Hope in the Darkest Hours

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising WWII

Warsaw Ghetto: Photo from Jürgen Stroop’s report to Heinrich Himmler – Public Domain

On September 1st, seventy-five years ago, German forces swept into Poland to open one of the most demented chapters of the last century. A year later, Jews were forced into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto (pictured above) to be eliminated by starvation, exposure and infectious disease: after the Ghetto was liquidated, the Germans used camps to work their evil. Despite the grim nature of the Ghetto, Karen Hesse brought a kid safe story of resistance to us in the form of The Cats in Krasinki Square.

The Cats in Krasinski Square

This is the tale of two Jewish sisters who have escaped the Ghetto and are posing as Poles in Warsaw. As the only survivors of their family, they have joined the resistance and sneak food to their friends within the Ghetto. But the Gestapo learns of their scheme to bring food in on a train and plot to sniff them out with a team of dogs. Undaunted the resistance releases cats all over the train station throwing the dogs into confusion and allowing the precious food to slip into the Ghetto.

Hesse’s smooth prose flows seamlessly through this story, masterfully balancing the atrocities of the Holocaust with the innocence of her target audience. Likewise, Wendy Watson‘s illustrations bring us the tension of the story without traumatizing students.  

It’s extremely rare that I can bring such a harsh topic to young readers with confidence that the material is suited to my first graders. But once in a great while, I cross paths with such a book. The Cats in Krasinki Square is that book.

The Cats in Krasinski Square 2


A Tale of Two Piggies

Sidney & Norman

I don’t normally review books that involve God because (generally) they repulse me. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-God, on the contrary. But, so many books that include God are models of awful prose and many of the remaining few have horrible (often trite) story-lines.

So, how did these porkers creep past security? It wasn’t simple, but it involves an important moral:

Norman is that self-righteous jerk that some churches seem to spawn… and Sidney is a guy who just can’t keep his life together. Both receive an invitation from God because he has something to tell them.

Holding true to their characters, Norman is confident that God wants to tell him how awesome he is… and Sidney is pretty sure he’s going to get run over by a train.

When they finally meet God, both pigs are in for a shock. Mr. Goody-two-shoes finds out that God loves him. But, he adds, “you’re not as good as you have lead yourself to believe. You’re prideful. You’re selfish. You look down on others, simply because things don’t come as easily for them.” So Norman leaves in tears. The truth hurts.

Sidney observes Norman’s stricken exodus and is really sure he’s doomed. BUT the message is simply this, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” Sidney leaves just as stunned as Norman.

This book is brilliant commentary on self-righteously annoying church people, without being hateful. That’s a tough tightrope to walk, but Phil Vischer pulls it off. It also sends a message that, despite church culture’s favoritism toward successful middle class types, God loves and welcomes all who will come.


Beauty in Everyday Life

All the Places to Love

My tendency is to shamelessly plug picture books that explore urban experiences. So, what’s up with this somewhat idealized, “growing up on the farm” story?

Two things.

First, if diversity really means a wide range, then farm life shouldn’t be marginalized. Second, while I’ve known kids from rural areas to have fascinating misconceptions of their urban counterparts. The reverse is also true.

At it’s core “All the Places to Love” is about finding beauty in life and nature. It’s not hard to find beauty here because Mike Wimmer absolutely nails the illustrations. The story is narrated by the boy on the cover who takes us to all the rural places different members of his family love. As he guides us we discover how each generation passes their love of these places to the next. The twist comes when his baby sister is born and he looks forward to the day when he can show her all the places he loves.

Patricia MacLachlan gives us a feel good, poetic look at rural life that boarders on 1950’s pop-culture idealism. While that romanticized slant might strike some adult readers as amazing trite (and stupid); keep in mind that this is a picture book for kids. If you want to deconstruct the situated complexities of class, gender, political contexts and race you might enjoy reading my thesis (when I finish).

But you will have lost your audience at the title.

Bill Robinson: Rap A Tap Tap

Rap A Tap Tap

In my quest to branch out during Black History Month, I came across this short and sweet tribute to Bill Robinson: the legendary tap dancer better known as “Bojangles”. I love Leo & Diane Dillon’s simplistic illustrations and telling of Bill Robinson’s story.

My experience is that kids understand the book far better after seeing him dance. This is the clip I use.

A Few Words About Martin’s Big Words

Martin's Big Words 2

Martin’s Big Words is the story of Martin Luther King Junior’s life. Briefly put, it’s…

Masterfully written… Like Martin Luther King Junior’s public speaking, there’s a beautiful cadence to Doreen Rappaport‘s writing.

No holds barred… He’s taken to jail.  He gets shot. He dies. (Bryan Collier‘s illustrations don’t show King’s shooting or death; but the somber candles and black cathedral background, with Martin’s deep eyes, can bore an indelible mark in the mind).

Not devoid of context… Martin states, “God is with this movement”. He also prays with people. (Just like he actually did.)

Profoundly moving… I nearly cry (or actually do cry) every year when I read this book; and I’m not a crier.

Killing Them With Comprehension

Question Everything - Duncan Hull

Copyright Duncan Hull – Creative Commons License

Mr. Radley picked up students that irked him, transported them across the room dangling over his shoulder and dumped them in the trash. He plastered his bulletin boards with MTV posters, reeked like cigarettes AND somewhere between September and June he taught me to love literature.

Mr. Radley read books that had me hanging on every word uttered from under his handlebar moustache: My Bother Sam is Dead and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH figure heavily in my memory.

Interestingly, he didn’t ask a single comprehension question… ever. It was like going to the theater: soak in the performance, reflect if you want to… or don’t. This was my entry point to valuing literature.

Sure, I knew how to read. But I didn’t love it; and I don’t know that I would have learned it from Mr. Radley if he had concluded every chapter with an interrogation that progressed though the gamut of Bloom’s Taxonomy while addressing the Common Core Standards.

Maybe he slept through his undergrad literacy classes and didn’t know better. But I suspect that he consciously skipped compression questions to impart something about literacy that is all to often lost in reading instruction: pleasure.

This is the doorway to literacy for many children. Of late it has been buried under a mountain of curricular objectives and the crushing pressures of high stakes assessment. But the best teachers I know resist the political tides to open their students’ minds to the love of literature: just like Mr. Radley did.

So maybe, from time to time, teachers should transport comprehension questions dangling across the room and dump them in the trash in the name of literacy.