Sunday, April 24, 2016

Me... Jane

Me... Jane by Patrick McDonnell is a beautiful biography about Jane Goodall's life. The story starts out by explaining how as a young girl, Jane, accompanied by her chimpanzee stuffed animal, Jubilee, would spend her days discovering the world around her. She wanted to know where eggs came from, so she and Jubilee hid in the chicken coop to find out. She wanted to climb trees and smell their sap, so they did that, too. McDonnell's illustrations show Jane dreaming of a life in Africa, swinging along vines and helping animals. McDonnell makes this transition from dreams to real life beautifully through his illustrations and words. He says, "At night Jane would tuck Jubilee into bed, say her prayers, and fall asleep... to awake one day.. to her dream come true". On this final page, a photograph of Jane Goodall and a chimpanzee fills the reader with hope and joy. 

This book qualifies as a Well- Illustrated book because its pictures establish the mood of an imaginary land turned real, and since the illustrations develop the plot so well. The colors are soft and warm, and make the reader feel happy and inspired.

This book would be wonderful for introducing students in primary grades to the genre of biography, along with the idea of following your passion and dreams. I would use it as a read aloud, since I would love to watch the look on the class's face upon seeing the photo of the real Jane Goodall, and because the development of the story is great for a whole group.

One important note to mention is that this book mostly covers Jane's life as a young girl. We do not learn much about her work with animals, aside from the fact that she was passionate about them. There is a small portion of text at the end of the book that explains more detail about Jane's work, but this information is not included in the story itself. When introducing biography this would be important to point out, along with the idea that biographies can focus on any given part of someone's life in order to serve a specific purpose. This element of Me... Jane, would probably leave readers inspired to learn more about Jane Goodall's life.
Me... Jane is inspiring and sweet story that kids in early elementary grades would love to read.

Image result for me... jane
Jane and Jubilee dreaming of Africa

Here is a link to the story being read aloud:

Here is a link to a webpage with lesson plans surrounding this text:

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz is a wonderful story about two Mexican-American boys who don't feel like the fit in with the world around them. Aristotle, who goes by Ari, narrates the story from the time he turns fifteen until he's seventeen. The reader watches as he grows from a sensitive, insecure, and lonely boy, to a caring, aware young man. The story starts when he meets Dante at the swimming pool one day. Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim and the two become fast friends. Dante shows Ari poetry and a variety of books, teaching him about birds, and the world around him. Ari protects Dante and shows him loyalty-- something only his family has given him in the past. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe discusses the themes of family, love, growing up, and right vs. wrong. Ari has a unique home-life in which his father rarely speaks, haunted from his time in the Vietnam war, a caring mother who teaches high school, two much older sisters, and a brother in prison, who Ari's parents never mention. Ari feels out of place and constantly wonders if that's just part of being fifteen, or if he is different. He eventually learns how to work through some problems with his family, who help him work through discovering himself and his true love for Dante, who has already openly admitted he's not interested in girls. Dante's family also plays an important role in the story: his father a successful professor, and his mother a social worker, adore Dante and Ari. They provide Ari and Dante with hope of what they could become and want to become in the future. Alire Saenz weaves through different emotions and scenarios beautifully, making the reader quickly turn the pages, hungry for more.

My one criticism of this book is that it is a little slow to getting started, in fact, I checked other reviews of the book to see if I was the only reader who had felt that way-- I was not. Ari is pretty grouchy through the beginning of the book; it can be difficult to read his monologues. However, around half-way through, this book really picks up momentum and hooks the reader.

As a teacher, I would use this book in a high school English class. It does a wonderful job painting a picture that although we all have differences, all humans have the same universal emotions and care, in general, about the same thing. I think it would be a really great book study for high school students, although, possibly a bit controversial, but only because it's a little non-traditional. This book would also probably be relateable for any teenager who has just "come out" or is trying to figure out how to (and has confided in the teacher or whoever is sharing the book-- one wouldn't want to make assumptions, in my opinion). Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe also discusses some of the issues with hate crimes and lack of acceptance. These themes are hard to swallow while reading, but would be important pieces for discussion in a high school classroom.

I like that the main characters in this book are Mexican-American and homosexuals, since these groups can be so under-represented in books. The characters both seemed very genuine and authentic to me. Benjamin Alire Saenz himself is a Mexican-American who is gay, giving his characters even more credibility.  All characters also show power-- the mothers both play a traditional Hispanic mother role of being "over-protective" (something Ari and Dante constantly joke about), but also successful with good careers that their sons look up to them for. I found these characters to be real and inspiring. I also liked that the story took place in El Paso, Texas. The description of the desert and the night-sky added a really beautiful element to the book.

Pick up Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by  Benjamin Alire Saenz if you're looking for a different, refreshing point of view. The book has won the Stonewall Book Award, the Pura Belpre Award, Lambda Literature Award, and the Michael Printz Award for Excellence-- Young Adult Literature, and it's easy to see why.

Here is a link to a book trailer for this book:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel

All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel by Dan Yaccarino is a cute story about immigration and family. Yaccarino writes about his family's history, starting with his great-grandfather and his decision to leave Italy for America. When his great-grandfather, Michele (renamed Michael upon his arrival in the USA) leaves his native country of Italy, his parents give him a small shovel. This shovel ends up playing an important role in each generations' lives and careers. For example, Michael uses it to measure out dried fruit and nuts. Later, his son uses the same shovel to measure out beans, noodles, and olives. This son passes the shovel onto his son, Mike, who uses the shovel to spread rock salt. Ultimately, the shovel ends up in the author's hands, who chooses to use it to grow a garden on his family's small terrace.

I would use this book to introduce the idea of immigration and different family structures, cultures, and values. Although the book holds no dialogue and has a very basic story-line, the reader is drawn to the characters through the vibrant illustrations and steadfast family values. This book would be great for showing younger students in primary grades that although we all may look different and have different backgrounds, family is a constant in everyone's life in one way or another.

Here is a book trailer for the book:

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Westing Game

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is a mystery that keeps you guessing until the last page. It is so very engaging, that I can see why it won the Newberry Medal in 1978. The story starts by introducing an array of characters who live together in an apartment building. They are all very different: a Chinese family who owns a restaurant upstairs, a wealthy doctor and his wife, a secretary who fakes injuries, and other characters-- all of whom have distinct personalities and voices that can be heard and recognized through Raskin's lovely writing style. The plot thickens when a millionaire who lives nearby is "murdered" and his will claims that one of the apartment building tenants is the murderer. The tenants are paired up and given clues to help them solve the murder, which is when the reader finds themselves bent over laughing at the characters' various antics and turning the pages quickly, hungry for more.

I would give The Westing Game to students in grades 4-9 who may need a little extra push to get reading. The mystery aspect makes this book very engaging, and it has many words that could be good for increasing a reader's vocabulary. This book could be used as a read aloud, but I would recommend that the teacher (or reader) read the book once alone before reading it aloud so that they can practice the various character voices to avoid confusion among the audience when listening to this story.
Turtle, one of the main characters, is a young female who could be described as a "tom-boy". She is wildly smart and funny. Turtle ends up proving herself to be the wisest character in the entire book, despite the fact that she is surrounded with a judge, a lawyer, a doctor, and entrepreneurs. This strong character could be inspirational to young females, especially those who feel less interested in stereotypical female notions.
One aspect of this book that I would caution readers of is that it is not always perfectly politically correct. One of the boys in the story is in a wheel-chair, and he is often referred to as an "invalid". Although I think the author did this to show some character voice and, therefore, character ignorance, it can be a little distasteful and made me cringe every time. This piece also reminds me that this book was written in 1978.

    Overall, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is well-worth the read.