This is a blog specifically created for the purposes of my Literature for Children and Young Adults class at Texas Woman's University. Coming soon will be reviews of titles ranging from children's fiction to poetry to young adult novels. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Fin M'Coul

De Paola, Tomie. 1981. Fin M’Coul: The giant of Knockmany Hill. New York: Holiday House. ISBN: 082340384X

Fin M’Coul is the story of a giant and his wife Oonagh who have a lovely little home on the top of Knockmany Hill in Ireland. Fin and Oonagh go about minding their own business and living in peace until one day while at work, Fin hears that Cucullin is coming. Cucullin is a giant with the reputation of being somewhat of a bully—he once smashed a lightning rod so flat it looked like a pancake (which he ever after carried in his pocket to show off his great strength). “Every giant in Ireland had been given a good beating by Cucullin…except Fin M’Coul.” So, upon hearing the news that Cucullin was looking for him, he ends his work building the causeway between Ireland and Scotland and rushes to his home on Knockmany Hill and to Oonagh. When Oonagh hears Fin’s fear, she gently tells him that it is time he stood up to the ole bully. So, she works an old charm she learned from a fairy and sets to work getting ready for Cucullin. She dresses Fin up in baby clothes and puts him in a cradle, reminding him that Cucullin’s great strength lies in his magical brass finger. When Cucullin gets to Knockmany Hill, Oonagh tells him that he has just missed Fin, but that he’ll be back by tea. He tells her he has come to beat up Fin, but she warns him that Fin will be no easy match—just take a look at how big their baby is. After a few of Oonagh’s tricks, Cucullin goes to examine the strong teeth of the big baby and Fin manages to bite the bully’s brass finger clean off, rendering him helpless and weak. And all “big folk”, including Fin and Oonagh “lived a long happy life.”

It’s hard not to read this story hearing a sharp Irish accent in one’s head. The retelling of what this ancient Irish tale is simply but imaginatively delivered. The theme of the hero being afraid and the hero’s wife becoming heroine, outsmarting the villain with her fairy charms and just plain cleverness, shows that a touch of “feminism” has long lived amongst the Celtic peoples.

The bold lines and great empty spaces of De Paola’s illustrations echo the simplicity of the story and mirror the “giant-ness” of the characters. The abundance of green seems to call the mind to an Ireland of lore. The small, peripheral drawings of trees, animals and people help build the illusion of the characters’ size but also point to a giants-are-people-too feeling. As noted at the end of the book, the border illustrations around the text were designed in the tradition of “early Irish jewelry and metalwork.”

Sadly, I couldn’t find a review of this book.

This version of Fin M’Coul could facilitate discussions on many topics, including the following: Irish folklore, gender relations, overcoming physical obstacles with mental muscle, size doesn’t matter, etc. It could also be included in a series of books used for a St.Patrick’s Day themed celebration or unit—encouraging children to write and illustrate their own Irish folktale using giants and even re-writing the ending of this story.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 09/21/06

All of Our Noses Are Here

Schwartz, Alvin (illus. Karen Ann Weinhaus). 1985. All of Our Noses Are Here: and Other Noodle Tales. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN: 0060252871

All of Our Noses Are Here is a collection of five short ridiculous stories about noodles—“kind and loving people” who have “very few brains”—named The Browns and their incredible mis-adventures. It includes the story of Jane who gets a donkey named Jim for her birthday. She and her brother Sam stop to get some apples in town and leave Jim tied to a parking meter. Two robbers decide to steal him—one takes off with it while the other stays. When Jane returns, the robber who stayed tells her that HE is Jim and that when he disobeyed his magician father, he was turned into a donkey. He asks her to please let him go home, Jane sets him free and she and Sam walk home. The next day, they go back to the market and run into Jim and Jane immediately feels sorry for the donkey and says, “Oh no! [He and his father] have had another quarrel. His father has turned him into a donkey again!” Another story is about a family of noodles who come back from a boat ride and keep counting themselves incorrectly—ending up with either too few or too many people. And another where a boy believes he is supposed to have died in a fall, so he closes his eyes and plays dead, but is excited and happy when he comes to and recounts what he did “before he died.”

Children’s Literature, Briefly by Jacobs and Tunnell (2004) call this sort of folk tale a “Noodlehead, or Numbskull, Tale” (p.77) in which “the simpleton stumbles merrily through life, coming out on top only because of providence.” All of Our Noses Are Here surely fits that description. In fact, there not only is no depth to the characters or the plot, there doesn’t seem to be any moral either. These stories seem to be nonsensical just for the sake of being silly—not to learn or prove anything. They’re the kind of stories that remind you of little jokes or puns your grandparents tell in passing at holiday gatherings—ones where you smile out of politeness at the time, but you may look back on with more fondness later.

Interestingly, these stories are among the myriad retold by Schwartz and are based on folk tales from around the world, throwing an international element into the mix.

The illustrations are colorful but simple—not exaggerative as one might think—and their mere appearance on the page confirms as proof the silliness of the story. Imagining a boy looking into a mirror and thinking it is a picture is ridiculous enough—seeing it illustrated on a page makes it just that much more over the top.

The one unfortunate thing—perhaps because no one knows what to say one way or the other—is that this collection has ZERO reviews. I couldn’t find a one. Not even on the publisher’s website, even though it was a Library of Congress Children’s Book Winner.

As for connections, this book (and its fellows) might be a good way to show children that any tale is a legitimate tale. After sharing a few of these, a teacher, parent or librarian might have the children create, write and illustrate their own “noodle” tales.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 09/21/06

Ella's Big Chance

Hughes, Shirley (written and illustrated). 2004. Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz-Age Cinderella. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 0689873999

Ella is Mr. Cinders’—a widowed dressmaker—only daughter. Over her lifetime, Ella’s father teaches her everything he knows about fabrics and dressmaking—to the point that she becomes “as good a dressmaker as he was, if not better.” Though she only has two friends—an old grey cat and the dressmakers’ helper, Buttons—Ella is happy until the day her father decides to remarry. Ella’s new stepmother, Madame Renée, takes over the financial end of the business and her two beautiful daughters, Ruby and Pearl, model the dresses. The store’s newfound success is tainted by the fact that Ruby and Pearl lounge about, call Ella names like “Pudge” and “Carrots” (for her red hair) and finally end up sequestering Ella to a small room in the basement. Buttons helps keep her company from time to time by singing her songs or dancing with her. When the Duke of Arc invites everyone to a ball, Ruby and Pearl begin to fight over dresses and laugh at Ella when she, too, wonders what she’ll wear. Sitting sadly in the basement as her stepfamily drive away to the ball, Buttons offers to cheer her up with a spread of his specialty: bacon and eggs. But as he cooks, the doorbell rings and Ella’s Fairy Godmother appears on the doorstep. She turns Buttons’ bicycle into a Limo, the cat into a chauffeur and Ella’s drab black dress into “a ball dress as light as a silver cobweb, glittering all over with crystal beads.” Poor Buttons has to eat his bacon and eggs all alone as Ella is whisked away to the ball. Once there, the Duke takes an instant liking to her and they spend the entire evening dancing. But at the first stroke of midnight, Ella remembers that the magic will wear off. She runs as fast as she can, leaving a glass slipper on the stairs. The Duke, determined to find Ella, carries the slipper all over the city, letting all the beautiful women try it on until he finds Ella. He asks her to marry him, but she turns him down. She is in love with Buttons. The beautiful sisters try to convince the lovelorn Duke to marry one of them, but he refuses and flees the country to mourn Ella. In the end, Ella and Buttons run off to get married and start a dress shop of their own.

Ella’s Big Chance adds several new twists to the traditional Cinderella archetype. Instead of being a beauty of which the stepsisters are jealous, she is rounder and red-headed and the stepsisters are beautiful themselves. This makes Ella’s situation even more dire, but also renders her triumph that much sweeter. Also, though the Duke does become enchanted by Ella, instead of Ella being swept off her feet by a dashing rich man and waiting at home to be rescued, she turns down his proposal in favor of the one person who has been loyal and loving to her all along. The power dynamic is reversed and Ella is more in control of her own destiny than the put-upon “damsel in distress” of the traditional fantasy. In Ella’s Big Chance, our heroine has more agency. Whereas in the original tale, it is luck and magic which lead to Cinderella’s triumphant fate, in this version, it is more design, control and choice. Finally, the message that all sadness can be repaired by riches and sweeping-off-of-the-feet brand of love is replaced by a sweeter, humbler—and perhaps more reliable and realistic—love that was always there. Money has taken a secondary role to that of future dreams stemming from hope, will and hard work.

The colorful, whimsical illustrations do add to the story and speak of a new dawn of “princesses” whose inner beauty and independence are celebrated. Throughout the book, Ella wears a simple black dress, but you can see from her fashionable creations that there is just as much pleasure in the creation as in the wearing (perhaps yet another example of the reversed power dynamic). Just as in traditional illustrations of Cinderella, Hughes’ “messy” lines and fluid colors take us to a different time and place (the 20’s) which, though it may be closer to us, is nonetheless magical and fantastical.

School Library Journal (starred review) says, “Hughes’ gouache-and-pen-line illustrations exhibit her usual meticulous attention to detail, with the ball scenes inspired by Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies, and the original dress designs by important French couturiers of the period. This insightful retelling also offers a fascinating visual peek at a glamorous time.”

Booklist says, “A stylish work, this is a bit of an indulgence for Hughes, and the high-fashion setting and the flapper costumes don’t add much to the tale for a young audience. The new ending will get their attention, however, and this self-empowered Cinderella makes for an interesting change of pace.”

Personally, I find this to be an excellent retelling for the modern girl. This book could be used in many discussions (empowerment, feminism, “true” love, contentment vs. extravagance, definitions of “beauty”, etc.) in ANY age group.

Ella’s Big Chance also earned the Kate Greenway Medal for Children’s Illustration.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 09/21/06

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Hello, Goodbye Window

Juster, Norton. (illus. by Chris Raschka). 2005. The Hello, Goodbye Window. New York: Hyperion Books for Children. ISBN 0786809140

The Hello, Goodbye Window is a day in the life of a little girl whose grandparents watch her during the day while her parents work. But that’s not what the book is about. As its title implies, it is about the special window in her grandparents’ house; the window where everyone stops to say hello, where one can see who’s arriving, where one sees one’s reflection it is from the outside looking in. At the end of the day, the little girl’s parents come and she is has mixed emotions—happy to see her parents but sad to leave her grandparents.

This book’s qualities may go misunderstood by adults, but it is easy to see why children fall instantly in love with its conversational, stream-of-consciousness style. While at first glance, the book seems to be about a window—no matter how special it is—this book’s true message is that one small, obscure object can be the one thing that connects everything together. That window is what the little girl sees when she arrives and departs. It is the portal, the frame through which she sees the world while her parents are away at work. It is almost like a security blanket that she revisits throughout the day, the one constant thing (other than the presence of her grandparents) but ironically something that is also in constant flux—you never know who or what is going to appear in the window. Perhaps the most long lingering message of the book is that one can be both happy and sad at the same time (as in when her parents arrive at the end of the day but she must say goodbye to her grandparents). That or the comfort that the window will always be there and that someday, she’ll have a special window of her own.
The illustrations, as if parallel to the story—echoing it, may seem messy to an adult at first glance. But closer inspection reveals the attention to detail and the emotion allowed to come through in the bright and varied colors. The artwork seems like a combination of the simplicity of Picasso and bright colors and lack of definition of Matisse. And something even more ingenious is that many people may not notice at first that the little girl’s grandparents are an inter-racial couple—which also echoes their colorful personalities.

School Library Journal (starred review) calls The Hello, Goodbye Window “perfect for lap-sharing” and “this book will find favor with children and adults alike.”
Booklist (starred review) says “two well-known names come together in a book that speaks to the real lives of children and their experiences.”

This work could facilitate discussions on myriad topics ranging from the emotional roller coaster a child faces when their caregivers are someone other than their parents to the joys and diversity of an interracial, multicultural family. From the idiosyncrasies of family life to how strong the imagination can be—how it can turn a neighboring cat into a tiger and let one’s own reflection play tricks on one’s mind.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 09/09/06

Kitten's First Full Moon

Henkes, Kevin. 2004. Kitten’s First Full Moon. New York: Greenwillow Books. ISBN 0060588284.

Kitten’s First Full Moon begins a kitten who spots what she thinks is a bowl of milk in the night sky and is the continuing tale of her journey to reach it as it is “just waiting for her.” But at every turn, no matter how hard she tries, she ends up unfulfilled and even worse off than she was. Once, she even sees the bowl of milk on the ground and takes a running jump into it only to find herself cold, wet and tired. After a long night and a long plight, the kitten finally gets her milk, but not the one for which she was searching.

This is a fabulous book with an upper crust of simplicity, but an extremely profound moral. It seems to be the tale of a hungry and “poor” kitten, but in reality the message seems to be that no matter how hard one tries to reach the unattainable and faraway “bowl of milk in the sky,” it might be worth it to look around where you are. Kitten strays from her home out into the wild world and puts herself through much ado when the milk which will satisfy her hungry tummy awaits her back on her own doorstep.

There are basic components of this book that make the work satisfying to children. One is the journey—the conflict—or plight of the kitten which propels us forward. Compels us, even. There is also the technique of repetition. The book repeats that the bowl of milk is “just waiting” for the kitten and that she is a “poor kitten” after every failed attempt to reach the bowl. But it is also complete in that there is a satisfying ending with the conclusion solving the predicament and turning our poor protagonist into a “lucky kitten.” The illustrations are in black and white but use bold, sultry and curvaceous lines and basic shading to echo the simplicity and depth of the story itself. says, “any child who has yearned for anything will understand how much Kitten wants that elusive bowl of milk.”
School Library Journal call it “an irresistible offering from the multifaceted Henkes… The rhythmic text and delightful artwork ensure storytime success.”
Booklist (starred review) says “Henkes creates another winner in this simple, charming story… Wise preschoolers may chuck at the kitten’s folly, but they’ll also recognize the mysterious power of moonlight to transform the familiar world of daytime into something altogether new.”

As stated, this would be a great book for discussions about the comfort, security of one’s own home even though a bigger, better world may call to us. That happiness might be just under our noses. But it might also facilitate the inverse discussion about how adventure awaits us in our own back yards.
A comparison of artwork between this and other Henkes books (Wemberly Worried, Ownen, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Sun & Spoon) might warrant further discussion about the author/illustrator’s varied artistic techniques. Or a comparison/contrast of the author’s children’s books against his young adult works.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 09/09/06

A Caldecott Celebration by Leonard S. Marcus

Marcus, Leonard S. 1998. A Caldecott Celebration: six artists and their paths to the Caldecott Medal. New York: Walker & Co. ISBN: 0802786561

As the title implies, this book is an anthology of short overviews of the lives and experiences of six picture book illustrators who have each won the prestigious Caldecott award for excellence in illustration. The author highlights one award-winning artist per decade: Robert McCloskey (for Make Way for Ducklings, 1942), Marcia Brown (for Cinderella; or The Little Glass Slipper, 1955), Maurice Sendak (for Where the Wild Things Are, 1964), William Steig (for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, 1970), Chris Van Allsburg (for Jumanji, 1982) and David Wiesner (for Tuesday, 1992). The focus is on authors as artists, what motivated them to become picture book illustrators and how they broke into the market—including life-long desire and childhood experiences.

A Caldecott Celebration is a fabulous book for beginning librarians, library science students, future illustrators, teachers and even parents. It explains briefly the history and philosophy behind the award and its namesake, Randolph Caldecott—as well as the mention of the secret councils whose votes determine each year’s winner and honorees. The chapters are succinct overviews of the artists’ lives and creative histories, but are pregnant with emotional references to the illustrators’ personal pasts. What a simple and effective way to get to know some of children’s literature’s favorite author/illustrators! Chapters include direct quotes from the featured authors giving the reader even clearer insight into the personalities and motivations of the people behind the pen, paint and paper.

Publisher’s Weekly hails A Caldecott Celebration as “filled with witty anecdotes and pithy observations….With Marcus’s sure hand guiding this tour, readers will find cause for celebration. All ages.”
School Library Journal says, “this title has just about everything readers might want… So many good stories for children and adults to enjoy.” says, “Leonard S. Marcus’s thoughtful recognition of the labor and serendipity that go into the making of great art illuminates every page of [this book]…Not a drop of the mystery and fondness one feels toward these works is diluted by the details shared in A Caldecott Celebration, and after reading Marcus’s considered tribute, you’ll only love these books the better.”

The bibliography of all the Caldecott Award Winners provides means for further reading and the glossary and index of proper names serve as an excellent reference guide.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 09/09/06