Review of Walt Whitman: Words for America by Barbara Kerley (Author), Brian Selznick (Illustrator) My rating 4 of 4

a. Kerley, Barbara. 2004. WALT WHITMAN: WORDS FOR AMERICA. Ill by Brian Selznick. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 0439357918

b. I’ve tried to teach my juniors about Walt Whitman for the last two years, and I learned more from this informational picture book than any textbook so far. This biography captures the essence of Whitman and his yearning to give a voice to all Americans. It also depicts his passion for becoming his poetry. Detailing his young life as a printer’s apprentice, it enumerates his growing love of language, and the time he spent with soldiers during the Civil War recounts his need to give a voice to America.

I love how the Copyright page is mirrored with an illustration of typeset, as this is one of the ways that Whitman fell in love with words. Selznick captures the heart of the time period in his illustrations, which draw upon the pointillist technique that gained fame near the end of Whitman’s long life. Two of my favorite illustrations in this book are based on Whitman’s words. One painting has many flying books much like the ones Whitman created for himself so he could write down all that he sees. The other is simply the sky and sun and the words “ Whoever you are/ now I place my hand upon you/ that you be/ my poem.”

c. The only thing that bothers me about this book is the intended audience. Some reviewers say ages 6-10, others say 11-15. I do not think Whitman is comprehensible to the younger audiences, but they might enjoy the illustrations. I will have no problem using this book with my high school students, but I do not see a student in middle school or below engaging in this text. The notes at the end are interesting, but unnecessary.

d. Awards:

  • Beacon of Freedom Award, 2007 Nominee United States California Book Awards
  • 2005 Silver Medal Juvenile United States New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of the Year
  • 2004 Winner United States Parents' Choice Award
  • 2004 Silver Non-Fiction United States Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal


  • Starred Review from Kirkus: “A visual and textual portrait of America's most revolutionary and celebrated poet.”
  • Booklist review by Jennifer Mattson: “Like his collaborator's narrative, though, Selznick's contributions reflect a keen passion for research, right down to the subtle references to early editions of Leaves of Grass in the book's typeface and design.”

e. Teaching ideas:

This is the perfect book to start out my American Poetry unit.  I will use this book to teach my 17 year old students about Walt Whitman and his vision of giving America a voice.  After reading this and selected poetry by Whitman, we will create posters illustrating Walt Whitman and the major themes of his work. I might even add a research element and have them create extra pages about Whitman to "add" to this book.

It is also very interesting to me that Brian Selznick illustrated this book. I'd like to gather other books by Selznick that students are familiar with and show them how varied an author's life can be!

Hide under a leaf?


What do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? By Steve Jenkins

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

a. Jenkins, Steve. 1997. WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN SOMETHING WANTS TO EAT YOU? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0395825148

b. In What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? Steve Jenkins describes the predator/prey relationship of fourteen colorful animals. Some animals are common to children, but most of these distinctive animals will be unfamiliar to young ones. The glass snake that breaks apart when a predator steps on it will even make the boys squeal.

c. Children will see the animals in peril, and turn the page quickly to learn how each animal will get out of being eaten. The cutout collages add depth and life to the page. Jenkins tears handmade paper to cleverly illustrate backgrounds and add details like the octopus’s ink cloud. The colors are as vibrant as nature itself, and a lot of the animal’s names give away the trick the animals will use to escape their fate--which makes this a great book for predicting.

On his webpage, Jenkins details how he creates books; he says that most of his books start out with an idea or a question. In this case, the title is the question, and the way it is worded almost makes children giggle at the idea of being eaten. However, as you read this book aloud, children will learn that the reality of being eaten is a scary danger a lot of little creatures actually face.

Jenkins researches and storyboards thoroughly before his ideas turn into books. That is a lot of researching considering he has written and illustrated 23 informational picture books. Plus, he has illustrated books for noteworthy authors like Mem Fox, Pat Mora, and many more.

d. Book Reviews

  • Booklist Review by Hazel Rochman: “The final question--which is also the title of the book--makes clear why these zoological facts have the mythic power to scare us and connect us with the natural world. Even as kids shudder at the bared teeth of the predator, they will identify with the trickster who gets away.”

  • Kirkus Review: “Layered cut-paper collage animals are positioned in dramatic stances against textured handmade-paper backgrounds.”

e. Teaching ideas:

This is a great chance to learn about some strange animals. I suggest using your school’s United Streaming account to find some good videos, but here are a few interesting Youtube videos to tide you over:

The Glass Snake tail:

The Jesus Christ Lizard

The Blue Tongued Skink


Title: “Alabama, you got the weight of the Union, that’s breaking your back.” Neil Young

Birmingham, 1963 by Carole Boston Weatherford My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

a. Weatherford, Carole Boston. 2007. BIRMINGHAM, 1963. Pennsylvania: Wordsong. ISBN 9781590784402

b. Somewhere between a poem picture book and a verse novella, this hard-hitting gem fictionalizes the true account of the racist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Even more moving, the last four pages of the storyline are memorial poems dedicated to the four little girls who lost their lives in church that day. The author finishes with a note on the year 1963 and the events that shocked a nation, and the 39-year court case of the bombing.

c. Crisp, archival photographs that invoke a harsh reality are combined with a child’s toys and objects to emphasize the brutal injustice of the bombing that day. One image of a teen girl staring out at the reader stands out, she’s holding a sign that reads, “Can a man love God and hate his brother?” This is paired with Weatherford’s personification of fire hoses “loosed” by policemen on 900 children, spraying them down to control them and stop them marching for justice. Blood red geometric shapes and lines liter the pages of text and add mystery to the otherwise black and white images. The shapes seem to symbolize the shattered lives of families and the little church that stood before some men “lit the fuse of hate.”

Anaphora drives the emotion in this book with, “The day I turned ten.” The repetition of this simple phrase that normally carries happy connotations makes the reader ache with regret as the narrator tells us, “The day I turned ten, There was no birthday cake with candles; Just cinders, ash, and a wish I were still nine.”

d. Awards


  • Booklist Review by Hazel Rochman: “The quiet yet arresting book design will inspire readers to …(understand) the role of children in the civil rights struggle.”
  • Starred review from Kirkus: “Exquisitely understated design lends visual potency to a searing poetic evocation of the Birmingham church bombing of 1963.”

e. Teaching ideas This would be a perfect introduction to a song lyric lesson from Carol Rawlings Miller’s Strange Bedfellows: Surprising Text Pairs and Lessons for Reading and Writing Across Genres. In that unit, high school students look at the lyrics of a word war between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd. My students knew surprisingly little about 1960’s Alabama and this book would be a perfect book to build schema before approaching “Southern Man” by Neil Young. In this unit, I also focus heavily on literary elements present in poetry, so this book would be a great springboard for introducing or reinforcing some of those poetic elements as well. We finish the unit writing our own song lyrics about something important the student wants to change. Even teenagers would be moved by the strong images and lyrical poetry in this poignant picture book.

A Female Bunyan

Swamp AngelSwamp Angel by Anne Isaacs My rating: 3 of 5 stars

a. Isaacs, Anne. 1994. SWAMP ANGEL Ill. by Paul Zelinsky. New York: Dutton Children’s Books. ISBN 0525452710

b. This traditional tale starts with the hyperbolic birth and growth of Angelica Longrider, who takes on the epithet of Swamp Angel at the age of twelve. At birth she is barely taller than her mother, and at twelve she is able to lift covered wagons and save them from a murky burial in the Tennessee swamp. When a enormous bear begins to ravage the settlement’s food storage, Swamp Angel enters the competition to kill the bear. An epic battle ensues as Swamp Angel and the bear fight; she throws him to the heavens, lassos him with a tornado, and he pins her to the bottom of the lake. They fight so long they end up wrestling in their sleep. She finally wins the battle, but in ironic twist, she has to leave Tennessee and move to Montana in order to have room to spread the bear’s gigantic pelt as a rug.

c. This strong female character is replete with supernatural motifs. From her mighty birth to her ability to build a log cabin at the age of two, she demonstrates an unnatural super strength-- She even snores a tree down! The illustrations bordered with wood paneling reflect a strong southern heritage and the ovals encapsulating the oil paintings resemble antique frames. There is a surprising amount of detail in each brushstroke that captures moving waters, boisterous clouds, and golden sunsets. Plus, Swamp Angel’s determined facial expressions on each page demonstrate the brawling attitude of the woodsman archetype.

The similes and lyrical language move the story along like the beat of a steady drum. Building tension, the illustrations of Swamp Angel and Tarnation, the oversized bear, wrestling throughout the hills rumble across the page like the epic battle in which they partake. Zelinsky creates a montage buzzing with activity exposing Swamp Angel and Bear as they kick up dust storms and drink a lake dry. Suitably, the paintings resemble those of the the regionalism movement like Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

I enjoyed the illustrations, but the storyline seemed stilted when it moved from the story of Swamp Angel’s birth to the bear terrorizing the settlement. Many times I felt the storyline was just strange, but tall tales tend to focus on the weird. The rhythm and exaggeration in the storytelling was executed nicely, but some of the events in the book just did not settle with me as the pacing seemed to be awkward making the story jumpy.

d. Review Excerpts

  • Starred review from Horn Book: “An original creation in the tall-tale tradition whose exploits are guaranteed to amaze and amuse a wide swath of readers.”
  • Starred review from Kirkus: "It is impossible to convey the sheer pleasure, the exaggerated loopiness, of newcomer Isaacs's wonderful story.”

e. I’d love to read this book with a Paul Bunyan tall-tale, and then have a tall-tale writing marathon. The students could work on creating own their stories in class, and then meet back in the library for a tall-tale competition the following week.

View all my reviews

A Tricky Spider

Anansi and the Moss-Covered RockAnansi and the Moss-Covered Rock by Eric A. Kimmel My rating: 2 of 5 stars

a. Kimmel, Eric. 1988. ANANSI AND THE MOSS-COVERED ROCK Ill. by Janet Stevens. New York: Holiday House. ISBN092340689X

b. Anansi is an important character in Caribbean and African folklore. According to the back of the book, sometimes Anansi is represented as a man, and other times he takes the form of a spider. In this simple West African folktale, Anansi, known as the trickster spider, discovers a moss-covered rock that has the power to knock you out if you look at it and say, “What a strange moss-covered rock.” Since Anansi is lazy and a trickster, he uses this knowledge to "KPOM!" the lion and steal his sweet potatoes, and he plays the trick on the elephant to steal his bananas. He weaves his web of deception on many animals in the forest, until Little Bush Deer reverses the trick on Anansi. While Anansi is out cold, Little Bush Deer and all the rightful owners of the "good things" take everything back from Anansi.

c. The ending is satisfying even though the whole story is not realistic. Nor should it be, the purpose of this folktale, from the supernatural rock to the talking animals, is not to believe it, but to learn from it. The storyline itself is full of action and retold well, but the illustrations are inconsistent. Stevens attempts the simple direct illustration known to work in so many picture books. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work with her style. The pages with the moss-covered rock are apt to lose the attention of a small child. Plus, the rock itself is not strange looking in the least.

However, on the two page spreads where Anansi baits his victims, the illustrations fill the page with cultural details that will engage tiny readers. Readers will point out the lion’s pet iguana, and the elephant’s mice that make his fan circulate. If they are good little detectives, they will also spy Little Bush Deer hiding out behind the jungle foliage. Regrettably, the illustrations fall flat on maintaining the pacing and tension the storyline sets.

d. Review Excerpts

  • Reviews Review from CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices) “A marvelously paced Anansi tale.”
  • Review from Africa Access Review: “Repetition and a well-paced narrative make this picture book a hit with the younger set....Educators teaching the concept of the African diaspora will find this book quite useful.”

e. Activities Dr. Kimmel has quite a few Anansi tales published like Anansi and the Magic Stick, Anansi and the Talking Melon, and Anansi Goes Fishing. Students could break into small literature groups in the library, read their assigned book and create a small play about the story. Then students could meet back together to perform their skits. Each group can then guess the moral of the story.

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3pigs.jpga.  2011. THREE LITTLE PIGS: NOSY CROW INTERACTIVE STORYBOOK APP Ill. and Animated by Ed Bryan. London: Nosy Crow.

b. A favorite old folktale is transformed into an interactive experience in this exciting first app from Nosy Crow.  While the storyline is familiar, the adventure they create is fresh and new.  With so many versions of The Three Little Pigs flooding the picture book market, it is nice to have an original storyline to share with contemporary school children.  Although this story does veer away from the gruesome and ghastly original, and each pig safely escapes the big bad wolf.  No wolves or pigs are eaten in this story!

Each animal is symbolic of a different human trait. The first pig is whiny and just wants to get his house done quickly; the second pig seems to care more about appearances than functionality, and the third little pig takes his time and works hard to make his brick house.  The wolf symbolizes foolishness and impatience as he climbs the roof and jumps down the third pig’s chimney when his attempt to blow the house down fails. The third pig is clearly the protagonist of the story, and he helps develop the strong moral theme of good triumphing over evil.

c. As the three little pigs move out of their parent’s house and into their own, your child will delight in helping each pig build a house out of straw, sticks, and bricks.  The narrator is a brilliant young girl with a clear British accent.  After she reads the page to you, you can click on each individual piggy to hear something extra from the character.  While she reads, you can also make the characters jump, spin, and you can tilt the iPad to see more of the background setting.  Little fingers are able to jump ahead, but chances are they will be so engaged they won’t want to miss a beat.  The wolf and pigs act out the classic “Huff and Puff” scenes and each character has a distinct voice that reads with growing enthusiasm.  As the wolf huffs, the houses shake and shudder.  Kids can even take part in the story by huffing into the iPad microphone.

Mischievous music plays as the wolf chases the little pigs from house to house.  Otherwise, chirping birds and croaking frogs fill the landscape with forest like sounds.  The sound effects and inter-activities really add to the story instead of detracting like some popular storybook apps.

The crisp graphics bring this nostalgic folktale into the 21st century. The quirky outfits of the pigs and the painterly backgrounds fully immerse the reader into the storyline. Little readers can choose to “read and play,” let the app “read to me,” or “read by myself.”  Choices are always appreciated in an app and each choice functions smoothly. There are no games to detract from the reading experience or flow of the story.  My only complaint is that as far as storybook apps go, this one is expensive.

d. Review Excerpts

  • Winner of 2011 Editor’s Choice Award from Children’s Technology Review magazine.
  • Teacherwithapps.com: “This app is a masterpiece.”
  • Gadgetwise from the New York Times rated it “One of the top 10 Best Children’s Books on the iPad.”

e. This app has taught my daughter the story of the Three Little Pigs. She enjoys helping them build their houses, and watching them run from the wolf.  She also likes the little bunny and spider that follow the pigs throughout the story.

It would be a great day in the library to share many different versions of this traditional folktale.  You could start with the original, then share David Wiesner’s Three Pigs, and end with Scieszka’s True Story of the Three Little Pigs.

Students could all go back to the classroom and create their own comic book version of the Three Pigs and play with point of view or the changing the storyline.

Buy the app here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/the-three-little-pigs-nosy/id418543664?mt=8


Storybook App Hour

monster.jpg THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK by Sesame Street rating 5 of 5 stars

a. Sesame Workshop. 2011. THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK. App created by                Calloway Digital Arts.

b. I've recently discovered storybook app, and while I've been stumbling through Cosmo's Day Off and Jack and the Beanstalk (not bad apps, but not good for building literacy skills), I've finally uncovered a book that seems born for the interactive experience.

The Monster at the End of This Book was one of my favorite books as a child.  Now, my daughter  loves to hear Grover read to her and ask, no beg, her not to turn the pages.  She giggles as she unties the ropes holding the pages together and laughs as she knocks down Grover's brick wall.

The best thing about this storybook app is that Grover keeps reading even when little fingers tap the screen.  Most of the apps we've read let the little fingers disrupt the storyline.  This app also builds literacy skills by highlighting the words as Grover says them.  But best of all is finally hearing Grover read this story with enthusiasm, fear, and finally embarrassment at his realization of what is really at the end of this book.

View my podcast of this review below, complete with two year old giggles!

Watch Now:

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (Bccb Blue Ribbon Picture Book Awards (Awards))Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (Bccb Blue Ribbon Picture Book Awards by Mo Willems My rating: 5 of 5 stars

a. Willems, Mo. 2004. KNUFFLE BUNNY: A CAUTIONARY TALE. New York: Hyperion Books for Children. ISBN 0786818700

b. Trixie is spending the day helping her dad do the laundry down the street in this believable and realistic storybook. On her way home, she realizes she’s left her beloved Knufflebunny in the laundromat! She begins to throw a fit on the sidewalk and her poor father can’t understand her toddler gibberish. When they finally get home, her mother realizes she doesn’t have Knufflebunny and the entire family runs back down the street to investigate.

Mo Willems breaks the mold by combining painterly techniques, like hand drawn sketches, with black and white photographs of his Brooklyn neighborhood and local laundromat. He added a sepia tone to the images on the computer and took out any extraneous information. Little reader’s will squeal with worry when they see Knufflebunny’s round eyes peeking out of the washing machine.  In addition, Trixie’s turbulent facial expressions mimic that of a small toddler.

The setting is very important to the story as the family “runs through the park, past the school, and into the laundromat.” This story hints at some of the things that are different for families that live in New York City, like how living space is small, so they do their laundry down the street instead of in their house. While the family passes all of the neighborhood landmarks, we see a diverse community represented by people walking their dogs, going for jogs, reading the newspaper, and riding bicycles.

Trixie’s reaction to the missing Knufflebunny is very consistent with her age group. Her screams of “Aggle Flaggle Klabble!” that embarrass her father and engage voyeuristic neighbors are also realistic. Willem’s savvy marriage of narrator text and speech bubbles will engage even the youngest reader.

d. Review Excerpts

  • Starred Review from Kirkus: “Anguish begets language in this tale of a toddler's lost stuffie.”
  • Review written by Joan Kindig Ph.D.in Children’s Literature: “The endpapers are whimsical (and cautionary!) and the perfect bookends to a universal and funny story.”

e. My two year old loves to look at the three images in the beginning of the book that show the couple getting married, then a “before” Trixie pic, and the first family picture in the hospital. She loves to point out, “Mommy,” “Daddy,” and “Baby.”

Even though this is a cautionary tale about losing something, I think it would be interesting to pair this book with clothes about laundry, like All Sorts Of Clothes, or evenThe Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash, Weekly Reader Book Club Edition.

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