Book Review: The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse


A simple book with a profound message, Eric Carle’s latest masterpiece  The Artist Who Painted Blue Horses is a book that everyone will benefit from reading.

Sometimes I get worried about authors who have been in the business for decades, especially someone like Eric Carle who’s design is practically a brand. When I see them come out with another book I usually roll my eyes and keep walking. Not that I discount them as authors. I’m aware that some of there stuff is fantastic. You can’t sneeze at books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  or The Very Hungary Caterpillar. But I get worried they get caught up in the politics of publishing books for the name on the cover instead of the content or quality of the book. When I first saw The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse I thought this, rolled my eyes, and kept on looking around the bookstore. But when I heard about the book getting some Caldecott buzz I knew I was going to have to crack it open. And I’m glad I did.

The book is very short, it’s only about 50 words long. It begins with the introduction of a boy who says he’s an artist. Then the artist makes a list of the things he paints: a blue horse, a red crocodile, a yellow cow, etc. And then it ends with the boy saying “I am a good artist.” Seems pretty simple right? But then Carle adds a bit more in the back of the book that makes you realize how important a blue horse, a red crocodile, a yellow cow, and other nonsense is. He includes this image:

It is a painting entitled Blue Horse I which was painted in 1911 by Franz Marc. Carle then includes a paragraph about Marc and a paragraph about himself. He explains that Franz Marc was a German artist during the turn of the century who painted unconventional paintings that were often unrealistic in color. Many critics objected to his ideas but others did not, and eventually he was very influential in the modern and expressionist movements. Carle then explains that he also spent his childhood in Germany; Nazi Germany. He explained that the Nazis forbade modern and expressionistic art. However an art teacher secretly showed him some of Marc’s paintings, which changed the way Carle thought about art for the rest of his life.

Carle’s book encourages kids to think outside of the box. He’s telling them that it’s okay to be different. He’s saying that the way we express ourselves is important and is special, no matter how unconventional it is. Everyone can benefit from this message. As parents and educators, it’s important for us to celebrate the individuality of the children that are around us, no matter how far out it is. I once had a boy in my class who was the definition of unconventional. Not only did he love purple, hum the songs from “Hairspray” while he worked, and pranced around singing “I’m a little girl”, but he also flapped his hands when he was excited, would look around the room with one eye closed and one eye opened, and would start writing a sentence with his left hand and then switch to his right hand half way across the paper. The kid was strange.

But then one day, during morning meeting, I showed that class a stick. I said, “today we’re going to pretend. This stick is no longer a stick, it’s whatever your imagination says it is.” So I pretended to brush my teeth with it and said, “see? It’s a toothbrush.” Then I handed it to the boy sitting next to me. He stared at it. “Well?” I said. “What is it?” He looked up at me. “It’s a stick.” After some pulling of teeth he finally mumbled “it’s a pencil.” The next few kids did pretty much the same thing. I was astounded at how second graders could be so unoriginal, so boring! But then my little oddball got hold of that stick.

“It’s a rainbow maker.”

“A what?”

“A rainbow maker. See?” He put the stick on it’s side and turned it in the air in the shape of an arc. “See the rainbow?” Then he got up and walked around the room making rainbows with his rainbow maker.”

He’s the kind of kid that’s going to do something special with his life. We need people to think like him, otherwise we wouldn’t have things like ipods, yo-yos, airplanes, pogosticks, computers, shape-ups, mousetraps, microwaves, cupcakes, sparklers, saddles, or  picturebooks.

Think what would happen if I said “no kid, you’re a boy so you can’t make rainbows with that stick.” Then he might be afraid to speak openly about his ideas forever. And that awesome thing he was going to do in the future would never happen. He’s a kid that needs a book like The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse. And so are the kids who said the stick was a stick. And so did I for reminding me that weird kids are special. Get a copy of the book and share it. Share it with your kids, share it with your friends, and share it with yourself.

I give the book five huge rainbow makers.

Watch Eric Carle talk about the book here:

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Book Review: An Annoying ABC


A perfectly peculiar picturebook for practical use. I can’t think of a better book to use for older kids. Yes, older. I know, I know, it’s an alphabet book, but this book doesn’t simply state that a is for apple. This book lends itself to lessons on verbs, proper nouns, alliteration and even natural consequences!

Before you can get a kid to learn anything you need to make them excited about the subject. This is especially important when you’re teaching something as dry and dusty as grammar.  Bottner and Emberlley’s book is a perfect way to spark their interest and to give them some practice. It’s a rather small book, so I wouldn’t necesserily suggest that it should be read alloud to a whole class. I would use it in small groups. The first day I would read it aloud to the group. They will meet the characters on the end papers and title pages as they march to their classroom. Each character has an individual and unique personality that is evident through their wardrobe. My personal favorite is Flora (who is seen under the letter F) because she looks like I did as a little kid, with jeans, a sweatshirt, and a backwards baseball hat. If I had seen a kid that looked like me as a kid I probably wouldn’t have felt so weird all the time.  The children are very politically correct. They are of every color, gender (and sex) (little Clyde holds flowers, Eloise has a big pink hat, Olivia wears a jersey, etc.), and ability (with little Ida sporting a pink wheelchair). And on page two they will see the annoying day unfold when Adelaide annoys Bailey. This causes Bailey to blame Clyde, which causes Clyde to cry, which causes Dexter to drool, and so on. The illustrations are lively and the content is unique and thrilling. Most students will connect well with it (especially if you, the teacher, read it with expression) which will make them more willing to work with it later on in the week.

I’ve seen some very boring lessons on verbs: “a verb is an action word, circle the verb in the sentence. Blah blah blah.” And these worksheets always use some really creative verbs like “run, walk, sit, bring, went.”  The only action these worksheets make me do is snore. An Annoying ABC  is a great tool for you to use to show them that verbs can really be fun. It shows them that verbs can be what we are. Bottner uses verbs like drooled, elbowed, fumed, howled, exploded, rumbled, stumbled, and tumbled. And she makes finding the verbs easy, which would have been very helpful to me as a kid, because she pairs a verb with each child and each verb begins with the same letter as the child who it’s paired with (with the exception of X), which is a perfect place to interject a mini lesson on alliteration. After explaining what verbs are and pointing them out and having the students find the verbs in the story, have each child write down the first name of everyone in the reading group (or you could do everyone in the classroom) and have them pair an annoying verb with each one of them. Don’t forget to have them share their favorite one!

There are so many other mini lessons you could do with An Annoying ABC. It can be used to teach your students that names are proper nouns. The capitalized first letter of every name is highlighted with a different color. It can be used to show how chain reactions work since each child is so irritated from the person who annoyed them that they annoy somebody else. And, of course, it can be used to teach the alphabet.

Whether you’re looking for an excellent book to read with your child, or a book that lends itself to a plethora of lessons, I highly recommend An Annoying ABC to you!

http://www.michaelemberley.com/

Book Review: America is Under Attack: The Day the Towers Fell


Don Brown’s straightforward explanation of the events that happened on the morning of September 11, 2001 is a title that I’m personally relieved to see. To many of us adults, that horrible day seems to have happened just yesterday. To some of us it still feels so close that we forget that children today are too young to remember it. Many of them understand very little of why there has been a war during the majority of their lives. I know I was shocked when the anniversary approached and my students didn’t know what the World Trade Center was. The only tool I really had was to share my personal experience of that day with them. Don Brown has created a book that appropriately invites children to make a connection with the most devastating and destructive day in American history. He doesn’t shy away in his text or in his illustrations. He shares the truth tactfully and compassionately. For example, he explains what it might have been like for the people at the point of impact. “People were hanging out of the building, gasping for air… heavy smoke and intense heat from the fire made rescuing people from the roof impossible. Some of the trapped people jumped.” The accompanying illustration shows a close up of people standing in the shattered windows at the point of impact waving out for help. The illustration on page 24 explains the bravery of the firefighters in a way text could not. It shows a stairwell with a line of civilians walking down the stairs to safety past a line of firefighters walking up the stairs to the horrifying chaos. I highly recommend this book to any teacher or parent who wants their children to have an understanding of that fateful day.

“Illustrated on every spread with line-and-wash pictures that are forthright but never sensational, the book is superbly focused and completely honest.” —Horn Book Magazine, Starred review

One of School Library Journal’s best Nonfiction titles of 2011.

http://www.booksbybrown.com/

America is Under Attack: The Day the Towers Fell By Don Brown

Book Review: Balloons Over Broadway


One of the best nonfiction picturebooks I’ve seen! There are so many brilliant aspects to this book. With sparse text, Melissa Sweet xplains how Tony Sarg went from playing with marionettes as a child to designing the giant balloons that float over New York City annually on Thanksgiving. Sweet then uses design, collage, and watercolor illustrations to underscore what she writes. She shows readers that “every little movement has a meaning of its own” by manipulating the shape and size of the font she uses to write that statement with. She uses scrap paper, wood, wire, cloth, string, and buttons in her collage to invite the reader to feel as though they are tinkering and creating right along with Sarg. She uses silhouettes to emphasize when Sarg has a brilliant thought. She uses the height of the book when its turned horizontally to emphasize the height of the balloons. Her back matter verifies the information in her book, acknowledges those who helped her, and gives the reader a bit more information, such as that one of his apprentices was Jim Henson and that he responded to every letter he received. In other words, every aspect of his book was designed to give the reader a rich, aesthetic, and telling experience.

The only negative comment I can make about this book actually has to do with the online acitivity kit that accompanies it. The kit includes three different types of puppets to make (paddle, stick, and finger), a box to store the finger puppets in, a maze, a design-your-own-puppet sheet, and a picture of an elephant balloon that is to be turned into a hat. As an educator, I feel as though authors and publishers should design activities that will enhance or extend the reading experience. Most of the activities Sweet includes would be considered busy work in my classroom. For instance, the book is not about all types of puppets, it’s about marionettes. Why include paddle and finger puppets? I think the stick puppet is fine since it’s mentioned in the book, but I think she should also have included a marionette for readers to make. I found great directions for making a marionette here: http://pbskids.org/zoom/activities/do/marionettes.html. This activity could be done one-on-one with a child in one sitting or with a whole class over a couple of days. I think the maze could be a good idea, because it echoes the route the parade uses. However, the start and finish of the maze are labeled “parade starts here” and “parade ends here”. I think it would have been more effective if the maze started in Harlem and ended on 34th street, like she says the real parade does. I also just don’t understand why there’s a hat.

Overall I recommend this book to everyone!

http://melissasweet.net/

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet