Ms. Stauber's Literacy Blog
I'm excited to share thoughts about books and literacy here!

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Being bullied or made fun of is one of the worst parts about being a kid. I would be that everyone has been made fun of AND has made fun of someone else. I regret some of the teasing I did as a kid, but I also know I was teased a ton for a lot of things. All of us want to feel safe and loved. 

Chrysanthemum, the title character in Kevin Henkes' book Chrysanthemum, definitely feels the love. Her parents want to give her a name that she will love and be proud of, and she DOES love her name. She loves her name right up to the point when she enters school for the first time. Three of her classmates, who seem to already know each other, tease her because of the length of her name and because she's named after a flower (unlike Victoria, who constantly points out that she is named after her grandmother). Victoria also points out that flowers grow in the dirt with worms in class. Before school, the girls say they are going to pick and smell Chrysanthemum. Mrs. Chud, the teacher, tells Victoria to sit down and be quiet whenever she makes pronouncements about Chrysanthemum, but doesn't do a lot to stop the girls. 

At home, Chrysanthemum shares how unhappy she is, and her parents do what they can to shower her with love. One picture even shows her father reading a book about kids' identities. They give her favorite foods, play games with her, and give her lots of hugs and kisses. This helps before she goes to sleep, but Chrysanthemum has different dreams. In one, she is happy that her name is Jane. Another is a nightmare where Chrysanthemum is a flower that Victoria has picked and is plucking. Chrysanthemum is not longer joyous about her name or about going to school.

Everything changes the day that Mrs. Twinkle, the extremely pregnant music teacher, comes to class. All of the students think she is amazing! Mrs. Twinkle, not knowing anything about how Chrysanthemum is being teased, assigns Chrysanthemum the part of "daisy" in the class musical, while Victoria and the other two girls are given named parts like Queen, Princess, and Pixie. The girls start to tease Chrysanthemum when Mrs. Twinkle intervenes with a very interesting fact: Mrs. Twinkle herself has a long name and is also named after a flower. Mrs. Twinkle reveals that her name is Delphinium and that she is considering naming her baby girl Chrysanthemum. The girls immediately assign themselves flower names and look adoringly at Chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemum is able to feel the joy and pride in her name again! All is well in her world.

The Epilogue tells us that Chrysanthemum hasn't completely forgiven Victoria: she giggles when Victoria forgets her lines in the musical! We also find out that Mrs. Twinkle named her baby Chrysanthemum. 

My only quibble with this book is that Chrysanthemum does not solve her own problem. I am glad, being an educator, that a teacher swoops in and saves the day, but I wish there had been scenes of Chrysanthemum trying to push back against the way she is being treated. Overall, though, Chrysanthemum is a great book for teaching empathy. Students connect deeply to Chrysanthemum being teased because of her name because most students have been teased for something arbitrary. This book's illustrations also convey the depth of Chrysanthemum's feelings in a very real way. It's a great book.

Posted by estauber  On Jun 01, 2020 at 2:48 PM
  

The 2005 documentary, March of the Penguins, helped fuel further interest in learning about penguins. I'm sure that author Martin Jenkins and illustrator Jane Chapman were thrilled because they published the wonderful book, The Emperor's Egg in 1999, six years prior! The Emperor's Egg tells the story of an Emperor Penguin family, mom, dad, and egg. 

The Emperor's Egg starts with a father penguin alone on the ice with his egg. The book does a great job with using different sized text and a conversational style of writing to draw students in. We are told that when the egg was laid, the father was out to sea eating and getting fat to sustain himself, and now the father is in charge of keeping the egg warm by resting the egg under his belly. The book shows and tells the reader how the penguin fathers work together to keep themselves warm on the ice. Penguins fathers also sometimes have to move and slide down slopes and keep the egg safe. It doesn't shy away from telling readers about the very real dangers for the egg if it gets cold or gets cracked. 

When the egg is hatched, the chick still has to be kept warm but also needs to be fed, and the book describes the strange (to humans) way that the chick is fed: the father has a pouch in his throat that makes a milk-like substance for the chick that he sort of throws up into the chick's mouth. These penguins go to such lengths to keep their chicks alive!

Finally, the penguin mother returns and the entire family celebrates by making noise. A caption explains that penguins have their own special calls and whistles to help them find their mates among all of the penguins. The mother feeds the chick by, again, throwing up in the chick's mouth, and the father gets a break. 

That's how the story ends! One of the best things about this story, as I mentioned earlier, is that the conversational style of the book keeps the reader and listener interested. It gives a ton of information while entertaining us. The illustrations are realistic but very interesting. Check it out!

Posted by estauber  On May 20, 2020 at 4:05 PM
  

I am not a parent, so I cannot speak to the joys and worries of parenting. As a teacher, though, I loved that "Eureka!" moment for kids. Sometimes that moment was when they realized they could read a book they thought they could not read. Sometimes it was working through a difficult math problem. The "Eureka" moments are what teachers live for. Leo the Late Bloomer  by Robert Kraus, illustrated by Jose Aruego, shows how frustrating it can be for parents and kids when that "Eureka" moment does not come or takes a long time.

Leo is a young tiger in school who can't do anything right. Leo doesn't read or write, he eats sloppily, and he doesn't talk. Leo's father worries about this A LOT, but Leo's mom said that Leo is a late bloomer and that there is nothing wrong with Leo. Leo's dad stalks through the next few pages, hiding and watching for signs of Leo blooming. He even "watches TV" while actually watching Leo. Time passed, winter and spring came, and Leo didn't bloom. The other animals are shown doing interesting things that Leo cannot do yet. Leo's father did stop watching, but Leo didn't bloom. 

Finally, Leo BLOOMED! He could do all of the things the other animals did, and he could do them really well. He is shown with lots of books, writing beautifully, and with amazing drawings. He even eats neatly. He also started speaking, telling his parents, "I made it!" This part of the book never fails to get me to tear up. 

I am sure that you do not need me to explain why this is such a great book for kids, but I will! The word "yet" is a magical word. Students need to hear that if they can't do something, it's just that they can't do it yet. They WILL be able to do it. That message is so important to keep kids motivated. Leo is a great example. It took him a long time to do what the other kids could do, but he DID IT! Keeping that message alive is so important for kids. 

Posted by estauber  On May 18, 2020 at 2:47 PM
  

I think most people think about magic in three ways: Harry Potter, a person with a rabbit coming out of a top hat, or David Blaine. Possum Magic by Mem Fox is a magical tale in its own way, but magic is used as protection. This story of Grandma Poss and Hush, two possums living in the Australian Bush, shows that magic can take many forms.

Grandma Poss is a possum who has the magical skills to change animals' colors, make dingoes smile, and even shrink other animals. Her magic seems to be mischievous and fun on the first few pages, but it is revealed that she made her precious granddaughter, Hush, invisible. Hush definitely has fun as an invisible possum, but the main reason Grandma Poss made her invisible is to protect her from snakes. One of Julie Vivas's illustrations shows an invisible Hush hanging from a vine while a large snake slithers underneath her. This snake is huge and could swallow a small possum like her in one bite. Since Grandma Poss is Hush's parent (her mom and dad are not part of the story), you can imagine a scenario where Hush's parents were killed by another animal and Grandma Poss wanted to protect her only family member. Wow, that took a dark turn!

One day, though, Hush tells Grandma Poss that she wants to be visible again. This is surprising and difficult for Grandma Poss, because she cannot find the right magic to turn Hush visible. After long nights of searching and worrying, Grandma Poss remembers that the answer has something to do with human food. They take off on a bicycle from the bush to Australia's big cities to try different food. In addition to being a very great story, Possum Magic gives American children the chance to learn about food and a little geography in Australia. The glossary in the back of the book describes the different foods they eat and shows a map of the different cities. Grandma Poss and Hush go to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane with no luck (but they did eat some great food!). When they get to Darwin, up north, Hush eats a Vegemite sandwich and her tail appears! They keep the good luck going in Perth at the beach. Hush eats a pavlova (a fruit dessert with meringue) and her body appears. The illustrations show the outline of her head, so it doesn't look as creepy as it would in real life. Imagine a headless possum running around! Finally, in Hobart, Tasmania, they find the final key: lambington. Lambington cake is sponge cake covered in chocolate icing and rolled in coconut. Grandma Poss and Hush celebrate their victory, and Hush is fully visible. From then on, at her birthday, they eat a Vegemite sandwich, a pavlova, and lambington cake. Yum!

It must have been frightening for Hush to become visible piece by piece, and it must have terrified Grandma Poss to have Hush become visible again, but the book presents the happy ending that shows both characters happy and peaceful. Just the way it should be!

Posted by estauber  On May 13, 2020 at 2:19 PM
  

Apparently, my sister bit me the day my parents brought me home. I obviously don't remember this, but it happened. Bringing home a new sibling is probably very frightening for a young child. 

Lilly, the main character in Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, is back in Julius, the Baby of the World. She was a great big sister before Julius was born, but she becomes a BIG troublemaker after he's born. She doesn't want to share her room, she is upset that her parents praise Julius for blowing spit bubbles and screaming (but they don't praise her for the same behavior), and she is intentionally mean to her new brother by waking him up during his naps and trying to scare him with her costumes. Lilly's parents try to show her that they care by giving her special privileges and attention, but that doesn't stop her behavior. Lilly ends up spending a LOT of time in her "Uncooperative Chair." Keep in mind that Lilly is a school-aged child, probably around 6-7 years old. She's not a toddler throwing a fit!

Everything changes, however, when they have a party for Julius. The entire family has gathered, including Lilly's Cousin Garland. Cousin Garland makes one big mistake during this party: she says a bunch of mean things about Julius. She says his eyes are beady, his nose is slimy, and his fur does not smell good. The reader isn't surprised by this because Lilly has said the exact same things to her parents about Julius. This time, however, Lilly reacts differently. She gets ANGRY. She picks Julius up, makes Cousin Garland take back her words, forces Julius into Cousin Garland's hands, and then makes Cousin Garland yell, "Julius is the baby of the world." These are the words her parents often say, but Lilly usually says, "Disgusting!" after her parents say it. Once Lilly hears someone outside of her nuclear family demeaning Julius, she realizes her mistake and becomes a great big sister again. In the end, only family can make fun of family! 

Posted by estauber  On May 12, 2020 at 8:57 AM
  

As teachers, we want to fill our students' lives with rich literature. Sometimes I cringe when I see a student choose the "new, fun" book over a treasured favorite, but then I remember that student choice is so important in creating lifelong readers. Monkey with a Toolbelt by Chris Monroe isn't the richest picture book, but it is FUN. Kids love it, AND the main character is creative and a problem-solver, which is always a big plus!

My precious Godmother, Nancy, gave me this book a few years ago. The author, Chris Monroe, is an author, illustrator, and cartoonist in my hometown of Duluth, MN. Monroe has a creative, detail-filled book about Chico Bon-Bon, a monkey who has a toolbelt filled with dozens of tools. He uses those tools (some of which have incredibly funny names) to help his friends. He builds a tiny roller coaster for squirrels, and the clock he makes for the chickens (or the "clucks" in the story) shows two times: Meal Time and Snack Time. Chico is definitely community-oriented. He wants to do things for others!

One day, however, he arrives at his AMAZING tree house and sees something irresistible nearby: a banana split sundae. When he tries to taste it, he discovers it is plastic. It's a trap! A box traps him and the Organ Grinder from the circus loads Chico onto his bike. Apparently, the last monkey escaped with the help of some of the other circus animals. That monkey is shown surfing on the beach, living his best life. One thing that I love about this book is that it shows Chico using his creativity and his tools (because, of course, he had his toolbelt with him) to create a plan to escape. The illustrations show his 12-step plan, which is great for students because it shows how things do not just happen, you have to plan for the desired outcome. Chico's plans work! He is able to attract the Organ Grinder to the box, hit the Organ Grinder in the toe to distract him, then break out of the box, run out of the house, and catch a bus home. 

When Chico arrives at home, he is relieved! There is one final surprise, though. Chico goes up to his bedroom, puts on his pajamas, and then puts his toolbelt BACK on to go to sleep. That's so uncomfortable! But Chico goes to sleep and dreams of all of the things he'll do to help his friends tomorrow. 

Chico's story is not high art, but the illustrations paint the picture of a rich world and interesting characters. There are now multiple stories about Chico Bon-Bon As I was researching for this blog post, I discovered that a new, animated show based on the Monkey with a Toolbelt books premiering TOMORROW (May 8, 2020) on Netflix! Wow! Go Go, Chico Bon-Bon!

Posted by estauber  On May 07, 2020 at 12:37 PM
  

Tough Boris is a book written by Mem Fox, the same Australian author who wrote Hattie and the Fox and Koala Lou. One thing I love about Mem Fox is that all of her books are really different. She also works with many different illustrators. In Tough Boris, the illustrator, Kathryn Brown, creates interesting illustrations that actually show a parallel story.

We think of someone who is "tough" as someone who either is physically strong or someone who can handle anything (or both). Physical and mental toughness are celebrated traits. In the past, having a "stiff upper lip" was lauded, especially in men. Tough Boris is the story of a pirate captain who exudes toughness. The adjectives "massive," "fearless," and "scary" are used to describe him to the reader. The words and story structure in Tough Boris are simple. After introducing Boris, a pattern emerges: "Boris is X. All pirates are X." The illustrations describe the adjective. When it says, "Boris is massive. All pirates are massive," the illustration shows Boris standing tall over all of the other pirates with his parrot. The pirates show their mass by heaving a treasure chest onto the ship and climbing from the small rowboat onto the large ship with no help. 

If you only read the word in Tough Boris, you will hear about what Boris is like for the first 2/3 of the story, then you will read that he cries when his parrot dies. The words set up that even a pirate has feelings. However, Mem Fox and Kathryn Brown work together to reveal that there is much more happening, starting before the words even begin. The dedication page shows a pirate ship out in the ocean, a rowboat full of pirates approaching shore, a windmill, and a boy with a violin on a cliff watching the pirates. In the next few pages, read that Boris and the pirates are tough and massive, and we do not see the boy. We do see one of the pirates has a violin case. The next page shows Boris taking the violin from the other pirate and also a small figure climbing the ropes in the background. This is where the parallel story starts being told through the illustrations. Boris and the pirates are described as being greedy. The first picture shows the young boy looking down on the pirates from the "Crow's Nest" lookout. Boris is standing next to his treasure chest with his parrot, violin case in his hand, while the rest of the pirates gather around the few gold coins Boris gave to them. As the story continues, the illustrations show the boy stealing the violin back from Boris, Boris interrupting his crew's card game to threaten them for stealing while the boy tries to find a hiding place in the hold, the pirates chasing him, Boris listening to the boy playing his violin outside the door with an enormous sword in his hand (while the parrot listens to the boy's playing), Boris bursting in, and finally the pirates listening respectfully (with knives in their hands) while the boy plays. That page says, "All pirates are scary." All of the descriptions of pirates being mean and frightening are true, but they also show their softer side by listening to and enjoying the music. This is where the tone of the story also shifts. After the concert is when Boris's parrot cries. All of the pirates are sad when the crew, Boris, and the boy put the parrot in the violin case as a coffin and give the parrot a burial at sea. Later, the boy is allowed to stand with Boris while he mourns and cries. The toughness that Boris does truly contain melts away and he shows the emotion he hides the rest of the time. The final pages of the book read, "All pirates cry," which shows the ship back in the same place they found the treasure. The crew is looking sadly at Boris, the boy, and one crew member in the rowboat, rowing the boy back to shore. The final page says, "And so do I," referring to crying, as the boy stands alone on the beach with his violin as the ship sails away. 

The structure of the story, with the pictures telling a different story in the middle, allows students listening to get creative and use their imaginations. We do not see HOW the boy gets to the pirate ship, but we know he gets there. Does he want to be a pirate? Is that why he takes his neckerchief and turns it in to a head covering similar to what the pirates wear? Does he just want his violin back? Do the pirates really love the boy? They sure seem to! Students have a lot of different opinions about what is happening beyond the words, and they enjoy the book after multiple readings because they always notice different details. Just as with real humans, things aren't always what they seem with these pirates, and students enjoy peeling back the layers and connecting these traits to people they know. 

Posted by estauber  On May 05, 2020 at 2:51 PM
  

When you see the illustrations of Oliver Jeffers in Lost and Found, you might think, "Hey, this looks familiar!" Oliver Jeffers is the illustrator of many books, most notably the series that starts with the book The Day the Crayons Quit. His illustrations are bright, colorful, and do a ton to set the tone/mood of the books he illustrates. 

Lost and Found has a strikingly different color palette. It is mostly blue and white, with a few oranges, yellows, and reds. This more muted color scheme sets the tone for a book that is not happy. A young boy finds a penguin who seems to be lost. The penguin cannot communicate with the boy, so the boy tries to figure out what to do. He researches to find that penguins live a the South Pole, so he builds a rowboat to take the penguin back where it "belongs." Along the way, as they encounter rough seas and bad weather (that a real rowboat would never be able to handle), the boy tells plenty of stories to the penguin. 

When they get to the South Pole, which conveniently has a big sign proclaiming it is the South Pole, the penguin gets out with the suitcase they packed, and the boy rows away. This is where the real problem in the story emerges: the problem isn't that the penguin is lost, it is that the penguin was lonely and wanted companionship. The boy realizes this when he realizes how lonely he is without someone to talk to and share stories with. He turns the boat around and rows back to the South Pole, not seeing that the penguin was following him (they are on opposite sides of an island when they pass each other). The boy gets back to the South Pole, only to find that the penguin is gone. He doesn't know that the penguin was following him until he sees the umbrella(!!!) in the water ahead. They reunite and continue their journey home. 

Children's literature doesn't often have stories where the problem is not evident until the story is almost over. I really like that about this book. Loneliness is a tricky emotion for everyone, especially right now during COVID-19, and children sometimes don't know how to express that they are lonely, let alone know how to get what they need. It seems like the title of the book is the penguin's plight (he's lost and gets returned where he "belongs"), but Oliver Jeffers turned that idea on its head when he makes the true problem that both characters are lonely and need a friend. The color blue can evoke many emotions, but the use of different shades of blue shows the emotions in a way the characters cannot. It is a wonderful book that students love. 

Posted by estauber  On May 04, 2020 at 12:04 PM
  

Children's literature, especially in lower elementary, excels at featuring problems real children face. Both Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse and Knuffle Bunny Too feature a beloved object being taken away at school because the character couldn't handle having the object in school. This is a problem that I often faced as a teacher, and it could be a frustrating one (even if I tried not to show my frustration). 

Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse features a recurring character in the Kevin Henkes world. Lilly is the main character in this book and in Julius, the Baby of the World, but she first showed up in Chester's Way as a new neighbor. Lilly's creative behavior confused Chester and his best friend, Wilson, but the three became friends (of course). 

Lilly is back in her third book, this one taking place mostly at school. Her new teacher, Mr. Slinger, is her favorite. He is interesting and funny, and she loves him. The first 1/3 of the book establishes her appreciation. She writes stories about him, she plays teacher at home, and she talks about him to her family. After a weekend with her grandmother, however, Lilly ends up having her first problem with Mr. Slinger. She received a new purple plastic purse, some quarters, and new sunglasses from her grandmother. Lilly brought them to share during the student sharing time, but could not resist trying to share them earlier in the day. This results in her new gifts being taken away for the rest of the day. Lilly goes through a natural progression of feelings (sad to angry to furious) and then she draws a new picture of him. You can imagine what a furious young mouse would draw. It's not good. She sneaks it into his bag at the end of the day. Uh-oh. 

On the way home from school, Lilly discovers that Mr. Slinger put a nice note and some extra snacks in her purple plastic purse. The note says, "Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better." This simple message (that we all need sometimes) sends Lilly into a tailspin. She puts herself in her "Uncooperative Chair," tells her parents, and writes a new story and picture to try to make it better. Lilly learned an important lesson that adults struggle with: don't do X when you are angry. The next day, she makes it better right away. She gives Mr. Slinger the new note and picture, and her parents have helped by writing their own note to Mr. Slinger and by providing delicious snacks. All is forgiven and Lilly returns to her cheery, creative, eccentric self, but she keeps that lesson close.

Anger is not a bad emotion. Anger can be useful and helpful. Misplaced anger, however, hurts others. Lilly learns this the hard way, but Lilly is a character that shows she learns from mistakes. This book is fun to read but also is helpful and students can relate to Lilly. It was always a class favorite! 

Posted by estauber  On Apr 29, 2020 at 12:12 PM
  

Hmmm, I'm a little put out today. This morning I wrote a post about another Mo Willems book, Knuffle Bunny, Too, but it seems to have disappeared! That's ok, I can rewrite! 

Movie and book sequels often fail to live up to the original work. I think that this book, Knuffle Bunny Too, lives up to the original! Knuffle Bunny Too skips a few years of Trixie's life. We meet her as an enthusiastic Pre-K student. She is ecstatic to bring her precious Knuffle Bunny to school to share with her class. It seems like it is her day to share a special toy in school. When she gets to school, however, she is quickly disappointed to see that her Knuffle Bunny is not unique. Sonja ALSO has a Knuffle Bunny, and she and Trixie argue about which one is better. The reader can see they are exactly the same, other than having different colored ears (Trixie's KB's ears are blue, Sonja's KB's ears are pink). All of the arguing leads their teacher to take the Knuffle Bunnies away from the girls. Trixie has a very bad day, but then Knuffle Bunny is returned at the end of the day, she and Mommy go to the park, and she goes home. 

Trixie has a good evening, plays a hilarious game of "Escape from the Robots of Planet Snurp" with her parents (which seems to be a clever game to get her upstairs and in bed, smart parents), and goes to sleep. Somehow, Trixie's connection to Knuffle Bunny tells her that something is not right. She wakes her parents. Even though Daddy tries to explain that it's the middle of the night, but he gives up and goes to the phone. When the phone rings, the reader realizes that the same conversation just happened at Sonja's house. Trixie and Daddy get dressed to go out into the night. 

This next scenes are the most visually striking. We look down at Trixie and Daddy as they cross the street into Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. They are tiny! Across the Plaza you can see Sonja and a tall man that you assume is Sonja's Dad. Other than that the Plaza is empty. It's beautiful. The two families meet in front of the tall arch and exchange bunnies. This experience seems to have brought the girls closer!

The next morning, a bright-eyed Trixie and a bedraggled Daddy go to school. Sonja is similarly bright-eyed, and her Daddy is similarly bedraggled. The two girls are obviously now best friends, and the story says this is how Trixie found her first best friend (other than Knuffle Bunny). 

Knuffle Bunny Too is not quite as funny as the original, mainly because it does not have any Trixie tantrums, but it is incredibly sweet and fun. I actually read this before the original, so it holds a special place in my heart!

Posted by estauber  On Apr 28, 2020 at 3:08 PM
  
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