Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Module 6: Moses Goes to a Concert

Millman, Isaac. 1998. Moses Goes to a Concert. Illustrated by Isaac Millman. New York, NY: Frances Foster Books. ISBN 0374350671.

Plot Summary
Moses and his classmates go on a field trip to a concert. Moses and all of the students in his class are deaf. The percussionist who is playing in the concert is also deaf. The students are able to feel the vibrations of the music by holding balloons. After the concert Moses and his classmates talk to the percussionist and are able to play her instruments. In the evening when Moses is home he tells his parents that he wants to be a percussionist.

Critical Analysis
Moses Goes to a Concert is a unique book since it incorporates sign language. The author's note provides information about American Sign Language, and there is an explanation for the arrows and symbols used in the diagrams. The book uses pictures and text in the same manner as other picture books, but it also includes a short phrase that is said by Moses along with pictures of him signing the phrase. A few of the pages only show a character signing the text. On these pages the words being signed are printed right below the picture. For example, at one point Moses says, "When you set your mind to it, you can become anything you want when you grow up..." The two page spread has 12 separate pictures of Moses signing the words to that sentence. The last page in the book shows the hand alphabet.

According to the author's note Millman worked with two deaf teachers in order to make sure the sign language in his illustrations was correct. Millman made sure his diagrams were accurate and presented them in a manner that allows the reader to practice and learn words and phrases in sign language. The regular illustrations and the text are also accurate. When the children are shown talking to each other they are shown using sign language. Readers can learn about some aspects of Moses' life as a deaf child. He goes to school with other deaf children and they all speak with sign language. Moses cannot hear, but he can feel the vibrations that sound makes.

The largest message in the book is that Moses, and other individuals who are deaf, can accomplish anything when they grow up. The book mentions that they will have to work hard to achieve their goals, but does not specifically mention difficulties that exist for individuals who are deaf. The message is important and relevant, but is mentioned more than once and seems a bit overdone in the end. Aside from this aspect Millman provides and engaging story. Moses' excitement for the concert draws the reader into the story. The illustrations show a lively performance by the percussionist and cause the reader to wonder what it would be like to be sitting with the class, feeling the vibrations through a balloon.

The book does not include stereotypes, does not overemphasize the disability, and does not "use" the characters. Moses is portrayed as a happy, normal boy who is deaf. All of the characters are also deaf and the reader is allowed to see the world from their perspective. A big focus of the book is to introduce American Sign Language. There is a phrase in American Sign Language on almost every page. The diagrams make it possible for the readers to practice signing the phrase. This provides and interactive feature that actually makes the book even more engaging.

Review Excerpts
"Cheerful watercolor illustrations show the multiethnic children enjoying themselves at the concert, while smaller cartoon strips feature Moses's additional comments in sign language. A page displaying the manual alphabet and a conversation in sign language in which Moses tells his parents about his day enhance the upbeat story." -School Library Journal

"Deaf children will welcome this joyful story that talks, without condescension, about the fun they have. Hearing kids, too, will want to learn some of the sign language, and with the help of an adult, they can practice the hand alphabet shown at the back of the book." -Booklist

Use Moses Goes to a Concert for story time with a concert or music theme. After, or while, reading the book allow the children to practice some of the sign language Moses does in the diagrams. Pass around drums to each child and let them take off their shoes so that they can feel the vibrations while the drums are being played. Other books that can be used with it are 5 Nice Mice by Kate Westerlund, Punk Farm by Jarrett Krosoczka, and The Philharmonic gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Module 6: Geography Club

Hartinger, Brent. 2003. Geography Club. New York, NY: HarperTempest. ISBN 0060012218.

Plot Summary
Russel is a sophomore in high school who feels like he is the only gay guy in town. No one knows he is gay and the only place he can be himself is in gay chat rooms, until he meets someone from his school who is also gay. When they meet Russel is surprised that the person is Kevin, a popular baseball player. Russel shares everything with his friend, Min, and learns that she is bisexual. The three get together with two other gay students and decide to form a club so that they can get together to talk. They call it Geography Club with the hope that no one else will be interested in joining. Russel and Kevin begin a secret relationship, but Russel faces many situations that force him to be true to himself and separate from Kevin and popularity. Russel instead becomes friends with the school loser, who protects Russel's identity, and they form a real gay-straight-bisexual alliance.

Critical Analysis
Although a large portion of the book deals with Russel being gay, the theme that stands out is teens trying to fit in and be accepted by peers. This is a topic all teens can relate to, and Hartinger truly presents it well in his realistic portrayal of high school life. Hatinger's writing style makes it feel like Russel is real and is talking to the reader in person. At times Russel even teases the reader. After kissing Kevin he says, "As for what happened that night with Kevin at the stinky picnic gazebo, that's none of your damn business. But I suppose I should tell you anyway. If I was reading this and I didn't tell me what happened, I'd be pissed."

Themes appear in the book that can be considered to be cultural markers. One is the need for gay students to hide their identity and pretend they are straight. Another is the need to always lie in order to protect themselves. The feeling of being alone and isolated is another theme. Feeling uncomfortable around others is also a theme. The use of words that are derogatory towards gays is presented as well. After the characters get to know Belinda, a straight student who wants to join the Geography Club, they discover that these themes are common to others who are keeping secrets and trying to fit in.

Russel tries to act like a normal, straight guy and is always aware of what he says and does. After getting to know everyone in the Geography Club he finds that this is true for everyone in the group. They have never told their family or closest friends about their sexuality, and are afraid they will not be accepted if they do open up. Anything that is done that would ruin the secret must be done in private. Min and her girlfriend rarely talk to each other at school and meet in an old warehouse in order to spend time with each other. Min lies about where she is and tells her parents she is a volunteer at the YMCA.

In order to keep his being gay a secret Russel does things he does not want to do. When his friend Gunnar sets him up on a date he agrees to go along with it. He puts up with the girl on the double dates, even allowing her to kiss him. When she accuses him of being gay since he will not have sex with her, Russel tells her he is a virgin and wants the first time to be special. Russel is extremely uncomfortable in these situations and dislikes the kissing, but puts up with it for the sake of his friend.

Since Russel must hide who he really is he feels alone and isolated. The only time he can be honest about himself is when he is online with people he does not really know. When he meets with the Geography Club he discovers that everyone feels the same way. Ike admits that he even tried to kill himself once. The club finds that they can open up to each other in ways they never have been able to before. After talking about the suicide Ike says, "I never told anyone that before. I never even told my therapist."

Some situations can be really uncomfortable for Russel. When the book begins he is in the boy's locker room after gym class. Russel says, "For the time being, my disguise was holding, but still I felt exposed, naked, as if my secret was obvious to anyone who took the time to look. I knew that any wrong action, however slight, could expose my deception and reveal my true identity. The thought made my skin prickle." Kevin also fills uncomfortable in similar situations, but acts like a jerk towards others to get the attention away from himself and not let anyone question his status as a popular jock.

The appropriate and inappropriate phrases to use for gay individuals are incorporated into the story. When Russel tells Kevin about Min and her girlfriend, Terese, Kevin calls Min a lesbo and Terese a dyke, even though Russel tells him that Min likes to be called bisexual. Russel says to himself, "I never knew what to say when someone said stuff like this. It was one thing to think it. It was another thing to say it out loud." Later on, when he goes on a double date to a movie one of the girls says the movie was gay. Russel says to himself, "She meant it sucked, and I hope it goes without saying that I was totally offended by this."

A positive aspect of the book is that readers realize that anyone can be gay. Russel and Min are smart, while Terese and Kevin are athletes and Ike is a lefty activist. It seems like the only reason everyone does not realize there are gay individuals in every clique is that the gay students have learned to fit in. Brian, the school loser that everyone assumes is gay, is really straight, but he is used to being picked on and is not afraid to pretend to be gay to protect Russel's identity.

Review Excerpts
"While the plot is sometimes bundled together rather than carefully woven, this is a lively and compelling story. There's heart-palpitating romance in Russel's reciprocated attraction to Kevin and their budding relationship, and there's plenty of humor in the witty writing and unexpected events." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

"What gives it distinction is Russel's pointed narration, pitch-perfect as the slightly superior, world-weary, and ironic gay boy who you know will make a grand success of himself once he manages to get past adolescence....Yet his agonies of ostracism (and first love) are truly conveyed--in all, this is the most artful and authentic depiction of a gay teen since M. E. Kerr's groundbreaking Charlie Gilhooly in I'll Love You When You're More Like Me. -Horn Book

Introduce the sequels to Geography Club, The Order of the Poison Oak and Split Screen: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies.

Use the discussion questions and suggested class projects for Geography Club that are listed on Hartinger's web site at

Module 6: Habibi

Nye, Naomi Shihab. 1997. Habibi. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0689801491.

Plot Summary
Liyana is an Arab American who will soon be entering the 9th grade. Her dad decides to take the family to live in Jerusalem, where he was born and grew up. Liyana has never been to Jerusalem and is unfamiliar with her Arab family and their language and customs. She slowly learns to adapt to a new way of life, but is troubled by the Arab-Jewish confilcts. Liyana becomes friends with Omer, a Jewish boy, and pushes herself and her family to be more accepting of others, even though peace between Arab and Jewish people sometimes seems a long way off.

Critical Analysis
Naomi Shihab Nye has done a wonderful job is bringing the character of Liyana to life. It is easy to connect to Liyana and understand her thoughts and feelings. Liyana's thoughts are intriguing and often showcase Nye's gift with poetry. The sentences provided at the beginning of every chapter are amusing and add to the theme of the the chapter. Seeing everything from Liyana's eyes is beneficial to readers who are unfamiliar with Jerusalem since they are introduced to new things along with her. Since Liyana is learning how to live in a new country a lot of cultural markers are present.

In Jerusalem a lot of emphasis is place on race. The Arabs live together and stay to themselves, and the same is true for the Jewish. One day when Liyana is talking to a shop owner a Jewish man enters the shop and tells her to reconsider where she shops. The conflicts that exist between the two cultures keep everyone weary of each other and creates a circle of violence. When Liyana first discovers that Omer is Jewish she is suddenly unsure of their relationship. She knows her dad is uncomfortable with the situation, and it takes awhile for him to accept Omer.

The Arabs in Jerusalem speak Arabic, while the Jewish people speak Hebrew. A few of the people know English and Liyana is able to talk to them. Liyana goes to an Armenian school where the students speak Arabic, Armenian, and English. She learns Arabic with the kindergarten students since she does not know the language. Sitti, Liyana's grandmother, only speaks in Arabic so Liyana does not want to be alone with her. When she finally gains the courage to spend the weekend with Sitti she discovers that it is possible to communicate without words. Nye incorporates Arabic words into the text. When she does, she only uses a short word or phrase and usually provides a translation.

The book discusses two names in detail, Habibi and Omer. Habibi, and the feminine form Habibti, mean darling and are used as affectionate names. Liyana and her brother grew up hearing their father call them this and find that it is often used by their family in Jerusalem. The book says, "They had "Habibi, be careful, Habibti, I love you," trailing them like a long silken scarf. Liyana knew it didn't happen for everybody."

When Liyana first meets Omer she thinks he is Arab and that his name is Omar. She later asks her dad about the name and he says it is a common name. When she discovers that Omer is Jewish she asks about the name and learns that the Jewish version is spelled with an e, not an a.

Liyana seems to adapt easily to the foods served in Jerusalem. Their first meal with the family contains "hunks of baked lamb surrounded by rice and pine nuts." Liyana eats the rice, onions, and pine nuts, but avoids the lamb. The meal is served on a large tray and everyone eats from the tray, but Liyana's dad asks for plates since they are not used to eating communally. After Liyana visits the butcher shop with her mother she decides to become a vegetarian. At the butcher shop the chickens are still alive, so the butcher takes the one to be bought, chops off its head, and plunges it into a steaming pot and takes off the feathers. Later when her dad asks why she is not eating the chicken she says, "It's dead...And it didn't want to die."

Liyana's family in Jerusalem is Muslim, but she is unfamiliar with the religion since she did not grow up with it. The one time an aspect of the religion is shown is on Liyana's first night in the country. The book says, "A muezzin gave the last call to prayer of the day over a loudspeaker from the nearby mosque and all the relatives rose up in unison and turned their backs on Liyana's family. they unrolled small blue prayer rugs from a shelf, then knelt, stood, and knelt again, touching foreheads to the ground, saying their prayers in low voices."

Liyana and her family did not belong to a church. "Liyana's mother said they were a spiritual family, they just weren't a traditionally religious one." When she tells Omer this, he says he feels the same way. He is Jewish, but he and his family do not follow the Jewish religious practices. Liyana's mom is interested in the religious history of Jerusalem so the family visits the places where events in Jesus' life occured. They even join the Christmas celebration at the site where people believe Jesus was born.

Clothing is another cultural aspect that Liyana has to learn to live with. When she is packing before they move her fathers says she cannot take shorts with her. The women in Liyana's family in Jerusalem wear long dresses, scarves, and gold earrings. Liyana continues to wear shirts and jean pants with patches, even after she has been in the country awhile. Her aunts talk about the way she dresses and her dad does not like the jeans either, but Liyana does not care. At school she wears a uniform, but cannot wear jewelry since it would be too distracting.

Review Excerpts
"Nye introduces readers to unforgettable characters. The setting is both sensory and tangible: from the grandmother's village to a Bedouin camp. Above all, there is Jerusalem itself, where ancient tensions seep out of cracks and Liyana explores the streets practicing her Arabic vocabulary." -School Library Journal

"Habibi, or darling, is what Liyana's father calls her and her younger brother; it is a soothing, loving word, and Liyana gradually finds herself comfortable "living in the land of Habibi," where she is showered with love by her huge extended family. The leisurely progression of the narrative matches the slow and stately pace of daily life in this ancient land, and the text's poetic turns of phrase accurately reflect Liyana's passion for words and language." -The Horn Book

Share the picture book Sitti's Secrets, which is also by Nye. Encourage teens to share and write stories about their own grandmothers.

Share poems from Nye's poetry books. Two that focus on the Middle East are 19 Varieties of Gazelle and The Space Between our Footsteps.

My friend's parents moved to the Israel again a few years ago. My friend recently spent a lot of time visiting them. I think it would be interesting to have teens make a list of questions to ask my friend or her parents after they read Habibi. We could gather in a computer lab and compose an e-mail together. It would allow the teens to explore more aspects of the area. My friend and her family are Jewish so it may also provide a different view from the one presented in Habibi. I did this before during a unit on South America. The class composed an e-mail for my friend who lives in Brazil. The students really enjoyed this activity and learned things that interested them but were not found in the informational books they were using for their reports.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Module 5: Grandfather's Journey

Say, Allen. 1993. Grandfather's Journey. Illustrated by Allen Say. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0395570352.

Plot Summary
Grandfather left Japan for North America by crossing the Pacific Ocean on a steamship. He journeyed throughout the United States and fell in love with California. He returned to Japan to marry, but brought his wife to California, where they lived and raised a daughter. Grandfather missed Japan and took his family to live there. His daughter married and had a son, the narrator, who loved visiting Grandfather and hearing about California. Grandfather missed California, but was never able to return. Once the narrator was older he went to California. He remained there and began a family of his own, but continues to visit Japan.

Critical Analysis
Grandfather's Journey is a beautiful story that is filled with heart warming sentiments. The reader is able to understand how much the characters loved both California and Japan. It is also possible to understand how much the narrator cared for his grandfather. This is a story that can be enjoyed by both younger and older children. The text itself does not include cultural markers, but a lot of detail is provided in the illustrations. The characters and scenery are all presented in a very realistic manner. Each illustration is a wonderful work of art that adds depth to the story. This book received the Caldecott Medal in 1994.

All of the characters are presented with a neutral skin tone and dark brown hair. As Grandfather ages his hair thins and turns gray and is eventually completely white. All the characters have Japanese features, but they are subtle and natural. The clothing worn depends on which country and which time period the story is taking place in. This first picture shows Grandfather in Japanese clothing, but he switches to a suit and jacket when he journeys to America. The first time Grandfather's wife is shown she is riding in a boat, carrying a white umbrella, and wearing a white dress with a high collar, long sleeves, and a pink flowered belt. The grandparents clothing seems to stay the same, but in one picture grandfather is shown with a red sweater.

When the grandparents return to Japan they begin wearing kimonos again. Although the daughter continues to wear her dresses from America, she wears a kimono on her wedding day while her husband wears a suit. The grandson wears American styled clothes in all of his pictures. When he journeys to America he wears a suit just as his grandfather did, but it is in the style of a more modern time period.

A part of Grandfather's American home is only shown once. He is standing in a room that is filled with many bird cages. The text says that they contain songbirds that remind Grandfather of Japan. There is a clock with roman numerals on the wall and Grandfather is staring out the window. The house in Japan is shown twice. In the first picture Grandmother is wearing a kimono and sitting on a mat on the floor and is facing the open doorway. Outside of the room is a wooden walkway. In front of that is a pair of shoes that are on a large, flat rock. Grandfather is inside of his house the next time it is shown. He is sitting cross-legged on a mat on the wooden floor. He is staring at a small birdcage that holds two birds that remind Grandfather of California. A small teapot is on the floor next to him. Wooden shades are hanging down behind Grandfather, but there are open spaces that show the grass and stepping stones that are outside.

Some items are included in the illustrations in order to represent the places visited or the time period. In one picture Grandfather is on the deck of a ship. In another he is standing in front of a train. On the page which reads, "The endless farm fields reminded him of the ocean he had crossed," Grandfather is shown in the middle of an endless field with the grains coming up to his waist. The page with factories shows many buildings with tall smoke stacks and a gray sky filled with smoke. On one page he is standing with others in front of a barber shop. There are people of other ethnicities present and Grandfather is shown as the shortest person. The next picture shows a river boat. All of these illustrations help set the story in America's industrial era.

When the war is discussed, the two pictures of Japan appear dark and gloomy. The first shows a boy standing on a sidewalk dressed in a soldiers uniform and holding a rifle. The next picture shows a group of children standing on a large pile of rubble where their homes once stood. Most of the children wear shirts with pants or shorts that look dirty and worn out.

Review Excerpts
"As in the best children's books, the plain, understated words have the intensity of poetry. The watercolor paintings frame so much story and emotion that they break your heart. -Booklist

"As in Tree of Cranes, which is about the narrator's California-born mother, the paintings are precise, cool portraits and views that fix recollections into images, and the book as a whole is an album where both a picture of a family standing amidst war's devastation and a romantic pastorale of courting lovers find their place in memory." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Share Tea with Milk by Allen Say which is a continuation of Grandfather's Journey and presents the detailed story of the daughter's life in Japan.

Have children share stories about their own family or about places they have traveled to.

Module 5: Yang the Third and Her Impossible Family

Namioka, Lensey. 1995. Yang the Third and Her Impossible Family. Illustrated by Kees de Kiefte. New York, NY: Yearling. ISBN 0440412315.

Plot Summary
Mary is the third child in a Chinese family that has lived in the United States for only a year. She is trying to be as American as possible, and wants to become friends with Holly, the popular girl at school. Mary secretly keeps a kitten given to her by Holly. The story is filled with moments of Mary trying to keep the kitten hidden and trying not to be embarrassed by her family. In the end Mary learns to appreciate her family and those that know how to really be a friend.

Critical Analysis
The reader is thrown into the story of Yang the Third and Her Impossible Family on the very first page and the humorous events keep the pages turning until the very end. This book is the second in a series about the Yang children, but it is not necessary to read them in order. Throughout the books comparisons between American and Chinese cultures are made. They help to show how difficult it can be for newcomers to transition into a different way of life. The strength of the story is the humor that is used to illustrate the differences. Namioka creates funny situations, but highlights the need for everyone to be accepting and patient.

Although the book is a juvenile chapter book, some illustrations are included. They help the reader to visualize the main character and others, whose features are really never discussed. They also help to clarify descriptions of the sister and her Chinese clothes.

The cultural markers that are emphasized the most in the story are names, foods, and language. Mary and her siblings go by several names in the story. Mary is the name she uses at school since she thinks that her Chinese name, Yingmei, is too difficult for everyone to remember. Mary's younger brother, Yingtao, was given the nickname Sprout at school since he likes eating bean sprout sandwiches at lunch instead of the usual peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that everyone else eats. The older brother and sister use their Chinese names at school, but in the story Yingmei and her sibling's Chinese names are really only mentioned when their parents are talking to them. Mary is called Third Sister by her brothers and sisters while Sprout is called Fourth Brother. Mary's older siblings are called Second Sister and Eldest Brother. Since Mary is the narrator of the story the names Eldest Brother, Second Sister, and Fourth Brother are used the most.

A lot of information about foods and customs is presented in the first chapter since the Yang family is invited to spend Thanksgiving with their friends, the Conners. This is the first time that the Yangs celebrate Thanksgiving. Although the Yangs have learned about American culture by reading etiquette books, they discover that they still have a lot to learn. When the Yangs are introduced to another guest, Mrs. Hanson, they all stick out there hands at once to shake hands, causing an awkward moment. A large turkey is present for the meal and this is a new food for the Yangs. They never baked in China and only ever ate smaller birds that were cooked and cut up in the stores. When Mr. Conner slices the turkey Mary wonders why he does not complain about having to do this task. She and her family are even more confused when he starts scooping the stuffing out of the turkey, since they think he is taking out the guts.

The first misunderstanding occurs when the plates are served. The first plate is given to Mary's mother, but she tries to give it to Mrs. Hanson since she looks older and it is a Chinese custom to serve the oldest first. This situation is made worse when Mother asks Mrs. Hanson' age and tries to compliment her by saying she looks old. Mother does not understand that this is an insult in America. She makes the situation worse when she later presents another misunderstood compliment and tells Mrs. Hanson that she looks fat. Situations like this continue throughout the book. Mary is embarrassed by her family and wishes that they were more American, but in the end she learns to appreciate her family and finds that Americans should try to be more understanding and patient with them as they try to adapt.

The Yangs know English, but continue to speak Chinese with each other. There are still a lot of English words, phrases, and expressions that they do not understand and this creates interesting experiences for Mary. Mary keeps a journal in which she writes down new words that she hears, but even she winds up making some mistakes. Her father has a difficult time with English since he has trouble pronouncing some sounds. Mary is embarrassed at a school function when her father says, "the lice glows near the liver," instead of the rice grows near the river. She later understands that he must also feel bad when she hears him practicing the line over and over again. Plenty of other examples of the Yangs misunderstanding English are present in the story.

Throughout the story Mary is trying to impress a girl at school, Holly, so that they can become good friends. The more she gets to know Holly the more she realizes that Holly does not really care about others and expects everyone to follow her lead. Another girl, Kim, seems to be mean to Mary at first, but she slowly becomes the caring friend that Mary can relate to. This portrayal of friendship is realistic and brings an aspect to the story that all kids can understand.

Review Excerpts
"Yingmei learns her lesson (including the fact that Holly isn't worth it), makes a good friend elsewhere, and finds a home for the kitten, all of which is predictable but satisfying, and her bouncy narration is a refreshing contrast to the more sober 'multicultural' fare we've been seeing. Occasional line drawings are witty and graceful." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Share the other books about the Yang family, Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear and Yang the Second and Her Secret Admirers.

Mary must learn how to take care of her cat, Rita, in the story. Extend this aspect of the story by discussing cat care. Share information from the following juvenile nonfiction books:
  • All About Cats and Kittens by Emily Neye
  • A Cat for You: Caring for Your Cat by Susan Blackaby
  • Cats: How to Choose and Care for a Cat by Laura Jeffrey

Monday, July 23, 2007

Module 5: The Star Fisher

Yep, Laurence. 1991. The Star Fisher. New York, NY: Morrow Junior Books. ISBN 0688093655.

Plot Summary
Joan is a sixteen year old Chinese American girl who is moving with her family from Ohio to West Virginia. Her parents open up a laundry, but have no customers and little money. The only one who is determined to help the family is the landlady, Miss Lucy, but Joan's parents are reluctant to receive any type of support. Joan is also having a difficult time adjusting and fitting in at school and wishes her parents would act more American. After Joan and her mother work out their differences and accept help from Miss Lucy they both find it easier to become accepted by some in the town.

Critical Analysis
The Star Fisher is an insightful look into what life would have been like for a Chinese American family in 1927. The author, Laurence Yep, says in his author's note that many of the experiences in the story came from his own family's past when they lived in West Virginia and owned a laundry. He even visited the town and did research on the people his family had known in the area. Although the story does seem very realistic and true to the time period the story's resolution is not completely believable. It seems unlikely that many of the people in the town would begin to accept the family after trying the mother's pie at a church fundraiser. After this happens the laundry receives a lot of business and Joan gains new friends at school. Not everyone changes their mind about Joan's family, but those that do come around rather quickly.

The cultural markers that are present help to make the story realistic. One of the most important cultural markers is language. Yep writes so that the reader knows that the characters are speaking in Chinese, except for when the words are italicized. In the very beginning of the book Joan's parents tell her and her brother, Bobby, and her sister, Emily, to not speak in English with each other. When Joan speaks for Bobby her parents insist that he speak for himself. Joan's parents know very little English, and Joan does not like this since she is always having to translate for them when they are speaking to someone who only knows English. When Joan becomes annoyed with her mother for always making her be the translator, her mother begins to learn English from Miss Lucy.

Chinese is also written in Joan's family. Her father writes in Chinese on the tickets in the laundry and enjoys writing poems. Since Joan's mother cannot write she has her own notation system that she has made up and that only she can read. Joan's parents are not able to read in English and the nasty messages left on their fence must be translated. Joan and her siblings discover that they can write better than the men leaving the graffiti on the fence since the words are always misspelled. When Emily points this out and tells the men they are ignorant it only upsets them more.

Some of the people in town are rude and call Joan and her family names. When Joan is in school some of the students criticize her skin color by saying, "You're a little dark, aren't you?" She responds, "You're a little pale, aren't you?" Joan actually tries to fit in and look like her classmates. On her first day she notices that the girls wear pins so she thinks about making one for herself. When she talks about the way her family dresses she says, "Though both Mama and Papa wore American clothes, that was about the only thing American about them." Joan also says that they "all wore big, ugly shoes that were as heavy as rocks--the kind that mothers called sensible." When Joan and Emily are getting ready for school Emily's hair gets braided, but Joan puts her own hair into pigtails.

Food is an interesting aspect of the book since Joan's family has little money when they first arrive in West Virginia, since they are unfamiliar with American customs, and since her mother cannot cook. On their first day in West Virginia Miss Lucy invites Joan and Emily over for tea. The sisters are curious since they have never had tea with an American before. The girls help get things ready for tea even though they do not know what they are doing. They do not know how to set the table and are surprised that they are able to use nice china. When they are getting their tea poured they are unsure about how much sugar and milk to add since they usually drink tea plain. The ask for 6 spoons of sugar and have the cups filled to the rim with milk. Joan discovers that the tea is too sweet and is unable to drink it.

Joan is sent to the store before her first day of school to buy food for lunch. She only has a few pennies to spend and is only able to afford a loaf of bread and a head of lettuce. She is embarrassed by the lettuce sandwiches she and her siblings will have to eat for lunch, so they eat by themselves. Once they begin making money they are happy since they will be able to by bologna for the sandwiches.

The meals that Joan's family have at home are also interesting since they usually consist of burned rice. Joan's mother was the youngest in her family and never learned to cook, so she always winds up burning everything. When she finally agrees to let Miss Lucy teach her to cook she learns how to make apple pie. It takes much practice to make a good pie, though, so the family grows tired of eating the bad pies that they cannot let go to waste.

Review Excerpts
"Joan's story will appeal to any reader who has ever felt excluded, but she and her family seem to hold many more stories begging to be shared. Based on tales Yep gleaned from his mother and her family, whose resilience and humor shine through, The Star Fisher offers tantalizing glimpses of interesting characters, but abruptly shifts focus from a family story with the younger sister as a strong character to a relationship between mother and daughter." -School Library Journal

"Based on experiences from Laurence Yep's own family history, the story offers unique insight into the plight of ethnic minorities. It is disturbing but never depressing, poignant but not melancholy, for the principal characters - particularly Mama, who almost steals the show - are individuals with a strong sense of their own worth, facing difficulties with humor, determination, and pride." -Horn Book

Share other young adult books by Laurence Yep that explore the experiences of Chinese American teens. Some titles to share include:
  • Child of the Owl
  • Sea Glass
  • Thief of hearts
  • The traitor: Golden Mountain Chronicles, 1885

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Module 4: How Turtle's Back was Cracked

Retold by Ross, Gayle. 1995. How Turtle's Back was Cracked: A Traditional Cherokee Tale. Illustrated by Murv Jacob. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0803717288.

Plot Summary
Turtle and Possum were best friends. Possum would climb a persimmon tree and pick persimmons. He would alternate between eating one himself and throwing one down for turtle to eat. Wolf sneaks behind turtle and started catching the persimmons, but turtle had his eyes closed and did not realize what was happening. Possum noticed the wolf and threw down a large persimmon, which got stuck in the wolf's throat and killed him. Turtle took credit for the wolf's death, and this angered the other wolves. They caught turtle and wanted to kill him, but were tricked into throwing him in the river. Turtle's back hit a rock in the river and his shell cracked.

Critical Analysis
How Turtle's Back was Cracked is a traditional Cherokee tale and explains why it looks like turtle shells are cracked. It also teaches lessons about how to behave. If turtle had never taken credit for killing wolf and had not gone around showing off his wolf-ear spoons, he would never have gotten into trouble with the wolves and his shell would not have cracked. Turtle was able to do something wise when he tricked the wolves, though. His shell was cracked, but he did not die.

The story is identified as a Cherokee tale. The author, Ross, says she heard the tale growing up as a Cherokee, but she also did research on it. She found a simple form of the story in James Mooney's Myths of the Cherokee which was published in 1900 by the Bureau of American Ethnology. Ross practiced telling the story for years before she wrote the book.

The only time Cherokee words are used within the story is when turtle sings while healing himself. He sings, "Gu'daye'wu, Gu'daye'wu," which means, "I have sewn myself together. I have sewn myself together."

Two foods are mentioned within the story. At the start of the story, turtle and possum share persimmons from the persimmon tree. Once turtle has the wolf-ear spoons he goes from person to person eating the corn soup that they offer him. It was a custom to offer visitors this special corn soup, but turtle takes advantage of people's hospitality so he can show off the wolf-ear spoons. He created the spoons after taking the wolf's ears as a tribute from the dead wolf. It was a custom for a hunter to take a tribute from an animal in order to capture a piece of the animal's spirit.

The illustrations in the book are colorful and contain a lot of detail. The sky stands out since it is painted with bright, swirled colors. The sun is always pictured with a face. There is a lot of trees and wild life presented and the colors used for them make it seem like the story is taking place in autumn.

The turtle, possum, and wolf are pictured wearing some clothes. Possum and wolf wear an item around their waist that looks like an apron. Turtle wears a belt around his waist. The animals and people wear beads around their wrists and ankles. Possum, the wolf, and some of the people also wear necklaces. The people wear leather clothes and moccasins. The women wear dresses and have long hair, while the men wear pants and no shirts with their hair cut short into Mohawks.

The aspect of each picture that stands out the most is the eyes of the animals. The wolves all have shining yellow eyes. The turtle has a large red eye with a black star shape in the center. The turtle's head is always shown from a side view so that only one eye is seen. This eye stands out on every page and helps draw the reader's attention to the turtle.

Review Excerpts
"Despite its echoes of the more familiar Brer Rabbit story ('born and bred in the briar patch'), this Cherokee pourquoi tale has a flavor all its own. Ross notes that she remembers the tale from her childhood, found a written source, and developed it through storytelling to its present form. Jacob's distinctive acrylic paintings illustrate the story's dramatic moments in scenes rich in colors and patterns. An entertaining picture book to read aloud." -Booklist

Read How Turtle's Back was Cracked with other turtle stories during story time. Other books that can be read are Anansi goes fishing by Eric Kimmel, Turtle Splash! by Cathryn Falwell, and Turtle's Race with Beaver: A Traditional Seneca Story by Joseph Bruchac. For the craft children can color a picture of a turtle and draw in the cracks on his shell.

Module 4: Code Talker

Bruchac, Joseph. 2005. Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two. New York, NY: Dial Books. ISBN 0803729219.

Plot Summary
Kii Yazhi is a Navajo boy who is sent to a boarding school when he is young. At school he given the name Ned Begay and is forced to speak English and ignore his culture. Ned becomes a good student and learns English well. When he is older, Marine recruiters come to the area looking for Navajo men who know both English and the Navajo language. He eventually joins the Marines and becomes a code talker. Ned serves as a Marine throughout World War Two, but must keep his work as a code talker secret. In 1969 he is finally able to share his important role as a code talker with his family and others.

Critical Analysis
Code Talker is written in an engaging style since it feels like the reader is being told the story in person by an elder. Although this is a historical fiction novel, while reading the book it feels like Ned Begay is a real person who is truly sharing his story with his grandchildren. There are many cultural markers in the story, and although it is a fictional work Bruchac says in the author's note that "everything that happens to Ned Begay happened to real Navajo people." Code Talker can help readers to understand aspects of Navajo culture and to understand World War Two.

One cultural marker present is physical appearance. When Ned first goes to school he and his classmates are dressed in their finest clothes and jewelry. There are other dark-skinned people at the school, but they have short hair. At first Ned does not realize that they too are Navajo since he has never seen a Navajo with short hair before. Ned and the other children are given matching military style uniforms and caps to wear. Everybody's hair is cut short, leaving them to feel "naked and ashamed." When Ned joins the Marines he goes through this same process, but this time his hair is shaved off completely. He is able to make a joke about it, though, and calls himself a plucked turkey.

Ned's Marine unit fights against the Japanese, and he discovers that he resembles a Japanese man. Some of the Indian Marines are mistaken for Japanese and are injured or killed. Ned later learns that his white friends Georgia Boy and Smitty were told to stay by his side to keep him safe.

Many aspects of Navajo culture are present in Code Talkers. When Ned first arrives at school he and the other students introduce themselves to each other. He explains the proper greeting when he says, "We said hello, spoke our names, told each other our clans and where we were from." Ned's introduction is "Yaat'eeh. I am Kii Yazhi. I was born for Mud Clan and Born to Towering House. My birth place is over near Grants. I am the son of Gray Mustache."

While going to school he and his family had become Catholic, but they still kept their Navajo traditions and did not "forget the Holy People and our Navajo Way." Before Ned leaves to join the Marines a Blessingway ceremony is performed for him to provide him with protection. The Blessingway is described in detail in the story. At the end of the ceremony Ned is given a pollen pouch. He says, "I reached into the pollen bag and took some out to scatter from north to south. I inhaled the dawn four times, giving a prayer to myself, to the new day, and to all that exists." Ned repeats this action with the pollen every morning throughout the story. At one point Ned sends his dirty uniform home so that his family can perform another ceremony using the clothes he has worn in battle.

When Ned is in war he must get used to being around dead bodies. This is difficult for Navajos since they are supposed to avoid the dead. "To even look upon the body of a dead person may make you sick. If someone dies inside a hogan, that hogan is abandoned forever." The Navajo also believe that it is possible for the spirit to get sick from war. Ned shares the story of Monster Slayer, who killed many of the monsters who were harming people. Monster Slayer became ill and "the first Enemyway ceremony was done to cure him by restoring him to balance." When Ned returned home from the war he was ill and had many nightmares so the Enemyway ceremony was performed for him. He says that at the end of the ceremony, "when I opened my eyes, I was home, truly home. Big Schoolboy was shaking his rattle and I was at peace. My balance had been restored. I could go forward on a path of beauty."

Language is one of the most important cultural markers of the story and many Navajo words are incorporated. When Ned goes to school he is not allowed to ever talk in Navajo. He cannot even keep his own name and is given the name Ned Begay by a teacher. Once when he accidentally speaks Navajo his mouth is washed out with soap. It is a horrible experience that leaves him disoriented and bleeding with soap coming out of his mouth, nose, and eyes. He is unable to walk and has to be led to the dormitory by classmates.

Once Ned joins the Marines his knowledge of both Navajo and English become important. Navajo words must be chosen as code words for everything that the code talkers will need to say during war. A special alphabet made up of Navajo words is also used to spell out words that do not have a Navajo translation. One of the difficult aspects of being a code talker is committing all the words and codes to memory. The code continued to evolve throughout the war and the code talkers would meet in Hawaii to learn the changes that had been made. Some of the messages that were sent in the Navajo code are included in the story.

Review Excerpts
"Other famous code talkers are introduced throughout (along with a certain future president), several of whom respond less well to their ambiguous status after serving honorably in the military. That realistic perspective, combined with multiple heart-stopping battle scenes, makes this detailed novel a dramatic yet thoughtful complement to nonfiction offerings such as Aaseng's Navajo Code Talkers (BCCB 12/92). An author's note and selected bibliography expand the historical picture." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Share nonfiction books about the code talkers. Some of these books are Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers by Kenji Kawano and Navajo Code Talkers by Nathan Aaseng. There are two versions of Navajo Code Talkers. The juvenile version was published in 1992, and the adult version was published in 2002.

Share the book Navajo Long Walk: The Tragic Story of a Proud People's Forced March from Their Homeland by Joseph Bruchac. This will help to further explore a portion of history which was mentioned in Code Talker.

Share the book Navajo: Visions and Voices Across the Mesa by Shonto Begay. This collection of poems can help to further explore Navajo tradition while providing a modern view of the culture.

Module 4: Rain is Not My Indian Name

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. 2001. Rain is Not My Indian Name. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 006029504x.

Plot Summary
At the beginning of Rain is Not My Indian Name, Rain is celebrating New Year's Eve and her fourteenth birthday with her best friend Galen. On his way home Galen is hit by a car and dies. Rain becomes depressed and distances herself from family, friends, and activities she previously enjoyed. As Galen's Fourth of July birthday approaches Rain begins to realize that she needs to regain her life. Rain gets a job as a photographer for the newspaper, taking photos of her aunt's summer Indian Camp. After experiencing the Indian Camp funding controversy and family troubles she is able to come to terms with Galen's death, make new friends, and become a supportive family member.

Critical Analysis
Different cultural markers exist in Rain is Not My Indian Name. The book provides an interesting look at Native American life from the perspective of a girl with mixed heritage. Rain is Muscogee Creek-Cherokee and Scots-Irish from her mom's family and Irish-German-Ojibway from her dad's family. In one of Rain's journal entries she says that her father never talked about their Ojibway blood and that her grandmother "called herself "just Irish" or "black Irish" everyday of her life." These journal entries, which are at the beginning of each chapter, provide the reader with information about Rain's family as well as memories from Rain's past. They help to personalize the story and bring depth to Rain's character.

People who do not know Rain often do not realize that she is an Indian since she has a light complexion, light brown hair, and hazel eyes. Rain describes her brother, Fynn, as a "Native American Fabio." Rain says that people will often ask them what they are and will tell her that she doesn't seem Indian to them. She assumes that their view of Indians "involves construction-paper feathers, a plastic paint pony, and Malibu Pocahontas." When Flash, the reporter she is working with, questions her knowledge of Indians in the community she is annoyed and tells him, "I should know how many Indian live in Hannesburg. It's not that big of a town, and I'm one of them. Me, my brother, my uncle, Aunt Georgia, and the Headbirds."

The other cultural presence in the small town of Hannesburg is Rain's ex-best-friend Queenie's family, which is black. In one of Rain's journal entries she shares a memory of Queenie from when they were five. Rain had asked if she could touch Queenie's braided hair. The journal entry says, "It was the first time I'd ever touched a black person's hair. I'd been curious about how the texture might feel under my fingertips." At another point in the story Rain remembers when Galen had asked her if she would ever date someone who was black. He and Queenie had been dating and he seemed worried about how his mom would react. Rain said she would date someone who was black, but remembered her family saying that it was only okay to be friends with a black person, nothing more.

Rain's complete name is Cassidy Rain Berghoff. In a journal entry she says, "Rain is not my Indian name, not the way people think of Indian names. But I am Indian, and it is the name my parents gave me. They met for the first time at Bierfest, during one doozy of a thunderstorm." Rain's grandfather calls her Rainbow. The Indian name that does have importance in the story is Aiyana. It was Rain's mother's name and is going to be the name of her brother's baby when it is born. Rain shares that "Aiyana is an old name, a musical name. My mom's name, after her Cherokee great-grandmother. It means "forever flowering.""

Rain is presented as an ordinary American girl. She eats a wide variety of American foods. She attends a Baptist church. She is a fan of science fiction. She has a laptop and uses the Internet. She wears jeans and high tops and paints her fingernails black. Rain loves photography so she always has her camera with her. Even after she gives up her photography job so she can join the Indian Camp, the newspaper says she will still be able to work for them on other projects.

Rain does want to stay connected to her Indian culture. She looks forward to the trip being planned for the Indian Camp so that she can learn more about her Ojibway heritage. There are two items that hold a special meaning to Rain. One is her mother's traditional tear dress. The dress was still hanging in her mother's bedroom where her mother had left it right before she died. When the room is being remodeled she finds that someone has saved it for her and placed it in her own room. In a journal entry she shares her memory of her mother and the dress. She says, "I can still smell the pork cooking, taste the lukewarm coleslaw, hear the songs, and feel the rhythm of the shell-shakers. I remember ribbons and tear dresses and me trying to dance like Mama."

The other special item is the necklace that Galen gave her on her birthday. The necklace is a small suede pouch in the shape of a half-moon with seed beads hanging from it. She remembers seeing it during the summer on a Lakota trader's table at a powwow in Oklahoma City. Galen had secretly bought it for her and saved it for her birthday. After Galen dies she is unable to wear the necklace and keeps it hidden away. She finally begins wearing it as Galen's birthday approaches and she is able to stop dwelling on his death.

Review Excerpts
"There is a surprising amount of humor in this tender novel. It is one of the best portrayals around of kids whose heritage is mixed but still very important in their lives. As feelings about the public funding of Indian Camp heat up, the emotions and values of the characters remain crystal clear and completely in focus. It's Rain's story and she cannot be reduced to simple labels. A wonderful novel of a present-day teen and her "patchwork tribe." " -School Library Journal

Have students find information to share about Rain is Not My Indian Name or Cynthia Leitich Smith on the author's web site,

Share the books listed on Smith's web site on the page If you liked Rain you might like... at She lists photography, newspaper, grief & healing, Internet, Native American, and interracial books.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Module 3: Just a Minute

Morales, Yuyi. 2003. Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. ISBN 0811837580.

Plot Summary
Señor Calavera, death, comes for Grandma Beetle, but she is not ready to go. Grandma Beetle says, "Just a minute, Señor Calavera, I will go with you right away, I have just ONE house to sweep." This phrase continues on each page, but with an increasing number of tasks to complete in preparation for her own birthday party. Señor Calavera helps with the tasks and joins in the party alongside Grandma Beetle's grandchildren. In the end when Grandma Beetle is ready to leave she finds a note from Señor Calavera saying that he enjoyed the party and to expect him again next year.

Critical Analysis
Just a Minute was wonderfully written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. The text does not include many cultural markers, but most every aspect of the illustrations reflect Mexican culture. The book also serves as a counting book and each number is presented in both English and Spanish in a large, bold font so that children can easily recognize the number in each language.

Grandma Beetle is preparing for a birthday party so the items mentioned in the story represent foods and activities that would be found in a Mexican birthday party. On one page Grandma Beetle says she is going to make tortillas. On another page she says she needs to fill piñatas with candy. The other foods are not specifically listed, so from the text alone they do not necessarily represent a specific culture. It is the illustrations that indicate what types of fruit and pots of food are being prepared. The only names used are Grandma Beetle and Señor Calavera, which translates to Mr. Skeleton. The name Grandma Beetle does not suggest a specific culture, but the use of Señor Calavera indicates a culture that uses skeletons to represent death.

The bright, colorful illustrations add a lot of depth to the story. Grandma Beetle and her grandchildren have a brown skin tone, some with lighter skin and hair than others. Grandma Beetle's hair is gray. Grandma Beetle wears an apron over her dress, and Señor Calavera wears an apron as well in one of the pictures. The grandchildren dress in a way that any child can relate to with shirts, pants, shorts, dresses, sandals, dress shoes, and sneakers.

Aspects of the house and other items in the illustrations portray Mexican culture. There is a colorful striped rug at the front door, a crocheted doily on a table, and colorful tiles and pictures with engraved metal frames are on the walls. There are seven colorful piñatas and each one is different. Most are animals, but there is even a van piñata. Some of the cooking items were used in the past, but may still be used today. The tea is boiled in clay pots. A comal is warming up on the stove, while corn is being ground in a molino. In one picture the stove is very busy with tamales cooking in a very large pot, other foods cooking in a pot and metal pan, and cake pans in the oven. In the same scene Señor Calavera is adding in a modern feature by using an electric mixer.

More is discovered about the foods in the illustrations. Sliced apples are added to the tea. The fruits being sliced are a watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, and papaya. White cheese rounds are melting on the comal. Tamales are peeking out of a large pot. Various types of individually wrapped candies and suckers fill the piñatas.

At Yuyi Morales shares information on Just a Minute and her own life. She grew up in Veracruz, Mexico and now lives in California. Morales says, "When I was a child, I had a grandma just like Grandma Beetle: plump and strong, and loving. And like Grandma Beetle, she was a trickster too." She also explains that the birthday parties her mother gave her when she was a child were just like Grandma Beetle's birthday party. The inspiration for Señor Calavera comes from The Day of the Dead skeletons. Morales says "if you could jump into the book and meet Señor Calavera in person, you would find that he is made of crystallized sugar, just like the decorated sugar skulls that children eat during The Day of the Dead celebrations."

Review Excerpts
"This story is a delight. Morales's personification of death is never forbidding or scary, but rather a simple matter of fact. This deceptively simple read-aloud treat has as many layers as an onion, and is every bit as savory." -School Library Journal

Use Just a Minute for a skeleton themed story time. Other books that can be read for this story time are Skeleton Hiccups by Margery Cuyler, The Skeleton in the Closet by Alice Schertle, and Boogie Bones by Elizabeth Loredo. For a craft children can decorate a skeleton mask or put together a skeleton that has move able arms and legs. The templates for these crafts can be found on Yuyi Morales's web site at They just need to be copied onto card stock and cut out ahead of time.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Module 3: Accidental Love

Soto, Gary. 2006. Accidental Love. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc. ISBN 0152054979.

Plot Summary
Marisa winds up with the wrong cell phone after getting into a fight with her best friend's boyfriend. Marisa meets with the boy, Rene, who has her cell phone and discovers that she likes him, even though he is a nerd. After switching to Rene's school, Marisa gets to know him better and becomes his girlfriend. Marisa slowly becomes a different person while her and Rene undergo many obstacles. The biggest obstacle is Rene's controlling mother. Marisa must go back to her old school after Rene's mother informs school officials that Marisa is lying about living in the neighborhood. Rene joins Marisa at her old school after revealing to his father that his mother is abusive.

Critical Analysis
Different types of cultural markers are present in Accidental Love. Language, names, foods, and musical preference identify Marisa and her family and friends as a Mexican American, but the culture itself is rarely discussed. At one point Marisa does contemplate her culture when she sees her friend Latisha at a basketball game. The text says, "Marisa and Latisha had been close friends in first and second grades, but by third grade they had drifted--Latisha to her black friends at one table in the lunchroom and Marisa to the Latinos hanging out on a grassy hill." Marisa describes Latisha as being loud and having a comb stuck in her Afro.

Other descriptions of people are basic also, focusing more on teenage views rather than cultural appearance. Marisa talks about teasing her own hair, wearing brown lipstick, and long fingernails, which seem to indicate a chola appearance. She never describes her clothes, though, so it is difficult to really know how she looks, except in the end of the story when she loses enough weight to wear dresses again. Rene's appearance is given the most attention since Marisa thinks he looks like a nerd. She complains about his high water pants and white socks with stripes and encourages him to dress better.

Language plays a large role in the text since many Spanish words are incorporated into the story. Some of the words are used to identify others. Marisa's parents call her mi'ja (daughter), she calls her aunt tia, and Rene is her novio (boyfriend). Other words, like pendejo (dummy), tonto (fool), and guey (idiot), are used as insults. Phrases like que linda (how pretty) and y que mas (and what else) are also used. The meaning of the Spanish words can usually be determined from the context of the sentence, but a glossary is also provided at the end of the book. Sometimes English and Spanish words are used that indicate the slang language used in Marisa's neighborhood. An example of this is seen at Halloween when some boys Marisa knows are trick-or-treating at her aunt's house. Some of the words they use are chale (no way), carnal, crib, and tight (as in "You're tight, girl" or "You all right, girl").

Many of the names used can be English or Spanish names, but the characters have Spanish surnames. Marisa's last name is Rodriguez and Rene's is Torres. Mexican foods are present in addition to other foods. Marisa's mom makes tamales, tortillas, albondiga soup, and beans as well as lasagna. The mention of having heated "tortillas wrapped in a dish towel," eating beans with a broken off piece of tortilla, and defrosting tamales add a realistic aspect to the foods. The one mention of music comes when Marisa explains that "her mother was in a good mood, because she was listening to her favorite CD: Linda Ronstadt's Canciones de mi Padre." On this CD Linda Ronstadt sings traditional mariachi songs that come from Mexico. (As I write this my own mom is actually making tortillas, placing the finished ones under a dish towel, and is listening to the same Linda Ronstadt CD. What a coincidence!)

Within the story Rene and Marisa are going to be in the school's production of Romeo and Juliet. Their own story mirrors Romeo and Juliet. Rene's mom does not approve of Marisa and tries to force them apart. Marisa's friends criticise her for switching to a new school and accuse her of believing that she is too good for them. Marisa and Rene have different characteristics than Romeo and Juliet, though. Marisa is a strong, tough girl who stands up for Rene and does not mind getting in fights. Rene is smart, plays chess, and is already planning out his future, which involves attending an ivy league college.

The story is also different from Romeo and Juliet since there is a happy ending. Marisa and Rene are separated from each other when Marisa must return to her old school, but they are reunited when Rene transfers to Marisa's school after moving in with his dad. Both characters have also changed. Marisa is now able to control her temper and cares more about school. Rene is a stronger person and opens up to his father, not allowing his mother to control and abuse him any longer. The happy ending comes rather easily and quickly, though. Within the last pages of the story Marisa is depressed and alone when Rene suddenly appears, in a new outfit, explaining why he is at her school. All is suddenly well again and it even snows, something that never happens in the town.

Review Excerpts
"Occasionally stilted dialogue and clunky writing ("She breathed in and out like a prizefighter") will distract some readers. However, it's hard not to like spunky Marisa and appreciate the fresh point of view she brings to what otherwise might be a typical teen romance." -School Library Journal

"Though the star-crossed-lovers premise is familiar (Soto even weaves in a school production of Romeo and Juliet), the tough-girl/good-guy romance is a refreshing twist, and Marisa and Rene are unique and long-overdue characters in a depiction of romance outside of the chick-lit box." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Share other books written by Gary Soto. Encourage students to write stories or poems about their own neighborhood or teenage experiences.

Young Adult Books
Buried Onions
Crazy Weekend
Local News
Mercy on These Teenage Chimps
Pacific Crossing
Petty Crimes
Summer on Wheels
Taking Sides

Poetry Books
Who Will Know Us?: New Poems
Neighborhood Odes
New and Selected Poems
Fire in My Hands

Module 3: The Rainbow Tulip

Mora, Pat. 1999. The Rainbow Tulip. Illustrated by Elizabeth Sayles. New York, NY: Viking. ISBN 0670872911.

Plot Summary
Estelita is a first grade girl who is different from her classmates. Her parents are from Mexico and do not speak English. Estelita's mother is quiet and wears long dresses and no makeup. Estelita loves colors and wants to have all of the spring colors in her May parade tulip costume. She is proud of her costume until she goes to school and sees that she if different. Estelita worries about being the only rainbow tulip, but when she weaves the Maypole with her classmates she concentrates on doing a good job so that everyone will be proud of her. She realizes that although being different is hard, it can be positive.

Critical Analysis
Estelita is the narrator of the story. She says that her parents are from Mexico and do not speak English. Estelita and her brothers speak Spanish at home and English at school. Spanish words are incorporated into the text and are usually translated within the same sentence. Sometimes Spanish words are used with the expectation that they are understood. An example of both of these situations occurs on the first page with the sentence, "My father gives us an abrazo, a hug, and says, "Buenos dias, hijos."" Many of the words and phrases are used more than once so the translation is only provided the first time the word or phrase appears in the story.

Only a few characters are referred to by name. Estelita says that she is called Estelita at home and Stella at school. When she speaks about her parents Estelita calls them mother and father, but when she speaks to them directly she calls them mama and papa. Both Estelita and her mother refer to her aunt as Tia Carmen.

Only two foods are mentioned, cod liver oil and lime sherbet, and they do not necessarily reflect Mexican-American culture. Estelita is given a spoonful of cod liver oil every morning since her mother thinks she is too thin. Estelita enjoys eating lime sherbet as a snack. It is described as being sweet and sour, and Estelita's mother compares sherbet with being different since it too is both sweet and sour.

The illustrations in The Rainbow Tulip use soft colors and lines. Estelita and her family are portrayed with a light, natural skin tone and dark brown hair. The pictures of the mother fit her description from the text. "She does not wear makeup. Her hair is tied in a bun, and her dresses are long. My mother does not wear colors that sing and dance. My mother like to wear black, brown, gray, sometimes light blue." Estelita is not shown in the same formal manner as her mother. She wears blue and pink dresses that only go down to her knees and she wears her hair down.

Nothing in the illustrations of the house or other areas represent Mexican-American culture. Bowls that look ceramic with various designs are included, but these can be used by any culture. The illustrations do hint at a place and an earlier time period, though. The outsides of the buildings indicate that the story is probably taking place in the southwest. In one picture there is a dirt road and a car from the early 1900s. In another there is a sewing machine in the background that operates with a foot pedal. In the author's note the reader learns that the story is based on something that really happened to Mora's mother when she was a child in El Paso, Texas in the 1920s, so the illustrations do match the story.

Review Excerpts
"The scenarios in words and soft-toned pictures show the warm, loving family and also the fun and success at school. At first, the child is ashamed of her quiet, old-fashioned mother, but her parents keep a piece of Mexico at home, and Estelita/Stella comes to value her dual heritage, even though it is hard to be different." -Booklist

"Based on a story from the author's mother's childhood, and perfectly extended by soft, warm pastel drawings framed in white, this tale of family love and support crosses cultural boundaries and may remind youngsters of times when their families made all the difference." -School Library Journal

Use Rainbow Tulip for story time when the theme is spring. Read it with Did You Hear Wind Sing Your Name?: An Oneida Song of Spring by Sandra De Coteau Orie, Long-Long's New Year! A Story about the Chinese Spring Festival by Catherine Gower, and Skunk's Spring Surprise by Leslea Newman. Before each story share a poem from the book Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems by Francisco Alarcon. For the craft have children make a May Day crown or pole. Instructions and templates for these crafts are available at

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Module 2: Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa

Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Ella Fitzgerald: the Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children. ISBN 0786805684.

Plot Summary
The story begins in Yonkers, New York when Ella Fitzgerald is young and teaching herself how to dance. Ella goes to Harlem and enters a talent contest when she is 17 years old. She is nervous and unable to dance so she sings instead and wins the contest. Ella gains popularity and becomes a featured singer at the Harlem Opera house. Ella soon joins the Chick Webb Orchestra and continues to gain popularity, performing to white audiences and recording an album. Bebop becomes more popular than swing so Ella turns to this music, adding in scat, and performs with Dizzy Gillespie. Her scat singing makes her a star around the world.

Critical Analysis
Brian Pinkney's illustrations in Ella Fitzgerald are beautiful scratchboard creations. In his note he says that he added authenticity to the drawings by studying the works of Harlem Renaissance artists who were around at the same time as Ella. The artist William H. Johnson incorporated energy and a beautiful depiction of black people into his works. This influence can be seen in Pinkney's illustrations since in his portrayal of Ella he captured the energy that would have been present while she was singing or dancing. His characters have a natural looking brown tone to their skin and are wearing dresses or suits and hair styles that would have been worn in the 1930s.

Many of the illustrations have a dream like quality since the characters are shown flying in the night sky. In these pictures Pinkney is often making a play on the words used in the text. Chick is described as a finicky bird so he is always shown with wings. One line says, "He took her under his wing, and the two of them flew to the Savoy Ballroom," and in this picture Chick is flying in the sky, holding onto Ella so she can fly with him. Benny Goodman is the king of swing so in his picture he is wearing a crown. Dizzy Gillespie "turned jazz on its head. With his trumpet, he could blow notes into back flips." In his first illustration he is shown upside down. The text later says, "Ella went along for Dizzy's ride," so both are shown sitting on Dizzy's trumpet, flying through the sky.

The story is told by Scat Cat Monroe, who is pictured as a real cat in a suit. His voice is lively and musical and helps bring the 1930s jazz setting to life. The text mainly focuses on the music and the way the musicians played, and does not include physical descriptions or dialogue. The one description of Ella comes from her talent contest and says, "the girl was hardly dressed to impress. She wore work boots and hand-me-downs."

The descriptions of the music are very creative. Many different words for dancing are used. Some of them are hoofin', pretty-steppin', shake their tales, and stomp. Ella's singing is commented on a lot. One passage says, "Her voice was quick-fried rhythm, with a brassy satin twist." Another says, "They backed up Ella's vocals, which gave new meaning to the word divine." When Ella sings scat she uses "her voice like a runaway leaf flying high on a breeze." The author uses this type of language well, helping the reader to understand the rhythm of the music and phrases that would have been used during the 1930s.

Review Excerpts
"Scat Cat seems an unnecessary addition to the text and even more so to Brian Pinkney's fantastical images--Ella singing onstage at the Apollo, her head surrounded by a concentric haloes of light; Ella flying with an angel-winged Chick Webb over the Savoy; Ella seated behind Dizzy Gillespie, sailing through the starry night sky on his trumpet--but even so, the illustrations have an explosive energy that suits their subject." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Provide more information on Ella Fitzgerald by sharing the books, videos, and albums listed in the book by Pinkney.

Share information about Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson, the artists who inspired Brian Pinkney. Find some of their works to share so that children can compare their art to Pinkney's illustrations. A lot of William H. Johnson's art can be seen online through the Smithsonian American Art Museum by conducting a search for his name at

Invite presenters to the library who can share information on jazz music. An interactive program that gives a brief introduction to the music and provides swing dancing lessons would be fun for older children and teens.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Module 2: Copper Sun

Draper, Sharon. Copper Sun. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0689821816.

Plot Summary
Amari lives in a small village in Africa with her family. White strangers come to her village, killing Amari's family and many others. Amari and others her age are captured and taken to a slave castle by the ocean. Amari and the other slaves are forced to endure whippings, branding, horrible living conditions, and rape. When Amari reaches the Americas she is bought as a birthday present for a plantation owner's son. She endures many more hardships, but becomes friends with a white indentured girl, Polly. Before they are able to be sold again they escape and set out on a long, treacherous journey to Fort Mose in Florida, where they will be able to find freedom.

Critical Analysis
Many cultural markers are present in Copper Sun. Physical attributes, the identification of specific cultures, language, the names of characters, foods, and music are all present and help bring Amari's story to life. When the story begins Amari has only ever seen black people and is surprised to see people who "have skin the color of goat's milk." She quickly learns that her people are treated like animals while white individuals hold power over everyone. Some whites may be nice while others are extremely cruel, but they all feel that they are better than everyone else. Amari has extreme feelings of hatred towards whites at times, but her friendship with Polly helps her realize that not all whites are bad.

Readers gain a different view of the story when the chapters focus on Polly's point of view. When Polly is first introduced she has many negative thoughts about blacks. One of her comments about them is "Dark skin, big lips, and hair the texture of a briar bush--they were just plain unpleasant to deal with." Polly is upset when Amari is placed in her care and she must live and work with the slaves. By the end of the story she has become friends with many of the slaves and has come to realize that they do not deserve the poor treatment they are given.

The physical attributes that stand out the most come from mistreatment of the slaves. Amari's shoulder has been branded and her back will always be covered with the scars from when she was whipped. When Besa, the boy Amari was to marry, is first introduced his is a tall, proud drummer with a pineapple shaped birthmark and a dimpled smile. As a slave his birthmark remains, but he has become a broken individual with a missing eye and a limp in his walk.

Amari is a member of the Ewe tribe and lives in the village of Ziavi. She is honored to have such talented parents. Her father is the village storyteller, a member of village elders, and works with the other men to weave kente cloth. Her mother is one of the best dancers and is teaching Amari to spin yarn and cook. Amari's life drastically changes when she is enslaved. The Ashanti tribe helps to capture Amari's people. When she is in the slave castle by the ocean she recognizes others as Ibo, Ga, and Mandinka. Amari realizes that individuals from many tribes in different countries have been captured.

The tribes in Africa speak different languages, but Amari and the other slaves must learn English when they are in the Americas. Everyone in the story has their own dialect. Amari tells of her confusion with English and realizes that she does not speak it perfectly. Some examples of their speech is when Amari and the other slaves say massa for master, chile for child, and suh for sir. An example that come from the slave Teenie, who is in charge of the kitchen, is, "I was borned here chile, I tolt you my mama was a African like you be, but they sold her off when I was 'bout your age." A woman from Ireland and a soldier from Spain both speak differently from everyone else in the story.

Names play an important role in either serving as a reminder of a slaves true identity or their treatment as property. Amari must take the name Myna, but when she escapes she uses her true name again. Tidbit's given name is Timothy and he begins to use it after he is free since it is the name his mother, Teenie, wanted him to use when he became a man.

The foods present in Amari's village in Africa are different from the foods she helps prepare in America. Amari describes the preparation of cassava fufu that she would complete with her mother. "They would take turns pounding the vegetable into a wooden bowl with a stick almost as tall as Amari. Most of the time they got into such a good rhythm that her mother started tapping her feet and doing little dance steps as they worked." Other foods from Africa mentioned are coconut, pineapple, garden egg stew made from eggplant and fried fish, banana, mangoes, and papayas. Some of the foods present in Teenie's kitchen are rice, beans, corn, venison, blackberries, peaches, apples, brown sugar, chicken, snow peas, and hush puppies. Amari is excited to see yams since her mother had grown them in Africa.

Music is very important to Amari's tribe. Her mother is a great dancer and Besa is a drummer. The rhythms and dances hold a special meaning. Besa tells Amari that "the drums are not just noise--they are language; they are the pattern of the rhythm of our lives." It is when the tribe is dancing that the white men begin to kill and capture everyone. The music that Amari loves is further degraded when she is on the slave ship and forced to dance. The next time Amari dances is after she crosses the river into Spanish territory with Polly and Tidbit. She has finally found freedom and has a reason to be happy and dance and sing again.

Review Excerpts
"As readers embrace Amari and Polly, they will better understand the impact of human exploitation and suffering throughout history. In addition, they will gain a deeper knowledge of slavery, indentured servitude, and 18th-century sanctuaries for runaway slaves." -School Library Journal

"Though she romanticizes African village life somewhat, she does a good job of subtly implicating the sources of stereotyping and dismantling common assumptions about the period and the people. She doesn't sugarcoat the horror, but she is not gratuitous in describing scenes of rape and torture, making this a useful text for curricular applications, and one that students will actually read and want to discuss. Extensive print and web resources are included in an informative afterword." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Share Freedom Roads: Searching for the Underground Railroad by Joyce Hansen. It provides information on Fort Mose that researchers and scientists have discovered.

Explore the resources provided by Draper in the afterword of Copper Sun. Many Internet sites and books are listed.

Module 2: Heaven

Johnson, Angela. Heaven. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0689822294.

Plot Summary
Fourteen-year-old Marley lives in Heaven, Ohio with Momma, Pop, and her younger brother, Butchy. Marley has never met Uncle Jack, who spends all of his time on the road with his dog, Boy. She frequently wires him money, and has gotten to know him through the letters they write each other. Marley's life changes when Momma and Pop tell her that they are not her real parents. Uncle Jack is really her father and her mother died when she was very young. Marley becomes angry with her family and struggles to accept her true identity.

Critical Analysis
Heaven is an endearing story that readers can easily connect with. The theme of family is universal, and readers can understand the anguish that Marley feels after learning the truth about her real parents. There are not many cultural markers, so the focus is on Marley and the ties she has with family and friends. Most everything that occurs in the story could have taken place in any setting and with characters of other cultures.

Another common theme in Heaven is that every family has its secrets. Marley at first thinks that her friend Shoogy's family seems perfect. Marley learns that Shoogy has fought against this view of perfection and is deeply troubled by something since she has cut herself badly in the past. In the end Marley says she thinks Shoogy's family is crazy. Marley also wonders about the family she babysits for. Bobby lives alone with his daughter Feather. Marley learns that they still have family in Brooklyn, but she does not know what happened to Feather's mom.

African American culture is never specifically identified. There is a picture on the front cover of an African American girl, but within the story Marley's culture is not very apparent. The cultural markers that are present are physical attributes, religious practices, and musical preferences. The physical attributes stated in the book refer to Bobby and Feather. Feather is described as "tiny with wispy hair and caramel skin." In another passage readers learn that Bobby has dreads.

Religion is never really mentioned either, but Marley and Pop used to attend one of the churches that was burned down in the South. The loss of Marley's records in the church fire is what leads to Momma and Pop telling Marley about her true identity. Pop makes a reference to past problems in the South when he says that the church burnings remind him of the 60s.

Music is mentioned more often and readers get a feeling for its importance. Marley was named after Bob Marley and she remembers dancing to his music with Pop when she was young. When Marley is in the car with Pop he puts in a jazz tape. Marley does not know the name of the song and Pop responds, "Miles Davis. Nobody like him, Marley. Nobody ever will be...."

Review Excerpts
"The various examples of "family" Marley encounters make her question what's real, what's true, what makes sense, and if any of that really matters as much as the love she continues to feel for her parents in spite of their seeming betrayal. Johnson exhibits admirable stylistic control over Marley's struggle to understand a concept that is often impossible to understand or even to define." -School Library Journal

"What saves this from being generic Hallmark is Johnson's plain, lyrical writing about the people in Marley's life. Everyone has secrets. There are all kinds of loving families." -Booklist

Share other young adult books written by Angela Johnson.

First Part Last
Looking for Red
Running Back to Ludie
Toning the Sweep

Share other young adult books that have an adoption theme.

A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt
Finding Miracles by Julia Alvarez
Get Real by Betty Hicks
The Snake-Stone by Berlie Doherty

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Module 1: Koala Lou

Fox, Mem. 1988. Koala Lou. Illustrated by Pamela Lofts. San Diego, CA: Gulliver Books. ISBN 0152005021.

Plot Summary
Koala Lou is loved by everyone, especially her mother who always says, "Koala Lou, I DO love you!" Koala Lou's mother has more children and no longer has time to always tell Koala Lou she loves her. Koala Lou joins the Bush Olympics with the hope of regaining her mother's attention and love. Although Koala Lou does not win the gum tree climbing event she learns that her mother still loves her and always will.

Critical Analysis
Koala Lou takes place in Australia and this is evident by the animals and plants present in the story. The story mainly takes place in and around gum trees, the true homes of koalas. Other animals present in the story are the emu, platypus, and kookaburra, in addition to many others. Many aspects of the story and illustrations are accurate. The koalas look realistic. Even small aspects that might not be noticed are drawn correctly. One of these aspects is the koala's hands having two thumbs and three fingers. The jealousy of Koala Lou is based on a true occurrence of koalas giving birth to a new baby each year. A koala is weened after one year and will stay near its mother for another year, but is mature and able to live on its own after two years of age.

Many aspects of the book are also unrealistic, but fit the plot of the story. The animals are personified and engage in human activities, like the Olympics. In one picture Koala Lou is shown wearing sneakers, doing push-ups, and lifting weights in preparation for the Olympics. Although these portions of the story would never really occur with animals they could with humans. Children will relate to the events in the book, understanding Koala Lou's yearning for her mother's attention and will be happy with the realization that Koala Lou's mother really never stopped loving her.

Review Excerpts
"A first-rate choice for bedtime, story hour, or reading aloud." -The Horn Book, November/December 1989

"Fox brings out the best in her characters, and also conveys an important message about competition without being strident or didactic. Lofts' illustrations are realistic, whimsical, and almost textured; she gives an additional depth to the animal characters by making their faces (especially the eyes) so expressive." -School Library Journal, January 1990

Share other books by Mem Fox:
Hunwick's Egg
Shoes From Grandpa
Boo to a Goose
Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge

Share information about real koalas. Have children complete a koala craft by coloring precut mother and baby koalas and gluing the baby koala onto the mother's back or into her pouch.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Module 1: Run, Boy, Run

Orlev, Uri. 2003. Run, Boy, Run. Translated by Hillel Halkin. New York: Walter Lorraine Books. ISBN 0618164650.

Plot Summary
Eight year old Srulik is searching the garbage for food when his mom goes missing, leaving him unable to find his way home. Srulik joins a gang of homeless kids, but when a roundup occurs in the Jewish ghetto he flees to Poland. A group of orphaned Jewish kids who live in the forest teach Srulik how to steal, hunt, cook, and survive on his own. After he is separated from the group Srulik uses the name Jurek Staniak and makes his way from village to village looking for work. Jurek moves on when he is mistreated or when it is discovered that he is Jewish. He manages to survive despite the loss of an arm and many other challenges. In the end he has a difficult time letting go of his fake identity, but he eventually remembers his past and decides to stay in a Jewish children's home and go to school.

Critical Analysis
The power of this story is in the reader's knowledge that it is based on true events. In the epilogue Orlev states that Jurek "told the story of his years in wartime Poland to many people, all of whom thought he was exaggerating." It may indeed seem unbelievable that a young boy would be able to survive such conditions, especially after losing an arm, but knowing that it really did occur helps to draw the reader into the story.

Other aspects of the story also help to make it seem realistic. Jurek's hair is dyed blond by the sun, he wears a religious medal around his neck, and knows Catholic prayers but he cannot hide the fact that he is circumcised, and this gives him away on more than one occasion. Jurek is able to speak Hebrew, Polish (without a Jewish accent), some German, and learns Russian, and this helps him get to know others throughout the story. The book was originally written in Hebrew and all that remains untranslated are the names of individuals and the use of Pan and Pani with names.

Jurek is always hungry and a lot of attention is given to what he eats. There are berries and mushrooms that can be found in the forest. Many different individuals had bread and sugar cubes. Some families gave him potatoes mashed with lard and fried onions. When a bird was caught it was beheaded, gutted, coated with mud, and cooked. When Jurek was really hungry he even ate raw meat. Jurek was able to catch animals with rocks, a sling shot, and traps made of hair. He learned how to make fires for cooking with matches and with a magnifying glass.

Attention was also given to Jurek's physical state. Shoes wore out quickly so Jurek walked barefoot when it was warm and wore any shoes available during the winter. He was always covered with lice and the people he stayed with would make him bath while they burned his old clothes. His hair was shaved on more than one occasion. At one point Jurek had chiggers and needed a salve. Another incident left him with a splinter that infected his heel and required him to seek help from a priest. When Jurek hurt his arm a doctor refused to treat him and the gangrene arm had to be amputated. Jurek had to learn how to function on his own with only one arm. This made life difficult, but he never gave up.

Review Excerpts
"Although the novel has the pace of a picaresque adventure tale, the life-and-death stakes are always foregrounded in unmistakably straightforward terms: from his immediate family of seven, only Srulik and his older sister, who escaped to Russia before the war, survive. This is one of the better examples of Holocaust fiction in depicting the vagaries of human nature as villainous and heroic acts emerge unexpectedly, even causally, from a shifting wartime population threatened with catastrophe."

Hearne, B. 2003. Run, Boy, Run. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57 (4): 162-63. Wilson Web (accessed June 11, 2007).

Read Run, Boy, Run with other fiction and nonfiction books that take place in and around Poland during World War II. Use a map to try to locate the places mentioned in the books.

Fiction Young Adult Titles:
Along the Tracks by Tamar Bergman
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: a Fable by John Boyne
The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
Malka by Mirjam Pressler
Torn Thread by Anne Isaacs

Nonfiction Titles:
All but My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein
The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender
In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer by Irene Gut Opdyke
Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps by Andrea Warren

Module 1: The Pull of the Ocean

Mourlevat, Jean-Claude. 2006. The Pull of the Ocean. Translated by Y. Maudet. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN 0385733488.

Plot Summary
Yann is a smart ten year old boy, but he stands out among his six older brothers since he can only communicate with facial expressions and hand gestures and is only about two and a half feet tall. He wakes up his brothers one night and tells them that they have to leave immediately since he overheard his parents say they are going to hurt the boys. All of the brothers set off on a journey to the ocean. They endure many hardships along the way, only to be locked into a house when they do make it to the ocean. In the end the older brothers are reunited with their parents, who were never going to harm their children. Yann goes missing, but it becomes apparent that this was his plan all along.

Critical Analysis
The Pull of the Ocean is an interesting book since it is told from the point of view of multiple characters. Readers are allowed to experience the story from the angle of the brothers, their parents, and the different people they encounter along their journey to the ocean. Another interesting factor is that the individuals telling the story are reflecting back on what already happened after learning of Yann's disappearance. The reader begins to expect the worst, thinking that Yann has somehow died. Hope reappears in the end when Yann is discovered on a ship.

The boys come from a poor, rural household. They are expected to help out on the farm, but Yann would rather concentrate on his school work. Yann's parents seem to despise him for this, and his mother speaks as though Yann deserved to be hit and mistreated. It is a relief to learn that the parents were going to kill the kittens, not the children, but the accounts of the parents make it clear that life for Yann would have been difficult had he remained at home.

Many characters in the book comment on the way the brothers look. The first description of Yann comes from the social worker. She says, "I can still remember him...his funny little baby hands, red and plump. Dressed in a suit jacket and gray cotton pants, he seemed to have come from another century. Who would dare dress a child this way, if not to humiliate him?" A student who encounters one of the brothers at the train station comments on his bad scent then adds, "it was sad to see how he was dressed: a brown parka that no longer closed, threads of wool hanging from the sleeves of a sweater. The only acceptable item was a cap with earflaps that made him look like an airplane pilot of the past."

The Pull of the Ocean was originally written in French, but the only indicators of France within the book are the names of characters and cities and the descriptions of the places. Yann's family sometimes uses phrases that seem to indicate their rural lifestyle. One of the brothers comments on Yann's missing book bag by saying, "It's the father threw it swimming." In the second chapter Yann's mother says, "If only stupid Corniaud had torn out a piece of her calf, but all he done is bark that yapper." Another interesting aspect of Yann's family is how they talk about each other. Yann and his brothers only refer to their parents as the parents, the mother, and the father. In the end they say that they are shocked when the parents call them children since they have never been called children before. This aspect appears to be more of a comment on the family's relationships rather than a cultural indicator.

Review Excerpts
"The details of the brothers' journey are plausible and realistic, yet Yann remains a deeply mysterious character. Genius? Victim? Manipulator? Saint? Equal parts "Tom Thumb" and Truffaut's The 400 Blows, this story/fable/fairy tale is a powerful portrait of poverty and sibling solidarity, at once tragic and oddly joyful." -The Horn Book, November/December 2006

Share Tom Thumb by Charles Perrault since The Pull of the Ocean is based on that story.