Monthly Archives: February 2014

Book Review: INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN written by Thanhha Lai


Lai, Thanhha. 2011. INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-06-196278-3

Hà is just 10 years old when war comes to her home town in Vietnam.  Hà’s free verse narrative opens in 1975 on New Year’s (called Tet) which “doubles as everyone’s birthday” (p. 2).  Hà, her hard-working mother, and her three brothers spend the first part of the “Year of the Cat” struggling with the social and economic repercussions of the Vietnam War. The family makes the heartbreaking decision to flee Saigon on a crowded ship when war arrives at their doorstep.  After leaving Vietnam, Hà and her refuge family take a circuitous route that ultimately leads them to Alabama. Hà and her family struggle with the radical change in customs, language, cuisine, and religion while progressively making a place for themselves in America.

Thanhha Lai flawlessly captures the naive perspective of a child with poetic and picturesque free verse in INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN.  While the story of Hà and her family is tragic and heartbreaking, the narrative is still “shot through with humor” (Kirkus Review 2011).  Through inexperienced and childlike eyes, “Hà misunderstands much about her new home” (Kirkus Review 2011).  The book is filled with vividly picturesque details that only a child would find significant. For instance, Hà describes in infinitesimal detail the dizzyingly erratic changes in her cuisine (or lack of) throughout the book.  Hà’s favorite food in Vietnam comes from a papaya tree she grew from a seed in her backyard.  When confronted with papaya in America (p. 232):


Three pouches of

Dried papaya





Not the same

at all.

So mad,

I throw all in the trash.

 This story is perfectly targeted for a 9-12 year old’s understanding of the world.  As the School Library Journal points out, “the intended reader neither knows or cares about the type of minutiae that an adult reader may expect from such a tale of flight and immigration” (Burns 2011).

Enrichment Activities:

Poetry can often be used to “serve as a jumpstart or introduce a lesson or topic, offer a transition between activities, provide closure, or extend the topic further” (Vardell 2008, 132-133).  There are several themes in this novel that can be used for a “jumpstart” to topics such as immigration, the Vietnam War, different cultures/customs of the worlds, and racism/tolerance.

Children can also be guided in writing their own free verse story of events in their own life.  Teachers or parents can share the following interview with Thanhha Lai.  The interview examines how she became a “prose poet” and came to write this moving account of her tumultuous childhood: .

Lastly, I would like to remind readers that poetry is “meant to be read aloud” (Vardell 2008, 130).  I leave you with this final video of Thanhha Lai reading a passage from INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN at the 2011 National Book Awards where she won best in Young People’s Literature:

What to Read Next:

Crossan, Sarah. 2013. THE WEIGHT OF WATER.  New York: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1599909677

Hesse, Karen. 2009. OUT OF THE DUST. Orlando, FL: Great Source. ISBN 978-0590371254


Burns, Elizabeth. Review: Inside Out and Back Again. November 1, 2011. (accessed February 21, 2014).

Kirkus Review. INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN. January 15, 2011. (accessed February 21, 2014).

Vardell, Sylvia M. CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN ACTION: A LIBRARIAN’S GUIDE. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Book Review: COMETS, STARS, THE MOON AND MARS: SPACE POEMS AND PAINTINGS written and Ill. by Douglas Florian


Florian, Douglas. 2007. COMETS, STARS, THE MOON AND MARS: SPACE POEMS AND PAINTINGS. New York: Harcourt. ISBN 978-015206625-3

COMETS, STARS, THE MOON AND MARS is a stunning mix of art, prose, and solar-system facts.  This middle-grade poetry book contains twenty playful poems about the universe and all its celestial bodies.  Douglas Florian takes readers on a whimsical journey from “Earth” (p. 1) to “The Great Beyond” (p. 45).  A “Galactic Glossary” of space terminology is included at the back of the book. In COMETS, STARS, THE MOON AND MARS, Flores merges humor, poetry, and art to make learning about our universe fun!

The poems in this book are simple and filed with scientific facts such as the phases of Earth’s moon, Jupiter’s 16 moons, and Venus’s extreme temperature.  Many of the poems in the book contain “cheeky humor” that keeps learning delightfully entertaining (Bruder 2007). Kirkus Reviews noted that the rhymes are “characteristically playful, wrapping itself around astronomical facts with ease” (Kirkus Review 2007).  For instance, this book contains humorous and fact-filled verses such as (p. 37): 


Pluto was a planet.

But now it doesn’t pass.

Pluto was a planet.

They say it’s lacking mass.

Pluto was a planet.

Pluto was admired.

Pluto was a planet

Till one day it got fired.

While most of Florian’s verse is playful and engaging, a few of the included poems “stumble on lumpy rhymes or fall flat” (Bruder 2007).  The mixed-media art and lighthearted language distract from awkward sounding verse when reading the book silently.  However, when the poems are read aloud the listener can hear the forced nature of some of the rhymes. This is unfortunate because children get more delight out of poetry when it is read silently AND aloud (Vardell 2008, 130).  Reading poetry aloud to children allows them to “develop their own oral fluency and understanding of language” (Vardell 2008, 130).

Enrichment Activities:

Florian plays with word spacing and form to merge the artwork in the poems.  For instance, the art and spiral text in the poem “A Galaxy” illustrates the varied shapes galaxies take (p. 10-11).


To enrich the lessons of this book, children can be asked to create their own mixed-media masterpiece using space facts.  They can create their own solar system using materials such as fabric, magazine pages, buttons, and so on.  If parents would like to expand on this creative theme, the website “Kids Astronomy” has a fun and free makes your own solar system game ( ).  Children can use this game to incorporate all the poems elements into their very own solar system.

What to Read Next:

Florian, Douglas. 2009. DINITHESAURUS: PREHISTORIC POEMS AND PAINTINGS. La Jolla, CA:  Beach Lane Books. ISBN 978-1416979784

Sklansky, Amy. 2012. OUT OF THIS WORLD: POEMS AND FACTS ABOUT SPACE.   New York:  Knopf Books. ISBN 978-0375864599


Bruder, Jessica. “Children’s Books: COMETS, STARS, THE MOON, AND MARS.” New York Times Sunday Book Review. June 3, 2007. (accessed February 19, 2014).

Kirkus Review. “COMETS, STARS, THE MOON, AND MARS: Space Poems and Paintings.” March 15, 2007. (accessed February 18, 2014).

Vardell, Sylvia M. CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN ACTION: A LIBRARIAN’S GUIDE. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Book Review: THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN written by Katherine Applegate and Ill. by Patricia Castelao


Applegate, Katherine. 2012. THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Ill. Patricia Castelao. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0061992254

The ONE AND ONLY IVAN is the bittersweet and beautiful middle-grade story of a gentle and artistic silverback gorilla named Ivan.  This book is a fictional narrative based on the true story of Ivan the gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo (Applegate 2013). The following picture of the real Ivan was taken from Katherine Applegate’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN website (

real ivan

At the story’s launch, Ivan inhabits his “domain” at Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade with his friends Stella the elephant and Bob the dog.  The animals in this menagerie live a lonely and solitary existence.   The overall emotional theme of loneliness and isolation is even evident in the book’s title, THE “ONEAND “ONLYIVAN.  Ivan spends his days staring at his TV, gazing out the window, and painting pictures that are sold in the mall gift shop.  While Ivan loves to listen to stories from Stella’s past, he has blocked memories own painful early history.  The animals live a monotonous existence until the day that the baby elephant names Ruby comes into their world.  A powerful promise, protective “Mighty Silverback” instincts, and abuse/neglect at the hands of his owner force Ivan to admit that his “domain” is really a cage.  He vows to change their situation and save baby Ruby.   He finally becomes, not just THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, but the silverback gorilla he was always meant to be.

This 2013 Newberry Award winning book is told in free verse from Ivan’s point of view.  Ivan tells his story, “in short, image-rich sentences and acute, sometimes humorous, observations that are all the more heartbreaking for their simple delivery” (Kirkus Review 2012).  The use of potent imagery and descriptive language, coupled with sparse sentence structure, seem to mimic animalist or “gorilla-like” thoughts.  The School Library Journal declared, “His thoughts are vast and complex but restrained (by choice, to a certain extent, and by nature itself)” (Bird 2012).  This lends a sense of realism to the story and the protagonist.

Enrichment Activities:

Verse novels, such as the ONE AND ONLY IVAN, are growing in popularity with the middle-grade and young-adult crowd (Vardell 2008, 116).   They are “a promising trend and a fun format for dramatic read aloud” (Vardell 2008, 116).  Moreover, this book is perfect for opening a discussion on the Western Lowland Gorilla and endangered animal conservation with children.  While the real Ivan has sadly passed away, the Atlanta Zoo has placed his biography, a short film, and a slideshow of pictures on their website ( ). Various facts about the Western Lowland Gorillas can be found on the National Geographic Kids website ( The World Wildlife Foundation website has endangered gorilla information about how we can help save these powerful creatures from extinction (  A trip to a local zoo to view this majestic animal could also help children make real world connections to this poignant fictional story.

What to Read Next:

Hoare, Ban. 2008. EYEWITNESS: ENDANGERED ANIMALS. New York: DK Publishing. ISBN 978-0756668839

Nichols, Michael & Elizabeth Carney. 2009. FACE TO FACE WITH GORILLAS. Des Moines, IA: National Geographic Children’s Books. ISBN 978-1426304064

Hartnett, Sonya.  2011. THE MIDNIGHT ZOO.  Ill. Andrea Offermann. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. ISBN 978-0763653392

Book Trailer:


Applegate, Katherine. “The Real Ivan.” THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. 2013. (accessed February 19, 2014).

Bird, Elizabeth. “Review of the Day: THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate.” School Library Journal. March 17, 2012. (accessed Febuary 18, 2014).

Kirkus Review. “THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN .” January 17, 2012. (accessed Feburary 18, 2014).

Vardell, Sylvia M. CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN ACTION: A LIBRARIAN’S GUIDE. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Book Review: THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY – written and illustrated by Simms Taback


Taback, Simms. 1997. THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY. New York: Viking Penguin. ISBN 978-0670869398

Simms Taback brings the classic folktale about a little old lady’s disturbing eating habits to new life in his modern retelling of THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY.  This tale includes the traditional cast of characters: fly, spider, bird, cat, dog, cow, and horse.  The story also follows its predictable conclusion (she died, of course).  However, the vibrant illustrations, interspersed additional facts, and witty animal commentary make Taback’s version of this story unique.

This Caldecott Honor book is gorgeously illustrated and includes a peek-a-boo die-cutout view of the Old Lady’s stomach as she munches her way through a menagerie.  The graphics in this retold tale are boldly colored and have “the look of a ransom note” (Kirkus Reviews 1997).  The distressed and “digested wide-eyed animals float in a confetti-dusted space (which matches her dress)” after being swallowed by the Old Lady (Publishers Weekly 1997).  The Old Lady takes on an increasingly large and humorously zany appearance as the story progresses.  A Publisher’s Weekly starred review stated, “everything about the elderly woman’s exterior is equally askew, including the pupils in her eyes” (Publishers Weekly 1997).


Enrichment Activities:

THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY is a popular rhyming tale that can be told orally in a familiar sing-song format.  The oral repetition of a familiar rhyme, read aloud from a storybook, “helps validate children’s experiences, connect written and oral expression, and invite active, physical participation” (Vardell 2008, 102).  The BBC website has a version of this traditional song, sung by Andy Day, freely available on their website ( Assist children to “explore neighborhood, cultural, and language variations” by translating this rhyme and song into differing dialects (Vardell 2008, 102).  For instance, the Spanish language version of this song can be found here:

If you would like to listen to a humorous Simms Taback singing version of this story, you can view the following video made by Jeff Seaver:

What to Read Next:

Taback, Simms. 1999. JOSEPH HAD A LITTLE OVERCOAT. New York: Viking Penguin. ISBN 978-0670878550

Pierce, Jason. 2012. THERE WAS AN OLD FLY WHO SWALLOWED A LADY. Bend, OR: 2Toad. ISBN 978-0985077310


Kirkus Reviews. 1997. “THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY.” September 15. Accessed February 9, 2014.

Publishers Weekly. 1997. “THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY.” September 1. Accessed February 9, 2014.

Vardell, Sylvia M. 2008. CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN ACTION: A LIBRARIAN’S GUIDE. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Leave a comment

Filed under Traditional Tales, Uncategorized

Book Review: THE RUNAWAY TORTILLA – written by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Randy Cecil


Kimmel, Eric A.. 2000. THE RUNAWAY TORTILLA. Ill. by Randy Cecil. New York: Winslow Press. ISBN 1-890817-18-X

Eric Kimmel puts a southwestern spin on the classic tale The Gingerbread Man in his book THE RUNAWAY TORTILLA. Tía Lupe and Tío José are the proud owners of the Texas taquería named El Papagayo Feliz.  The tortillas made at this taquaría are the lightest and fluffiest tortillas around.  One day, Tía Lupe made a tortilla so light that it jumped up and ran away! The clever tortilla made a mad dash across the Texas desert causing an eclectic mix of characters to pursue her.

Children will fall in love with this southwestern twisted take on the classic story The Gingerbread Man.  Cultural variants of traditional tales, such as THE RUNAWAY TORTILLA, allow children to “gain insight into the customs and values of many nations and cultures” (Vardell 2008, 94).  Moreover, telling familiar tales in several variant cultural formats allow children to “learn more about basic story elements, unique cultural marker, and their own personal responses” (Vardell 2008, 97).

The illustrations and text in this raucous caper fully represent the southwestern and Latino culture.  In this southern version of The Gingerbread Man, the tortilla races across a Texas desert “past horned toads, rattlesnakes, cowboys, and other pursuers” native to the southwestern landscape (Kirkus Review 2000).   The School Library Journal noted that “primitive oil paintings feature a palette of sunset colors” (School Library Journal 2000).  The illustrator, a native Texan, paints the pictures of this book in the traditional southwestern earthy/warm colors of yellow, red, orange, and green.  Moreover, the language is sprinkled with Spanish and southwestern language such as Senor/Senorita, taquaría, and arroyo.

Enrichment Activities:

There are many web-based activities that parents can utilize to supplement this fable.  The books publisher, Winslow Press, has several fun games, activities, and relevant fun facts on their site (   In the classroom setting, teachers can compare/contrast multiple versions of The Gingerbread Man to discuss point-of-view and different cultures.  For example, North East Independent School Library, in San Antonio, has a free compare/contrast group activity to be completed in a classroom or library setting (


What to Read Next:

Kimmel, Eric A.. 2009. THE THREE LITTLE TAMALES. Ill. by Valeria Docampo. New York: Two Lions. ISBN 978-0761455196

Nolte, Nancy. 2004. THE GINGERBREAD MAN. Ill. by Richard Scarry. New York: Golden Books. ISBN 978-0375825897


Kirkus Review. 2000. “THE RUNAWAY TORTILLA.” September 1. Accessed February 8, 2014.

School Library Journal. 2000. “THE RUNAWAY TORTILLA.” Amazon. Accessed February 8, 2014.

Vardell, Sylvia M. 2008. CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN ACTION: A LIBRARIAN’S GUIDE. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Leave a comment

Filed under Traditional Tales, Uncategorized

Book Review: THE TRUE STORY OF THE 3 LITTLE PIGS – written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith


Scieszka, Jon. 1989. THE TRUE STORY OF THE 3 LITTLE PIGS. Ill. by Lane Smith. New York: Viking Penguin. ISBN 0-670-82759-2

Do you know the classic tale of the Three Little Pigs? Jon Scieszka’s retelling of this common story, THE TRUE STORY OF THE 3 LITTLE PIGS, confirms that everything you know about the shocking events of that fateful day are wrong.  This book is tells the “true” tragic story of the three little pigs from the perpetrator’s (AKA- The Big Bad Wolf) point of view.   The misjudged and innocent Big Bad Wolf was framed!

This retold traditional tale is listed as #35 in the School Library Journal’s top 100 picture books of all time (Bird 2012). Younger children will enjoy this well written and illustrated picture book, however, it will be “less meaningful if they do not understand what is being parodied” (Vardell 2008, 85-86).   Kirkus Review mentions that middle grade children will easily understand this twisted tale’s lesson regarding the “unreliability of witnesses” (Kirkus Review 1989).  Older children will understand that the, “second view of the same events may yield a story that is entirely different from another but equally ‘true’” (Kirkus Review 1989).

Publisher’s Weekly remarked that the book’s “imaginative watercolors eschew realism, further updating the tale” (Publishers Weekly 1996).  The illustrations in this book compliment the text and visually assist in the telling of this narrative.  For instance, the wolf is drawn with an innocent and trusting expression while the small glances of the pigs’ faces illustrate an angry and fearsome demeanor.


Enrichment Activities:

There are many freely-accessible and pre-planned extension activities created to incorporate this book into a lesson plan or story-time.   Scholastic has many of these activities listed on their website at: This book is could also be used as a tool to teach children about point-of-view.  This could be accomplished by asking the children to write the story of Three Little Pigs from yet another character’s point of view. Bright Hub Education has a wonderful THE TRUE STORY OF THE 3 LITTLE PIGS lesson plan based around the concept of point-of-view (

A teacher could also guide children  in acting out their own dramatic theatrical production of this story.  Here is an example of a theatrical production of THE TRUE STORY OF THE 3 LITTLE PIGS produced by the Dallas Children’s Theater:

What to Read Next:

Scieszka, Jon. 1992. THE STINKY CHEESE MAN AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES. Ill. by Lane Smith. New York: Viking Penguin. ISBN 978-0670844876

Shaskan, Trisha Speed.  2011. SERIOUSLY, CINDERELLA IS SO ANNOYING!: THE STORY OF CINDERELLA AS TOLD BY THE WICKED STEPMOTHER (THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY). Ill. by Gerald Guerlais. Mankato, Minn.:  Picture Window Books. ISBN 9781404870482


Bird, Elizabeth. 2012. “Top 100 Picture Books #35: THE TRUE STORY OF THE 3 LITTLE PIGS by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith.” School Library Journal. June 1. Accessed Febuary 21, 2014.

Kirkus Review. 1989. “THE TRUE STORY OF THE 3 LITTLE PIGS.” August 15. Accessed Febuary 9, 2014.

Publishers Weekly. 1996. “THE TRUE STORY OF THE 3 LITTLE PIGS.” March 4. Accessed February 2014, 2014.

Vardell, Sylvia M. 2008. Children’s Literatue in Action: A Librarian’s Guide. Westport, CT: Libraies Unlimited.

Leave a comment

Filed under Traditional Tales, Uncategorized