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.