Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rachel Reviews: Mockingbird

I know it’s not very professional, but I always have to stifle a laugh when a kid comes up to me at the reference desk and tells me that their teacher wants them to read a book where “the main character has a problem.”  The punch line is, of course, that in every novel - whether it takes place in Brooklyn, at Hogwarts, or on the planet Xenu - the main character has a problem.   Snarky criticism of teacher’s phraseology aside, I know what the kids mean.  They are looking for realistic fiction where the main character has a big ticket problem, like Divorce, Drug Addiction, or Homelessness.  

Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird, told from the perspective of Caitlin, a fifth grader with Asperger’s syndrome who recently lost her brother in a school shooting, boasts two problems for the price of one. But, I can promise you a no didactics/no cheesy resolution guarantee.  Although books about characters with Asperger’s are increasingly prevalent (see: Cynthia Lord’s excellent middle grade novel Rules or Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night), and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a novel about a school shooting (see: examples too numerous to mention) Mockingbird doesn’t feel like a retread.  Erskine draws on her own experiences of having a daughter with a mild case of Asperger’s, and does a wonderful job of rendering Caitlin as a three-dimensional, sympathetic character.  Reading Mockingbird is a welcome glimpse inside the head of someone with a uniquely wired mind. 

People with Asperger’s generally have above average intelligence, but are very literal, and can’t read social cues.  They have to consciously learn many of the things that we take for granted, like when someone draws their eyebrows together, they are confused, or when someone says “I have a lot of work to do,” they are asking you to let them get back to work, not simply stating a fact.  In Mockingbird, Caitlin is devastated by the loss of her brother Devon, both because she loved him, but also because he was her interpreter.  Through him, the world was made understandable, and without him, it seems there is no one who Gets It. 

A major theme of Mockingbird is empathy.  Part of Caitlin’s symptomatology is that she doesn’t understand the feelings of others. Conversely, Caitlin’s dad, her teacher, and her counselor have just as much trouble seeing the world through Caitlin’s eyes.  In one of many heartbreaking moments, Caitlin’s father asks her what she would like to do for her birthday, and she replies that she’d like to go shopping at the mall with her brother.  Shocked, Caitlin’s dad explains what he thought Caitlin already understood; Devon can’t take her to the mall, because Devon is dead.  Caitlin is frustrated, because she knows this, but her father has asked her what she wanted, and she answered the question.  Neither father nor daughter understand why the other is saying what they are saying, and it eventually takes the school counselor to unravel the misunderstanding, and explain to Caitlin that her father wanted to know what to plan for her birthday, and to explain to her father that Caitlin does understand that Devon is dead, and in no position to take her to the mall, but that she wishes that he could.

Because it covers trendy topics and is poignant and well written, Mockingbird is classic award bait, but it is also a surprisingly universal story about finding a way to live after the worst happens.  I highly recommend this book to adult readers of children’s literature, and hope that teachers, librarians, and parents find a way to get it into the hands of young readers as well. With diagnoses of Asperger’s syndrome on the rise, who among us couldn’t use a little more empathy?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Meghan Reviews: Crust and Spray

Crust and Spray: Gross Stuff in Your Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Throat by C.S. Larsen is one of a series by Lerner Publishing called “Gross Body Science”. I ordered them all for my library and most circulated immediately.  Crust and Spray is especially fun and timely during the winter months when kids are sneezing and coughing all over the place. Instead of tossing them out the window, I’m giving them this book and some hand sanitizer.

From front-to-back, Crust and Spray has a lot to recommend it. The cover features a huge eyeball and bright illustrations of bacteria.  The chapters are divided into: Boogers, Snot, and Sneezing; Cough, Hack, and Wheeze; Eye Secretions, Pinkeye, and Sties; and Earwax, Ear Germs, and Infections. Does anything more need to be said?

Well, since we’re librarians I’ll evaluate the criteria that make it worth ordering and hand-selling. Crust and Spray is full of vibrant, accurate illustrations by Michael Slack of things like pollen grains, mucus membranes, and fungi. They help present science as something exciting and creative. The book is also full of delightfully disgusting pictures of pus draining from an ear infection (not for the faint of heart), eyeballs, and uvulas.  To the delight of any young reader, Larsen has also included a recipe for fake snot. Awesomely gross.

But Larsen doesn’t do gross just for the sake of gross. Crust and Spray includes call-out boxes with “Gross Out” facts that are relevant and clearly written. The writing style is mildly chatty and funny without veering into stupidity.  The actual content of the book is quite valuable. I especially like the Glossary, Selected Bibliography, and Further Reading at the back of the book. The Glossary provides and clarifies key terms and the Bibliography and Further Reading act as a relevant gateway to other books and websites.  I’ll never have to hunt for booger information again! 

Crust and Spray is a great browsing book and provides enough in the way of scientific information to be a fine way for a kid to jump into more technical fare about the body.  

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Whiff of...Suprisingly Good Children's Nature Poetry

Like the existence of good and bad touches, there exists both good and bad (terrible, nauseating, painful) rhyming poetry.

A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk by Deborah Ruddell is the good variety of rhyming poetry. The rhymes make you want to repeat the poems out loud, not only for the humor surrounding the anthropomorphization of woodland creatures, but for the delight in the rhythm of the language. A fun collection of poems with some good examples for the introduction of common poetic devices.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Build Your Own Program (about building your own country)

Theme: Global Citizenship/Civics/Geography/Statistics (ages 8-12)

Who doesn't want to create their own country? (Mine is called "LaurLaurLand.") How to Build Your Own Country by Valerie Wyatt delivers step-by-step instructions for doing just that. Some of the activities include "Designing a flag and choosing a motto" and a convenient "Fill-in-the-Blanks National Anthem." It would be ideal for classroom use, but the activities can be simplified for a library setting and time constraints. The activities challenge children to use their imagination, but also guide them through nation-building exercises that shed some light on what it takes to run a  government and a country. I'm counting on the imaginations of the children to design a functional Utopia!

Name Your Country
Design a Flag, Motto, Currency, and Passport
Fill-in-the-Blanks National Anthem
Joined by other titles from the Citizen Kid series: If the World Were a Village and If America Were a Village by David J. Smith (which boil down statistics about population to a village containing 100 villagers: "The village of 100 is a powerful and accessible tool to use with children. Instead of huge numbers, 100 is a manageable number that can be easily comprehended."), not only will kids get the experience of creating their own nation, they will gain some perspective of the composition of both America and the world community. In the back of the books the author, David J. Smith, makes some suggestions for further activities for children. From economics to empathy, these three books are sure to inspire you to explore the possibilities, either in your imagination or an atlas.

Activity: Make 100 paper dolls and then label them according to the statistics in the book!

Rachel Reviews: Love Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle

Lauren Myracle’s Luv Ya Bunches, a cutesy, chat-acronym infested middle-grade novel about a quartet of fifth grade girls all named after flowers, received a lot of attention from the blogosphere after Scholastic declined to include it in elementary school book fairs.  The juicy bit was not the ban of the book, which does feature some (ho-hum) swearing and a lisped iteration of the word “penith,” but rather that Scholastic asked Myracle to change the fact that Milla, one of the main characters, has two mothers.  To her credit, Myracle refused.  In an article in School Library Journal she is quoted as saying “kids benefit hugely from seeing themselves reflected positively in the books they read. It's an extremely empowering and validating experience."  This quote brings us to an important point about Luv Ya Bunches: This is a book about positive representations of minorities.  The lesbian mothers play no role in the story; (all the parents in Luv Ya Bunches are of the wah-wah Charlie Brown variety) they are only there because they make Milla a minority figure.  All the main characters are in some important sense minorities.  Perky, know-it-all Katie-Rose is biracial, half Chinese and half Caucasian.  Mysterious, sad Violet is African American, with a mentally ill mother. Shy, kind Yasaman (Turkish for Jasmine) is Muslim.  And blonde haired, blue eyed Milla (short for Camilla) has her two mommies.   At first, I was skeptical, finding the contrivance very heavy handed.  I mean come on, how many times did we need to hear that Yasaman was a big fan of peace?   

But midway through the book I began thinking about my own middle school clique, and that was when I started to cut Myracle some slack.  Looking back on it, I realized that we were a pretty diverse lot.  There was half Jewish me, two ABC’s (American born Chinese), an immigrant from Russia, a half Filipino girl from Australia, and our token WASP, who had recently been demoted from the sixth grade A-List.  And here lies the actual important contribution of Luv Ya Bunches to the children’s literary canon: (and no, it is not the bold mention of dingleberries) This isn’t a book about nerds or cool kids. This is a book for the rest of us.  My friends and I weren’t diverse in a deliberate, representative way like Myracle’s characters, but we did become friends for the same reason as the Flower Girls.  Like Katie-Rose, Milla, Yasaman, and Violet, we met in the middle.  Whether we were refugees from the popular crowd or from silent, almost nerd-dom, we were looking for people to giggle with us, crush with us, protect us, and ultimately give us a sense of belonging, a group identity.  We might not have had a lot in common, but we gave each other the confidence to become the teens and ultimately the adults who we were meant to be.  Luv Ya Bunches depicts this common middle school phenomenon in a way I haven’t seen in other books, and in that way, Milla’s mothers, and each of the other girl’s racial or ethnic identities, become secondary.   Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy that Myracle stood up to Scholastic and refused to straight-wash her book, but I think, in the end, the story would have worked either way.  Myracle could have written this book about four white girls from “traditional” families and it still would be one in which girls would recognize themselves and feel proud.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Picture Book Time: The Colors of Angst

Story times in all their many forms and names are my biggest challenge as a children's librarian. I stress out more about these than any other aspect of my job. I worry about what theme to choose, what books will work, what songs to sing, and what I should do for a craft or coloring project. It is totally friggin' ridiculous how much I worry about this!

It's also important to note my extreme aversion to felt boards and my general avoidance of puppets. I'm not saying I haven't or never will use puppets, but I generally don't bother. I'm a floating children's librarian, which means I never know if there will be puppets or what condition they'll be in, so they just haven't become a part of my planning.

And then the kids arrive and everything kicks into high gear and they have fun and I have fun and sometimes a pushy parent will tell me about a two-hour story time they enjoy attending at a different library or that another story time program provides manicures and pedicures or some other ridiculous complaint and then, suddenly, it's over and I'm putting away the glitter glue until next week.

This week I decided to do a Color-theme for my 3-5 year olds. Lately, this group has been skewing towards the five year olds, so I thought a slightly more involved craft would work. The joke was on me since I had an 18-month old, 2 two year olds, and 3 three year olds. None of my five year olds showed up at all!

Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni
What can I say? Little Blue and Little Yellow is a classic and this was the perfect choice age-wise. Most already know their colors and the basic, colorful illustrations got and kept their attention. They also identify with the story of friendship between Little Blue and Little Yellow.

Sylvie by Jennifer Gordon Sattler
Sylvie is one of my favorite recent picture books. I've read it in story times before at different libraries with success. It's colorful and the title character is charming and relatable. There are also lots of opportunities for interaction while I read the story, as Sylvie changes color as she eats different items.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr.
Another classic that always serves me well. Except for the goldfish (It stumps them on the color. Is it yellow? Is it orange?) the kids love naming the colors and making the animal noises. When I change "Teacher" to "Librarian", hilarity ensues.

"Hello Song"
Sung to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell"

Hello my friends, hello
Hello my friends, hello
Hello my friends, hello my friends
Hello my friends, hello

"Now It’s Time!"
Sung to the tune of "London Bridges" (300 Three Minute Games by Jackie Silberg)

Now it’s time to touch our nose
Touch our nose, touch our nose
Now it’s time to touch our nose
My fair (child’s name)

-Now it’s time to blink our eyes
-Now it’s time to touch our toes
-Now it’s time to shake our feet
-Now it’s time to stand up tall
-Now it’s time to sit back down

"Itsy-Bitsy Spider"

The itsy bitsy spider
Climbed up the waterspout
Down came the rain
And washed the spider out.
Out came the sun
And dried up all the rain
So the itsy-bitsy spider
Climbed up the spout again!


I did the Primary Colors Ice Cream Cone. This ended up being a bit too complicated for the younger kids. I printed black-and-white scoops, cones, and color labels. The kids colored, cut out, and glued in order to make an ice cream cone that was almost as tall as some of them! The end product was very cute, but I would either skip the color labels or color them myself in advance so the kids could color a scoop to "match" each color. The parents really had to step up and guide the kids with coloring and cutting. I am keeping this one in my arsenal for slightly older kids.