Tag: children/young adult

Module 10: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

November 14th, 2012 — 8:15am

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is historical fiction about Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Baltic region during World War II. It is narrated by Lina, a 15 year old Lithuanian girl, as she and her family are deported to Siberia.


The novel opens with men from the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, taking Lina, her mother, and her brother, Jonas, from their homes on June 14, 1941. Her father, provost at the university, has already been taken. They’re loaded on a truck with some of their neighbors and a few people they don’t recognize. They’re horrified that the next stop is at the hospital, as one of the people they are scheduled to take is a woman who is at that moment giving birth; they load her and her newborn baby into the truck as she’s bleeding onto her hospital gown.

Lina’s father, Kostas Vilkas, helped his brother and his family escape Lithuania to Germany, which put him on the black list as an accessory. Lina’s mother, Elena, speaks fluent Russian, which allows her to communicate with the NKVD. He is taken to a different camp from the rest of the family. They are stuffed into a train with even more prisoners, including the Andrius Arvydas and his mother, the son and wife of an officer in the Lithuanian army. The conditions in the train are horrible and they’re travelling through Europe for three weeks without stopping. On the train, the young woman’s baby dies and she is shot by an officer when she’s overcome by grief.

The train finally stops in Siberia, at a camp where they are assigned to live in shacks and work as beet and potato farmers. They stay there for a while, and Lina finds solace in her art. She has always been an artist and she’s particularly drawn to the work of Edward Munch. She decides to draw pictures of people and events so that she can send them to her father in hopes that he will find them.

While they’re at the camp, Andrius and his mother live in the officers house, where they are fed and treated better than the others. Lina is upset with this special treatment, but when she confronts Andrius about it, he reveals that his mother is prostituting herself to the officers to keep the officers from killing him. She’s horrified by this and distraught with his anger, which makes her realize that she’s falling in love with Andrius; when they reconcile, it’s shown that Andrius has similar feelings. He gives her a special stone to bring her luck and to remind her of him.

The NKVD tries to force the prisoners to sign papers saying that they are criminals and acknowledging that they’re being sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor and that they will pay a war tax of two hundred rubles per person, which most of them refuse to sign. Jonas becomes sick with scurvy from the lack of vegetables in his diet and almost dies until Andrius steals a can of tomatoes from the officers house. Soon after he heals, the prisoners hear that some of them will be transported to a different location. Some people are fools enough to think they’re being transported to America, but Lina knows better.

The prisoners, which now include prisoners from other camps, are taken farther north in Siberia. The NKVD take them to an empty field and tell them that they will have to build their own shelter, and quickly, as the arctic chill begins in September. They suffer through the cold temperatures and hypothermia. It is here that Lina discovers why they’ve been deported and that she is being punished because her beloved cousin and best friend, Joana, was able to escape — she is dying to allow Joana to live. It also here that a guard reveals to them that Lina’s father has been killed in prison. Lina’s mother takes sick and she dies in the shack.

Lina and Jonas are able to hide her body from the officers so they can bury her properly. The other prisoners help them, as a testament to how much they have become a family within themselves — they need each other to survive and Lina’s mother in particular was a unifying force due to her calm demeanor and peaceful spirit. Lina paints a map to her mother’s grave so that she will never forget where it is. Lina is determined to survive the camp and now cares for Jonas.

The other prisoners all take their turns with illness — scurvy, dysentery, typhus, hypothermia. They’re dying more and more every day. Jonas becomes very ill and just when Lina is afraid that he won’t be able to survive the night, an inspection officer, a doctor, appears at the shack. Dr. Samodurov is to inspect all of the prisons to report that everything is fine and the prisoners are being treated fairly, but he tells Lina that is not going to submit false reports. He spends ten days at the prison; he helps the prisoners store fish for the upcoming storms and plot a burial yard for the dead. The doctor tells her that it’s possible that her father hasn’t died; the guards have told prisoners before that people have died, only to be found living somewhere.

Lina is determined to live to reunite with Andrius. When they left each other, they promised that they would meet again, and when Lina closes her eyes, she can imagine that they are together as she holds the stone.

The novel ends with an epilogue from 1995 in Lithuania. A construction crew has discovered a wooden box int he ground that contains a glass jar full of papers. The papers contain drawings and a letter:

Dear Friend,

The writings and drawings you hold in your hands were buried in the year 1954, after returning from Siberia with my brother, where we were imprisoned for twelve years. There are many thousands of us, nearly all dead. Those alive cannot speak. Though we committed no offense, we are viewed as criminals. Even now, speaking of the terrors we have experienced would result in our death. So we put our trust in you, the person who discovers this capsule of memories somewhere in the future. We trust you with truth, for contained herein is exactly that — the truth.

My husband, Andrius, says that evil will rule until good men or women choose to act. I believe him. This testimony was written to create an absolute record, to speak in a world where our voices have been extinguished. These writings may shock or horrify you, but that is not my intention. It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar stir your deepest well of human compassion. I hope they prompt you to do something, to tell someone. Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.

Mrs. Lina Arvydas
9th day of July, 1954 — Kaunas


This book was incredibly moving. This was a side of the Holocaust that I wasn’t very familiar with, but it was equally as horrifying — in fact, one of the characters in the book points out the similarities between Stalin and Hitler. The horrors that people can commit to others, blindly, without cause or reason, is stunning. I’ll never fail to be amazed by the deplorable ways that people treat others.

That being said, the story was effective for several reasons. Lina’s story is told through flashbacks to events in her family, adding a dimension to the story of her relationships and her life before they were taken. I enjoyed Andrius’s character because he had his own experience that added to the plot; it didn’t feel like he was added solely for a romantic element. There were so many descriptions of Lina drawing that I began to wish that there had been reproductions of drawings to add just one more realistic element to the story. The epilogue was great, because I was a little disappointed in the ending that left Lina in the camp, so knowing that they survived and she and Andrius married was cathartic.


Sepetys’ first novel offers a harrowing and horrifying account of the forcible relocation of countless Lithuanians in the wake of the Russian invasion of their country in 1939. In the case of 16-year-old Lina, her mother, and her younger brother, this means deportation to a forced-labor camp in Siberia, where conditions are all too painfully similar to those of Nazi concentration camps. Lina’s great hope is that somehow her father, who has already been arrested by the Soviet secret police, might find and rescue them. A gifted artist, she begins secretly creating pictures that can-she hopes-be surreptitiously sent to him in his own prison camp. Whether or not this will be possible, it is her art that will be her salvation, helping her to retain her identity, her dignity, and her increasingly tenuous hold on hope for the future. Many others are not so fortunate. Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, estimates that the Baltic States lost more than one-third of their populations during the Russian genocide. Though many continue to deny this happened, Sepetys’ beautifully written and deeply felt novel proves the reality is otherwise. Hers is an important book that deserves the widest possible readership.

This bitterly sad, fluidly written historical novel tackles a topic woefully underdiscussed in English-language children’s fiction: Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. On June 14th, 1941, Soviet officers arrest 15-year-old Lina, her younger brother and her mother and deport them from Lithuania to Siberia. Their crammed-full boxcar is labeled, ludicrously, “Thieves and Prostitutes.” They work at a frigid gulag for eight months-hungry, filthy and brutalized by Soviet officers-before being taken to the Siberian Arctic and left without shelter. Lina doesn’t know the breadth of Stalin’s mass deportations of Baltic citizens, but she hears scraps of discussion about politics and World War II. Cold, starvation, exhaustion and disease (scurvy, dysentery, typhus) claim countless victims. Lina sketches urgently, passing her drawings along to other deportees, hoping they’ll reach Papa in a Soviet prison. Brief flashbacks, seamlessly interwoven, illuminate Lina’s sweet old life in Kaunas like flashes of light, eventually helping to reveal why the repressive, deadly regime targeted this family. Sepetys’ flowing prose gently carries readers through the crushing tragedy of this tale that needs telling.
Kirkus Reviews


This book would be an excellent vehicle for a book talk. I would also recommend it be used in a display for Holocaust Memorial Day on May 8; it is important that the story of the genocide in the Soviet Union be told as well as the atrocities committed by Hitler.


Between shades of gray. (2011). Kirkus Reviews, 79(2), 138.

Cart, M. (2011). Between shades of gray. Booklist, 107(11), 68. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/58626231/between-shades-gray

Sepetys, R. (2011). Between shades of gray. New York, NY: Philomel Books.

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Module 8: Unwind by Neal Shusterman

November 4th, 2012 — 11:12am

Unwind by Neal Shusterman is a science fiction book published in 2007. It takes place in a future America where a civil war has been fought over abortion and a compromise has been made — all pregnancies will lead in a child, but parents have the option to have undesirable children “unwound” between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. To be unwound meant that they would be harvested and their body parts would be used as organ donations and put in other people; because 100% of the children are being used, they’re still alive, so it’s technically not an abortion. The book follows a group of teenagers who are scheduled to be unwound but have run away and are attempting to survive.


Connor’s parents have signed the unwind papers because he is a rebellious teenager; Risa is from a state home orphanage and is being unwound due to a surplus of children and not enough money to support them; Lev is being unwound as a tithe, a sacrifice from his religious family to serve the society with organ donation.

Connor runs away before he is taken to a harvest camp, but in doing so, he causes Risa’s bus to crash and takes Lev as a hostage to prevent being shot by the Juvey-cop, so the three of them are thrust together. Connor also shoots the juvey-cop with his own tranquilizer gun, so Connor is even more on the run. Lev is initially resistant to the escape, as he has been conditioned to believe that it is his duty to be unwound. They escape to the next town and attempt to get on a school bus to pretend to be regular teenagers and not raise suspicion; however, as they’re getting on the bus, Connor is distracted by a baby who is being storked — part of the unwinding laws has given the society “storking,” which is legal abandonment by mothers who do not want to raise their children and would have gotten an abortion. The lack of abortion has not created unwanted babies, and as long as mothers aren’t caught, they can legally leave their baby on the doorstep of a house, which makes the baby the homeowners’ responsibility. Connor notices the baby, as he shares with Risa and Lev, because years before his family was storked, but rather than raise the baby, his parents re-storked it to a neighbor. Two weeks later, they were storked again, but to their horror, they realized it was the same baby; their neighbors have been passing the baby around from doorstep to doorstep for two weeks, and the baby is now sickly and dies when Connor’s parents take it to the hospital. Connor has unconsciously gone to the baby and picked it up as the owner of the house opens the door. Risa, Connor, and Lev now have a baby to care for.

When they get to the school, they hide in the bathroom. Unbeknownst to Connor and Risa, Lev slips out and tells the secretary of the school that two unwinds have taken him hostage. While Lev is in the office, he calls his parents and his pastor, Pastor Dan, answers the phone. Pastor Dan tells him that he’s kept his name out of the papers so Lev can get a new life — this goes against everything Lev has been taught to think about unwinding and tithes. He had grown up thinking that this was God’s plan, but now to hear that his pastor is telling him that unwinding is wrong, he doesn’t know what to think or do. Lev pulls the fire alarm to create havoc and help Connor and Risa escape the juvey-cops and to escape himself. A kind teacher helps them by directing them to a woman who is helping unwinds. There are a group of kids she’s hiding in her basement, including a big bully type named Roland.

Sonia, the woman who’s hiding them, keeps them until a man who drives an ice cream truck shows up to take them to their next destination. The teacher, Hannah, comes back to take the baby from Risa — she knows they won’t get far with a baby and she promises Risa and Connor that she’ll care for it. The kids are taken to their next holding area, a warehouse next to an airport.

Meanwhile, Lev has joined forces with a kid named Cyrus, who calls himself CyFi and nicknames Lev “Fry”, for small fry. Cyrus and Lev are on their way to Joplin for reasons Cyrus won’t reveal to Lev. On their way, Cyrus suddenly changes his demeanor and personality, until he steals something and freaks out. He reveals to Lev that 1/8th of his brain has been replaced by a brain from an unwind and that part of his brain sometimes takes over and makes him do terrible things. He’s on his way to Joplin to find out what it is the unwind wants him to do there and to see if he can understand him better. Cyrus teaches Lev some street smarts along the way, as Lev has been sheltered his entire life.

When they get to Joplin, Cyrus’s brain directs them to the unwind’s former house, where the unwind’s parents are very confused and scared. Cyrus starts digging in their backyard, revealing all of the things that the unwound kid stole before he was unwound. Lev escapes after he screams at the unwind’s parents to tell Cyrus (who is now being controlled by the unwind’s brain) that they forgive him.

Risa and Connor, as well as the other kids that are in hiding, have been packed into crates and taken by plane to a place called The Graveyard — it’s literally an airplane graveyard in the deserts of Arizona that a former Air Force admiral has taken over and is using as a refuge for unwinds. They’re sad to see that Roland survived the trip, as he has become more and more of a bully and influential with the other kids. Risa understands what Roland is doing and convinces Connor that he needs to not rise to Roland’s challenge — the story of Connor’s escape from the juvey-cops has become legend, and the unwinds are all telling the story of the “Akron AWOL”, who they don’t know is Connor. Roland indeed tries to challenge Connor when he corners Risa in the bathroom and attempts to rape her — Connor interrupts but remains calm, telling Roland that the two of them broke up. Connor later tells Risa that he barely managed to control his anger, and they realize that they have feelings for each other. Lev has also made it to the Graveyard, but his personality is almost unrecognizable to Risa and Connor — he’s angry and rebellious, nothing like the gentle tithe they knew.

The kids in the camp, however, are becoming more and more unsettled — Roland has been getting them against the Admiral, and they rebel, destroying things and trying to attack him. The Admiral, who was in the hospital wing with Risa, has a heart attack. Roland, Connor, and Risa fly the helicopter to take the Admiral to the hospital to try to save the Admiral. While they’re there, Roland turns in Connor, Risa, and himself; however, he barters with the cops for his life by turning in the kids at the Graveyard.

The cops raid the Graveyard and take all of the kids to a harvest camp. Risa’s musical talents grant her amnesty from immediate unwinding; the head of the camp has made a band of the talented kids so that they can play music on the roof of the unwinding facility so calm the kids. Roland is unwound, and a description is given in the book, and it’s horrifying. Just saying.

Connor is set to be unwound, and Risa recognizes him. Lev has joined with other kids to become a clapper, people who turn themselves into bombs by having explosive chemicals put in their bloodstreams that detonate when they clap. They plan to detonate the harvesting facility, but when Lev finds out that Connor is going to be unwound, he moves up the detonation time to save Connor.

Just as Connor is being taken into the harvesting facility, the two other kids that are clappers with Lev detonate themselves and the harvesting facility is destroyed. Lev intended to clap as well, but at the last minute changes his mind, determined to pull out unwound youth from the wreckage and save Connor. Connor, Lev, and Risa are all taken to the hospital — Connor’s injuries have made him the recipient of unwound parts, including, to Connor’s horror, and arm from Roland. The nurse at the hospital has given him the ID of a guard from the facility that had been killed, to keep Connor from being harvested himself. Risa, having been on the roof with the band when it collapsed, is now paralyzed from the waist down and is refusing treatment, which saves her from being unwound. Lev’s blood is still full of chemicals, and because he is the only one who did not clap, has become a sort of folk hero and media darling, as he chose to save people rather than destroy them.

The novel ends with a party at the Admiral’s house, celebrating the birthday of his son, who he and his wife unwittingly had unwound. All the people who received parts from his son attend, bringing him entirely there. Connor and Risa go back to the Graveyard, carrying on the Admiral’s work as he had refused a heart from an unwound and is now too weak to go back. They also reveal, however, that they will be seeking to destroy other harvesting facilities, so that unwinding will end completely.

Time for a sequel!


This book was amazing. The argument about abortion is very topical in today’s political climate. The writing and the narration, which switched between several points of view, kept it fresh and interesting — it was nice to get different perspectives to explain different parts of the society, like the clappers and the storking. The story was amazing and well executed; at no point did they have a new concept that wasn’t fleshed out and well explained.

I was reading this during the school week, and I had the book on my desk; when my students saw it, they all went craaaazy about wanting to talk with me about it. They all loved the book and were excited to discuss it. As soon as I finished it, I put the sequel on request at the library.


Following in the footsteps of Jonathan Swift, Shusterman uncorks a Modest Proposal of his own to solve a Pro-Life/Pro-Choice dilemma. Set in a future in which abortions are outlawed but parents have the option of signing over their 13- to 17-year-olds to be used as organ donors, the tale focuses on 16-year-old Connor, who falls in with other prospective Unwinds and finds a temporary refuge (thanks to a clandestine organization with its own peculiar agenda) before being captured and sent to Happy Jack Harvest Camp. Though laced with intrigue, betrayals, and narrow squeaks, the story is propelled less by the plot (which is largely a series of long set pieces) than by an ingeniously developed cast and premise. But even readers who gravitate more to plot-driven fiction will find this present-tense page-turner thrilling, though it’s guaranteed to leave some feeling decidedly queasy—despite the (improbable) happy ending.
Booklist 2007

What keeps “Unwind” moving are the creative and shocking details of Shusterman’s kid-mining dystopia. First, there are the Orwellian linguistic tricks. People who have been unwound are not “dead” — they are “in a divided state.” Then there are the rules and rituals. Before being unwound, Lev is honored with a lavish “tithing party,” which bears a strong resemblance to a bar mitzvah. The most terrifying scene is devoted to the unwinding itself. The author’s decision to describe the process is a questionable one — a book’s great unknown can leave the strongest impression on a reader — but he executes as precisely as the surgeons who perform the unwinding.

Ultimately, though, the power of the novel lies in what it doesn’t do: come down explicitly on one side or the other. After all, there are benefits to unwinding — children with fatal diseases can be saved by perfect transplants. And if the people of Jesusland can come to understand their countrymen in the United States of Canada — or vice versa — aren’t we all better off?
New York Times 2008


This book is begging to be used in a book talk for high school students. Begging.


Peters, J. (2007, October 15). Unwind by neal shusterman. Booklist. Retrieved from https://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=2120692&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

Shusterman, N. (2007). Unwind. New York, NY: Simon And Schuster.

Vizzini, N. (2008, March 16). Young and in the way. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/books/review/Vizzini-t.html?_r=2&

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Module 7: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

October 28th, 2012 — 7:46pm

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is a book of realistic fiction. Published in 2009, it details the horrifying world of eating disorders.


Lia Overbrook is an eighteen year old senior in high school. The opening of the novel is a breakfast scene, where she avoids eating while being told by her stepmother that her best friend has been found dead in a motel. Lia lives with her father, stepmother, and stepsister. Lia has also been suffering with anorexia since she was in eighth grade.

The story is told through flashbacks and current day. The flashbacks detail how she and Cassie made a New Years Resolution/pact with each other to be the thinnest girls in the school — Lia accomplishes this by anorexia, Cassie by bulimia. They are best friends until one day their junior year, when Lia is driving them in a car and she passes out because her blood sugar is low. Lia is subsequently hospitalized for her eating disorder and she she is released, Cassie blames Lia for encouraging her own eating disorder, and they become estranged.

Lia attempts to figure out the details of Cassie’s last few days. Her body was found in a motel and she had called Lia thirty-three times on her cell phone the night she died, but Lia didn’t answer. When Lia went to the motel, an employee named Elijah asked her if she knew anyone named Lia, because Cassie had left a message for her. Lia begins to see Cassie’s ghost, who becomes more and more angry as she encounters it.

Lia has to be weighed every day by her stepmother, Jennifer, but Lia has rigged the scale and wears a robe that has weight sewed into the pockets. Her weight drops from 101 to 93. Lia’s mother, Dr. Marrigan, sees her at Cassie’s funeral and is concerned by her appearance. Lia has become estranged from her mother due to what she sees as her mother trying to control her. However, when Lia’s young stepsister, Emma, walks in on Lia cutting herself on her chest and sees Lia covered in blood, Lia’s parents agree that it would be for the best for Lia to stay with her mother for a while.

While staying with her, Lia’s mother makes a deal with her — she’ll tell Lia details of Cassie’s death if Lia eats. Cassie’s autopsy revealed that she died from Boerhaave syndrome — a rupturing of the esophagus due to repeated vomiting. She had gotten the motel room after a fight with her parents, drank a copious amount of vodka, and died when her esophagus ruptured.

Lia tells her therapist that she has been haunted by Cassie’s ghost, and her therapist tells her that this, along with her weight loss, makes her need to be hospitalized in the psychiatric institution again. Lia goes to Elijah, who she’s become friends with, and tells him she wants to run away with him when he leaves town. He tells her that she can go as long as she tells her family first — when she refuses, he tells her how lucky she is to have a family that cares and tells her that it seems like her family is trying to help her. She falls asleep and when she wakes up, Elijah and her money are gone; he’s left her a note that tells her she needs to stay and get help.

Lia is alone in the motel and is near death. Cassie’s ghost appears to her again and Cassie tells her how excited she is that she’ll be joining her soon; they also talk about the good parts of being alive. Lia manages to harness her energy to make it to a phone and calls her mother and tells her to come get her.

The last chapter opens with Lia in the hospital again. The difference this time is that Lia wants to be healed and is working toward recovery both on herself and with her relationships with her parents. The novel ends with a message of hope for Lia’s recovery and the message that help is always there for you if you can accept it.


This is a very powerful book. I’ve had friends struggle with eating disorders and it was heartbreaking to think that this resembled their struggles.

This is Lia’s explanation for her eating disorder:

Why? You want to know why?

Step into a tanning booth and fry yourself for two or three days. After your skin bubbles and peels off, roll in coarse salt, then pull on long underwear woven from spun glass and razor wire. Over that goes your regular clothes, as long as they are tight.

Smoke gunpowder and go to school to jump through hoops, sit up and beg, and roll over on command. Listen to the whispers that curl into your head at night, calling you ugly and fat and stupid and bitch and whore and worst of all “a disappointment.” Puke and starve and cut and drink because you don’t want to feel any of this. Puke and starve and cut and drink because you need an anesthetic and it works. For a while. But then the anesthetic turns into poison and by then it’s too late because you are mainlining it now, straight into your soul. It is rotting you and you can’t stop.

Look in a mirror and find a ghost. Hear every heartbeat scream that everysinglething is wrong with you.

“Why?” is the wrong question.

Ask “Why not?” (Anderson 2009)

I don’t know a single person who doesn’t struggle with image issues. Every person, men or women, has something about their appearance that bugs them. I am no stranger to an image issue and a certain amount of obsession with my weight.

However, the book ending on a hopeful and positive note was refreshing. Though Cassie died, Lia was able to survive, though there is an admittedly difficult road ahead. Another aspect of the book that I enjoyed was that her family was there, whether Lia wanted them or not, the entire time. The relationship with the mother was also very real. What teenaged girl doesn’t think their mother is trying to control their lives? As well they should, because I’m around teenagers all day long at school and they are like naked moles. Hormonal, emotional, naked moles.


At times Lia’s narrow, repetitive mind-set makes her a frustrating narrator. Certainly her obsessional behaviors (counting calories, ritually berating herself) are central to the illness, but at such times Lia can feel more like a concatenation of symptoms than a distinct person.

This very quality, however, may make Lia recognizable to many teenagers. One issue the author must have confronted is the potential of “Wintergirls” to be a “trigger” for anorexia, as psychologists term it. Can a novel convey, however inadvertently, an allure to anorexic behavior? While to my mind there is nothing in “Wintergirls” that glamorizes the illness, for some the mere mention of symptoms is problematic. “It’s about competition,” an anorexia sufferer once explained to me. “Sometimes all it takes to get triggered is to read about someone who weighs less than you do.”

We recognize Lia, but it’s sometimes hard to relate to her. Withdrawing, she sees life as if it were a series of meals to be gotten through (“I bit the days off in rows. . . . Bite. Chew. Swallow”). Parts of her story are hurried, telescoped, and this can make it hard for the reader to feel much about what is occurring.

Yet the book deepens. Where Lia had been hiding the extent of her illness before Cassie died, pretending to eat, playing the part of the “good girl,” increasingly, as her self-destruction gathers force, the truth emerges; the surface placidity of her life begins to crack.
Feinberg 2009

The intensity of emotion and vivid language here are more reminiscent of Anderson’s Speak (Farrar, 1999) than any of her other works. Lia and Cassie had been best friends since elementary school, and each developed her own style of eating disorder that leads to disaster. Now 18, they are no longer friends. Despite their estrangement, Cassie calls Lia 33 times on the night of her death, and Lia never answers. As events play out, Lia’s guilt, her need to be thin, and her fight for acceptance unravel in an almost poetic stream of consciousness in this startlingly crisp and pitch-perfect first-person narrative. The text is rich with words still legible but crossed out, the judicious use of italics, and tiny font-size refrains reflecting her distorted internal logic. All of the usual answers of specialized treatment centers, therapy, and monitoring of weight and food fail to prevail while Lia’s cleverness holds sway. What happens to her in the end is much less the point than traveling with her on her agonizing journey of inexplicable pain and her attempt to make some sense of her life.
Edwards 2009


I would anticipate this book to be used in a booktalk with a teenaged audience, but I think that it’s very important to introduce this book for parents to use to have discussions with their teenagers. This book would be a good conversation starter for parents.


Anderson, L. H. (2009). Wintergirls. New York: Viking.

Edwards, C. (2009, January 14). Wintergirls by laurie halse anderson. School Library Journal. Retrieved from https://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6628521.html

Feinberg, B. (2009, May 8). Skin and bone. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/books/review/Feinberg-t.html?_r=0

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Module 6: Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

October 24th, 2012 — 9:04pm

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale is a children’s book by Mo Willems. It was published in 2004 and won the Caldecott Honor in 2005.


Trixie is a little girl who lives in Brooklyn with her parents and her stuffed animal, Knuffle Bunny. One day, Trixie’s father takes her and Knuffle Bunny to the laundromat. On their way back a cross Brooklyn, Trixie suddenly loses her mind and goes “boneless” and screams and cries, much to her father’s confusion. When they get back to the apartment, Trixie’s mother immediately identifies the problem — Knuffle Bunny is missing.

The family treks back through Brooklyn to the laundromat where they rescue Knuffle Bunny from the washing machine and Trixie exclaims, “KNUFFLE BUNNY!!!!” as the first words she ever spoke.


The illustrations for this story are cartoon drawings done on top of photographs of Brooklyn, which was very interesting and fun to look at. The story of a toddler who lose its toy wasn’t particularly compelling to me, but then again, I’m not the target audience. I also found it a little ridiculous that the father is so clueless that he doesn’t realize that Trixie is suddenly without a toy that she’s never far from. Are men truly that clueless when it comes to their kids?

On a more personal note, the idea of having to drag a screaming child across town is more proof that I do not want kids and need to renew my birth control prescription.


Trixie steps lively as she goes on an errand with her daddy, down the block, through the park, past the school, to the Laundromat. For the toddler, loading and putting money into the machine invoke wide-eyed pleasure. But, on the return home, she realizes something. Readers will know immediately that her stuffed bunny has been left behind but try as she might, (in hilarious gibberish), she cannot get her father to understand her problem. Despite his plea of “please don’t get fussy,” she gives it her all, bawling and going “boneless.” They both arrive home unhappy. Mom immediately sees that “Knuffle Bunny” is missing and so it’s back to the Laundromat they go. After several tries, dad finds the toy among the wet laundry and reclaims hero status. Yet, this is not simply a lost-and-found tale. The toddler exuberantly exclaims, “Knuffle Bunny!!!” “And those were the first words Trixie ever said.” The concise, deftly told narrative becomes the perfect springboard for the pictures. They, in turn, augment the story’s emotional acuity. Printed on olive-green backdrops, the illustrations are a combination of muted, sepia-toned photographs upon which bright cartoon drawings of people have been superimposed. Personalities are artfully created so that both parents and children will recognize themselves within these pages. A seamless and supremely satisfying presentation of art and text.
School Library Journal

This comic gem proves that Caldecott Medal-winner Willems, the Dr. Spock and Robin Williams of the lap-sit crowd, has just as clear a bead on pre-verbal children as on silver-tongued preschoolers. On a father-daughter trip to the Laundromat, before toddler Trixie “could even speak words,” Daddy distractedly tosses her favorite stuffed bunny into the wash. Unfortunately, Trixie’s desperate cries (“aggle flaggle klabble”) come across as meaningless baby talk, so she pitches a fit until perceptive Mommy and abashed Daddy sprint back to retrieve the toy. Willems chronicles this domestic drama with pitch-perfect text and illustrations that boldly depart from the spare formula of his previous books. Sepia-tone photographs of a Brooklyn neighborhood provide the backdrops for his hand-drawn artwork, intensifying the humor of the gleefully stylized characters-especially Trixie herself, who effectively registers all the universal signs of toddler distress, from the first quavery grimace to the uncooperative, “boneless” stage to the googly-eyed, gape-mouthed crisis point. Even children who can already talk a blue streak will come away satisfied that their own strong emotions have been mirrored and legitimized, and readers of all ages will recognize the agonizing frustration of a little girl who knows far more than she can articulate.


Definitely for a children’s story time. This can be used in a “bring your favorite stuffed animal” day or in a craft to make their own Knuffle Bunnies.


Mattson, J. (2004). Knuffle bunny. Booklist, 101(2), 241. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/14623526/knuffle-bunny-book

Topol, M. (2004, October 04). Book of the week: Knuffle bunny. Retrieved from School Library Journal website: https://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA457411.html?industryid=47054&q=knuffle+bunny

Willems, M. (2004). Knuffle bunny: A cautionary tale. New York: Hyperion.

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Module 5: Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

October 15th, 2012 — 6:21pm

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan is a children’s book that details the life of Esperanza Ortega, a 13 year old girl growing up in post-Revolutionary Mexico. It won the Pura Belpre award in 2002.


Esperanza Ortega is the daughter of a ranch owner; her father, Sixto, owns El Rancho de las Rosas and produces grapes. However, Mexico after the revolution is unsafe and Esperanza’s father is murdered by bandits and robbers the night before Esperanza’s thirteenth birthday. Esperanza’s uncle, who is the mayor of their town, offers to marry her mother to save them from poverty — when her mother hesitates on the offer, a fire mysteriously burns down their house. In order to escape the marriage, Esperanza and her mother travel to California with a few of their friends, who also served as their servants on the ranch. Esperanza is devastated, not only to leave her life and the land that knew her father (Esperanza and her father could both hear music in the land by lying down on the ground; at one point, Esperanza feels herself physically rising while listening to the hum of the earth), but because they have to leave her grandmother, Abeulita, behind.

It’s difficult for Esperanza to acclimate to the her new station in life. The first time she goes to bathe, she prepares the way she’d been used to — for Hortensia to undress and bathe her. However, she quickly becomes aware that she has to get used to her new life; her mother falls ill with “Valley Fever,” a lung infection that afflicts workers in dusty environments. In order to pay for her mother’s hospital stay, Esperanza has to work in the fields. She works for her mother and grandmother — she is putting away money to send for her grandmother back in Mexico.

Some of the workers on the farms talk about striking. The conditions, while not abysmal, are not fair to all of the workers — even among migrant workers, there’s racism and unfair treatment. Esperanza and her friends and family avoid the strikers, and eventually immigration forces come in and wipe out the striking Mexican workers.

Esperanza reveals to Miguel, the son of her family’s servants and friends, that she has been saving money to bring her grandmother to them and is devastated when she wakes up one morning and discovers that Miguel and her money are gone. Her mother is released from the hospital and Miguel arrives on the train; he took Esperanza’s money and went to Mexico to bring Abeulita to her.


This book won the Pura Belpre award, which is awarded to Latin American authors whose work portrays and celebrates the Latin American culture. This book is wonderful in presenting the Mexican side of the Great Depression and migrant farmers in America. Before reading this book, my sole literary encounter with this era was Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Esperanza is a wonderful character (and was actually based partially on Pam Munoz Ryan’s grandmother, Esperanza) because she is childlike without being naive. The “rising” of the title is a metaphor for the rising she accomplishes from difficult circumstances, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. My only disappointment was that I wanted to know more about Esperanza’s life (mainly because I really wanted Esperanza to marry Miguel).


Moving from a Mexican ranch to the company labor camps of California, Ryan’s lyrical novel manages the contradictory: a story of migration and movement deeply rooted in the earth. When 14-year-old Esperanza’s father is killed, she and her mother must emigrate to the U.S., where a family of former ranch workers has helped them find jobs in the agricultural labor camps. Coming from such privilege, Esperanza is ill prepared for the hard work and difficult conditions she now faces. She quickly learns household chores, though, and when her mother falls ill, she works packing produce until she makes enough money to bring her beloved abuelita to the U.S.. Set during the Great Depression, the story weaves cultural, economic, and political unrest into Esperanza’s poignant tale of growing up: she witnesses strikes, government sweeps, and deep injustice while finding strength and love in her family and romance with a childhood friend. The symbolism is heavy-handed, as when Esperanza ominously pricks her finger on a rose thorne just before her father is killed. But Ryan writes movingly in clear, poetic language that children will sink into, and the books offers excellent opportunities for discussion and curriculum support.

Ryan uses the experiences of her own Mexican grandmother as the basis for this compelling story of immigration and assimilation, not only to a new country but also into a different social class. Esperanza’s expectation that her 13th birthday will be celebrated with all the material pleasures and folk elements of her previous years is shattered when her father is murdered by bandits. His powerful stepbrothers then hold her mother as a social and economic hostage, wanting to force her remarriage to one of them, and go so far as to burn down the family home. Esperanza’s mother then decides to join the cook and gardener and their son as they move to the United States and work in California’s agricultural industry. They embark on a new way of life, away from the uncles, and Esperanza unwillingly enters a world where she is no longer a princess but a worker. Set against the multiethnic, labor-organizing era of the Depression, the story of Esperanza remaking herself is satisfyingly complete, including dire illness and a difficult romance. Except for the evil uncles, all of the characters are rounded, their motives genuine, with class issues honestly portrayed. Easy to booktalk, useful in classroom discussions, and accessible as pleasure reading, this well-written novel belongs in all collections.
School Library Journal


This would be a great introduction for Hispanic Heritage Month or in an introduction for a unit on the Dust Bowl and migrant workers. The book cover is bold and vivid and would make a great display.


Engberg, G. (2000). Books for youth: Books for middle readers. Booklist, 97(7), 708. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/3840940/books-youth-books-middle-readers

Goldsmith, F. (2000). Esperanza rising (book review). School Library Journal, 46(10), 171. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/3646672/esperanza-rising-book-review

Ryan, P. M. (2000). Esperanza rising. New York: Scholastic.

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Module 4: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

September 29th, 2012 — 10:09am

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman was published in 2008. It, like many of Gaiman’s other books, is a fantasy book that presents the supernatural as completely natural and present in the world — in this case, a boy is raised by ghosts and lives in a graveyard. The plot is enhanced by illustrations by Dave McKean. The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Medal in 2009.


The book opens with the murder of a family: a mysterious man Jack has been sent to kill an entire family, but one member escapes — the toddler boy of the family manages to leave the house and find his way to a nearby graveyard. The ghosts that inhabit it hold a council and decide that they need to save the boy (as the man Jack is still trying to find him) and so give him the freedom of the graveyard and swear to protect him. Two ghosts, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, agree to adopt him and Silas, a mysterious figure who is suggested to be a vampire, agrees to serve as his guardian, as he can leave the graveyard and get food and clothes for the boy. The ghosts christen him Nobody Owens, Bod for short.

Each chapter serves as a different time period and adventure in Bod’s life, from meeting a human girl who is visiting the graveyard and discovering that he has powers that she doesn’t, befriending the ghost of a witch, and taking lessons and meals from a werewolf. The denizens of the graveyard strive to protect Bod from the man Jack who is still searching for him and trying to kill him.


The Graveyard Book was a fun book, though I felt that the development of Bod’s character was a little weak. I was more interested in the “people” in the graveyard and found that Bod sometimes was a minor character in my mind. Though he aged in the book, there wasn’t a lot of growth — he acted pretty much the same through the entire plot, from age five to eighteen. I enjoyed the fantasy aspects and felt that each chapter both fit in with the action as well as stood apart. It had a nice amount of weirdness without an overwhelming amount of frightening moments and gore, which is impressive considering that the book opens with a serial killing. It seems perfect for the Newbery award, which I associate with younger readers.


A lavish middle-grade novel, Gaiman’s first since Coraline , this gothic fantasy almost lives up to its extravagant advance billing. The opening is enthralling: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” Evading the murderer who kills the rest of his family, a child roughly 18 months old climbs out of his crib, bumps his bottom down a steep stairway, walks out the open door and crosses the street into the cemetery opposite, where ghosts take him in. What mystery/horror/suspense reader could stop here, especially with Gaiman’s talent for storytelling? The author riffs on the Jungle Book , folklore, nursery rhymes and history; he tosses in werewolves and hints at vampires—and he makes these figures seem like metaphors for transitions in childhood and youth. As the boy, called Nobody or Bod, grows up, the killer still stalking him, there are slack moments and some repetition—not enough to spoil a reader’s pleasure, but noticeable all the same. When the chilling moments do come, they are as genuinely frightening as only Gaiman can make them, and redeem any shortcomings.
Publishers Weekly 2008

And it is appropriate too. Don’t let the fact that the first sentence in the book (“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife”) put you off. The murder of Bod’s family is swift, immediate, and off-screen. What remains is just a great fantasy novel that has the potential to appeal to both boy and girl readers. Kid wants a ghost story? Check. Kid wants a fantasy novel set in another world appropriate for Harry Potter fans? Check. Kid wants a “good book”. That’s my favorite request. When the eleven-year-old comes up to my desk and begs for “a good book” I can just show them the cover and the title of this puppy and feel zero guilt when their little eyes light up. A good book it is.
School Library Journal 2008


Halloween time, definitely. I think the best use of this would be a book talk with middle school aged kids, paired with Gaiman’s other book for young adults, Coraline. Those two books paired together would be good for both boys and girls — I would present the chapter about the ghost of the witch as the hook.


Bird, E. (2008, August 6). Review of the day: The graveyard book. School Library Journal. Retrieved from SLJ.com website: https://blog.schoollibraryjournal.com/afuse8production/2008/08/06/review-of-the-day-the-graveyard-book-by-neil-gaiman/

Gaiman, N. (2008). The graveyard book. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Publishers Weekly. (2008, September 29). Children’s review: The graveyard book. Retrieved from PublishersWeekly.com website: https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-06-053092-1

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Module 3: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

September 24th, 2012 — 8:36pm

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick is a 527 page book that is told with both text and illustration. It tells the story of Hugo, a boy who lives in a Paris train station. It won the Caldecott medal in 2008; the movie version, “Hugo”, was directed by Martin Scorsese and was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 2012.


Hugo Cabret lives in a Paris train station in the 1930s. He is an orphan; he had been living with a drunken uncle, who kept the clocks at the train station, but he disappeared and Hugo presumes he is dead. In order to keep from being evicted from the train station, Hugo keeps the clocks going in his uncle’s absence. Hugo’s father was a watchmaker and passed on his love of machinery and invention to Hugo. Before his death in a fire, Hugo’s father had found an automaton (a mechanical man) and was working on fixing it up when he died. Hugo has taken over his father’s fixation on the man and is trying to get the machine to work by using his father’s old notebook.

There is a toy shop in the train station that Hugo is fascinated by — it’s run by an older man and occasionally a girl about his age. Hugo occasionally steals parts for his automaton from the toy shop, until one day he’s caught by the man. The man takes Hugo’s notebook, with the drawings of the automaton, and refuses to give it back, much to Hugo’s horror. Hugo hesitantly befriends the girl, the man’s goddaughter, Isabelle. Isabelle loves movies and sneaks in with the help of a worker there, Etienne — she has to sneak in because her godfather won’t pay for her movie tickets. Etienne is a film student and loves films.

Hugo gets the automaton built but it is missing a heart shape in the back. Hugo recognizes the heart shape in a key that Isabelle wears around her neck, so he surreptitiously steals it. She confronts him about stealing it and follows him to the clocks, where he stays and together they turn the key in the back of the automaton and it draws an image of an object hitting the moon, surrounded by stars and clouds. It’s a scene that Hugo’s father had described to him as part of his favorite movie, “A Trip to the Moon.” The automaton then signs a name on the image — Georges Melies.

Georges Melies was an illusionist turned filmmaker at the turn of the 20th century. Georges Melies is also the name of Isabelle’s godfather. They are the same person!!!!! Crazy.

Etienne tells them that he’s learned all about Georges Melies, that his teacher, Rene Tabard, is a huge fan, and Isabelle invites them to their apartment to see some of Georges’s movies, as they are rumored to all have been destroyed. Unfortunately, she didn’t get permission from Papa Georges or Mama Jeanne. Jeanne is hesitant to allow them to stay, as Georges is sensitive to any discussion of his former glory, but Rene tells her thathe has discovered an old movie of his and they sit down to watch it. When the film is over, Georges has emerged from his room and has been watching with them, with tears in his eyes. He takes the projector they had brought and locks himself in his room — when Isabelle and Hugo pick the lock, they discover Georges going through trunks of his old movie paraphernalia.

Hugo reveals to Georges that he has the automaton working and Georges tells him to go to the train station to fetch it. Unfortunately, when he gets there, the Station Inspector is after him — Hugo’s uncles body has been found and Hugo has been discovered living there, as well as the petty theft of food he’s been committing; the Station Inspector chases him through the station, finally catching him when Hugo is almost hit by an oncoming train.

He is saved from being taken to an orphanage by Georges and Isabelle, who have grown suspicious when it took Hugo so long to return. Georges accepts responsibility for Hugo, enveloping him in his cape as he leads Hugo and Isabelle out of the station.

Six months later, Hugo, Isabelle, and the Melieses are attending a French Film Academy celebration of the films of Georges Melies. When the showing of his films are over, Georges tells Hugo that he fully expects Hugo to take over as Professor Alcofrisbas, a character from Georges’ films who could turn anything into gold. It is then revealed that Hugo has indeed done just that — through the words and pictures of the book.


This book is incredible. It’s not a novel, but not a picture book; not a graphic novel either, but a completely original creation and interpretation of storytelling. The pictures told as much of the story as the words did. Though, as a reader, I found it mildly frustrating to be engrossed in the story and suddenly have the narration turn into a series of pictures, the addition of the stills of Georges Melies’ movies were incredible. The illustrations added an element to the story that pure description and imagery would not have been able to accomplish.


Selznick’s “novel in words and pictures,” an intriguing mystery set in 1930s Paris about an orphan, a salvaged clockwork invention, and a celebrated filmmaker, resuscitates an anemic genre-the illustrated novel-and takes it to a whole new level. The result is somewhat similar to a graphic novel, but experiencing its mix of silvery pencil drawings and narrative interludes is ultimately more akin to watching a silent film. Indeed, movies and the wonder they inspire, “like seeing dreams in the middle of the day,” are central to the story, and Selznick expresses an obvious passion for cinema in ways both visual (successive pictures, set against black frames as if projected on a darkened screen, mimic slow zooms and dramatic cuts) and thematic (the convoluted plot involves director Georges M’eli’es, particularly his fanciful 1902 masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon .) This hybrid creation, which also includes movie stills and archival photographs, is surprising and often lovely, but the orphan’s story is overshadowed by the book’s artistic and historical concerns (the heady extent of which are revealed in concluding notes about Selznick’s inspirations, from the Lumi’ere brothers to Fran’eois Truffaut). Nonetheless, bookmaking this ambitious demands and deserves attention-which it will surely receive from children attracted by a novel in which a complex narrative is equally advanced by things both read and seen.

Here is a true masterpiece—an artful blending of narrative, illustration and cinematic technique, for a story as tantalizing as it is touching.Twelve-year-old orphan Hugo lives in the walls of a Paris train station at the turn of the 20th century, where he tends to the clocks and filches what he needs to survive. Hugo’s recently deceased father, a clockmaker, worked in a museum where he discovered an automaton: a human-like figure seated at a desk, pen in hand, as if ready to deliver a message. After his father showed Hugo the robot, the boy became just as obsessed with getting the automaton to function as his father had been, and the man gave his son one of the notebooks he used to record the automaton’s inner workings. The plot grows as intricate as the robot’s gears and mechanisms […] To Selznick’s credit, the coincidences all feel carefully orchestrated; epiphany after epiphany occurs before the book comes to its sumptuous, glorious end. Selznick hints at the toymaker’s hidden identity […] through impressive use of meticulous charcoal drawings that grow or shrink against black backdrops, in pages-long sequences. They display the same item in increasingly tight focus or pan across scenes the way a camera might. The plot ultimately has much to do with the history of the movies, and Selznick’s genius lies in his expert use of such a visual style to spotlight the role of this highly visual media. A standout achievement.
Publisher’s Weekly


This book lends itself easily to be a book used in a book club for young teens — it would be easy to have kids read this book and come to see the movie for a teen movie night.


Mattson, J. (2007). The invention of hugo cabret. School Library Journal, 103(9/10), 97. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/23776855/invention-hugo-cabret

Publisher’s Weekly. (2007). Children’s review: The invention of hugo cabret. Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-439-81378-5

Selznick, B. (2007). The invention of hugo cabret. New York: Scholastic.

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Module 3: Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema

September 23rd, 2012 — 9:33am

Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale is a children’s book written by Verna Aardema and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. A cause and effect story to illustrate the power and danger of lies, it won the Caldecott Medal in 1976 for its vivid illustrations.


The story takes place in a West African countryside and begins with a gossipy mosquito who tells an inane piece of gossip to an iguana. The iguana is annoyed by the mosquito because he is a such a tremendous liar, so he puts sticks in his ears so he doesn’t have to listen. However, the sticks mean that he can’t hear any of the other animals talking to him; the python says hello and when iguana ignores him, he assumes that the iguana is mad at him and tries to hide in a hole and, by doing so, scares the rabbit, who runs away, which causes the crow to assume that there’s some danger, so the monkey runs to warn the other animals and in his haste he lands on an owl nest and accidentally kills an owlet.

When the owl discovers one of her children is dead, she mourns so much that she doesn’t hoot to wake up the sun. The other animals hold a meeting to determine what happened and by investigating each animal, find out that the mosquito is the true culprit. The animals call to punish the mosquito, and it’s told that the mosquito has a guilty conscience and that “to this day she goes about whining in people’s ears: ‘Zeee! Is everyone still angry at me?'”


Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears won the Caldecott Medal, which is awarded for illustrations in childrens books. It won with good reason. The illustrations are bright and vibrant and propel both the characters and the plot forward. The art was made using watercolors applied with an airbrush, pastels rubbed on by hand, and india ink. The cut-out effect was acheived by actually cutting the shapes out of vellum and frisket masks at several different stages (Aardema 1975). The story is a good one for children; the dangers of gossip and lying. The text also uses onomatopoeia that will resonate with kids: the iguana goes “mek, mek, mek, mek” through the reeds, the rabbit bounds “krik, krik, krik” across a clearing, the crow calls “kaa, kaa, kaa!” The mosquito meets his final punishment with a “KPAO!” at the end of the book, which is both foreign enough to be African and familiar enough to a south Texas audience.

I really enjoyed this book. It has a very good lesson on both gossip and perception — the illustrations when the animals are telling what they thought happened were very vivid and added an element that wasn’t expressed by the plot; for example, the rabbit telling about the snake invading her hole was incredibly frightening. I would have left the hole quickly, too.


This tale from Africa is another of those cumulative goose chases except that instead of pursuing an object, the game here is fixing the blame for an overlong night. As King Lion summarizes the chain of events after it’s all straightened out, “”it was the mosquito who annoyed the iguana, who frightened the python, who scared the rabbit, who startled the crow, who alarmed the monkey, who killed the owlet-and now Mother Owl won’t wake the sun so that the day can come.”” Not one of your indispensable kernels of folk wisdom, but it is the kind of brisk go-round that can pick up a lagging story hour group. And though the stunning illustrations are not our favorite Dillons-they don’t generate much life or involvement-their crisp cut paper look commands attention.
Kirkus Reviews 1975

“In this Caldecott Medal winner, Mosquito tells a story that causes a jungle disaster. “Elegance has become the Dillons’ hallmark. . . . Matching the art is Aardema’s uniquely onomatopoeic text . . . An impressive showpiece.”
Booklist, starred review.

Living in south Texas, mosquitoes are an every day sight, which would make this book very easily understood by children — I’m not sure you’d be able to find a kid in south Texas who couldn’t detail the particular annoyance of a mosquito buzzing in your ear. I would choose this book to identify the dangers of gossip and the literary element of cause and effect. A good opener to reading this story would be to play a game of “Telephone” to show just how difficult it is to determine the truth when the story has gone through several people.


Aardema, Verna. (1975). Why mosquitoes buzz in people’s ears : a west african tale. New York, NY: Dial Press.

Booklist. (n.d.) [Review of the book “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears”]. “Booklist.” Retrieved from https://us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780803760899,00.html

Kirkus’ Reviews. (1975). “Why mosquitoes buzz in people’s ears.” Kirkus Book Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/verna-aardema-4/why-mosquitoes-buzz-in-peoples-ears/#review

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Module 2: In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

September 9th, 2012 — 6:41pm

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak is a children’s book published in 1970. As in Sendak’s previous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, the book follows a child through a dreamlike world and adventure. It won the Caldecott Honor medal in 1971.


Mickey is a young child who is in bed and hears a commotion downstairs. When he stands on his bed to shout “quiet down there!” to the noisemakers, he falls out of bed, out of his clothes, past his sleeping parents, and into the night kitchen, where three chefs (who have Hitler mustaches) are baking a cake for the morning. Mickey falls into the cake batter, and the bakers pour the Mickey batter into the cake pan and put it in the oven. Mickey bursts out of the oven during the baking. He escapes the oven and falls into bread dough, which he forms into an airplane and flies to a giant bottle of milk for the bakers, who are freaking out about Mickey’s escape from the cake. Mickey pours out milk for the morning cake and the bakers are satisfied and continue to bake the cake. Mickey wakes up, “cakefree and dried,” in his bed and we learn “that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning.”


The controversy of In the Night Kitchen lies in the appearance of Mickey’s naked body, which does not give him the Ken doll treatment at all, and the chefs appearing unconcerned about baking a young boy. In an interview with NPR in 1986, Sendak said about the nudity issue:

Well, we live in a very strange society. I mean, I was outraged when that book came out and there was a such a hullabaloo over his genitals.

I mean, I assumed everybody knew little boys had that and that this wasn’t a breakthrough. The fact that people considered that outrageous: incredible. I mean, you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you go to the Frick, you go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and there’s a Christ child with his penis. It’s accepted in fine art, but somehow in books for children there’s a taboo.

Well, the hell with that. I mean, I didn’t set out to cause a scandal. I set out to do a very particular work where he had to be naked in order to confront a particular dream he was in. You don’t go into a dream wearing Fruit of the Loom underwear or PJs. You go tutto. You go yourself, your being, and that’s why he was naked, and it was idiocy. It was incredible idiocy what went on over that book for many, many years about Mickey being naked.
Maurice Sendak, 1986

It was no coincidence that the chefs have Hitler-esque appearances. Sendak was Jewish and was deeply affected by the Holocaust; his parents were Polish immigrants and most of his extended family was killed in concentration camps. The oven and the bakers insistence in baking him are a reference to the Holocaust (Gross 2003).

The bakers of “In the Night Kitchen” baking a Mickey cake.

According to the American Library Association, In the Night Kitchen is one of the most frequently banned or challenged books due to Mickey’s nudity and the phallic suggestions of the milk bottle. Eyeroll.

At the end of the day, the book, like all of Sendak’s work, is full of vivid pictures and a fun story. Childhood can be scary and dangerous, but through Mickey’s ingenuity and leadership, he survives enough for cake in the morning. I really enjoyed the book and think that children would enjoy it as well. It’s fun!

And reading the book makes me want cake.


This is Maurice Sendak’s comic strip apotheosis of the Thirties/ dusky dream of sensual bliss/ bim bam boom bombshell of a child-echoing picture book. Sometimes Mickey’s toss and turn from bed into the night kitchen and back keeps in time to internal rhyme, or sets up a rhythmic chant or a remembrance of things heard, or makes sport with words; while what’s doing in the kitchen is the concoction of a cake by three Oliver Hardy cooks who take Mickey for milk until “right in the middle of the steaming and the making and the smelling and the baking Mickey poked through and said I’M NOT THE MILK AND THE MILK’S NOT ME! I’M MICKEY!” But wait: in his bread dough plane with his milk-pitcher helmet, Mickey flies up and up and up “and over the top of the Milky Way,” then dives down into the bottle “singing ‘I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me. God Bless Milk and God Bless Me!'” God bless naked and naturally exposed, Mickey is pure joy. . . or as the cooks chorus “MILK IN THE BATTER! MILK IN THE BATTER! WE BAKE CAKE! AND NOTHING’S THE MATTER!” (Can it go without saying that the pictures are superb.)
Kirkus Reviews, 1970

In the Night Kitchen is perhaps the closest any children’s book has come to telling an authentic dream since the days of George MacDonald who, after all, lived in that pre-Freudian world where it was still possible that dreams were messages from Faerie. That Night Kitchen also works as a story is a measure of Sendak’s power and control. Sendak’s major concern is always the integrity and the individuality of a child, who will be neither civilized nor molded. Mickey creates the airplane of his escape from the dough that was to have molded him into shape. Max, in Wild Things, turns the wild things to his own will. Sendak’s heroes return home, but never entirely forsake the wild places of their journeys.
The New York Review of Books, 1970


The most obvious use would be to use this book prominently in a Banned Books display. The fervor over Mickey’s nudity was overwhelming when the book was published, but upon Sendak’s death in May of 2012, libraries are re-examining the book to introduce in circulation. This book would be an easy way to discuss censorship with children.


Gross, Terry. (Producer). 2003, October 30. “Interview with Maurice Sendak.” Fresh Air with Terry Gross. NPR, National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=152248901

Hentoff, Margot. (1970). “Little private lives.” The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from https://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1970/dec/17/little-private-lives/?pagination=false

Kirkus’ Reviews. (1970). “In the night kitchen.” Kirkus Book Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/maurice-sendak/in-the-night-kitchen/#review

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Module 2: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

September 8th, 2012 — 10:55pm

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was published in 1910 in serial form, in a magazine intended for adults. Upon its publication in book form in 1911, it has become a popular and classic book for children.

Mary Lennox is an unpleasant child who has been raised in India, mostly by Indian servants — her parents have very little to do with her. Her parents are wealthy British citizens and are very beautiful, so they have hired servants to keep their disagreeable, sickly looking child out of their way; the servants subsequently give Mary everything she wants in order to keep their lives easily and to keep her from throwing fits, so she has grown up to be a very spoiled, albeit lonely, child. Her only associations are her ayah, who raises her but doesn’t particularly like her. She’s unaffectionate, rude, and has a quick temper when she doesn’t get her way.

When cholera breaks out at the Lennox house, most of the servants die from the disease. Amid the panic and the horrible sounds of people dying and others mourning, Mary hides herself in her nursery. She falls asleep and when she wakes up, the house is silent. She hears footsteps in the hall and a few military officers enter her room and are very surprised to see her standing there. It turns out that while Mary was asleep, her parents died of cholera and the remaining servants left the house, abandoning her.

She is sent to live in Yorkshire to live with Mr. Archibald Craven, her uncle through marriage (Mr. Craven’s wife was the sister of Mary’s father). When she gets to Misselthwaite Manor, it seems that her life is not going to change much from her life in India — Mr. Craven is often away on business and when he is home, he likes to be alone. Mary is told that she will have to entertain herself and has a list of rooms she’s not allowed to explore in the house. Mrs. Medlock, who runs the house, is an older woman who doesn’t wish to be burdened with Mary, so Martha, a young servant in the house, is given the task of keeping Mary’s room. Martha is a cheerful young girl who entertains Mary with stories of her family, including her younger brother, Dickon. It’s Martha who tells Mary the most about Mr. Craven, in her friendly Yorkshire gossip way: Mr. Craven had a wife whom he loved dearly. One day, she was sitting in her rose garden when the tree branch she was on broke; she fell and died. Mr. Craven locked the door to his wife’s garden and buried the key and has been mourning her loss ever since. Mary is intrigued by the garden and wants to find it and enter it somehow. Mrs. Medlock, however, tries to keep Mary from discovering too much of the house; she discourages her when she asks about the garden, and when Mary hears crying in the house, Mrs. Medlock insists that it’s the wind.

She occupies her time in the house by exploring the grounds and the moor. She meets the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, and becomes friends with a redbreasted robin that Weatherstaff has raised. Mary becomes friendlier and more acclimated to British life as she spends more time with Martha and Weatherstaff; when she first arrived to Misselthwaite Manor, she had never dressed herself and is embarrassed when Martha teases her about it. She spends more time outdoors and her skin gradually loses the sickly yellow pallor.

One day, as she’s whistling and following the robin, the bird lands on a section of unturned ground. Mary notices a key there, which she imagines has to be the key to the secret garden. A few days later, she follows the bird again and the wind moves some of the ivy covering the walls to the garden and reveals the door that had been hidden by overgrowth for ten years. She enters the garden and is amazed by its beauty and that some of the flowers are still growing after ten years of neglect (hello, symbolism). She begins weeding and working in the garden, determined to make it thrive again. When Mary asks Martha at her lunch that day about different plants and tells her she wishes she could garden a little to further improve her health, Martha tells her that Dickon knows all about plants and writes a letter for Dickon to use Mary’s allowance to buy seeds and garden tools and have him deliver them to the manor. When Dickon arrives, Mary is instantly taken with him, as he has a gentle way with animals and is very knowledgeable of the landscape. She shows him the garden and he agrees to help her, though she makes him promise to keep the garden a secret. She also develops a crush on him, much to Martha’s amusement.

When she finally meets Mr. Craven, she’s surprised to find that he isn’t an ogre, though his face is lined with pain, from a back ailment, and misery, from mourning his wife. Mary convinces him to not hire a governess for her, but to instead grant her “a bit of earth” for her to plant a garden. He agrees, and tells her that he’ll be gone for the summer. All the better for her to grow a secret garden.

During her stay at Misselthwaite Manor, she has heard the sound of crying in the manor, but whenever she asks Mrs. Medlock or Martha about it, they either blame the wind or deny its existence. One night, determined to find the source, she discovers a hidden room, with a boy lying in the bed and crying. They’re both equally as surprised to see each other; it turns out that the boy is Colin Craven, Mary’s cousin. Colin stays in bed because he has something wrong with his spine, and his father rarely visits him because Colin reminds him of his wife. Mary tells Colin about the garden, and in order to keep the garden a secret and from Colin demanding the servants to take him into the garden that is supposed to not exist, Mary promises that she will take him to the garden once she has fixed it up.

Mary begins to visit Colin regularly, telling him stories of living in India and what happens in the moor with Dickon, his animals, and the garden. Mrs. Medlock and Mr. Craven discover them and mildly panic, but after Colin tells them that he wants to see Mary (he is treated as if he’s made of glass by everyone and is granted everything he wants; if he doesn’t get something or is unhappy, he throws a fit and everyone worries about his health. Mary compares him to a Rajah) and after a few warnings from Mr. Craven about being careful and minding Colin’s health, they allow it. Everyone in the house is nervous about Colin’s health because, as a baby, Mr. Craven was afraid that Colin would inherit his spinal deformity. He has stayed in bed because of it, which has made Colin sickly and weak, which makes everyone think that he’s dying. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mary and Dickon continue with their adventures in the garden. After Colin has a particularly horrid tantrum (he thinks that he felt a lump on his back and that he’s going to die), Mary helps him to calm down and tells him that they will take him into the garden in a chair so he can get fresh air. Just the idea of going outside helps Colin feel better, until the day comes when Dickon pushes Colin out to the garden in a wheelchair. The garden, which changed his life as a baby when his mother died in it, changes his life once more:

But Colin had actually dropped back against his cushions, even though he gasped with delight, and he had covered his eyes with his hands and held them there shutting out everything until they were inside and the chair stopped as if by magic and the door was closed. Not till then did he take them away and look round and round and round as Dickon and Mary had done. And over walls and earth and trees and swinging sprays and tendrils the fair green veil of tender little leaves had crept, and in the grass under the trees and the gray urns in the alcoves and here and there everywhere were touches or splashes of gold and purple and white and the trees were showing pink and snow above his head and there were fluttering of wings and faint sweet pipes and humming and scents and scents. And the sun fell warm upon his face like a hand with a lovely touch. And in wonder Mary and Dickon stood and stared at him. He looked so strange and different because a pink glow of color had actually crept all over him—ivory face and neck and hands and all.

“I shall get well! I shall get well!” he cried out. “Mary! Dickon! I shall get well! And I shall live forever and ever and ever!”

However, while they’re in the garden, Weatherstaff sees them when he’s on a ladder. Considering that the garden is supposed to be locked and impenetrable, this is a little difficult for Mary to explain. When Weatherstaff confronts the kids, Colin pulls the old “do you know who I am?!?!” routine. Weatherstaff identifies Colin as “the cripple” which angers Colin so much that he throws his covers off his lap and stands up to prove that neither his back nor his legs are crooked. He demands that Weatherstaff keep the secret of the garden, to which Weatherstaff reveals a secret of his own — he’s been kept on the staff because Colin’s mom liked him, and he has been tending to the garden since her death.

Colin and Mary visit the garden daily, and Colin gets stronger and healthier. They conspire to keep Colin’s improving health a secret to surprise his father, who has been away. They, as well as Dickon, begin referring to Colin’s improving health as “Magic,” from Mary’s stories of magic in India.

Around the same time that Colin realizes that he is well, Mr. Craven finds that his mood is also improving. He has been in mourning and miserable for ten years, but now finds himself thinking of Misselthwaite Manor fondly and appreciating the world around him. He has a dream that his wife is calling to him from her garden. As he travels home, he finds himself thinking of Colin and regretting his time spent away; he also reflects on how he could have been a better father. He makes a promise to himself to try to do better. Maybe he should have thought of that before his son turned into a spoiled, entitled brat. Just a thought.

When Mr. Craven arrives at Misselthwaite, he asks Mrs. Medlock where Colin is; when she replied that he’s “in the garden,” he somehow knows that Colin is in his wife’s garden, even though the key is supposed to be buried. He runs to the garden and literally runs into Colin, who has been running out of it with Mary. Mr. Craven can scarcely believe that the tall, healthy boy standing in front of him is Colin, but Colin takes him into the now blooming garden and tells him about the Magic.

The Burnett Fountain in Central Park, NYC. “It is believed that the two figures, a reclining boy playing the flute and a young girl holding the bowl, represent Mary and Dickon, the main characters in The Secret Garden. The bowl is a functioning birdbath where small birds drink during three seasons of the year. The sculpture stands on the edge of a small concrete pool that features a variety of water lilies.”


There were several things that irked me about this book. The native Yorkshire characters (namely Weatherstaff, Martha, and Dickon) spoke in a Yorkshire dialect that I’m not convinced wasn’t just Burnett throwing letters together. Also, when the English characters talk about the people of India, whether they were Mary’s servants or just Indians in general, they refer to them as “blacks,” which struck me as unnecessarily racist. I know that there’s something to be said for historical context and understanding the atmosphere of the time, but it made me squirm nonetheless. The character of Colin was completely insufferable. Mary’s character had growth — she began as “Mistress Mary, quite contrary” but changed into a girl who could dress herself and had people who liked her. Colin was introduced late into the novel, but even to the end, he holds himself as a prince and makes demands of people three times his age. He just….ugh. And he wasn’t even sick! Luckily Dickon’s character was there to be goodness and light and talk to animals and just generally be great at life.

The symbolism of the garden was very strong in the novel. It was the place where the Craven family was destroyed, with the death of Mr. Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother, but was also the place where the family was reformed, with it ending with Mr. Craven and Colin in the garden. There’s also a restorative power granted to living things: both Mary and Colin are told by different characters that they need to get fresh air in order to heal and become better people. Indeed, it isn’t until Mary starts exploring the moor and Colin gets into the garden that they become “real” children, laughing and playing. However, as a child who preferred being inside and reading to being outside and sweating, I don’t appreciate this message as much.


Burnett’s classic story of a disagreeable and self-centered little girl and her equally disagreeable invalid cousin is as real and wise and enthralling now as it was when it was first written over 75 years ago. The strength of her characterizations pulls readers into the story, and the depth inherent in the seemingly simple plot continues to make this sometimes forgotten story as vital to the maturation of young readers as Tom Sawyer and Little Women. Hague’s illustrations enhance the story beautifully, capturing as they do, both the old-fashioned and timeless quality of the tale. The charm, clarity, and muted tones of Hague’s paintings add dimension to each part of the tale. A reissue of an old classic to be treasured by a new generation of children (and their parents)!
School Library Journal (1987)

Bratty and spoiled Mary Lennox is orphaned when her parents fall victim to a cholera outbreak in India. As a result, Mary becomes the ward of an uncle in England she has never met. As she hesitantly tries to carve a new life for herself at imposing and secluded Misselthwaite Manor, Mary befriends a high-spirited boy named Dickon and investigates a secret garden on the Manor grounds. She also discovers a sickly young cousin, Colin, who has been shut away in a hidden Manor room. Together Mary and Dickon help Colin blossom, and in the process Mary finds her identity and melts the heart of her emotionally distant uncle. Bailey makes fluid transitions between the voices and accents of various characters, from terse Mrs. Medlock and surly groundskeeper Ben to chipper housemaid Martha. And most enjoyably, she gives Mary a believably childlike voice.
Publisher’s Weekly (2003)


The easiest use would be to manipulate the garden theme. Using this in a teen craft project would give several options — making origami flowers, doing a floral arrangement, working in the library flowerbeds. It could also be used as a teen book club or book of the month for April, with a gardening project for Earth Day.


Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The secret garden. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17396/17396-h/17396-h.htm

Central Park Conservancy. (2010). “The official website of new york city’s central park.” Burnett Fountain. Retrieved from https://www.centralparknyc.org/visit/things-to-see/north-end/burnett-fountain.html

Mellon, Constance A. (1987). “The secret garden (book review).” School Library Journal. 33(11), 80. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/5733324/secret-garden-book-review

Publisher’s Weekly.com. (2003). “Religion review: the secret garden.” Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-4001-0072-9

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