Monday, May 28, 2012

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

There is something many of my blog readers may not know about me, and I need to confess it now.  I used to work for Colonial Williamsburg.  If you don't know about Colonial Williamsburg, go check out the website - among other things, it is one of the biggest living history museums and it is an amazing place.  This was a time of my life where I wore a colonial costume to work every day.  I told visitors about colonial times, both in my daytime job as a visitor's aide and in my evening job as an interpreter, where I told ghost stories from that time period and gave tours.  I loved that job!  And for a girl from San Diego, who had been raised on the history of the California missions, it was fascinating to learn more about that time period.

So you might understand why I continue to read books about the time around the Revolutionary War.  History came alive for me during my time in Williamsburg, and I like to recognize events I already know something about, and fit that information into the bigger timeline.  After working for Colonial Williamsburg, I went on to write my library school master's thesis on Thomas Jefferson's personal library.  Am I an expert on Thomas Jefferson?  Not even close.  In fact, while I knew many of the facts about Thomas Jefferson contained in these two books, I knew very little about his relationship with John Adams.  That's where both of these books came in handy.

My first pick is Those Rebels, John & Tom.  This book begins with both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as babies.  Kerley sets out to show their differences (and there are many).  Sometimes each man has his own page with a few sentences on it (John quite often skipped school, but Tom loved learning and reading).  Sometimes, though, the book design features both presidents on one large double-page spread.  Then one man takes precedence over the other.  For instance, Adams is a debater who loves to argue, and is featured on most of the spread, shouting in the courtroom, while Tom meekly scribbles his ideas at a desk in the far corner of the spread.  Both of them have firmly held ideas, but those ideas could not be more different.

Until the time comes to protest against King George's tyranny, that is.  At this crucial time in history, both men's differing life experiences bring them to the same breaking point.  The American colonies cannot continue on under King George's rule.  And from this starting point, the two Founding Fathers begin to come to a mutual understanding and appreciation that eventually helps to create the Declaration of Independence.

Kerley has an infectious way of writing that makes history very readable.  She includes the details that make these men interesting to young readers, such as Tom drinking punch in the taverns of Philadelphia.  Kerley shows the readers the big picture of this moment in American history without bogging them down.  She has a talent for distilling this enormous history into the points that are best told through these men's two contradictory characters.  Kerley uses quotes from each man's writing to support her viewpoint of their lives.  It helps young readers feel like they are getting to know these historical figures in a very real way.  Their lives are so different from ours, but still very human.

I really like this book, and one of the many things I like best about it are the illustrations.  Edwin Fotheringham works so well with Kerley's text to depict and expand what's written.  Because Kerley has really simplified the text, Fotheringham uses his illustrations to show more of the detail surrounding these men.  For instance, Kerley talks about how Thomas Jefferson "lunged, parried, and skewered the policies of King George and his government.".  Fotheringham draws Jefferson lunging towards King George, with a bayonet that is really a quill splattering ink all over George.  His style is that of an editorial cartoonist, and that brings humor to this story too.  As readers mature and learn more sophisticated information about the American Revolution, they will appreciate even more of the detail of these illustrations.

One choice that helps this book feel fresh and modern is the color palette.  While other colors are used to highlight or supplement, the primary colors are a sky blue, a rusty red, and a yellow that is almost the color of mustard (I'd love to know what this color is really called!).  There is also a deep navy used where you would traditionally see black.  These colors are powerful and rich, and even though they feel modern, this book doesn't scrimp on historical accuracy either.  Its design, illustrations and text are first-rate.
After I had decided to write about Those Rebels John & Tom, I came across Worst of Friends in our library's catalog, and decided I'd better look at that one, too.  What is so interesting is how well these books complement each other.  Jurmain looks at some of these men's contradictory personality traits, but she looks at them primarily as adults.  She spends very little time talking about the time before the Revolutionary War, where Kerley's book ends with the Declaration of Independence.  She moves forward, beginning in 1790.  At that time John & Tom had very strong, opposing ideas about how to run the country.  John was a Federalist, who believed that the President should have ultimate power to protect the laws and people of the United States.  Tom became a Republican who believed that one person should never wield all the power - that the Federalist theory dangerously resembled the British monarchy.  But when John became president, Tom was vice president, no matter what they thought of each other's ideas.

In 1800, their feud began when they ran against each other for the office of President, and Jefferson won.  They stopped speaking for many years, but finally Adams reached out and mended their rift.  The two men agreed to disagree about politics, and instead wrote of many other things in their lives.  Their friendship endured until they died on the same day (July 4th) in 1826.  This ongoing friendship was truly remarkable.

I think these books work so well together.  They both fall squarely in the nonfiction picture book camp.  While they both have a lot of information contained within their pages, the text is fairly concise and neither book feels too long.  They are both short enough to consider reading aloud, most likely in a classroom setting.  While Fotheringham's illustrations are more striking, Day's are traditional, very historically accurate, and with humor in the details.  Readers will laugh at Thomas Jefferson, before becoming President, emerging from a women's shop with boxes of corsets for Adams' daughter.  Or at Jefferson holding Adams back from fighting with King George after George snubs them both.

But I can't close a post on nonfiction picture books without commenting on their back matter.  In Worst of Friends, the "back matter" is actually in the front of the book, where a selected bibliography sits opposite a paragraph entitled "Can Presidents Be Pals?".  Those Rebels, John & Tom has much more extensive back matter.  Kerley ends the main text with the Declaration of Independence, but she summarizes their lives with a page-long Author's Note.  There is a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence across from the Note.  Then there is a page full of citations and sources for all of the quotations within the text.  This is the kind of back matter I've come to expect in my nonfiction, even for the youngest readers.
Both books gave me a new view of men I had come to know through their contributions to Colonial-era history.  I loved getting to know more about their lives and opinions.

Those Rebels, John & Tom.  Barbara Kerley; illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham.  Scholastic, 2012.
Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the True Story of an American Feud.  Suzanne Tripp Jurmain; illustrated by Larry Day.  Dutton, 2011.

both books borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Penny And Her Song

Let me start out by telling you that I love Kevin Henkes.  Truthfully, while I don't know anyone who is a Kevin Henkes hater, I'm a little over the moon about him.  I have met him several times at conferences, have signed books, and even asked him to come to my library when I worked on Nantucket (he really was interested, but couldn't).  I have loved all of his books (even Kitten's First Full Moon grew on me after a few readings).  And when I found out that he had written a reader, called Penny and Her Song, and that he had featured a new mouse character, I begged my HarperCollins connection for one.  And I mean BEGGED.  When I received it in the mail, I was thrilled.  I'd already heard some pre-pub buzz, and it was all positive.

But instead of sitting right down and reading it right there, I let it sit.  I didn't even open the cover.  I couldn't figure out why for a long time, and told myself that I was letting the anticipation build.  That I had received my ARC so far ahead of time that I didn't want to read it and write about it immediately, since it wouldn't be published yet.  But the real truth was, I was afraid.  I was afraid Penny wouldn't live up to his other fabulous mouse characters, who have helped guide children through all of their growing up.  I was afraid Henkes, who has capably handled multiple other formats, wouldn't be a strong beginning reader author.  I didn't want there to be a conditional book for me "Well, I love Kevin Henkes, except for that one..."

These were all silly worries.  Kevin Henkes is an award-winning author for a reason, and his first beginning reader is definitely not a mis-step.  But now that I've reassured you, I'll go back and tell you a little about the text.

Penny comes skipping home from school with a song to sing.  She wants to share it with her parents, but they both tell her the song will have to wait - that the babies are asleep.  Penny is dejected, and goes off to sing in her room.  Singing to herself in her room doesn't work either - this special song needs an audience.  Penny moves on to other activities, and her song is temporarily forgotten.  When the family is together at dinnertime, Penny tries to share this song again.  Her parents remind her that the dinner table is also not an appropriate place for this song. 

Just when the reader is beginning to feel that Penny will never get to sing her song, dinner is finished.  Penny begins her production, singing proudly to her beaming audience.  Her song is so infectious that the whole family is singing along.  They dance, they sing, even the babies "sang along in their own baby way" (p. 23).  It's a true family hootenanny, including funny costumes and more songs.  This impromptu performance has the added benefit of wearing everyone out and getting them ready for bed.  The book ends peacefully, with a reassurance that Penny will not forget her special song.

A few words now about the format - this reader is unleveled, but should be fairly easy for a strong first grade reader to read with a little help.  Most words are easy to decipher, and there are only a couple that young readers might struggle with - "beautifully" and  "flopped" and a couple of  others.  The story is broken up into two chapters, with dinner being the dividing event.  Most pages have four or five lines of text on them, with plenty of white space to rest readers' eyes.  The text is repetitive, but there is a natural energy to the story.  It keeps moving ahead and readers want to continue to find out more about Penny's song.  Henkes has also included plenty of illustrations in a variety of sizes.  These help both with context for unfamiliar words, and also to give more information about the characters than the brief text allows.

There are several things going on in this text.  Penny's story reminds me a little of the Frances books (Hoban) with the story including Penny's song.  Her song is a perfect creation - it includes rhymes and its simple counting theme also suits young children, who will want to continue singing it (so a word to the wise, when you sing it as you read, pick a familiar tune).  The coziness and structure of Penny's family also reminds me of the Frances stories.  While there are clear expectations set out for Penny (she may not sing during dinner or while the babies are napping), she is clearly cherished.  Her creativity is appreciated, and when it is finally the right time, her song is the star of the show.  The needs of the entire family come first, but Penny's individuality is also recognized. 

While this is a new format and new character for Henkes, there are definitely some familiar characteristics.  Penny is shown strutting around, just like Lilly does.  While Penny's parents are reminiscent of Frances, they also have the coziness and loving reassurance that Chrysanthemum's parents exhibit.  Musical notes break the planes of the illustrations, a technique Henkes uses in several other stories.  The pastel colors are Henkes hallmarks as well.

Penny and Her Song is a terrific addition to both any beginning reader collection and to a collection of Henkes' works.  The story is simple and sweet, with a conflict that many children can relate to.  I shouldn't have worried - Henkes has produced another great story.  I can't wait to read more stories about Penny and her family.

Penny and Her Song.  Kevin Henkes.  Greenwillow Press, 2012.

ARC sent by publisher for review

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Alice In-Between

So it's Mother's Day, for at least another hour here.  I'm finally posting a blog for the first time in more than a month.  Sorry for the long silence, but there have been some changes here, as well as some computer troubles that kept me from posting.  But I'm back!

And I am writing today about Alice, who actually lost her mother when she was very young. If you haven't read my other posts on this series, you can start here.  Alice begins this book at the end of her seventh grade year.  She has "the in-between blues" (p.86) as she tells her brother Lester.  Alice feels like she isn't young anymore, but she also isn't ready to become a grownup.  After all, she is only just turning thirteen.  And as those of us who have been thirteen year old girls can attest, quite often you don't know exactly what's going on.  You yearn for change, but when it comes, you aren't really ready for it and then want to go back to childhood.

This is exactly what happens to Alice.  She gets two glimpses of the adult world that giver her pause in this book.  The first comes after Alice's birthday.  For her birthday, she gets Lester to agree to take her out for a fancy (expensive) night on the town.  While Alice and Lester are out dancing, they run into Lester's sometime girlfriend, Crystal.  She has met a man at a club, and he has become aggressive with alcohol and won't leave her alone.  This man believes that Lester and Alice are husband and wife, and he willingly dances with Alice while Lester smuggles Crystal out of the club.  Alice marvels "I had only been a teenager for one week, and already I was being asked to help out in the romance department.  More than that, I might even be saving Crystal's life." (p. 24).  They make it out successfully, and the whole incident has a light-hearted tone.  None of them ever really feel in danger, and they all laugh about it.  After dropping Crystal off, though, Alice does ask Lester what she should do if it happens to her, and he tells her to call home immediately so he or their father can come get her.  But Alice is flattered by being seen as older by this man, and excited by the adventure of rescuing Crystal.

The next incident is even more threatening and scary.  Alice is invited to Chicago to visit her Aunt Sally's family with her two best friends, Pamela and Elizabeth.  As a side note, this friendship is another place where Alice feels in-between.  While Pamela loves to look more grown-up and to experiment with being adult, Elizabeth is prudish and young.  She doesn't want to talk about anything having to do with boys, marriage or sex.  Alice isn't quite ready to move full steam ahead like Pamela, is, but she isn't as slow to grow up as Elizabeth.
So off the girls go, via Amtrak from Washington DC to Chicago.  They are going to spend the night on the train, and Pamela ends up with her own tiny room.  A man sees her on the train, and asks her to eat dinner with him.  Pamela, not thinking of the consequences, agrees.  She tells him that she is getting ready to start college.  After dinner (with multiple drinks for the man), they go back to her room, but luckily Pamela is able to escape before anything really terrible happens to her (he does kiss and grope her).  The girls are lucky to have the conductor watching out for them, and he threatens the man to get him to leave the girls alone.  All three girls are very shaken by this incident, and during their time in Chicago, Alice notices that Pamela is reverting: "I swear she looked more like her sixth-grade picture than she did back in sixth grade." (p.115).  Not even Pamela is truly ready to become an adult.
As in most of the Alice books, Alice spends a lot of time thinking and wondering about her mother.  She misses her mother, and wonders how she would be different if her mother was alive.  And she sometimes feels a little lost with her father and brother: "One of the problems of growing up without a mother is that there's no one around who has any idea what it's like to be a girl." (p.2).  As Alice continues to negotiate her way through puberty, I can see this only becoming more important to her.

While looking for a poem to recite in a poetry unit at school, she finds a poem in a book belonging to her mother.  It's "Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant, and a note in its margin tells Alice that it was one of her favorites.  Alice begins to work on memorizing the poem, and in turn, this connects her to her father's grief.  He helps Alice practice, and tells her how this poem helped sustain both Alice's mother and him while she was dying.  On the day Alice recites the poem in class, she begins crying as she speaks, thinking of her mother's life and love.  Later than night, she tells her brother and father about what happened.  Lester tells about a letter their mother had written him before she died, and how he thought he had lost it at school afterwards.  He tells how hard he had cried.  "Dad reached over and put a hand on Lester's shoulder, then stretched out his other hand to me...for a moment we just sat there, all holding hands.  Then Dad gave us a quick squeeze, and we went back to eating supper." (p. 85).  It's a poignant moment of enduring grief, but also enduring family strength.

Alice is negotiating the difficulties of being a teenager fairly well.  At the end of this book, Alice seems to be back together with Patrick, her on-again, off-again boyfriend.  And she is coming into her own.  There will always be bumps in the road, but Alice's Aunt Sally sums it up best when she says "'Marie's little girl, almost grown.'...'She would have been so pleased.'" (p. 120)

Alice In-Between.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum, 1994.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark library