Archive for November, 2012

Choosing New Books Wisely: “Twig”

Twig, by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Reviewed by Dr. Stacy Loyd

Reading Twig was an experience equal to splashing in a rain puddle, wearing red shoes, and munching the first caramel apple of autumn. Nostalgia–wrapped in a book cover. This seventy-year-old, metafictive classic is an enchantingly illustrated novel that transports young (and young-at-heart) readers to a wonderland inside and around an empty tomato can.

“Twig was just a plain, ordinary little girl who lived on the fourth floor of a ‘high sort of house’ in the city. The back yard behind that house was Twig’s little world. It was a bare little world, with nothing but a dandelion and a stream of drainpipe water to make it beautiful; with nobody but Old Boy, the ice-wagon horse, Old Girl, the cat, and the Sparrows, to keep Twig company.

But one day, out in the alley, Twig found an empty tomato can, with pictures of bright red tomatoes all round it. When it was upside down, it looked like a pretty little house, just the right size for a fairy! Twig stood it upside down next to the dandelion, not far from the stream. And this is the story of what happened in and around that little house one Saturday afternoon” (Purple House Press, 2002).

Readers leave the miniature world with Twig when at the last possible moment she declines the opportunity to fly off with the fairies. After all, she is just a plain, ordinary girl who hears her mother calling.

Thank you, Purple House Publishers, for reprinting this treasure.

Recommended for Shared Reading with HCA Readers Kindergarten-Grade 3 and independent reading of HCA Readers Grades 1-3.

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Choosing New Books Wisely: “The Mighty Miss Malone”

The Mighty Miss Malone, Newberry Medal-winning author, Christopher Paul Curtis, 2012

Reviewed by Dr. Stacy Loyd

My twenty years of teaching gave me an immediate connection with Mrs. Karen Needham, Deza’s school teacher. After strategically assigning Deza’s last essay of the year an A- rather than the typical A+, this wise and caring teacher was comforting the distraught student and said,

Deza, I have been teaching longer than you could imagine, and I’ve always had the dream any teacher worth her salt has. I had thought, prior to this year, that I would have to be satisfied in coming close to the dream once, before, alas, ‘the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley . . . ‘ The dream is the gift of having one student, just one, who is capable of making a real contribution. One child who’d have no choice but to make a difference for our people. Out of the thousands of students I’ve had in the thousands of years I’ve been teaching, I’ve suspected for quite a while how the child I’ve been waiting for is. . . . Miss Malone, you are that child.  (p. 37).

As I read this this powerful depression-era historical fiction narrative, I came to agree with Mrs. Karen Needham. Deza [pronounced Dez-uh] is a book character who is capable of making a real contribution as she helps us “look at things with different eyes, even things we’ve seen a million times before” (p. 58).

One of the concepts that Deza helped me see with new eyes is the severe poverty of 1936. Mrs. Needham generously gives Deza a dress and pair of shoes that were supposedly outgrown by her niece. The reader experiences Deza’s joy as she exchanges her “tired” shoes and “religious socks” (religious because they were so holey) for shoes that made Deza feel like Cinderella. She woke the next morning and wiggled her toes. “My feet felt heavy and horrible. Then I remembered. I’d worn Mrs. Needham’s niece’s shoes to bed” (p. 56).

Deza’s strength and individuality is supported by her friendship with Clarice and her strong family bonds. Each evening the reader is invited to share the family’s intimate Chow Chat which makes father’s misfortune a loss for us all. Although a historical reality, I was disappointed that Jimmie, Deza’s big brother, was the one who rescued the family. I was also disappointed that the rescue involved social and familial compromises.

I cheered when Deza demonstrated one of the traits of a powerful writer—honesty. She shared that “Good writing is always about telling the truth” (p. 7). However, this declaration made the later dishonest acts of the book more disappointing.

This book does include explicit support for exploring the governing principle of “conscience is our most sacred property.” Readers experience Deza’s discussions with her own conscience. She refers to the pulls on her conscience as her second brain. She says, “I knew just how bad things had got when my second brain started talking to me. I’m different from most people and one of the main reasons is, I think I might have two brains. Whenever I get nervous or mad or scared or very upset, I have thoughts that are so different from my normal thoughts that there isn’t any way they could be coming from just one brain”(p. 31).

Early in the novel Deza used her prized dictionary, a gift from her brother for her 12th birthday, to search for understanding of the word epiphany. The dictionary definition created more confusion, but Father’s definition not only clarified the meaning for Deza, but clearly stated a major theme of this historical fiction novel.

Father pulled the dictionary to him. ‘What’s the word?’

‘Epiphany.’

He didn’t even look. He closed the book and said, ‘Think of a light going on. An epiphany is being surrounded by darkness and bumping around. Something happens or is said that causes a light to be switched on and everything becomes clear. It’s when you suddenly understand something. The moment you really get it. (p. 28).

Thank you, Christopher Paul Curtis, for bringing back Deza Malone (she was introduced in Curtis’s novel Bud, Not Buddy) and for creating the literary space for multiple epiphanies.

Recommended for Independent and Shared  Reading by HCA Readers Grades 4-8

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Choosing New Books Wisely: “The One & Only Ivan”

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (2012)

Reviewed by Dr. Stacy Loyd

Other reviewers have connected Applegate’s newest book to E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web if you replaced Charlotte with a 300-pound gorilla. “Ivan never questioned his fate seriously, considering that he’s been caged in an off-highway mall circus for twenty-seven years. Then one day, Mack, the owner of the mall, decides that the only way to drum up more business will be to buy a new resident. There’s already Ivan and Stella, the elephant with an injured foot that doesn’t seem to be getting any better. To this mix comes Ruby, a baby elephant not long captured from her home in the wild. Thanks to Ruby, Ivan sees that this is no place for a baby of any sort and he must use all his intelligence and artistic ability to find a way to save her and keep his promise to his friend” (School Library Journal, March 7, 2012).

Katherine Applegate pens a poignant yet gentle story that perpetuates George Eliot’s message that “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”  Ivan’s honest, first-person, stream of conscious narration hooked me from page one. I appreciated his thoughts. His restraint. His passion. His powerful examination and use of words. His kindness. I wanted to be Julia so I could be his friend. I wanted to be the one to give him crayons. Ivan’s use of art as a means of expressing his individuality, connecting with others, and promoting social justice is a beautiful tribute to the role that art can play in each of our lives.

Applegate does not write from a creationist world view as she demonstrates when she writes “My family tree spreads wide as well. I am a great ape, and you are a great ape, and so are chimpanzees and orangutans and bonobos, all of us distant and distrustful cousins. I know this is troubling. I too find it hard to believe there is a connection across time and space, linking me to a race of ill-mannered clowns (p. 4-5). However, I do not believe that this discredits the books role in a Christian students’ reading experience. Rather, it invites a Biblical reading and an opportunity for young students to disagree with an author’s premise and learn to construct reasoned arguments against dominant worldviews that contradict Scripture. We don’t have to believe in evolution to advocate for kindness to animals.

Applegate also invites a Biblical examination of Mack and his actions. “It is the temptation of every other, bad or good, to simplify ethics when they write for children. Bad guys are bad, good guys are good, and never the twain shall meet. . . . Yet the best books for young readers are often the ones that allow for at least a glimpse of the human inside of the villain” (School Library Journal, March 7, 2012). Similar to Naylor’s Shiloh (2000), The One and Only Ivan distinguishes itself in this regard. Mack is the villain here, no question about it. You don’t go hitting baby elephants with sharp objects without it rubbing off on your character, so to speak. But there are depths to Mack as well. He’s a man who really did love Ivan on some level when the gorilla was baby. Then is wife left him and he started drinking alcohol to deal with his financial problems. There are a lot of Macks in the world and I think it’s worth letting a child know that bad times don’t justify making choices against God’s Word.

Applegate skillfully created powerful text structure that authentically invites deeper reading. The glossary at the beginning guides readers to approach the text from a learner’s stance. It establishes the expectation that this book is about ready to share some powerful information. And the book doesn’t disappoint. Each entry is labeled at the top with a humanly significant theme that enables us to experience the internal development of a hero. Patricia Castelao’s emotional sketches align with Applegate’s restraint and compliment the reflective tone of the narrative. Applegate’s simple sentence structure, poetic use of words, and use of white space create a poetic reading experience.

I am already anticipating Katherine Applegate’s next book and look forward to sharing this book with students young and old.
Recommended for Independent HCA Readers Grades 4-7 and shared reading of HCA Readers Grades 2-7. 

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