Thursday, September 23, 2010

Module 5: Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin, Illustrated by Harry Bliss

Diary of a Spider offers readers a glimpse into the life of a kid spider. Just as the title implies, the book is written from the point of view of a spider in the form of a diary. Spider shares his likes and fears while also telling us about his family life, his best friends Fly and Worm, and school.

Diary of a Spider was a really fun read and very well illustrated. Cronin endears Spider to the audience by showing that spiders have lives just like humans. Cronin shows that spiders have family, friends, hobbies and responsibilities. I most enjoyed the relationships depicted between Spider and other types of “bugs.” Spider is friends with a fly and a worm, but is very afraid of a daddy long legs. This element of the book shows readers that there is a hierarchy even in the world of bugs.

Harry Bliss’ illustrations do a great deal to tell the story. The objective of a picture book is to tell a story through words and pictures. While some picture books may rely more heavily on text, Diary of a Spider is very picture heavy. In this book an idea is presented by Doreen Cronin’s text and is then fully expressed by Harry Bliss’ pictures.

Reviews: Kirkus Reviews
The wriggly narrator of Diary of a Worm (2003) puts in occasional appearances, but it's his arachnid buddy who takes center stage here, with terse, tongue-in-cheek comments on his likes (his close friend Fly, Charlotte's Web), his dislikes (vacuums, people with big feet), nervous encounters with a huge Daddy Longlegs, his extended family-which includes a Grandpa more than willing to share hard-won wisdom (The secret to a long, happy life: "Never fall asleep in a shoe.")-and mishaps both at spider school and on the human playground. Bliss endows his garden-dwellers with faces and the odd hat or other accessory, and creates cozy webs or burrows colorfully decorated with corks, scraps, plastic toys and other human detritus. Spider closes with the notion that we could all get along, "just like me and Fly," if we but got to know one another. Once again, brilliantly hilarious.

Review 2: School Library Journal
Children who enjoyed Diary of a Worm (HarperCollins, 2003) will be enchanted by this artistic team's latest collaboration. This time, Spider is the star. Through his humorous diary entries, readers learn about typical events in the life of a young spider. When Spider's mom tells him he's getting too big for his skin, he molts. Fly's feelings are hurt by a thoughtless comment from Daddy Longlegs, and Spider tries to help. He is concerned that he will have to eat leaves and rotten tomatoes when he has a sleepover with Worm. Spider's school doesn't have fire drills; it has vacuum drills ("...vacuums eat spiderwebs and are very, very dangerous"). Grampa tells him that spider-fly relations have improved over the years and shares the secret of long life-don't fall asleep in shoes. The amusing pen-and-ink and watercolor cartoons, complete with funny asides in dialogue balloons, expand the sublime silliness of some of the scenarios.

Suggested Activities
Diary of a Spider offers wonderful perspective both visually and conceptually on the life of a spider. After reading this book with a group, I would challenge them with the task of creating their own diary for a living thing much larger or much smaller than a human. One could create “Diary of a Skunk” or “Diary of a Whale.” I would urge readers to consider what the human world looks like visually from the perspective of the creature they have chosen, while creating text that communicates the similarities that creature might have with a human.

Cronin, D. (2005) Diary of a Spider. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN: 0060001542.

[Review of the book Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin] Kirkus Reviews, 73(13), 732-732

Combs, B. (2005, August) [Review of the book Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin] School Library Journal, 51(8), 87-87

Module 4: The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

The Midwife’s Apprentice details the story of Alyce (also called Beetle), a medieval teen aged orphan who finds herself in the service of the village midwife Jane Sharp. Jane loads Alyce with chores in exchange for food scraps and a place to sleep on her floor. Alyce, who is supposed to be learning midwifery from Jane, sees a great deal of the auxiliary work involved in the trade, but no actual births. Eventually, Jane must tend to two births at once, which give Alyce a chance to prove her worth. After a successful delivery, Alyce is excited and confident in her skills as a midwife, but is crushed when she fails to successfully deliver her second baby. Alyce runs away from the village and works, for a time, as an inn keeper’s assistant. After delivering a baby at the inn, Alyce realizes that she is meant to be a midwife. Though she doesn’t know everything about delivering babies, Alyce knows that she knows more than most. She returns to Jane Sharp’s home and demands back her place as the midwife’s apprentice.

The Midwife’s Apprentice was an easy read that simultaneously delivered a huge amount of entertainment as well as historical information. Alyce is a well developed character who is right on the brink of womanhood. Cushman gives Alyce a complex range of emotions that come across as true and honest to the reader. I was most struck by Alyce’s reaction to failure and the way Cushman narrated her emerging from failure to a place of triumph and determination in the end. Having researched women’s health in medieval and renaissance times, I am struck with the amount of detail Cushman uses to describe the methods of midwives in that time period. At the same time, the medical details of the trade never come across as boring to the reader. I think this book is an amazing resource for history classes in addition to being a great read.

Review: Horn Book Magazine
In a sharply realistic novel of medieval England by the author of Catherine, Called Birdy (Clarion), a homeless, hungry orphan girl called Beetle is discovered trying to keep warm in a pile of dung by the village midwife. The midwife, Jane Sharp, takes Beetle in to work as a servant for little food, barely adequate shelter, and cutting words. To Beetle, however, it is a step upward. The midwife is far from compassionate, but she is, for her times, a good midwife. Beetle becomes interested in the work and watches Jane covertly as she goes about her business. Beetle also adopts a scraggly cat that she has saved from the village boys' cruel mistreatment, and she feeds it from her own inadequate meals. As Beetle grows and learns, she begins to gain some hard-won self-esteem, and renames herself Alyce. She becomes more accepted by the villagers and is sometimes asked for advice. On one occasion she employs her common sense and compassion to successfully manage a difficult delivery when Jane Sharp is called away. Jane is far from pleased; she wants no rivals and is angered when a woman in labor asks specifically for Alyce. But Alyce finds she knows less than she thought, and Jane must be called in to save the mother. Alyce, in despair and humiliation, takes her cat and runs away. She spends some time working at an inn, where she learns a good deal more about herself and the world. At last she admits to herself that what she wants most is to become a midwife, and she returns to Jane. The brisk and satisfying conclusion conveys the hope that the self-reliant and finally self-respecting Alyce will find her place in life. The graphic and convincing portrayals of medieval life and especially the villagers given to superstition, casual cruelty, and duplicity — afford a fascinating view of a far distant time.

Suggested Activities
In a school setting, I would visit history classes and read excerpts from The Midwife’s Apprentice aloud to promote the book. Chapters in this book are short and easy to follow which would allow the book to “speak for itself” while not taking up too much class time.

Cushman, K. (1995) The Midwife’s Apprentice. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN: 0395699296.
Flowers, A. (1995, August). [Review of the book The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman] Horn Book Magazine, 71(4), 465-466.

Module 4: Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond

Kit’s Wilderness begins as Kit, a teenage boy, moves to the town of Stonygate to care for his Grandfather after his Grandmother’s death. Stonygate is a mining town where is ancestors have worked for generations. Though the mine has shutdown, a small group of teens becomes fascinated with the history of the mine and begin traveling into the tunnels under the leadership of John Askew. Askew engages the other kids in a game called “Death.” In this game, one person enters a sleep state where they “become nothing.” “Death” leads Kit to a deeper understanding of the mine’s history, and the history of child laborers who died in the mine. Kit’s Wilderness also shows Kit as he grows into a deeper relationship with his Grandfather. Kit’s Grandfather passes down Stonygate history as he enters into a demented state and eventually approaches the end of his life. During the story, Askew, an outcast, runs away from his troubled home. The fate of Kit’s Grandfather and Askew come to parallel a story within the story that Kit is writing for school. As Kit resolves the narrative he is writing, Askew returns safely home and Kit’s Grandfather finds peace before his death.

Kit’s Wilderness is an innovative story that circumvents expectations for a young adult novel. David Almond tells three stories at once: the story of Stonygate today, the story of Stonygate’s past, and Kit’s narrative about Lak. Each story is told with a great amount of maturity and honesty that I think young adult readers will appreciate. In terms of style, I thought the story within a story device was very clever. Instead having Kit resolve the issues of the story in a realistic linear way, Almond allows him to resolve the conflicts through a fantastic creative device. Overall, I loved this book for its content and style and I would recommend it to young adult readers and adults.

Review: Children’s Literature Review: January Magazine
Whitbread-winning author David Almond's most recent book is about the place where magic, dreams and everyday life collide. Almond's prose is elegant, sparse and powerful. He manages to speak volumes with the things he doesn't say, while entrancing his readers with what he does. Kit's Wilderness is a tautly rendered story filled with equal portions of suspense, mystery and wonder. His characters are real, his situations plausible even if somewhat fantastical and his conclusions satisfying. In fact, Kit's Wilderness satisfies on every level.
In Kit's Wilderness, 13-year-old Christopher Watson -- that's Kit -- has moved back to the town that is his ancestral home of Stoneygate, an old mining town in England. His grandmother has died and Kit's parents want his grandfather's remaining years to be happy. Grandfather Watson worked in the town's nearby coal mines as did his father and his father before him. In fact, most of the town's children are descended from men who spent most of their lives below ground level. As his grandfather tells him, "As a lad I'd wake up trembling, knowing that as a Watson born in Stoneygate I'd soon be following my ancestors into the pit."
Though the coal mine has long been closed, it holds an understandable fascination for the town's children. For a group of early teen misfits, led by 13-year-old John Askew, the pit holds a special allure. As the new kid, it doesn't take long for Kit to fall in with them. Every so often, the small bunch of adolescents troop down into the pit. There in candlelight, with knives and illicit cigarettes, they play the game of Death.
The water came to me and I sipped it. The cigarette came to me and I drew on it.... I stared down at the knife as Askew laid it on the glass.
"Whose turn is it to die?" he whispered.
"Death," we all chanted. "Death Death Death Death..."
The knife shimmered, spinning. It spun on and on.
Me, I thought, as it spun to me and then away again.
Me, not me, me, not me, me, not me...
And then it slowed and came to rest.
While it sounds like this snippet gives away a lot -- perhaps even a conclusion -- this scene plays out very near the beginning of the book. And if it sounds genuinely frightening, it is. Almond's mastery is such that he takes his young readers on a haunting journey that manages to hang in some positive messages in a very subtle way. That is to say that, while Kit is the first 13-year-old protagonist of a book aimed at that age group I've ever encountered taking a drag on a smoke, Almond successfully uses the incident as a sort of sharp punctuation. The drawing on the cigarette seems like a physical manifestation of the peer pressure he's become vulnerable to since the relocation of his family. But there's more here. So much more.
Almond weaves in enough threads for three kids' books, with some left over to do justice to a novel aimed at a more adult readership. Kit's strong and growing relationship with his grandfather is threatened by the latter's ill health. So the family elements in Kit's Wilderness are very strong. Kit's growing friendship with a girl named Allie provides some wonderful dialog between these two likable and vivacious characters. Kit's dreams are rich and connected, it seems, with the fantastical events that begin to unfold around John Askew in the depths of the pit.
As with all truly successful novels aimed at this age group, moral maturation happens in the time we spend with Kit. He learns several important life lessons and grows as a person as, it seems, do those around him. Almond's virtuosity here is awesome, however. The reader never feels led or fooled. Rather Almond tells his story honestly. With integrity. And the reader is left the richer for it.
David Almond's first children's book, Skellig, was the winner of the 1998 Whitbread Children's Book of the Year Award. With the storytelling mastery that Almond displays here, it's not difficult to see why.

Suggested Activities
Kit accomplishes a great deal through his writing in Kit’s Wilderness. I would have a library reading group read this book and follow the reading with writing exercises. With permission, completed stories written by teens would be posted on my libraries website.


Almond, D. (2000) Kit’s Wilderness. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN: 0385326653.

Stark, M. (2000, July) Soul Wilderness [Review of the book Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond]. January Magazine. Retrieved from:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Module 3: The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, Pictures by Beth Krommes

The House in the Night is based on a pattern. There is a key to a house that contains light which contains a bed that contains a book. The pattern of “thing within a thing” continues inside of the book on the bed. We see the inside of the house, and the contents of the book that sits on the bed in the house.

I would say that The House in the Night is among my favorite picture books. This book feels like a modern day Good Night Moon. The day is winding down, and the book takes a survey of the world captured within it. I think that books like this can offer a great deal of comfort to children as they wind down before bedtime. There is a place for everything and everything is in its place as the day ends. As Caldecott Award Winner, The House in the Night displays amazing quality in the way of illustrations. Illustrated primarily in black and white, the book places an emphasis on certain objects by showing them in yellow. Stylistically, the pictures in The House in the Night are very innovative and unique, and to me added a lot to the experience of the book.

Review: Booklist
A young girl is given a golden key to a house. “In the house / burns a light. / In that light / rests a bed. On that bed / waits a book.” And so continues this simple text, which describes sometimes fantastical pleasures as a bird from the book spirits the child through the starry sky to a wise-faced moon. The cumulative tale is a familiar picture-book conceit; the difference in success comes from the artwork. Here, the art is spectacular. Executed in scratchboard decorated in droplets of gold, Krommes’ illustrations expand on Swanson’s reassuring story (inspired by a nursery rhyme that begins, “This is the key of the kingdom”) to create a world as cozy inside the house as it is majestic outside. The two-page spread depicting rolling meadows beyond the home, dotted with trees, houses, barns, and road meeting the inky sky, is mesmerizing. The use of gold is especially effective, coloring the stars and a knowing moon, all surrounded with black-and-white halos. A beautiful piece of bookmaking that will delight both parents and children.

Suggested Activities
The House in the Night includes an author’s note that explains that the book is based on the nursery rhyme The Key to The Kingdom. I would read the nursery rhyme aloud and follow it with The House in the Night.

Swanson, S. M. (2008). The House in the Night. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN: 0618862447.

Cooper, I. (2008). [Review of the book The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson]. Booklist, 104(16), 5-5.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Module 3: Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising begins over a decade after the Mexican Revolution. Esperanza is the daughter of a wealthy Mexican land owner. As the book begins, Esperanza’s father is killed by bandits leaving Esperanza and her mother destitute. Following the lead of their former servants, Esperanza and her mother travel to California to work on a company farm. In her new life Esperanza is awakened to the differences between wealth and responsibility. In the beginning, she struggles with her life of labor and poverty. Eventually she grows to be a good worker, and is content with her simple life because she is surrounded by people she loves.

Esperanza Rising is a great read for young adults and not so young adults. This book expresses some really valuable themes. We learn that money isn’t everything, and there is a limit to what a person should do for money. Poverty comes with great struggle, but the poor can still live blessed and fulfilled lives. Esperanza Rising also does a really great job illustrating the struggle of manual laborers, particularly in the depression era. The book is not an overt history lesson, but the reader gets a great sense of the era.

Review: Books R4 Teens
In Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan tells the story of Esperanza Ortega, only daughter of a wealthy Mexican landowner and his wife. The story begins in 1924 in Aguascalientes, Mexico, on El Rancho de las Rosas, the ranch where Esperanza's father cultivates grapes and raises cattle. The day before Esperanza turns twelve, her beloved Papi is killed by bandits, and the girl's life of wealth, privilege, and security is shattered. Esperanza and her mother leave Aguascalientes with the people who were previously their servants and travel by train to California. There, they find work on a company farm, picking and packing produce. Esperanza and her extended family struggle through the hardships of the Depression- and Dust Bowl-era United States, and they even begin to flourish in the land of opportunity.
As the plight of immigrants and migrant workers continues to be of concern for many of us living in the Southwestern United States, this book speaks to adolescents from a variety of backgrounds. The occasional Spanish phrase increases the level of authenticity in the story, and Ryan is always careful to translate the phrases so that even someone who does not speak Spanish may easily comprehend. This book is an excellent choice for anyone interested in the Depression-era United States, the change in fortunes of immigrants from Mexico to the U.S., or the life of migrant workers in the past and present.

Suggested Activities
In a library book club, I would read Grapes of Wrath along with Esperanza Rising. Readers can discuss the similarities and differences between both groups of central characters setting out for farm work in California.

Ryan, P. M. (2000). Esperanza Rising. New York: Scholastic Press, 2000. ISBN: 0439120411.

Harris, J.M. (2005). [Review of the book Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan]. Books R4 Teens. Retrieved from:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Module 2: Swimmy by Leo Lionni

Swimmy is a black fish who lives with a school of red fish. He happens to be the best swimmer in his school. One day, the red fish get eaten by a big fish, but Swimmy escapes. He sets out to explore the ocean to fight off his loneliness. He sees seaweed, jelly fish, lobsters and an eel among other things. Swimmy comes to love the ocean. One day he finds a new school of red fish. He encourages them to see all that the ocean has to offer, but they are scared of being eaten by a big fish. Swimmy teaches the red fish to swim together in the shape of a big fish, Swimmy acts as the eye of the big fish. Together they swim through the ocean and chase big fish away.

I fell in love with Swimmy for many reasons. First, the language is perfect for young readers (and listeners). At times, books become too wordy. Swimmy has short, yet ample sentences that tell the story without unnecessary frills. I was particularly moved by the theme of this book. The red fish are scared of exploring the ocean alone. When they work as a team they are able to see all that they wanted to see. The illustrations are my favorite part of Swimmy. This book is illustrated with what appears to be a mixture of stamps and finger painting. My favorite illustration is the seaweed made of stamped lace.

Review: Booklist
After losing his brothers and sisters to a hungry tuna, Swimmy, a little black fish, joins a school of small red fish. To prevent them from being eaten by a bigger fish, Swimmy teaches the red fish to swim close together, each in its own place, so they will look like one giant red fish—with himself as the eye. Illustrating this clever little tale are stunning paintings that, in their original and effective use of color and design, convey extraordinarily well the beauty and depth of the underwater world.

Suggested Activities
In a library, or classroom setting, I would set out finger paints and found materials and encourage readers to create their own ocean scene. Interesting found materials might be leaves, streamers, tissue paper, eating utensils. Anything with an interesting shape or texture would be fun to work with. The options are endless.

Lionni, L (1963). Swimmy. New York: Pantheon. ISBN: 0394817133.

[Review of the book Swimmy by Leo Lionni]. Booklist, Mar. 1963, 29-29.

Module 2: The Good Master by Kate Seredy

The Good Master is set in Hungary in the early part of the twentieth century. Our central character, Jancsi lives on a horse ranch with his mother and father. Early in the story, Jancsi learns that his cousin from Budapest will be coming to live on his family’s ranch because she is frail from getting over the measles. Jansci’s family quickly realizes that Kate was sent to the ranch because she is overly mischievous and needs the strong hand of Jancsi’s father Marton. Kate quickly finds that her antics will not fly under Marton’s roof and begins to change her ways. While on the ranch Kate discovers the pleasures of rural life. She learns to garden, ride horses and care for poultry. Kate and Jancsi go on many adventures in and around the ranch and encounter many old wise characters who tell them stories, each with an obvious moral. As time passes on the ranch, Kate becomes close to Jancsi’s family, but misses her father dearly. As Christmas nears, Marton arranges for Kate’s father to visit. When he arrives at the ranch, Kate, Jancsi and Marton are able to convince Kate’s father that he should join them in country life.

Overall I liked The Good Master. Still, I feel like the book has its problems. The lessons of the book are presented in a contrived format. Instead of allowing the characters to learn these lessons in an organic way, each moral is wrapped in a story told by a sage wise man. The saving grace of the book is the ending. Kate and Jancsi are visited by Mikulas (Santa Clause). Mikulas turns out to be Kate’s father in costume. Kate’s father see’s how happy she is with country life and decides that they should live on the family ranch permanently. The ending to The Good Master is touching, but the book itself seems out of date with most child readers.

This story takes place in feudal, Czarist Hungary, pre-revolution and World War 1. Kate's mother dies, she's out of control, and her teacher father sends her from Budapest to live with his rancher and feudal lord brother. Kate learns about the country's cultural history and many of the folk stories passed down orally through the generations. She becomes a well-behaved girl and part of the family. There is a sequel, The Singing Tree, which follows the family through the war years, with Russian prisoners of war staying on the farm and helping and becoming friends, and Kate's father is lost (then found). These are marvelous books for any age, a view of a country's past that is no longer there.

Suggested Activities
I would include this book in a display about Hungary. I would include travel books, CDs with traditional Hungarian music, cook books, and The Singing Tree, the sequel to The Good Master.

Seredy, K. (1935). The Good Master. New York: Viking Press, 1935. ISBN: 067034592X.

Halperin, L. (2008) [Review of the book The Good Master by Kate Seredy] Retrieved from