Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Three Pigs


Plot Summary
Wiesner’s The Three Pigs starts off as the story you know and love - three pigs building houses out of various materials, with a wolf lurking nearby. As soon as the first pig builds his house of straw, however, the wolf huffs, and puffs, and blows the pig right out of the story! The narration continues on and the wolf “ate the pig up” except… there’s no pig. The wolf goes on to the stick house, but the first pig beats him to it. The two pigs escape while the wolf continues to huff and puff and blow the pages out of order! All three pigs are together now, folding a page of the book into a paper airplane to fly around and explore. They land in a nursery rhyme and a dragon tale, bringing characters back to their story with them. The wolf is waiting, but when he huffs and puffs at the third house, it won’t come down, and not just because there’s a dragon inside!

Critical Analysis
This story is a unique spin on the classic three little pigs tale. The beginning is familiar to the reader, but the pigs quickly escape their story to explore a well-known nursery rhyme and other stories. The text changes accordingly, and the pigs bring other characters back to their own story, changing their fates in the process.
     As the pigs leave their own story, the characters are drawn outside of the margins. There are several nearly-blank pages that show the three pigs on a paper airplane, flying away from their story towards anything else. It’s easy to picture this happening in a child’s room as they explore the bookshelves. As the pigs step into the nursery rhyme, they change from their realistic-looking selves into pudgy, cute nursery variations. The text changes as well, from black to purple, from standard fonts to rounded, kid-friendly letters. As soon as the pigs step off the page, they return to themselves, even if that means their head looks realistic while their backs are still cartoons! The pigs transform into black and white line drawings when they visit the dragon’s tale, and the dragon turns colored and scaly when he returns with the pigs to their realm.
     Wiesner does a great job of showing how stories differ in illustration and text. This is a great book to take time to inspect, because there are fun elements to catch as you turn the pages. The blank pages don’t seem empty because the pigs are flying across it on their paper plane, and Wiesner is very skilled with making his drawings look 3D. The pigs are flat when they’re in stories, but as they travel around, they look like they’re outside of the book entirely, looking in with you.

Personal Response
I love how the cover to this book is so misleading - it looks like a tame traditional story because the pigs are drawn so realistically. Then you get the story started and it’s so fun and off the wall! I found it was a hard book to read aloud, because the illustrations demand so much close attention. It’s also a little difficult to keep different voices straight with the dialogue bubbles contrasting with the narration. It’s a great solo read, though, because readers can go at their own pace. I love how the pigs adapt to the different types of stories they stumble into, and I love that Wiesner shows there are many other stories available that the pigs bypass when returning to their own. I think that really hands the story over so the reader can continue it in their own imagination.

Reviews & Awards
David Wiesner won a Caldecott Medal for this book, and has won the award thrice total! Publishers Weekly raved about the book: “Wiesner's brilliant use of white space and perspective (as the pigs fly to the upper right-hand corner of a spread on their makeshift plane, or as one pig's snout dominates a full page) evokes a feeling that the characters can navigate endless possibilities--and that the range of story itself is limitless.” The Horn Book chimes in: “Wiesner may not be the first to thumb his nose at picture-book design rules and storytelling techniques, but he puts his own distinct print on this ambitious endeavor. There are lots of teaching opportunities to be mined here—or you can just dig into the creative possibilities of unconventionality.”
 
Connections & Activities
Readers can identify the other stories and nursery rhymes that serve as settings in this book, then brainstorm about where else the pigs could visit. Many fairy tales and nursery rhymes star pigs, so they’ll have a wide selection! Once they pick a different story or two, they can draw the three pigs in a a scene, in the style of the original illustrator.

Read it for yourself!
Wiesner, David. 2001. The Three Pigs. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 9780618007011

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Anansi and the Magic Stick


Plot Summary
Anansi the spider is always getting into mischief. This time, he’s too lazy to do any work. While his neighbors clean their houses and take care of their gardens, Anansi sleeps. After the neighbors badmouth Anansi, he leaves to find a more peaceful place to sleep think! He sees the Hyena is also sleeping, but his house and garden look wonderful. Anansi hides to find out Hyena’s secret. Soon enough, Hyena wakes up and says the magic words: “Hocus-pocus, Magic Stick. Sweep this dust up. Quick, quick, quick!” The stick does as it’s told, and as soon as Hyena goes inside, Anansi runs home with the stick. He has it clean up his house and garden, but falls asleep as the stick is watering. Anansi told the stick “Don’t stop!” and never woke up to speak the magic words, so the garden becomes flooded. The water becomes a stream, then a river, and all of the neighborhood is floating away. By the time Anansi wakes up, the flood is out of control, and he can’t remember the magic words! Will he be able to stop the water? More importantly, will Anansi ever learn his lesson?

Critical Analysis
Every page of this book is beautifully illustrated, including the end papers and the author’s pictures! The drawings seem somewhat traditional: the animals are anthropomorphized, but they are portrayed realistically, instead of as cartoon characters. Even though they look realistic, the animals are vividly colored and have a lot of personality shining through. “Steven’s comic creatures with their surprised expressions add kid appeal,” says Publishers Weekly.
     Illustrations cover nearly every page, with small blocks of text that encourage exploration of the art in between sentences. The sentences themselves look artistic, with creative spacing across pages, and bold, larger fonts to stress certain things, like when the animals are “working working working” and how the river was “a stream, then a flood, then a mighty river.”
     The repetition of the Magic Stick’s rhyme, and the gibberish quality of the spell to make it stop, makes this a fun story to read aloud. This playfulness with the fonts, along with the bright illustrations, is a nice spin on a traditional tale, updating it for younger children to enjoy it now, while still learning lessons along with, er… thanks to Anansi.

Personal Response
I remember loving traditional tales as a child because I always thought the lesson learned was fun (I know, I know - I’m a nerd!). When I had to read it this time, however, I found I was almost dreading it, just because it seemed, well, a little boring. The cover seemed kind of plain, and I had just read a silly book, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. I was relieved to open the book and find such colorful illustrations, and it seemed more appealing since the drawings covered the majority of every page. I think illustrations are important for traditional tales, because the tales are so wonderful to read aloud and be heard - that means having interesting stuff to look at will pull the children in to the story even more. I also think the silliness of the spells to start and stop the Magic Stick are fun to read aloud, especially when the reader is expressive and stumbles over the forgotten spell with Anansi towards the end. The reader can also speak the animals’ lines in what their voices would sound like, with Hyena’s laugh and Lion’s roar.

Reviews & Awards
Kirkus Reviews says, “Children will delight in Anasi’s escapades as he annoys his neighbors and learns how to control the stick. This is [Kimmel and Stevens’s] fourth Anansi collaboration; has the tricky spider learned his lesson this time? Let's hope not-his stories are too amusing.”
     ”This tale has a more traditional ring to it than Kimmel and Stevens’s Anansi and the Talking Melon, but whimsical illustrations add a modern-day appearance. The art has a softer focus than in Talking Melon but the same bright colors fill the pages, and the whole adds up to an enjoyable offering that is clever, funny, surprising, and traditional all at once.” from School Library Journal.

Connections & Activities
Read other Anansi books by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Janet Stevens:
Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock ISBN 9780823407989
Anansi and the Talking Melon ISBN 9780823411672
Anansi Goes Fishing ISBN 9780823410224
Anansi’s Party Time ISBN 9780823422418

Read it for yourself!
Kimmel, Eric A. 2001. Anansi and the Magic Stick. Ill. by Janet Stevens. New York: Holiday
     House, Inc. 9780823414437

Monday, September 22, 2014

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs


Plot Summary
Forget everything you think you know about the three little pigs - this is the real story! Alexander T. Wolf (you can call him Al) is tired of everyone thinking he’s a big bad wolf just because he likes to eat cute animals. The truth is, he just needed to borrow a cup of sugar. And since he had a cold, he decided to just walk over to his neighbor’s house. It’s not his fault his sneezes demolish houses - who builds out of straw and sticks? Al went from merely borrowing a cup of sugar to being jailed for “huffing and puffing” - proof that reporters always skew the story!

Critical Analysis
This book isn’t actually by Jon Scieszka, it’s by Alexander Wolf. And because this is his story, told from his point of view, he’s an unreliable narrator. He’s been know throughout history as the bad guy of the story, and even with justice insisting everyone is innocent until proven guilty, you’ll find A. Wolf a little hard to believe. Even so, the way he tells the story is very humorous and very childlike - making up reason after reason for why he did this, and then that, and how it got skewed. I think that is what makes it so appealing to children: the perfect combination of silliness and familiarity, told on their level.
     With a story told from the bad guy’s point of view, you can’t expect bright colors and smooth drawings! Lane Smith’s art fits The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs perfectly. The colors are mostly dark - maroons and burnt oranges, browns and tans. Each picture looks grainy, but on closer inspection, the marks are a lot of texture added to each drawing, like bumps on bricks, needles of hay, woodgrain on the chalkboard frame. The desaturated colors work well with the few samples of newsprint on the covers and at the end of the book. The illustrations seem a little dark for such a humorous story, but they are effective at setting the mood of an unreliable narrator trying to get you to believe his side of the story.
     Publishers Weekly praises the illustrations specifically, saying, “Smith’s highly imaginative watercolors eschew realism, further updating the tale, though some may find their urbane stylization and intentionally static quality mystifyingly adult.” School Library Journal also comments on the overall dark and shadowy drawings, saying, “[…] the bespectacled wolf moves with a rather sinister tonelessness, and his juicy sneezes tear like thunderbolts through a dim, grainy world.”

Personal Response
I loved this book as a child, and was thrilled to discover it’s just as funny now! I read it to my son - he’s only three months old, but so far all the fairy tales I’ve read to him have been fractured fairy tales! As an added bonus, we got to meet Jon Scieszka August 20, 2014 - he’s just as witty in person as in writing.
     I think it’s fun to read fractured fairy tales and compare them with the originals. This book is especially fun because the wolf seems sympathetic, wanting to bake a cake for his granny! It’s interesting to see who kids side with, since most know the other story of the three little pigs, and are now faced with looking at it from the bad guy’s point of view.

Reviews & Awards
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs is #35 on School Library Journal’s list “Top 100 Picture Books” of all time. In 2008, Scieszka was the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position created to bring awareness to the importance of reading at a young age. He is also the founder of “Guys Read,” a nonprofit literacy organization. His book The Stinky Cheese Man won a Caldecott Honor medal. Lane Smith was the illustrator for that book, and has worked with Scieszka on The Time Warp Trio novels. Smith has collaborated with many other authors and won countless awards for his work, including the recent Caldecott honor Grandpa Green.

Connections & Activities
The scope of activities for this book seem endless, because it’s so inviting for children. They can make up their own fractured fairy tales. They can discuss whether they believe the wolf or not, and explain their reasonings why. They can (and should!) read The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, also by Scieszka and Smith, and discuss the fractured fairy tales told there. As an extended study, students can read more books by the author and illustrator separately, and compare and contrast their works.

Read it for yourself!
Scieszka, Jon. 1989. The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. Ill. by Lane Smith. New York: Puffin
     Books. ISBN 9780140544510

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Grandpa Green


Plot Summary
Grandpa Green tells the story of a man from birth to old age. It is told from the point of view of a young boy as he walks through his great-grandfather’s garden. More of the story is told through illustration than words, so it’s crucial to pay attention to every page, because there’s another layer to the story hidden there!

Critical Analysis
Lane Smith’s illustrations are absolutely breathtaking. Though the book has words, flipping through the pages feels as memorable as flipping through a photo album. Each page is packed with meaningful illustrations that go well beyond the scope of the words themselves. The illustrations look simple, because they consist of line drawings with very few colors, and the green areas are more heavily sponged. All of the colors are very muted; even the greens are strong rather than vibrant.
     This type of illustration works perfectly with the subject matter. The words are very matter-of-fact, telling the story with no adjectives or adverbs. Even the text is a dark green, as if Smith didn’t want the font to take away from the illustrations. This is a great choice because the illustrations tell so much more. They should be studied as long as possible before turning the page.

Personal Response
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got this book. The cover looked almost monochromatic, so it didn’t really grab my attention. Also, I hate to say it, but sometimes I overlook award winners because I figure they must be stuffy if a panel liked them. (That opinion, I must say, has gone out the window after reading for this class!) I knew Lane Smith from his work with Jon Scieszka, but those projects were much sillier. In comparison, this book looked boring.
     Once I opened the book, I appreciated the contrast of the heavily painted topiaries next to the delicate line drawings. On my first reading, I read the text quickly, scanned the pictures, and finished thinking, “Huh, that’s it?” I read it several more times for class, loving it more each time. I spent several minutes on each page, and I think it’s crucial to do so because there are some little jokes hidden there, and it’s easier to understand the story. On the page about the world war, for example, it is incredibly important to take in the illustration piece by piece. As a whole, it looks beautiful, but once you look at every element, you appreciate it so much more. So then you go back to the first page to see it all again.
     It’s a good thing the illustrations are gorgeous, because this book seems very sad to me overall. The boy learning about his great-grandfather’s life reminded me of my own grandfather, who also fought in a world war and became very forgetful in old age due to Alzheimer’s. The fold-out pages near the end are bittersweet, with the final image giving closure to the story.

Reviews & Awards
Grandpa Green is a Caldecott Honor book, and once you see the illustrations, you’ll understand why! It was also one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Picture Books for 2011, and one of School Library Journal’s Best Picture Books of 2011.
     The New Yorker said it perfectly: ”The author’s illustrations, a blend of line drawings and sponge painting, have a classic feel, and make clever use of the topiary theme, rewarding close examination and repeated reading.”

Connections & Activities
- This book reminded me of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I think it would be fun to have a program where both books are read, and listeners can compare and contrast them.
- Reading this book (or perhaps rereading it) can be made into a scavenger hunt. Children are given a list of items to find in the book and write down the page number where they find the picture. Items can range from some of Grandpa Green’s lost belongings to more general things cut into the topiaries.
- This book might inspire children to learn more about their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ lives. They could conduct interviews to start a family history, and further that research at the library. Or, if they have no living grandparents, they can pick an aspect of the book to research, such as a world war.

Read it for yourself!
Smith, Lane. 2011. Grandpa Green. New York: Roaring Brook Press. ISBN 9781596436077

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble


Plot Summary
Sylvester is a young donkey who lives with his parents and spends his time collecting pebbles. He is exploring one rainy day when he finds a bright red, round, shiny pebble. As he looks it over, he wishes it would stop raining - and it does! Sylvester makes a few more trial wishes, and all come true while he is holding the pebble. He’s excited to show his parents and friends, but on the way home he encounters a hungry lion. Flustered, Sylvester doesn’t wish for the lion to disappear, but wishes he was a rock, and therefore safe from the lion. Because of the magic pebble, Sylvester indeed becomes a rock. And because he is a rock, he can no longer hold the pebble and make wishes. He stays a rock for a long time; his parents worry and question the townspeople, but no one has seen Sylvester. The young donkey remains a rock as the seasons change. His parents have never gotten over their son going missing, but one summer day, they decide to have a picnic. They find the perfect rock to sit on, and it just so happens to have a bright red pebble next to it! Will his parents wish Sylvester back into his regular form, or will he stay a rock forever?

Critical Analysis
The primary theme of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is how children may wish for foolish things, and how that affects those around them. It is a beautifully written story, with anthropomorphized animals acting out the parts: Sylvester and his parents are donkeys; the police are pigs; neighbors are chickens, cats, and dogs. Most wear clothes and act like humans do - Sylvester’s mother wears a dress and knits, and his father wears a suit and smokes a pipe. The emotions on the animals’ faces are very expressive, and help add suspense and sadness to the story while Sylvester is missing.
     The illustrations look timeless, and have helped this book become a classic. The clean black lines make the vivid colors pop as Steig shows the change of seasons. Instead of the more traditional layout of pictures on the top part of the page and text at the bottom, Steig puts smaller pictures around the text on several pages. This helps the story flow through the illustrations, because they are not separate from the text and inspire the reader’s eyes to explore the page.

Personal Response
I had forgotten that all picture books weren’t silly! Sylvester and the Magic Pebble has an undertone of sadness, with Sylvester wishing himself home in his old body, and his parents missing him fiercely and searching for him incessantly. These emotions were expressively displayed in Steig’s illustrations of the characters, and really helped the sadness hit home. In fact, I think the illustrations were my favorite part. Nothing against the story, which was well-written and entertaining enough, but the illustrations are very vivid and colorful. They can’t tell the story by themselves (how would readers know the pebble is magic and that Sylvester turns himself into a rock?), but they really enhance the story, which wouldn’t be the same without them.

Reviews & Awards
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble won Caldecott Medal in 1970 due to Steig’s wonderful illustrations (mentioned above), and has been considered a classic since then. Interestingly, Steig’s portrayal of policemen as pigs has raised some controversy over the years, leading to the book being banned in certain parts of the United States! (For the record, pigs are shown on other pages as regular neighbors.) The book was reviewed in the Horn Book in 1969: “A remarkable atmosphere of childlike innocence pervades the book; beautiful pictures in full, natural color show daily and seasonal changes in the lush countryside and greatly extend the kindly humor and the warm, unself-conscious tenderness.”

Connections & Activities
William Steig’s other books include:
     Doctor De Soto ISBN 9780312611897
     The Amazing Bone ISBN 9780312564216
     Shrek! ISBN 9780312384494 (Yes, this is the book that inspired the movie!)
After reading the book, start a discussion about various aspects of the story. For example:
     - Sylvester likes to collect colored pebbles - what do you like to collect?
     - If you had a magic pebble, what would you wish for?

Read it for yourself!
Steig, William. 1969. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN
     9780671661540

Monday, September 8, 2014

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs


Plot Summary
Do you think you know all about the antics of Goldilocks? The three dinosaurs certainly think so. Papa Dinosaur, Mama Dinosaur, and no, not the Baby Dinosaur you might be expecting, but rather some other Dinosaur who happens to be visiting from Norway, decide to rig up their house so it is just so. They make it quite clear when they leave the house, but continually reassure everyone involved - readers included! - that they are not hiding in the woods, waiting for a trespasser. Goldilocks comes by the house and, true to her style, goes right in. She tries each pudding, then searches for a place to sit. It is then she realizes everything in this house is big. Much too big for bears. Will Goldilocks find out who lives in the house before they find her?

Critical Analysis
Mo Willems lets his fantastic sense of humor shine in this twist on a favorite fairy tale. He pulls the reader into the story with his simple, clean illustrations, and makes them comfortable by letting them in on the joke. Though I say his illustrations are “simple,” that doesn’t mean they’re lacking, simply that no page is too crammed with artistic elements. He outlines the characters with what looks like a black crayon, though the other colors are smooth and vibrant. He adds a bit of shadow to the characters, which helps them pop off the page. Willems shows some humor in his drawing style as well, by adding homages to his other works in the background of some scenes.
     Willems uses a gentle dose of anthropomorphism to make his dinosaurs more relatable to the reader, especially those who are already familiar with Goldilocks’ mischief. Throughout the book, the dinosaurs seem a little devious, setting traps for the little girl, but they also seem like creatures children would want to be friends with. Besides twisting the well-known fairy tale, Willems also turns it more into a fable by ending the story with morals (however questionable those may be…).

Personal Response
I was smiling as soon as I opened Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs and saw the endpapers, and was thrilled that Willems kept the humor going through the whole story. The illustrations looked like they could easily be animated into a cartoon - which is something I’d love to see! I really liked the wink-wink-nudge-nudge type of humor Willems employed in this book, and am curious to see if that’s his style in other books as well. I feel like it’s hard to mess up a fractured fairy tale because there’s so much freedom to make them silly, but Willems hit the nail on the head with this one. Though the jokes are over his head, I love that my 3-month-old son has only heard fractured fairy tales so far - none of the classics, all of the ridiculousness!

Reviews & Awards
In a starred review, School Library Journal notes, "This is pure Mo Willems, from the many visual gags in the cleanly drawn illustrations and the tight, tongue-in-cheek story line to the endpapers, decorated with dozens of hilarious crossed-out title possibilities." Many children's book are geared only towards children, and some have jokes aimed at the adults reading the story aloud. Willems, however, is a perfect mix of the middle ground, as the jokes can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. It might sound corny, but his books bring readers together by bridging the gap in ages.
     Awards and honors earned by Mo Willems’ Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs include: Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Books of 2012, Picture Books; School Library Journal Best Children’s Books 2012, Picture Books; 2013 Irma Black Award Finalist; Los Angeles Public Library Best of 2012 Children’s Books; ALSC 2013 Notable Children’s Books, Younger Readers; 2013 Sid Fleischman Humor Award Winner; IRA Children’s Choices, Beginning Readers, 2013.

Connections & Activities
Readers will love holding this book on their lap and turning the pages at their own pace, because there is much to be explored in each illustration. Because of the book’s whimsical sense of humor, it inspires lots of fun activities.
     - Find the references to Willems’ other works within the illustrations. If the reader doesn’t know any of his other books, it’s a good opportunity to make them eager to read more!
     - Pause after each page and ask what might happen next. Children who know the more traditional version of Goldilocks might be surprised at the turn of events in this version!
     - The endpapers show that Willems went through quite a few ideas before settling on dinosaurs. Examples include Goldilocks and the Three Naked Mole Rats or Goldilocks and the Three-Piece Band. Have the readers pick a few of their favorites and brainstorm about how that version of the story might go! If time allows, you can expand this project into a storytelling event, or have the children draw the characters for their own book.

Read it for yourself!
Willems, Mo. 2012. Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. New York: Balzer + Bray. ISBN
     9780062104182