Monday, October 31, 2016

Zero Shades of Grey

The recent arrival of Black Cat, White Cat by Silvia Borando got me thinking about other picture books that have a black and white theme and how most of them can be tied into the bigger concept of perspective.

Take Black Cat, White Cat. Black cat only goes out during the day and wonders what he’s missing at night. White cat (as you might expect) only goes out at night and also wonders what might be going on during the day. The two meet and show the other the best part of their own awake-time. The two become close companions.  Very close companions. Any guesses as to the colour of their kittens?

This one speaks very nicely to the concept of perspective – seeing how the other half lives, that’s perfect for primary grades.

What Color is Caesar? by Maxine Kumin is a romp as a dog tries to figure out whether he’s a black dog with white spots or a white dog with black spots. Asking other various black and white creatures their opinions isn’t all that helpful. Regardless of the fact that they, too, are black and white, they seem to perceive themselves as a different colour altogether. The black and white woodpecker sees himself as mostly red because he has a brilliant red crest. The black and white pony sees herself as green based on the important things in her life such as grass and trees.  And so on. It’s not until a make-believe circus guru helps Caesar find his own true colours that he finds some understanding about who he is.

Though the story addresses the idea of identity, it also presents perspective in an interesting way; Caesar seeks to understand himself better by asking others about their perceptions of themselves and of him. This one is good for grades 1-4.

Then there’s the classic, Black and White by David Macaulay. This one is a terrific picture book for older readers (middle school) as four seemingly separate stories unfold at the same time. Each double page spread presents a single frame of each of the four stories: a boy traveling on a train, two children wondering why their parents are acting so oddly, commuters delayed in getting home, and finally a masked robber caught up in a herd of black and white cows as they escape their paddock. Working through the storylines, the reader can take up the different perspectives offered and create their own narrative. Eventually, certain elements begin to overlap between the frames and thus, the stories. What the reader comes to learn is that this is a single story but told from different perspectives. Each storyline has been illustrated in a distinctive style and colour palette that helps the reader distinguish each story.

The last one in my retrospective in also titled Black and White written by Dahlov Ipcar. Originally published in 1963 this was reproduced in 2015 with the illustrations restored and remastered to the quality of the original work.  In this book, a black dog and a white dog are the best of friends, irrespective of their differences. (Think 1963 and civil rights.) The little black dog lives in a black house and dreams in black of dark jungles whereas the little white dog lives in a white house and dreams in white of starkly coloured Arctic landscapes. They share their dreams as best buddies do and get ready to frolic their way through the day, yet again. This one also would work well with the early grades.

So, it's just a matter of perspective whether you see the world in black and white or more like me, in a multitude of grey's. But it's something to talk about and kids, no doubt, will have one they may want to share.

Monday, October 24, 2016


[Cue sinister music]. 

Beware creepy carrot breath!!!

With Halloween creeping up on us like the cat spider lurking out by my compost bin, I thought I’d recommend a couple of creepy titles to go along with the holiday.

First up is Canadian author Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest. 

If you liked Coraline by Neil Gaimen, then this 
one’s for you.  It has the same claustrophobic atmosphere with an intensely, evil character that tries to manipulate the protagonist. The premise behind this story is that Steve and his family’s worry over his baby brother who has a life-threatening medical problem. Steve is particularly anxious since he suffers from an anxiety disorder. Imagine his relief when a mysterious presence promises to help fix the broken baby. Yet there is something about this presence that worries Steve and prevents him from jumping at this offer. The presence (What is it? An angel, maybe? It appears to have a connection to the wasp’s nest that is being built in the eaves of the house. Could it be…?) seems comforting at first but becomes more and more demanding and menacing as time goes on. Once Steve realizes her sinister intentions, a terrifying struggles ensues. Terrific buildup of tension with a very satisfying resolution.

Highly recommended for middle grades.

My next recommendation is Through the Woods by Emily Carroll. This is a series of short stories told in graphic novel format.

At first, I thought this was going to be retellings of fairy tales. Well boy, was I wrong!

This does contain some fairy tale motifs (girls in red cloaks, wolves, hauntings) but the stories take some very dark twists and turns. The stories tap into disturbing dark corners of the human psyche and conjure up distressing emotions when parents disappear, jealousy motivates murder, guilt-ridden consciences end in madness, with no reassuring happily-ever-after endings. The illustrations are bold, graphic and bloody.

I especially love the conclusion of the book as it set us up with a bedroom reminiscent of the that found in the children’s classic bedtime story of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Little Red Riding Hood is just snuggling into bed relieved to have made it through the woods without having met the Big Bad Wolf. But as it turns out, the BBW is looming just outside her bedroom window, ominously hissing at her that though she made it this time
 “you must travel through those woods again & again…and you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time…But the WOLF…the WOLF only needs enough luck to find you ONCE.”
Oooo, how spine-chillling is that? Sleep well, Little Red Riding Hood – NOT!

I’m recommending this for grades 9 and up.

My last suggestion, a favorite of mine, is Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds.  This one is for the primary grades and constitutes the perfect revenge story. Jasper Rabbit loves carrots especially those he purloins from Crankenhopper Field. They are the best and they are free. Jasper Rabbit doesn’t know that there’s no such thing as a free-lunch in this life and a price Must. Be. Paid. His all-consuming passion for these carrots results in dire consequences.

 [Cue sinister, foreboding music.] 

The carrots strike back! They begin to stalk Jasper, the only one who can see these unnatural, vexatious vegetables. They lurk in the shed, and in the closet and what’s that shadow on his bedroom wall? They are everywhere and Jasper must do something! Well, let’s just say that Jasper comes up with a solution that the carrots and he can live with and it’s party time in Crankehopper Field for the terrifying, Trumpian-hued, taproots.  Fabulous, over-the-top, humorous horror. The black, grey and orange coloured-illustrations by Peter Brown are perfect, depicting a self-absorbed Jasper being stalked by three, well, creepy carrots
Happy Creeping Reading, Everyone.

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Moral Dilemma

The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, spy, unlikely hero by Patricia McCormick tells an important and lesser known story about one of a group of men who risked their lives to assassinate one of the most diabolical dictators. A better known co-conspirator is Claus Schenk Graf Von Stauffenberg.

But this book focuses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We learn about his life, of his privileged childhood from a large, loving German family, of being quiet and introspective from an early age and that eventually he was drawn to theology and ordained as a minister. His academic work about the role of the church in the lives of ordinary people as a force of good was well respected.  Experiences working with the poor and underprivileged children in Barcelona, Harlem, New York and Berlin became defining periods in his life.

While Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in New York he meet Martin Luther King Jr. and others who later became leaders in the American civil rights movement and became aware of segregation. He saw firsthand how “separate but equal” played out in the lives of African Americans.

When he returned to Berlin in 1931, support for the Nazi party was growing and Bonhoeffer could see parallels between the anti-Jewish sentiments of Nazi supporters and the Jim Crow laws in America. He was concerned enough to speak out against the Nazis. In 1933, after Hitler became chancellor, Bonhoeffer is told by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, the Nazis were about to increase and implement a more active exclusion of Jews from German society.

Bonhoeffer felt that the clergy had an obligation to help those in need including those being persecuted by the Nazis. He did not have the support of most of his fellow clergymen as the Nazis had already approached them with offers of political influence and standing in return for their allegiance to Hitler. To speak out against the Nazis and Hitler was treason.

During the mid-1930s he travelled to other European countries attempting to convince church leaders to try and protest against the Nazis with no takers. By the early 1940s, while working as a double agent, Bonhoeffer tries to get information out to Great Britain and other European countries about the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazis hoping to gain support for the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

In the author’s note, Patricia McCormick tells us of her interest in this story because of the paradox of a pacifist clergyman who would become involved in a conspiracy to kill.  She asks, “How could a man of faith justify murder?” This is an interesting element to the story. For Bonhoeffer and a few others involved in the conspiracy, it presented a moral dilemma. Is treason a sin? How does a person appease their conscience when they are about to commit a mortal sin?

This well researched biography helps us understand the path that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his decision to act against the state, Hitler, church and his own peace-loving beliefs. It includes a timeline, references, bibliography, index, photos and sidebars with supplemental materials. I recommend this for grades 6 and up.

This book would pair well with other books about others who resisted the Nazis and sought to aid those who were persecuted, such as

His Name was Raoul Wallenberg by Louise Borden – recommended for middle grades
The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose – recommended for grades 9 and up.
The Grand Mosque of Paris by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix] – for middle grades

In My Hands by Irene Gut Opdyke – recommended for grades 8-12

Monday, October 10, 2016

Terrific math concept book

I’m loving How Much Does a Ladybug Weigh?by Alison Limentani.

This is a picture book for the primary grades best used in math lessons about measurement, size, counting and even patterns, to some extent.

Based on the weight of an average healthy animal, each set of pages leads us from a small animal to a slightly larger one, comparing how many of the smaller animals it takes to weigh the same as the larger animal.  For example 10 ants weigh the same as 1 ladybug. Nine ladybugs weigh the same as 1 grasshopper. Eight grasshoppers weigh the same as 1 stickleback fish. And so on until the author circles back to comparing the weight of 1 swan to 362,880 ladybugs.

The countdown has been cleverly executed and I imagine it took some research to find the animals to fit within this pattern. The end pages tell us the weights of each creature so that we too can do our own calculations. The one down side is the weights are only in imperial units and not metric.

The illustrations are attractive with bold colours and lino cut prints.

I recommend checking it out.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Sense and Perceptions (a lost manuscript by Jane Austen – just kidding)

by Brendan Wenzel is a new favourite of mine.

What an interesting way to explore perception, senses and even identity.

So, we start with an intrepid cat who engages with the world with those parts of its body that help it sense what is around; its whiskers, ears and paws but not, funnily enough, its eyes.

But what about how other creatures perceive this cat?  This is what the book is really about.

There is the child who sees a friendly, smiling creature with big eyes and a heart-shaped nose with invitingly, touchable soft fur. However, the dog sees a cat as a skinny, slinking, sneaking creature with narrowed eyes and a too large bell hanging from its neck (all the better to hear it coming, I suppose). 

My favorite image is how the goldfish perceives the cat through the glass of his bowl: large and looming, a fuzzy, grey lump with huge yellow eyes peering intently at him.

Some of the images seem to convey a more of the feeling a creature might have when encountering a cat such as in the case of the mouse. This double-page spread displays a ferocious beast that is all tooth and claw with a whip-like tail and body against a vibrant, danger –signaling red background.  A teeny tiny mouse would be overwhelmed with fright.

Looking at this cat from the perspective of a bee, a snake, a bat, and a worm gives us unique ways of ‘seeing’. The bee’s multifaceted composite eye constructs a multicoloured mosaic whereas a worm’s perception is based on vibrations. The snake differs yet again as it sees the cat in infrared in a vibrant, somewhat lurid shade of yellow with glowing red eyes. A bat uses echolocation to ‘see’ the cat.

The illustrations are terrific at capturing the various ways all the animals perceive this cat.  Sometimes bright colours or muted shades in a range of mediums (“in almost everything imaginable” – author’s words) are used to aptly create the perceived image of the cat or to convey a feeling.  A single image sometimes fills two pages or might only be on one page but be juxtaposed with the image on the opposite page such as between the worm and the bat. Sometimes Wenzel uses zig-zag lines (vibrations) or dots (mosaic) to represent the cat.

I would recommend this book for elementary grades especially in grade 1 science for senses. There might be some use for this title in grade 2, science for the small crawling and flying animals unit. For the older grades I would look at the cadence of the language which reads almost like a poem making it great for a read-aloud. Co-worker Paula (and sometime guest blogger) suggested this as a writing prompt for the older grades, too. 

Pairing this with the Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin would make for an interesting combo for looking at perception. Both books take an unusual look at a ‘thing’, one a cat and the other colour in atypical ways.

Highly recommended.

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