Thursday, April 24, 2008

"A mouse with a lioness's voice"

Exploring Multicultural Literature through Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan

Becoming Naomi Leon touched me in many ways and for many reasons. The first thing that stuck in my mind when reading this novel was the fact that Naomi and her brother, Owen, had just been dumped with their great-grandmother because their mother needed to "find her life." Then their mother, Skyla, waltzes back into their lives hoping to pick up where she left off... but only with Naomi. Since Owen was a FLK (funny looking kid), Skyla didn't want anything to do with him. She told the judge during the custody hearing that "he had so many problems that [she] never really connected with him" (118). Skyla even went so far as to slap Naomi and threaten to do something to Gram if Naomi didn't abide by Skyla's wishes.
It was also touching to see the care and the lengths that Gram went to in order to protect these children. She completely uprooted Baby Beluga and took her family to Oaxaca, Mexico to escape Skyla. The trouble she went through and work she did to make sure that Naomi and Owen were both taken care of was really touching. At 69 years old, it must be hard to work as much as Gram did altering dresses, plus taking care of two relatively young children. I was glad that she got temporary custody of the kids and then went to court to keep them away from Skyla and her boyfriend, Clive.

I really enjoyed the last part of the book. I've always been interested in Mexican and Hispanic culture. I loved reading about all of the traditions and rituals that take place the week before Christmas in Oaxaca. As Ryan says in the afterword, she has witnessed the festivities first-hand and that experience is evident in her descriptions. I don't think that the rich and detailed descriptions could have come from someone that had not been there to see the sights and smell the smells as she did. I've been in Latin America and a lot of what I noticed about the people there held true in this book also. I think that Ryan did an excellent job of presenting the Mexican people as a diverse group with a rich culture. The housing, the language, the attitudes, and the dress of the people in the book match up with my own experiences of Latin America. I feel like Ryan did not simply give them all sombreros and beer bottles; she gave them life, she gave them a culture that I know I would find if I traveled to Oaxaca. The houses with the large courtyards are very prominent throughout most of Latin America. As most of the people do not have large sums of money, most also have a garden in their courtyards. Many of the cities that I have traveled through also had the cobblestone streets, just as in the barrio in Oaxaca. Also it is very common for extended family members to live together, so it did not surprise me one bit that Graciela and her son still lived with Graciela's family. The food and the market are also cultural markers that I thought were very well represented.

Also, in this last section of the book, Naomi really comes into her own. She discovers her voice and stands up for what she believes in because she knows there are people who believe in her. This goes to show that having love and support can do a lot to help the development of a child.

Ryan seems have taken a lot of time to thoroughly research and experience the Mexican and Mexican-American cultures in order to write this book. As I stated earlier, Ryan says in her afterword that she has traveled throughout Mexico and attended festivities in Oaxaca. She writes with an insiders perspective as she has a background that is a "smorgasbord of Spanish, Mexican, Basque, Italian, and Oklahoman." She was even raised in Southern California. I think her own personal ethnicity and background provide her with an excellent springboard for writing about the Mexican culture. Nothing I read reminded me of the Mexican stereotypes that are so common in our society. The Mexicans were presented as hard-working, dedicated, and intelligent people. Unfortunately, many people in the American society believe that Mexicans are sombero-wearing, bean-eating, lazy people. By showing that Mexicans are much, much more than a stereotype, Ryan has created a work that teaches about a culture and creates appreciation for Mexico and its people. Here are some pictures that show the extravagant sculptures that the Mexican people create in the Noche de los Rabanos.

I loved that Ryan added Spanish phrases into the text. This added language provides an extra bit of authenticity to the novel. When Naomi and her family arrive in Mexico, they are introduced to the city by the Spanish names of places; la basilica, el zocalo, el mercado. Naomi herself, even picks up a little Spanish and says "gracias" many times. There are a few times where non-Spanish speakers might get lost had Ryan not thought to add explanations for the Spanish terms as if the explanation were directed toward Naomi.
Overall I'd have to say that I really liked this book. Ryan did an excellent job of representing the Mexican culture within the context of a realistic story. There are a lot of children in this country and around the world who do not have a traditional family, yet as this story shows, family is not necessarily defined by a mother, a father, a brother, and a sister. As long as you belong somewhere and you are loved, you have a family.

Monday, April 14, 2008


My Favorite Poem that I've read so far:
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
By Roald Dahl
from a Poetry Anthology, Once Upon a Poem
Published 2004 by The Chicken House

This famous wicked little tale
Should never have been put on sale.
It is a mystery to me
Why loving parents cannot see
That this is actually a book
About a brazen little crook.
Had I the chance I wouldn't fail
To clap young Goldilocks in jail.
Now just imagine how you'd feel
If you had cooked a lovely meal,
Delicious porridge, steaming hot,
Fresh coffee in the coffee-pot
With maybe toast and marmalade,
The table beautifully laid,
One place for you and one for dad,
Another for your little lad.
Then dad cries, "Golly-gosh! Gee-whizz!
"Oh cripes! How HOT this porridge is!
"Let's take a walk along the street
"Untile it's cool enough to eat."
He adds, " An early morning stroll
"Is good for people on the whole.
"It makes your appetite improve
"It also helps your bowels to move."
No proper wife would dare to question
Such a sensible suggestion,
Above all not at breakfast-time
When men are seldom at their prime.

No sooner are you down the road
Than Goldilocks, that little toad,
That nosey thieving little louse,
Coming sneaking in your empty house.
She looks around. She quickly notes
Three bowls brimful of porridge oats.
And while still standing on her feet,
She grabs a spoon and starts to eat.
I say again, how would you feel
If you had made this lovely meal
And some delinquent little tot
Broke in and gobbled up the lot?
But wait! That's not the worst of it!
Now comes the most distressing bit.
You are of course a houseproud wife,
And all your happy married life
You have collected lovely things,
Like gilded cherubs wearing wings,
And furniture by Chippendale
Bought at some famous auction sale.
But your most special valued treasure,
The piece that gives you endless pleasure,
Is one small children's dining-chair,
Elizabethan, very rare.
It is in fact your joy and pride,
Passed down to you on grandma's side.
But Goldilocks, like many freaks,
Does not appreciate antiques.
She doesn't care, she doesn't mind,
And now she plonks her fat behind
Upon this dainty precious chair,
And crunch! It busts beyond repair.
A nice girl would at once exclaim,
'Oh dear! Oh heavens! What a shame!'
Not Goldie. She begins to swear.
She bellows, 'What a lousy chair!'
And uses one disgusting word
That luckily you've never heard.
(I dare not write it, even hint it.
Nobody would ever print it.)
You'd think by now this little skunk
Would have the sense to do a bunk.
But no. I very much regret
She hasn't nearly finished yet.
Deciding she would like a rest,
She says, 'Let's see which bed is best.'
Upstairs she goes and tries all three.
(Here comes the next catastrophe.)
Most educated people choose
To rid themselves of socks and shoes
Before they clamber into bed.
But Goldie didn't give a shred.
Her filthy shoes were thick with grime,
And mud and mush and slush and slime.
Worse still, upon the heel of one
Was something that a dog had done.
I say once more, what would you think
If all this horrid dirt and stink
Was smeared upon your eiderdown
By this revolting little clown?
(The famous story has no clues
To show the girl removed her shoes.)
Oh, what a tale of crime on crime!
Let's check it for a second time

Crime One, the prosecution's case:
She breaks and enters someone's place

Crime Two, the prosecutor notes:
She steals a bowl of porridge oats

Crime Three: She breaks a precious chair
Belonging to the Baby Bear.

Crime Four: She smears each spotless sheet
With filthy messes from her feet.

A judge would say without a blink,
'Ten years hard labour in the clink!'
But in the book, as you will see,
The little beast gets off scot-free,
While tiny children near and far
Shout, 'Goody-good! Hooray! Hurrah!'
'Poor darling Goldilocks!' they say,
'Thank goodness that she got away!'
Myself, I think I'd rather send
Young Goldie to a sticky end.
'Oh daddy!' cried the Baby Bear,
'My porridge gone! It isn't fair!'
'Then go upstairs,' the Big Bear said,
'Your porridge is upon the bed.
'But as it's inside mademoiselle,
'You'll have to eat her up as well.'

I laughed through most of this poem. I never knew that Roald Dahl wrote poems! As I was reading the poem, I kept disliking Goldilocks more and more! Dahl is right! When you read the fairy tale, you are thinking about poor little Goldilocks, most people don't stop and think of how the bears must have felt to come home and find that someone had broken into their house and eaten their porridge and slept in their beds. I love the way that Dahl talks to the reader, reminding the reader to put his or herself in the place of the mother bear. Just how would you feel if someone had broken into your house and broken your most prized possession and ruined your family's breakfast and sheets?? After reading the story of Goldilocks as told this way, I think that Goldilocks deserves to be eaten up! Dahl really makes Goldilocks out to be a little brat. He adds so many extra details that really liven up the story: there is dog poo on Goldilocks' shoe, an Elizabethan chair, and more.

Dahl makes definite use of rhyme and rhythm in this poem. The rhyme and rhythm work together to provide a fast-paced reading, the same pace as someone who is telling you a story that makes them mad! I know when I'm upset about something and I just can't believe it's happened, I tend to talk a little faster than normal. His word choice is also outstanding. I can't believe the number of synonyms for brat that Dahl was able to come up with and use as if they were part of normal, every-day speech. This version of Goldilocks also gives us a little different view of the events. If we just read the traditional fairy tale, we don't see how things look from the bears' point of view. Luckily for us, Roald Dahl is able to change that for us! While I wouldn't exactly call it profound insight, this poem shows us a Goldilocks that is different from the one we're used to. It's important that we teach our children to think about how others will perceive our actions and to look at both sides of a story before making a judgment.

This poem would be great for a unit on traditional literature. Children love reading things that put things in a new perspective. Reading this poem would allow them to get a little bit of "blood and guts" into a relatively sugar-coated unit (unless of course you include the Grimm Brothers). As I mentioned before, this poem is also great for teaching about perspective. I would have students re-write some of their favorite fairy tales from a different character's point of view; for example, how does the wolf feel about things in Little Red Riding Hood? Obviously this poem, along with many others, is great for teaching about rhyme and rhythm.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Mirror of Erised

The Mirror of Erised shows what your heart most deeply desires at the moment you look at it. It's no accident that "Erised" is desire spelled backwards. Harry was able to see his family when he first found the mirror. Later, when he is fighting Professor Quirrell to save the Sorcerer's Stone, the mirror is what enables him to do it. He desires to have the Sorcerer's Stone just to have it, and not use it, that the Stone magically appears in his pocket. This shows that good overcomes evil and that if your intentions are pure and your desires are strong enough, there is really no limit to seeing your desires realized.

If I were to look into the Mirror of Erised, I think that I would see myself in a few years, happily married with kids. I really want to be married and have kids and for all of us to be extremely happy. If there were a way to photoshop a teacher ID into that picture, I'd have that there too. I really want to be an ESL teacher, it doesn't even really matter what age group.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Reader Response

A. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
B. J. K. Rowling
C. n/a
D. Scholastic Inc., 1998
E. novel, fantasy
F. 5-9

G. After Harry Potter's parents are killed when Harry is a baby, he is sent to live with the only relatives he has, the Dursleys. He is treated awfully; he spends most of his time under a cubbard and is denied the most basic of childhood joys. One day an own arrives telling Harry that he is a warlock and has been invited to enroll in Hogwarts, a school for witches and warlocks. There, he is sorted into the Gryffindor house. He is a natural at quidditch and is chosen to be the seeker as a first year (practically unheard of!). While he is there, he learns that there is something amiss. He knows that the Sorcerer's Stone is being hidden in a highly guarded corridor and there is someone very evil seeking to find it. He finds out as many details as possible and the book ends with him defeating Professor Quirrell and keeping the Sorcerer's Stone out of the wrong hands.

H. I'm so very glad I gave Harry Potter a second chance. The first time I went to read Harry Potter (about 6-7 years ago) I didn't care for it a whole lot. I really can't remember why. Rowling does an excellent job of using imagery to really bring the reader into Hogwarts and take the reader on the adventures with Harry. Especially at the end, I felt as though there were vines grabbing my legs, real-life chess players shouting at me telling me what to do, and a sharp pain in my own forehead. Even the decorations in the Great Hall were described in so much detail that you can't help but feel as though you're there. It's just amazing to think that the whole Harry Potter series was started as a scratched out note on a napkin.
There are so many themes in Harry Potter, it's hard to know where to start when talking about them. The main theme is clearly good versus evil. It was surprising to me how good and evil were portrayed in this book. A lot of times in children's literature (and often in adult literature, too) it's very easy to pick the "good guy" and the "bad guy." However, I never would have guessed that Professor Quirrell would be the one trying to steal the Sorcerer's Stone and trying to kill Harry. I thought it was Professor Snape right up until the end. I also liked how the love that Harry embodies was what was hurting Professor Quirrell. I would have never thought to make love a weapon like that. That shows that love is a very powerful force and can overcome a lot of the evils in the world. Harry Potter also shows that you should not be quick to judge people. In the beginning, Ron and Harry formed a sort of alliance again Hermoine, yet she proved to be one of the most valuable allies they could have had in facing the dilemmas they faced, like choosing the correct bottle of potion to drink when three of the choices could kill you. Professor Snape may have disliked Harry but he was the one trying to save Harry as Professor Quirrell tried to kill him with a jinxing spell during the Quidditch match.

I. I could see a lot science experiments coming from this books. Like the links provided, owl pellets are a fascinating way to learn about owls. I remember dissecting owl pellets in fifth grade and getting a nearly complete mouse skeleton. Also, like Harry did in his potions class, I'm sure a class would love to mix chemicals (or ingredients) together in a big cauldron (bowl) to make something to eat or use (like brownies or playdoh). That would teach ratios and measurement. This book is also good to teach about loyalty and the epic struggle of good versus evil. Students could discuss other books they've read that show good versus evil and how the characters in book overcame evil.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Year of the Dog Reader Response

A. The Year of the Dog
B. Grace Lin
C. n/a
D. Little, Brown and Company, 2006
E. novel, realistic fiction
F. 4-8
G. The Year of the Dog is based loosely on Grace Lin's own life. It begins one year at the Chinese New Year, kicking off the Year of the Dog. This was supposed to be a lucky year for Grace, according to the Chinese calendar; this held true. Grace grew up in a largely caucasian neighborhood and was the only Asian girl at her school (besides her sister) until Melody Ling showed up. The two immediately became best friends; they did a science fair project together, spent the night at each other's houses, and were practically inseparable. As part of the Year of the Dog, Grace was supposed to find herself and find her talent. Thanks to a book-writing competition, in which Grace won 4th place, she discovered that she has a talent for writing and illustrating books. The book concludes at the next Chinese New Year with Grace deciding that she's proud to be Asian-American and that the Year of the Dog really was lucky for her.
H. After reading the author's note, I was not surprised to find that Grace Lin had written this book based largely on her own life and her own experiences. In the book, Grace talks about everything with such detail that it really does seem as if Grace, the author, was there to experience everything. I was impressed with the level of detail given to the Chinese New Year festivities and traditions. I'm not very familiar at all with the Chinese culture and after reading this book, I feel like I have a little bit better understanding. I absolutely love that Grace went into so much detail about her family and included stories from her parents and grandparents. The italicized stories really made the novel seem even more real to me. Those stories reminded me of times when I would be at family gatherings and a relative would say, "Hey, did I ever tell you about the time..."
Grace's anxiety about her ethnicity is also something very important that a lot of readers need to witness. As Grace says in her author's note, "What was I? We celebrated Chinese New Year, my parents spoke Taiwanese to our relatives, and we had chocolate M&Ms on the table. It was this constant whirling of East and West that spun the threads of my identity." This statement is very personal to me and very relevant to the lives of a lot of the people in this country. My own roommate has gone through a similar journey of finding herself. While she grew up in an area that had a lot of Hmong people, there were still people who made her feel self-conscious about her ethnicity. But finally she decided that she was Hmong-American and proud of it.
Included in the author's note is Grace Lin's Website which lists all of her books but also tells which parts of The Year of the Dog are actually true facts from her life and which are not.
I. This book is a good introduction into Eastern cultures. I would encourage my students to do culture studies based on a non-Western culture group. I feel that too often our education is based on Western culture and our students do not get enough exposure to non-Western groups. I would try to create a Chinese New Year for the students with as much authenticity as possible (hopefully with the help of Chinese community members if at all possible). I would also encourage students to think about what they think of themselves. This book is not just about culture, but about accepting your own culture.


Hush Reader Response

A. Hush
B. Jacqueline Woodson
C. n/c
D. Scholastic Inc., 2002
E. novel, realistic fiction
F. 6-8
G. Hush is the story of a middle school age girl who lives in Denver, Colorado. Her father, a Denver policeman, witnesses the unjust murder of an African-American boy, killed by two of his fellow policemen. After a while, Toswiah's father decides to speak out against the murder. The family receives a lot of death threats and enters the witness relocation program. They are moved far away from their home in Denver and must take on new names. Toswiah, now Evie, struggles to accept what has happened and how this "punishment" is a just consequence for doing the right thing. Evie takes up track and does very well at it. Over time, she begins to accept her new destiny, saying that maybe God came up with a better plan for her life so she had to start over again. She says, "I think in the middle of everything, God changed His mind. And maybe, just maybe, came up with a better idea... My life is a rewrite. I hope this is the last revision" (180).
H. Wow. What a powerful story. I can't even imagine how Toswiah/ Evie and her family must have felt when they were taken out of their lives suddenly during the middle of the night and redeposited in a place far away, denied any contact with their old life, save a few vague letters to and from Grandma. It seems like such an undeserved consequence for doing the right thing, for speaking out for a life that was taken just because the boy was the wrong color. Toswiah and her family are victims just as much as the murdered boy; they both had their lives taken away from them without cause. The hatred that the family faced as a result of Toswiah's father doing the right thing astounded me. It saddens me that this kind of ignorance and hatred isn't just something that we find in books either. Like in Rosa, these people were persecuted based on the color of their skin; they broke no laws.
Because the author let us inside of Toswiah's head to witness her innermost thoughts, I felt completely connected to her. I felt as if I almost knew her. Woodson's descriptions of the expressions and actions of the characters made them really come to life, as if Toswiah's father were just in the next room staring out a window, or her mother were sitting at my kitchen table studying her Bible. This truly is a great work of realistic fiction because I know that there are families who have been relocated through the Witness Protection Program and the events of this story are completely believable. Woodson makes the story so real.
My favorite part of the book was the very end. I love the way that Toswiah finally comes to terms with her new life. The way she calls her life a "rewrite" gives me a little sense of hope. If she can come away from this situation with a new outlook on life, then there is nothing that anyone can face that can't be overcome. She shows such strength at the end, such hope. Her simile comparing her life to a play where God said "Cut!" right in the middle stuck out to me. I've heard of life being a stage but just the way she says it makes it take on a slightly different meaning; it's more innocent and heartfelt.
I. Hush teaches many great lessons. First, there is the lesson of racism. The boy was murdered because he happened to be black. Then, because of Toswiah's father witnessing the crime and speaking out about it, his blackness becomes a sort of stigma where it had never been an issue before. Secondly, this is a great book to teach about accepting your situation and working to overcome it. Toswiah had everything taken away from her and yet was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. One could also delve into the Witness Protection Agency and research to see what all it does and how it works. As with Rosa, I think this book would be great for looking at instances when one should "rock the boat." I would have students think of those instances and share them with the class. I would also have students do an activity like what we did with Aleutian Sparrow. I would have each student make a list of what/who they would take with them if they were forced to leave their homes. After the lists are made, I would have each student to tear the list up and tell them that they only get a few generic clothes and their immediate family; that's it.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Skin I'm In Reader Response

A. The Skin I'm In
B. Sharon G. Flake
C. n/a
D. Scholastic Inc., 1998
E. novel, realistic fiction
F. 6-8
G. The Skin I'm In begins with the main character Maleeka, a seventh-grade African-American girl, meeting her new teacher Miss Saunders for the first time. Both Miss Saunders and Maleeka have a kind of beauty that most people don't recognize; Miss Saunders has a large white "stain" across her face and Maleeka is blacker than black. As the school year goes on, Maleeka comes to realize that her blackness is nothing to be ashamed of; as she says "black is the skin I'm in." Maleeka is faced with a lot of the problems that most adolescents face: she struggles to fit in and as a result forms a sort of alliance with some of the "mean girls" at the school. The leader, Charlese, treats everyone terribly and gets Maleeka into trouble on more than one occasion. Finally, Charlese decides that she and Maleeka, along with two other girls, will get revenge on Miss Saunders by destroying her classroom. Maleeka is the only one who is punished for the offense until she has enough courage to stand up for herself and tell the truth about who all was involved.
H. I really got into this book. Even though I'm not African-American myself, I could easily put myself in Maleeka's shoes. I was always one of the smart kids as I went through school and that in itself is enough to bring bullying upon oneself. I also dressed differently than a lot of the kids and I wasn't allowed to do what a lot of my peers were doing at certain ages. Maleeka was such an excellent character; I wish I had had this book to read when I was going through middle school. She shows the raw emotions that everyone feels at that stage in their life and she has this great epiphany at the end that shows that there is no need to be ashamed of who you are. Caleb even shows that no matter what you look like, as long as you are a good person, there will always be someone who cares about you.
Maleeka was exceptionally poetic. Her diaries about Akeelma were powerful. It was great how she used her diaries as an outlet for all the emotions she was feeling about Charlese, Caleb, John-John, and her own thoughts about herself. I was very glad to see that she won the competition. I can't imagine another middle schooler having the imagination and the diction to write such beautiful compositions. I felt like her work was better than a lot of adult writers.
Maleeka also showed how to deal with the death of a parent which is so important. I thought it was moving when she went through the box of things that her mother had kept after her father passed away. That poem was a great statement of the love between a father and daughter and of the pride that Maleeka should have in herself. However, I did feel really bad for Maleeka's mother. She lost her love when her husband died and it took her a long time to heal from it. At least she found an outlet (sewing) to bring her out of her grief and to start her on the path to healing.
I. This book is a fantastic book for teaching to love who you are. Every single person, no matter who, has self-doubts from time to time either about the way they dress, how they look, the way they talk, etc. As an activity for this book, I would have students each tape a piece of computer paper to their backs. Every student would be given a marker and would have to write something nice on the back of every other student in the class. Once everyone has written on everyone else, the students will remove the piece of paper and read what was written about them. I did this activity as a freshman Teaching Fellow and it really makes you feel good about yourself and a little less sensitive about those things that you don't really like about yourself.

*Coretta Scott King Award Recipient*