Thursday, April 24, 2014

U: is for Undiscovered Gems

Whenever I read aloud to my students, I always choose books that I would consider to be "good literature"; meaning that the vocabulary is rich, the illustrations are detailed and artistic, the characters and story lines are memorable and so on.  But, there are times when a story functions as more than just a good read.  Sometimes, I have ulterior motives when I read to the children.  Sometimes I want to deliver messages; curricular or otherwise.

In that light, I present six stories that you may, or may not, have ever heard of, that have gone on to be big hits with class after class of students over the years while, at the same time, helping me to deliver some important ideas in a interesting way.  Please enjoy my six undiscovered gems!  :)

1-  The Name of the Tree:  by Celia Barker Lottridge.

    This Bantu tale from Africa delivers the message that even the smallest members of a community are able to contribute successfully to their group.  Obviously, the message that everyone is important, even the smallest and youngest, is not lost on the young students in my class who hear it.
    I read this book during the first week of school every year to help create the kind of learning climate I wish to establish.

    But, that is not the only benefit that comes with this book!  This book, also, contains a memory trick that helps a small tortoise remember the name of the tree that contains all the fruits of the world.  Before reading this book, I always tell the kids that it is magical book and that, once they learn how to remember the name of the tree, they will never, ever forget it, for the rest of their lives!!!!!    I have run into former students who hadn't heard the book in a decade or more but, they always remember the name of the tree when I ask them!
    So, not only do my students hear a message that they are important and can do mighty things, even though they are young and small; they also, come to develop an attitude that says books are magical and cool!  Those types of messages, delivered as they are, right off of the bat during the opening days of the school year, always help set the tone for all that I wish to accomplish in the other 99% of the year.

The Name of the Tree by Celia Barker Lottridge is an awesome first week of school book!!!!!

2- The Water Tower by Gary Crew.   

The Water Tower by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman  is a book that has become a staple of my Halloween collection.  It is a spooky story, in the same way that ghost stories told around a camp fire can be spooky.   The storyline is that there is a small, dusty town in the midst of a searing heat wave.  The illustrations in this book are stellar and depict a town where something is clearly amiss.  Everyone moves slowly, they all have a vacant look in their eyes, there are lots of rusted out cars and tumbleweed in the background of every scene, too.  Two boys decide to cool off by climbing into the town's water tower to take a refreshing dip.  It is eerie inside the water tower and maybe, possibly, perhaps, something is lurking beneath the water.  The illustrations are clever in that they play upon the imaginations of the children by never really showing anything in detail.  As the boys emerge, the same vacant look has come to their eyes, too. But, what has happened and what it means for their future, is left to speculation.  That is how the story ends.

I enjoy reading this book because it is spooky and unsettling and that is ok, at times, for children.  But, mostly, I like this book because it doesn't fit the pattern of most children's stories.  It is an important lesson for young writers to know that stories don't always have to have a classic "good" character and a "bad" character (antagonist/protagonist) and that events in a story don't always have to be explained and that the story doesn't have to end happily ever after.  This is usually the first story of the year that generates serious discussions about writing and story structure. For that alone, I shall read this book every year until I retire!

3- The Spider and the Fly by Tony DiTerlizzi

                                                                                    Come into my parlour
Said the Spider to the Fly.
It's the prettiest parlour
That you ever did spy.

And, so begins the classic children's poem by Mary Howitt about strangers and vanity.  This updated version by Tony DiTerlizzi  tells the                 same cautionary tale but does so with stunning illustrations.  The students enjoy hearing the rich language used throughout and enjoy hearing a full story told in poetic form.  But, what garbs and holds their attention are the illustrations that contain oodles of subtle details that foreshadow the fate of the vain fly.  This is a story that I am asked to read over and over again throughout the year. Each time I do so, the children "see" more and more in the background that enhances their understanding of the concepts being discussed.  As an interest generator, this book is one of the best I've seen.

But, aside from the literary and artistic merits of the book, it is an excellent book to deliver the message that danger from strangers is a real concern and, more importantly, dangerous strangers don't always look dangerous; they can be sweet and charming and look fancy, all to entice a child into their clutches, never to be seen again.   That is the big news for most students of mine.  To think that someone who looks like their teacher or their mother or their grand parent could, in fact, be a bad person, really snaps their attention into focus.  It is not a happy lesson to be taught but, it is a very important lesson; one that The Spider and the Fly  helps teach extremely well!

4- The The Rooster's Gift

The Rooster's Gift is, in many respects, just a good, old-fashioned story but, it contains one of the best, out-of-the-blue comedic scenes in any story I have ever read!  The story, itself, concerns a rooster and his sister hens, who all believe that Rooster causes the Sun to rise all by himself because of his pre-sunrise crowing.  Rooster becomes very vain and, dare I say, cocky as a result of his "gift".  One day, for reasons not explained, Rooster sleeps in and fails to show up at the appointed time to help the sun rise. But, his youngest Sister Hen, was there, watching the Sun rise without him. She is the one to discover the fact that the Sun rises with or without the Rooster's presence.  The Rooster is crushed. Sister Hen tries to cheer him up but he responds, in a fit of pique, by suggesting that, obviously, anyone can make the sun rise, even her. So, he decides to train her to that purpose.  The climatic moment arrives in the pre-dawn hours. Both Rooster and Sister Hen ascend to the roof of the coop.  Rooster shows her how to wrap her claws around the edge of the roof, fill her lungs to their maximum capacity, stretch as far as the sky and then, crow with all the gusto imaginable.  When Rooster does it first, he sounds magnificent, glorious, operatic!  He feels grand and proud and ushers Sister Hen to the edge of the coop roof.

At this point, I grab hold of the nearest desk and wrap my fingers around the edge of the desktop to mimic Sister Hen wrapping her claws around the coop roof.  I fill my lungs to their maximum capacity by taking an exaggeratedly large breath. I stretch my body up as high as it can go and prepare to crow with all of the gusto imaginable.  The kids had just witnessed me do this as Rooster (and, I do it magnificently, if I do say so myself) and they are prepared for similar theatrics this time, too.  They always buy into the notion that Sister Hen is going to be glorious, too, and show her pompous brother a thing or to. But, what comes out of my mouth and, Sister Hen's mouth in the book, is a verbal train wreck of clucks and cheeps and bomps!  The kids are always shocked. Rooster is shocked!  Rooster screams, "What............was.............that!!!!???"    The kids roar with laughter.....every class, every year, every single time I read this book!   Without fail!

When the story is over, we talk about the lesson of not letting your talent top to your head but, from a curriculum point of view, this leads us into story telling and drama.  Sometimes, the value of a book is not necessarily found in its' message; it is found in its' construction and in how it allows itself to be told.  The Rooster's Gift is as good a book for storytelling as I have found.  Highly recommended if you, like me, enjoy reading books aloud.

5-6:  The Tree of Life by Peter Sis and The Little Blue House by Sandra Comino.

These two books could be on a separate list because they are not read-aloud books like the first four.  Instead, these two books are just, flat-out, wonderful works of Art and Literature that I have enjoyed on my own.

There was a time when I was a Teacher-Librarian and was entrusted with running the school library in a school of 800 students.  Not surprisingly, our collection was fairly large and my budget, generous.  Because I was the spender of money and the buyer of books, publishing companies were always quite enamoured with me.  In all of the courting that went on, I came to admire a company called Groundwood Books, out of Toronto, as being the company that most consistently published books of a high, high calibre.  In purusing their collection, I came to know both of these books.

The Tree of Life by Peter Sis  is simply visually stunning!   This book is the biography of Naturalist, Charles Darwin.  The book covers all of his life from childhood, all the way to his old age, after having published his opus work, On The Origin of Species. There isn't a single millimetre of page space left unadorned by some imaginative visual representation of Darwin's theories or life events.  The illustrations are organized and presented differently on each page, leaving the reader agog at the seemingly endless array of creative expression and talent on display.  What could have been a dry re-telling of Darwin's life ends up being rendered into Art.  Worthy of being read by all but, in my opinion, best appreciated by readers who have the knowledge base to recognize the extent of the detail included in each and every page.  Fantastic work.

The Little Blue House by Sandra Comino  is a completely different book.  It treads down the trail of magic realism blazed by celebrated author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It is the story of a small house in the middle of a village that, once a year, turns completely blue for 24 hours.  The lives of the villagers  are told in great detail and interwoven with the mystical nature of the little blue house.  It is a real feat of writing prowess to write in such detail about Love and other things so magical without becoming overly romanticized or pedestrian. As North American books for young adults go, this book is completely refreshing and a great way to open young reader's minds up to exploring works associated with other countries and cultures.

So, folks, if I was still Teacher-LIbrarian and the Library was on fire, these would be the books I would grab on my way out of the door.  Of course, I would grab Harry Potter, Cynthia Rylant and Chris Van Allsburg, too, just to name a few other works and authors deserving of mention.  Hopefully, you'll find one or more of these books in your school or public library and discover the wonder of excellent children's literature, as I have.  Enjoy!

***And please, if you have any books that you would consider to be "undiscovered gems" please feel free to list them in the comment box below.  It is always great to discover a good book.  :)

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