Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise by Sean Taylor and illustrated by Jean Jullien.
Taylor, Sean and Jean Jullien, illustr. and Rick Adamson, narr. Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2014.
I borrowed the e-book version of Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise via the library borrowing app, Libby. I was intrigued and (pleasantly!?) surprised to find that it is narrated with audio! This is the first time I have experienced a picture book with audio as an e-book. The pages turn themselves, counting down three seconds until readers have had time to look at the illustrations. Because you are looking at only half of the page spread at a time, at least on the mobile version, this renders the comedic timing only ever so slightly out of whack. The story follows a goofy owl determined to catch some prey as food and profess himself as a scary predator (though he is all but in this story). Despite his creative and silly disguises (from carrot to ornamental bird bath), he keeps being foiled, giving readers the opportunity to follow the pattern of the storyline and make predictions. Each time he is out of luck however, the owl persists, proclaiming “nevermind. I am Hoot Owl! I am hungry! (and hungrier and hungrier) And here I come!” Readers and listeners could likely chime in with the chorus on a second read. The book itself has won a couple of awards and, an example of transmedia, was even transformed into a show for children, adapted using puppets, animation, and costume changes around theaters across the UK.
The illustrations are simply drawn digital renderings, with blocks of color outlined in thick black strokes. Bright colors and high contrast will keep kids eyes on the pages as the narrator reads the story. The narrator’s deep voice perfectly conveys the owl’s supposed bravado and kids will revel in the subtle humor of the entire composition. At it’s core, this is a cute and funny story perfectly meeting its purpose of making children laugh at the main character’s dilemma and curious attempts to remedy.
This story is a great read for around Halloween, without being an overt Halloween narrative – ( it is good for classrooms with students who don’t celebrate), students can discuss disguises and what makes things scary or not. Students could invent their own disguises, or write a story about another animal trying to disguise themself as they look for lunch.
Looking for an app to support language learning, specifically Spanish? Check out the app for kids FabuLingua: Kids Learn Spanish Through Stories.
The app features interactive stories, with fantastical and magical storylines that tricks kids into learning the language as they move through the world. The app opens unto a peaceful and colorful scene of trees and mountains and a path leading from the lake to the mountains. With bright colors and a dreamy calming nature soundtrack, the look is reminiscent of the Candyland boardgame. Players (or, er, storytellers?) can click on one of the floating animated characters, from a racoon, to a fairy, to a pirates, or a frog dressed as an explorer, each character then narrating a story where kids take the lead, sort of like a digital and colorful version of choose-your-own adventure stories, in Spanish. They can even record themselves speaking Spanish and track their progress by earning stickers, that can then be used to create their own stories! Using game play, kids navigate various stories featuring mostly magical creatures and animals. As they progress through stories and translations, it becomes more challenging. The app is interactive and readers follow along as it reads aloud in Spanish, highlighting each word as spoken. Earning points as you go, you open up new story paths and threads.
My biggest frustration using this app was that in some stories, many features seem unavailable due to a paywall. Unless you invest in the premium version through subscribing, you will not be able to get the full benefit of the app, including not being able to even finish individual stories. I seem to remember that when I first downloaded it, several months ago, there was a premium version and you could go quite far without paying; now it seems their pay set up has changed to be subscription based. Each of the stories is only available for the first few pages without subscribing. With the immersive and fantastical platform, kids could easily be tricked into subscribing if payment methods are saved on a device. I do like that the app is based on tricking kids into learning, or as the developers call it, invisible learning based in story telling. The app was conceived by a family who wanted an app of its kind. Leslie Omana Begert, along with her husband, based the game on her studies in linguistics, psychology and in her personal bilingual background. Despite the paywall, I can help but agree with the number of awards and recognition this cute and whimsical educational app has received, from being WINNER of the 2021 LaunchPad “Language Education Technology Competition”to being a 2020 winner of the AASL’s best digital tools for teaching and learning.
Commonsense media recommends it for ages four and up on a list of apps to help kids learn languages. You can read the detailed review from Commonsense media here. This language arts app is based in the essence and magic of storytelling, a creative and novel idea that requires self direction from kids as they navigate the stories and even go on to create their own narrative threads.
The Stuff of Stars, written by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated by Ekua Holmes
Bauer, Marion Dane and Ekua Holmes, illustr. The Stuff of Stars. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018.
The Stuff of Stars is a lyrical look at the Big Bang, paired with abstract marbled illustrations. Written as one long poem, the text explains in plain language the scientific beginnings of the universe, paralleled with the story of the arrival of a new born child. From the Big Bang, to the formation of stars, to the creation of Earth, the text accessibly balances complex vocabulary (“Perfect for turning that starry stuff into mitochondria”) ideas, with simpler imagery that children will love, (“into daisies and galloping horses”). That imagery meanwhile, is subtly reflected in the illustrations, where horses, butterflies, songbirds, and the birth of planets can be found collaged against the marble. From nothing to everything, this text is exploding with meaning and the idea that kids are made of matter and that they matter. It sis a wholly beautiful picture book that plays with color and lyricism to convey a universe of wonder and might.
This rich text can be used to explore STEM topics with students, such as the origins of life and the universe. Students could write their own origin stories, or create artwork in the vein of Holmes, who won a Coretta Scott King Award for these very illustrations. In the past, I have had students just listen to the words and draw what comes to their imagination before reading again with the illustrations to accompany it. The text can also be used as a basis to ask “wonder questions” and then, using imaginion or research, answer the question in the form of a poem, echoing the style of the text.
We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade
Lindstrom, Carole and Michaela Goade, illustr. We Are Water Protectors. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2020.
We are Water Protectors is a history, an ode, and a call to action from two indigenous creators. Inspired by the Standing Rock protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Lindstrom’s words pays tribute to mother Earth and the water that gives all on Earth life. Goade’s illustrations, which won the Caledcott Medal in 2020, are the perfect backdrop to a lyrical, repetitive text that takes readers through the story of how the Earth takes all life from water, and how the dreaded Black Snake (a metaphor across time for oil pipelines) threatens to corrupt all that is pure and alive in the environment. Young readers will love how the metaphor is clearly revealed thorugh the illustrations. Through a little girl chronicling how her people and village have worked to steward the land and how they are fighting to protect the Earth’s sacred resources, especially water, this story portrays a strong and important message, especially for kids today growing up at the crossroads of environmental justice.
The text is a great starting point to talk about activism and environmentalism. Students can learn about current social justice movements that intersect with protecting and conserving the environment. Students might think of natural wonders and places in nature nearby that are dear to them that they would like to protect (as detailed in the publisher’s activity kit). They can learn about
The Casket of Time by Andri Snær Magnason. Translated by Björg Árnadóttir and Andrew Cauthery
Magnason, Andri Snær and Björg Árnadóttir, trans., and Andrew Cauthery, trans. The Casket of Time. New York: Yonder, Restless Books for Young Readers, 2019.
The Casket of Time, translated for young audiences from the Icelandic, is a sweeping, ethereal fantasy. The world around them is falling apart and humans are taking refuge in the latest technological escape, TimeBox, a weird and cringeworthy device that let’s humans hibernate until the world has sorted out its own problems. A young kid, whose family has partaken, finds that her TimeBox has opened too early, and she wakes up to a city where nature has run it’s course and reclaimed most spaces. The girl, Sigrun, finds a group of kids who have similarly awoken (escaped) and a wise storyteller/research, Grace. Grace weaves a tale within a tale and readers, along with the listening kids, are transported to an ancient kingdom of Pangea, where an eager and greedy king devices a similar system to protect his daughter Obsidiana from pain, sadness, and even age by trapping her in a magical silk casket that keeps out even time itself. Within the book, the line between Sigrun’s world and Pangea, and thus reality and fantasy becomes blurred. Much of the story takes place in Obsidiana’s world, where she has become the Eternal Princess, experiencing only one day a year out – sometimes not even that – with the King orchestrating an elaborate presentation at each opening so that she barely realizes what is happening. Pangea evokes a medieval, feudal system that has started to crumble as the people go hungry and the power of the King’s empire wanes for forgetting to respect the natural world. Obsidiana, with the help of a newfound beloved, and Sigrun – presumably centuries later – realize that meddling with time forsakes dire consequences and race to reverse the effects.
With magic, intrigue, and adventure, The Casket of Time reads like a cute new fairy tale, a sort of high fantasy (Pangea) within a low fantasy world (Sigrun’s). Left without the dominance of machinery and steampunk, the few basic elements of science fiction (time travel) are more ephemeral and so the novel feels much more fantascial than sci-fi. Sigrun’s world is presumably the same as ours, bordering on a post-apocalyptic, dystopia, yet different enough that readers can feel a sense of escape from this. Set without explicitly stating in a society like the author’s native Iceland we are to assume that none of the characters are coded as POC. The trope of purity associated with the femme protagonist’s “skin as white as snow” is growing old. There are elements of tragedy following adventure, just enough romance to further remind of classic fairy tales (Snow White / Sleeping Beauty), and most of all a deep warning to kids growing up in the Anthropocene. As in the fokltales, we are reminded to respect the unknown forces of nature that shape the world more than any human-invented economy.
Check out the book’s page from the publisher here.
Nguyen, Mai K. (2019). Pilu of the Woods. Oni Press.
Pilu of the Woods is a young reader’s graphic novel, written and illistrated by Mai K. Nguyen. The protagonist Willow is grieving the (indirectly hinted) loss of her mother and being teased by classmates. When she gets home, her feelings, personified as little monsters she keeps in jars to contain her emotions, erupt as her older sister, Linnea, asks what’s going on at school. Willow storms out the door, followed closely by her dog Chicory, and into her beloved woods, where she knows how to id many of the flowers and plants thanks to spending time there with both her mom and dad. From here, the main arc of the graphic novel takes us through the woods to where she stumbles upon Pilu, who has also run away from home, convinced that her mother (some sort of tree spirit) doesn’t care. As Willow leads Pilu home, to her mother’s favorite magnolia grove, the two exchange knowledge of the flora around them, and discuss the sensation of over-consuming feelings of anguish and anger, loneliness and in Willow’s case grief.
I love the representation of emotions as little monsters, and the discussion if whether it’s best to contain them or feel your way thru. The illustrations of the woods and characters balance light and dark as Will struggles with her emotions. With heartfelt moments of new friendship, tough themes are addressed as storms and darkness loom, forcing Willow to finally confront her grief, and the monsters, head on. The whimsy of the flowers and mushrooms, and a hint of fairy lore is intriguing and accessible to kids who might likewise be learning about the wild around them. At the end, the author includes space for readers to journal about local wildlife and their own curiosities. The text could be used as an introduction to exploring science and the outside as well as to address social emotional learning and to help kids give voice to and work through tough emotions that might feel like they’re taking over.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, narrated by by Philip Pullman, et al. (12 hours)
Pullman, Philip. (2003). The Golden Compass. (Philip Pullman, narr., Joanna Wyatt, Rupert Degas, ALison Dowling, Douglas Blackwell, Jill Shilling, Stephen Thorne, Sean Barrett, Garrick Hagon, John O’Connor, Susan Sheridan, et al.). [Audiobook.] Listening Library (Audio). Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group. (Originally published 1995).
To evaluate an audiobook I decided to revisit one of my childhood favorites, The Golden Compass, the first book in the His Dark Materials series from Philip Pullman. Recently, it has been marvellously adapted to the screen by HBO, and having watched it, I wanted to reread it. I was delighted to find that the audiobook, which I accessed through my library’s Overdrive e-zone, is narrated by Pullman himself, along with a full cast of voice actors. Click on the link to hear a sample.
The Golden Compass is a children’s fantasy novel that follows Lyra, a young girl who lives in an Oxford that parallels our world and wherein each human has a daemon, an animal companion who acts as sort of a conscience and constant companion. Lyra, and her daemon Pan, live at Jordan College, an orphan to her knowledge, when a curious woman Mrs. Coulter takes her to London. The scholars of the College have always been at odds with those in power, a zealous church known as the Magesterium. With the help of the alethiometer, aka the eponymous Golden Compass, gifted to her by the Master of Jordan College upon her departure, Lyra learns that Mrs. Coulter is none too friendly, running the Genderal Obalation Board, an agency of the Magesterium supposedly responsible for the mass disappearance of children, including one of her missing friends. She decides to escape, with help of the Gyptians, a nomadic people who make their home on riverboats, to go North to find both her friend, Roger, a son of servants in the kitchens at the college, who has disappeared, and her uncle, Lord Asriel, who has been conducting mysterious experiments on a mysterious substance known as Dust whilst also looking for parallel worlds. Along the way Lyra finds harsh struggles but also deep friendships that along with her wit and cunning will help her reach her potential and fulfill her fate.
As a classic, the production of this audibook is exquisite. There is a full cast of voice actors, each taking on a major character, as well as has music interspersed appropriately and minimally. It is sheer entertainment, wth excellent narration that is incredibly engaging for any any listener. Since it is narrated by the author himself, it is without a doubt that the audiobook can stand alone and exists in and of itself “as a fully realized expression of the author’s intent and meaning” (Burkely, 2007). Having done tremendous justice to the original written story, this audiobook would be a perfect introduction to books on tape for those young readers who have yet to thoroughly experience them. It is a great example of “the spoken word,” that is “imagination’s greatest champion,” according to the ALSC/Booklist/YALSA Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production. Foremost I see this audiobook as a perfect opportunity for entertainment in the library, to foster of love of reading as an instrument of imagination. As a craft extension in response to the story, however, kids could create their own daemons, through writing or art. There could also be a deep study of setting, comparing Lyra’s world to ours, looking at how the author executes world-building.
After listening to the original story on audiobook, be sure to check out the trailer for the recently adapted series.
Becoming Muhammad Ali: a novel by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile
Patterson, James and Kwame Alexander, and Dawud Anyabwile, illustr. Becoming Muhammad Ali. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.
Alternating in verse (narrated by a young Cassius Clay) and prose (narrated by his friend, Lucky), this novel for young readers tells the story of Muhammad Ali’s youth and journey to and through the boxing ring. Althought ethe alternations in persepctive and writing style are jarring at first, a slight knock to the jaw, it quickly becomes habit, and is fun to read! Like any coming of age story there are crushes, bullies, and struggles with grades. Yet Cassius, known as Gee-Gee to friends and family, is growing up in 1950s Louisville, Kentucky, amidst segregation. Cassius is seeking to reconcile this with his big dreams – to be the greatest, to buy his mother a big house – in a world where “there’s two Lousivilles,” where he asks his father of his church painting, “where were all the black angels when they took the picture?” With engaging and rhythmic verse, readers follow as Cassius Clay trains, ” The name’s Cassius Clay / and I’m gearing to fight / my next foe may bark / but I’m sure gon’ bite!” According to Lucky, “Cassius wasn’t satisfied” with anything simple, but “had to “add a little drama. A little color. A little poetry.” Lucky writes that he “always had songs his head,” and always had “rhymes,” rendering the form of this book even more apt and the voice more authentic.
According to the acknowledgements, much of the book is based on never before heard oral histories, thanks to Muhammad Ali’s family, perhaps giving readers an unprecedented look at the youth of this great figure. Since it is a fictionalized biography, we see elements of truth and the history of the times rendered in a way that draws in readers and presents history in a way that is “relevant and meaningful to their lives today.” (Vardell, 214). Illustrations interspersed throughout the pages add to the deep character studies and further hook readers.
This book could be used as a basis in a unit on biographies and historical profiles, as well in conjuction with studies of the civil rights movement and segregation. Since Cassius is always talking about his hopes for the future, despite systemic racism and inequalities he faces, it could also be used in a discussion of dreams for the future, and a recipe for overcoming and shining the spotlight on societal injustices. The author’s website features this reading guide. Students can also check out the Muhammad Ali Center’s Digital Museum here.
Check out a converstation with Kwame Alexander, talking about the book, here from The Brown Bookshelf.
Celano, Marianne, with Marietta Collins and Ann Hazar, and Jennifer Zivoin, illustr. Something Happened In Our Town. Washington, DC: Magination Press, 2018.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the uprising around the country, I searched for books that could help facilitate a conversation with students who might be reckoning with the events and the legacy of racism in this country. This title, aimed at children aged 4-8, was one of the ones I soon discovered and would have presumably leaned on heavily to facilitate conversations about racial biases had we been in person. With my district virtual for a full calendar year, from March 2020-March 2021, conversations did not evolve as I presume they would have in the classroom. I made resources available to those who needed them but to my surprise – and woe – many of my elementary school students, even the upper level, did not know what was happening in the country. Given the trends of this society, it follows that the book would make its way to the list of those most challenged. I am happy to see that despite this, many libraries in Rhode Island are currently cataloging and adding it to their collection. I hardly think the challengers have even read the book since it hardly seems “anti-police,” perhaps “anti-police brutality” is a more apt and legitimate description. One kid is seen doodling pictures of police officers and the Black father clearly states, “There are many cops, Black and White, who make good choices.”
The picture book is written by psychologists, whose careers have been dedicated to working with children and social justice, and as such handles the hard subject material comprehensively and thoroughly. The text features the aftermath of a Black man being shot by police in their town. Two families, a white family and a Black family, discuss the situation and the history of racism with their respective children. “I have power, and I am smart,” says one child, to which his mother answers, “and you can change people’s hearts by sticking up for someone who is not treated fairly.” I do wish the book used more people centered language, such as “people who were enslaved” rather than “slaves.” I do believe that the book is a necessary one to have on the shelf, as students will inevitably encounter instances of community violence, as well as racism and prejudice.
The text moves through each family’s conversation providing adults with a starting point to discuss racial biases with children of all backgrounds. The illustrations are digitally rendered and serve to supplement the text without distracting a child who may be listening to the read aloud. Inset boxes, akin to comic books, move the listener along the page and focus their attention on details.
Just as valuable as the text itself, the end of the book features an extensive Note to Parents and Caregivers with guidelines for discussing race and racism with children, definitions that are child-friendly, and sample dialogues for having these conversations with kids. I especially appreciate the notes for having conversations with children, and the reminder to respond with “What makes you say that” without judgement when a child passes a comment that might be racially biased. I appreciate that the definitions do not stop at simple definitions, rather including for example what prejudice is (believing negative or bad things about someone who is different from you without proof), where it might come from, why it is a problem (because you have already made up your mind or have a bad belief about someone before you know the person), and that it is wrong! I look forward to checking out the recent publication by the same authors and illustrator, Something Happened in Our Park: Standing Together After Gun Violence.
From the Note to Parents and Caregivers:
There are many benefits of beginning to discuss racial bias and injustice with young children of all races and ethnicities:
Research has shown that children even as young as three years of age notice and comment on differences in skin color.
Humans of all ages tend to ascribe positive qualities to the group that they belong to and negative qualities to other groups.
Despite some parents’ attempts to protect their children from frightening media content, children often become aware of incidents of community violence, including police shootings.
Parents who don’t proactively talk about racial issues with their children are inadvertently teaching their children that race is a taboo topic. Parents who want to raise children to accept individuals from diverse cultures need to counter negative attitudes that their children develop from exposure to the negative racial stereotypes that persist in our society.
Free resources, including a teacher’s guide, specific read aloud tips, and other book lists are available here, on the APA’s website, apa.org. Sample pages, care of the American Psychological Association, can be accessed here. The book was also published in Spanish.
Milo Imagines the World, words by Matt de la Peña & illustrations by Christian Robinson
de la Peña, Matt, and Christian Robinson, illustr. Milo Imagines the World. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021.
“What story do we want to put into the world next?” This was a question posed by Matt de la Peña to his frequent illustrator collaborator, Christian Robinson. The story, in the vein of Toni Morrison, would be the story Robinson wished he had as a child…and that his classmates and teachers had, too. It is the epitome of a diverse story. Christian said of the book: “So I think this book has the potential to be healing, to create conversations, to create empathy and compassion.”
Milo imagines the world, words by Matt de la Peña and pictures by Christian Robinson, is evocative of Last Stop on Market Street as the title character takes a ride on public transit with his older sister. Along the ride, Milo, beanie on head, sketchbook in hand, imagines the lives of all the people he encounters on the trip, observing from behind his glasses and pencil. As we arrive at Milo’s destination, where he goes to visit his mother, who has been incarcerated, we – like Milo – are forced to face implicit biases and second guess our first impressions. Can you really tell who someone is, just by looking?
The text moves slowly like the train, asking us to slow down amid the hustle and carefully contemplate those around us, rather than dismiss and disregard. The pictures which swap back and forth between spreads of the train and spreads of the world as Milo imagines it for each passenger. This picture book offers a look at stressors and anxieties that some children quietly face, and that Robinson himself faced as a child.
How many of us haven’t been there, as Milo is? Imagining where passerby are going, who they are, what they do? How often are we pleasantly surprised or find ourselves mistaken in our assumptions? I imagine asking students these prompts, asking about first impressions and judgement, asking students to reconsider and to reimagine.
Text response ideas: Think of a time you made a judgement or assumption. What did you think? What did you later find out that made you rethink?
*Have you ever felt like a “shook up soda”? Where were you going? what could help you feel better, to keep yourself from bursting? *Echoing the last illustration in the book, in which Milo imagines a day with his mother eating ice cream on the stoop, students could illustrate or write about the world they wish they could see.
*With older students, the text could be used to discuss and dismantle implicit bias and stereotypes.
Check out this resource guide for more ideas related to Milo Imagines the World, as well as Carmela Full of Wishes and Last Stop on Market Street. Check out the illustrator’s site here, and the author’s site here.
Yang, Kelly. Front Desk. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2018.
All of my students who have read this middle grade novel have loved it, so it was with good reason a RICBA nominee last year. Still, I’m ashamed to say I was not familiar with the premise and went in with no expectations or knowledge of the subject matter! I’m so happy I’ve read this sweet book about Mia, whose story is based on the author’s real life experiences with her parents running a motel after having recently immigrated to the States in the nineties from China.
Mia Tang is a fourth grader, a writer, nd a Chinese immigrant whose parents have just taken over managing a motel (where they also live) for a nasty man who barely pays them enough to survive. Mia encounters many a diverse guest and befriends many of the regular weeklies, establishing familial ties with their guests. While dealing with regular fourth grade woes, lying to friends to fit in, realizing you both lied for no reason, the teacher’s red ink shouting grammar corrections, stolen pencils, unwanted crushes from the mean boy, Mia also takes it upon her self to solve society’s woes, a microcosm of which are portrayed at the motel. Her parents secretly house immigrants escaping various situations where their labor was exploited and humanity demeaned, Mia reckons with the racial profiling of Hank, a Black man who helps her adjust to the motel, and helps him find a new job.
Although usually I steam through books written for kids, I had to keep putting it down because the content is so heavy. I needed time to process the sheer weight of every issue tackled and every stereotype dismantled by Yang. Anti-blackness, anti-immigrant sentiment, and other sorts of xenophobia and racism are all addressed by Yang in a way that is engaging and accessible for kids. I found Mia’s voice perfect, at each new obstacle or humorous debacle understanding clearly how Mia was feeling and processing her own emotions. Although my experiences are none too similar, I could easily empathize with many of her struggles, some of them were much more than I’ve ever even imagined. I appreciated Mia’s love of writing, the way she worked through emotions by writing letters and how, like the protagonists of many children’s books, she took the problems of the world on her own shoulders to solve. Luckily for her and those around her, she was able to solve a great deal of them. I wonder how many of those letters, written by Mia and addressed to various powers that be in order to change unfair events, the author might actually have written to help her friends as a kid. Originally published in 2018, is timely and highly topical given the heightened discrimination and violence faced by the AAPI community in the age of Covid. At the heart of this novel is a sweet girl reckoning with the world around her and unafraid to fight for what is right, despite being a kid, with her voice and her pencil.
In the classroom this text could be used with middle grade or upper elementary to discuss the class inequities and racism that pervade society while also be used to discuss social emotional learning as Mia copes with each of the problems she faces with thought and grace. The author’s website features a corner for teachers, with guides and lesson plans. The paperback version from Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine features a discussion guide, along with an extensive note from the author on her real life inspiration, right in the back of the book.