by Gerald McDermot

Arrow to the Sun is a Pueblo Indian tale adapted and illustrated by Gerald McDermott. McDermott’s illustrations are highly contrastive combinations between blacks and bold oranges, reds, and yellows in the first half of the book. Although this color palette remains the predominant one throughout the book, a more rainbow-look is introduced with the entrance of the Lord of the Sun back into the story. The shapes used are highly patterned and geometrically, reminiscent of a  Pueblo print.

The tale begins as the Lord of the Sun sends the “spark of life” down to earth with his bow. This spark is launched into the pueblo of a young woman, causing her to immaculately conceive the Lord of the Sun’s child (“In this way, the Boy came into the world of men.”). The capitalization of “the Boy” lets the reader know that this child is special, and perhaps even god-like. The illustrations show the Boy standing out boldly from the others – his figure is of solid black and with more designs, while they are more muted in coloring and have simpler adornments.

Upset that the other boys taunt him for not having a father and refuse to let him play with them, the Boy tells his mother, “I must look for my father. No matter where he is, I must find him.” Leaving home, the Boy visits different people in the “world of men” and inquires about his father. His visits with Corn Planter and Pot Maker are unfruitful, but Arrow Maker recognizes that “the Boy had come from the Sun.” Paneled illustrations show the Boy transform his shape into an arrow, and the Arrow Maker launches him “into the heavens” to the sun.

Meeting his father for the first time, the Boy is presented with a serious of challenges to prove his heredity: “You must prove yourself. You must pass through the four chambers of ceremony – the Kiva of Lions, the Kiva of Serpents, the Kiva of Bees, and the Kiva of Lightning.” The Boy fearlessly takes on and conquers these trials. The illustrations show four leveled chambers with ladders leading down into the different “kivas”, and reminded me of a game show I watched growing up called “Legends of the Hidden Temple” where challengers had to enter similar chambers and complete tasks all. It is at this point in the illustrations that additional colors of bold pinks, blues, and greens are added to the palette. White is also used once in the story during the trial of the lightning. The additional of these colors revives and revamps the story, and makes the Boy’s transformation from a solid black figure into a colorful one more notable and energetic(“He was filled with the power of the sun.”).

The Lord of the Sun tells the boy “Now you must return to earth, my son, and bring my spirit to the world of men.” I thought this act of the Lord of the Sun sending his son back down to earth in addition to the immaculate conception very interesting in terms of the beliefs of Christianity. It truly is amazing that in different times, places, and cultures similar stories can be found.


by Robert D. San Souci
pictures by Jerry Pinkney

The Talking Eggs is a retelling of a folktale based on a Creole story from Louisana. It tells the tale of a kind-hearted girl named Blanche who lives with her horrible mother and sister that treat her like their slave. One day after returning with water that they deemed too warm, they struck poor Blanche. “Scared to go home”, Blanche runs off into the woods where she runs into a an old woman.

The old woman takes Blanche home, under the promise that she mustn’t laugh at anything she sees at her house. Some of magical and bizarre sits at the woman’s house include a two-headed cow with corkscrew shaped horns, multi-colored chickens with sporadic numbers of legs, the old woman’s removable head, and magical cooking instruments.  After Blanche follows of her directions faithfully and keeps her promise not to laugh, the old woman rewards Blanche with one final test by instructing her to go out to the chicken house and take only the eggs that say ‘take me’.

These plain white eggs pale in comparison to the “gold or silver or covered with jewels” eggs, but Blanche successfully resists temptation and follows the old woman’s instruction. As Blanche continues with the old woman instructions, as ludicrous as they might seem, she throws the eggs over her shoulder, the turn into beautiful shoes, dresses, jewels and gold, and even a horse-drawn carriage. Returning home, her greedy mother and sister hatch a plot for Rose to also pay the old woman a visit and get the same riches that Blanche has acquired, and then they will steal Blanche’s things and leave town with it all. The greedy little Rose agrees, but does treats the old woman poorly and does not following her instructions. As a result, they end up with nothing and Blanche leaves to go have a prosperous life.

According to San Souci’s author’s note, the tale “appears to have roots in popular European fairy tales, probably brought to Louisana by French émigrés”.  I most immediately made connections to a Cinderella tale based on the strained relationship between the girl and her malicious mother and sister, as well as the appearance of a horse-drawn carriage. I also likened the old woman to being a sort of fairy god mother.

Winning a Caldecott Honor, Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations bring the story to life with lively, yet realistic illustrations. Pickney carefully crafts the illustrations around the text in ways that often makes it the light areas backing the text look like the sky. The rich textures Pinkney creates using a painterly technique adds a lot of dimension to the illustrations. Some of his depictions of wooded areas just pull you right into the tangled shrubbery because they are so convincing.

The writing of this book may present some language barriers for younger students, particular students with limited English proficiency. Some of the most different structures that appear in the text are the figures of speech, such as  “the tail end of bad luck”, “putting on airs”, and “lit into me.” However, these phrases help set the story in the deep South of America and relate to the cultural framework the story represents.

I wondered about the scene where Blanche is struck by her mother and her sister  – this could really trigger some heavy emotions in children who are experiencing child-abuse at home. Although published as a “Dial Book for Young Readers”, I think this story might be better suited for upper elementary and middle school students.


Owl Moon

11May10

By Jane Yolen
illustrated by John Schoenherr

Owl Moon tells the story of a girl and her father as they go “owling” for the very first time. “Owling” requires going out at night-time in search of an owl  and using owl calls and quiet stalking to find one.

Yolen uses repetition to add emphasis (“…like a sad, sad song” and “…for a long, long time”),  And to also add to the voice of the child narrator, as a children often repeat things in their story-telling (“Pa shrugged and I shrugged.”). The story is filled with descriptions of sounds (“And when their voices faded away it was as quiet as a dream.” and “Our feet crunched over the crisp snow..”), which add to the appreciation that owling requires a great deal of silence and a great deal of listening.

Upon the returned owl call, the girl comments, “I was not disappointed. My brothers all said sometimes there’s an owl and sometimes there isn’t.” I immediately connected to the Rylant’s story The Whales where she talks  about sometimes the magic is just knowing that the majestic animal is somewhere out there, and the faith that that inspires can be greater than an actual sighting. The pair do eventually sight the magestic Great Horned Owl, and when the owling is over, the two remain in silence because they don’t need the words. They have just experienced a special event together, and their hope saw them through.

The text of the story is intermittent with the illustrations, and the illustrations always are on both pages with the text finding its place among the white spaces. Schoenherr uses a watercolor technique in these illustrations that allows him to contrast brightness of the white snow with the darkness of the forest at night. Although they are looking for only one  animal in particular (a Great Horned Owl), Schoenherr’s illustrations to add dimension to the story by showing that the pair unknowingly passes a variety of woodland creatures that the reader hidden in the among the pages, including a fox, birds, a field mouse, a raccoon, a possum and a deer. Owl Moon won the Caldecott Medal in 1988.

Although this story is a well-known favorite for many children, I had never read it before. I really enjoyed it because my own father and I are particularly close, so I could really relate to relationship and bond between this father and daughter pair. Often in stories, these types of bonds are portrayed between mother-and-daughter and father-and-son, so it is refreshing to see this type of father-and-daughter bond portrayed.


By Alice and Martin Provensen

Clacketa, Clacketa, CLACKETA! CLACKETA! CLACKETA!

The Glorious Flight tells the true of a French man named Louis Bleriot who longed for flight and had many attempts at creating a flying device in the beginning of the 20th century.  The remarkable thing about Louis Bleriot is his boldness at a time when being bold was particularly notable. He had already made his fortune, but still wanted to make his mark on the world of aviation. Always one for adventure, Bleriot takes on the challenge of flying his craft across the English Channel, and it succeeding is the first person to do so.

The Provensen’s use of short, commentary-like sentences (All is in readiness., Away roars the motorboat., Only one thing remains.) and exclamations (Alas!, Not so bad!, A wonderful moment!, As usual!) take the reader through the evolution of Bleriot’s attempt at flight play-by-play, much like a sportscaster commenting on a game. The descriptions of his different flying contraptions attempts at becoming air bound contrast birds of great beauty with flightless creatures. Bleriot’s goal is to “fly through the air like swallows”  or glide like “a great swan”, but instead only instead “flaps like a chicken” or “hops over the ground like a rabbit”

The Glorious Flight won the 1984 Caldecott Medal for its illustrations. The illustrations are folk-like with their flat dimensions and stylized human features. Although not lacking in texture and visual detail, the flatness of the illustrations gives them snap-shot feel, reminding the reading that they are catching glimpses of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of Bleriot’s quest for flight.


The Higher Power of Lucky

By Susan Patron
Illustrated by Matthew Phelan

This is the story of a ten-year old girl named Lucky Trimble, who is living in a very small town called Hard Pan in California. Lucky’s life has been anything but lucky: her father left when she was little, and her mother died after being electrocuted during a storm when she was eight. In an odd request, Lucky’s father asks his ex-wife named Brigitte to come take care of Lucky. Brigitte leaves her life in France to come care for Lucky, leaving Lucky in constant worry that Brigitte will up and leave at anytime to return to the life she left in France.

The story follows Lucky as she struggles through her life in this small town feeling like a burden to Brigitte and a little bit jaded by the unfortunate events that have happened to her. Luck carries around a “well-equipped survival kit at all times” and is highly aware of the importance of watching out for “danger signs” in anticipation of the “strange and terrible and good and bad things that happen when you least expect them to.”

Patron’s most effective characterizations of Lucky are the times when she let us inside of Lucky’s thoughts. The following passage reveals Lucky’s thoughts about snakes:

  • “Privately, Lucky admired snakes because they were very, very highly adapted to their habitat. One amazing true fact she had read was that snakes actually started out as creatures with legs but evolved to not having legs because they could move around better without him. In fact, Lucky figured the average person went around thinking, Those poor snakes sure have been waiting a long time to evolve some legs. She would never have guessed not having legs would be better having them.” ( 51)

Even though Lucky is thinking about snakes, this idea of needing legs is thematically related to not needing a father who wouldn’t care about you if he were. These types of subtle undertones create a sophisticated story, and explain the 2007 recognition The Higher Power of Lucky received with the Newbery Medal.

In the end, Brigitte isn’t trying to leave Lucky at all, but rather officially adopt her. Considering that Brigitte and Lucky’s father divorced because he didn’t want children, Brigette’s adoption of Lucky doesn’t seem that far of base. Brigette wanted a child, and Lucky so desperately needs a secure guardian.

As we discussed one day in our class, on the very first page of this story, the use of the word “scrotum” stirred quite the controversy. Scrotum, although referring to an male’s anatomy, is not a bad word. Lucky overhears this word while she is eavesdropping on the town’s AA meeting.  In context, it appears as follows: “…then falling out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.”

After reading the book, I agree with those who advocated Patron’s use of the word. While some believe Patron included this word just for shock value (which she very well might have), it does serve a purpose in helping to characterize Lucky’s as a curious, bored little girl who desperately is attempting to make sense of adult’s and their world. I think many children would not even bat an eye at this word because they probably aren’t familiar with it. Thus, Patron places her reader in the same situation as Lucky. Patron describes Lucky’s reaction to hearing this foreign word: “Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important.”

The following video shows support for Patron’s use of the word “scrotum” and an interview with Patron herself about the book.  I thought it was an interesting point that Patron received feedback that from students who felt “…if The Higher Power of Lucky is banned by any libraries, the dictionary should be banned as well.”


Retold by Arlene Mosel
Pictures by Blair Lent

The Funny Little Woman is a retelling of a tale originally by Lafcadio Hern. Blair Lent’s illustrations in this piece earned him the Caldecott Medal in 1973. Upon researching more about Lent, I learned that in another retelling of one of Lafcadio Hern’s tales Mosel and Lent also collaborated on Tikki Tikki Tembo.
The story takes place in Japan long ago, and the funny little woman in the story is described as liking to laugh (with her distinctive “Tee-he-he-he”) and cooking dumplings out of rice.  On the very first page, although nothing of the sort is explicitly mentioned, we can see a crack forming in the floor of the funny little woman’s house down into the earth. Throughout the story, this perspective of showing us both the world above-ground and the world below ground will be an important feature.

The story begins to take off when one of the funny little woman’s dumplings goes renegade and falls down into the crack that was forming in the floor into the earth. The woman chases her dumpling down into the hole and into another world. This is very reminiscent of the song I learned growing up called “On top of spaghetti” about a renegade meatball – the words go like this: It rolled off the table, and on to the floor, and then my poor meatball, Rolled out of the door.” Like the funny little woman’s pursuit of the dumpling, the song goes on to follow the meatball as well.

As the pages turn and the story thickens, slowly elements in the illustrations above ground begin to turn black-and-white as the new world opens up. First we see the water well, then the hillside, then the small birch tree, until finally the whole house and above ground area becomes black-and-white as the funny little woman fall down into the hole. This signals to the viewer that the world above ground has been left behind, and its going to take a feat to get back.

The funny little woman is taken prisoner by the oni. In Japanese folklore, oni are like demons. They make her their slave to cook rice for them.  Reminding us that time is passing, life above ground is continuing, and of the little house and life the funny little woman left behind are illustrations of this black-and-white above ground world at the tops of the illustrations. The funny little woman grows tiredof this existence and decides to plan her escape. As Mosel crafts this description, she writes that the funny little woman had grown “lonely for little house”. Using lonely in this sense is an interesting use of the word, but then again so if the use of “funny” in “funny little woman” as she’s not particularly funny at all, but just likes to laugh.The oni try to stop her by gulping up all the water in the river, but after a mud-covered little woman makes them laugh, they spit all the water out in their hysterics giving her the chance to get home. She returns to more beautiful home adorned with flowers and more people.


By Anne Rockwell
Illustrated by Matt Phelan

Rockwell and Phelan present us with a young George Washington and unfold to the reader many formative events of his life. Learning about famous historical figures brings out their humanity. So often, we put them on a pedestal like a demi-god, and forget that these great men and women from our history books are just like us. In my own conjuring up of George Washington, I tend to imagine a stoic figure with wooden teeth, white hair, and something to do with a cherry tree. Rockwell and Phelen avoid these typical associations with this great man, and show us a fresh side to the father of our country.

In this biography, we learn that George Washington as a persona was often balancing his shy disposition with a hot temper. We meet a young school-aged George who is just coping with his father’s death, and are taken all the way through his time growing up, fighting in the French Indian war, his marriage and life as a farmer, his involvement in the American Revolution, and his subsequent Presidency.

Rockwell skillful weaves a story that Washington remembers reading as a young man throughout her telling of his life. It is the story Cincinnatus, “a Roman farmer who put down his plow to become a leader when his people called on him, and returned to the plow to become a farmer again when he was no longer needed to leader.” This story is revisited during the French-Indian war as Washington returns to life on his farm, and again after his terms as President.

Phelen’s illustrations bring the story to life and are what let us really feel like we are getting to know George Washington. The medium used appears to be a combination of pencil and watercolor. While this medium appears detailed and vivid, but maintain a nostalgic quality through the sketch-like technique used . The thing that I find most striking about Phelen’s illustrations is his ability to capture such emotion and sentimentality in his portrayals. After Washington’s brother passes away, who we learn had become like a second father to him, Phelan shows us a distraught Washington sitting in front of the fire holding his brother’s sword. The arrangement of the composition causes the reader to feel uneasy, with a heavy emphasis on the left hand side of the page. However, a strong and dark horizontal mantle above the fire place reassures us that Washington will overcome this tragic loss. Phelen accomplishes all of this without ever showing us Washington’s face.
Phelen also proves his ability to skillfully depiction of light and movement – for instance, on one of the spreads we see a ballroom scene that appears largely gray with highlights of golds that show us both how the light is coming from candlelight chandeliers, but also strategically directed to emphasize the charm that Washington had amongst the ladies and his ability to steal the “spotlight” in a room.