Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Almost Astronauts


Stone, Tanya Lee. 2009. ALMOST ASTRONAUTS: 13 WOMEN WHO DARED TO DREAM. Massachusetts: Candlewick Press. ISBN 9780763636111

Plot Summary
13 brilliant and talented women pilots were ahead of their time.  Ambitiously they broke records and sound barriers, and their ultimate goals were to become women astronauts and pilot a spacecraft.  Stone takes the reader through a brief background story of each woman, beginning with dynamo, Jerri Cobb.  They trained rigorously through mental and physical and somewhat torturous obstacle courses, and in the end proved to be just as tough if not tougher than their male counterparts.  This was not proof enough for NASA or the "social state" and although they never ventured in to space, they jet set for future women who dreamed of flying to outer space. However, in a time period when a "a woman's proper place, supporting their menfolk, keeping the home fires burning," was the social norm, these women were not afraid to dream of something more.

Critical Analysis
The the true story of the Mercury 13 is an eye opener.  Stone does a marvelous job at capturing the excitement and devastating injustice of the time, but she also documents the progress which was made by the brave women.  Readers will be engaged whether they are familiar with the story or hearing it for the first time.   Feelings of anger and frustration are evoked by the discrimination against such amazing women, which was the norm of the not-so-distant past.  The story begins in 1999 with the legendary Wally Funk yelling, "Go, Eileen!  Go for all of us!," as the first woman to command a space shuttle is taking off at Cape Canaveral.  Stone does an excellent job of showing how the women of Mercury 13 paved the way for Eileen and other female astronauts who came after her ,by blasting stereotypes and breaking records.  Including quotes from famous astronauts stating that women could "bake casseroles" in space, show readers how the world wasn't ready for the female powerhouse pilots in the 50s and 60s.  This book is a must read for generations to come, because the portrayal of Jerri Cobb and the other strong women of the Mercury 13 are inspirational role models for men and women of all ages.
Sibert Medal Award Winner - 2010
 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor

Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor
NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor 
Bank Street Flora Stieglitz Straus Award  

"The details will likely be a revelation for the intended middle- and high-school audience." --The Horn Book. 2009.
"All kids (and many others) should read this book. It is an eye-opener, clearly written and showing that, eventually, persistence counts." --Science Books & Books. 2009.
"Almost Astronauts is an upsetting book, but a much truer portrait of an era than the many self-congratulatory celebrations of the Moon landing published this year." --Natural History. 2010


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Your Own, Sylvia

Plot Summary
Hemphill tells a quasi-fictional story of Sylvia Plath's life in verse.  Poems backed up by factual footnotes tell of Sylvia's relationship with her parents, and the impact that her father's death had on her childhood soul.  As years go by, Sylvia's life fills with honors, awards and different men, but she cannot seem to fill the void.  Her diligent strive for perfection consumes her life, and she is eventually torn between the artistic life of writing and dutiful motherhood.  Sylvia's fiery romance with her poet husband fizzles and she is left with two children, a perfect garden, lovely curls and an dark void inside of her heart.  The tragic events leading up to her suicide still resonate with woman up to this day. 

Critical Analysis
The poetry of Hemphill explains Sylvia's life in lovely and fascinating style which can also be heart wrenching.  Many poems are written from perspectives of important people from Sylvia's life.  The background knowledge provided by the footnotes help fill readers who are new to Plath's works.  Hemphill writes certain poems "in the style of" Plath's epic poems.  "The Arrival of Poetry" describes Plath's process during "the kill hours" in the syle of "The Arrival of the Bee Box."  Like a brilliant song, Hemphill describes Plath's process as an organically developing, yet effortless and irrepressible dark wonder. 

"Poetry taps beat after beat.
From her typewriter keys.
She studies the page, astonished
At her maniac poems, buzzing real as an ear.
She cannot send them back."

Hemphill's poetry is descriptive and deep, and it manifests in a fashion which is easily understandable by young adults.  This novel will appeal to poetry lovers as well as readers who are just discovering the art.  The sequential poems tell an engrossing story, while at the same time, each stands alone beautifully.  Hemphill captures the insightful encounters and toils of Sylvia Plath's life, poetry and death.

Booklist Books for Youth Editors' Choice - 2007 winner
Kirkus Reviews Editor Choice Award - 2007
ALA Best Books for Young Adults Top 10 - 2008Michael L. Printz Honor Book - 2008

"Hemphill rises to the challenge of capturing the life of a poet through poetry itself, the end result is a collection of verse worthy of the artist whom it portrays." - Jill Heritage Maza. School Library Journal

"Hemphill's verse possesses the same crystalline clarity as Plath's, the same relentless attempt to get to the heart of the matter—with all the words exactly right." - Lissa Paul. The Horn Book

"Plath's dramatic genius and personal struggles, particularly the difficulties of reconciling the writing life with the roles of wife and mother, have long attracted teen interest, and this accomplished, creative story may ignite new interest in Plath's original works." - Gillian Engberg.  Booklist

  • Students can follow the link below prior to reading;http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/sylviaplat   After reading about Sylvia Plath's life, they can choose from the list of poems to read from the site, and comment on the ones that move them the most.  
  • Young adults can be assigned a poem by Sylvia Plath's to read and analyze.  Afterwards, they can write their own poem or story to capture the mood of the poem they were assigned. 
  • "Women in Poetry" - Poets.org http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/17110 provides an excellent unit to encourage exploration of various female poets including the following:
  • Sharon Olds, "I Go Back to May 1937" Read Discussion Questions on this poem.
  • Audre Lorde, "Hanging Fire" Read Discussion Questions on this poem.
  • Julia Alvarez, "The Lost and Found Senoritas" Read Vocabulary for this poem.
  • Marilyn Chin, "How I Got That Name" Read Vocabulary for this poem.
  • Elizabeth Bishop, "In the Waiting Room"
  • Sylvia Plath, "Daddy" (I had this poem posted on my site, but it was blocked for hate language.)
  • Ruth Dallas, "In the Giant's Castle" Read Discussion Questions about Plath and Dallas.
I survived the terror and heartbreak of suicide first hand with the loss of my best friend and sister, eleven months and 11 days ago.  The helplessness and guilty feelings of the ones left behind leave scars that will never fully heal.  The Bell Jar was my sister, Megan's, favorite book.  She had a limited edition copy; she recited the plum tree paragraph in Chapter 7 by heart.  She was a gorgeous, talented artist who was loved by every person she encountered.  After she hung herself in her apartment at the age of 29, I discovered her secret blog.  http://recoverybalm.blogspot.com/2010/03/first-love.htm "First Love" parallels Plath's poem "Edge" by the connection between mother and child.  
Plath wrote:
"Each dead child coiled, a white serpent, 
One at each little 
Pitcher of milk, now empty."
Plath was aware of the the way her suffering affected her own children.  Megan's poem "First Love," reflects the impact of these "demons" on a child.  She even excuses and forgives her mother, but in the end, blames herself.  
"We want our mothers.
We want their love.
And when that love becomes a game
The only thing we will understand
Is shame.
We have failed. If she doesn't love us
No one will."

Megan was also an illustrator for a few University mascot children books.  

Coping with the suicide of a loved one is different from a death of natural or uncontrollable causes.  A roller coaster ride of despair, fury, guilt and forgiveness.  As time goes on, feelings of forgiveness and understanding become more predominant. 
-  Keeping a journal or diary is helpful for many people to cope with day to day problems.  After reading Your Own, Sylvia, young adults can use this activity to make sense of the stresses and negativities around them.  


New York: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. ISBN 97805472154020547215401

Plot Summary
Brown explores the dark side through his clever poetry and accompanying artwork.  His beastly portraits are colorful and capable of sending shivers down one’s spine.  Witches, werewolves, monsters, and even the legendary Chupacabra makes an appearance under the alias of Oompachupa Loompacabra.  A series of portraits rot in reverse with the story of the final poem, Gory RenĂ©.

Critical Analysis
The poems and illustrations from Mr. Brown or “the blue phantom elephant” will stir up emotions relating to the odd and unknown.  He creatively adds freaky fun twists to familiar ghastly and ghoulish stories.  The artistic sketches behind the poems produce an ambiance for the adjacent spooks to make an even bigger impact.  The baseball “bats” in the Vumpire are a perfect sidekick.  The poem of "Duncan," the shrunken head, has the catchiest of rhymes, and assonance gives the feeling that that he is swooping just overhead.  
"From high in the sky 
they buzz the town, 
swooping down
and terrifying passerby. 
When children cry,
oh my, how they cackle!"
A strong rhythm throughout the book makes it fun to read aloud.  Drop-dead funny, like the Grim Reaper in the poem Grim Supper, this book inspires belly laughs all around. 

"Brown's acrylic illustrations add to the creepy silliness: an artful mix of naive and stylized, whimsical details and vibrant color. Young readers will relish the wordplay and find themselves torn to choose a favorite among this wacky menagerie." - Marilyn Taniguchi.  School Library Journal

"The most effective illustrations are those whose limited palettes allow the sharply contrasting, pointy, and slightly sinister shapes to take center stage, but in general the strong acrylic hues, fanciful shades, and antic energy provide imaginative support for the poems. Kids will relish the spooky browsability and tongue-rolling horror, while readers-aloud will find year-round as well as seasonal opportunities to slip in a poem or two." - Deborah Stevenson.  Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

  • Give children one randomly cut shape piece of paper.  Have them sketch a portrait of something scary which includes the piece of paper.  After they glue it down, they can write a poem describe what they drew. 
  •  Local urban legends and myths are present in each city and town.  Children can brainstorm about their own regional spooky stories, and write poems to share with classes or groups.
  • After reading about Brown's create ghostly tales, children can sit in a circle and practice telling their own stories.  The first student can say up to two lines, and each student will add a rhyming line to make the story more interesting.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Red Sings from Treetops a Year in Colors

Sidman, Joyce. 2009. RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS. Boston: Harcourt. ISBN 9780547014944

Plot Summary
Sidman evokes excitement for the changing season through changing colors.  The whimsical character cutouts delight and relish in the colors and scenes.  The book begins with the newness of spring, through the buzzing birds and bees of summer, rolling through the mysteries of fall, and finding the colors from within during the white winter season.  

Critical Analysis
Sidman creates a dreamy scene with her clear yet profound poetry.  Zagarenski's illustrations bring the colors of each poem to life with gorgeous artful collages.  The printed cutouts interact in a magical fashion with the boldly painted portions of each page.  Fonts are used to create texture in the rooftop of spring and to achieve word play in the leaves of the fall trees.  Sidman explores the mysteries of summer:  "Deep, wild Black that stares from the eyes of a surprised raccoon.  Black in my own eyes staring back."  In winter, Red is discovered in various forms including the bird's song, when "each note drops like a cherry into my ear." Red Sings from Treetops evokes emotions of joy, nostalgia, excitement and love, and it is a beautiful read for people of all ages.

2010 Caldecott Honor Book

"As the title implies, the colors that surprise on every page do sing." -- Ilene Cooper. Booklist

"This poetic tribute to the seasons will brighten dull days." -- Julie Roach. School Library Journal

"The regal elegance is sure to charm." -- Publishers Weekly


  • Teachers can introduce the book by having students choose their favorite seasons and describe the sights, sounds, smells and other elements of the season.  
  • During the reading, children can be split up into color groups.  When each color appears in the reading students in that group can change the color and/or use sign language for the the color.  
  • After reading and viewing the bold style of art, children can break in to groups of seasons and create shadow boxes using collage and paint.