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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Middle School Confidential: Be Confident in Who You Are, by Annie Fox

October 21, 2009

In the years I was still a middle school teacher, students would come up to me with difficult questions which I would try my best to answer, or send them to someone who could help. You might be familiar with some of these questions: “Why is it that I can never be good enough?”; “Why doesn’t anyone like me?”; “I try to be more like X. Why can’t I be more like X?”

Regardless how much I (or the school counselor) tried to help and soothe their insecurities, my students were rarely satisfied and struggled daily to fit in. In their eyes we were, after all, “clueless” grownups who were out of touch with today’s middle school realities. We can try to relate. We can even pull up painful memories from the past and share our stories. However, while the advice we give can be helpful, kids will appreciate and relate better with ideas and advice from other kids their own age.

Rating: 5/5

Rating: 5/5

This is exactly what Annie Fox’s easy to read Middle School Confidential series provides. I had the opportunity to read book one of the series, Be Confident in Who You Are, and was hooked from page one. (Actually I was hooked on the cover first, illustrated by Matt Kindt, but don’t tell anyone! Repeat after me: never judge a book by its cover.)

The book is both a visual and intellectual treat. Boys and girls learn how to deal with bullies, friendships and self esteem issues while navigating pages written partly in graphic-novel style and designed to look like a magazine. This will certainly attract habitual and reluctant readers alike! Readers feel free to read the book from cover to cover or flip through the pages, stopping at a section of interest. They are also encouraged to stop once in a while to take quizzes, ask themselves questions, put themselves in someone else’s shoes and, (the best part), read what other kids their age have to say about being confident in who you are!

Don’t assume that this book is illustrated in pink, nor written with rose-colored lenses. Hard questions are asked and kids from all backgrounds are given voice: from the tallest kid in the classroom to the gay student who is terrified of coming out to family and friends.  The frankness in every kid’s shared frustration or idea is refreshing and real.

The book does not boast a quick method for fitting in or being liked by everyone. It simply states reality and gives advice on how to build confidence and play to your strengths. It does not lecture, nor does it speak down to the reader. In a friendly, engaging voice, the text provides the reader with a safe place to ask and wonder about those tough middle school questions.

Some of the sections of the book include: Sometimes I just Lose It; Meet The Opinionator; and I Don’t Get It. My favorite part, and one that applies to tweens and adults alike, is the Relax & Re-Center section, where Annie Fox lists some ways to reduce stress. It’s so effective, by step five I’m not only relaxed, but laughing.

In case you’re wondering, step one is to stop whatever you are doing. By the time you get to step five your eyes are closed, you’re focused on breathing and then…”Relax your hands and fingers, feet and toes. Relax your butt muscles…”

After you’ve relaxed those butt muscles (and hopefully had a good laugh like I did), head over to Annie Fox’s website to learn more about her other books and advice for students, parents and teachers.
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The Unknowns, by Benedict Carey

July 3, 2009
Rating: 4.5/5

Rating: 4.5/5

I never imagined I would like this story as much as I did!

In this story for children 10 and up, two unlikely heroes living in a trailer park community on an island find themselves desperately trying to solve mathematical clues that their friend and tutor, Mrs. Clark, left behind before being kidnapped. Something strange is happening in nearby Folsom Energy plant, and in a community where adults do nothing and expect nothing from anyone even after three of their own have gone missing, it is up to the kids to rescue their only positive role model and figure out what the administrators at Folsom are up to, before it’s too late.

This story has a little bit of everything: adventure, diversity, courage, confidence, sense of community, perseverance, and math! It is an adventure where nothing is what it seems and the most unlikely group is the one to solve this multifaceted problem. The two main characters, Lady Di and Tom Jones are not your usual characters. Di is a chubby red-head and Tom is a skinny, painfully introverted boy from another country with a “disability” that lets him see patterns and sends him on “crazy” trips inside his mind.

Regardless, none of the characters let their shortcomings, (or what at first might appear as a shortcoming), get in the way, and instead live their lives as normally as possible in Adjacent, an island community surrounded by the sea, an array of odd characters, and the dinginess and putrefaction of one section of the island aptly named Mount Trashmore.

Another positive characteristic of this story, (and possibly its biggest problem), is that readers who love to solve puzzles and appreciate mathematics will find it hard to put this book down. The story begins and ends with puzzles that are relevant to real life and present the only way to rescue their friend and save the island. Unfortunately, reluctant readers might not like this book because of its increasing mathematical difficulty. Even those of us who love to read but have a healthy respect for mathematics, might not be too thrilled at how much math is incorporated into the story. As for myself, I didn’t let my math…erm…”respect”… get in the way of a truly wonderful story.

However, those who read to the end will find characters who, though they have terrible role models and situations, are able to succeed through perseverance and growing more confident in their abilities. Readers in difficult situations might find hope in this and realize that it is OK to depend on and believe in yourself, even if it seems people around them hold no such belief.

What I liked most about the story was the feeling of a united and loving community. In the end, the people of Adjacent were a force to be reckoned with, especially the younger members of the island. Though I wish the ending would have been longer and explained a few things in detail, (I would mention what I mean here, except I would give away the end, sorry!), I was still thoroughly satisfied with the story.

I can’t wait for this author’s next book!
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