Saturday, October 25, 2014

We Gather Together

Most years here in Montana, autumn is short.  Usually by now, we've had snow multiple times.  The fall leaves have all blown away in storms where the wind whips through the streets.  This year, though, we've had a surprising season - yes, we've already had snow, but only twice. Our fall leaves are still in piles on the ground, and I was wearing flip flops until last week!  Now the Montana weather is very changeable, and all our Halloween costumes still have warm clothes underneath.  But we're enjoying the actual fall right now!

And that's why we've been loving  We Gather Together: Celebrating the Harvest Season this year too.  I requested the new paperback version of this 2006 title through my new relationship with Penguin Books for Young Readers, and it came at the perfect time.  The fall equinox was on September 23rd this year, and, a month later, we are waiting impatiently for daylight savings time to fall back.  It's dark until after 7am each morning, and only light in the evenings until about 7pm.  Frances and Gloria have a hard time getting up in the mornings (although it is easier to get them to go to sleep!).
So it's helpful to have a book like this to help us really investigate fall.  It's often blink-and-you-miss-it here, and the nearest corn maze is more than 90 minutes away.  We move from being sad about summer ending, with our farm and garden crops being put to bed, to being immersed in winter.  In this title, Pfeffer does an amazing job of helping kindergarten through 3rd graders learn all about the harvest season.
She begins by describing how animals use fall to prepare for the winter, including foxes burying rodent leftovers to eat later (gross!) and beavers storing twigs and sticks underwater for when their ponds are iced over.  Pfeffer explains  how humans don't need to store so much food anymore, because our grocery stores transport perishable items from the other side of the world when they are out of season here.  The text then discusses the fall equinox and defines it for readers (that the nights equal the days and then become longer than the days as we become closer to winter).  This also signals the time to harvest all over the world.
As the days begin to cool off, and the summer sun no longer shines, crops can't make the food they need.  Those crops must also be harvested before the first true freeze of the winter.  The text then considers peoples throughout history - cavemen, Ancient Egyptians, the Wampanoags - and how they harvested.  Pfeffer tells readers "Over the centuries, people celebrated plentiful harvests and passed down traditions, at different times in different places, and in different ways. All over the world, harvest celebrations from the past are still being carried on today."  The text goes on to talk about harvesting and harvest celebrations around the world, including in India, Japan, Jewish culture and others.
One of the things that I like the most about We Gather Together is how well Pfeffer handles the diversity of information that's contained within this book.  There's science, social studies and environmentalism all contained within its pages.  These could be overwhelming, particularly to a young reader.  But the text is general and fairly brief.  It gives interesting information and helps children imagine themselves in the many cultures and time periods.  While each page has five to seven lines of text, the vocabulary is fairly simple for children to digest and comprehend.
Another thing that makes the book easy to use is the large scale illustrations.  The colors are vibrant, yet autumnal in tone throughout most of the book.  They are mostly double page spreads, and the text blocks vary throughout the book.  It really allows readers to balance the longer text with looking at the detailed illustrations.  It gives them a sense of a variety of cultural styles and details.  Bleck's illustrations help give life to the traditions and harvests of many cultures.
Finally, I love the back matter in this title.  There is a huge amount of back matter for a picture book nonfiction title.  There are facts about the equinox, science experiments, a recipe, a list of harvest festivals, a bibliography and websites.  It is all well-done, and the science experiments include additional questions for reflection.  I think this makes this title incredibly useful in classrooms and at home.  It has already spurred some great conversations here.  It's helping us enjoy this season before it too quickly disappears.
We Gather Together: Celebrating the Harvest Season.  Wendy Pfeffer; illustrated by Linda Bleck.  Puffin Books, 2006.
sent by the publisher.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Theseus and the Minotaur

"Adventure, mythology, and a Minotaur!
What's not to like?"
 - Frank Cammuso
(from back cover)
I'm not sure I've ever written about Greek or Roman mythology on my blog.  While I've read books of both kinds, I think mythology didn't really come to life for me until I read the Percy Jackson series, much like many readers today.  I've always loved the clever way that Rick Riordan weaves multiple strands of the myths together.  But this first book in the TOON Graphics for Visual Readers series, Theseus and the Minotaur, brings a reality to the myths, brings them to life.

The story opens with a man retelling this myth to two young people on a boat.  He reminds them (and the reader) "This is an ancient one, a heroic tale that has been told thousands of times, transformed by generations of narrators with fertile imaginations." (p. 9)  It is a terrific opening, particularly because this story has many layers of gods and men and wars.  So many layers that I am not sure I can even sum it all up successfully in a way that makes sense.  But I'll try!

Pommaux weaves two strands of the myth together to create one storyline.  First there is the story of Theseus' mother, Aethra.  On the same day, she was in a "watery embrace" with Poseidon, and met and married King Aegeus in secret.  Later, when she delivered her baby boy, Theseus, she believed he had two fathers - a god and a king.  In the meantime, King Aegeus had returned to his country (where he was married to another woman, Medea) and his worries about his country's impending struggle with the island of Crete.  Crete's ruler, Minos had some son issues of his own.  His son, Asterion, was born of his wife's love for a beautiful white bull, and was "monstrous" (p. 15) - half-man, half-bull.  Asterion is better known as the Minotaur.  In order to keep Crete safe from the Minotaur, Minos built a labyrinth.  He ordered Aegeus to bring him tributes on a regular basis.  Those tributes would go into the labyrinth and never return.

Whew! Dizzy yet?  I have to admit, I read this story a few times through before I was able to distill it into its core facts.  And this isn't because Pommaux adds in unnecessary details or spends too much time creating a family tree.  On the contrary, Pommaux uses descriptive language, but in a simple style of writing.  For instance, "Crazed with grief, Minos threatened to wage war against Aegeus unless, every nine years, he sent seven Athenian young men and seven Athenian young women to the Labyrinth." (p. 19)  I love how Pommaux describes Minos as crazed with grief.  I think that is a term that readers may not come across often, but it gives a strong explanation to Minos' actions.  But I digress...

The reason it is so difficult to simplify this text into a couple of paragraphs of summary is because the mythology is complicated.  There are reasons why the humans in this story act the ways they do - love, pride, anger, fear, bravery.  There are reasons, too, why the gods act the way they do - jealousy, temptation, boredom.  All of those individual emotions and actions wreak havoc with the lives down below.  Minos is responsible for appeasing the gods, and asks for a sign from Poseidon.  Poseidon sends a glorious bull, but demands it be sacrificed to him.  Minos ignores Poseidon because he thinks the bull is so beautiful.  So Poseidon gets angry and makes Minos' wife fall in love with the bull.  And we all know how that ends...with the Minotaur.

There are certain themes that Pommaux brings up in the text over and over again.  One of those is the contradiction between free will and fate.  It is Minos' free will that keeps him from doing what Poseidon requires and sacrificing the bull.  Is it his wife's fate to be in love with a bull, or to be the mother of the Minotaur?  Or is it not fate, because Poseidon created this situation as a punishment for Minos?  Minos is a particularly fascinating character to me.  He is proud, brash, a little bit ugly (both physically and in character), yet he never seems to learn from either his punishments or his mistakes.  He sends his beloved son, Androgeous, to Athens, to boast of his strength and might.  Minos loves his son very much, but it is more important to Minos to show him off.  And of course, Minos risks Androgeos' life by doing so.  I feel a little bit of pity for Minos and his bull-headedness.

There are many, many things to discuss in this story - brains v. brawn, the father-son relationships that we see depicted, the idea of the labyrinth... And these multiple themes point out that this is a leap for TOON Books.  Their previous titles have been mostly aimed at beginning readers (with the exception of The Secret of the Stone Frog).  This book marks the start of a new series of titles.  These TOON Graphics for Visual Readers are exciting in their own right.  The books are larger in size (8 1/2 x 11), but the covers have the same smooth, high quality feel.  If you couldn't tell from the summary of the myth, the subject matter is also suited to a slightly older reader.  The fact that the myth is so complex, and rich with thematic matter, means there is lots to discuss with older readers.  To aid in discussion, there is a list of possible questions on the inside back cover.

In this title in the series, I am also really pleased with the shift towards nonfiction.  Not many publishers pay attention to all of the little details that make a book useful in the classroom.  And there are many details that are used effectively here.  There is a map of the action on the front inside cover, pronunciation of the Greek names throughout the text, further reading and an illustrated index.  And if all of that wasn't enough, there is my favorite part - trading card sized text boxes that remind readers of all of the main characters in this story.  The "trading cards" include facts about the characters' families, birth places, siblings, and the meaning of their names.  There is so much supplemental information included here.

I can't wait to explore other titles in this series and I will share them with you in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in more information about the series, there was a great article about TOON Books in the New York Times a few weeks ago, located here.  For now, Theseus and the Minotaur is a great place to start.

Theseus and the Minotaur.  Yvan Pommaux.  TOON Books, 2014.

sent by the publisher for review