Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Legend of Rock, Paper, and Scissors (by Drew Daywalt)

Author:  Drew Daywalt

Illustrator:  Adam Rex

Target Ages: 5-10

Genre:  Picture Book Fiction

Publisher Summary:
I hope you’re wearing your
battle pants! 
You’ve played the game. 
Now read the legend of the three great warriors
who started it all…

First Lines:  Long ago, in an ancient and distant realm called the Kingdom of Backyard, there lived a warrior named Rock.  Rock was the strongest in all the land, but he was sad because no one could give him a worthy challenge. 

The Legend of Rock, Paper, and Scissors is an imaginative origin story.  All three “warriors” love competition, but lack a worthy opponent.   When they all converse in “the great cavern of the Two-Car Garage,” they finally meet their matches.  Rather than feeling anger at being beaten, they each enjoy the challenge of their “epic three-way battle” again and again. 

The story is a mini-mock epic (a form of satire), meaning it takes a trivial subject and elevates it to the heroic stature similar to the real epics of Homer and Virgil.  For instance, the backyard by the tree is “the mysterious Forest of Over by the Tire Swing,” and Scissors lives in “the Kitchen Realm in the tiny village of Junk Drawer.”  Even the descriptions of these everyday objects are elevated.  Paper is “a great warrior” who seeks “the glory of battle.”  Later, Rock calls him “Great Knight of Paper.”  Their whole quest is elevated so as to be worthy of a game played around the world “in backyards, on playgrounds, and yes, even in classrooms” in order to honor the great warriors.

Figurative elements add to the humor.  When Paper meets the Bag of Trail Mix, his adversary refers to him hyperbolically as a “foul wizard” who has “blotted out the sun.”  After Rock wins his set of battles, he asks the others, “Are you not entertained?” (an allusion to my favorite movie Gladiator.)  There are creative plays on words like “the frigid wastes of Refrigerator/Freezer.”  The tape threatens to win the battle with his “adhesive and tangling powers.”  

Competition and challenges are depicted in a positive way.  They are shown as vital to the characters’ existence.  Without a genuine challenge, they feel a sense of meaninglessness.  In a world where everyone wins a trophy for existing, this message is refreshing.  Finding people and situations that prompt us to work harder and to compete fairly are good for the soul.  They make us better people.  Of course, there is the flip side of bad sportsmanship and unhealthy competition.  This book can be a conversation starter on these issues. 

The expressive fonts and bold colors add to the wacky energy and humorous exploits of the plot.  Illustrator Adam Rex creates memorable action-packed battle scenes between the main characters and other inanimate objects like dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, a tangy apricot, and a desktop printer.  This surreal adventure demands to be read out loud with flair and melodrama.

Author Drew Daywalt elevates a common children’s game by giving it an epic origin story rivaling the likes of Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.  Well, not quite that epic.  Putting all hyperbole aside, in picture book terms— The Legend of Rock, Paper, and Scissors is definitely the gold standard of humor, imagination, and entertainment.

Activities and Extension Ideas:
  • Literature:  Use as a springboard to teach about origin stories in myths and folktales.   Discuss what makes an entertaining origin story and their importance in literature/society.
  • Character:  Compare healthy vs. unhealthy competition.
  • Writing:  Students can pick a game, tradition, or object and write an origin story for it.
  • Reading:  Read the children’s version of a classic epic, like the Iliad, Odyssey, Gilgamesh, or Aeneid.  There are many excellence ones with pictures, which is helpful in building a foundational understanding of the stories before tackling them in middle or high school.
  • Math:  Practice predicting and graphing probability.  Here is a possible lesson idea. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets (by Kwame Alexander)

Author: Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth

Illustrator:  Ekua Holmes

Target Ages:  8 and up

Genre: Poetry Anthology

Publisher Summary:  Out of gratitude for the poet’s art form, Newbery Award–winning author and poet Kwame Alexander, along with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, present original poems that pay homage to twenty famed poets who have made the authors’ hearts sing and their minds wonder. 

Favorite Poem:

Celebrating Maya Angelou

into the wonder
of daybreak.

Be a rainbow in the cloud.
Be a free bird on the back of the night wind.
Shine on, honey!

Walk with joy in your golden feet
over crystal seas
and purpled mountains.

Know your beauty
is a thunder
your precious heart unsalable.

Be brave,
Like a new seed bursting
with extraordinary promise.

Shine on, honey!
Know you
are phenomenal.

            --Kwame Alexander

Out of Wonder:  Poems Celebrating Poets is an eclectic collection of poems ranging in style and theme.  Spanning the world and history, a variety of voices and poetic styles are included.

Part I celebrates the poetic style of writers like e.e. Cummings, Basho’, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost.  For instance, Basho’ wrote Haikus.  “Contemporary Haiku,” a celebration of his poetry, is written in Haiku stanzas.  Langston Hughes is known for his rhythm and rhyming couplets.  “Jazz Jive Jam” is composed to mimic those features.

In the next section, Part II, the poems incorporate the feelings and themes of the poets.  Pablo Neruda’s poems focus on the natural world.  The poem dedicated to him, “The Music of the Earth,” contains beautiful lines like “where my words linger and accumulate like rocks blurring in the cold rain.”  Similarly, Judith Wright work is concerned with nature as well as Aboriginal land rights.  “Tambourine Things” pays homage to these motifs with phrases, such as “Remember that the shadows once belonged to the elders” and “Hold the relic to your ear; listen to the ancient silence.”   

Finally, Part III shares “with the world—in words—how awesome [the authors] feel about the poet and the poem.”  Many favorites are celebrated here—Gwendolyn Brooks, Sandra Cisneros, Rumi, Maya Angelou, and more. 
Ekua Holmes’ vibrant illustrations add to the splendor and allure of each poem.  The colors are rich and bold.  Her mixed media layered collages bound off the page, complimenting and extending the motifs and meaning of the poems.

The book ends with biographical information for each featured poet.  It includes basics on their inspiration, motifs, and style.  Clearly, this book is a must-have for teachers.  The format and poems encourage imaginative exploration of the authors and poetry, making it ideal for poetry units or creative writing. 

I highly recommend Out of Wonder:  Poems Celebrating Poets.

Activities and Extension Ideas:

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Bad Seed (by Jory John)

Title:  The Bad Seed

Author:  Jory John

Illustrator:  Pete Oswald

Target Ages:  4 and up

Genre:  Picture Book Fiction

Publisher Summary:
There is a bad seed. 
A baaaaaaaad seed. 

How bad? 
Do you really want to know? 
He lies about pointless stuff. 
He cuts in line.  Every time. 
He never washes his hands….or his feet. 
And he does lots of other bad things too. 

But what happens when a bad seed doesn’t want to be bad anymore? 
Can a bad seed change his baaaaaaaad ways?

First Lines: 
I am a bad seed. 
A baaaaaaaad seed. 
Oh, yeah. It’s true. 
The other seeds, they look at me, and they say,
“That seed is so bad!”

Memorable Moment: 
I’ve made a big decision.
I’ve decided I don’t want to be
a bad seed anymore.
I’m ready to be happy.

It’s hard to be good when
you’re so used to being bad.
But I’m trying.
I’m taking it one day at a time.

Generally speaking, a good book should not about “teaching lesson,” but it should prompt insight and reflection.  A Bad Seed is a simple picture book exploring a common cliché in a creative way.  However, the truths it depicts are multi-faceted.

The narrative begins with the bad seed repeating what others say about him.  The attitude of parents and peers is clear, in spoken word as well as body language.  The seeds do everything from shield their children from the bad seed’s actions to expressing fear, dismay, and shock.  They point at him and keep a distance.  Illustrator Pete Oswald does a brilliant job conveying these emotions and others with simple drawings in muted neutral colors. The book effectively depicts the impact of a group’s attitudes and actions on a person (or seed, in this case).

Next, the seed recounts all the “bad” things he has done.  These awful deeds range from never washing his hands or putting things back to lying about pointless stuff and cutting in line.  The reason he does these things:  He is a bad seed.  Sadly, he is convinced (like so many children) it is just who he is.

The final contributing factor to his “badness” is experience.  When he drops from a flower, he is raked up and put in a package of sunflower seeds.  Then, he is almost eaten by a giant (a human).  The seed allows his circumstances to jade him.  
For a children’s book, so much truth is illustrated in those three layers.  Truth vital for all ages:  We cannot allow others to define us.  We should not label and ostracize people who act differently.  We are not inherently “bad” (or good for that matter).  We decide how to respond to experiences—either to learn and to grow or to be bitter and to stagnate.  There are multiple discussion possibilities from this one short picture book. 

The best part is when the seed makes a choice.  He does not want to be bad anymore.  With that choice comes changes in his actions.  Eventually, the other seeds begin to see him in a new light.  More importantly, he views himself differently.

A Bad Seed defies the common belief that people are who they are.  In other words, they cannot help how they feel, think, and act. To me, there is nothing more defeating than believing you are a tiger who cannot change his stripes.  I love this book because it empowers children with the belief that they can change.  It might be hard at first.  They will have set backs.  However, they can change with a commitment to shift their attitude and alter their actions. 

This books can be read and enjoyed by all ages.  I highly recommend A Bad Seed to teach manners, self-reflection, empathy, and empowerment.

Check out the book trailer!

Activities and Extension Ideas:
  • Manners:  The bad seed illustrates the impact of bad manners both on the him (the rule breaker) and others.  Use the book as part of a unit on manners.
  • Feelings:  Identify all the characters' feelings in various situations.  Connect feelings to actions and thinking.  
  • Choices:  Discuss the bad seed’s choices and their impact on others.  Ask children to consider their choices and impact—both immediate and long term (reputation).  Even if they have a good reputation, they can hurt it with bad choices.  Those with a "bad" reputation can fix it with lots of wise ones.  
  • Self-Reflection:  For younger children,  ask questions that prompt self-reflection: Am I acting ____  way? How do others feel when I ______?  How can I change ____?  For older students, parallel the story to their performance in a specific area.  I teach writing.  I could ask questions about how what others have said about their writing, what they say about themselves as a writer (self-talk), and how their experiences writing have impacted them.  Then, move to the next part:  How can they make changes to progress in their writing?
  • Art:  The bad seed comes from a sunflower.  There are many sunflower activities online. This post has a Sunflower Hand Craft that is adorable.
  • Clichés:  The expression “a bad seed” is a cliché.  Discuss what a cliché is.  Expand to discuss other common clichés. 
  • Science:  Use the book as part of a study on plants or seeds.  Click here for suggestions on books about seeds.   
  • Reading:  Click here for a reading of the book.
  • Interactive Reading:  Click here for an interactive reading session with the book.
For more Perfect Picture Book suggestions, visit Susanna Leonard Hill's blog round up.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Whopper (by Rebecca Ashdown)

Title:  The Whopper

Illustrator:  Rebecca Ashdown

Target Ages: 4-8

Genre:  Imaginative Realistic Fiction

Publisher Summary:  A humorous, quirky story about a little boy who tells a lie, which turns into the Whopper, a hungry and persistent monster.  As Percy’s guilt grows, the Whopper does, too, until finally…the Whopper EATS Percy!  It is only when the Whopper threatens to also eat Percy’s brother that Percy finally speaks up.

First Lines:  Boris and Percy loved it when Grandma came to stay.  There was just one problem.  Grandma had been knitting again. 

Memorable Moment:  The next day, Percy decided to send his grandma a letter to say that he was sorry for ruining the sweater.  A week later, a package arrived.  Percy loved getting packages.  There was just one problem…Grandma had been knitting again.

The Whopper is a whimsical combination of realistic fiction with some imagination. The characters and storyline are familiar and realistic.  A boy receives a present he does not like.  In his mischief, the gift is ruined.  The boy lies.  The imagination part is the Whopper character.  No one sees it but Percy and his brother (who knows he is lying). 

The monster is perfect.  He looks relatively harmless.  Most lies start off that way or at least they seem that way.  Slowly the monster gets bigger and bigger, even sleeping in Percy’s bed with him.  The parallel is clear—you cannot escape the web of a lie, and it is only going to get worse.  It does too!  The lie swallows Percy whole!  Again, the connection is vital. Lying can easily become foundational in a person’s character or eat away at his conscience.

Eventually, the monster tries to eat his brother.  It is the final prick to Percy's conscience.  He tells his mother the truth.  Again, nothing preachy here.  His mother praises him for telling the truth “at last” (clearly, she knew he was lying but waited for him to admit it).  Then, she makes him take responsibility (apologizing to his grandmother).

Writing books on moral issues, such as lying, is a challenge.  There is a real temptation toward tedious moralizing.  Author-illustrator Rebecca Ashdown clearly and effectively makes the point:  Lying is destruction to you and your loved ones.  However, the story never feels like a "lesson."

Lying to get out of trouble often seems like the easy way out.  Learning that getting in a little trouble is so much better than carrying a lie around or making dishonesty a habit is vital.  The Whopper is an outstanding picture book to illustrate that truth in a concrete and memorable way.

Activities and Extension Ideas:
  • Unwanted Gifts:  Inevitably, a child will receive a less than desirable gift from someone.  If it hasn't happened already, use the book to prompt a talk about the importance of gratitude and graciousness in those situations.
  • Reality vs. Fantasy:  This story is ideal to practice distinguishing the two.  While Percy’s story is real, the monster is a fantasy.  It is a metaphor representing the lie and its destructive nature. Discuss why the author uses the monster to represent the lie. 
  • Object Lesson:  There are several object lesson ideas online about lying that you could potentially use.  Objects such as fool’s gold, ice cream with salt, and a spider web are just a few ways to get across the impact of lying in a concrete way.
  • Article:  How to Teach Kids to Stop Lying article provides insights into the problem and how to fix it, depending on the age of the child.
  • Teaching Children About Honesty w/Free Printable Worksheets
For more Perfect Picture Book suggestions, visit Susanna Leonard Hill's blog round up.