Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Spotlight on Traditional Literature

“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear.”
― Gene Roddenberry

Spotlight on Traditional Literature 

Traditional literature: folktales, fairy tales, legends, and myths. I love to read them. T loves to hear them. Most kids do, in my experience. Why? And why should we read them?

Young children crave predictability and repetition; traditional literature is rife with it. Justice is served. People learn their lessons. Characters are flat with easily recognized motives. Settings are often vague (at the edge of a forest, in a castle, etc.) and easy to imagine anywhere in the world. All these combine to make for a place of security from which to confront the reality of good and bad and to explore unfamiliar concepts. And equally important, both for why we love them and why we should read them: they cultivate imagination.

Fantastic beasts, magic, and anthropomorphized animals spark the imagination. How often do children act out magical stories that they've read, improvising and expanding on the original story. If we don't give children the resources, how can they create? It is widely acknowledged that folktales ignite imagination. And it is imagination that we most need to solve problems. We as a society need problem solvers, and folktales foster imagination and creative thinking. Pourquoi tales, for example, which have long been a personal favorite, model creative reasoning and imagination. Sure, we know that animals have evolved in ways to help them survive, but it is so much more enjoyable to imagine that the crow's beak fell off and was worn down as a tool by the woman using it, as in How Raven Got His Crooked Nose.

Traditional literature helps children understand justice in safe and predictable scenarios. Children have an innate sense of fairness, and seeing justice meted out in fairy tales and folktales allows them to confront "bad" situations from a secure standpoint. Lying, tricking, and stealing is bad; people who do it will not prosper. This is a common theme, and we see it played out again and again, as in Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock, where Anansi himself is tricked after he tricks the other animals out of their food. Or in "The Magic Mortar," where one brother's greed leads to theft and his own death in the book Urashima Taro and Other Japanese Children's Favorite Stories. As I mentioned in my review of Good Night, Wind, folktales can help us understand appropriate behavior.

Perhaps most obviously, reading literature from many cultures allows us to connect with distant peoples. In The Atlas of Monsters, it is easy to see similar legends appear throughout the world. A myriad of vampire, werewolf, dragon, and zombie creatures appear across the globe. So many monsters protect nature. So many others eat children. The cross-cultural similarities in legends are hard to miss, and it's not much of a leap to understand that people are not so different themselves. Conversely, legends can shed light on the unique aspects of a particular culture. Through the lens of traditional tales we can see what has played an important role in people's lives, be it rain, the ocean, religion, etc. Mountains, for example, and magic-wielding priests, appear prominently in Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends. It doesn't take much to see how significantly the geography and religious history of Iceland have shaped its cultural history.

So, do ancient legends, far-fetched magic tales, and foreign explanations have any bearing on our children? Absolutely! Read them, enjoy them, and know that they are laying the groundwork for thoughtfulness, creativity, and global citizenship.

There are so many offerings when it comes to traditional literature, and I've chosen to focus on a handful of current and forthcoming publications simply because I had to limit what I assessed somehow. Below are four books, each with stories from a different continent, with The Atlas of Monsters pulling together legends from everywhere. In the future, I think it would be fun and interesting to make a study of a particular tradition, or a particular story across many traditions.

The Atlas of Monsters
By Sandra Lawrence and Stuart Hill, 2019

T’s most important thing to know: It’s a spooky one.
T’s favorite part: The legendary things. The legends. That’s what I like.

Quite literally an atlas of monsters. Each continent is depicted with illustrations of monsters located in their geographic origins. The monsters's traits are explained and a few short legends are narrated.

What sets it apart: Readers must solve a mystery left by the geographer who mapped out the monsters.

How Raven Got His Crooked Nose: An Alaskan Dena’ina Fable
By Barbara J. Atwater, Ethan J. Atwater, and Mindy Dwyer, 2018

T’s most important thing to know: It is that Raven had a big accident. Well, a girl is picking fast, and she’s being very fast and her grandma says, “Settle down and hear a story.” And then she does. And then her grandma tells her to take your time when the story is over.
T’s favorite part: Mine? It is that it is good. And my favorite part is when he takes human form.

A retelling of the fable explaining the raven’s straight nose fell off and was found by an old woman. She uses it as a tool, wearing it down. When he retrieves it and hastily reattaches it, it is crooked.

What sets it apart: Dena’ina words are incorporated into the text, with a pronunciation guide and definitions.

Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends
By J. M. Bedell, 2016

A collection of short Icelandic legends, divided into six categories including trolls, hidden people (elves), and ghosts.

What sets it apart: The brevity of each legend makes it easy to pick up any time and the authenticity is palpable. These are not modern retellings. I can just imagine hearing one of these tales in passing, maybe after Sunday Mass, when so-and-so says, “Did you hear about that ghost over at Myrká? Gudrún saw it!”

Urashima Taro and Other Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories
By Florence Sakade and Yoshio Hayashi, 2018

T’s most important thing to know: Well, it is this: There’s many stories.
T’s favorite part: My favorite thing is that it has a lot of stories in it. “Why the Red Elf Cried.”

Very obviously, a collection of fairy tales. We loved reading about the dragon who was befriended by a little boy and the little elf that cried over losing a friend. All of these stories were new to us, and we both loved the pictures.

What sets it apart: The publisher explains that it has tried to “remain true to the spirit of the Japanese originals” while explaining “customs and situations that Western readers might not understand.”

Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock
By Eric A. Kimmel and Janet Stevens, 1988

T’s most important thing to know:
He plays tricks on people – I mean animals. You get to see Anansi’s house when he’s leaving it.
T’s favorite part: That there’s so many characters. That he plays tricks.

Anansi tricks the other animals out of their food using a magical moss covered rock. Little Bush Deer refused to be tricked and turned the tables on Anansi. The other animals were able to reclaim their food.

What sets it apart: Little Bush Deer is hidden in the background of almost each page. T loves screaming out, “There she is!” and pointing her out on each page.

Review copies were provided in exchange for honest reviews for these books: The Atlas of Monsters from Running Press Kids, How Raven Got His Crooked Nose from West Margin, and Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends from Interlink Books

Further Reading: 

Lukens, Rebecca J. A Critical Handbook of Children's Literature.
Martha Crippen, Martha. "The Value of Children's Literature
Norton, Donna. Through the Eyes of a Child.
VisikoKnox-Johnson, Leilani. "The Positive Impacts of Fairy Tales for Children"

Monday, September 16, 2019

Little Fish – Book Review

Book Review
Little Fish
By Emily Rand
Expected publication: September 17, 2019

Son's Review
(Age: 4)
"This is my new favorite book because it is a star book. It's about a little orange goby fish that's lost. It makes me happy...My favorite part is when the fish arrives home. It's good to read it at the beach because it's a sea book. I'd like to learn about a grouper."

Mom's Review

Short and simple, with a depth that makes it worth reading over and over. 

While there are only a few lines per page and only a few pages at all (see T opening the book to a carousel), Little Fish is not babyish and Emily Rand wastes neither words nor space. When the goby fish is separated from his companion, he encounters several other sea creatures, including a grouper, kelp, and a cave. Little Fish lays a foundation for understanding ocean life with the goby's journey back to his companion. Readers will learn about the dangers that confront small fish as well as the varied plant life. The bright images give a vivid impression of the color world beneath the waves. 

But you could get ocean info anywhere. What sets this apart is the paper craft. Little Fish can be tied cover to cover such that it is a carousel. This invites exploration and play, not simply reading. After we'd read it, T decided to use it as the settings for a movie. He combined several fairytales and used different guys, moving them from page to page as he crafted his own prince vs. witch vs. pollution storyline. At one point, the superhero whale gets eaten by the shark (see below).

Little Fish is a delight.

We watched this grouper video from National Geographic to see what one really looks like.

Why we chose this book:
You could think of us as (snobby?) pop-up book connoisseurs :) Our refined tastes balk at simple two-layer raised images. Nurtured from the outset with National Geographic action books that have numerous moving pieces and multiple layers of paper craft on each page, we* have come to demand nothing less than intricate, captivating paper engineering. If the pop-ups are cutting edge, we want a taste. You perhaps saw our review of Midnight Monsters, which you use to create shadow images that you read about. Well, here is another book that delights with its unique format. 

*T got my old Nat Geo books, so the exact same books introduced us both to pop-ups, but decades apart

A review copy was provided by Thames and Hudson in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Meet the Jolly Jangles – Book Review

Book Review
Meet the Jolly Jangles
Written and illustrated by Marilyn Cook
Published April 12, 2019

Why we chose this book:
We were contacted with a request to review this book, and when I spoke with T about it, he was quite taken with the teddy bears. The premise sounded cute, so we accepted. A review copy was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Mom's Review
We expected Meet the Jolly Jangles to be cute, and we were not disappointed! I have lost count of how many times we've read this book in the past two weeks; T is enamored with the bears. Each of twelve teddy bears is introduced in rhyming format and then asks the audience a question. After the question, the bear shares his or her magic power. This is one book that is very easy to talk about! T answers some of the questions, particularly about what colors he is wearing and what animal he would like to be (it's always a tiger). The illustrations are photographs of the Jolly Jangle bears in different settings; T delights in pointing out what is a photograph and what isn't real. I think what he likes about the pictures is the fact that these bears really do exist somewhere (in the UK, in case you are wondering).

Meet the Jolly Jangles is fun and easy to read (I do my singing/chanting/rapping hybrid thing), it invites engagement through its questions and the bears' powers, and it is just plain cute! This book accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, namely fostering conversation and promoting imagination. T and I had some independent time yesterday (meaning he played alone while I did the dishes), and when I checked on him, he had built a pillow fort for himself and a few bears. He told me that he was pretending they were the Jolly Jangles.

With twelve distinct bears to meet, it's easy to pick favorites. In this house, we love little pranks, so Naughty is one of our favorites. He loves to make the other Jangles laugh through his little jokes and tricks. He's sweet and fun and doesn't do anything truly "naughty." We also like Snowflake's sparkly ears and her love of snow; we love to play in the snow too. There is just one thing about Snowflake that I feel should be mentioned. She says that she "should be an Eskimo." The writer is from the UK and the weight behind this term may be unfamiliar. Certainly, this could lead to a conversation about outsiders naming indigenous peoples as opposed to self-determination, as well as the differences between terminology in the northern US versus Canada, but T is a bit young for that.

Overall, we are loving Meet the Jolly Jangles. I get into the rhyming. T is wild about how adorable the bears are (I concur) and that they have powers, and he enjoys answering their questions. All these things are right up our alley!

Son's Review
(Age: 4)
T is all about the Jolly Jangles right now! He loves how cute they are. He loves how they have magic powers. He loves that they pat their tummies to make their powers work. And he loves telling me how cute they are and how they have magic powers and that they pat their tummies to make their powers work.

In general:
"I really like the Jolly Jangles! The bears are really cute!"

On what people should know:
"That the Jolly Jangles are really happy."

On what is most important to know:
"The Jolly Jangles magical powers."

On how he feels when we read:

On what the book makes him want to do:
"It makes me want to make the world feel super bright."

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Plants! – Book Review

Book Review
Explorer: Plants!
Written by Nick Forshaw
Illustrated by William Exley
Published March 5, 2019

Why we chose this book:
We have become big fans of the timeline books; T likes to have an entire book read all in one sitting. They are kinda long when you do that. Good. But long. (No pun intended; I'm just so witty that it comes without trying!) So how could we resist the pull of another timeline book? What on Earth? Books provided a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Similar to Dinosaurs!, Bugs!, and Mammals!, Plants! is part graphic novel, part scientist's notebook, and part informational picture book, with a six-foot fold-out timeline in the back. Again, Agent Osprey must travel back in time to compile a report on the history of plants. Plants! is her scientist's notebook and her report. The book is divided by topics ranging from plant origins to reproduction to humans' use. Each topic is broken down into two two-page spreads. The first spread explains the content; the second is illustration-rich and provides detailed examples.

T and I both thoroughly enjoy the setup of the book. Fact boxes and Polaroid-type insets catch T's eye and provide interesting information. He especially likes the bright, illustration-full pages; T likes to select pictures that interest him and have me read the caption. I think I've learned more than T, which is a good thing, I think. He's at an age where he should be exploring and appreciating nature, letting his curiosity reign.  I'm at an age where I should at least know plant basics and what I'm touching. I never cognized, for example, that there is more than one type of acorn. I feel a bit stupid about that. Especially since I've actually collected different types of acorns and thought, "Oh, this is a really long acorn. Huh."

This summer, T and I started to read Plants! outside, which led naturally to comparing the plants around us to the plants in the book. This in turn led us to a plant-specimen-collection game, which we first played when we visited T's dad at work. We spent a good hour collecting samples all over campus that day.

The goal of the game, if you can term it that, is this: Collect specimens and try to answer questions.

Some of the questions we try to answer are these:
Can we find a similar plant in the book?
How does the plant reproduce?
What kind of leaves does it have?
How does it protect itself?
How does it get the sun and water it needs?

Now, T is enthusiastic to collect more samples whenever we are on campus; he is much more attuned to the differences of plants there. It is a fun game for both of us, and I think that paying closer attention to our natural surroundings has made our campus walks much more enjoyable for both of us. Thanks, What on Earth? Books for being the impetus!

Plants! readers will learn the basic history and numerous fascinating details of plant growth and development over the life of the Earth. Vivid illustrations and comprehensible narration will catch and retain children's attention. However, Plants! lends itself better to exploration than to story-time.

How will you use the Plants! book and timeline?

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Outrush – Book Review

Book Review
Outrush (The Mer Chronicles: Book III)
By Errin Stevens (website here)
Published Feburary 14, 2019

Why I chose this book:
This is the third book in a series I am really enjoying! A review copy was provided in exchange for an honest review.

Outrush follows Updrift and Breakwater and is the story of Maya, whom readers met in the previous books. Prior to the story's start, Maya married Stu because she thought this was the logical post-college choice. As Outrush begins, Maya is tiring of Stu's philandering. She mourns the loss of a more satisfying life, particularly with Aiden, a man (actually a siren) from her past. As the story unfolds, she concludes that the unrealized passion with Aiden would have been far preferable to the marriage she has tried to save for the past seven years. Maya files for divorce and leaves town. Meanwhile, Stu's father suspects Maya of revealing his illegal business ventures to the authorities and orders his security team to kill her.

It is Aiden who rescues her. However, he's not much of a knight on a white horse. He's in disguise, so she doesn't know it's he. He disappears mysteriously, leaving Maya to fend for herself against gun-toting goons. He erases her memories of him, leaving Maya to wonder how her post-Stu life commenced. As a reader, one wants to throw one's hands up in the air and yell or grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. I love it when the characters become so real that I feel emotionally invested in what they do! (Mini spoiler: I wasn't so fed up with him in the end.) With so much going on, it's easy to simply sink into the story, enjoy the action, and watch the romance unfold with all the pitfalls you can imagine. Or, one could read this as an assessment of the value our society places on public image. On the drive to be successful, rich, beautiful. Outrush is as much action/fantasy/romance as it is a contemplation of what it means to be content. Dive deeper or simply swim with the sirens; either way, you're in for a riveting read.

Intense chase scenes, abductions, secret identities, and romance combine in this suspenseful and satisfying installment of The Mer Chronicles. A cliffhanger ending and a tantalizing excerpt from the next book make this reviewer eager to read more.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

That Night – Book Review

Book Review
That Night (A Nadira Holden Novel, Book 2)
By Azaaa Davis (website here)
Published April 23, 2019

Why I chose this book: 
After This Time, I was eager to read the sequel. A review copy was provided in exchange for an honest review.

That Night picks up right after the end of This Time. Nadira is struggling to find her place as a demon hunter in the modern world where demon hunting is now illegal. She continues to compete with the succubus Roquelle for control of her body. Nadira is uncertain of her emotional relationship with the Demon Duke of New England, but enters into a mutually-useful business deal to help him gain control of Sulyden (the demon realm) and her gain complete control of herself (no more Roquelle-possessions). So, there's illicit demon hunting, otherworldly political intrigue, some questionable romance, and suspense. All good stuff. Oh, and the plot is exciting; Roquelle gives Nadira an ultimatum to find Roquelle's body within a few short weeks or be possessed by the succubus permanently. Like I said, all seductive bases for an urban fantasy.

What makes That Night compelling and ever so satisfying to read, however, is the character of Nadira Holden. More than anything, it is her personal struggles that make this book well worth reading. The twenty-something demon hunter who drowns her depression in alcohol while pining after a man she cannot have and questioning her choices embodies universal struggles of humanity. It's not the specifics, but the mindset, the setbacks, and the hard-won self-confidence that are relatable. Davis's treatment of Nadira's personal development, both positive and negative, reminds me a bit of Franzen's Patty Berglund in Freedom. Like in Franzen's novel, the storyline is fascinating, but it is the sometimes painful authentic humanity that makes That Night impossible to stop reading.

I can't get into too many specifics without spoilers, so I'll just wrap up and say that That Night is awesome awesome awesome, but I am also reminded of why I like to read old series from dead authors: I don't have to wait with baited breath for the next installment. Do we have a release date for book three yet, Ms. Davis?

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

So You Want to Be a .... Series Review

Series Review
So You Want to Be a Roman Soldier?
So You Want to Be a Viking?
Written by Georgia Amson-Bradshaw
Illustrated by Takayo Akiyama
Expected publication date: September 3, 2019

Why we chose these books:
T is fascinated by Vikings and likes his Roman Playmobil guys, so these have been on my radar. I thought they'd be too advanced for T, but they are a great fit.  Thames and Hudson provided review copies in exchange for an honest review.

Mom's Review
I cannot think of a more fun way for grade-school kids to learn about Vikings and Roman soldiers! Each book guides three kids through training to be a warrior. The three kids include fierce Kate, confident Eddie, and hesitant Angus; each is a bit caricatured, which allows readers to laugh at them while also identifying with the different personas.  The style is similar to a graphic novel, though the actual warring bits aren't too graphic. Tips, quizzes, and checklists accompany straight-up guidelines for being a Roman soldier or Viking warrior. Senior fighters advise and order the kids around in a humorous way while also conveying incredible amounts of accurate information. Anachronistic in presentation, the So You Want to Be a... books are easy to relate to, making the leap back in time believable. It's education in the guise of entertainment, and it's awesome!

Why I like reading these with T:
1. accurate information – The information presented walks the line between truthful and child-appropriate. I cannot stand books that water down content to the point of inaccuracy and misinformation.
2. short chapters – We can read a few sections at a time, jump around, or reread favorite sections. Since it's a guide book and not a novel, we could read the "Shopping for Your Gear" chapter before or after "5 Epic Places to Plunder Before You Die (Violently)."
3. guys and speech bubbles – T loves cartoon characters ("guys") with speech bubbles. The preponderance of "guys" in this series makes him so happy, which makes reading to him delightful. Can I call reading about marauding Vikings and Roman phalanx attacks "delightful"? Also, just to clarify, "guy" is a gender-neutral term to T.
4. interesting content – These books legitimately kept my interest. Some information was familiar, but I also learned a lot. And you know that if I am learning from T's books, I'm a happy mom. 

Teacher's Note: I think I would have used So You Want to Be a Roman Soldier? as the basis for a simulation if I had had it when I was teaching. (First Egypt, now Rome. Seems like teaching is on my mind...)

Son's Review
(Age: 4)
T's favorite section is in the Viking book. If your honor was insulted, one way to restore it was to write a rude poem about your adversary. T's dad, uncle, and I have all been treated to lovely poems along the lines of, "Roses are red, violets are blue, and you smell like poo." T thinks this is hysterical. He has also been finding household objects to create a Viking ensemble almost daily for the past week, and Viking boats have been created out of LEGO bricks. (I thought I'd keep writing "Legos," but I feel compelled to stop after From an Idea to LEGO.)

T's dad, grandmother, and I have had to read and reread these books, and T peruses them independently. He particularly likes us to read the speech bubbles, and he likes pointing out and describing the funny illustrations, such as Eddie pushing a shopping cart filled with food to feed an army of Viking warriors.

Ginny Goblin is Not Allowed to Open This Box

Written by David Goodner Illustrated by Louis Thomas Expected Publication: July 17, 2018 Why we chose this book: T loves monsters. ...