Saturday, February 28, 2015

Module 4--A Wrinkle in Time: A Review

MODULE 4: A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle

L'Engle, M. (1962). A Wrinkle in Time.  New York, Square Fish: An Imprint of Macmillan.

A Wrinkle in Time has achieved both legendary status and controversy due to the same issue: the mystical/religious aspects of the book.  Some have found in A Wrinkle in Time too much religion, particularly Christianity, and some the opposite: too much occult/anti-Christian material in it.  I was pretty surprised at how open the book was in acknowledging the existence of God and Jesus in the world of fantasy.  This was neither a negative or selling point for me, as I found A Wrinkle in Time a good read, though a bit rushed for me.

Meg Murry is a pretty typical fourteen-year-old girl.  She has braces and glasses, and is carrying a lot of anger within her.  Her father, a scientist, has disappeared and rumors are going around that he ran off, maybe with another woman.  Mrs. Murry, a scientist in her own right, tells Meg and her other children: twins Sandy and Dennys and Charles Wallace, a five-year-old genius whom the town thinks is an idiot, that Mr. Murry has not abandoned the family but he has disappeared due to his work.  Charles Wallace is visited by the first of three figures he met while going to a 'haunted house': a figure dresses in many scarves and coats who calls herself Mrs Whatsit.  Mrs Whatsit is also seen by Meg and Mrs. Murry, who tells the latter that 'tesseract' is real.  This shocks Mrs. Murry.

Charles Wallace and a very reluctant Meg go to Mrs Whatsit's home, where they find Calvin O'Keefe, a thin redheaded freckled-faced boy, slightly older than Meg, who is a star athlete but from a troubled home who like Meg feels out of place.  Calvin senses that he has been 'invited' to go to the house, and the three of them next meet the second mysterious figure, Mrs Who, who speaks in phrases of various languages.  They and Mrs Which, the third figure who can never fully materialize but who has enormous spectacles and who speaks by elongating every word, whisk the three children off to help rescue Mr. Murry.

Here, the three children go to various planets as they prepare to fight the dark force holding Mr. Murry prisoner.   The first planet is the beautiful Uriel, where they discover angelic voices singing excerpts from Psalm 96 (Sing unto the Lord a new song...) and get a glimpse into a Dark Being in a vision.  They visit The Happy Medium, a figure in turbans with a crystal ball who shows them Earth, a world half in darkness half in light that has been fighting the Dark Figure with such figures as Jesus, Bach, Gandhi, and Buddha among others.  They also learn that these beings, former stars, are able to travel quickly from one point in space to another thanks to tesseracting (or the ability to bend time to get from Point A to Point B through the fifth dimension).  This is what Mr. and Mrs. Murry had been working on, and which caused Mr. Murry's disappearance.

Now, with words of wisdom, the gift of Mrs Which's glasses, and warnings that they must all stay together, the children are sent to the planet Camazotz.   Here, everyone is literally the same: the children all act the same, the parents all act the same, there is total uniformity.  The children decide to go to the CENTRAL Central Intelligence Center.  Here, they discover the Man With the Red Eyes, an evil being who has the power to hypnotize everyone and bend them to his uniform will.  Charles Wallace's high intelligence makes him vulnerable to the power and he becomes enchanted. 

He is really working for IT, a powerful brain that controls the group-think of Camazotz.  Meg and Calvin do discover Mr. Murry, who is held prisoner there because he refuses to succumb to group-think; with the Man With the Red Eyes growing in power, Mr. Murry tesseracts the two of them to another world via Mrs Which's glasses. 

The trip nearly kills Meg, who is angry that her beloved father couldn't rescue Charles Wallace and left him on Camazotz.  On the new planet of Ixchel, Meg is nursed back to health by Aunt Beast, a seemingly frightening-looking creature with four arms and tentacles but who is really gentle.  The Three Ws reappear, and give Meg the task of rescuing Charles Wallace.  She has one thing IT does not have, and back on Camazotz the normally kind Charles Wallace is sarcastic towards his 'dear sister'.  Finally, Meg realizes what she has that IT doesn't have: love.  Her love breaks the spell on Charles Wallace, and they all escape back to Earth by being tesseracted by the Three Ws. Calvin and Meg have fallen in love, and it adds to the joy of the family reunion where the Murrys are brought together at last.

One thing that A Wrinkle in Time has as a positive is relatable characters.  Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace read as real kids. There's the angry and insecure Meg, constantly talking herself down.  There's Calvin, the outwardly outgoing star athlete who hides an unhappy homelife where he is basically ignored by his family and feels out-of-place himself.  Charles Wallace (he is almost always to by his first and middle name): the bright child-genius who accepts his gift with a certain nonchalance.  The relationship between Meg and Charles Wallace, and the one that grows between Meg and Calvin, are believable.

There is a great fantastical vision in A Wrinkle in Time.  You've got the funny Three Ws, who are all unique characters. They have their own characteristics that makes them easily identifiable.  There is the quest: the search for the father.  You have an overwhelming sense of danger and fear with The Man With the Red Eyes.

Where I think A Wrinkle in Time kind of went off for me was with IT.  The idea of a disembodied brain being the center of this dark world strikes me as almost funny.  Somehow, all the evil or totalitarian nature of Camazotz being brought on by a brain seemed a pretty odd figure.  Why not have The Man With the Red Eyes be the actual dark figure?

Also, after the rescue, Mr. Murry didn't seem to be that big a part of the story.  I think he is almost a plot device, a reason for the quest but who doesn't enter into the story itself.

These are really minor points because the description of Camazotz as this dark place where everyone is the same is frightening. The descriptions of the other worlds is also well-done.

I don't think A Wrinkle in Time is meant to be Christian allegory like C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.  We do have quotes from the Old and New Testament (Aunt Beast quotes a version of Romans 8:28--"we are called according to His Purpose", and Mrs Who quotes a version of 1 Corinthians 1:27--"He uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise").  There is the acknowledgement of evil and of Supreme Being (that being God in the Judeo-Christian tradition).  However, I don't read A Wrinkle in Time as symbolic of a Christian story (unlike Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, which is symbolic of Christ's Death and Resurrection).  I don't think IT the brain is meant to represent Satan or Camazotz to be Hell.

Camazotz, however, could be something like Hell because the uniformity where everyone is exactly alike, all controlled by one being who decides all things for them and who punishes nonconformity, is a nightmare place.  Whether L'Engle meant to represent something like the Soviet Union or some other dictatorship I don't know.  However, it is open to interpretation.


A review for A Wrinkle in Time comments on how Meg's "refreshingly believable behavior resonated with" the reviewer, and I can see how that is possible.  The main characters are not perfect (they can be excessively self-assured or frightened and angry), but that's what makes them real.  I think young readers will appreciate that the characters were not perfect, in short, like them.   All the human characters are quite relatable, which works for the target audience.  The non-human characters are amusing or frightening when they have to be, and with some switches in perception (Aunt Beast being really kind despite her frightening looks) children will appreciate that judging by appearances is wrong.   I think that A Wrinkle in Time might make others want to read the other stories in the series.  I personally can take it or leave it, but wouldn't begrudge others who would like to learn more. 


I don't know what kind of program one could create for A Wrinkle in Time.  There might be a dress-up contest where children are invited to come as one of the Three Ws (Mrs Which would be the most creative since she never fully materializes) or Aunt Beast (which can lead to equally imaginative costumes).  We might sponsor a quiz-type contest to find the next Charles Wallace, and if one wanted to really frighten children, put in some Men With Red Eyes around the library for children to discover, maybe even have a staff member pop up with red eyes.  Hopefully though, they will find older children to scare. 

Madeleine L'Engle:


[Review of the book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle].  Retrieved from


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Fantasic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore: A Review

THE FANTASTIC FLYING BOOKS OF MR. MORRIS LESSMORE: By William Joyce, Illustrated by William Joyce and Joe Bluhm

Joyce, W. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2012).  New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore started out as an Academy Award-winning animated short, but that for me is icing on the cake, as the book version is one of the most beautiful books I've seen for children. Its art is so well-drawn and the story is really sweet and gentle that one cannot help get into it and be moved by one figure's lifelong love of books.

Morris Lessmore has an orderly life, writing one page a day about his life: the joys and sorrows it had.  One day though, a great storm blew everything away, including both Morris AND his story.  He begins wandering, and to his surprise he sees a woman flying away with a group of books acting as balloons.  His own book cannot fly, so to help him she sends one of the flying books to him.  The book leads him to an extraordinary building where the books 'nested'.  Here, Morris beings a life among the books.

He tries to keep them in order but finds it an impossible tasks.  The encyclopedias, tired of all their knowledge, would go to the comic books to relax.  The sad tragedies would fly to the comedies to cheer up.  Morris would fix the books and even get literally lost for days in one.  He soon started sharing all the books with others, declaring that "everyone's story matters".  Eventually, he gets old and must leave the books, his story ended.  The books are all sad, but discover he left his own story there, and this story is discovered by a little girl.  The Story of Morris Lessmore flies to her, and
begins his story.

If there is any other love letter to books, I have yet to encounter it.  The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a story about the joys of reading, of finding great joy in the written word. It is clear how it works: those who haven't discovered words or have lost them are in black-and-white, while those who do have words are brought to life in beautiful color. 

There is an open whimsy in the story, as we see Morris perform 'surgery' on a book (complete with stethoscope and a book as an EKG machine while the book that brought him to 'the nesting place (read, library) watches anxiously.

The book also manages to introduce the tough topic of death in a gentle manner without being overt.  Mr. Morris Lessmore has finished his own story, and now he must leave the books and fly away.  It isn't stated but one can surmise that he is about to die.  The chain however goes on, with now a new figure coming to the magical world with Morris' own story.

The illustrations are beautifully rendered, and the story is quite sweet and gentle.  As someone who works at a library, it is so lovely to see a world where books and the joy of reading are celebrated.  It is an enchanting, sweet story, short, simple, and a great way to introduce children to real magic...the magic of books. 


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Module 5--Esperanza Rising: A Review

 by Pam Munoz Ryan

Ryan, P.M. (2000).  Esperanza Rising.  New York, Scholastic Press.

There is a pun in Esperanza Rising that non-Spanish speaking people will miss, but for those who do speak or understand the language, it's very clear.  Esperanza is a woman's name (I had an aunt named Esperanza), but it also means "hope".  Thus, you have Esperanza the character rising (metaphorically, with the literal rising being more a fantasy of her own), and 'hope' rising within Esperanza after all the troubles and tribulations she endures.  Esperanza Rising is in my view the most beautiful book I've read all semester, one that I think will be beloved by readers of all ages and nationalities. 

Esperanza Ortega was a Mexican princess.  She is the daughter of wealthy landowners who are genuinely kind to their workers.  However, Mexico is still feeling the aftershocks of the Mexican Revolution, where the wealthy are resented.  Esperanza is eagerly awaiting Papa, whom she loves very much and shares a strong bond thanks to her being an only child.  However, right before her birthday, Papa is brought back, dead.  He was killed by bandits, leaving Esperanza, her mother Ramona, and her grandmother, known only as Abuelita (or Grandmother) devastated.

It also leaves them in the clutches of Esperanza's wicked uncles. Tio Luis, (or Uncle Luis) now has rights to the land (but not the house), and he decides that he will further his own political career by marrying his stepbrother's widow.  The prospect of this horrifies the women, but Tio Luis is determined.  So determined that when the house itself 'accidentally' catches fire, it is the motivation for them to flee to the United States.  Esperanza and Mama's loyal servants, Hortensia, her husband Alfonso, and their son Miguel (with whom Esperanza has grown up with), make a daring escape and eventually arrive in Los Angeles (Abuelita has to stay behind due to her injured ankle, staying with her sisters who joined a convent and putting her safely away from Tio Luis).

Esperanza has a hard time adjusting at first to all the radical changes. Though not a terrible or particularly spoiled girl, she still can't quite let go of how things used to be.  She still longs for her old life, but now her new life is that of a migrant worker, picking grapes, asparagus, and other fruits and vegetables during their various seasons. 

Marta, an American of Mexican descent and militant union organizer pre-Cesar Chavez, is openly contemptuous of Esperanza, mocking the 'little princess' for not knowing the simple things like how to sweep with a broom.  Esperanza is despondent over how her life is now, and not even Isabel, a younger girl who is Alfonso's little niece and who loves Esperanza, can help lighten her mood.

Mama works out in the fields along with the others at first while Esperanza takes care of the shack and the babies, eventually learning how to do things right.  Mama however, gets Valley Fever, which causes her to cough uncontrollably as it has affected her lungs.  Esperanza is really at wits end: she lost her father, is close to losing her mother, her grandmother is beyond reach, she has lost her whole way of life, and has nothing to hold onto.  Esperanza, however, decides to rise to the situation, and goes to work in the company packing plant, despite her age and gender.  Marta barely escapes getting rounded up and deported, thanks in part to Esperanza, who doesn't disclose that the agitator is hiding in the plant.  Marta now sees a new side to Esperanza.

Eventually, Esperanza manages to save enough money to bring Abuelita back, and Mama has become well enough to return to the camp (Esperanza having paid the medical bills).  She still finds life in America a rather hopeless one, berating Miguel for thinking he can rise above his station.  "You're still a peasant," she tells him, reminding him of his lowly status among the Anglo population which considers all Mexicans (and Americans of Mexican descent) one monolith group of uneducated field hands.  Angrily, Miguel tells her, "And you think you're still a queen," and leaves the camp...with all the money she had saved.  However, in the end, we find that Miguel has not taken the money for himself.  Instead, he is able to bring Abuelita to the camp, and Esperanza finds hope.

Esperanza Rising is again a simply beautiful book.  We see the journey of Esperanza from the mountains to the valleys and climbing back.  This symbolism of 'mountain and valleys' is given to us through the crochet knitting of Abuelita, Mama, and Esperanza.  Abuelita in particular reminds Esperanza before they are forced to flee that one has peaks and valleys in life.  However, it is the final line in the book that is the theme of Esperanza Rising, "Do not ever be afraid to start over".

Esperanza had to start over, and it wasn't an easy adjustment for her.  I think one can sympathize somewhat with Esperanza, even if at the beginning of her forced exile she still carried some of her old views.  For example, she cringed in horror at letting a poor little girl handle her precious doll, the last remnant of her old life of privilege. However, by the end we see that Esperanza has matured: she gives her precious doll to Isabel after Isabel lost being Queen of the May.  Isabel had her heart set on it, and if things had been fair she, who had the highest grades in school, would have won.  However, some reason was found to make a white girl Queen, but Isabel is too young and innocent to understand the reason she lost.

Discrimination is touched on in Esperanza Rising, as Esperanza is awakened to the bigotry all around her.  She sees how others hold her in contempt, despite that Esperanza is more educated than they are.  How the Mexicans are rounded up for protesting for better working conditions, some deported despite being American citizens, also angers her.  Esperanza starts sympathizing with the protesters, but Ryan is smart in not making the union organizers saintly and above reproach.  Instead, Ryan also shows the concerns of those not protesting, their need to keep food on the table and shelter over their family's heads.  The company camp is also not shown as this pit of despair but much better than most.  The company camp isn't romanticized or held to be a beautiful place.  It's dirty, ugly, and depressing.  However, the fact that the characters are together and genuinely love each other made things bearable.

The characters were all fully-drawn, neither being all good or all bad, but like all people, with flaws and virtues, moments of anger and moments of compassion.  Well, perhaps with the exceptions of Abuelita and Isabel, who were rather good and wise. 

Ryan has an interesting way of separating the chapters.  Rather than be numbered, they are given names of fruits and vegetables in both English and Spanish (Los Aguacates, Avocado and Las Uvas, Grapes for example).  There is use of Spanish throughout the book, but Ryan includes the translation right afterwards.  I think this reflects how Esperanza in the end started measuring time, not by months but by what produce they picked and packed.

Esperanza Rising is a pretty quick read and tells a wonderful story of a girl who lost much but is working her way to starting over, accepting that things are forever altered. 


Mary Ruth Donnelly in her review believes that because Ryan did not advocate for or against a side in the subplot of the union organizers it will "use the book in a wider variety of school setting".  I agree: by letting us decide who was right for their own situation, Esperanza Rising becomes in my view a more universal story. 

I think this book will appeal to all ages and ethnicities.  Hispanic children in particular will find figures and phrases they understand, and I think girls of all backgrounds will identify with a girl who rises to become a strong female.  As someone who is Hispanic, I was moved by Esperanza Rising, showing how our stories are also part of the extraordinary fabric of America.  My background is a little different than Esperanza Ortega.  We weren't from a rich family, we never actually worked in the fields, and my father's side was proudly American (almost redneck in a way).  Still, Pam Munoz Ryan has created a wonderful story that all people can relate to.


Any activities connected to Esperanza Rising might be a jamaica, a party for the community that can be organized for the public at large.  As part of the feast, we can include all the various fruits mentioned.  It might also be good to speak to actual migrant farm workers to speak on their experiences.  Folklorico music and dance would also be I think a welcome presentation, bringing Mexican culture to audiences. 

Pam Munoz Ryan:
Born 1951


Donnelly, M. R. [Review of Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan].  Retrieved from

Friday, February 20, 2015

Module 5--Remember: The Journey to School Integration: A Review

by Toni Morrison

*Author's note.  As I understand it, the Youth Literature class requires the Module Number to be listed in the title of the review and not within the review itself.  As a result, for the term I will add "Module X" in the title. 

Morrison, T. (2004).  Remember: The Journey to School Integration.  Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Given how I detested The Bluest Eye, I was surprised at how I enjoyed Remember. The former horrified me and I grew to dislike Toni Morrison, thinking her reputation as this literary genius wildly overrated.  Remember, on the other hand, is a much better book.  I think it has to do with the fact that Morrison knows that her audience of children need a different tone and manner when speaking to them.  Remember has a very gentle tone as Morrison uses photos to tell the story, good and bad, of when schools were integrated.  A mixture of photos and brief commentary told through the viewpoint of the pictures' subjects make up the book, and Morrison combines both so well they flow naturally together.

We start with a brief opening where we are told the book is about "you", even though the reader is in a post-integration world.  We get a brief background about how before Brown v. Board of Education, schools were segregated (blacks and whites could not go to school, or anywhere really, together).  "Separate but equal" was not equal, and we get how Morrison herself felt in 1953 when she travelled South, a year before the Brown decision.

From there, we get the main text of Remember, which is divided into three sections: The Narrow Path, The Open Gate, and The Wide Road.  The first section presents how black children's education was pretty shabby: dilapidated schools, long walks to go to the 'Negro' school when whites-only schools were closer.  The second section, the longest, starts with the Supreme Court ruling and again with pictures and text we get the shock of integration.  Photos detail both the positives (children walked to school by their parents without incident, small children of all races calmly accepting their new classmates), and negatives (older students giving them the cold shoulder at best, their parents being downright violent at worst or simply boycotting the school).  The final section goes beyond school integration, touching on how the Civil Rights movement expanded to break down segregation throughout all sections of society. 

Remember is an excellent book.  The text is simple enough for children to understand without being patronizing.  I think it is a good idea to show that some people were violently opposed to integration and that their reaction is chronicled through the photos.  Sometimes Morrison doesn't write text to accompany the pictures.  Instead, she has the pictures compliment each other and let the reader draw his/her own ideas.  For example, on one page she has a group of teen white girls yelling in anger, and the other has a group of young black boys walking towards the camera, a little hesitant as they go to school.

While there is no way to know whether they were actually related in both incidents taking place at the same date and time, Remember mixes them so well that the underlying message (whites were displeased to see blacks going to the same schools whites attended) is made clear.  Contrast this with another set of photos, where small children, black and white, were sharing elementary school with nary a thought or interest in the differences between the two groups.  As far as they were concerned, the message the children are pointing to in one photo ("Let's All Work Together"), speaks for itself. 

Morrison also uses the pictures to allow us to read their minds, or at least give an interpretation about what could have been going through their minds.  One photo has a group of white boys holding signs opposing integration, but Morrison's text has a questioning style.  It suggests that it was peer pressure, not genuine belief, that motivated them coming down to protest integration. 

"I don't know.  My buddies talked me into this.  They said it would be fun.  It's not, but these guys are my friends and friends are more important than strangers.  Even if they're wrong.  Aren't they?"
This was an extremely bright idea.  It shows that perhaps the people opposing integration really might not have wanted to.  Again, it's impossible to know for sure without asking them, and even that might be suspect.  However, Morrison makes clear she herself doesn't know, but that she is taking creative license to make her point. 


I think Remember does an excellent job presenting a very difficult subject to younger readers of all races.  I think it goes beyond appealing to black audiences and can be appreciated by all readers of all backgrounds.    However, a reviewer commented that it was odd how events were placed out of order (the last part of Remember is on lunch counter protests and the bus boycott, which took place prior to the Brown decision).  The writer comments that this is a 'problem', suggesting that it is mixing history with fallible memory.

I did not think this was a major issue, though perhaps it might give young readers a misinterpretation of history.  However, given that Remember is not about the whole Civil Rights Movement, but on just one aspect of it (integration), particularly from a child's point of view, I think we don't have to worry too much on strict historic accuracy.  I think the book is suppose to be part history, part memory, and as such, the jumbled history structure is not a deal-breaker. 

The title is Remember, and memory emphasizes certain points while not focusing on others.  I think the point of Remember is about memory, about impressions, about feelings.  We go into the minds of the figures in the pictures, but its a fictional interpretation.  Morrison doesn't know exactly what they were thinking or feeling.  Instead, she just wants to convey impressions, suggestions, not strict history. I think it works, and while I'm normally a stickler for historical accuracy, I think Remember does a good job giving impressions, which again I think was its goal. 


A good program I think would be to encourage visitors to rope off a certain area and make it For Grumgrawls Only.  Obviously, there is no such thing as a Grumgrawl, but it might give people pause to wonder of when people were segregated.  I also think having students reenact the Little Rock Nine going into the high school would be a good presentation. 

I'm reluctant to have displays that openly present the ugliness of segregation, fearing people might misinterpret them.  However, perhaps a display where certain books are presented "For Whites Only" and "For Blacks Only" might drive the message home.  I would leave that to the librarians' discretion. 


Review of the book REMEMBER: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison]. Retrieved from

Toni Morrison:
Born 1931

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Module 4--Johnny Tremain: A Review


Forbes, E.  (1943). Johnny Tremain. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Johnny Tremain is a book detailing the early days of the American Revolution.  Its subtitle is A Story of Boston in Revolt.  It is a bit longer than I remember it, but it is still an excellent story of a young man, brought down a bit by an accident, who finds new purpose as what I would call a Grandson of Liberty.

Johnathan Lyte Tremain, generally known as Johnny, is an orphan who is apprenticed to Mr. Latham, a silversmith with two other apprentices and a large family of daughters.  Johnny is an expert apprentice, so talented that even the legendary silversmith Paul Revere knows of him.  Revere himself has offered Johnny the chance to work with him, suggesting he could go to Mr. Latham, who is showing less and less interest in running his shop, and buying the remainder of Johnny's time.  Johnny, however, feels a certain obligation to the Lathams and believes the family will starve without Johnny to do the work. 

Johnny has been a little arrogant in his way, knowing he's the best at the job.  Mr. Latham keeps warning him that pride cometh before a fall, but Johnny is too sure of himself to take this seriously.  The Lathams get a commission from John Hancock himself.  Mr. Latham has a reputation of not turning in work on time, and everyone except Mr. Latham is concerned about not finishing the work for one of the wealthiest men in town.  With the consent of Mrs. Latham, Johnny works on the Sabbath (which is illegal in Boston at the time); however, Johnny is injured while working.  One of the other apprentices, Dove, wanted to teach Johnny a lesson by handing him a cracked crucible.  Johnny's hand is violently injured and becomes useless for silversmith work or most work really.

As a result, Johnny slips into a terrible depression.  Mr. Latham wants him to stay on as long as he needs, but Mrs. Latham wants him to go and thinks he will eventually slip into crime.  Johnny wanders about Boston, looking for something he can do.  Eventually, he seeks out a distant relative, Mr. Lyte, whom his late mother told him to go to when there was simply no other way out.  He was to show a silver cup that was in Johnny's family that belongs to the larger Lyte family, proving they are related.  Mr. Lyte, however, is a greedy man, and accuses Johnny of stealing the cup.  Only the fact that Johnny had shown the cup to Cilla, one of the Latham daughters, prior to meeting Lyte saves him from the gallows.

Rafe Spall as John Hancock in
Sons of Liberty
Johnny is still in need of work, and eventually he comes to be at the Boston Observer, a newspaper that is passionately Whig (pro-independence from the British Crown).  Rab, the printer's apprentice, is passionately pro-Sons of Liberty but generally reserved and unruffled.  Soon Johnny, who knows little of politics, becomes passionately Whig, him too swept up by the words and thoughts of people like Revere, Hancock, and Samuel Adams, all of whom he's met and has done work for.

Johnny's pro-independence work includes participating in the Boston Tea Party, doing a bit of spy work for the Sons of Liberty, passing messages for the Committee of Correspondence, and serving special punch for Observer meetings, with members so secret their names are not written down.  Finally, the 19th of April, 1775 arrives, and while Johnny was not there when 'the shot heard round the world' was fired, he is there in the aftermath.  Cilla, who was taken as a maid by Johnny's distant relative, the beautiful Lavinia Lyte, and Johnny eventually do fall in love.   Lavinia decides to leave Boston for London (where she was a hit in society), taking both her very ill father and Isannah, Cilla's younger sister who is enchanted by all the pretty things.  Rab is killed at Lexington, and while Johnny is sad, he gets good news from Dr. Joseph Warren: his hand injury is not as bad as he thinks.  With simple surgery, Johnny Tremain may not fully return to silversmithing, but he can fire a musket.

Johnny Tremain I think did a better job in mixing fact and fiction regarding the American Revolution than the recent Sons of Liberty miniseries.  While the miniseries was entertaining, even exciting, the idea of turning the intellectual Samuel Adams into a hot action star, leaping roofs almost Spider-Man like, would have astounded Adams (given he was 43 when he was alleged to be flying through the air with the greatest of ease, something I'd like to do at MY age, let alone at 43).  It might even have made him laugh (though I imagine having him played by a British actor would have angered him).

Johnny Tremain, on the other hand, works as a true historic fiction and a wonderful introduction for children to American history. I think this is because we get to see events through fiction eyes with the real-life characters integrated naturally rather than altering the real-life figures to fit a narrative.  John Hancock for example, went into the Latham shop for business, which would be reasonable.  As Johnny was an apprentice silversmith, it isn't too far-fetched to imagine Paul Revere knowing Johnny by reputation.  Johnny hears Sam Adams speak, and all these things Forbes integrates into the plot easily.  I think because Johnny is fictional, and because the American Revolution is a part of the story, not the whole story itself, Johnny Tremain keeps a better balance overall.

Johnny Tremain is not just about the early days of the American Revolution. It is also about young Johnny's journey from the heights of hope to the depths of despair.  Starting out as a cocky fourteen year old, his injury is debilitating not just physically but emotionally.  His whole identity is wrapped around being a silversmith, of making great work.  Once his hand was crippled, he became crippled.  Forbes doesn't shy away from showing Johnny in despair, who has reached the end of his rope and is struggling to survive and build a new life.  Forbes slowly but surely builds Johnny back up in a realistic manner.  She allows Johnny and even Rab a moment of levity when Rab takes Johnny to a family reunion and both dance joyfully with all the pretty girls.

About the only flaw I can find is that Johnny Tremain felt a lot longer than when I first read it.  However, I still enjoyed the book very much and think boys in particular will like it.  The main character is relatable, there is action, a realistic romance that plays out slowly but believably, and we get introduced to important historical leaping on rooftops required.


The Kirkus Review for Johnny Tremain commented that "the story is slight, the romance slighter."  This I think is not entirely accurate.  I found the story quite rich both in detail and in history.  However, the romance is not a major part of either Johnny Tremain the character or Johnny Tremain the book.   The book is more about Johnny's dual evolution: from the cocky apprentice to the humbled destitute boy and back to a more confident patriot, and as an apolitical figure to a fierce Revolutionary who now takes arms against the British.  The romance is I think secondary.  It provides an entry to the larger Latham story than his own tenuous connection, but I think the romance worked well.  It was quiet, slowly evolving like many romances, and leaves the reader wondering whether Johnny and Cilla will get together.  In short, it was more about the Revolution than about romance, so the idea that the romance storyline was 'slight', while accurate, is I think a bit misguided.


I think a couple of good programs would be to have a silver display or invite American Revolution re-enactors to present.  Since we have the Boston Tea Party part of the plot, I would recommend having an actual tea party, complete with costumes to match Lavinia and Izzy's wardrobe.  It might also be good to invite a band to perform patriotic songs, including the theme heard in Johnny Tremain as the British march out of Boston: Yankee Doodle.    


Book Review: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes.  Kirkus Reviews.  Retrieved from

Esther Forbes

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Module 2--The Westing Game: A Review

 by Ellen Raskin

Raskin, E. (1978).  The Westing Game.  E.P. Dutton: New York

The Westing Game is a child-centric mystery which has touches of And Then There Were None and The Casual Vacancy (though the latter was written long after The Westing Game) while I found it sometimes a dull read I also found that at times it was actually a bit clever.

Sixteen different people, some as families, some as singles, are brought together to live at Sunset Towers, a new high-rise apartment complex facing Lake Michigan and the home of Sam Westing, a fabulously wealthy but reclusive individual.  The various families live and sometimes work at Sunset.  There are the Hoos: son Doug, a track star, is a bit of a disappointment to his father James, who would rather his son help him and his new (and younger) Chinese wife at their restaurant on the top floor.  James also dislikes the competition he's getting from the coffee shop at the ground floor, run by the Theodorakis family: Theo, an aspiring writer, his disabled brother Chris, and their father George. 

Also in the apartment is the Wexler family: podiatrist Jake (also a bookie), his uppity wife Grace, and their two daughters: the beautiful Angela and the miscreant Turtle (Tabitha-Ruth), who is passionate about the stock market despite being 13.  We also have seamstress Flora Baumbach, judge J.J. Ford, cleaning lady Berthe Erica Crow, doorman Sandy McSoutherns, delivery boy Otis Amber (boy being a misnomer given he's in his sixties) and Sydell Pulaski, a secretary who craves attention but was inserted into the Westing game by mistake.  Sydell was mistaken for a Sybil Pulaski when the group was brought together.

At first, the neighbors rarely interact, until they are named heirs to the Westing fortune.  However, Samuel Westing in his will tells them that he was really one of them!  Further, in order to get the money they will be paired off, given a set number of clues, and then attempt from those clues to solve Westing's 'murder'.  We get them becoming suspicious of each other, there are few bombs that go off that except for Angela cause no real harm, and we find that the characters are in one way or another connected to the Westing family.  In the end, only Turtle really finds out the truth about Westing, but keeps her promise to remain silent.  We learn the fates of everyone involved in the Westing game in the end.

I don't know why The Westing Game is so beloved by people.  I remember back in middle school a lot of my friends/classmates read or knew about The Westing Game.  I didn't read it back then, and perhaps I would have enjoyed it if I had since back then, I was crazy about Agatha Christie.  However, reading it now I find it parts idiotic, parts mean-spirited.  The clues as I read them were clearly connected to the song America the Beautiful, but I kept wondering why none of the other characters until late in the game managed to think that.  Now, it might be that Raskin wanted the reader to know all that.  It is also true that the reader had all the clues while the characters just had a few.  However, even when I read just one or two of the groups America the Beautiful was the first thing to pop to mind, which made one of the character's names (Otis Amber) a really easy clue to figure out. 

I said it had similarities, to me at least, to J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, and that has to do with the fact that I found pretty much everyone in the book unlikable.  Turtle I figure was suppose to be humorous in that she would kick anyone in the shins if they pulled her braids, but in the book, but I found her more annoying than endearing.  Granted, she did cover up for the real bomber, but I wasn't too thrilled with the idea of bombing in general (as benign as they might be).  Her mother Grace was the worst: virtually ignoring Turtle for the sake of Angela (who was pushed into marriage to the intern Dr. Deere, a real doctor, not like her unfortunately podiatrist husband), she was in many ways quite bigoted.  She wasn't too thrilled with the idea that her husband was Jewish, and made assumptions about Asians.  Crowe's religious fanaticism also didn't sit well with me, as if it were somehow mocking Christians as these wild-eyed loons.  Chris Theodorakis, who is disabled, is a result of an accident that left him both incapable of controlling his body and with a speech impediment.  That struck me as close to ridiculing the disabled.  Yes, he was really bright and in the end he got something of a cure (he never walked again but the spasms and speech were kept in control), but I still wasn't fond of it.

Raskin also used some now-unacceptable terms when describing people.  Flora's daughter died prior to the events of The Westing Game, and the child is referred to as a "Mongoloid", which for people with Down's Syndrome I think is a slur. 

I had some questions about the plot as well.  Why go through all these bombings which if memory serves correct weren't connected or thinly connected to the mystery?  In the will, we get stage directions written into it (at one point, the lawyer reads from the text of the will, "Sit down Grace Wexler", but I think it's a little TOO convenient to know Grace would stand up in shock).

I did find the bit about 'directions' to be clever and something I wasn't expecting.   I also liked the fact that just about everyone, even the variations of Westing, got a happy ending of sorts.  I also as I noted said it reminded me of And Then There Were None in how all the characters are connected in a roundabout way. 

However, on the whole I was surprised at the violence within it (all those bombs, one which left Angela scarred for life), I thought the plot didn't hold well together.  I didn't care who won the Westing Game and felt it buildup and praise for it is extremely exaggerated.


I find that in the last point, I am in the minority.  Elizabeth Bird, a New York City Public Library Youth Materials Collection Specialist, praised it as an ode to capitalism.  Roberto De Leon, a public library teacher, noted like I did the similarity to a Christie novel ("an elaborate homage to her favorite author Agatha Christie", he called it), and went on to call The Westing Game a masterpiece.  I wouldn't go that far.  I think younger readers might enjoy it, but for myself, I found no pleasure in The Westing Game and find it a terrible disappointment.   I do, however, see how it is similar to an Agatha Christie novel: a variety of suspects, many with secrets but not strictly connected to the crime, and gathering them to solve the crime.


As for any use in the library, perhaps a display for mystery novels would work.  I could offer also a scavenger hunt for clues, complete with a shadowy figure giving clues for prizes, or even a singing of America the Beautiful as it was a major plot point. 

Ellen Raskin


Bird, E. (2012).  Top 100 Children's Novels #9: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.  A Fuse 8 Production.

De Leon, R. (2013).  A Nerdy Retro Review of Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game.  Nerdy Book Club.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Module 3--So You Want to Be President? A Review

By Judith St. George,
Illustrated by David Small

St. George, J. (2000). So You Want to Be President?. New York, Philomel Books.

Curiously, like another Caldecott winner (From Ashanti to Zulu), So You Want to Be President? is an educational book.  However, unlike the elegant and more serious From Ashanti to Zulu, So You Want to Be President? takes a more light-hearted take on the Chief Executive, one that relates to children's lives while showing the variety of Presidents. 

It covers facts about the Presidents with a wry sense of humor.  For example, it asks if the reader was born in a log cabin.  It adds that since it's not likely that they were, it's "too bad" because "people are crazy about log-cabin Presidents", pointing out that eight Presidents were born in log cabins.  It also points out that one President, William Harrison, made a log cabin part of his persona despite being born in a Virginia mansion.

So You Want to Be President? also shows some of the perks of the Presidency, again in a humorous way.  It mentions that the President has a swimming pool, bowling alley, and movie theater. "The President never has to take out the garbage", the book adds.  To underscore the bowling alley, the illustration is that of President Richard Nixon leaping for joy (complete with his "V for Victory" sign) when he has a strike, with two background figures politely applauding while one gets his own bowling ball ready.  For those who don't recognize the figures, the end of the book has their names: Pat Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Gerald Ford. 

However, the book points out that it's not all roses at the top.  "The President has to be polite to everyone.  The President can't go anywhere alone.  The President has lots of homework."

The information is highly interesting, informative, even amusing.  The infamous Taft bathtub gets a mention, where President Taft was so heavy (over three hundred pounds) that he had to have a special bathtub made (one that could fit four regular-sized men).  This is underscored with a hilarious illustration of the President, chicken leg in one hand, champagne glass in the other, being lowered into the tub by a construction crane.  When it discusses the various jobs the President has had prior to his election, again it takes an education and humorous tone.

So You Want to Be President? mentions that Harry Truman ran a men's clothing store, Andrew Johnson was a tailor, and Ronald Reagan was a movie star.  To illustrate this (no pun intended), we see a caricature of President Truman at the register, while President Reagan gets measured for a suit by President Johnson.  Yes, it is historically inaccurate to show all three of them as contemporaries, but I think it shows that the book is not taking itself seriously.

We get a wide variety of information both amusing (such as when President John Quincy Adams had his clothes taken while skinny-dipping) and interesting (like President Andrew Johnson, who could not read until he was fourteen).  It handles this information beautifully by having the illustration show the future President with a chalkboard in his hand writing out his ABCs. 

It also handles the less savory aspects of the Presidency in a clever and intelligent way.  "One thing is certain, if you want to be President--and stay President--be honest."  Here, it discusses the resignation of President Nixon and the impeachment of President Clinton by illustrating both Presidents walking with heads bowed away from the Lincoln Memorial in shades of grey, evoking both dusk and the darkness of the scandals.

For the most part though,  So You Want to Be President? takes a really fun and lighthearted view of the Presidency while providing information children will find interesting (and secretly informative).  The illustrations are in a similar vein: cute and amusing.  Pointing out the various musical talents of previous Presidents, we see a 'band' of Presidents with Chester A. Arthur playing the banjo as Presidents Truman and Nixon share a piano.  We even see the normally stale President Woodrow Wilson cut a mean rug when we read he enjoyed doing the jig. 

As this book was originally published in 2000, So You Want to Be President? will need constant updating.  The book ends with the mention that no woman or 'person of color' has been President, and it shows this by showing a black man and Geraldine Ferraro roped off from a gathering of Presidents.  An updated edition will now mention the first black President, Barack Obama, and in 2017 should she be elected, it will mention President Hillary Clinton. 

I think children will find So You Want to Be President? lighthearted, amusing, and a great resource should they want to write a paper on the Presidency or a particular President.


This pleasant tone is echoed by New York Times reviewer Steven R. Weisman, who commented about So You Want to Be President? that "it takes the reader on a chatty tour, introducing characteristics of all 41 chief executives from a child's point of view."  Weisman goes on to add that while children may find it easy to read, it might be better to have the child read it with an adult.  I think Weisman's suggestion is a good one.  While the tone is pretty upbeat, there are moments in So You Want to be President? that would lead to good discussions about politics, about morality, about work.  Yes, the President has a lot of perks, but he or she has a lot of responsibilities.  A book like this would be a good way to teach kids about things like responsibilities and duties.  Not to suggest the book or instructions have to be boring.  The book itself is quite cheery, and any lessons could be done in that style. 


As I think on potential uses for So You Want to Be President?, the best times would be during President's Day or an upcoming election.  You might have children set up 'voting booths' where they can ask patrons to vote on a completely non-controversial topic (Disneyland vs. Disney World, Katniss vs. Tris, Hogwarts' Class President: Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, Draco Malfoy, Neville Longbottom, Luna Lovegood).  An activity where they can build a log cabin or a scavenger hunt where you place Presidential portraits around the library in exchange for either a small prize or a copy of So You Want to Be President? are also some ideas.


Weisman, S. (2000, September 17). Children's Books: So You Want to Be President?, New York Times. Retrieved from

Judith St. George
Born 1939

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Module 3--Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions. A Review

by Margaret Musgrove,
Illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon

Musgrove, M. (1976). Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions.  New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

Ashanti to Zulu is an interesting book in that it doesn't tell a story but instead is educational while simultaneously being highly entertaining.  It goes through every letter of the alphabet to give brief information of twenty-six distinct African people.  Each ethnic group is illustrated with figures that show them in traditional dress.

Each blurb has the group's name provided with the phonetic pronunciation. For example, the Quimbande have next to their name this: (keem-bahn-deh).  Each section tells something unique about the group.  For example, the Quimbande believe in polygamy, where "children can have as many as twenty-five brothers and sisters if their father can afford them".  The Tuareg (twah-reg) people, for their part, have the men wear veils while the women, unveiled, are the more verbal of the two with the men sitting quietly as the women converse.

In terms of story, there is none. Nothing ties one ethnic group to the other.  They never meet and they are so varied that the Masai and the Xhosa would not sense a similarity in their worlds.  Instead, Ashanti to Zulu gives us a fascinating look into the variety of African cultures.  From Ashanti to Zulu instead has as its purpose to give information on each group, which while brief is still highly interesting.  Some, like the Baulle, give us a legend about the group (how they were saved from the enemy by crocodiles in exchange for their most precious object, which in this case was the queen's only son.  Others, like the Lozi, as a people move to higher ground when the Zambezi River floods; the Royal Ship called the Nalikwanda leads all other ships that contain not just the people but stoves and even cows.         

Ashanti to Zulu I think makes learning about the various peoples of Africa interesting due to the brevity of the text for each group as well as due to the beautiful illustrations.  The Dillons add rich details to each drawings. For example, the desert people's illustrations are dominated by shades of yellow to reflect their world. Those in the more lush parts are more green. 

Granted, Ashanti to Zulu is more educational than entertaining, which makes it a rarity among Caldecott winners in that it doesn't tell a specific story.  A child, though, I believe will find it interesting not just because we see a wide variety of African people but because the illustrations are so well-done and because the information is brief. 


The Kirkus Review was quite harsh on Ashanti to Zulu.  "This prescribed format gives a superficial air of sameness to the pictures even though the Dillons are careful to depict differences in headdress, dwelling structure, etc., and it gives the pages a static, stilted look which the illustrators do nothing to allay."  I can see the review has a point: there is no variation to the style both in text and illustrations (though the illustrations are very lavish).  I don't think, thought, that Ashanti to Zulu that it was meant to be a deep exploration of various African cultures.  I think the reviewer missed the points of Ashanti to Zulu: to serve as an unofficial introduction to the alphabet (in the same way A is for Apple, or A is for A if you're an Ayn Rand follower), and as a primer on the distinct African cultures.  Ashanti to Zulu is meant to just touch on the cultures, presenting tidbits to young readers and give them beautiful illustrations to look at.  I think the illustrations bring elegance and dignity to their subjects (which I think most fitting).   I also think children, at this stage, welcome repetition.  It creates a steady pace that they can follow without worrying about change.  In that respect, Ashanti to Zulu is a great success, one that I would happily read to my child.


A wonderful opportunity to use Ashanti to Zulu would be during any Black History Month presentation.  You could offer an African face mask competition/program, invite African dance troupes (if available) to perform, or invite children to create their own stories around one of the 26 nations presented in the book. You may even have a storyteller present traditional African tales to children or adults. 


Book Review: Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove.  Kirkus Reviews.  Retrieved from

Monday, February 2, 2015

Module 2--Strega Nona: A Review

STREGA NONA: Written and Illustrated by Tomie dePaola

DePaola, T. (1975). Strega Nona. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Strega Nona is billed as 'an original tale', probably because it is told and reads as if it were an old Italian fable. 

In Calabria, everyone goes to Strega Nona (or Grandma Witch) to cure what ails them.  Even the priests and nuns from the convent go to her, and she can fix anything from warts to love potions.  However, she's getting on in years, so she goes to the town square to put up a Help Wanted ad.  Answering it is Big Anthony, who doesn't pay attention.  He is a good worker, but one day he spies Strega Nona using her magic pasta pot, which cooks by itself at her command and stops at her command.  Unfortunately for him, he didn't see Strega Nona blow three kisses that complete the part of the spell where she stops the pasta cooking.

Big Anthony goes to town, tells everyone about the pot (despite being told not to use the pot) and cooks for the whole town.  He can't stop it though because he doesn't blow the kisses.  Soon the town is coming under attack by pasta.  Fortunately, Strega Nona arrives from her journey to see all this and blows the three kisses to stop the pasta.  The town is grateful to Strega Nona for saving them, but she has a problem.  There is all this extra pasta and her house is completely drowned in it.  She wants to sleep in her own bed tonight, so there's only one thing for it: Big Anthony has to eat ALL THE PASTA.

Strega Nona, after reading it, reminded me a bit of The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence from Fantasia.   In both tales we have essentially a servant who uses magic that he has seen his master/mistress use; it starts out well, then gets out of control. The servant can't stop it and then the master/mistress sees things in total chaos.  The wizard/witch saves the day, and the servant is punished...mildly.  "The punishment must fit the crime," Strega Nona tells the town that wants to hang up Big Anthony for putting them all in danger of death by pasta (what a way to go). 

Above all else, I think dePaola's illustrations are immensely beautiful.  They are simple and simultaneously elaborate.  You can see the richness of the drawings by the way dePaola has the characters dress.  Interestingly, dePaola tends to have most if not all his characters see in profile and in formation, as if they were one group facing one direction.  He does illustrate characters to face us, but on the whole this is rare. 

The illustrations also help emphasize the story.  In the opening, we are told that the town talks about Strega Nona, but they still go to her, even the religious who might be told to stay away from a witch.  The drawings show people whispering on the upper part of the illustration, but the lower part shows that the group of people are there, including the priest and nuns from the convent.

This is a great way to show early readers how words tie in to actions and how the drawings match what is written down. 

The story itself is quite simple and direct: don't mess about with things you don't understand.  Strega Nona had made it very clear that Big Anthony was not to touch the pot, but he did so anyway.  I think Strega Nona shows that Big Anthony wasn't bad.  It does say more than once that his flaw was that 'he didn't pay attention'.  Also, he used the pot to show that he wasn't a liar since the town laughed at him for making such a ridiculous claim that a pot could cook itself.  In short, he wasn't a bad figure, and the ending shows that he got his just desserts (no pun intended).

There are only two real characters: Strega Nona and Big Anthony.  Everyone else is a mere townsperson save the Mayor, who is angry at Big Anthony for the chaos he created.  However, Strega Nona is more about Big Anthony, as he is the one who sets everything into motion.  We really see the story from his perspective.  Strega Nona is the starting point, but the story isn't about her.  It really is about Big Anthony trying to show he can do something he shouldn't (and something he can't control).  Strega Nona herself is just the catalyst for the situation.  You could have created any story around Strega Nona (the man who was cured of his warts, the girl who found a husband, the lady cured of her headache), but alone Strega Nona in Strega Nona needed someone to act opposite.  Therefore, I'd say the story is about Big Anthony and not Strega Nona herself. 

Strega Nona is a very sweet little tale, though perhaps a bit text-heavy for really early readers to tackle.  It is best to read this to children barely learning to read, as the illustrations will help children understand the concepts of the text.  Children will enjoy the beautiful drawings and the positive story of being true to your word.  It has humor, sweetness, and again simply beautiful illustrations.


The concept of Strega Nona mirroring The Sorcerer's Apprentice is noted by Field Norma Malina's review, who called the story a 'variation' on Sorcerer's Apprentice.  Malina also noted that the illustrations, with their 'muted colors', captured a Mediterranean style.  I think both statements are entirely accurate, and I also think dePaola had that in mind.  He wanted to create a story that was simple, sweet, with a good moral.  He's also talked about how Disney films influenced him as a child, so I don't think it's surprising that The Sorcerer's Apprentice seeped its way into the story.  DePaola also was intelligent in working his illustrations to mirror the style of Italy, which lends it an air of authenticity, as if it really was an old legend rather than dePaola's original creation.


The library would be best served to have a program where the public is invited to a big Italian dinner.  It would be a positive to invite any Italian or Italian-American groups to use Strega Nona as an entry for the community at large.  Strega Nona could also be used to create a costume contest as the characters of the series.  It might even be a way to introduce an Italian-language course or programs on Mediterranean cultures.    

Tomie dePaola:
Born 1934


Norma Malina, F. (2003). Review of Strega Nona. In S. Peacock (Ed.), Children's Literature Review (Vol. 81). Detroit: Gale. (Reprinted from New York Times Book Review, 1975, August, 8).