Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X: A Review

THE YELLOW STAR: THE LEGEND OF KING CHRISTIAN X OF DENMARK: by Carmen Agra Deedy, Illustrated by Henri Sorensen

Deedy, C. (2000).  The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark. Peachtree Publishers, Atlanta.

The Yellow Star has as a subtitle The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark because the story of the Danish King's act of defiance against Nazi tyranny is just that: a legend.  It is a story that has been told often but which has no historic basis.  It's an apocryphal story but despite that, The Yellow Star's purpose was not to be historically accurate in that respect.  The overlying message about the importance of personal courage and the truth about the commonality of individuals is what mattered most.

King Christian X is beloved by the Danes.  He rides on his horse through the streets of the capital, Copenhagen, without armed escort.  This astounds foreigners but they are told that all Danes would guard their monarch. 

However, Denmark has fallen under the Nazi reign of terror.  They first decide to install the Nazi flag above the palace.  His Majesty orders it taken down.  When told by the Nazi official that if any soldier the King sends takes it down, that soldier will be shot, His Majesty replies that they better be prepared to execute King Christian X, for HE will be said soldier. 

The Nazi flag never flew above the palace again.

This is a small victory, but a greater battle is coming.  The Nazis have ordered that all Danish Jews wear the yellow star that distinguishes them from their Gentile neighbors.  The King is worried: he does not want the Jewish Danes marked, but there is no way the Danish Army can take a stand.  While walking on the balcony and observing the stars, an idea comes to him.  Summoning the royal tailor, he instructs him to make a small alteration to the royal uniform.

The next day, His Majesty King Christian X of Denmark takes his daily ride...wearing a yellow Star of David upon his uniform.  The defiant Danes, following His Majesty's example, all wear the yellow star, Jew and Gentile alike.  They are all one people. 

Where I think The Yellow Star kind of missed the mark was at the actual climatic moment: when His Majesty took his traditional morning horse ride through Copenhagen after the edict requiring Jews to wear the Yellow Star.  Here is this great moment, in fact THE moment in The Yellow Star, and illustrator Sorensen all but hides the yellow star on His Majesty's uniform.  Yes, you can see it, but it is almost hidden by the horse's ear.  Furthermore, the King is seen almost at a distance, while his people take a gander at their king and his new threads.

I wonder, was that a deliberate decision on both Sorensen and Deedy's part?  The text itself doesn't specifically state that the King wore a yellow star through the streets of Copenhagen.  It just remarks on his "courage and defiance" and how he was dressed in "his finest clothing".  Maybe the point wasn't to draw attention to it.  Maybe we as the reader are suppose to get just enough information without having it put up front. 

However, since the entire point of The Yellow Star is to discuss the legendary (and in all likelihood, false) story of the King who defied the Nazis, I do wonder why the most pivotal moment in the book was given a bit of a short-shrift.

However, the actual book is quite good.  It is targeted towards children, and it is both respectful of the Holocaust without having to go into detail about the true horror of the Shoah.   We see this when in the story, the Danes are reflecting on the "terrible stories" about Jews in other countries.  It is the only section where instead of vibrant colors, we get sepia tones.  This panel also shows other barbarisms, like Kristallnacht, without making comment on it. 

I think children will draw what information is required (the Jews were brutalized during this time), but the writer and illustrator were right in holding back the more gruesome aspects.  First, such information is really too brutal for children.  Second, the story itself doesn't focus on the Holocaust itself, but on the actions of the Danish people and in particular their King, during the war.

The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark, is a well-written story, with simple words that children will understand.  It has some beautiful illustrations and tells its story simply, directly, with just enough detail to trust the reader to understand the wrongness of the Nazi action and the courage of both the Danes and their monarch.   

Carmen Agra Deedy

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Module 9--The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery: A Review

by: Nancy Springer

Springer, N. (2006). The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery. Philomel Books, New York. 

Sherlock Holmes is a true icon of literature, one of the few fictional characters universally known and recognized.  Since his first story was published, Sherlock Holmes has spun all sorts of fictional works outside Canon (the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).   Minor Canon characters like Irene Adler (THE Woman) and Professor Moriarty (one of his greatest foes) have spun off their own adventures. 

There are stories still being written that expand on the Holmes universe.  There are the Mary Russell stories (who went from being Holmes' protégé to his wife), The Final Solution (written by Michael Chabon) and even suggestions that another fictional character (Nero Wolfe) might be Sherlock Holmes' love child (with Irene Adler as the mother).  On television, the character of Holmes is the lead on two successful and acclaimed television series: BBC's Sherlock and CBS' Elementary.  There's also been a pair of successful Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey, Jr. and an upcoming film, Mr. Holmes, with Sir Ian McKellen as the Great Detective.

As such, it is not surprising that Conan Doyle's creation entered the children's/young adult book market.  There are the Boy Sherlock Holmes series, the Young Sherlock Holmes series, Sherlock, Lupin, and Me (a series centered around the child adventures of Holmes, Arsene Lupin, and the narrator, Irene Adler), and the book we're reviewing: The Case of the Missing Marquess.  This story is centered around a new character: Enola Holmes, who is the much younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes.  The Case of the Missing Marquess is the first of the Enola Holmes stories, a strong debut for a character that is developing into a strong detective in her own right, and one who adds a strong teen's viewpoint to Canon.

Enola Holmes considers herself something of a scandal.  Her mother, Lady Eudoria Vernet Holmes, had her when she was forty, which is proof that Lady Holmes was having sex in later life, which shocks Victorian Britain.  The Widow Holmes and Enola live in Ferndell Hall, which has fallen on some hard times despite the wealth of the legal owner, Mycroft Holmes.  On Enola's fourteenth birthday, Lady Holmes disappears without a trace.  Alarmed, Enola sees no recourse but to contact both her brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock.  They rush to the hall, and are most displeased by everything.  Mycroft discovers that his mother has been misleading him about money, squirreling it away while telling him she needs it for upkeep.  Sherlock finds his mother's disappearance more an irritant, a sign of the mental weakness of the 'fair sex'.  All Enola wants is her mother, and for her brothers to like her.

Mycroft, however, has other ideas.  He's decided that since he's the legal owner of Ferndell Hall, and the head of the family, he has all authority over the sister he's barely acknowledged.  This means putting her in corsets, dressing her like his idea of a proper Victorian lady, and worse, sending her to boarding school.  Enola has loved the freedom she's had at Ferndell Hall, and finds Mycroft's actions intolerable.  As she is sent to a finishing school, complete with corset that constricts her breathing, she uses her wits to make a break for it, determined to get to London and discover a world she has heard about.

She fortunately has help from her missing mother.  Lady Holmes loved cyphers, or word puzzles.  Enola, attempting to investigate her mother's disappearance, comes across these clues that she translates.  This leads her to various cash caches hidden throughout Lady Holmes' room, and Enola starts stashing not just the money but also various articles she will need in her journeys.  She even manages to hide a bicycle (which she rides with great skill) and outwits the driver.  Disguised as a widow, she begins her journey with no real plan save to keep searching for her mother.

On her way though, she finds herself distracted by a new case.  Viscount Tewksbury, Marquess of Basilwether, son of the Duke of Belvidere, has gone missing.  It is suspected that His Grace has been abducted.  Her curiosity gets the better of her, along with the fact that she feels a certain empathy for His Grace.  She sees his picture in the paper, and is appalled to see that despite being her own age he is still dressed in Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits, complete with curls in his hair.  Enola had come up with a pseudonym, but accidentally reveals her true name when she goes to the Belvedere estate.  She is mistaken for a representative of Sherlock, who could not come due to 'family matters'.  She even meets a Scotland Yard detective investigating the case, Inspector Lestrade.  He is intrigued by "Mrs. Holmes", but cannot pin her down.

Enola discovers that the Viscount has a secret treehouse where he frees himself from his mother the Duchess' excessive mothering.  She also discovers that it is no kidnapping: His Grace has run away, tired of Her Royal Highness' smothering ways.  Enola deduces he is travelling incognito and has set off for sea.  Interfering in her own investigation is a spiritualist, Madame Laelia Sibyl de Papaver, medium and "Astral Perditorian" (finder of lost things).  Enola takes an instant dislike to Madame Laelia, but the Duchess is under the spiritualist's spell.  Determined to find His Grace and get away from her brothers by conversely hiding out in London, Enola continues her travels.

She does find His Grace (whom she calls Tewky), but finds both their lives in danger.  A pair of ruffians has taken them and decided to hold them for ransom (against the Duchess and Holmes respectively).  Enola and Tewky escape and she takes him to Scotland Yard.  She even gets to see Holmes again, though he doesn't see her as she delivers His Grace and discovers that Cutter (the main thug) and Madame Laelia are one and the same!  He has been abducting people, then offering his services as the spiritualist to double dip on money (ransom and 'finder's fees').  She also knows that her mother is still out there, most probably travelling with the Gypsies Lady Holmes allowed to camp on her estate.  Enola Holmes receives cryptic messages through newspapers, urging her own.  Enola Holmes, who looks older than her fourteen years, now has set up her own consulting office.  She calls herself Ivy Meshle, secretary to a never-seen Dr. Leslie T. Ragostin, Scientific Perditorian. 

I found The Case of the Missing Marquess a much sharper story in the end than in the beginning.  I first thought the story would center around locating Lady Holmes, but then like Enola, we were taken into a legitimate mystery.  What I enjoyed was that Springer gave Enola something neither Sherlock or Mycroft could ever have: intelligence with insight.  I'm not talking about 'women's intuition'.  Rather, I'm talking about the common sense of a young woman who finds the restrictions on her allowing her to know more. 

She, for example, came to the conclusion that the Viscount hated the curls and high collars of his infantile outfits because she hated the corset she was forced into.  By bringing in her own experiences into the investigation, she was able to deduce that the Viscount wanted freedom.  She also deduced that he would have a 'secret hideaway' as she had in Ferndell Hall.  By bringing in her own unique viewpoint, she is able to accurate pinpoint both Viscount Tewksbury's intentions but even the location of the ship he planned to board under an assumed name.

We also see that the missing mother was really just a framing device to give Enola a series of adventures that will serve an overarching story to supplement the other cases. 

I didn't like Enola in the beginning.  She started off in my view as a bit whiny and self-pitying.  However, I should cut her some slack because she did lose her mother and wonders whether she is the cause of it.  She also has to deal with two much older brothers who don't think much of her.  Well, at least Mycroft doesn't.  Sherlock's views are more nuanced.  He is dismissive of women in general, but he does have a softer touch with Enola than the blustery Mycroft.

The case itself is solved pretty well and effectively.  It is interesting and has action, which I think will appeal to both girls and boys.  Girls will find commonality with a girl who is determined to break away from the restrictions and conventions of the times (which are captured very well by Springer, who uses Victorian terminologies like calling underwear 'unmentionables').  Both groups will I think like the mystery, and any Sherlock fan will find the name-dropping clever.  I also think boys will identify with Lord Tewksbury, finding his mother's overprotective nature something they can understand.

As someone who loves Canon, who thinks of himself as a Holmesian (Sherlockian now having been hijacked by fans of the BBC's Sherlock), I highly approve of Enola Holmes.


In her review of The Case of the Missing Marquess, Mayra Jansen-Gruber remarks that the book shows the dark side of Victorian London.  This an accurate statement, as Springer talks about the seedy and dirty East End.  This is no world for a well-bred nobleman or a young girl from the upper class.  "It was a world where, of you were female and wanted to be yourself, you had to find a way around the system through subterfuge and careful planning. The author presents this world in its true and stark colors and yet she leaves us with the hope that Enola will indeed find what she is looking for."  This is also true, as we hear from Enola how unfair it is that Lady Holmes has no say in her own home, but that it is Mycroft who has all the authority merely because he happened to have been born first and born male.  Enola, like Lady Holmes, do have to work around the system to be independent, and at the end, we do want both of them to be free of all confinements...including corsets.

On the whole, I found The Case of the Missing Marquess to be a good read and a wonderful addition to Canon.  It almost makes one hope that Enola Holmes will pop up in either Sherlock or Elementary, a great addition to show the Holmes Brothers that little girls can be their equals.


A good program would be to have a mystery in the library.  We could also have a Victorian-era display or exhibit.  There is also the possibility of a flower show (since flowers were an important part of deciphering the ciphers), and a puzzle contest.  I also think having a Sherlock Holmes celebration of some kind is a great idea, maybe a birthday party where a space is left for his sister.  Finally, a display of Sherlock Holmes ranging from Basil Rathbone and my beloved Jeremy Brett right down to the current Holmes trio of Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Downey, Jr., all to draw attention to how Sherlock Holmes is still popular...and who has a sister his equal.

Nancy Springer
Born 1948


Jansen-Gruber, M. [The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery Review].  Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews. Retrieved from http://lookingglassreview.com/books/the-case-of-the-missing-marquess-an-enola-holmes-mystery   

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Module 8--The Phantom Tollbooth: A Review

by Norton Juster

Juster, N. The Phantom Tollbooth (1961).  New York, Alfred A. Knopf

I had heard of The Phantom Tollbooth, but kept getting it confused with the silent film The Phantom Coachman (which is a classic horror film).  Tollbooth, Coachman...it isn't too much of a stretch.  The Phantom Tollbooth I think is one of the greatest books I've read, a sly, witty masterwork where words (and numbers) are used in a clever and fantastic way.

Milo is a young boy who "regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all".  As such, education is not worth the effort.  The very next day, a box arrives and with a little assembly, Milo has a phantom tollbooth.  He takes his small electric car, pays the toll, and decides to use the map included to go to a place called Dictionopolis.

Once he goes, he finds himself in the most fantastical world imaginable: the Kingdom of Wisdom, which is surrounded by the Sea of Knowledge.  Dictionopolis is a city ruled by King Azaz the Unabridged, where words are the commodity.  On his way to Dictionopolis, Milo meets Tock, a watchdog in the purest sense: literally a dog who has a large watch as part of his body.  In Dictionopolis, he sees the word market, where letters and words are bought and sold for all occasions.  He also meets such creatures as The Spelling Bee (a large bee that spells and gets occasional work in bonnets) and the Humbug, a most loquacious creature prone to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

King Azaz holds a feast where the guests eat their words, and informs Milo and Tock that things have been off since the banishment of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason, the sisters of both King Azaz and his brother, the Mathemagician.  The brothers, angry at Rhyme and Reason's ruling that words and numbers were of equal worth, banished them to the Castle in the Sky.  Since then, the world of Wisdom has been out of whack.  King Azaz appoints Milo, Tock (who ironically goes 'tick'), and the Humbug to rescue the Princesses, but they must get the agreement of the Mathemagician, and the two brothers never agree on anything.

It looks like an impossible task, but Milo agrees, beginning a great journey that takes them to such places as the Island of Conclusions (which you can get to only by jumping), the Point of View (where a man can be the tallest midget, the smallest giant, the thinnest fat man, and the fattest thin man---and be the exact same person), the twin cities of Reality and Illusion (not particularly nice places to live in) before reaching the rival city of Digitopolis.  The Mathemagician won't agree to Azaz's idea, but Milo points out that they've both agreed to disagree on the matter of the Princesses, and no matter how the Mathemagician sees it, Milo is correct.  Like Azaz, he gives the travelers gifts to protect them as they travel through the Valley of Ignorance, where they must face demons like the Everpresent Wordsnacher Bird (who takes words right out of your mouth), the charming but dangerous Terrible Trivium (demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs), and the Senses Taker (who not only takes your physical senses but your sense of honor and worth and who is brought low because he couldn't take their sense of humor).

They finally arrive at the Castle in the Air, where the Princess Sweet Rhyme and the Princess Pure Reason have been waiting for them.  They believe it is time to return, but with the Castle cut off how to get back.  Well, time flies...and since Tock is a watchdog...well, there's logic in that.  They are chased by other terrible demons, like Gross Exaggeration, the Threadbare Excuse, and the Overbearing-Know-It-All, until the joint forces of Wisdom come at the foot of the Mountains of Ignorance and scare them away.  With Rhyme and Reason returned, Azaz and the Mathemagician hold a joint feast and pledge to work together to defeat the Demons of Ignorance.  As Milo leaves sadly for his own world, he hears the two rules begin to slowly argue over primacy.  Sadly, the next day the Phantom Tollbooth has disappeared, sent off to other boys and girls that will require its services.  As for Milo, he now saw the world in a different way: all that he failed to notice suddenly became sharp, and he saw books all around his room, which could take him anywhere, help him create anything, discover new places, new sights, new sounds, and realized he would like to return to the Kingdom of Wisdom, but he has so much to do now where once he had nothing to do.

I had never read The Phantom Tollbooth until now, but I don't think I have enjoyed a book as much as I did this one.  This is the first book to make me laugh out loud as I read it since I read a Jeeves and Wooster book by P.G. Wodehouse.   The Phantom Tollbooth is a word-lover's delight, full of witty puns all around.  If you 'leap to Conclusions', you are likely to meet the figure of Canby (as in "can be"), someone who is 'as brave as can by, and as cowardly as can be'.  You might find yourself stuck in The Doldrums, a world where the slow and uninterested Lethargians live.   In Dictionopolis, Milo is taken to the banquet by a special vehicle, where everyone must remain silent because it's one that 'goes without saying'. 

At this banquet, the King admonishes Milo for being so ordinary.  He tells them of his Cabinet's many tales: making mountains out of molehills, splitting hairs, leaving no stone unturned, but the poor Undersecretary hangs by a thread.  In Digitopolis, the numbers are mined, and if a number is broken, no worries: they use them for fractions.  If you want to walk across a large room quickly, just draw a straight line (since it's the shortest distance between two points).    

I also find The Phantom Tollbooth to be extremely quote-worthy, a valuable tome where its wit and wisdom shine through.  In Dictionopolis, Milo meets King Azaz's Cabinet: the Duke of Definition, the Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, the Count of Connotation, and the Undersecretary of Understanding.  They each serve to provide synonyms to their individual statements.  Their job is to make sure all the words sold in the Word Market are proper words.  "But we never choose which ones to use, for as long as they mean what they mean to mean we don't care if they make sense or nonsense".  Alec Bings, whom they find at the Point of View, informs them that "the way you see things depends a great deal on where you look at them from".  Truer words...

After Milo meets the .58 child (since families average 2.58 children) and fails to reach the Point of Infinity, he tells the Mathemagician how he finds much of this world hard to understand.  "You'll find that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that's hardly worth the effort". 

The Phantom Tollbooth is so remarkably clever and witty, and quite punny if you get what is being said.   For me, The Phantom Tollbooth is on the same level as Alice in Wonderland and/or The Wizard of Oz.  Both are about children travelling to a strange world where all sorts of impossible things and being are.  Both the main characters are rather shocked by everything because it goes against their common sense.  However, in both Wonderland and the Kingdom of Wisdom, there is a logic to everything and everyone (even if that logic is a bit bonkers). 

We also have some familiar fairy tale elements.  The rescue of a princess (or two), travels through dangerous worlds where they must face off against formidable opponents.  A triumphant return where the hero wins the day.


I simply loved The Phantom Tollbooth, so much so that I hope to reread it and get my own copy to which to highlight all the wonderful phrases that I think should serve as words of Wisdom for everyone to live by.  Michael Chabon, a respect author himself, commented on the wit in The Phantom Tollbooth, that while the lands and characters were allegorical, the book "manages to surmount the insurmountable obstacle that allegory ordinarily presents to pleasure".  In other words, one can learn without being overt about it.  You can read it on a surface level, or on a deeper level about the importance of learning. This ability to work both as the story you are reading as well as a deeper story is what to my mind makes The Phantom Tollbooth one of the best books I've ever read.  I will treasure this book and know that I will be revisiting it in the future.  I loved it so much I'm tempted to give it to friends and family as gifts and have recommended it to a friend in South Africa. 


A great program would be a Costume Party where you dress as a pun: A Spelling Bee, a Listening or Computer Bug, a Book Mark (great for boys named Mark) or a Cutting Remark.  One can create a Tollbooth where children must pay a 'fare' (maybe a set number of books checked out or read) to enter, or the crowning of a Princess of Pure Reason and Sweet Rhyme.  Finally, have students travel through the library to find such places and objects as the Valley of Decision and the Wheel of Fortune.

Norton Juster
Born 1929


Chabon, M. (2011) The Phantom Tollbooth and the Wonder of Words [Review of the book The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster].  Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/apr/21/michael-chabon-phantom-tollbooth-wonder-words/

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School: A Review


Teague, M. (2002) Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School.  New York, Scholastic Press.

Dear Mrs. LaRue takes a humorous tone on the idea of both bad dogs and school in general as Ike, the dog in question, calling to mind how children could imagine school to be.

Ike, Mrs. LaRue's dog, has been sent away to the Igor Brotweiler Canine Academy.  It's really big news (down to making the local paper).  Ike hasn't been horrible, but Mrs. LaRue finds herself at wit's end,  misbehaving constantly.  Every day in his 'incarceration', Ike writes to Mrs. LaRue, describing all the horrors he must endure as well as pointing out that he wasn't as bad as all that. 

His situations are grim: they take away his typewriter!  They won't give him seconds!  Of course, what Ike says and what is real need not necessarily be the same thing.  While he attempts to show how abysmal and horrific the setting is in black-and-white illustrations (complete with striped prison uniforms), the color illustrations show a rather posh setting.   In that same dining room, we see a lavish menu, elegant dining room, and an elegant atmosphere.  The truth or not, Ike runs away, riding in (misery/luxury) as he tramps around the country, until a fortuitous chance encounter where he saves Mrs. LaRue from certain death (even if he damages her camel's hair coat...again). 

The beauty of Dear Mrs. LaRue comes in the dichotomy between what Ike writes and what he is experiencing.  We see that Ike is in more Club Med than Shady Pines, but the humor comes in the exaggerated descriptions versus the actuality of the situations. 

I think children will enjoy the story and relate to how Ike sees the world, with school really being not as bad as they think it.  Teague has a wonderful wit with beautiful illustrations extremely detailed to lend more humor. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Module 7--Son of the Mob: A Review

SON OF THE MOB by Gordon Korman

Korman, G. (2002). Son of the Mob. New York, Hyperion.

Son of the Mob takes a curious mix of reality and comedy.  It presents a plausible real-life scenario that young adults can relate to while at the same time picks an extreme example of family life interfering with private life.  Son of the Mob is an amusing, well-paced story that is a little bit Romeo & Juliet, a little bit Clueless, and a little bit Goodfellas.

Vince Luca is in many ways like all seventeen-year-olds.  He has no social life apart from his whiny sex-obsessed friend Alex Tarkanian.  Vince longs to have a regular life, where he has a girl, pays his own way, can get to university (and far from his family) and passes his classes.  

Vince however, is not like other guys, and especially not like the rest of his family.  He is the only one of them who isn't in what Vince constantly refers to as 'the vending-machine business', which is run by his father, Anthony "Honest Abe" Luca.  Dad earns this nickname because he can be trusted to be square in all his business deals, even if the 'vending-machine business' is really a more dangerous one.  Vince is the only member of his family not involved in "The Life", which is a euphemism for The Mob.

That's right: Vince Luca is a Mob Prince, but unlike his cooking-happy mother or hot-tempered brother Tommy, Vince wants no part of the business.  He's a civilian and has made clear he intends to stay that way.  Vince is pretty much kept clear of things, and that includes getting some perks (he insists on paying for a Mazda with a cracked sunroof rather than take a more luxurious car, given the last time he did, he was pulled over for driving a hot Porsche).  However, he also realizes that all his food, clothes, and pocket money are provided through these means.

Vince is desperate to keep his family and his private life separate, but despite his best efforts things keep colliding, like when his one date with Angela O'Bannon is wrecked by finding Jimmy Rat stuffed in his Mazda.  Oddly, that freaks Angela out and it kind of kills the mood;  this is courtesy of Tommy, who used Vince's car and forgot about it (and that's despite Anthony Luca putting a trusted aide, Ray Francione, as unofficial guardian).  Vince likes his Uncle Ray, the only one of his various Uncles who doesn't think it strange that Vince wants no part of The Life.  

To make up for this debacle Tommy arranges for a date with Cece, a very beautiful woman Vince at first mistakes for Tommy's new girlfriend.  Well, she can be both Tommy and Vince's girl...for a few hours.  She's really a hooker Tommy hired to take Vince's virginity, and while Vince is intensely attracted, he's also horrified.  Later on, pushed by Alex, they go to a college party where Vince reencounters another classmate, Kendra Bightly, and to get rid of a guy Kendra kisses Vince.  Soon, they find an attraction (and head lice) that brings them together and begin dating.

Vince keeps this secret from the Family, and especially after he finds out that Kendra is the daughter of FBI Agent Bightly (whom Anthony calls Agent Bite-Me), who has bugged the Luca home.  Here Vince is, finding a girl he really, really likes and who likes him, and it has to be the Agent's daughter!  Complicating matters is Jimmy Rat and another low-level thug, Ed Mishkin, both of whom owe debts to the Lucas.  Of course, this means they are going to get whacked (or in Ed's case, he's going to whack some old aunt for the inheritance).  Vince doesn't want them dead (he has too many memories of other Uncles going to the house to get bullets removed or fingers cut off), so he agrees, just this once, to step in and try to get their financial houses in order.  Dad isn't too keen on this, but figures this is a good way to get his somewhat lackadaisical son motivated in something.

Unfortunately, Vince's well-meaning involvement causes him unexpected trouble.  It also doesn't help that his New Media class project, designing a web page where your grade is based on number of hits, also finds its way into The Life.  Something as innocuous as iluvmycat.usa becomes a big online hit thanks to the Meow Marketplace, a section of Vince's website where you can put cats for sale.  However, Vince is puzzled by the odd ads appearing, such as:

I'm selling my third-favorite cat, Lady Anne.  She's a real winner, pure gold. $200.
If you're looking for a prime minister of a cat, you've come to the right place.  Dynamico caught three mice last week.  Only $100.
I'm selling exactly two of my cats, Kensington and Scattered Showers.  You've never seen such a couple of movie stars.  They're number one! $200 for the pair.

The last two really confuse Vince.  Who refers to their cat as 'prime minister'?  How are two cats both "number one"?  It takes a long time for Vince to make the connection between Meow Marketplace and Tommy's sudden interest in the Internet.  On the Jimmy/Ed front, Vince finds that they are getting played, and that Honest Abe Luca is in on it.  This leads to a major falling out between them, a falling out that is healed after Vince finds who the mole in the family is.  This revelation is preceded by Vince's discovery that Mama Luca is more Livia Soprano than Carmela Corleone.   In the end though, Kendra and Vince are reunited (she broke up with Vince after thinking he was in The Life too as a loan shark), Jimmy and Ed manage to make enough to pay off everyone thanks to misinterpreting Vince's words about a major rainstorm, Vince and Alex remain friends, and Vince himself stays out of The Life...but won't get the Luca and Bightly families over for any cookouts anytime soon.

The Mafia has an odd hold over the American imagination.  It certainly does over my best friend/brother Gabe, who is passionate about all things gangster.  From The Godfather and Goodfellas to The Sopranos and even Mob Wives, La Cosa Nostra has been something that Americans have glamorized and mystified.  Son of the Mob is a more lighthearted take on it, with a unique vantage point of that of the clean son (think Michael Corleone before he went all evil).  Vince is not blind to the Luca 'vending machine business', but he also wants his life to be different.

This isn't to say Vince is particularly noble or upright.  In many ways, he's his father's son: able to give what he calls The Luca Stare to try to push others to do what he thinks needs to be done.  He also describes himself as being like the other men in his life: unable to speak on emotions, with grunts and sleeveless t-shirts being the extent of his 'feminine side'. 

However, he also wants to be different from his family.  He wants a life separate from The Life and dislikes it whenever he finds that The Family gets in the way of his own life.  We see this right at the beginning, where his date is ruined by having a low-level thug stuffed in the trunk.  We also see from this opening that Son of the Mob is meant to be light (if it were dark, Jimmy Rat would be dead, but here, he's just been roughed up a bit).  This dark humor does lighten up in unexpected ways.  Jimmy and Ed torch their places to collect insurance money, thinking this was all Vince's idea.  He told them that a major storm was heading, and they mistook this for him suggesting they take advantage of the storm to make it look like the lightning had caused fires to break out.  What Vince was really saying was that...there was a major rainstorm coming.

While it is highly exaggerated, Son of the Mob is a book I think kids will relate to in a roundabout way because at one point or another, every child wants to both be separate from his family to form his/her own identity and find that their parent's jobs do get in the way.  What parent hasn't at one point or another embarrassed their child, or not been able to be there because of business?

The characters are also relatable.  Vince in particular is a fine example of the first-person narrative.  He isn't eloquent but his voice is real in his acceptance of how his family is and in how he sees things.  His horror at Cece 'hitting' on him, his worry about not passing the New Media class, his terror at possibly becoming Homecoming King: while deliberately overdone, Korman makes Vince into a genuinely likeable fellow. 

Korman does the same for the other characters: the weasely Jimmy Rat, the surprisingly kind Ray, the frustrated best friend Alex.  Even someone we don't hear much gets both a good twist and some laughs.  On a date at a Mexican restaurant/karaoke bar, Vince is stunned to see Uncle Pampers, a big-time hit man.  He's even more stunned to see this big-time assassin casually walking up to the microphone and belt out some Hank Williams, Sr. (and more stunning, being very good at it, right down to the yodeling).  This is where Son of the Mob really excels: the mixing of character and situation, playing with our conventions about mobsters. 

Who knew a guy who whacks people for a living would be passionate about country music and karaoke? 

Korman has a well-crafted and tight story for the most part, injecting humor in the best places.  When the mole plays a tape of Mother Luca about to order a hit, it then gets interrupted by Kendra's voice singing If I Had a Hammer.  This ties in to what we learned earlier about Kendra: that her father no longer brought his work home after 'some evidence was accidentally destroyed' and that she had a habit of recording her own karaoke whenever the mood struck her in various tapes with little actual organization. 

There's something cinematic about Son of the Mob, where these sort of things could be seen in a movie (the major blowup between Anthony and Vince in the middle of the huge rainstorm is another).

If I were to say anything negative about Son of the Mob, is that I figured out Meow Marketplace was being used as a front for gambling long before Vince did.  Knowing his family like he does, and Tommy in particular, I wonder what took him so long. 

Son of the Mob was a fast, delightful read.  The situations may be dangerous, but are handled in a comical way.  The plot holds up extremely well and young readers especially will like the mix of the familiar with the outlandish.  Vince comes across as a genuine guy with problems young adults know (getting and keeping a girl) and don't (keeping two low-level thugs from getting whacked).  It proved so popular that Korman wrote a sequel: Son of the Mob: Hollywood Hustle.   On the whole, Son of the Mob is a book young adults and mob aficionados will enjoy for its humor, mix of good characters, situations, and logic. 


The Kirkus Review for Son of the Mob agrees with me on how well the humor is handled in the book.  "Maintaining the balance between situational humor and the real violence and ugliness of organized crime is no easy matter, but Korman pulls it off in fine manner, managing to create genuinely sympathetic characters in Vince’s family—people who love him and want the best for him, but who can at the same time call out a hit on someone as casually as ordering a pizza."  Korman does balance the genuine heart of the romance between Vince and Kendra with the humor of the 'vending-machine business' and all the trouble it causes the only civilian in the Luca family.  There is a lot of humor in the story, but also a genuine heart for these 'star-crossed lovers' reenacting their own Romeo & Juliet (I do so love Shakespeare). 


There are a couple of programs one could try.  A major point of Son of the Mob is that the Luca Family is in 'the vending-machine business'.  Why not offer a vending machine contest (or exhibit, because I wonder if kids still play vending machines)?  One might open a virtual or real 'Meow Marketplace', and I'd offer have a cat race (if cats do race, which I doubt).  Kendra and Uncle Pampers love to karaoke, so there's another opportunity to have a karaoke contest.  However, unlike the book, no food-throwing at the singers will be permitted. 

Gordon Korman
Born 1963


Book Review: Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman (2010, May).  Kirkus Reviews.  Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/gordon-korman/son-of-the-mob/

Friday, March 6, 2015

Module 7--There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom: A Review

Module 7: There's a Boy in the
Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar

Sachar, L. (1987).  There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom. New York, Scholastic Inc.

There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom is a brief book, but I found it to be a very honest and moving story of a misunderstood boy, written off by practically everyone (including himself).   Moreover, the book is one I found to be true-to-life in how elementary school politics, however bizarrely intricate they may be, do affect children for good and bad. 

Bradley Chalkers sits in the last seat, last row, with an empty chair next to him and in front of him.  No one wants to sit near Bradley Chalkers.  He has a reputation as being a pretty rotten person: he has no gold stars, never does any work at school or home, and habitually lies to get out of situations.  Although he's in the fifth grade, he has already been held back one year already and looks like he's going to be held back again.  Moreover, he's accepted other people's ideas about him as being true.  He sees himself as a pretty rotten person, confiding via his playing with his toy animals how hurt he is by their ideas about him (as well as his own ideas about him).

However, straight from the beginning things take an unexpected turn for Bradley Chalkers when Jeff Fishkin, a new student from Washington, D.C., comes to Red Hill School.  Finding no other place to sit, Mrs. Ebbel has Jeff sit next to Bradley.  To Bradley's surprise, Jeff doesn't reject him.  He appears to want to be friends with him, and Bradley reacts the way he does with everyone: by threatening to spit at him unless he gives him a dollar. 

However, the fact that Jeff doesn't reject him, Bradley Chalkers, despite how everyone in class sees Bradley Chalkers (and how Bradley Chalkers sees Bradley Chalkers), confuses him.  Despite himself, Bradley soon adopts Jeff as his best friend, and Bradley's admiration for Jeff rises considerably when Jeff tells him he accidentally walked into the girls' bathroom.  While Jeff is horrified that he did such a shocking and dangerous thing (despite the fact he did it because he got lost and was given wrong directions to the counselor's office), Bradley sees this as an act of defiance against the girls he 'hates' (Bradley says he 'hates' a lot of things and people).

During the course of the year, Bradley starts opening up to Jeff, who in turn has been encouraged in this by Carla Davis, the new school counselor who is not like the other teachers (she encourages the students to call her 'Carla').  Bradley's mother is advised to have Bradley see Carla, and while he 'hates' it and 'hates' Carla, in his own way Bradley starts opening up, not overtly but through offbeat scenarios and tales how he really feels.  In that year, Bradley temporarily loses Jeff when, under pressure to conform, Jeff starts rejecting Bradley and running with the more 'popular' kids, but circumstances in the form of getting into accidental fights with girls brings them together.

These fights upset Colleen Verigold, who has a crush on Jeff and gets flustered whenever they are together.  She works up her courage to ask Jeff to her birthday party, but that does mean that Bradley will have to come too.  Soon, gradually, Bradley and Jeff start integrating with the other boys, who slowly start accepting Bradley, especially when he makes a great basketball shot, surprising even Bradley.

Into all these crises Carla helps without being direct, but her time is brief, as parents find the idea of a counselor a waste of time and money.  Carla is transferred to another school to be a kindergarten teacher, devastating Bradley, who was starting to think that maybe a gold star next to his name wasn't an impossible dream.  In his anger he rips up the book report of My Parents Didn't Steal an Elephant, which Carla had given him and of which he was so proud of.  In a mysterious turn, Bradley discovers that Mrs. Ebbel has his book report, and it's earned him his own gold star!  Despite his own disappointments in the year, Bradley does go to Colleen's party.  Jeff is there to help Bradley navigate the strange circumstances of children's parties, and there's a small suggestion that one of Colleen's friends, Karen, may herself find Bradley much more than meets anyone's eye. 

Bradley is still disappointed that Carla has left, but he writes to her, telling her the changes going on in his life (including getting a hundred on his math exam), and sends her his favorite toy, Ronnie the Rabbit, who has a broken ear.

Sachar is simply a genius in how he captures the authentic voices of elementary school children: how they think, how they act and react to the seemingly monumental moments of their own lives.  He doesn't take a first-person style but we do get an idea as to what Bradley is thinking and feeling.  We see how Bradley perceives himself in the beginning.  Mrs. Ebbel apologizing somewhat to Jeff about the seating situation.  "Well, nobody likes sitting...there," she says.  At that point, Bradley jumps up and says, "That's right.  Nobody likes sitting next to me!"  Bradley it seems takes pride in being a monster.  However, we also read that Bradley figures everyone wouldn't mind if his desk in the closet.  This shows that Bradley may actually be playing at being a monster only because he thinks that's what expected of him.  However, because no one likes monsters, and he's a monster (even to himself), it's logical that no one likes him.  One senses this makes Bradley sad, but he thinks that's how it should be, so he won't try to change it. 

We get the idea that Bradley is trying to live up to his own reputation, which he I think has internalized to be the 'real' Bradley.  We also get the idea that within that reputation, Bradley is hiding his hurt at the rejection he gets due to his own actions.  He recognizes that he will never get a gold star, but that he does want to get a gold star.  The truth is that Bradley doesn't think he is worthy of a gold star, and as a result he won't be even try. 

The pressure to conform to other people's ideas is something I think children and adults can relate to.  Each person is trying to live up to someone else's idea of who they are but finds that they really are not what others think they are.  This is certainly the case with Bradley, who slowly starts working towards being a good person and not the 'monster' others (and himself) think he is.  We also see this with Jeff, who tries to push Bradley away once, through a strange but logical set of circumstances, he finds himself getting praise for giving Bradley a black eye that he got after fighting a tough girl.  In the end though, after Jeff himself gets humbled by the same girl, Jeff finds that he too is a good boy.

What really impressed me about There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom is how Sachar captured the voices of children, how they genuinely sound.  They sound, speak, and think like how one thinks real fifth graders do: panicking at a mixed party, thinking that going into the wrong bathroom is a life-altering traumatic event.  The book doesn't moralize or patronize.  It doesn't have big dramatic moments.  Instead, by keeping things totally honest in their perspective, the book sounds not only real, but also makes one identify with all the characters in some way.

I was surprised at how emotionally I got involved with There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom.  I felt so much for Bradley because, like his mother keeps saying to the teacher, "Deep down, Bradley's a very good boy". 


Audience identification is not just important, but something that readers will find quite easy to do.  "As the story moves along, readers will begin to sympathize with Bradley; they'll root for him, hoping he'll exchange his misfit status for reasonable contentment. Happily, readers are also likely to come away from the story with the sense that they've been rooting for themselves, too."  This quote from the Kirkus Review of There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom was in my view spot-on.  I found this to be the case too, and I think all readers will see Bradley to be a very sympathetic character and will not just want him to succeed and find he has worth, but will cheer when he realizes the goodness within him.  That I saw a little of myself in Bradley serves a great lesson in audience identification.


I think a good program to tie to There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom would be to have children pair up and make friends.  They might also write a letter to Carla or Jeff or Bradley or any other character, convincing him/her to give others a chance.  Once the papers are turned in, it might be a good idea to give them all gold stars.    

Louis Sachar
Born 1954


Book Review: There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar (2011, October).  Kirkus Reviews.  Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/louis-sachar/theres-boy-girls-bathroom/

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Trailer Three: Remember by Toni Morrison

This is a book trailer created as part of the University of North Texas' SLIS 5420 Youth Literature course for the Spring 2015 semester.

The book trailer is for Remember: The Journey to School Integration written by Toni Morrison. 

Applying the Fair Use Doctrine, the trailer was created for educational purposes and is not intended or implied to infringe on the copyrights of the creator of Remember.  This book trailer is strictly for non-commercial purposes. 

As a result of technical issues the music credits at the end of the video may not be given adequate time to be recognized.  Therefore, I make note that the music is the following:

Church Bell Celebration by Doug Maxwell via Media Rights Productions.

Again to emphasize the trailer above is for purely educational and non-commercial purposes.

Please enjoy the book trailer for Remember by Toni Morrison.

Book Trailer Two: Arrow to the Sun by Gerald McDermott

This is a book trailer created as part of the University of North Texas' SLIS 5420 Youth Literature course for the Spring 2015 semester.

The book trailer is for Arrow to the Sun written and illustrated by Gerald McDermott. 

Applying the Fair Use Doctrine, the trailer was created for educational purposes and is not intended or implied to infringe on the copyrights of the creator of Arrow to the Sun.  This book trailer is strictly for non-commercial purposes. 

As a result of technical issues the music credits at the end of the video may not be given adequate time to be recognized.  Therefore, I make note that the music is the following:

Kachina  by The Flute Clan.

Again to emphasize the trailer above is for purely educational and non-commercial purposes.

Please enjoy the book trailer for Arrow to the Sun by Gerald McDermott.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Trailer One: This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

This is a book trailer created as part of the University of North Texas' SLIS 5420 Youth Literature course for the Spring 2015 semester.

The book trailer is for This is Not My Hat written and illustrated by Jon Klassen. 

Applying the Fair Use Doctrine, the trailer was created for educational purposes and is not intended or implied to infringe on the copyrights of the creator of This is Not My Hat.  This book trailer is strictly for non-commercial purposes. 

As a result of technical issues the music credits at the end of the video may not be given adequate time to be recognized.  Therefore, I make note that the music is the following:

Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens, with the arrangement by David Hamilton for Lynn Publishing. 

Again to emphasize the trailer above is for purely educational and non-commercial purposes.

Please enjoy the book trailer for This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Module 6--Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover Review


Bell, C. (2012).  Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover. Somerville, MA, Candlewick Press.

Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover is a brief but I think extremely cute and endearing little story about how things can be fun even when things don't go according to plan.   Perhaps especially if things don't go according to plan. 

Rabbit invites his friend Robot to a sleepover.  Rabbit creates a list of four activities he and his friend will do together: Make Pizza, Watch TV, Play 'Go Fish', and Go to Bed.  When Robot arrives, he is shown the list.  Robot asks if they could play 'Old Maid' too, but it's not on the list, so Rabbit says they can't.  From there, every item on Rabbit's list meets with some sort of divergence from the list, freaking Rabbit out.  Robot each time shows him that they could keep to the list, but not in the way Rabbit expected.  In the end, just as Rabbit and Robot are about to turn in for the night, Robot presents him with his own list, coming to the conclusion that it was a good day.

Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover is reminiscent to me of the Gerald and Piggie books in that Rabbit worries and Robot does not.  Both are unlikely friends, but the fact that this is a children's book where strict logic doesn't have to play any role makes the friendship between a rabbit and a robot plausible.

I really liked how Robot was made to behave and speak like what I imagine a robot would speak and behave.  "My Built-in Food-o-Meter reports that I am hungry," he tells Rabbit when Rabbit suggests they make their pizzas.  Later on, when Rabbit begins his frantic hunt for the television remote fearing they won't watch his favorite television show, Cowboy Jack Rabbit, Robot keeps repeating, "I have some data that will interest you".  Finally getting Rabbit to calm down, he takes Rabbit to a mirror, telling him, "Observe your reflection", to show Rabbit had the remote stuck in his rabbit ears.

Near the end of the story, when Rabbit wants to show Robot how funny he looks in Rabbit's pajamas, he uses Robot's exact words.  This to me shows the depth of their friendship, where they understand each other and like all good friendships, complement each other.


The review for Rabbit & Robot suggests a similarity to the Frog & Toad series by Arnold Lobel, and I think this is a pretty apt description (though since I have never read a Frog & Toad book, I wouldn't have thought of the similarity between them).  Bell admitted as much, calling the book "my attempt to be a smidgen like (Lobel)". ”  If it was a tribute to someone Bell admires, Rabbit & Robot succeeds extremely well.  What I do know about Frog & Toad is that they are brief, the two characters interact with each other well, and one is anxious, one not.  If anything, Bell I think captured the spirit of Frog & Toad with Rabbit & Robot, and I wonder whether there are or will be more Rabbit & Robot stories.


A good program for small children, the book's target audience, I think could come in the form of a game.  They make a list of simple tasks, then ask their partner to try to come up with unique ways of following the list.  For example, if an item is "Draw a picture", they could make a circle and invite their partner to add something.  Since part of the story involves an impromptu pizza picnic, you could also create a pizza picnic (but no bolts or nuts in them--they are children, not robots, of course).   I also would suggest an actual game of Old Maid (but since I happen to like that game myself, maybe I'm prejudiced).

Cece Bell


Book Review: Rabbit & Robot by Cece Bell (2012, July). Kirkus Reviews.  Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/cece-bell/rabbit-robot/

Interview with Cece Bell by Julie Davison (October 26, 2012).