Kids live out the big literary themes, and they feel the conflicts just as deeply. Perhaps we wouldn’t go to the mat for a new kite or a miniature camera, but hey, it’s a big deal to a young one. And this is where a love of literature is born, through identifying with a character who struggles with the same issues we do.
I was so completely captivated by Laura Rankin’s Ruthie and the (Not So) Teeny Tiny Lie (Bloomsbury, $15.95). I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever had an experience like this—which begs the question: is lying about lying worse than plain lying?—but most kids have told a fib on the level of Ruthie’s. Let it be said that Rankin has created one of the most expressive foxes in literary history. Dressed in a plaid skirt, a rose petal sweater and a pair of Mary Janes, Ruthie’s mobile eyebrows and her sweater tugging and her foot scuffling just exude angst.
Here’s what happened. Ruthie loves miniature things and when she finds a tiny camera on the playground, she is in rapture. Until that cad Martin said it was his. He’d gotten it for his birthday. Ruthie begs to differ. She tells him in no uncertain terms that it is hers and, matter of fact, she got it for her birthday. Well, after that, the lie has to get bigger. Mrs. Olsen is forced to put the camera in her desk until the next day and Ruthie is just beside herself. She can’t remember what 2 + 2 is, she doesn’t hear Mrs. Olsen’s story, her little ears just lose their perk. We know what’s going to happen. Ruthie’s guilt builds to a fever pitch, but oh the confession. How much better she feels. How much better the world looks when one has a clear conscience. Though this would seem to be a morality tale, Rankin plays it very close to Ruthie’s point-of-view and allows young readers, say 4-8 (and up to 46) to vicariously experience the whole cycle.
Similarly, Little Donkey and the Birthday Present (NorthSouth, $15.95) by Rindert Kromhout tells of the deep conflict for young children of having to give away the birthday present they help pick out. It’s not a problem when the present is an abstract thing, but when it’s a pretty shiny red kite and one’s own birthday is so far away, well, that is different. After Little Donkey and his mother purchase the present, he tries very hard to figure a way out of this dilemma. He tries losing the present, but mama finds it. He tries having a tummy ache, but mama just responds that they’ll deliver the present and won’t stay for the cake. In the end, he gives in and discovers that playing with his friend yak’s shiny kite is almost as fun as having one of his own. The clever illustrations by Annemarie van Haeringen, the mountain setting and the calm wisdom of mama—not to mention yaks in red trousers—just plain work. Kids at this age and stage will fall in love.
Class, today our lesson is about shoes. If you have ever taken a child to a church basement to try on clothes, you will know firsthand how much energy is required of them to pretend they got what they wanted. Kids are grateful for something to wear, but in our image-conscious society they are also keenly aware of how they look to others. What they really want is enough money to buy their own clothes. Maribeth Boelts introduces young readers to this complex issue with kindness and finesse in Those Shoes (Candlewick, $15.99). Jeremy wants a pair of the latest high-falutin’ footwear. It doesn’t matter what kind they are—flavor of the day. He wants them bad, but Grandma reminds him that winter is coming and he needs new boots. When his own shoes wear out, he has to take a pair from the box at school. Egad! They have Velcro. Everyone makes fun of Jeremy’s shoes but Antonio. Antonio’s a quiet sort, who, Jeremy notices, also doesn’t have the hottest foot apparel around either. Like any poor child, Jeremy has resilience and creativity on his side, but his methods fail to produce the desired result. Still, Jeremy ends up feeling better about himself by being kind to someone else. Boelts’s lovely turn-of-events story is a great way to reinforce the good feelings that come from charitable work. With World Kindness Week right around the corner (November 12-18), use Those Shoes as a way to generate ideas to celebrate spreading kindness in your school and your community.
Young Pele: Soccer’s First Star (Schwartz & Wade, $16.99), by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome, also features shoes, or the lack of them, as a major story element. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele, grew up poor in Bauru, Brazil. He had trouble concentrating in school and was frequently punished by his teachers for not paying attention. His spare time was consumed with soccer or “football” as it was called in Brazil. He spent hours with his friends kicking a sock stuffed with rags and tied with string. None of the children could afford shoes. As they got better, they challenged the factory workers coming off their shift to play. Soon the children were winning these impromptu matches! They became known as the Shoeless Ones, and were not invited to play in a tournament sponsored by the mayor because they didn’t have shoes. A salesman offered to help find some used shoes. They were badly worn and oddly -sized, but the salesman said, “Pe de pobre nao tem tamanho,” which in Portugese means “the foot of the poor man doesn’t have a size.” The children were thrilled because this meant they could play in the tournament and show off their skills. In front of 5,000 screaming fans, Pele and his team demonstrated their intricate teamwork and won the tournament. What a great experience to read these two stories together. Young readers will have to unpack the values of each culture to talk about the importance of shoes to the children in each story.
Harry Houdini was obsessed with being the greatest daredevil of his time. What kid can resist a man whose trademark stunt was to free himself from a straitjacket while hanging upside down midway down a skyscraper? Nick Bertozzi and Jason Lutes, under the umbrella of the Center for Cartoon Studies, have created a visual stunt of death-defying cartooning in Houdini: The Handcuff King (Hyperion, $16.99). The story is based on one day in 1908 when Houdini dove from the Cambridge Bridge with his arms pinned behind him in handcuffs into the icy waters below. In Houdini, we follow his movements from 5 o’clock in the morning until that evening as he relaxes after another successful escape. We learn that while he was mostly just an amazing lock technician and a physically fit and fearless person, he also played a few tricks on his audiences. Readers will cringe as one of them seems to go awry threatening the great magician’s life. I love the visual presentation, the long vertical columns of Harry’s plunge, the tight focus on critical acts. I was about to say this is not a book for low skill level readers, but re-reading it with them in mind, the pictures do an excellent job of visually cueing the story. So I will revise that to say that there is a lot of text and if that will frustrate your low skill level reader, this might be one to skip. However, it also might be one that will help them step up. Overall, this is right up the alley of my two teen boys. Just leave it on the coffee table and see what literacy happens.
I have a question for you. I have heard from a very reliable source that the Bluford High Series by Anne Schraaf is a real winner with urban teens. Has anyone had any experience with this? I am planning to test them out in my own book clubs at Martin Luther King Middle here in Grand Rapids, so I’ll tell all when I know more.
Guts and gore are not really my thing, but is it okay when it’s a classic? Re-released this year, the epic tale of Beowulf (Candlewick, $21.99), the warrior prince who faces off with ferocious dragons and the infamous Grendel, is adapted and illustrated by artist Gareth Hinds. There’s nothing worse than a scene you might find in the Harry Potter series. Yes, limbs are torn asunder…well, one very famous limb in particular, and yes monsters are slain. When the book came out, my natural aversion to impaling, mounting monster heads on a stick and dragon ‘hickeys’ had me feeling like I might/could pass on this one. However, my son, Max, was assigned to read Beowulf and Hinds’ adaptation was a true comfort to him. Frankly, for him, and for many students, the text version is a plonker. This is an amazing book on the level of art. Hinds gives readers a paragraph of text and follows it with a visual feast of boats landing, Vikings clashing and dragons fuming. There is often one paragraph on a spread and then three or four pages of narrative art. When I was reviewing it, Max leaned over my shoulder and pointed out his favorite gory bits. He clarified several story points for me. All this to say, if you think your kids can handle it, let them have a go with Beowulf. It doesn’t, like some graphic classics, come off like a tv version of the real thing. It’s a work of art in and of itself. But it sure does make the real book go down smoother. We gave a copy to Max’s high school English teacher and she loved it, too.