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14:14 PB ELEMENT Blog Review: CHARACTER – Looking at Of Thee I Sing by Barack Obama

February 27, 2014

OfTheeISingCover(My post #14 of the 14:14 Picture Book Review Blog challenge, conducted by Christie Wild, February 14-28, 2014.)

Title:  of THEE I SING,  A Letter to My Daughters
Author: Barak Obama
Illustrator: Loren Long
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Year: 2010
Words: 1,572

Until I found it on the shelf, I was not aware of President Obama’s book of THEE I SING, and found inside a delightful and affirming message to his daughters.  As a dad of two girls, I appreciated this lyrical expression of inspiration.  There are several picture book elements that are present here, with character being one (again, as in yesterday’s post the second-person point-of-view); theme (the premise that there are talents, strengths, and skills embedded in our nature); word play (the lyrical language which mimics song with phrase repetition); and pacing (including page-turn anticipation of each re-worded key question).

The balance among these story elements is well done, but if I had to choose a main element from those I’ve listed, it would be character.

First, the second-person point of view is well-executed. Mr. Obama writes the story as a letter to his daughters, with a key question throughout:  “Have I told you…?”

Second, the question isn’t really a question…it’s an affirmation of qualities he sees in his daughters.   Each time he asks his daughters “Have I told you…” the question-affirmation is rephrased, but the added element of reflection in other characters’ lives helps to affirm the qualities stated:

  • “Have I told you…that you are creative?”  The story of artist Georgia O’Keefe is pictured, who “helped us see big beauty in what is small.”
  • “…that you are smart?”  Albert Einstein is featured, who “turned pictures in his mind into giant advances in science…”
  • “…that you are brave?”  Jackie Robinson swings on the facing page, who “showed us all how to turn fear to respect and respect to love.”

In each instance, the recognition of these ‘common’ traits are reflected in the famous Americans who, relying on the strengths embedded in them, made great changes and did great things.  This reflection is what I see as the best use of the element of character in this beautiful, inspiring book.

In which of your stories has the main character (whether by first-, second-, or third-person point-of-view) been validated, affirmed, or defined by reflections of other secondary characters?  This is a technique that I think is especially effective here, and can be quite powerful in the stories we write.

14:14 PB ELEMENT Blog Review: CHARACTER – Looking at Insect Detective by Steve Voake

February 26, 2014

InsectDetectiveCover(My post #13 of the 14:14 Picture Book Review Blog challenge conducted by Christie Wild, February 14-28, 2014.)

Title: Insect Detective
Author: Steve Voake
Illustrator: Charlotte Voake
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Year: 2010
Words: 1,092

I must admit, I am struggling to determine which picture book element I need to focus on in this selection.  I was looking for something with enough dialogue to examine, and almost wanted to tag Voake’s approach in this book as voice, which is a sub-element of dialogue.  But in reviewing Christie’s Wild’s series of posts on picture book elements, it seems more likely that what I am really trying to define here is character.

A sub-element of character, (point-of-view) in Insect Detective serves an important purpose in this book about discovery and learning:  Because the point-of-view is in second person, it makes the reader the main character. Here’s the opening text (emphasis added):

“Right now, all around you,
thousands of insects are doing strange
and wonderful things.
But you can’t always
see them right away.

Sometimes you have to know
where to look.”

I’ve never thought of using second-person POV in non-fiction, but now I’m suspicious that I have used it—I just wasn’t conscious of it. And throughout the text, there are ‘commands’ (imperatives) for the reader to do:

Listen…over by the fence…”
“First find an ant…then follow it.”
Look at the crinkly brown leaf.”
Lift up a stone…”

So, I’m suspicious that the element I’m seeking to emphasize here, the one that makes this book fun and personal and almost ‘instructive’ to me, is character, based on the second-person sub-element point-of-view.

BUT there also seems to be a dialogue going on. At one point the story reads “…and once I found a baby frog!” The story speaks, and the reader is not just a reader, he/she is a ‘listener.’  If the reader responds, imagines, or ‘participates’ (such as counting insect legs) is it dialogue?  Technically, it probably isn’t.  Is it just narrative?  Perhaps, but it seems to be more than just ‘telling.’

What do you think?  Is character, especially the sub-element point-of-view, a valid and maybe valuable way to approach non-fiction picture books?  Have you ever used second-person point-of-view in your stories?  What effect did it have?

14:14 PB ELEMENT Blog Review: RHYME – Looking at Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre

February 25, 2014

VultureViewCover(My post # 12 in the 14:14 Picture Book Element Blog challenge conducted by Christie Wild, February 14-28, 2014.)

Title: Vulture View
Author: April Pulley Sayre
Illustrator: Steve Jenkins
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Year: 2007
Words: 180

I am jumping from a 2,754-word picture book review yesterday to a 180-word picture book review today!  For this blog review I picked up another fascinating book by April Pulley Sayre, Vulture View.  I know personally this bird is intriguing to children.  Vultures, or ‘buzzards’ in some areas, are one of the first birds children recognize.  They are large and noticeable, they sweep through the skies in ominous silence, and bravely feast on road kill on even the busiest highways. What’s not to love?

The cut-paper illustrations by Steve Jenkins are marvelous, from soaring black wingspreads on cyan skies to the close-ups of those ugly, featherless, beady-eyed, bald magenta heads.  And Sayre visits the topic with soaring rhyme, a picture book element which seems to offer these birds a bit of respect for their duty in the life cycle of nature.

“The sun is rising.
Up, up.
It heats the air.
Up, up.

Wings stretch wide
to catch a ride
on warming air.
Going where?

The author uses internal rhyme and ending rhyme.  She employs a casual meter, but avoids any sing-song rhythm by inserting passages that vary in line and meter, so that the content she is relating to first-grade or second-grade readers is not overrun.

“Vultures smell the air.
They sniff, search, seek
for foods that…
[page turn]
…REEK!”

The simple rhyme, with a reading level of 1.1, relates only the basic facts about vultures: that they detect carrion by smell, that they clean up the environment by eating dead animals, that they clean themselves, that they roost at night in trees, and that they rise on morning’s warming air to repeat the process.

Nothing more is needed.  The book is delightful, and for the teacher or parent there are two pages of more detailed information at the end.

I enjoyed this book, and can’t wait to read it to my 5-year old granddaughter.  We’ve viewed buzzards circling above the pasture often, and this will give her a close-up view.  I bet, since she’s just starting to recognize sight words, she will attempt some of the verses, and the use of rhyme as an element will encourage and enhance her experience with this exploration of these big, black, ominous birds she sees in her own southern skies.

What roles do you think the element of rhyme can play in our writing?  What benefit is there to the reader?  I’d love for you to share in your comments.

14:14 PB ELEMENT Blog Review: THEME – Looking at Bad News for Outlaws by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

February 24, 2014

BadNewsforOutlawsCover(My post #11 in the 14:14 Picture Book Element Blog challenge conducted by Christie Wild, February 14-28, 2014.)

Title: Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal
Author: Vaunda Micheau Nelson
Illustrator: R. Gregory Christie
Publisher: Carolrhoda Books / Lerner Publ. Group, Inc.
Year: 2009
Words: 2,759

Although word count alone (2,759) might ‘disqualify’ Bad News for Outlaws as a picture book in some people’s minds, it is definitely a non-fiction picture book masterpiece.  Christie’s rich full-bleed art depicts moments in Bass Reeve’s illustrious life in a way that supports the strongly stated theme lived out by this amazing lawman of the old west:  good vs. bad.

Nelson starts the story with a showdown between Bass and an outlaw named Webb, and in the first page we get a glimpse of the true character that underlies this theme:

“The outlaw bolted.

Bass shook his head. He hated bloodshed, but Webb might need killing.”

We know from movies and television how hard the frontier was.  I recently watched the 1990’s Ken Burns documentary, “The West,” amazed at how rough and rugged lives were as our nation grew to fill the void of western deserts, mountains, plains, and the Pacific coast.  There are stories in that great epic of good people who struggled with bad people, but what’s significant about Bass Reeve’s story?  He was a black lawman, at a time when African Americans were considered second class citizens by many.

The theme of right struggling with wrong is personified in Reeves’ story from his childhood in Texas.   Owner Colonel George Reeves, who valued his slave because of his shooting ability, took Bass with him to war against the North. The tale is that the two men argued one night during a card game, and Bass struck the colonel.  Certain death being the punishment for such behavior by a slave, Bass escaped to Indian Territory.

When the war ended, Bass settled down, married, and raised a family. Enter Judge Parker, who came to bring the law to the lawless territory, who hired 200 deputy marshals.  He hired Bass because of his shooting reputation, his knowledge of the people and area.

The theme of conflict between good and bad is revealed by incidents in Reeves’ life as he hunted down and captured criminals.  More often than not, he used cunning, not brute force or bullets, to arrest lawbreakers, sometimes “seventeen prisoners at a time.”  He always shot as a last resort. He arrested more than 3,000 men and women in his career, but only had to kill fourteen in the line of duty.

And what is unique about this lawman is that he demonstrated a sense of justice that involved mercy. Reeves’ story reminds me of a Psalm that says “truth and mercy kissed one another.” Consider this passage:

“Being a churchgoing man, Bass reckoned he could do more than put bad men behind bars.  In the evenings after supper, he talked to the outlaws about the Bible and about doing right.  Getting through to them was like trying to find hair on a frog, but Bass kept trying.”

This sense of good overcoming evil, of right overcoming wrong, substantiates the theme throughout the book.  Reeves was a calm, confident, level-headed man, who always seemed to do what he thought was right, whether in regard to criminals or lawless mobs.

Despite racist opposition by many whites in the area, who didn’t like the idea of a black marshal, he followed his duty as a lawman.  One day he came across an angry crowd lynching a man. Bass cut the man down, put him on his saddle, and rode away. The respect he held forced the mob to just watch silently as he rode away.

Marshal Reeves died of a kidney disease in 1910.  His story, however, set the theme for justice, at a time and in a place where justice was fragile.  I think this story is important for today’s youth, when many video games and much entertainment wrongly portrays justice as vengeful, rampant, forceful, and violent.  Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, thanks to author Nelson and illustrator Christie, is my newest frontier hero.

Long live themes in our writing for children that promote a just and fair culture and society.  What is the most powerful theme you have written about in your writing?  I’d love for you to share in the comments.

14:14 PB ELEMENT Blog Review: CONFLICT – Looking at The Taxing Case of the Cows by Iris Van Rynback and Pegi Deitz Shea

February 24, 2014

TaxingCaseofCowsCoverTitle: The Taxing Case of the Cows
Author: Iris Van Rynback & Pegi Deitz Shea
Illustrator: Emily Arnold McCully
Publisher: Clarion Books
Year: 2010
Words: 1224

Having been a social studies teacher for a number of years, this book attracted my interest.  The Smith sisters of Glastonbury, Connecticut, were revolutionaries of a local sort in the 1870’s, who eventually aided the national effort to bring women the right to vote.

Rynback and Shea have laid out the conflict Abby and Julie Smith endured, and include on center stage the cows that were incidental to their story.  By focusing on the cows as central components, indeed as secondary characters, the authors develop a continuous thread from beginning to end and avoid the sense that the various points of conflict are separated, but rather connected.

When town leaders in 1869 decided more tax money was needed, they chose to collect unfair shares from single female landowners only.  Of course these ‘feisty and independent’ sisters refused at first, which sets up the first conflict. Fearing they might lose their farm, they eventually pay for that tax year, but they began a public battle that would last for years.  Abby revives the 100-year-old protest that resonated from the American Revolution, “taxation without representation.”

Men ignored them. The next year the tax collector demanded full payment, even when men landowners were allowed to pay installments. They refused, and he took their seven cows instead.

A constant series of conflicts increase in intensity, from property seizure to auctions, to the townspeople helping the sisters, and the exasperated town leaders finding themselves berated in the newspapers. Always, the cows were in the center of the controversy.

On final appeal, the sisters won their case.  But the fire had been lit in their hearts for women’s rights, and they toured America, their lives spent striving for suffrage until Abby’s death in 1878.  In 1920 women obtained the right to vote.

Using the cows as a central strand throughout the book made the conflicts in this story personal and real.  The struggles which might be somewhat nebulous in meaning to a fifth grader (the book rates at a 5.3 reading level) are given meaning by the whole idea of these friendly animals suffering the conflicts along with the sisters.

What makes the conflicts in your stories personal, and relatable, to the reader?  I hope you can share in the comments.

14:14 PB ELEMENT Blog Review: PLOT – Looking at Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

February 22, 2014

BalloonsOverBroadwayCover(This is my #9 post for the 14:14 Picture Book Element Blog Review challenge, conducted by Christie Wild, February 14-28, 2014.)

Title: Balloons Over Broadway
Author: Melissa Sweet
Illustrator: Melissa Sweet
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Year: 2011
Words: 1363

This Caldecott Honor winner (for her A River of Words) has written the charming history of the intriguing person behind the huge and famous character balloons for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Tony Sarg’s story is uniquely interesting, describing the chain of events that lead to perhaps the most widely known parade tradition in the world.

In examining this book, I have chosen plot as a predominant picture book element, and I think it lies as the skeleton to the storyline, with its various sub-elements.

Background information on the end pages reveals that Tony’s grandmother collected toys, bequeathed them to him, and also passed along her skills with brush and pencil.  The inciting incident in Tony’s life must have been phrase he read about marionettes in a book which begged, “Would that an artist and enthusiast would revive this ancient art of the theatre.”  This sparked his study of puppets on strings.

The plot element links one event in Tony’s life at age six that connects to another related event, which connects to another related event, which connects to another related event…all the way to the huge upside down helium-filled “marionettes” that appear in the current-day parade.  They line up as if along a street, where Tony’s personal character traits, the cultural aspects of New York, and historic moments appear. The events seems to march past our view, page turn after page turn, like a parade of sorts.

The action rises. Tony moves to New York.  Macy’s hires him to populate store windows with his ‘moving toys.’ Macy’s decides to produce a parade for immigrants.  Zoo animals are added to the parade. Each year the parade grew.

At the climax, Macy’s is in a dilemma (a conflict, due to ferocious animals from the zoo scaring some of the children).  They pass their dilemma on to Tony, asking, “Tony, can you think of something spectacular?”  And Tony, with the problem of producing puppets large enough for the crowds to see, works out his problem with creations that are “part puppet, part balloon…propped up by wooden sticks.”

People at the front loved them, but as the crowds grew, people in the back saw only the tops of his creations.  Then the crucial decision: the idea of puppets hanging ‘up’ occurred to Tony, and the rest is history.  And the action falls wonderfully from the first balloon-parade to the solid tradition we now enjoy from the streetside in New York to our couches as we sip coffee in southeast Arkansas on Thanksgiving morning, thanks to Tony Sarg.

Christie Wild highlights on her blog, under a wonderful description of the story element plot, a way to analyze plot that I will never forget:  Somebody-Wanted-But-So-Then.

After reading this wonderful story, I find myself grateful that…
Somebody (Tony Sarg)
Wanted (to return marionettes to the toy world)
But (he was only one small man)
So (he moved to New York, hoping to expand his dream)
Then (Tony went to work for a Somebody named R.H. Macy, who Wanted a parade, But problems required changes, So Tony thought about ‘hanging upward,’ Then he created his ‘upside down giant floating marionettes.’)

And the crowds all cheered, and still do until this day.

14:14 PB ELEMENT Blog Review: CHARACTER – Looking at Lightship by Brian Floca

February 21, 2014

LightshipSpread(This is my post #8 in the 14:14 Picture Book Element Blog Review Challenge, conducted by Christie Wild, February 14-28, 2014)

Title: Lightship
Author: Brian Floca
Illustrator: Brian Floca
Publisher: Athenum Books for Young Readers
Year: 2007
Words: 354

Fond of ships and the sea and sea stories, I was attracted to this book.  I had heard of Brian Floca’s “Locomotive” picture book in a recent review that teased my interest. So I selected “Lightship” as a review practice for this challenge.

The ink and watercolor illustrations are rich with detail, and definitely provide at least half of the fact-fuel for this piece of non-fiction.  Even the crew depictions, with their diverse roles, facial expressions, and looks (including the deckhand’s tattoos and the cook’s bald head) add reality to the story.  Even the ship’s cat is introduced, who appears throughout the book as a faithful crew member.

What seems to be the substantial and core picture book element in this title is character.  The way Floca introduces the lightship in the first sentence declares that the ship herself is the story:

“Here is a ship that holds her place”

On the next spread the author introduces the captain and crew. But to me it seems as if the ship is introducing her own children. Then the next spread returns to the vessel as the main character, using a lyrical description of her unusual duty:

“She does not sail from port to port.
She does not carry passengers
or mail or packages.
She holds to one sure spot
as other ships sail by.
She waits.”

The story then describes the crew’s life and duty on the ship. It almost sounds like a proud mother citing her children’s hard work and accomplishments, which are to:

“…keep her anchored in sun and calm…and snow and cold.
…keep her anchored when other ships come closer than they should.”

The crew does this and more, all to be certain the lightship “holds her one sure spot.”

Floca continues to alternate crew life with statements of the ship’s purpose. With this back-and forth banter between the ship’s role and the crew’s support, an aspect of character is exposed which is basic to most character-driven stories.  That aspect is relationship.

While words and thoughts and expressions and reactions are used to define a player in a story, a character is best known and understood by the reflection of that person, animal, (or inanimate object in this case) to those secondary characters they interact with.  Other characters are often why they speak and think and express themselves and react. That interaction between characters may involve support, association, inspiration, or conflict.  But the relationships help to validate and define the character.

Floca has masterfully chosen to use relationship as an avenue to reveal the lightship’s dutiful, steady, faithful, and brave character.

Can an inanimate object have character traits?  Why do we call a ship a ‘she?’  Why do we personalize institutions, like our country, or our churches? Why might someone fondly describe a favorite car as “my baby” or give names to favorite animals or things?

It is the relationships that people have with each other, usually involving things or places or associations, that often give those things character. This can be a powerful tool in non-fiction about inanimate things that I had not, myself, previously recognized.

Is your inanimate object, are your animals, characters whose traits and personalities are enhanced and validated by their relationships with others in your stories?

Perhaps you can share in your comments how you have used relationships to build up the strength of character as an element in your writing.

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