chalks came from (another boy put them there), where he thinks the chalks got their magic (he couldn’t figure that one out)…on and on! This is not only a fantastic one-on-one exercise to practice comprehension and critical thinking, but I believe that this book would be an amazing springboard for a creative writing/art project in any elementary grade. What a child in kindergarten might draw and write about would differ completely from what a fifth grader might dream up, and therein lies the beauty! There is just so much a teacher or parent could do with this…I could even see a library summer reading program from it! Check out the book, grab a bag of chalks, and enjoy!

Additional titles:

Fossil(another wordless book)

Building with Dad(illustrated by the author/illustrator)

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Santa’s Secret Helper, by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Debrah Santini

Santa's Secret Helper

Santa’s Secret Helper, by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Debrah Santini (1990)

For this eleventh review, we’ll read about Santa’s eleventh hour assistant that helps him get the job done!

The elves are extra busy getting two sleighs, two teams of reindeer, and two red and white suits ready…because Santa has a secret helper this year! Santa’s secret helper and Santa split up and head east and west to deliver toys and treats all around the world. Santa’s secret helper does all the things Santa would do, from eating cookies and leaving notes to say thank you, giving the reindeer a rest when they get tired, and waving and calling, “Merry Christmas!” to a few parents who see the sleigh from their windows. When the last gift is delivered in the wee hours of Christmas morning, Santa’s secret helper heads back to the North Pole and gets ready for bed. Surprise–it’s Mrs. Claus! Santa wants to know all about her night, but she’s too tired from her busy trip, so she just puts on her nightcap, says her prayers, and goes to sleep…”just what Santa would have done.”

I believe the art is done in watercolor (as are the other books illustrated by Debrah Santini that have a similar appearance), and the story starts right inside the front cover with a full-spread illustration of many elves busy at work in the reindeer stable on the 24th of December (according to the wall calendar), packing bags and harnessing the reindeer. The first page of the actual story brings us back to the 23rd as the elves are preparing two sets of everything, and each illustration gives plenty of things to notice: the changing calendar, elves doing unusual things (or usual things in an odd way), stray pieces of candy, Santa’s secret helper’s feet disappearing up a chimney, or hoof prints and sleigh tracks on roofs in the background. The attention to detail doesn’t clutter the page, but it certainly allows for new discoveries with every reading. I found myself looking for clues to Santa’s secret helper’s identity and not finding any! (I also read back through and realized that no pronouns were used for the secret helper, so there was no hinting about she versus he!) The back endpapers are my favorite of the illustrations; they show the aftermath of Christmas Eve in the reindeer stable: yawning reindeer, strewn paper, drooping lights, and napping elves scattered all about!

GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions: GirlChild didn’t even think to question the identity of the secret helper (she really needs to think more as she reads instead of just enjoying the reading and not processing the story…), so I tried piquing BoyChild’s interest as we read it, but he was, of course, more interested in the illustrations than the story. (He is really cued in to facial expressions (a result of early hearing problems from frequent ear infections), and the style of the painting didn’t lend itself well to clear faces, so he was confused a few times about why a person would be feeling angry (because of a resting frown and defined eyebrows–his indication of anger) or some other nebulous expression. If he were to pay attention to the text, he might be really good at using pictures for context clues!) I read it to both of them together, and a reread seemed to help GirlChild notice more of what was actually going on. She even self-selected it to read again later! The book never says why Mrs. Claus helps Santa out this year, so a great inference activity might be to have students come up with a backstory about what was going on that year that led to what happens in this book (like maybe there were a lot of extra kids on the nice list, or maybe Mrs. Claus just wanted the experience, or maybe Santa was training her as a backup because he almost missed Christmas the last year because of an injury or sickness or something). I tried this with GirlChild, but she might still be a little young for that level of thinking (or maybe just needs more practice!), and she couldn’t think of any reason why. Maybe next year. 🙂 I couldn’t find a publisher-recommended reading level, but I think that preschool to early elementary (the Santa-believing years) would be a good choice, and judging from GirlChild’s weak interpretation, I think a read-aloud is probably the best way to share the book with its intended audience. (For the inference activity, you can probably go a little older–they’ll probably be more creative about what might have led up to the story anyway!) If you’re into doing Santa with your kids, this story might help you explain why there are different “Santas” all around–he’s just got a lot of secret helpers!

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