The Spider and the Fly illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi

  • Title: The Spider and the Fly
  • Author: Mary Howitt
  • Illustrator: Tony DiTerlizzi
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2002
  • ISBN: 0689852894
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 40
  • Age Range: 4-8
  • Genre: poem
  • Award(s): Caldecott Honor Book; see more here.

Author information: Tony DiTerlizzi has written books for children of all ages, and is well known for his collaboration with Holly Black on The Spiderwick Chronicles. His website is quite busy and full of information that fans will enjoy. The homepage showcases a featured video, featured galleries of DiTerlizzi’s artwork, upcoming book releases, and the most recent entries in his blog. His website also has an extensive biographical section, with a personal biography, FAQ pages about his life and work, and transcipts from interviews he’s given to a variety of publications. There are also links to his complete blog, art galleries and sketchbooks, his YouTube channel, and bibliographic information.

Reviews: Booklist, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly all gave this book good reviews. They all agreed that the monochromatic artwork and the panels with text presented as if it is a silent movie caption are darkly humorous and a perfect companion to the original poem. Kirkus also gave it a positive review, saying, “The illustrations embrace the primness of the poem—the wide-eyed fly is the very picture of a bygone innocence—but introduce a wealth of detail that adds a thick layer of humor.”

Readers annotation: The Fly knows better, but can she resist the Spider’s temptations?

Summary: This classic poem depicts the Spider trying to lure the Fly into his web so he can eat her. He promises her a variety of delights if she will step into his parlor, from a warm bed to enticing treats from his pantry. She refuses, but finally the temptation proves to be too much for her and she gives in, only to be eaten by the Spider.

Evaluation: DiTerlizzi’s illustration style for this book is superb. He uses black and white illustrations that mimic the look of an old silent film, with the Fly dressed up as a the leading lady and the Spider as the stereotypical 1920s villain. This artwork refreshes a classic poem in a way that makes it feel relevant again, and adds suspense and drama in a way that the original is lacking. Because of the artwork, I was actually surprised at the ending, because, in true silent movie fashion, I had expected that the villain would be thwarted. DiTerlizzi acknowledges this in an afterword, reminding readers that the story is about a spider and a fly and there really is only one way for the story to end. DiTerlizzi’s humor shines through in his illustrations with the inclusion of ghost bugs and spiders with sinister mustaches, which will appeal not only to children, but also the adults who read with them.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 The artwork is unique and refreshing, and abounds with details that enhance the poem and keep readers engaged. Because of the attention to detail, the book holds up under multiple readings, as children and adults alike will discover new layers each time they look at the illustrations.
  • Popularity4/5  Readers who enjoy dark humor or dramatic illustrations will fall in love with this book, as will fans of poetry and rhymes with a more modern bent. This book may not appeal to readers who are squeamish or frighten easily, as the artwork is eerie and the Fly does get eaten in the end.
  • Appeal factors: cinematic artwork, dark humor, anthropomorphic animals, and poetry.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  Once Upon a Twice, written by Denise Doyen and illustrated by Barry Moser, would be a good recommendation for readers who liked that the story was in verse and appreciated the moral at the end. Once features a mouse who disobeys the warnings of his elders and goes adventuring at night, and shows the consequences of his actions. As with The Spider and the Fly, the illustrations help set the tone of the poem with pale mice against a dark background.
  2.  Readers who want more stories about mischievous spiders might enjoy Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott. Although this story is not as sinister as DiTerlizzi’s, it still features a spider character who is a notorious trickster.

Book talk ideas: Ask if anybody has heard the original poem. Give them a brief overview of the plot and then ask them what they imagine this story would look like, or how they would draw the characters, and then show them a picture and ask them how it matches their expectation. Alternately, start with an image from the book and ask the children what they think is happening in it, and what they think will happen in the rest of the story based on what is going on in that picture.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  •  Did you expect the Spider to eat the Fly?
  • How do the illustrations in the book enhance the poem? Would you have drawn it differently if you were the illustrator?
  • What is the moral of this story?

Reason for reading: I saw the cover of this book and the black and white illustrations really captured me. I was unfamiliar with DiTerlizzi’s work and probably would have overlooked this book if I had just seen the title on a Caldecott list, but when I was searching Amazon for good award-winning reads, the picture of the cover came up and I immediately wanted to check it out.

Additional relevant information: Mary Howitt originally published this poem in 1829 and its first verse is among the most quoted first verses in all of poetry. Lewis Carroll parodied it in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the form of the “Lobster Quadrille”.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

  • Title: Code Name Verity
  • Author: Elizabeth Wein
  • Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
  • Year Published: 2012
  • ISBN: 1423152883
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 352
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book, Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards Honor Book, Golden Kite Award Honor Book, Shortlisted for the 2013 CILIP Carnegie Award

Author information: Wein has written many books for young adults, but until Code Name Verity, her YA books were set in Arthurian England. Her website can be found here, and it includes biographical information, tour and appearance dates, bibliographic information, and a link to her blog that talks about her work and her daily life. Huffington Post conducted an interview with Wein in which she discusses her process of writing Code Name Verity, books that have inspired her work, and upcoming projects.

Reviews: Code Name Verity is one of only six books in 2012 that received starred reviews from all six major publications for youth (The Horn Book, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books), Kirkus called it “unforgettable and wrenching”, and all the reviews highlighted the strong narrative voice and the compelling, twisting plot that keeps readers engaged.

Readers annotation: A plane crashes over Nazi-occupied Germany. Two best friends are inside. Can they survive?

Summary: “Verity” (real name Julie) is an Allied spy who is captured by Nazis when her plane crashes in Germany. Her Nazi captors force her to write her story to reveal important military secrets, so she writes about her past, from meeting and befriending a female pilot named Maddie, to the events that led her to the Nazis. Interwoven with this story of the past is the story of what is happening to her as a prisoner of the Nazis, who threaten and torture her. The second half of the novel is told by Julie’s best friend Maddie, who was also with her in the plane when it crashed. Maddie tries to save Julie from prison, and it is quickly revealed that much of Julie’s written confession in the first half of the novel is full of lies to trick the Nazis. Maddie’s attempts at rescue take a torturous turn at the end of the novel when, in order to spare Julie from further torture, she honors her request for death by shooting her.

Evaluation: From the first sentence of this book (“I am a coward.”), I was hooked. The narrative voice of the first half of the novel is believable and sympathetic, alternating between raw confessions of Julie’s personal failings, tortured confessions of military secrets, and musings on her life before the war. The complexity of Julie’s character only deepens in the second half of the novel when the reader realizes that most of what she said was untrue. Readers will find themselves invested in Julie and Maddie as if they were real people, not just characters in a novel. The historical detail enriches the novel and makes the setting come alive, and the themes explored in the book linger long after it has reached its conclusion.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 The plotline is compelling and the narrative voice is stunning. Both Julie and Maddie are fully realized characters who the reader will fall in love with, and the prose will make readers want to pick this book up and reread it many times.
  • Popularity4/5  It pains me to give this anything less than the 5 I feel it so rightly deserves, but as much as it will captivate any reader who picks it up, it may not appeal to some male readers due to the fact that both protagonists are female.
  • Appeal factors: Dual narrators, blurred lines between truth and lies and hero and villain, and girls flying planes and just generally being bada$$ are all strong draws that make this a book you don’t want to put down.

Read-alikes: 

  1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak would be a good fit for readers who enjoyed the WWII setting and the unique narrative perspective. The Book Thief, narrated by Death, follows a complex female character that may appeal to readers who loved Maddie and Julie.
  2.  Readers who want another title that deals with the horrors of war as well as the theme of honesty and lies may like Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down. This novel is based on a true story and looks at the Cambodian genocide, so could be a good recommendation for readers with a more serious bent.

Book talk ideas: It’s very hard to improve upon the copy written on the cover of this book (see reason for reading section below), so lead with that. Emphasize the themes of friendship, sacrifice, and truth, and what those might mean in a context where human life is on the line.  Potentially include an excerpt (maybe of Julie’s list of things she’s afraid of) to give potential readers an idea of the narrative voice and draw them in.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • “I have told the truth.” How much of Julie’s story do you believe? Maddie’s?
  • How did the shift between narrators enhance the book? How would it have been different if the story had only been told by one of the girls?
  • Is Anna Engel a hero or a villain? Somewhere in between?
  • Were you satisfied with the way the book ended?

Reason for reading: I really enjoy reading about World War II, whether in a fiction or non-fiction capacity. I think the entire range of the human experience can be found in WWII, from the greatest stories of triumph to depictions of the basest, cruelest parts of human nature. Because I’ve read quite a bit in this genre, I was very interested in the perspective this book offered–two young, female protagonists who took an active role in the war against Germany. Plus, it’s difficult to turn away from a book with jacket copy like this: Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

Additional relevant information: Wein has her pilot’s license, which is one reason why Maddie’s experience is so believable. Wein is following Code Name Verity with the recently released Rose Under Fire, which is also about a female flyer in WWII. She is captured by Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. The character of Maddie is revisited in this novel, and the book received positive reviews.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

  • Title: Grandpa Green
  • Author: Lane Smith
  • Publisher: Roaring Book Press
  • Year Published: 2011
  • ISBN: 1596436077
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 32
  • Age Range: 4-8 yrs
  • Genre: fiction
  • Award(s): Caldecott Honor book; full list available here.

Author information: Lane Smith has authored and illustrated many books for children, including many award winners. His website can be found here. The website includes a biography of the author, links videos as well as his books, artwork, contact information, and a charming list of FAQs. In response to a question about the appropriateness of his books, he responded, “I do not know your child. But I will say I do not subscribe to the notion that every book is for every child. I make the kinds of books that I liked as a kid. I don’t like ordinary, middle-of-the-road books. I like funny, odd books that excite and challenge a child. There are enough people doing nice books about manners and feelings and magical unicorns. I do not do those kinds of books.” This statement gives insight into Lane’s creative choices as well as his decision to tackle complex themes in an unusual way in Grandpa Green.

Reviews: Grandpa Green  received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, as well as positive reviews from Kirkus and Booklist. Kirkus commented that “though this book has lots of adult appeal, it will also be a wonderful bridge to exploring family history with the very young.” Many reviews mention that the book is playful but heartfelt, and PW points out that it reveals a much softer side of Smith than many of his other works.

Readers annotation: Grandpa Green has a garden that tells his life story.

Summary: Grandpa Green is a gardener who preserves the memories of his life in the shape of topiaries that he shapes and cares for. His young grandson uses these hedges to walk the reader through the story of Grandpa Green’s life, from his childhood on a farm to his first kiss to going off to war and getting married. The narrator ends by saying that he loves his grandfather very much, and although his grandfather’s memory is fading, because of his garden he will always remember the important things that have happened to him.

Evaluation: The story of Grandpa Green is touching and combines a sense of playfulness with heavier themes of love, family and memory. The artwork is imaginative and fun–from the narrator stealing a kiss from one of the shrubs to the chicken pox topiary that was full of red fruits. This visual feast culminates in a two-page fold-out spread that shows the garden in its entirety, allowing readers to revisit all of the images they’ve seen as well as reminding them that these are the important moments in the life of this one man. This book is poignant and tender and will be as much of a joy for parents as for the children for whom this book is intended.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 The artwork in the book is delightful and holds up under numerous reads. The fold-out pages in which the reader can see the entire garden is a huge treat and ties the story together, and Smith adds depth to an otherwise light-hearted story with mentions of the war and Grandpa Green’s memory loss.
  • Popularity4/5  Each stage of Grandpa Green’s life is accompanied by a matching topiary, which will engage readers and keep them excited to dicover what other shapes these shrubs will take on. Some readers may feel there isn’t enough action in the story and may gravitate to books that are heavier in plot.
  • Appeal factors: Whimsical artwork, bright colors, unique method of storytelling, grandfather/grandson relationships, themes of memory and the meaning of a full life.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who appreciated the relationship between the narrator and his grandpa as well as the themes of memory loss and preservation of memories may like Little Mama Forgets by Robin Cruise. This book focuses on a girl and her grandmother and how they teach each other and share memories.
  2. The Animal Hedge by Paul Fleischman could be a good fit for readers who liked the fanciful use of hedges as a way of storytelling. Rather than being used to reflect on the past, the hedges in this story point each character towards their future and their hearts’ desires.

Book talk ideas: Talk about how Grandpa Green turns his memories into topiaries, so that his entire garden tells his life story. Ask kids what topiaries would be in their garden if they were to build one, and ask what other ways we have of keeping track of our memories. Potentially point out one or two of the topiaries in the book to illustrate this point.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • Which of Grandpa Green’s topiaries is your favorite?
  • How do you think the narrator feels about his grandpa?
  • What would be in your garden if you made topiaries out of your memories?

Reason for reading: This book may be one of the most fortuitous finds all semester, because I had no intention of ever picking it up. I had a huge list of Caldecott Honor and Winner books that I wanted to check out, but many of them were not on the shelf and I had to request them. Because I wanted to bring some books home with me that night, I just pulled up the whole Caldecott list of titles on my phone and searched the shelves to see which were available. Grandpa Green was on the shelf, and without any knowledge of the book, I took it home (and loved it).

Additional relevant information: Lane Smith collaborated on The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs with Jon Scieszka. The former was a Caldecott Honor book, and both demonstrate Smith’s quirky humor and desire to create odd books. Both were favorites of mine as a child.

The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

  • Title: The Cricket in Times Square
  • Author: George Selden
  • Illustrator: Garth Williams
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Year Published: 1960
  • ISBN: 0374316503
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 144
  • Age Range: 8-12 yrs
  • Genre: fiction; animal fantasy
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor;
    American Library Association Notable Children’s Books; Horn Book Magazine Fanfare List

Author information: A short biography of George Selden can be found on the Macmillan website. Selden was the author of fifteen books and two plays, many of which continued to follow the adventures of Chester, Tucker, and their friends. A Cricket in Times Square was also made into an animated movie. Selden died in 1989.

Reviews: School Library Journal gave this book a starred review, and The Horn Book also gave it a positive review. Both reviews mention the whimsy and fun of the novel. Excerpts from both of these can be found on the Macmillan website. Unfortunately, due to the age of the title, it was difficult to find other reviews from the time period during which the book was released, but a recent blog post from SLJ included it on a list of the top 100 children’s novels.

Readers annotation: A little creature can make a big difference, even if he’s just a small cricket in New York City.

Summary: Chester Cricket has lived his entire life in the country, until he accidentally ends up on a bus that brings him into the heart of New York City. In Times Square, Chester meets Tucker, a mouse, and Harry, a cat, who help him adjust to life in the big city. Chester is taken in by a human boy, Mario, who feeds him and gets him a cage to live in. Mario’s family is poor and runs an unsuccessful newsstand in the subway station. In an attempt to repay Mario’s kindness, Chester begins to give concerts in the subway station, drawing huge audiences and making the family newsstand a financial success. Although he loves his new friends and has enjoyed his time in New York, Chester decides to return back to the country where he belongs.

Evaluation: Overall, this is a charming book with a few major problems for contemporary audiences. The characters are well-developed and sympathetic and the setting of Times Square provides a colorful backdrop for the antics of the characters. The illustrations by Garth Williams complement the storytelling effectively and make the story come to life while still allowing readers to fill in the blanks with their own imagination. The main concern with this book is in regard to the portrayal of Chinese characters. Both Sai Fong and his friend speak in a stereotypical dialect that transposes all of their “r”s into “l”s, among other things. There are also several uncomfortable mentions about Chinese food and customs that have not aged well and make the book appear more racist than the author probably intended. Both Chinese characters are kind and helpful to Mario, signalling that the author likely had good intentions when writing the book, but the racism cannot be ignored.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  While the plot and themes of friendship are still relevant to today’s readers, the dialect of the Chinese characters and racist undertones cannot be ignored, and make this an unsettling and often uncomfortable read.
  • Popularity4/5  In spite of its problematic portions, readers will enjoy the sticky situations Chester and his friends get into as well as the way Selden combines the human world with the animal world.  The characters all have unique personalities and Selden describes them in such detail that it becomes easy to develop a picture of them in your mind. Some readers may not like Chester’s decision to leave the city at the end of the novel, but assurances that there are sequels may mitigate this point.
  • Appeal factors: Anthropomorphic animals, New York City setting, themes of friendship, colorful characters.

Read-alikes: 

  1. The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary could be a good suggestion for readers who enjoyed Selden’s anthropomorphic animals and themes of friendship. Those who liked the relationship between Chester and Mario will feel similarly about Ralph and Keith.
  2. For readers who liked the idea of a hidden side of New York City, The Borrowers by Mary Norton may be a good fit. The Clock family are tiny people who live in the floors of an English manor, and their lifestyle and relationship with the larger world of humans will remind readers of Chester and his friends.

Book talk ideas: Start by asking if anybody has been to New York and giving some perspective on the size of New York and Times Square vs. the size of a cricket. Talk about some of the adventures and mishaps Chester has, such as eating the $2 bill or nearly setting the newsstand on fire. Maybe also play some audio clips of crickets and have readers share their thoughts.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • Do you think Tucker is a good friend? What are some of his good qualities? His bad qualities?
  • Would you trade being famous for being happy?
  • Do you think that the characters are happier at the end of the book than they were in the beginning?

Reason for reading: My roommate is a fourth and fifth grade teacher and she read this book aloud to her students during the fall because they were doing a unit about crickets. When I saw this title on the Newbery list, I decided to read this for the project because I know firsthand that it’s still being used in classrooms and is still getting a positive response from children.

Additional relevant information: When my roommate read this book aloud, she modified the language of the Chinese characters so that they no longer spoke in the racist dialect that appears in the book. Without modification, this could be a problematic novel to share with children, and it may be hard to recommend to readers without first explaining to them or their parents about the dated depiction of Chinese characters.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

  • Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
  • Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2012
  • ISBN: 1442408928
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 368
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: realistic fiction, LGBT literature, romance
  • Award(s): Stonewall Book Award; Printz Honor; Pura Belpre Author Award; see entire list here.

Author information: Benjamin Alire Saenz is a poet, novelist, and anthologist who has written books for children, teenagers, and adults. A short biography of the author can be found on Simon & Schuster’s website. School Library Journal interviewed Saenz last year about his inspiration for Aristotle and Dante, how his experiences helped shape the story, and his current projects. The interview is available here

Reviews: Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus all gave this book starred reviews. All three reviews mention Saenz’s masterful storytelling and narrative skill, and they all agree that the relationships within the novel are explored with honesty and compassion. PW calls the book “a tender, honest exploration of identity and sexuality, and a passionate reminder that love—whether romantic or familial—should be open, free, and without shame”.

Readers annotation: Aristotle and Dante don’t have much in common, but when they become best friends, they realize how similar they really are.

Summary: Aristotle and Dante are both loners—Dante is a gay, unflaggingly optimistic know-it-all who loves philosophy and isn’t afraid to cry, and Aristotle is an angry and self-deprecating boy who will (literally) throw himself in front of a moving vehicle to protect the people he loves. Aristotle and Dante improbably become best friends one summer and discuss books, growing up Mexican-American, and their hopes and fears. Ari spends time with Dante’s family, who have a “no-secrets” rule which contrasts sharply with the unspoken secrets in his own home–his older brother is in prison, and his father is haunted by his experiences in the Vietnam war. When Ari’s family moves to Chicago, Dante tells Ari that he loves him, which forces Ari to question whether his feelings for Dante go beyond friendship. When Dante is beaten up and hospitalized for being gay, Ari can no longer deny that he is in love with Dante.

Evaluation: This novel is very tenderly written and has a compelling narrative voice that teenagers, gay or straight, will relate to. The story does a good job exploring the intricacies of friendship as well as dealing with self-hate and anger, and the happy ending sends a positive message that things really do get better. The relationship between Ari and his parents is also a strength of the novel; Saenz does a great job of depicting a loving parent-child relationship that is also flawed and plagued by secrets. The richness of the prose and the dialogue will keep readers riveted and make this novel a page-turner in spite of the fact that it is slower paced than other YA titles.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  The writing in this novel is gripping and beautiful, and elevates the story to a higher level. The plot examines what it is like to be different, both culturally and because of your sexual preference, but these examinations avoid being trite or preachy and they feel authentic. Saenz crafts a believable friendship and romance between these two characters, and the tension in the novel builds naturally to a satisfying conclusion.
  • Popularity4/5  Saenz’s prose will captivate readers and the relationship between Aristotle and Dante is realistic and thoughtfully portrayed. Readers who are uncomfortable with homosexuality may find the content of this book objectionable, but open-minded and unprejudiced readers will enjoy seeing Dante and Ari’s relationship unfold. Readers who picked up the novel believing it would be a story about friendship may be disappointed if they don’t enjoy romance novels.
  • Appeal factors: LGBT interest, strong narrative voice, coming-of-age novels, Mexican-American perspective, lyrical writing.

Read-alikes: 

  1. David Levithan’s books could be a good fit for readers interested in LGBT themes. His works, including Boy Meets Boy and his collaborative novel with John Green, Will Grayson, Will Grayson highlight romantic relationships between gay teens and questions of identity and acceptance.
  2. Readers who enjoyed Aristotle and Dante  because of the unique narrative perspective may enjoy The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This novel is told by a Native American teen who struggles with his identity and growing up outside of the societal norm.

Book talk ideas: Talk about Dante and Aristotle both being outcasts and not having a lot of friends, and how meeting each others helps them both realize new things about themselves and the world around them. Also focus on the strong relationships between characters in the book–Dante and Ari, Ari and his parents, Dante and his parents. Another important thing to mention would be the LGBT themes and the struggles that Dante especially faces in terms of bullying and violence. To make this talk interactive, ask potential readers if they’ve ever been victims of bullying, or mention that this novel is set in the 1980s and ask if they think Dante would be subjected to the same treatment today.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • Ari and Dante seem like polar opposites. Why do they become friends? What traits attract them to the other, and are they really as different as they initially seem?
  • Why do Ari’s parents refuse to talk about Bernardo? How does this impact Ari’s relationship with them?
  • Although Ari and Dante are both the main characters of the novel, the book is told from Ari’s perspective. Why do you think the author made this choice?

Reason for reading: Although there’s an old adage warning us against judging a book by its cover, I have to say that the cover is what initially attracted my attention and made me pick this book up. The summary of the book did not reveal the fact that this was in many ways a love story–I thought it would be about two boys and their friendship and coming of age. I appreciated that I didn’t know this information when I started reading the book, because I felt like I came to the realization with Dante, making for a more immersive reading experience. I also wanted to read this book because the protagonists were Mexican-American, which I felt would be an interesting perspective and one that I’m not familiar with.

Additional relevant information: In the School Library Journal interview mentioned above, Saenz says that it was an honor to receive the Stonewall Book Award, the Pura Belpre Award, and the Printz Honor, because he feels like he belongs to all three of those communities and felt validated by recognition from each of them. He also discusses his choice to include supportive adults in this novel as well as philosophizes on the importance of father/son relationships, a theme he explores in another of his YA titles, He Forgot to Say Goodbye.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson

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  • Title: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party
  • Author: M. T. Anderson
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Year Published: 2008
  • ISBN: 0763636797
  • List Price: $11.99 (paperback)
  • Page Count: 384
  • Age Range: 13+ yrs
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book; National Book Award Winner; School Library Journal’s Best Book of the Year; Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Outstanding Book Award Honorable Mention; complete list available here.

Author information: M. T. Anderson has written many books for young adults and children, notably the Octavian Nothing saga and the stand-alone novel, Feed. His website can be found here, but it is slow to load due to heavy visuals. On his site, readers can find a biography of the author, a list of his titles, links to lectures and interviews Anderson has given, a link to his blog, and a list of upcoming author events.

Reviews: Booklist and School Library Journal both gave this novel a starred review, citing its powerful themes of freedom and struggle as well as its use of historical facts to give the readers a clear picture of the time and place in which the book occurs. Both reviews mention that it can be challenging and take some time to acclimate to the novel’s storytelling format, but they did not think this detracted from the overall strength of the novel. These reviews, as well as excerpts from others, can be found on Amazon.com.

Readers annotation: How far is Octavian Nothing willing to go to get his freedom?

Summary: To Octavian Nothing, it’s normal to weigh his feces every day, live in a home where people answer to numbers rather than names, and receive a classical education in the arts and sciences. But after his mother is almost raped, his life changes with the discovery that he’s a slave and an experiment to see if Africans and Caucasians are of the same species. This realization leads Octavian to question his identity and future. Under the harsh ownership of Mr. Sharpe, Octavian is tormented and forced to work until his owners host a pox party that changes his life again. His mother dies and he attempts escape, which takes him into the heart of the American Revolution.

Evaluation: Written in a colonial style and from multiple perspectives, this novel looks at America’s early and often ugly history through the eyes of a young slave. Although the style can be challenging, readers who are willing to make the effort will become absorbed in Octavian’s world, which Anderson expertly crafts by blending historical fiction and speculative fiction in an innovative way.  Readers can relate to Octavian, despite the differences in time period and circumstances, because fundamentally he is just a teenager who is trying to discover his place in the world and cope with the loss of his innocence. The book does leave many unanswered questions, which could potentially frustrate readers who do not want to invest in a sequel, but those who find Octavian’s story compelling will be eager to read the next book. Ultimately, Octavian forces readers to examine their preconceptions of the world and explore the themes of injustice, loyalty, and freedom.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This novel is wonderfully executed and the use of a variety of formats, such as a first person narrative as well as letters from secondary characters gives the book an authenticity and truly places it in the per-Revolutionary War era. Anderson also does a masterful job of blending different genres in this novel to create something fresh and compelling.
  • Popularity: 2/5  The technical strength of this book–its historically accurate voice–is also the main deterrent for readers. Many teenagers will not be willing to put in the effort required to adapt to the language and will end up putting it down before the storyline has a chance to grab them.
  • Appeal factors: The character of Octavian Nothing is sympathetic and easy to relate to, even in spite of the differences between his character and modern readers. This book will also appeal to lovers of historical fiction, fans of Anderson’s other works, and readers looking for a book with strong African-American characters.

Read-alikes: 

  1. The Monstrumologist by Richard Yancey could be a good fit for readers who enjoyed Octavian Nothing. Both books rely on period language to create a believable and immersive setting, and both books depict the darker side of scientific experimentation.
  2. Those who want to read more about the slavery experience during the Revolutionary War would enjoy Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains. Although this book is intended for a slightly younger audience than Octavian Nothing, it examines similar themes of sacrifice, freedom, and courage.

Book talk ideas: “At long last, you may no longer distinguish what binds you from what is you.” Imagine being the subject of a experiment meant to prove that you and people like you are inferior. Imagine having the only life you’ve ever known taken away from you, and imagine that in order to survive, you have to run. An option to make this book talk interactive would be to ask teens to define concepts such as “injustice” or “courage”.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • Why do you think Anderson uses a variety of formats to tell this story? What is the impact of the pages that are almost entirely scratched out after the death of his mother?
  • Is evil black and white in this novel?
  • What struggles do you think Octavian would face today?

Reason for reading: When I was an undergraduate student, I took a class about children’s literature and read M.T. Anderson’s Feed. I really enjoyed that novel and have been meaning to read more of his work, and this class was the perfect opportunity. I also wanted to choose a novel that had a non-white protagonist, because I feel like many award-winners, intentionally or not, feature white characters and I wanted to have an award-winner under my belt so that I could hopefully recommend it to readers in the future.

Additional relevant information: This book is the first of two following the life of Octavian Nothing. The second, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves, also won a Printz Honor.

Fables by Arnold Lobel

  • Title: Fables
  • Author: Arnold Lobel
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 1980
  • ISBN: 0064430464
  • List Price: $6.99 (pb)
  • Page Count: 48
  • Age Range: 4-8 yrs
  • Genre: fable
  • Award(s): Caldecott Medal Winner; ALA Notable Children’s Book; Library of Congress Children’s Book; New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year

Author information: Arnold Lobel was the author or illustrator of over one hundred children’s books. He is best remembered for his iconic Frog and Toad series, the first of which received a Caldecott Honor. He died in 1987. A very short biography is available at HarperCollins.

Reader’s Annotation: Have you ever seen a camel in ballet shoes or a wolf disguised as an apple tree?

Reviews: Kirkus reviewed Fables in 1980 and said that it lacked depth and subtlety: “there’s not a jot of wit, wisdom, style, or originality in these 20 flat and predictable items”. Unfortunately, due to the age of the title, no other reviews were accessible.

Summary: Arnold Lobel brings his original fables to life with his entertaining humor and eye-catching illustrations. Each of the twenty fables is one page long and includes a moral lesson as well as a full page illustration. These fables use anthropomorphic animals who find themselves in a variety of wacky situations, such as a bear who is convinced by a crow to go into town wearing a frying pan on his head and a pelican with atrocious table manners.

Evaluation: Lobel’s playful take on the fables genre is a treat to read. Each tale showed the animal characters in bizarre scenarios that entertain the reader and the artwork is hilarious and a joy to look at. Most of the morals are appropriate for the target age group, but some of them are weak, such as “when the need is strong, there are those who will believe anything” or “a locked door is very likely to discourage temptation.” The reader will forgive Lobel for morals that miss the mark, however, due to the delightful nature of the rest of the book. The page-long fables are a great length for a quick read before bed and children can revisit their favorites out of order without worrying about disrupting narrative consistency.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  Lobel’s fables masterfully combine the traditional story/moral format of Aesop, but his original fables bear his trademark humor and heart. The illustrations are rich and do not lose their luster after multiple readings.
  • Popularity4/5  These fables are quirky and the accompanying artwork is sure to spark the imaginations of young readers. Because the fables are concise, they allow readers to consume them all at once or over time according to the readers’ preferences and abilities. Readers may feel that the morals are confusing or preachy, but Lobel’s tongue-in-cheek humor makes sure they do not seem overly condescending.
  • Appeal factors: Short format, unique artwork, anthropomorphic animals in unusual and strange situations.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who enjoy the fable format would probably like Aesop’s Fables, retold and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. With lush pictures and a combination of stories both familiar and new, this volume will enthrall fans of Lobel’s book.
  2. Fans of Lobel’s artwork may be interested in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, with poems compiled by Jack Prelutsky and illustrations by Arnold Lobel. The pictures have Lobel’s signature humor and whimsy, and the brevity of the poems will appeal to readers who appreciated the short format of the fables.

Book talk ideas: Focus on the outrageous and humorous illustrations by showing a picture and asking children to make up a story about it. After that’s done, read Lobel’s fable and moral, and briefly discuss what they think it means or if they’ve been in a situation that’s relevant. Let them know that the fable they just heard is only one of twenty zany and original fables they can find in the book.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • What is your favorite fable Lobel tells? Why?
  • Make up your own fable and give it a moral.

Reason for reading: I’m a member of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and every year they present an exhibit on a significant children’s book author or illustrator (who is Jewish), and this year the author was Arnold Lobel. After seeing the exhibit in January, I bought a few of his books, including Fables, from the gift shop, so it seemed natural to include a review of this title for this project. I very much admire Lobel’s wit and whimsy, and have read his work extensively after seeing the CJM exhibit.

Additional relevant information: The Lobel exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum runs until March 23rd, 2013. This exhibit had a variety of interactive stations for young children, such as a spot where they could sit down and write a postcard to a friend (as Frog does for Toad in one book), or create a wacky bird (such as the ones found in The Ice-Cream Cone Coot and Other Rare Birds). These activities would translate well to a library setting, possibly as a craft to pair with a storytime reading of some of Lobel’s books. Reviews and critical reception of the CJM exhibit can be found here and here.