Penny from Heaven by Jennifer Holm is a beautifully written novel.  Set in the early 1950’s, the story depicts the life of Barbara Ann Falucci, lovingly nicknamed, “Penny,” by her deceased father, who was a huge fan of Bing Crosby as well as his song, “Pennies from Heaven.”    Penny lives with her widowed mother and her maternal grandparents, but loves to spend time with her father’s Italian family.  Sadly for Penny, the two families do not get along or even speak to one another, for that matter.  Holm’s novel takes a look into Penny’s life during the summer of her 12th birthday.  Penny is mostly concerned with baseball, spending time with her cousin Frankie who aspires to be a criminal like his father, and her obsession with butter-pecan ice cream.  Penny’s summer is filled with a whirlwind of events from her mother starting a relationship with the milkman to Penny getting her arm caught in a wringer.  Penny struggles with her father’s loss and the mystery of his death, which nobody speaks of, as well as not even being able to go swimming, because her mother is afraid she may catch polio.  Did I mention that Penny’s favorite, very eccentric uncle is living in his car?  This heartwarming, yet often comical novel is full of historical accuracies, which truly brings the story to life. 

I absolutely loved this book!  The day-to-day life of Penny Falucci is fascinating and full of surprises.  Although the first half of the book moves rather slowly, I didn’t want to put it down once Penny got her arm caught in the wringer.  Each page left me wanting more!  Another reason I loved this story was because it made reference to WWII.  Anything about WWII interests me, because my grandfather fought for our country at that time. 

I just have to include my favorite quote from the book: “My idea of Heaven has nothing to do with clouds or angels. In my Heaven there’s butter pecan ice cream and swimming pools and baseball games. The Brooklyn Dodgers always win, and I have the best seat in the house, right behind the Dodgers’ dugout. That’s the only advantage that I can see to being dead: You get the best seat in the house.” – Penny Falucci

Image obtained from http://www.verlib.brinkster.net

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Mia by Laurence Yep

April 24, 2011

Mia, unlike most stories by Laurence Yep, is part of the American Girls series.  10-year-old Mia St.Clair, the youngest of four children, has 3 older brothers.  Playing hockey is like a second-nature to her siblings, and although she, too, is a talented hockey player, Mia feels as though she is living in their shadow.   Thus, Mia decides to pursue figure skating.  Figure skating doesn’t come nearly as easy to Mia as hockey, but with the help of a new coach, commitment and determination, Mia follows her dreams to become the figure skater that she knows she can be. 

I can vividly remember the first American Girls book I ever read as a child: Meet Addy.  I was an instant fan of the American Girls series and went on to read any and every American Girls book that I could get my hands on.  When I discovered that Laurence Yep had written this book, I knew that I had to read it!  The story was great and very inspirational.  I’m sure that young girls would love Mia!  Best of all, those that are fans of the American Girls series can read other stories featuring Mia and even buy her doll. 

When searching for an image of Mia for my blog, I discovered that Laurence Yep wrote the continuation of Mia’s story entitled, Bravo, Mia!  Other books written by Laurence Yep focus on Chinese culture and heritage.  Some of these books include: Dragonwings, The Butterfly Boy, The City of Dragons and Auntie Tiger.

Image obtained from http://www.librarything.com

Dr. Seuss

April 23, 2011

Dr. Seuss has long been a favorite author of mine.  His books were some of the first that I was able to read independently .  The Sneetches, Green Eggs and Ham, and Horton Hatches an Egg were my favorites as a child.

Even as a child, The Cat in the Hat was questionable to me.  I wasn’t sure whether I liked this feline character or not.  Although he had great, imaginative ideas for the children in the story, I couldn’t help but think he was trying to use peer pressure to persuade them to do things that their mother most certainly wouldn’t approve of.  The fish seemed more like a friend to the children than the cat.  I think the cat represents that feeling in all of us – the one that makes us want to do something that we know we shouldn’t do…things that sound like fun, but will most likely result in us getting into trouble.  The fish, on the other hand, represents our conscience or a good friend that has our best interest at heart – a character that knows it is always best to follow the rules and do the right thing rather than follow the crowd or be badly influenced.

The tension presented in The Cat in the Hat reminds me of only one other story in which I am familiar, and it is not really a contemporary children’s book.  Walt Disney’s Pinocchio reminds of The Cat in the Hat in several ways.  First of all, Pinocchio gets into trouble when he is away from his father.  (The children find themselves in a predicament with the cat when their mother is out.)  Pinocchio knows the right thing to do, and is encouraged to make good decisions by Jiminy Cricket.  (The children know to follow their mother’s rules and are encouraged to make the right decisions by the fish.)  Although there are several other books that have tension in the plot, I think The Cat in the Hat and Pinocchio are more closely related than any other.

The Cat in the Hat, although published in 1957, still appeals to children today.  Regardless of the age of this story, it remains an easy read for beginning readers, and the Cat is one of the most famous storybook characters of all time. 

The Lorax is a story that I simply do not recall reading at any time during my childhood.  I’m not really sure how I would have felt about this book when I was younger, but as an adult I am a huge fan.  The Lorax is extremely didactic.  The story begins with a boy who wants to hear the story of the Lorax.  He must pay to hear this tale, which is told from the Once-ler’s point of view – a character who got caught up in his business of cutting down Truffula trees.  The Once-ler tells of his selfishness and greed and how his success took precedence over the ecosystems supported by this rare tree.  As a result, he destroys the once beautiful piece of land on which his business stood, where the Truffula trees prospered, and nothing is left now except for darkness and emptiness – a very lonely, desolate piece of property and one last remaining thought from the Lorax – the word “UNLESS” carved into a rock. The Lorax, who tried to warn the Once-ler all along of what would happen if he did not “slow down” with his business seems to almost haunt the Once-ler throughout the story.  The Once-ler recalls his warnings but has no idea where the Lorax is now, and he seemingly regrets what he did to what was once such a beautiful place in the world.  In fact, he never shows his face at all in the story as though he is too ashamed to even be seen.  The story does not end happily, as the damage has already been done, and obviously, one cannot change the past.  However, the last pages of the book encourage readers to protect the environment and be aware of what could happen to our world if we do not take care of what we have been given.  We can make a difference and sometimes we are even lucky enough to repair damage that has been done if we only take the initiative and make nature a priority.  Thus, the Once-ler gives the boy the very last Truffula tree seed in hopes that he might somehow be able to recreate the paradise that once existed, and perhaps even the Lorax might someday return. 

There are few children’s books today that are didactic, in my opinion.  I can think of very few that teach a lesson quite like The Lorax does.  The few books that I can think of include Zen Shorts, Zen Ties, and the much older, Aesop’s Fables.  These books offer morals and make readers think about the choices they make. 

Images obtained from http://www.kids-bookreview.com, http://www.seuss.wikia.com,  and http://www.blog.amnestyusa.com

John Henry, written by Julius Lester and illustrated by Jerry Pinkey, brings the larger than life African-American hero of the same name to life.  In this version of the familiar folk tale, John Henry begins growing on the very day he is born – growing so fast that he is able to leap from his mother’s arms as a newborn and grow to the size of an adult.  His brute strength and positive attitude help him to overcome several obstacles throughout his short-lived life.  He is faster than the wind and is able to change Ferret-Faced Freddy, the meanest man in the state, into Frederick the Friendly.  John Henry is also able to use two sledgehammers to break down a rock that even dynamite couldn’t destroy.  His most significant test of strength occurs when he takes ona steam engine.  John Henry is able to accomplish more than this machine, but the immense amount of hard work literally kills him. 

John Henry is a very well-written picture book.  The dialect used throughout the story makes the tale of this famous folk hero even more authentic.  Julius Lester has an obvious talent for writing – one that makes me want to read more of his work.  The pictures within the story are also beautiful and well-worth mentioning.  Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations actually won a Caldecott Honor Medal. As a fan of tall tales and legends, I really enjoyed this book.  I am anxious to read more of Mr. Lester’s work, because this book is absolutely fantastic!

Image obtained from http://www.the-best-childrens-books.org/Caldecott_Award_Winners.html

The Book:

Horton Hears a Who is the timeless Dr. Seuss tale of a sweet, lovable elephant named Horton.  One day Horton is pretty certain that he hears a “voice” coming from a speck of dust.  Convinced that there is a very small person on this speck of dust, Horton places the speck on a clover and proceeds to carry the clover (and speck) with him to protect it from harm.  Horton is ridiculed and insulted by the Jungle of Nool animals that live around him.  They are certain that he is crazy and make it their mission to destroy the clover and teach Horton a lesson.  Despite the animals beliefs, Horton is indeed correct in thinking that there is a person living on the speck.  In fact, there is an entire town – the town of Whoville.  The rest of the book details Horton’s adventures as he protects the Whos and their small town despite every other animal’s attempts in destroying this seemingly non-existant community.

The Feature Film:

I absolutely loved the animated adaptation of Horton Hears a Who.  The movie stayed completely true to the book’s storyline and added only elements that enhanced the story.

One of the main differences between the book and film is the focus on the town of Who-ville.  Who-ville is exposed very little in the book, but the movie really focuses in on the citizens of this microscopic society.  The mayor is merely introduced in the book, but in the movie, viewers are introduced to the mayor’s wife, his 96 daughters, and his only son, Jo-Jo.  Additionally, in both the book and movie, Jo-Jo is the Who that sends out a cry loud enough for the animals to hear.  The book makes no mention of a relationship between Jo-Jo and the mayor, but in the movie we discover early on that Jo-Jo is the mayor’s only son. 

Another difference between the book and feature film is the additon of Horton’s great friend, Milton the mouse.  Milton is not part of the original tale, but he is added into the feature film, which incorporates a touch of comedy into those scenes.  There a few other additional characters that were incorporated into the movie, but these characters did not alter the original storyline from the book.

Last but not least, I have to comment on Horton’s famous saying: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.”  This famous line is spouted off by Horton several times within the movie.  Interestingly enough, this famous quotation made by Horton does not come from the book, Horton Hears a Who.  Rather, Horton makes this statement in a different book – Horton Hatches the Egg.  Only a true Dr. Seuss fan would note that difference.

My Recommendations:

Horton Hears a Who is both a wonderful book and a wonderful animated film.  I am pretty confident that Dr. Seuss lovers would enjoy both!  My love for this movie stems from my childhood love of the book, but my children are lucky enough to own both the book and the movie at my home!

Images obtained from http://www.impawards.com and http://www.amazon.com

Rosa depicts the courageous story of Rosa Parks.  The book takes a look at the events that occured on that fateful day in 1955 when Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.  Never before have I read an account of what happened to Rosa Parks, quite like this.  The story takes a look at Mrs. Parks’ everyday life and it describes what led to her decision to simply say “no” that day.  My favorite part is the page that depicts nothing more than Rosa Parks’ hands gripping her purse.  The text reads, “She thought about her mother and her grandmother and knew they would want her to be strong.  She had not sought this moment, but she was ready for it.”  The book goes on to explain the Montgomery bus boycott that resulted from her arrest.  It also briefly describes how segregation became illegal on November 13, 1956.  The book closes with a very powerful statment – one that sums up the entire story: “The integrity, the dignity, the quiet strength of Rosa Parks turned her no into a YES for change.”

Rosa is a very powerful story with powerful words and powerful illustrations.  The first time I read this book, tears came to my eyes as I pictured this quiet, yet proud woman stand up for herself and refuse to be treated as a lesser person because of the color of her skin.  I can only imagine the pride that her friends and family felt when they first learned of her courageous act  – one that changed our nation.  This book is amazing.  I simply do not have the words to describe how truly wonderful it is…

Image obtained from http://www.barnesandnoble.com

The Lion & the Mouse is quite possibly one of the most beautiful picture books I have ever read…er…seen.  This adaptation of one of Aesop’s Fables is actually a wordless version.  Other than a few occurences of the element of onomotopeia that grace the pages of this book, there are no words.  The stunning pictures bring to life the story of a powerful lion who one day has pity on a very small, but courageous little mouse.  As the story goes, the mouse, in return, saves the large feline from a poacher’s trap as a sign of thanks.  Pinkney’s illustrations truly tell this story in a way in which words simply are not needed.  Even if a child were not familiar with this fable, I think he/she could easily follow the storyline via the detailed artwork.  This book, unsurprisingly, won the Caldecott Medal in 2010.  After viewing The Lion & the Mouse as a fulfillment for this blog, I have now ordered a copy for myself.  I don’t think I could possibly consider my classroom library complete without it! 

Other books illustrated by Jerry Pinkney include:

John Henry

The Talking Eggs

Aesop’s Fables

Noah’s Ark

Images obtained from http://www.barnesandnoble.com and http://www.amazon.com

The Book:

I think it’s pretty safe to assume that anyone that has even the slightest interest in children’s literature has read or, at the very least, heard of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are.  This book features Max, a spunky little boy who is sent to bed without supper one night.  While sitting in his room, the walls began to change and his entire room is transformed into the Land of the Wild Things.  The Wild Things are scary, but Max is the scariest of them all.  He is able to stare them down, and they make him the King of the Wild Things.  This delightful story is a wonderful addition to any collection of books, whether it be in a library, classroom, or a child’s collection at home.  The illustrations are amazing, which is why Sendak won a Caldecott Medal for this particular book. 

The Feature Film:

Spike Jonze’s twist on Sendak’s classic is entertaining, but I prefer the book over the movie – hands down!  There were several differences between the feature film and the original children’s classic.  First of all, there is much more of a background story about Max.  In the movie, Max’s parents are divorced.  He lives with his single mother and his older sister.  His sister is an older adolescent and she has somewhat “outgrown” Max and doesn’t give him very much attention anymore.  Max and his mother have an argument one night at dinner, but instead of Max being sent to his room and his room transforming into a jungle-type atmosphere, Max escapes and lands on an island, which is where he meets the Wild Things.  Max may have been the “scariest of them all” in the book, but the Wild Things are definitely scarier in the movie.  The dirt-clod fight shows the true beastliness of these creatures (who each have names in the movie, unlike the book).  Max is crowned King of the Wild Things just like in the book, but he soon discovers that being a ruler isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

My Recommendations:

Honestly, I am not a very big fan of this movie, but I am a HUGE fan of the book.  So much had to be added to the simplicity of the classic children’s tale in order for it to become a 90 minute feature film.  I prefer the book that I grew up with…by that’s just my opinion, of course.

Images obtained from http://www.barnesandnoble.com and http://www.shockya.com

The Book:
I first read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson when I was in 6th grade. I recall wanting to be like Leslie – a sweet girl who stood up to anyone and everyone.  She was different, unique and confident.  I longed to be as secure with my looks, feelings, and the choices I made.  She was everything I wasn’t. 
Now that I have reread Bridge to Terabithia, I have found myself relating with Miss Edmunds, Jess’ music teacher. She has a very close relationship with Jess; she shows him the attention that no one else does. Jess only shows Miss Edmunds his art since his father basically called him a sissy when he showed him his drawings when he was younger. Miss Edmunds, however, encourages him in his endeavors and offers to help him in any way she can. With her, he actually feels cared for and appreciated.
I, too, have students like Jess in my classroom. While they may not be as talented as him in art, they are in search of attention. There are so many students who are not getting the attention they need at home.  They find comfort in my classroom, and they know that they can trust me. This reminds me of how Jess trusted Miss Edmunds with his most prized possession: his art.
This story focuses on the importance of individuality and how valuable friendships truly are. I also believe it shows that even though you grow up, you are never too old to dream and imagine all the possibilities that await you. Hands down one of my favorite books of all time!
The Feature Film:
I, as usual, liked the book better than the movie. While Disney did a wonderful job at recreating the book, I missed the aspect of having to use my imagination when painting Terabithia in my head and experiencing the imaginative adventures of Jess and Leslie. It seemed that the movie paid closer attention to Jess and Leslie’s adventures in Terabithia. The special effects were amazing, but again, the viewer didn’t have to use their imagination at all. That was what I enjoyed most about the book.  In fact, MY Terabithia that I envisioned when reading the book was quite different than that which was shown in the movie. 
Happily, I can say that the movie stayed true to the book. It seems that most movies that are based on novels omit important scenes, and the endings are altered for the viewers’ pleasure. Even though there were scenes that were omitted, the movie still contained the part when Leslie gave Jess his art set and when Jess gave Leslie her dog. In the book, these exchanges happened on Christmas.  In the movie, Jess received the art set for his birthday and Leslie received the dog when Jess saw someone giving the dog away. These were only minor changes that didn’t have a big affect on the story.  There were a few more differences between the book and feature film too, but these differences were insignificant, in my opinion. 
 
My Recommendations:
Although I would consider myself a fan of both the book and the movie, I think an individual should definitely read the book first.  Imagining Terabithia and creating the fantasy world in your head, is one of the greatest treasures that accompanies reading the book.  I would think that if a person views the movie first, the scenes depicted in the movie will be pictured in your head when reading the book rather than envisioning your own Terabithia.    So…read the book first, and then watch the feature film.  Both are a real treat and are worth your time!
 

The Bracelet is a beautiful story that illustrates a dark time during American History – a time when Americans persecuted Japanese-Americans and placed them in interment camps.  The story begins with a young girl, Emi, reflecting upon how her home used to look.  “The house was like a gift box after the nice thing inside was gone; just a lot of nothingness.” Emi, along with her mother and older sister, are being forced to pack up their belongings to go to an internment camp, because they are Japanese-Americans.  A knock at the door has Emi hoping that a messenger has arrived.  Instead, her friend Laurie is at the door with a gift for Emi – a bracelet to remember her by.  Shortly after, Emi and her family are sent to a racetrack that has been converted to a dentention camp.  After her arrival, Emi loses the bracelet that Laurie gave her.  Emi eventually learns with her mother’s help that she doesn’t have to have the bracelet to remember her special friend.  In fact, you don’t ever have to have something to remember someone.  “Those are things we can carry in our hearts and take with us no matter where we are sent.”

The Bracelet includes an afterword that shines more light upon the historical events that led up to the creation of Internment Camps to imprison Japanese-Americans.  It also descibes the redress made by the US Federal Goverment. 

This story was of particular interest to me, because I love to study the historical events of WWII.  My grandfather served our country at that time, and I always think of  him when WWII is mentioned.  When I first learned about the internment camps created for Japanese-Americans, I was quite shocked.  I actually researched this topic as a sophomore in college and wrote a lengthy research paper over the information I learned.  I think it is important for Americans to be proud of all of the wonderful things our country has accomplished, but I also think that we should reflect upon the mistakes that have been made.  The Bracelet is not only a wonderful story, but it is also a great source to use when studying American History. 

If you liked The Bracelet, you should read these other titles by Yoshiko Uchida:

The Dancing Kettle

 The Invisible Thread

Images obtained from http://www.bookwizard.scholastic.com and http://www.barnesandnoble.com