Friday, February 27, 2009

Children's Book Review: Cause and Effect

Both If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, and Goodnight Gorilla are children’s books that teach cause and effect in very different ways. If You Give A Mouse a Cookie claims that if you do indeed give a mouse a cookie, then he’ll want a glass of milk, and then he’ll want a straw, when he’s done, he’ll want a napkin, then he’ll want a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk moustache, then he’ll see his whiskers needs trimmed so he’ll ask for a pair of scissors, then he’ll want a broom to sweep up the trimmings, then he might get carried away and sweep every room in the house, then he’ll want to go to bed so you’ll need to fix him a place to sleep in a shoebox, then he’ll want a story, then he’ll get excited at the pictures in your book and want supplies to draw one of his own, then he’ll want a pen to sign his name, then he’ll want scotch tape to hang up the picture…looking at the fridge will remind him he’s thirsty, so he’ll ask for a glass of milk.

The boy who caters to the mouse’s whims is dirty and exhausted by the end of the book and would’ve saved himself a lot of trouble, seemingly, if he had not given the mouse a cookie in the first place.

This book annoyed me on several levels. First, I thought of a quote from Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 11

"If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather you must open your hand and lend him sufficient resources for whatever he needs. For the poor will never disappear from the earth, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”

Maybe I’m taking this a bit far…I don’t know. What harm can children’s books do? Well, a lot, I think. See The Poisonous Mushroom. I guess I was thinking of how prevalent the quote from Deuteronomy is supposed to be in Jewish communities, and then I thought of anti-Semetic propaganda like The Poisonous Mushroom. It’s unclear if the mouse in this book represents any ethnic people(s), but the story seems to be a critiquing the kind of generosity and open-door-policy most religious texts intend to inspire.

To further complicate my relationship with this book is the notion that it may be a critique of the welfare system… like Reganomics for kids, or something like that. Even more ironic is this notion that Conservatives and Neo-Cons alike are supposed to be religious. If that were wholly true, what about Deuteronomy? I'm familiar with the old cliche' "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime," but I can imagine that if the boy in this story had to first get out flour, eggs, sugar, chocolate chips, baking rack, Crisco, that the tone of the narrative wouldn't change.

Goodnight Gorilla offers a more subtle lesson in cause and effect and manages to remain inoffensive to yours truly. The story goes like this: A gorilla swipes a zookeeper’s keyring as he passes by saying goodnight to all the animals. On the first page the gorilla lets himself out of his cage, a mouse uses a balloon string (setting the balloon free) and ties it to a banana, and they follow the zookeeper (Joe) on his rounds, letting out all the animals—elephant, giraffe, lion, hyena, armadillo, until they all follow him into his bedroom and hunker down to sleep. His wife says “goodnight,” and all the animals respond. She wakes up, alarmed and leads them all back to the zoo, with the exception of the gorilla and the mouse, who sneak back with her. In the end, the gorilla and mouse climb into bed with the zookeeper and his wife and the mouse says goodnight gorilla, but the gorilla is already asleep because he ate the banana the mouse had been dragging along with the balloon string. The end. The cool thing about this book is that the balloon floats farther and farther away in each frame, so you can make a game of hunting for it as the story unfolds. It’s a neat thread that kind of ties the book together, and the story is one that does not encourage niggardliness in the reader. I'm not even going to approach the ethnic critique, because I really don't think either story warrants one... I'll leave the offensive inferences to the New York Post.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Children's Book Review: Rainbow Rob

I’m a big fan of Rainbow Rob. Rob is a penguin whom one day glances up from his glacier to see a rainbow in the sky. This sets him to wondering why, of all the beautiful colors in the spectrum, is he stuck with black and white? He then daydreams about being orange, like an Orangutan in a jungle gang, a blue whale with a massive tail, a green crocodile with a snappy smile, a pink flamingo from San Domingo, etc. In the end he decides he would not be happy as anything other than what he is—a black and white penguin. Besides, badger, zebra and raccoon (what? No skunk?) come to the rescue to show Rob that black and white is okay.

Maybe it’s because I feel smart when I read baby books; usually they present the world as one with a natural order, definable morals and usually, they end happily. The pictures in Rainbow Rob are fuzzy, crinkly, shiny, etc. so your little one can reach and touch the pages. The book runs about twelve bucks and I recommend it to anyone hoping to enjoy a simple story with their newborn.

It’s okay to be black and white. It’s okay to be you.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Characterization as action

Have a character use an item intended for one specific purpose for a purpose other than that for which it was originally intended. See what happens. Could be a sentence, could be a story. Could be both.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

magic metaphors

This one works in a snap and can produce some interesting results.

Have students brainstorm lists of the following types of words.

Abstract Nouns

Specific Colors

Concrete Nouns

Apply the formula:

AN + SC + CN = Metaphor

(Abstract Noun + Specific Color + Concrete Noun = Metaphor)

encourage them to pick their favorite(s), then add…

+ That or Which + What it does (Description) + end with And or But…

Friday, February 6, 2009

when in doubt, do a group sestina

This is an excerpt from Lorrie Moore's Anagrams. Sometimes I feel like this teacher. Having read this, planning to steal it as an in-class exercise, I know I'm this teacher.

"The six end words had been chosen by the students themselves: arm-hair, Spam, motor-cycle, plie, lounge, crash-helmet. The teacher wrote them on the board. The in-class assignment involved writing on a sheet of paper one line with the appropriate end-word and then passing it to the left. By the end of the period they would have twenty sestinas and everyone would have contributed. The members of the class were having a good time. The teacher could hear their giggles and their scribbling. It was a party game. It was ludicrous. It was the only way she knew how to teach."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Children's Book Review: The Dead Bird

The Dead Bird is a story in which four friends find a dead bird, bury it, conduct a service, and go back to playing. I checked it out from the library when we took Wyatt on Saturday. With the exception of Grimm's and traditionals like "The Worms Crawl In" rarely do words aimed at children attempt to breach the topic of death. I've had an idea for a kid's book about death. Here it is: a kid has a goldfish. Goldfish dies. They create a ritual for flushing the goldfish down the toilet. The child's grandmother dies. The child expects that she will be flushed down the toilet. Awkward final picture.

Very sensitive, I know.

This story is by Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon, and it's sensitive in a way my idea is not.

It was stocked with the baby books in the library. There's no suggested age on my copy. But I'm conflicted. Part of me thinks this is a really gorgeous book, but there's another part of me that remembers something the bad guy says in The Crow: "Childhood is over the moment you realize you're going to die." I'm not sure it's so simple. Like, who's to say the Grim Reaper couldn't take a seat next to the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus? I mean, shouldn't we use all available resources to try and come to our own terms with the mystery of life? Isn't that one of the goals of literature?

I applaud The Dead Bird, but don't think it's a bedtime story... like the one about the moon. Maybe this is a book to keep on the shelf until your little one is old enough to take it down and read it for themselves? A book for the day your child finds a dead bird? Maybe it's a book that could help a child begin to realize that death is part of life.

There's something else about this book that's interesting to me. It's not religious, really. The children find a way to have a service, but they don't wonder about the afterlife, they wrap the bird in grapevine leaves and put it in the ground. They don't use a cross. They cover it in ferns, and white violets, and yellow star flowers. They plant geraniums, but the geraniums fade. Another echo of the life cycle. Think I'll hunt down my own copy of this book, but I'll probably stick with Goodnight Gorilla at bedtime.