Quirky, Weird and Wonderful:

These are books that I have discovered over the years and want to celebrate.
Some are out of print, some are new, but most of them have fallen through the cracks for some reason
or another and are not on the general must read lists of books for children.
This does not mean I do not love award winners and best sellers,
but I have a soft spot for the unappreciated and misunderstood.
Please understand that my taste is eclectic, slightly warped and a bit dark.
I like books that make me laugh, books that make me cry, and books that make me think.

I welcome suggestions. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen is often referred to as the "Hans Christian Anderson" of America, but, unfortunately, many of her works are out of print. This is a sad reflection on the state of children's book publishing. Maybe the Kindle will rediscover her work.

Yolen is terribly prolific and has a tenacious ability to adapt to the market, (graphic novel!). She seems to have no fear of experimentation and I am always ready to be surprised and impressed at her latest creations. I know it is rather presumptuous, but I'd like to share my favorites of her work.

Yolen clearly understands allegory and poetry, combining them in stories rich with language and meaning. (Owl Moon, which I do love, is still a favorite of teachers as an example of metaphor.) In the 1970's, she published a number of folktale-like story collections, which , in my opinion, are some of her best work. My favorites are The Hundredth Dove and Dream Weaver. The voice and emotion in these stories are so impressive - and the knowledge of character. In Dream Weaver, a blind woman tells fortunes, as she weaves. In these stories within the story, Yolen subtly exposes truths about her characters. She rarely gives straight answers and respects the reader's ability to infer and make connections. I appreciate that.

My other favorites are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Cards of Grief is a Science-Fiction story for adults - but very accessible for YA or younger. I love this story for putting a new twist on the anthropological visit to a new planet theme. What other stories focus on grief rituals? This has philosophy and ethics and art and love. It is also a bit strange. I really enjoy watching a writer take risks. And with such rich details!
Then there is
Commander Toad. Any child who loves Star Wars needs to read this series of books. The puns are so awful and so numerous, the reader will have to move beyond obsession and laugh.I'm waiting for these to be reissued as graphic novel -early readers with updated graphics. I think there is a whole new generation of Star Wars lovers ready for Commander Toad.

This is one multi-talented writer!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

God Went to Beauty School by Cynthia Rylant

I buy a lot of books at Title Wave, the Multnomah County Library discard store, and have found at least four copies of this book, in brand new condition, which is indicative of how little it is read. But, when I see a copy of God Went to Beauty School, I grab it and then give it away. This is probably the closest I will ever come to spreading the Word.

I am so proud of Cynthia Rylant and her editors. Yes, she can write perfect early readers and be successful, but here she wrote wonderful, humorous poetry about God, even though she must have known that it was a killer combination. Poetry is sort of fringy to begin with, but religion... religion is the new sex. Even I was nervous about reading it aloud in public school and I've been called a "Provocateur." With sex you get titters and maybe an angry parent, but God... disagreements about God cause wars.

I would really have a hard time imagining these poems being taken badly, but I was raised a Unitarian and do not understand religious fundamentalism. Basically, these poems illustrate the question, what if God was one of us?
What if he got a desk job, just to see what it would be like? What if God was here, playing poker with Gabriel? (God needs a break now and then.) What if God was here to experience love and pain and reverence? What if God had a dog named Ernie?

I love these poems. They ask the reader to look at the world through the eyes of God and smile and laugh and cry. Some folks might find these poems sacrilegious, but
that is so not what Rylant is up to. I find them a celebration of the sacred in the mundane. God likes popcorn! Enjoy....

God Went to Beauty School
by Cynthia Rylant
HarperTempest (Jun 2003)

Monday, April 12, 2010

How Angel Peterson Got His Name by Gary Paulsen

Yes, the author is Gary Paulsen, but just look at the cover. This is not Hatchet. How Angel Peterson Got His Name is funny, quirky and, claims to be, non-fiction. These stories of Paulsen's early days as a young boy and some of the dangerous -near death adventures he had with his friends are really timeless. Just ask my long-boarding, rock-climbing son. Rather than serious wilderness survival, this is the adolescent fool side of Paulsen. (I would hope some of the stories are exaggerated or Paulsen and his friend are very lucky to be alive.)

Paulsen knows his audience. He keeps the writing simple and stretches the tension. He includes just the right amount of humor and naughtiness - such as peeing on an electric fence. These stories have speed and camaraderie, wasps and killer dogs, and stupid, stupid boys. I think the first time I read them, I laughed so hard I almost cried.

In my experience, children tend to avoid short stories, they are just not that rewarding after going to all the trouble of getting into the book. But I keep pushing these, reading them aloud, and watching for the spark of recognition. Paulsen has a few other non-fiction books which are also good, but this is my favorite.

This is the book I read to try to hook 4th grade boys. And not just to hook them, but also to inspire them as writers. So many children confuse writing with fiction and forget that they tell stories all the time. This book reminds them that everyday is a story. Maybe I shouldn't have read it to my son.

How Angel Peterson Got His Name by Gary Paulsen
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books (January 14, 2003)
ISBN-10: 0385729499
ISBN-13: 978-0385729499

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams

OK, Here is another book for demonstrating point of view, though that is really not why I love it. I love it because it is about storytelling and imagination. It is, in fact, written in two points of view which could be confusing except the style of illustration changes to clue the reader. The voice also changes. It may sound confusing, but take a look and see. It works!

The story starts with one narrator who lends some markers to her friend and then the friend, Bedimmi, starts drawing and telling the stories as she draws, though sometimes the narrator interrupts. The stories are all about cherries.... Cherries and Cherry Pits.

Cherries and Cherry Pits was written by Vera B. Williams who is one of my all time favorite author/illustrators. William's illustrations are always fun and colorful and slightly different. She is brilliant at creating pictures that look as if they were done by children, but are sophisticated at the same time. She was ahead of her time in portraying children of color and also families that are struggling financially, yet it always feels so natural that the reader barely notices. She has won two Caldecott honor awards for A Chair for My Mother and "More, More, More," Said the Baby, and, though, great books, I find them much less complex and interesting than Cherries and Cherry Pits. It's a toss up, for me between this one and Stringbean's Trip to the Shining Sea (first post!).

Teacher Notes: Besides the obvious Point of View modeling, this book is a great example of using pictures to stimulate narrative. After reading this book, I've given students pictures (from National Geographic) and asked them to tell me the story of what is happening. I often used pictures as writing prompts, but usually got more interesting stories after reading this book.
  • Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams
  • Greenwillow Books (April 29, 1991)
  • ISBN-10: 0688104789
  • ISBN-13: 978-0688104788

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Day in the Life of Murphy by Alice Provensen

Here is another great read- a-loud, but only for folks who are either dog lovers, theater majors or just general exhibitionists. All three together would work best.

A Day in the Life of Murphy is hysterically simple. It is just about a day in the life of a dog named Murphy - or as he thinks: "Murphy - Stop -That". But, unlike most children's books, this book is in first person, or first dog. Be prepared to snuffle and pant as you read. I was even tempted to get down on all fours and some children did later. The voice of Murphy is so .... dog-like and exuberant and ..."Wait! What was that? Bark! Bark! Bark!"

Every year teachers would come running into my library with requests for books that demonstrate certain writing traits. Metaphors! Setting! Point of view! This is one I would give them for First Person. I only wish I had a hidden camera to watch them reading it. Woof.

Alice Provensen is one of the grand dames of Children's books - both as a writer and illustrator. (I wonder if anyone has done a study of the lifespan of children's book writers - I'm guessing we are up there with beekeepers.) One of my daughter's favorite books was Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, written and illustrated by Alice and her husband Martin Provensen in 1974. Alice Provensen did a great job again, 30 years later! (I would not be surprised if Murphy was a not so direct descendant of the dogs in that earlier book.) Her illustrations for Murphy are clean and sweet and evocative. But it is the voice that makes this story. Murphy's voice - more nose than brain.
Teacher Note: First person.
  • A Day in the Life of Murphy by Alice Provensen
  • Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing (May 1, 2003)
  • ISBN-10: 0689848846
  • ISBN-13: 978-0689848841