Elephants Cannot Dance! by Mo Willems

September 21, 2011

Elephants Cannot DanceEver been told you can’t do something?

This is the story of someone who tried anyway!

The Story

In this picture book for ages 4-8, a little pig in a tutu tries to get Gerald the elephant to dance. Despite Gerald’s insistence that even books say elephants cannot dance, he is convinced to at least try. Can he do it? What happens when he tries?

Kids who love music, the theater arts, and animal stories will be attracted to this book.

Boys in particular might relate to the idea of giving up on something they enjoy, such as dancing, because others say it’s something only girls should do. By seeing Gerald’s trials, kids might feel hopeful and encouraged to try something outside of what a boy supposedly should or should not do. Gerald and Piggie let the reader know it’s ok to try.

What questions might you ask to get kids talking about the book?

  1. Why do you think Piggie insisted that Gerald try to dance?
  2. What are some of the things you have not tried because you think you can’t?
  3. Why is it important to try to do something, even if you think you can’t?

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The worst-case scenario survival handbook: Junior edition, by Borgenicht & Epstein, Ill. C. Gonzales

August 31, 2011

Want to laugh?

Want to be grossed out?

Just open up this book!

The Skinny

The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook is for kids ages 9-12. It offers humorous and sometimes gross advice on the many perils of childhood. Every chapter revolves around a theme, such as “Survival skills for your social life”, which is then divided into small sections including different scenarios, such as “How to survive farting in public”.

Who will love this book?

Kids who love humor, the “gross factor”, and practical advice will love this book (some grownups will like this as well!). The titles of each scenario alone can draw the attention of readers, even those who are reluctant to pick up a book. The illustrations are colorful and slightly exaggerated for maximum laughter. Behind the humor and gross aspects, kids can also find trivia, helpful information on self-confidence, being bullied, doing well in school, and how to survive getting into trouble with grownups.  The practical advice is down to earth and believable.

This is one of those few, well-rounded books that has the capability of appealing to a very large audience.

What questions might you ask to get kids talking about the book?

  1. What methods have you tried to calm down an angry parent? Has any of it worked?
  2. What should you do when you get into trouble at home? Why?
  3. Have you ever felt you needed advice and did not know who to ask? What kind of advice were you looking for?

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Why we wish we had a thousand rejection letters, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson

August 13, 2010

I’m always looking for books that have magic, mischief and some mayhem. When I came across The Familiars, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson, I was intrigued:

“Running fast to save his life, Aldwyn ducks into an unusual pet store. Moments later Jack, a young wizard in training, comes in to choose a magical animal to be his familiar. Aldwyn’s always been clever. But magical? Jack thinks so—and Aldwyn is happy to play along.”

Magical animals?
A wizard in training?
Count me in!
The downside? The book isn’t out until September 7th, 2010.

The upside? The authors came to Once Upon A Book to write a guest post! (Thank you, guys!)

September 7th is slowly approaching, but in the meantime, check out what these authors have to say about their experience – er, lack of experience – with rejection letters.

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GUEST POST

Why we wish we had a thousand rejection letters
by
Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson, authors of The Familiars

We’ve all heard how every author has a box of a thousand rejection letters, from publishers, agents, and literary magazines. Many even have the sealed envelopes with the words “Return to Sender” boldly stamped across it. But sitting on our shelf in our office, there’s no box of rejection letters. You know why? Because in Hollywood, when you’re a screenwriter, you don’t even get the courtesy of a rejection letter. They just never bother writing back. You send your script out to production companies, agents, and managers, and 99 percent of the time you simply never hear back. And occasionally, when you do, it’s to hear that they don’t accept unsolicited material.

In a sense, we envy the author who can save up their memories of struggle and have a wonderful paper trail of those who didn’t believe in them for when they become “overnight” successes. We instead are left with a series of undocumented failures. But no matter how many times you hear the phrase, “it all happened so fast,” or “it was the FIRST thing I ever wrote,” take it from us, it never is. So we always tell people to keep their fingers to the keyboard and their pens filled with ink, and to keep writing like we did, until the right person reads the right thing at the right time. It happened for us and it will happen for you.

You can learn more about The Familiars at www.thefamiliars.com. Tell us about your best rejection letters via email at thefamiliarsbook@gmail.com or on our blog at thefamiliars.blogspot.com.

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ADAM JAY EPSTEIN spent his childhood in Great Neck, New York, while ANDREW JACOBSON grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but the two met in a parking garage out in Los Angeles. They have been writing for film and television together ever since. The Familiars  is their first book.

One day, Adam asked Andrew, “Are you familiar with what a familiar is?” And from that simple question, Vastia was born, a fantastical world filled with the authors’ shared love of animals and magic. They wrote every word, sentence, and page together, sitting opposite each other.

Adam Jay Epstein lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Jane, their daughters, Penny and Olive, and a black-and-white alley cat who hangs out in their backyard. Andrew Jacobson lives with his wife, Ashley, and their dog, Elvis, four traffic lights away.

THE FAMILIARS will be produced for film by Sam Raimi and Sony Animation.
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Naruto volume 1, by Masashi Kishimoto

July 15, 2010

Rating: 5/5

You’re probably thinking: “You’re kidding me. She’s reviewing Naruto volume 1?! I know I’m quite late to jump on this particular bandwagon, though it was suggested to me about 5 years ago. Honestly, I should listen to my students when they tell me to read some of these titles! (Except for Death Note…that’s not a manga I would recommend to anyone K-12. Period.)

Naruto never attracted my attention, despite the hordes of students eating them up and begging for more. Now, however, I’m trying to catch up to the latest volumes and avoiding any fans so they don’t spoil the story for me. So, what’s to like about Naruto?

First, if you’ve been under a rock, self-imposed or otherwise, here’s the skinny: this is the story of a young ninja in training whose body was sacrificed to save his village from a 9-tailed demon fox, now imprisoned inside him. For the longest time he was the village reject without knowing why. When he discovers the secret locked in his body, his story truly begins. It’s one of exploring, creating, testing, and transforming the bonds that we form with others.

In the first volume, when we meet Naruto for the first time, he is the cocky class clown who can’t do anything right. It’s time for him to take his final exam, for the third time, so he can graduate from ninja school, earn his leaf headband, and continue his training. However, he fails a fourth time. Dejected and desperate, he is easily tricked into stealing one of the village’s most dangerous scrolls. Now the whole village is after him but all he wants is to learn what’s in the scroll so he can graduate.

I’ve met many teachers who have some reservations about this series, such as the violence and the occasional skirting of adult themes, but I believe the pros outweigh the cons. To be fair, here are some of the cons of this manga:

  • Sacrificing one for the sake of many: The way an entire village sacrifices the life of a baby by imprisoning a demon inside and then shunning said child, is quite horrible.
  • Violence: 12-year-olds are trained in the ninja ways and once they graduate they are expected to take on missions and risk their lives for the village. The fight scenes are lengthy and many characters get beaten to within an inch of their lives (and in later volumes they die).
  • Adult themes: Part of Naruto’s pranks includes a transformation into a sexy, naked blonde to unnerve his teachers and peers. Little poof of clouds are the only objects standing in the way of full frontal nudity.
  • The main character disregards rules and authority.

These are valid points, but to dwell on simplistic ideas of violence and what is or is not “appropriate” would be to completely miss the point in Naruto. Compared to most of what passes for entertainment in television these days, this series is quite mild and it actually has a lot to offer. Here’s how:

  • Sacrificing one for the sake of many: this is a controversial topic that can open the door to a lot of discussion in the classroom. For example, we could compare what happens in the story to the way soldiers sacrifice their lives for their country and the way they sacrifice the lives of others for the same reason. No longer so clear-cut, is it?
  • Violence: There are many types of violence in life and bullying is one of them, to which children are no strangers. In the beginning of this series there is a lot of bullying of Naruto by peers and adults. This could open the door to conversations on how to address bullying in school.
  • Adult themes: Some of these inappropriate scenes are brought on by Naruto’s yearning to be acknowledged. This could begin an insightful discussion on what people are willing to do for others to pay attention to them and why. Kids can easily relate to Naruto’s feelings. He desperately wants to belong and make friends, so he resorts to becoming the trickster and become the center of attention.
  • Disregard for authority and rules: This is very prevalent in schools and can open the door to discussions concerning respect  and the meaning behind having and following rules.
  • Perseverance: Naruto lacks talent, intelligence and common sense, as he’s reminded constantly, yet he defies all odds  with hard work, perseverance and big heart. Children can discuss if this idea of working hard to achieve one’s dreams is realistic. Indeed, Naruto provides many examples where he apparently fails despite how hard he tries. But, does he really “lose”?
  • Bonds: Naruto does not have a family, but he begins to make one for himself through bonds with instructors and peers. Students can discuss the importance of forming bonds with others and different types of families extant.
  • Acceptance: This term is quite different from “tolerance”, which is so popular yet implies that there is something negative we have to put up with. Naruto, in having experienced hardship, pain, segregation and loneliness has developed empathy for others, which allows him to give people the benefit of the doubt and see beyond the surface.  This facilitates discussion about differences and how they inform our lives.
  • Growth: This is what keeps me going back to Naruto. From the first volume we witness his growth as a ninja, as a friend, and as a human being. It’s this growth that encourages inquiry and sends a clear message: It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we learn from them and continue to move forward.

Is Naruto worth the read? Should we tap into this story in the classroom? It’s my hope that you will pick up the first volume and decide for yourself. It gets two thumbs up from me!

Topics in this series (so far) include: persevering, sacrifice, friendship, family, humanity, freedom, independence, choice, justice, survival, community, oppression…

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Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

June 30, 2010

Rating: 5/5

This is the second book in Suzanne Collin’s trilogy of the Hunger Games and it’s just as good, if not better than the first book. Check out a previous post if  you’re not familiar with the storyline. 

I an amazing twist of events, there are more survivors than previously expected, much to the embarrassment of the Capitol. Katniss’ year as the champion does little to settle her nerves, since she knows the Capitol is watching her every step. When the time comes again to pick this year’s “tributes”, a nasty surprise awaits all of the champions of recent years, as they must go back to fight for their lives. This time they are up against the best of the best. Behind the scenes, the districts are furious that their champions are in danger once more and keep a close eye on Katniss in particular. Will she be the one to set off the events that lead to a new rebellion? Who will survive this year’s Hunger Games?

I thoroughly enjoyed the transformation that takes place in this second book. In response to the Capitol’s new demands and cruel machinations, Katniss’ plight continues to unravel everyone’s beliefs about the system. The people of the capitol stir in discomfort; the districts begin to shake off their fear. The tension mounts with the turn of every page… 

I won’t say much else because I do not want to ruin the experience for those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to read this book.  😉

Questions: I like that this book makes you think and, better yet, it encourages you to ask very difficult questions that have no easy answer/s. One question that is still prevalent is: what does it mean to be human?

Other questions up for discussion could be:

  • How can one idea change the world?
  • In the story, the mockingjay becomes a symbol of freedom. What other objects or symbols do you know of that people have given specific meaning to? Why are symbols important to humans?
  • How do our experiences help shape our ideas of what it means to be human?

Topics in this book include: humanity, sacrifice, change, transformation, symbolism, ideas, rebellion, freedom, independence, justice, friendship, survival, community, family, politics, love, oppression, social classes…

Do pick up this book and ask yourself: what does it mean to be human?__________________________________________________________

The third book, Mockingjay, will be released August 24, 2010. I can’t wait!

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The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

June 25, 2010

Rating: 5/5

Welcome! You have arrived at yet another blog entry of a reviewer who absolutely loves this book.

For those of us who are not surrounded and immersed in children’s and young adult literature 24/7, The Hunger Games is a story set in a post-apocalyptic world, once known as North America, where twelve districts must send two young tributes, (read: sacrifices), to participate in the annual, televised Hunger Games, where they must fight to the death as a reminder that rebellion is not tolerated. Only one can survive.

The good

I could write pages on what I like about this story, but I’ll spare you and mention only a couple of points.

First, the main character is complex, flawed, and oh-so likeable. Her name is Katniss and I found that sometimes I loved her, other times I was wary of her, and I could not stop rooting for her. She is cold, calculating and willing to risk everything to survive. You can’t help but wondering if she has risked too much…

Second, the world in which she is raised presents two very different, plausible sides: the impoverished, oppressed and broken districts, and the exceedingly rich, bloodthirsty, fashion-obsessed population of the Capitol. When the two sides meet through The Hunger Games, is it better to win or lose? Which is which? Death or life? 

The bad (?) – you decide

The book does have quite a few violent scenes. In fact, the whole premise of 12-17-year-olds killing each other for the viewers’ pleasure is in itself disturbing.  However, this could open the door to meaningful discussions around questions such as: what does it mean to be human? If you were chosen to participate in the games, would you choose to take a life? How does the government use the media to show the violence? What parts do you think are not televised to the districts and why? 

Topics in this book include: friendship, survival, community, family, politics, humanity, love, self/image, poverty, oppression, social classes, alcoholism…

If you have not yet read this book, I highly recommend it. It will keep you thinking and wondering long after you have finished the last page. The best part is that it’s a trilogy! (#2 Catching Fire and #3 Mockingjay)

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Arthur Collins and the Three Wishes, by Linda Rash Pilkington

May 6, 2010


Young Arthur Collins’ mom is obsessed with anything having to do with the classic story of King Arthur-hence his name. Unfortunately, the stories she is so fond of have done little to help his current situation. Arthur has withdrawn into himself. He is like a mouse, skittering from one place to the other while trying to find the courage to stand up to school bullies. Courage, however, is elusive and his brother Lance seems to have inherited all of it, leaving him none. Arthur’s frustration mounts as he is tormented by the Ruffians. These bullies don’t know the meaning of mercy and they might soon set their sights on Arthur’s cousin, Gwynie.  It doesn’t help that he is very embarrassed by her, which increases his frustration tenfold.

As tensions mount, Arthur unknowingly receives the tools of bravery from his family, starting with a book and the idea of magic. On a night when a sudden fever overpowers him, he wakes up in the past, where the legendary Arthur Pendragon, the boy who would be king, has disappeared and he must take his place! An adventure ensues and the story is filled with fear, confusion, hope, magic and, of course, witches and a dragon!
 
Author Linda Rash Pilkington has weaved an Arthurian tale where a boy plagued with contemporary problems finds that people, no matter what era they may be born to, are faced with similar problems and must rise above them or be crushed underneath.  The journey to bravery is not easy and even near the moment of truth, our weaknesses are there to test us. However, like one of the characters states: “Even weak people can become strong.”
 
The language in the book has a fairy-tale quality and sometimes reminded me of a play. The characters are quick to think out loud and state their intentions. This may not appeal to some audiences, but those who appreciate a straightforward approach will enjoy the combination of the whimsical and candid. One aspect of the story that made it difficult to read was that the action took too long to begin. With each chapter I was eager for progression, but it was not until chapter five that the story began to take off. This is something that, unfortunately, could turn away reluctant readers.
 
Overall it was an interesting read and a different spin to the Arthurian tales that elementary school children can appreciate.

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To learn more about the author and the book, check out the Arthur Collins and the Three Wishes site.

To learn about Arthur Collins and The Great American Book Race! TM , the effort on behalf of children’s literacy, check out City Castles Publishing. Don’t forget to click on “Media Kit” at the bottom of that page!
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