Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Koala Lou by Mem Fox, Illustrated by Pamela Lofts

Fox, Mem. 1998. Koala Lou Book Cover. Illustrated by Pamela Lofts. From http://www.memfox.com/uploads/koalalou.gif

Fox, Mem. 1988. KOALA LOU. Ill. Pamela Lofts. Orlando: Voyager Books & Harcourt Inc. ISBN 978152005021

From the day she was born, all the bush animals loved soft and cuddly Koala Lou, but it was her mother who loved her the most. All day long her mother would praise her beloved baby saying, “Koala Lou, I DO love you!” But the years pass and Koala Lou’s mother has many other children that take up her time. Her mother is too busy to express her love as she used to and Koala Lou longs to hear those words again, so she decides to train to win the gum tree climbing event at the Bush Olympics. Even though she loses the event Koala Lou learns that her mother loves her, “Koala Lou, I DO love you! I always have, and I always will.”

This is a universal story set in a very specific environment. Koala Lou’s universal desire for attention and love will be recognized by readers of all backgrounds. The message of the book is that you don’t do anything special, win any awards, or be the best at anything to be loved. All you have to do is be yourself. Children will feel reassured by the ending, which shows a mother’s unconditional love for her daughter. The story will be especially meaningful to older siblings who know what it feels like to share their parents with a new sibling.

The most obvious cultural marker is that all the animals and plants in the illustrations and text are native to Australia. Filled with Australian animals including, emus, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, echidnas, platypuses, etc., Lofts’ illustrations convey the heat and sun of the Australian Bush. There is no doubt where the story takes place. There are also a few subtle cultural markers in the text, such as the slang phrase Koala Lou’s mother uses, “How’re ya goin’, blossom?”

Fox’s storytelling voice is intimate and warm, as though she’s telling the story just for you. As the plot progresses the pacing of the book increases and by the time the Bush Olympics come around, readers will be cheering Koala Lou on as she climbs the gum tree. The repetitive refrain, “Koala Lou, I DO love you!” gives Koala Lou a tangible goal to strive for and provides a touchstone for readers as well. Fox’s descriptive text creates vivid mental images by telling readers how, as well as what, a character is doing. For instance, Koala Lou doesn’t just walk, she “bravely went down the path all by herself.”

The illustrations are eye-catching and appealing. Lofts utilizes blending, color, and shading to render the wide-eyed creatures and the spectacular plants of the Bush. The animals are drawn true to life, although Lofts’ gives them anthropomorphic facial expressions that convey the emotions of the story and expand the personality of Koala Lou. At times Lofts seems to break the fourth wall because some of the characters seem to be staring right into the eyes of the reader.

Color is a key element in the illustrations. For instance, readers can tell the Bush Olympics is a very special occasion because the animals dress in brightly colored hats and festive flag garlands are strung between the trees. Lofts’ use of yellow sunlight and purple shadows, not only illustrates the time of day as described in the text, but also adds a whimsical, playful touch to Koala Lou’s world.

A To Zoo 4th & 5th Editions
Best Books For Children 6th Edition
Kids Own Australian Literature Award (KOALA) 1999 Short-List

Review in PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY: “Lofts's colored-pencil drawings portray the Australian flora and fauna beautifully, including a few of the more exotic species.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: Fox brings out the best in her characters, and also conveys an important message about competition without being strident or didactic. Lofts' illustrations are realistic, whimsical, and almost textured; she gives an additional depth to the animal characters by making their faces (especially the eyes) so expressive.”

Review in HORN BOOK MAGAZINE: “Pamela Lofts creates a sympathetic, sometimes zany, cast of animal participants and observers, adding many humorous touches in the attire and actions of the animals. . .”

Review in KIRKUS REVIEWS: “This satisfying reworking of a familiar and ever-important theme is appealingly illustrated--bright colors, soft-edged sculptural forms, precise detail, dozens of expressive animals. Another winning import from one of Australia's favorite authors.”

*Other picture books by Mem Fox:
Fox, Mem. 1989. WILFRID GORDON MCDONALD PATRIDGE. Ill. Julie Vivas. ISBN 9780916291266
Fox, Mem. 1992. HATTIE AND THE FOX. Ill. Patricia Mullins. ISBN 978-0689716119
Fox, Mem. 1998. TOUGH BORIS. Ill. Kathryn Brown. ISBN 978-0152018917
Fox, Mem. 2003. HARRIET, YOU’LL DRIVE ME WILD! Ill. Marla Frazee. ISBN 9780152045982
Fox, Mem. 2006. THE MAGIC HAT. Ill. Tricia Tusa. ISBN 9780152057152

*Other picture books that feature animals from Australia as protagonists:
Fox, Mem. 1991. POSSUM MAGIC. Ill. Julie Vivas. ISBN 9781467642927
Fox, Mem. 2005. HUNWICK’S EGG. Ill. Pamela Lofts. ISBN 9780152163181
French, Jackie. 2009. DIARY OF A WOMBAT. Ill. Bruce Whatley. ISBN 9780547076690
Knowledge, Sheena. 1998. EDWARD THE EMU. Ill. Rod Clement. ISBN 9780064434997
Vaughan, Marcia K. 1986. WOMBAT STEW. Ill. Pamela Lofts. ISBN 978-0382092114

*Non-fiction books about Koalas:
Hannalore, Sotzek & Kalman, Bobbie. 1997. A KOALA IS NOT A BEAR! ISBN 978-0865057395
Kalman, Bobbie & Levigne, Heather. 1997. THE LIFE CYCLE OF A KOALA. ISBN 9780778706854
Lee, Sandra. 1998. KOALAS. ISBN 978-1567663969

*Teach the kids the song, Kookaburra. This is a wonderful musical connection because the lyrics not only mention the “laughing” Kookaburra, but gum trees, which feature prominently in this book.

*The book does not include a list of all the Australian flora and fauna in the illustrations, so bring photos and information when you share this story. Elementary school aged kids could work together to put together a supplementary booklet that would include information about each animal and plant for other classes/groups to use. Each child could pick an animal or plant to research. Information could include a photo, where the plant grows, where the animal lives, what it eats, and any other fascinating facts.

I Am Different! Can You Find Me? By Manjula Padmanabhan

Padmanabhan, Manjula. 2011. I Am Different! Can You Find Me? Book Cover. From http://www.randomhouse.com/images/dyn/jcover/?source=9780375844959&height=152&maxwidth=103

Padmanabhan, Manjula. 2011. I AM DIFFERENT! CAN YOU FIND ME? Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. ISBN 9781570916397

This informational picture book for children features illustrated “spot-the-difference” puzzles, one for each of the sixteen different languages featured. Readers will learn words from and facts about the langauges, as well as how to say “Can you find me?” in each language.

First published in India, this non-fiction book features text in sixteen different languages including English, Hebrew, Hawaiian, Cree, Arabic, Filipino, Gullah, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, Nahuatl, Italian, Navajo, Swahili, French, and American Sign Language. Each two page spread follows an established pattern, with the name of the language and the phrase, “Can you find me?” translated into the language prominently displayed. A phonetic pronunciation guide is printed below the phrase, making it easy for readers to learn the phrase quickly. The puzzle is illustrated in mixed media on one side of the page with the text on the opposite side. Information is presented in a short paragraph of no more than five sentences. Although numbers and facts are included, the emphasis is on developing an awareness of other languages, rather than presenting information to be used in a school assignment.

Information for each language includes the estimated number of people who speak the language, countries or regions in which the language is spoken, the language origin, as well as familiar words that readers might recognize. For instance, “cheetah,” “pajamas” and “shampoo” are recognizable words that come from the Hindi language. For other languages, Padmanabhan provides more words, such as the words for the numbers one to five in Cree and the colors of the rainbow in Swahili.

The illustrations have a textured feel to them due to the use of a thick paint, reminiscent of puff paint. The illustrations are flat and one-dimensional and in many puzzles Padmanabhan uses silhouettes. Brightly colored backgrounds made from fiber flecked papers create a celebratory atmosphere throughout the book.

People are only featured twice in the book. The first time is in an illustrated puzzle, which shows brown-skinned, dark haired children. Secondly, a small blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy is featured in photographs that illustrate how to sign “Can you find me?” in American Sign Language. However, the emphasis of the book is not the appearance, but rather the language of people, so I did not find the lack of multicultural characters an issue. 

The back of the book includes an answer key with thumbnail images of the puzzles with the different item highlighted. Padmanabhan includes a note to remind people there are “many different ways of being different.” He encourages readers to write him if they discover a different correct answer. In most cases the answer is fairly obvious, a star with six points stands out among a field of five-pointed stars or sitting cat can be found among rows of walking felines, but there are a few puzzles with difficult to spot differences. In fact, even after looking at the answer key I was not always able to identify the differing factor. This could be frustrating to readers, children and adults alike. Having a one sentence description of the difference would be helpful.

The last page features an author’s note about the importance of learning about other languages. Padmanabhan, an Indian novelist, playwright, and cartoonist, writes that languages help connect people to one another and promotes understanding. Part of the proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Global Fund for Children, which provides small grants to community-based organizations that help children around the world.

Review in BOOKLIST: “This colorful, original picture book provides an intriguing introduction to languages as well as differences.” 

Review in KIRKUS REVIEWS: “The resulting whole broadens readers’ awareness of how languages evolve and adopt words from one another, culminating in photos of a child using American Sign Language to present a non-textual visualization of language.”

Review in PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY: “Many of the distinctions are quite subtle (one straight line among curvy ones; a box without a match, a ladder with different colored rungs), which points to the book's understated message about the subjective nature of difference, but may frustrate readers.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Filled with teachable, fun-filled moments, it enables readers to solve puzzles and learn a bit about each language and words in English derived from them.”

*This is a great book to share during a El día de los niños/El día de los libros celebration. Read a page from this book and then follow up with a rhyme or song in that language.

*If you are sharing this book with elementary school aged children, have them make “spot-the-difference” puzzles to share with one another. This can be done simply with paper and pen or you can bring out art supplies to create collage puzzles like Padmanabhan does in the book.

*Other bi- or multi-lingual picture books for children:
Pomerantz, Charlotte. 1982. IF I HAD A PAKA: POEMS IN ELEVENT LANGUAGES. Ill. Nancy Tafuri. ISBN 0688008364

*Other books that celebrate similarities/differences in cultures:
Baker, Jeannie. 2010. MIRROR. ISBN 978-0763648480
Fox, Mem. 2006. WHOEVER YOU ARE.  Ill. Leslie Staub. ISBN 978-0152060305
Kindersley, Anabel & Kindersley, Barnabas. 2005. CHILDREN JUST LIKE ME: A UNIQUE CELEBRATION OF CHILDREN AROUND THE WORLD. ISBN 978-0789402011
Kostecki-Shaw, Jenny Sue. 2011. SAME, SAME BUT DIFFERENT. ISBN 978-0805089462
Simon, Norma. 1999. ALL KINDS OF CHILDREN. Ill. Diane Paterson. ISBN 978-0807502815


“Global Fund for Children. The Global Fund for Children. Accessed September 17, 2012. https://www.globalfundforchildren.org/

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Faraway Island by Annika Thor

Thor, Annika. 2009. A Faraway Island Book Cover. Cover art by Juliana Kolesova. Cover art designed by Kenny Holcomb. From http://www.randomhouse.com/images/dyn/jcover/?source=9780375844959&height=152&maxwidth=103

Thor, Annika. 2009. A FARAWAY ISLAND. Trans. Linda Schenck. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN 9780385736176

It is the summer of 1939 and twelve year old Stephie Steiner and her seven year old sister, Nellie, have been rescued from Nazi occupied Vienna. They have left behind their beloved Mamma and Papa and are on their way to live with their foster families on a faraway island in Sweden. Nellie adapts to her new life on the island very quickly, making many friends and learning to speak Swedish seemingly overnight. Stephie, on the other hand, finds the transition very difficult. She struggles to reconcile her Jewish upbringing and traditions with the Christian beliefs of the islanders and to get along with her foster mother, a strict and fastidious woman. She finds it difficult to make friends and to express her thoughts and intentions in a new language. Stephie clings to the hope that soon Mamma and Papa will be able to escape Vienna and that the family will be reunited in America. But as the war escalates and the Nazi’s take over more countries, it becomes clear that the girls will have to stay on the island much longer than Stephie planned.

Cultural markers are woven into the fabric of this book. The book begins with a map of Europe in 1940, which not only shows the distance Stephie and Nellie traveled from Vienna to the island, but also the countries that Germany occupied at the time. The story covers an entire year, from the summer of 1939 to the summer of 1940, and culture is revealed through daily and weekly routines, the schedule and culture of Stephie’s school, seasons, and holidays, including St. Lucia Day and Christmas.

Not only are readers introduced to the culture of Austrian Jews, but they will also gain insight into the culture of the Swedish families on the island. As Stephie learns about and adapts to her new home, she compares and contrasts the familiar traditions from her childhood with the new traditions and ways of live in Sweden. Thorough Stephie’s struggle to accept and adapt to her new home, readers are given an insider’s view into Austrian-Jewish culture and an outsider’s perspective of Swedish culture.

The story of the Steiner girls is not a happily-ever-after fairy tale. Even on the faraway island, the harsh realities of Nazi Germany impact the daily lives of the girls and their foster families. Thor presents several incidents and accounts of anti-Semitism, such as flashbacks to the night the Nazi’s came into the Steiner’s apartment building and killed their dog. These events are a realistic introduction to anti-Semitism, yet they are not graphically detailed. Thor also shows how cultural misunderstandings can be hurtful, such as when one of the boys at school gives Stephie a framed photo of Hitler because he knows she is homesick and thinks the gift will remind her of home.

The issue of differing religions, Judaism and Christianity, is brought up several times in the book, however, Stephie never chooses one over the other, nor does she forsake the religion of her birth family for that of her foster family. I have not read the remaining books in this series, but I imagine this is a topic that will resurface many times in the series, especially as Stephie becomes a teenager.

Although the writing feels a little formal at times, I was never distracted or taken out of the story. The chapters are short, but the content is filled with Stephie’s thoughts, frustrations, and hopes. Stephie is a compelling protagonist, one that struggles with the universally understood childhood embarrassments of having an ugly swim suit, not knowing how to ride a bike, and being bullied at school, as well as trying to take care and get along with her sister. Thor also uses foreshadowing, which adds an element of suspense to the story.

The book is written in third person, present tense. Thor writes in the author’s note at the end of the book that she decided early on to write in the third person because she felt that only a survivor of the Holocaust should tell their stories in first person. Instead, Thor chose to write in third person, but in present tense, “I didn’t want to tell Stephie’s story as historical, but as a story in the here and now.”

Thor closes her note by mentioning that one of her goals for this series of books is to contribute to a better understanding of the vulnerable situation of refugee children. Although the cultural markers are specific to Sweden and the girls’ Austrian-Jewish background, the struggles Stephie encounters as she tries to hold on to her heritage while trying to fit into a new culture will be familiar to refugees from any country.

The author’s note also includes information about the 500 children who were rescued from Nazi Germany and relocated to Sweden, biographic information about Thor, and the methods used to gather firsthand accounts from some of the refugees.

ALA Notable Children's Book, 2010
Batchelder Award Winner, 2010 
NCSS/CBC Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies, 2010
Sydney Taylor Book Award, Association of Jewish Libraries, 2010

Review in BOOKLIST: “Thor successfully captures the feel of small-town Sweden circa 1939-40, with its kindly citizens devoted to Christianity and good works who nevertheless harbor latent anti-Semitic views. The translation is mostly smooth, and the use of third-person present tense narration helps distance readers from Holocaust realities while subtly reminding them that child refugees still exist.”

Review in THE HORN BOOK: “An unusually fine balance is achieved between the small, child-centered humiliations…and joys…and the larger adult issues that necessarily…Most interesting is the author's matter-of-fact acknowledgment of Stephie's assimilation: at the end of the book, a year after her arrival, she no longer wishes she could go home; she is home.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Although anti-Semitic events sting, they are mild, making this a good introduction for younger students studying the Holocaust.” 

Review in VOICES OF YOUTH ADVOCATES: “Thor pens a tale of historical fiction in a harsh world that will hook readers and transcend time. Although the story pertains to the World War II era, the plight of these girls could easily be imagined for refugees in any crisis.”

*Celebrate St. Lucia Day (December 13) with traditional foods, such as ginger cookies and saffron buns. Pair with some of the following books about St. Lucia Day:
Hyde, Katherine Bolger. 2009. LUCIA, SAINT OF LIGHT. ISBN 978-0982277041
Rydåker, Ewa. 2002.  LUCIA MORNING IN SWEDEN. ISBN 978-9163117305

*Other fiction books about World War II refugee children:
Lowry, Lois. 1989. NUMBER THE STARS. ISBN 978-0395510605
Pearson, Kit. 2008. THE SKY IS FALLING. ISBN 978-0143056348

*Non fiction books about World War II refugee children:
Drucker, Olga Levy. 1995 KINDERTRANSPORT. ISBN 978-0805042511
Lobel, Anita. 2008. NO PRETTY PICTURES: A CHILD OF WAR. ISBN 978-0061565892

*Read more about the Stephie in the sequel (the remaining two books in the series have yet to be translated and published in English):
Thor, Annika. 2011. THE LILY POND. Trans. Linda Schenck. ISBN 978-0385740395