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.

Monday, October 23, 2006


Simon, Seymour. 2005. Guts: Our Digestive System. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 0060546514.

Who’d have thought that facts could be so fun, interesting and, well, GROSS? Guts: Our Digestive System is a journey through the human body. There’s no particular order, but some of the parts highlighted are the teeth (“the hardest parts of your body”), the stomach (“shaped like the letter J”) and the liver (“the body’s chemical factory”). The book ends with a wrap up of how we are what we eat. “That doesn’t mean that, if you eat a carrot, you will have a carrot growing out of your ear... Truly you are made of the fruits and vegetables, cereals and breads, dairy products, meat and fish that are digested in their journey through your gut.”

This book is loaded with facts and obscure vocabulary (such as chyme, peristalsis and pyloric sphincter), BUT the scary, strange words are surrounded by clear explanations in simple, accessible language—with words like “truckload,” “slimy,” and “soupy,” along with verbs like “squirts,” and “bolts.” Also, even though Simon is presenting facts, he uses words like “seems,” “a lot” and “about” when describing and uses anecdotal examples like, “A tube called the esophagus leads down from the back of your throat to your stomach. The top of the esophagus also opens up into your nose. But you certainly don’t want food to go up your nose” or “When you swallow your food, it doesn’t just fall down into your stomach. In fact, you can eat standing on your head (don’t try it though; you might choke) and still get food to your stomach.” The illustrations are either close-up color microscopic photos, x-rays or computer-generated images—all presenting a unique perspective of the inside of our bodies…A side we thankfully never get to see.

School Library Journal says, “The material is detailed, with terminology that may be difficult for children with no background, but not sophisticated enough to need a medical degree for interpretation. Students will find the book fascinating as well as a bit gross. Writers of health-related reports, as well as casual browsers, will surely put this title to use.”

Booklist says, “In his signature style, accessible without being cute or condescending, he describes the complex facts and processes of the physiology, from the time food enters the mouth until all the various organs transform it into energy, nutrients, and waste. Some of the text is quite dense, but the clearly labeled, full-page color photos show the anatomy close-up, from an X-ray of the colon and a photo of a dissected pancreas to a microscopic view of what heartburn looks like in the stomach. Simon also includes a page about a healthy diet. The facts of how the body works are astonishing. Readers older than the target audience may want to look at this, too.”

Kirkus Reviews "… the author has perfected the art of boiling down the complexities of science into a simple, declarative sequence … "

Guts would obviously facilitate a lively discussion in a classroom of any aged student. Because the book touches on the importance of a healthy diet, further discussion and in-class research could be done to explain how different foods affect our bodies. Also, it could lead to discussions of how much of a mystery our bodies are. Children could draw pictures of what they imagine other hidden internal bodies parts must look like.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/22/06.

Good Queen Bess

Stanley, Diane & Peter Vennema. 1990. Good Queen Bess: The Story of Elizabeth I of England. New York: Four Winds. ISBN 0688179614.

Good Queen Bess also known as Elizabeth I of England might be considered one of the world’s first feminists. Her stubborn determination, shrewd diplomacy, tolerance of difference and religious freedom and her sincere love for her people made her loved by not only her subjects but also her enemies. As the daughter of the infamous Henry VIII, she used both her “feminine wiles,” her keen intellect and a cunning cleverness to get what she wanted by playing all parties against one another. Her reign is considered one of such peace and prosperity that it is called the “Elizabethan Age.” She makes easy spoils of her rivals Mary, Queen of Scots and King Philip II of Spain and his ill-fated armada.

While every page is “true,” not one of them is boring. Whereas most history books might present the facts about Queen Elizabeth I of England, Good Queen Bess gives the dirt. Doing so turns historical figures into real life people—from whom it is easier to glean life lessons and examples. The story is breathtakingly exciting, complete with romance, warfare, art and triumph and this is echoed in the colorful, bright, true-to-period illustrations. Each page is dominated by the illustrations, limiting the actual text into short, digestible passages in a language that is interesting, factual and yet accessible to children of all ages.

School Library Journal says, “Although the format suggests a picture-book audience, this biography needs to be introduced to older readers who have the background to appreciate and understand this woman who dominated and named an age… The text is clearly written, explaining the main events and key decisions of Elizabeth's life and reign.”

Notable Book in the Field of Social Studies
ALA Notable Book
Booklist Editor’s Choice
American Bestseller Pick of the Lists
Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book
IRA Teacher’s Choice

Good Queen Bess would be a great introduction into the feminism. Children could discuss the roles that women and men have played in history—Elizabeth I was a fierce fighter, driven stateswoman and fair ruler, all while possessing all the characteristics deemed “feminine” for her time. This is a wonderful book for young girls or teens. It could also facilitate discussions on the role religion plays in government.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/22/06.

Through My Eyes

Bridges, Ruby. 1999. Through My Eyes. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 0590189239.

Through My Eyes is the first-hand account of Ruby Bridges who, as a six-year-old girl was the first African-American to go to a public elementary school. Her tale takes place in New Orleans in the fall of 1960 when schools were mandated to integrate. As she arrived at her new school, escorted by U.S. marshals, she thought that the school was a mystical, important place: “It must be college, I thought to myself.” But she was also greeted by violently angry crowds of protestors—which only made her more confused. “I thought maybe it was Mardi Gras…” Ruby’s teacher, Ms. Henry, was a young white woman from Boston, who did her best to enforce the integration despite the fact that the school’s attendance slowly whittled down to only three children and then finally, Ruby alone. In the end, the white families became braver and the children slowly began coming back to school. Ms. Henry moved away over the summer after that first year because she was pregnant and her husband wanted to raise their child in Boston, but Ms. Henry never forgot little Ruby and forever kept a picture of her in her bureau. They were reunited in 1995.

The truths in this “true” book are very basic to humanity: justice, love, devotion, perseverance and ultimately, survival and success. The story itself is captivating and engaging but this is even further propelled along by its simplicity of language, short digestible sections and honest candor. While several biographies have been written about Ruby, there is just no substitution for the “horses mouth.” No one knows this more than a child. Rather than read this account in a history book, Ruby’s own words make all the difference. The photographs, though in black and white, are large, clear and present the truth without being scary (even the images of protestors). Also, captions line the bottoms of most pages with quotes from Ms. Henry herself as well as other prominent figures. says, “A personal, deeply moving historical documentary about a staggeringly courageous little girl at the center of events that already seem unbelievable..”

Publisher’s Weekly says “Bridges's words, recalling a child's innocence and trust, are more vivid than even the best of the photos. Like poetry or prayer, they melt the heart.”

Library Journal says, "The narrative draws a distinct contrast between the innocence of this six-year-old child who thought that "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate" was a jump-rope chant and the jeers of the angry crowd outside her school carrying a black doll in a coffin. A powerful personal narrative that every collection will want to own."

Parent's Choice says, "Powerful and powerfully moving."

Through My Eyes would be a wonderful book to use to explore topics such as racism in schools, the effect of fear, endurance and survival. It could also facilitate programs where children could be invited to recount their own personal experiences with these topics (and other difficult subjects). Perhaps they’ll think, “If little Ruby could do it (and dear Ms. Henry) then so can I.”

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/21/06

Monday, October 09, 2006

Stop Pretending

Sones, Sonya. 1999. Stop Pretending: What happened when my big sister went crazy. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN: 0613349792

Stop Pretending, a novel in verse form, is the story of a girl’s mental illness through the eyes of her sister, Cookie. Inspired by the author’s own experiences, it is a journey through confusion, fear, guilt, anger, paranoia and ultimately, healing told in a striking collection of narrative snapshots. In the end, with the help of her family, her boyfriend and pages of reflection, Cookie learns to deal with her sister’s illness and is finally confident that it is not her fault.

While the story is full of depth and truth, the language is accessible enough to captivate a young adult audience. The narrative verse form lends itself to digestible bites of emotionally charged confessions. Though a poem here and there has a somewhat regular rhyme scheme, the rest are mostly free verse. No matter, it is rhythm and sound that accentuates the emotion of each poem. For example, in my favorite passage, Midnight Swing, each stanza is five lines and each line is six syllables long—the rhythm of which seems to mimic the swinging motion the poem recounts:

Midnight Swing
When I can’t fall asleep
I sneak out to the yard
and climb onto the swing
that’s attached to a branch
of the sweet scented pine.

As I glide through the night
and I hang my head back
I see stars and a moon
that’s following me
through the evergreen trees.

And I fly on my swing
through the midnight ice cold
as the swirling white clouds
of my own frozen breath
brush my tingling cheeks.

And my nightgown wafts up
and my hair billows out
as I float through the air
and there’s only the sound
of the dark whooshing past.

And my thoughts drift to you
on a day long ago
when my legs were too short
so you helped me climb up
and you taught me to pump.

School Library Journal says, “the simply crafted by deeply felt poems reflect her thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams during that troubling time.”

Kirkus Reviews—“To a budding genre that includes Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (1997) and Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade (1993), this book is a welcome addition.” says “Blank verse is perfect for a story with such heightened emotion, and is a format that has been used with great success… teen readers may even be so inspired as to try their own hand at this challenging but satisfying form.”

Stop Pretending can be used as a call to action for both teens (and their friends and family) who relate to Cookie’s situation as well as those who feel more like Sister. This book could be used to open up discussions about the fears and pain surrounding mental illness, from both the inside and the outside. According to the end note, that was the author’s intention.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/08/06

Thursday, October 05, 2006

July Is a Mad Mosquito

Lewis, J. Patrick (illus. by Melanie W. Hall). 1994. July Is a Mad Mosquito. New York: Atheneum. ISBN: 0689318138

July Is a Mad Mosquito is a poetic tribute to the twelve months of the year, describing each one’s attributes with regards to weather, flora, fauna and ambiance. It spans January’s “paradise” of “snowshoe rabbits…polar bears and timber wolves,” tumbles over the “chickadees” and “crocuses” of March, skips through the “crab apple blossoms” and “clover” of May, blares with the “Color Guard” of July and waves goodbye to the “geese V-turn in the blue goose sky” of October to end the year with “two carolers on the green, who just became a trio with my snowman in between” of December. Each poem is accompanied by an illustrated rendition of the elements of the text.

With its steady rhythm and its simple vocabulary, this poetry book’s lack of complication is ideal for poetry newcomers. Though somewhat stereotypical, each poem alludes to the nostalgic traditions of the American seasons. However, it is only one perspective of these seasons. For instance, very few Texans have seen “A country dressed in winter white” very often in their native state. Also, the references to “traditions” such as Christmas (“And people kiss by mistletoe…So hurry, reindeer, please”) might make some children feel excluded (namely, the Jewish). Still, the title poem is infectious and light. One can almost hear the parade gearing up:

One for the kid with the corn-dog stick
Two for his Sno-Kone sister
Three for the girl in the Dunking Booth
You tried to sink but missed her

Four for the Labrador licking the pool
Five for the mad mosquitoes
Six hurrays for the Dreamsicle days
Seven for the bee torpedoes

Eight for ka-bang! and ka-boom-boom-boom!
Nine for the fireflies dancing
Ten for the Fourth of July parade
And the Color Guard advancing

Red-hot summer days are here!
And white-hot firework nights!
Turn up the heat
And the marching beat
But don’t turn out the lights!

The illustrations do a marvelous job of echoing the mood of each month. January is white but the blues grays and hints of pink add the illusion of a low sun and sleepy sky, while the bright yellows, oranges, greens and reds of the summer months seem to wake the reader up, only to let the somber purples and browns of fall bring us back to the blues of winter. There is an animal or insect in all but three of the illustrations, letting us see how the natural world around us reacts to the seasons.

School Library Journal says, “An enjoyable volume that should enliven and enhance most poetry collections.”

Publishers Weekly calls it, “a pleasant, though not particularly innovative, look at the calendar.”

Kirkus Reviews—“Though he offers few epiphanies, Lewis’s descriptions are vivid, his images are fresh and appealing, and he makes deft use of a variety of rhyme schemes and verse forms...”

Booklist says “each poem celebrates one month of the year, generally with verse reflecting nature from a child’s point of view… Appearing with the poems on double-page spreads are Hall’s lively illustrations, fanciful scenes in popsicle-bright pastels and muted blues and browns. No fireworks here, but a few sparklers, enough to justify purchase for large poetry collections.”

This short collection could be used to afford discussion on how seasons recall certain memories, colors, and iconic symbols and how those might be different depending on ones own culture. Children could be asked to write their own poems about their favorite month and accompany it with an illustration.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/05/06

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Monday's Troll

Prelutsky, Jack (illus. by Peter Sís). 1996. Monday’s Troll. New York: Greenwillow Books. ISBN: 0688096441

Monday’s Troll is an anthology of poetry about the individual plights of trolls, witches, wizards, knights, ogres, a few other fairytale creatures and even the Earth herself. Its title comes from one of the poems about seven trolls, each of them having their own unpleasant characteristics from Monday’s troll being “mean and rotten” to Sunday’s troll being “crabby, cross, and full of sour applesauce.” There’s a wizard who’s in a “pickle” because he has made himself disappear, a lonely old witch celebrating her birthday and a yeti who has a particular craving for dinosaurs because he “adores the crunch.”

The poetry in this book is, in a word, amazing. Its stories are captivating while its infectious rhythm and consistent rhyme is easy to read. Still, this book isn’t just child’s play. Though the content is simple, the vocabulary is challenging and unique—the language expertly crafted to educate as well as entertain. Though each of the poems are funny in its own somewhat grim, satirical way, my favorite is the following:

Five Giants
At our planet’s icy summit
Looms the Giant of the North,
Ancient glaciers tear asunder
When he stirs and blunders forth.
His incalculable equal
Is the Giant of the East,
Whose least consequential footfall
Chills the boldest savage beast.

Neither holds the least advantage
On the Giant of the South,
Who can house a pride of lions
In the cavern of his mouth.
All are matched in size and power
By the Giant of the West,
Who regards with condescension
The most lofty eagle’s nest.

But the being deep in slumber
At the world’s volcanic core,
Could between one thumb and finger
Crush and pulverize the four.
Every titan on the surface
Fears the Sleeper in the Flame,
They are doomed if she awakens,
So they dare not say her name.

This poem, at a child’s first glance, is about giants fighting over regions of the world, but to an adult, it could be interpreted as the political struggle on the surface as taking the main stage while there is a physical doom bubbling from underneath. The reference to the West being the biggest giant of them all “who regards with condescension, the most lofty eagle’s nest” could be an allusion to the United States—who, no matter how powerful or “lofty” he gets, will still be powerless in the face of the wrath of Mother Nature. We can start and fight wars and declare ourselves the greatest, but we’re still second fiddle (if that) to the powerful forces of nature. It is ageless poetry such as this piece that will engrave Prelutsky’s name into the hearts of all readers—child or adult.

What the illustrations lack in vivid color they make up for in detail. Though essentially nonsensical due to the fantastical nature of the characters, Sís’s lines—both straight and contoured—create an illusion of otherworldness while affording a suspension of disbelief, making us want to step into the page. Border art frames each illustrations with character and symbol. The illusion is further enhanced by a strange “folding” effect—the pages seem worn as one might find in an ancient codex because the illustrations themselves have been deliberately folded and tattered.

School Library Journal says, “this 17-poem collection overflows with energy, tongue-in-cheek wit, rich vocabulary, and rollicking rhyme and meter… Read the selections aloud to make this gruesome, ghastly group come alive.”

Publishers Weekly calls it, “a smorgasbord of verbal and visual delights…With his practiced pen, Prelutsky goes right for the funny bone, and his nimble rhymes shine...”

Horn Book hails it as “another treat for Prelutsky fans.”

The New York Times Book Review—“The inspired pair has scored again.”

ALA Booklist says Monday’s Troll “makes the make-believe seem almost real.”

This book could be used in a discussion of poetry itself—the rhythm, the rhyme schemes, etc. But it could also be used for its vocabulary. Words like “prestidigitation,” “wretched,” “witlessly,” “noxious,” etc. are all good triggers for colorful conversations about words. Also, the collection is full of alliteration such as “preposterous pickle” and “bluster and boast” leading to a discussion on the effect of sound and repetition.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/04/06