Peppe the Lamplighter by Elisa Bartone

  • Title: Peppe the Lamplighter
  • Author: Elisa Bartone
  • Illustrator: Ted Lewin
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 1997
  • ISBN:0688154697
  • List Price: $6.99 (PB)
  • Page Count: 32
  • Age Range: 4-8
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Caldecott Honor book

Author information: Elisa Bartone does not have a website or much of an online presence. She has written two children’s books, Peppe and American Too. A variety of Google searches turned up no additional information about this author, such as interviews or biographical information. I was unable to even ascertain whether the author was still alive, but her most recent title was released in 1997.

Reviews: This title received positive reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly. All of these reviews comment on the moral and happy ending of the book as well as the depiction of the relationship between Peppe and his father. Although the reviews mention this, they primarily focus on the captivating artwork of the book. SLJ says the illustrations ” give a strong sense of time and place” and PW says that the artwork “exhibit[s] a cinematic sweep that proves quite remarkable”. All of the reviews agree that this is a beautiful and rich book.

Readers annotation: Peppe’s job may not be glamorous, but his heroic actions earn him the respect of his family and community.

Summary: Peppe is a young Italian immigrant who now lives in New York City. His father is ill and his mother dead, so he has to find a job to support his family. He asks for work at a variety of shops, but none can use his help. He eventually finds a job as a street lamplighter, but his father disapproves of the job. His father scolds him so much over his work that Peppe decides not to light the lamps one night because he is so sad and ashamed. Because he doesn’t light the lamps, his youngest sister gets lost in the dark, and his father begs him to go and light the lamps, and tells him that it’s a very important job. He finds his sister when he lights the lamps, and his family and his father are very proud of him.

Evaluation: The story of Peppe and his family is told with heart and the message of the book transcends its historical setting. Peppe’s relationship with his father is characterized as a strained one; it is clear that his father disapproves of his job because he had hoped for greater things for his son, but Peppe is hurt by his father’s lack of support and shame. The resolution at the end shows Peppe’s father acknowledging his mistake and telling his son how proud he is of him, which will warm the reader’s heart. Although the plot is well executed, the true strength of this book lies in its artwork. Each page is meticulously detailed and brings the story to life with its rendering of the garb and streets of 1900s New York. The illustrator also does an amazing job with his use of light; often the scenes are painted in dark colors other than the light of a streetlamp or house lamp, which helps set the tone of the story and makes light an important focal point of the narrative.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  4/5  The artwork is stunning and conveys a strong sense of place and time, and goes far in developing the tone of the book. The story is sweet and would lend itself well to discussion.
  • Popularity: 4/5 The story builds slowly, which may discourage readers who are interested in more action, but the book will satisfy those who want a quiet and heartwarming story.
  • Appeal factors: historical fiction, detailed illustrations, father-son relationships, happy ending, immigrant story.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Crow Call by Lois Lowry would be a good recommendation for readers who enjoyed the historical fiction aspect of Peppe as well as the child-father relationship it presented. Liz, the young protagonist, doesn’t know her father very well because he’s been away at WWII, so this story follows their attempts to reconnect.
  2. For those who would like to read more about the immigrant experience, Home at Last by Susan Middleton Elya might be a good fit. Although the setting is more contemporary than Peppe, this book still shows the struggle that many immigrants face when trying to adapt to a new culture.

Book talk ideas: The strength of this story is the illustrations, so I might take one of them and ask the audience to tell me everything they notice about the picture. We could talk about the clothing, the carriages, the lamps, the lights, and anything else they might notice. I would use this conversation to segue into a brief synopsis of the book’s plot, emphasizing the fact that Peppe is doing a job in order to support his family even though his father does not approve of his work.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why doesn’t Peppe’s father want him to be a lamplighter?
  2. Do you think Peppe and his father have a better relationship at the end of the book? Why?
  3. What images in the book let you know that the story takes place in the past? Which illustration is your favorite?

Reason for reading: This was one of the last picture books I read for this assignment. I had already read more than the required fifteen award winning picture books, but I was looking for titles that I felt I could say a lot about and that made me have a strong reaction, regardless of whether that reaction were positive or negative. I had intended to review one of the other books I had read for this project but just didn’t feel I had enough to say about any of those titles for a review of it to be productive, so I consulted more Caldecott lists to see if any titles struck me that I may have overlooked before. Peppe appealed to me because my grandfather, with whom I am very close, is a first generation Italian American, and the turn-of-the-century immigrant story is part of my family’s lore.

Additional information: Peppe the Lamplighter is loosely based on a story that the author heard about her grandfather. Her grandfather emigrated from Italy and eventually owned a chicken market in New York. The names of Peppe’s siblings are the real names of Bartone’s grandfather’s family.

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The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

  • Title: The First Part Last
  • Author: Angela Johnson
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2003
  • ISBN: 0689849222
  • List Price: $17.00
  • Page Count: 144
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: realistic fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Award winner; Coretta Scott King author award; more here.

Author information: Angela Johnson has written over 40 books and has won numerous awards for her writing, including three Coretta Scott King awards, the Ezra Jack Keats award for new authors, and a Printz award. Her books range from titles for early readers to works for young adults, and her website includes links to all of her titles organized by age group. Her website also includes biographical information about herself and a list of honors and awards that her works have received. In an interview with CCBC, Johnson talks about her books and her writing style. She discusses the challenges of getting into the head of an adolescent boy for The First Part Last and how the dynamic between Bobby and his friends represents the teenage male bond–Bobby’s friends are there for him and support him, but will crack a joke or say something mean when things get too serious in order to diffuse the tension.

Reviews: This title received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal. These reviews all suggest that the writing is the strength of the novel; Johnson uses spare sentences to construct her characters and narrative and evoke emotion. They agree that Bobby is a well-developed character and that the issues presented in this novel will resonate with young readers.

Readers annotation: Bobby is your typical sixteen year old boy–except now he has to take care of a baby.

Summary: On his sixteenth birthday, Bobby finds out he is going to be a father. In a narrative that alternates between the past and the present, Bobby explains both the events leading up to his daughter’s birth as well as how his life changes after. He and his baby’s mother, Nia, struggle with deciding whether to keep the baby or give it up for adoption as well as how to cope with having a baby when they are still teenagers themselves. Flashes of Bobby’s life after the birth of his daughter show him exhausted and sleep-deprived, uncertain whether he will be able to manage as a father. In spite of his self-doubt and exhaustion, he loves his daughter, and at the end of the novel, he tells Feather about her mother. Nia suffered from eclampsia when Feather was born and is now in a permanent coma. Bobby decides that he and Feather need a fresh start, so they  move to Heaven, Ohio to build their life together.

Evaluation: I appreciate many aspects of this novel, but I don’t know if it worked as a whole for me. The tone of the book was raw and real, and the immediacy of Bobby’s life and the despair he feels at being a child trying to raise a child is tangible. His voice is honest, and he alternates between being an innocent and naive sixteen year old and being a father who is shouldering a burden that he doesn’t know if he can bear, which seems like an accurate representation of teen parents. Readers will sympathize with Bobby’s plight and root for his success, and their hearts will break for him upon the obvious but tragic revelation that Nia is (essentially) dead. The narrative style of flashing between points in time works well and paints a solid picture of what Bobby’s life was like before and after the birth of Feather. The novel’s use of short chapters and flashes through time makes the story read quickly, but the narrative loses some strength of characterization regarding the secondary characters as well as provides an underdeveloped understanding of Bobby’s life and future plans. This is clearly a narrative choice as opposed to sloppy writing, but the novel left too many unanswered questions for me to really invest in what was happening. That, coupled with the predictability of the plot, were the major weaknesses of the text. However, this book will likely attract reluctant readers due to its short length, quick chapters, and relatable narrative.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  The language is beautiful and Bobby’s plight is sympathetic, but the plot is underdeveloped and predictable.
  • Popularity: 4/5 The short chapters and strong narrative voice is sure to attract readers, especially reluctant readers.
  • Appeal factors: urban fiction, teen pregnancy, coping with loss, African-American protagonist.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who want another book with emotional gravitas that deals with tough life experiences and features a non-white protagonist might try Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Although Alexie’s novel is more humorous than Johnson’s, the humor is biting and highlights the pain and injustice that the characters suffer, and Alexie delivers an emotional punch with his narrative.
  2. My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt might be a good fit for readers who are looking for another urban fiction title. While the main struggle in Johnson’s book is teen pregnancy, Leavitt focuses on drugs and the downward spiral that they can cause. Leavitt’s protagonist, like Bobby, finds herself trying to protect a younger and more vulnerable child from the harsh realities that she has to live through.

Book talk ideas: Perhaps start the book talk by asking the audience what differences they think there might be between a teenager’s life and a teenager with a baby’s life. Then read a chapter or passage from the book to highlight Bobby’s struggles–possibly one where he talks about his exhaustion or when he spends the night in the hospital with Feather. Then give a brief description of the book and talk about how it switches between past and present tense.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why do you think Bobby’s mother refuses to help with the baby? Do you agree with her decision?
  2. The author flips between the past and the present. Do you think this technique worked? How does it influence the way the story is told?
  3. Do you agree with Bobby’s choice to keep the baby? What would you have done?

Reason for reading: I’ve read fairly extensively when it comes to YA literature. It’s always been an area of interest of mine; last year I took a teen materials class for my degree and during fall semester I held an internship in the YA department of the Mill Valley Library. I made a conscious choice not to reread books I’ve already read for this project, because I feel there are so many valuable titles out there that I haven’t read that it would be a disservice to just reuse books I’m already familiar with. Johnson’s book is a title I probably never would have picked up outside this class. I don’t tend to gravitate towards urban fiction and the cover and book description didn’t do much in convincing me to read it. However, I thought it would be a great title to review precisely because it’s outside my comfort zone.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

  • Title: When You Reach Me
  • Author: Rebecca Stead
  • Publisher: Yearling
  • Year Published: 2009
  • ISBN:0375850864
  • List Price: $17.20
  • Page Count: 208
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: mystery/speculative fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Award winner; more here.

Author information: Rebecca Stead has written three books for young readers. Her website is clearly geared towards this young audience and features a huge visual component. Her website has links to information about all of her books, a biography, a link to her blog which includes information about upcoming appearances and what Stead is currently reading and doing, and a link to resources for teachers. Amazon has an interview with Stead in which she discusses her creative choices for When You Reach Me, such as setting the book in the 1970s, writing in short chapters, and the use of A Wrinkle in Time in the novel. One of her reasons for setting the book in the not-so-distant past is that she wanted her characters to have a level of autonomy that probably would no longer seem authentic in modern day New York City.

Reviews: This title received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Horn Book. The consensus among these reviews is that the plot is suspenseful and Stead does a fantastic job of keeping a high level of suspense while wrapping everything up in a satisfactory way at the end. Both PW and Horn Book suggest that this is the type of book a reader will want to start reading again immediately after finishing it, so that they can pick up on all the clues they may have missed. Booklist also compliments the rich characters Stead presents, saying, “the characters, children, and adults are honest bits of humanity no matter in what place or time their souls rest”.

Readers annotation: Miranda is receiving unusual notes from a mysterious stranger. But who are they from and what do they mean?

Summary: Miranda is a sixth grader who lives with her mother. Her best friend Sal gets punched in the face by Marcus, another boy, for seemingly no reason, and then Sal stops talking to Miranda. Miranda makes other friends, and even gets a job during her lunchtimes with them serving sandwiches. Although these seem like the ordinary occurrences of a middle schooler’s life, Miranda’s life is anything but normal. There is a strange laughing man who hangs out on the corner of her street and she keeps getting strange letters from somebody who seems to know a lot about her life. This all begins to make sense when Marcus, while trying to apologize to Sal for punching him, scares him into the street in oncoming traffic. The laughing man sacrifices his life to save Sal, and Miranda discovers that the laughing man is really a time-traveling Marcus who has come back to make things right.

Evaluation: The strength of this book lies in the subtle clues that are interwoven in the narrative that lead the reader to the surprise reveal at the end. Throughout the story, the reader knows that something strange is going on, but the conclusion will still be surprising to most readers. Miranda is a likable character, and even though she is dealing with some extraordinary situations, such as receiving mysterious notes and being at the center of a time travel rescue mission, she still has typical middle school problems. Her struggles to make friends and make sense of her collapsing friendship with Sal will resonate with young readers dealing with similar trials as they grow up and navigate school. The time travel twist at the end is set up expertly and supported throughout the story, making the ending reasonable and satisfying to readers. However, though I found this title to be enjoyable, I also found it to be one of the least memorable books I’ve read this semester. I think that it excels in being an entertaining and quick read that will engage readers, but it lacks enough substance to warrant re-reading (at least for me) and the details of the story are easily forgotten.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  3/5  An engaging and light read, with plenty of twists and a satisfying ending that readers will enjoy. Although it touches on more serious topics, like friendship, family relationships, race, responsibility, and fitting in, this title still seems to be more of a fluffy read.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Because of the mysterious plotline and the clues that are peppered throughout the narrative, readers will love trying to solve this mystery before the book ends. The characters are likable and the conclusion fits perfectly with the rest of the novel.
  • Appeal factors: time travel, friendships, mystery, speculative fiction.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who enjoyed this novel may also like Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This title is mentioned throughout Stead’s book, and takes a similarly scientific approach to time and dimension travel.
  2. Wonder by R. J. Palacio might be a good fit for readers who liked reading about Miranda’s struggles to make friends after being ignored by Sal. Palacio’s protagonist, Auggie, is physically deformed and has to deal with the difficulty of building relationships and being “normal” in spite of his looks.

Book talk ideas: I think the premise of this novel will really grab potential readers. Explain that Miranda is a typical middle school girl growing up in the 1970s in New York City, but she suddenly starts receiving urgent and mysterious notes from a stranger that seems to know a lot about her life. Talk about how this is a great book for those who like solving mysteries and that little clues are scattered throughout the book, leading to a surprising but satisfying conclusion that wraps everything up nicely.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What does this book suggest about relationships and making friends? Do you think Miranda’s relationships are stronger by the end of the book?
  2. In what ways does the author’s use of A Wrinkle in Time enhance the storyline? If you haven’t read it, what do you think this book might have to do with Stead’s story?
  3. Do you believe in time travel? If so, where are all the time travelers?
  4. What did you think of the ending? Were you satisfied?

Reason for reading: This title kept popping up on a variety of lists. Whenever I searched for “best Newbery winners” lists, I consistently found this book, so I decided I should read it. The descriptions of the plot were very vague, so I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into other than that a lot of people seemed to love this book.

A Splash of Red by Jen Bryant

  • Title: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin
  • Author: Jen Bryant
  • Illustrator: Melissa Sweet
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN:0375867120
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 40
  • Age Range: 5-8
  • Genre: biography
  • Award(s): Sibert Honor book; more here.

Author information: Jen Bryant has written more than a dozen books for children. Her website includes a photographic biography, a list of her published works, events at which she will be appearing, contests for giveaways, a link to her blog, information for teachers, a description of her writing process, and contact information. In an interview on her website, Bryant says she did not think about becoming a writer until she was 30 years old. She had just had a baby and wanted a career that would give her flexibility and allow her to spend more time with her family. Her number one tip to young people who aspire to be writers is to read: “read what you like, but also try to read books and magazines that challenge your intellect and your imagination”.

Reviews: This title received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and Kirkus. All of these reviews mention the mixed media illustrations that Sweet has created for this book, and how they give the title a “folksy” and “refreshing” feeling. Kirkus also mentions that “Bryant’s text is understated, letting Pippin’s frequent quotations glimmer along with the art”. Booklist calls this book “a well-structured narrative with recurring themes and a highly accessible style”.

Readers annotation: In spite of the obstacles, Horace Pippin knew he was meant to be an artist.

Summary: Horace Pippin drew pictures from a young age. He gave his artwork to friends and family members, who loved his pictures. Horace joined the army during World War I and kept drawing, but he was shot and lost the functionality in his right arm, which was the arm he used to draw. Although this could have stopped his art career forever, Horace slowly taught himself to paint by using his left hand to hold his right arm up, and he was able to make art once again. Slowly his artwork started being noticed, and his paintings were displayed in museums and galleries around the United States.

Evaluation: This book is fun to read and has a wonderful message. Bryant tells the story in an accessible and simple style that really allows the artwork and the Pippin quotes to be the main focus of the work. She highlights his determination and his perseverance in overcoming the obstacles that would prevent him from pursuing his passion. The quotes from Horace Pippin are peppered throughout the text and give the reader more insight into Pippin’s creative process and his character. The true delight of this book is the artwork. The illustrations are busy and crammed with different colors and textures, giving the reader the feeling that they are getting a glimpse directly into Pippin’s imagination. His creativity is at the heart of this story and the illustrations really highlight this fact. The book concludes with a brief historical note that gives the readers a more fact-based look at Horace Pippin’s life, and both the author and illustrator discuss their experiences creating this book. This gives the reader a stronger understanding of Pippin as well as adds a personal touch.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  4/5  The artwork and narrative are great, and the inclusion of Pippin’s quotes enhances the story. The colorful illustrations reflect the imaginative and creative personality of Horace Pippin.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Readers will be astounded by Pippin’s dedication to his craft and his desire to be an artist, even when it becomes difficult. They will also enjoy the fun illustrations, which will spark their own imaginations.
  • Appeal factors: biography, artists, African American protagonists, overcoming adversity.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport would be a great fit for readers who want to read another biography of an African American who triumphed over adversity. This book also includes quotes from MLK interspersed with the text, much as Bryant does in this title.
  2. Readers who want another biography about a famous artist may enjoy Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse by Marjorie Blain Parker. This book uses similar colorful and busy illustrations to represent the imagination of Henri Matisse.

Book talk ideas: This book is mostly about overcoming obstacles and the power of passion and imagination over difficulties. I would ask potential readers to think about a time in their lives when they ran into an obstacle and think about how they handled that. I would then ask them to imagine that they are a painter, but they hurt the hand they use to draw, and ask them how they would overcome that. This discussion would lead segue into talking about Horace Pippin and the fact that he still became a famous artist even though he had to overcome many difficulties along the way.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. How do the illustrations of the book contribute to the tone of the book?
  2. Which of the Horace Pippin quotes is your favorite? Why?
  3. What qualities did Horace Pippin have that made him successful?

Reason for reading: I read this book after I had already finalized my list of picture books that I was going to review for this class. I’ve been very interested in reading biographies lately, and I’ve also been trying to be more conscious of the imbalance between children’s books with white protagonists and those with main characters of color, so this title jumped out at me as a great read to satisfy both of these requirements. I was so captivated that I bumped one of the titles off my review list (sorry, David Weisner’s Tuesday) to make room to talk about this book.

Additional relevant information: This book has its own website which includes some great resources for teachers and parents. These include a discussion guide, links to websites with more information about Pippin, and photographs of pages of Horace Pippin’s WWI notebook, complete with illustrations. This would be a great resource for those who want to delve deeper into Horace Pippin’s life.

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik van Loon

  • Title: The Story of Mankind
  • Author: Hendrik van Loon
  • Publisher: H. Liveright
  • Year Published: 1921
  • ISBN:9780871401755
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 505
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: historical non-fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Medal Winner (first)

Author information: Hendrik van Loon was a journalist, historian and author who wrote over fifty books in his lifetime. The Story of Mankind was written at the behest of his publisher and van Loon completed it in two months. He won the first Newbery Medal for his efforts. Due to his journalistic work, he was banned from Nazi Germany when Hitler took power. More information about van Loon can be found here.

Reviews: Due to the age of the title, it was difficult to find reviews of the book. The Wall Street Journal and Kirkus both reviewed the ninth edition of this book, which published this past December (2013). Both reviewers comment upon the original work and its influence. Wall Street Journal sums up the purpose of Van Loon’s work thusly: “Van Loon was not pretending to be comprehensive but comprehensible, to give an account of human dynamism and progress so that young readers—he dedicated the book to his grandchildren—might share his enthusiasm for the intellectual wealth and ferment from which they spring. Adding gaiety to his already lively prose, again at the urging of his publisher, the author sprinkled black-and-white sketches throughout “The Story of Mankind” to give us glimpses of, among other things, Hannibal crossing the Alps, Luther translating the Bible and the Napoleonic army’s retreat from Moscow.”

Readers annotation: Everything you ever wanted to know about human history.

Summary: The premise of this book is that it is a concise history of mankind beginning with prehistoric times and ending with World War I, an event that had ended not long before this book was written. It goes through major milestones in Western Civilization, such as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power and subsequent fall, and the invention of the motor, to name a few. The author says that he focuses mainly on events that had significant bearing on contemporary American, which is one reason why the bulk of the book focuses on European events.

Evaluation: Although there is much to commend in this book, it likely will not appeal to the average young reader of today. Van Loon’s writing style is personable and friendly, reminding the reader of a kindly grandfather who sits you down to tell you stories about times past, peppered with asides and comments about his own life and ideas. For the time period, the book is remarkably well balanced; when I began reading it I expected there to be glaring inaccuracies or outdated information and biases, which I did not find. Van Loon begins the book with the concept of evolution, and discusses religious leaders and sects without seeming to favor one over another, and devoting the same amount of time to Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and Confucius. Of course, given the time period, there are moments of political incorrectness or unsettling thinking, but considering this book was written nearly 100 years ago, I expected it to be much worse. The author freely admits that he hasn’t given a comprehensive account of the history of mankind, having omitted the stories of Africa, Asia, and Australia almost entirely, but he justifies this decision by saying that his primary purpose was to highlight events that have strong bearing on the lives of American children at the time of the book’s publication. Certain subjects, such as the treatment of African Americans after the Civil War, are not discussed in any detail, but again, this book was published in 1921, when many significant civil rights events still had not taken place. He acknowledges his inability to properly discuss the effects World War I had on the world due to the fact that it was still too recent to understand the influence the war had, which is likely why his analysis of the events of the early 1900s lacks the same depth and conviction that his discussion of earlier time periods had. Overall, this is an enlightened and self-aware text that has wit and charm. However, both the length of the book and the density will likely dissuade modern readers from picking it up. Although each chapter is fairly short, the entire book is over 500 pages, and covers the whole history of civilization. It paints with broad strokes, so readers do not get a comprehensive and fulfilling look at any single time period, which can be discouraging. The narrative voice is genial but can also be dry, and this text may feel too much like a homework assignment to most readers. The artwork has a similar homespun charm to it, with each picture looking like something a relative might draw hastily on a napkin to punctuate a story, but these pictures can be confusing and the text is small and sometimes difficult to read. Excerpts from this book might be used in a classroom setting and receive a positive reaction, because the information in each chapter is easily digestible and can be taken out of context without suffering in quality, but any librarian or parent would find it challenging to find a modern audience for this book outside of scholars or those with a particular interest in Newbery Winners.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  Van Loon is a delightful storyteller and creates a mostly impartial narrative that spans millenia. The scope of the book is impressive, but because of its broad and scattered nature, it often loses momentum.
  • Popularity: 1/5 Although it is easy to see why this may have been popular at the time of publication, modern readers will find this title to be dry and lacking suspense or any driving force to keep them engaged.
  • Appeal factors: history of the world, first Newbery winner ever.

Read-alikes: Because of the scope of this tome, no other children’s titles feel appropriate to suggest as read-alikes. Rather, for children who enjoyed learning about the history of civilization, I would recommend the DK Eyewitness books, which is a series with a variety of titles on different time periods in human history. These books are complete with stunning photographs sure to capture the reader’s attention and they are full of interesting and odd facts.

Book talk ideas: This would be a tough book to convince young people to read. The best approach would be to tell them if they want to learn about the entire world and the history of everything, this book would be a great place to start. Then, if they find a subject or historical time period that really excites them, the library would be happy to provide suggestions that meet their interests. Overall though, this one is a tough sell.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. If you had to add a historical event to van Loon’s book, what would it be and why?
  2. In which of the time periods discussed would you most want to live? Why?
  3. How does the artwork impact the telling of the story?

Reason for reading: I really wanted to read this book for this class because I felt that reading the very first Newbery winner would give me insight into the award and help me see how its evolved over time. Although it took me quite a while to make it through the entire book (about half the semester, interrupted frequently by other reads), I think it was well worth my time. After finishing the book, it seems that the award originally placed more emphasis on didactic value and honoring books that were “good” for children in some way–in this case, Van Loon presents an informative and understandable account of all of civilization. This contrasts with more recent winners, such as Flora and Ulysses and The One and Only Ivan. Although these books do have great messages and strong themes about friendship, they seem less directly educational and more accessible. Both of these recent winners also use innovative narration techniques, such as Flora‘s integration of comics into the storytelling or Ivan’s short paragraphs told from the perspective of a gorilla. In The Story of Mankind, Van Loon is very present and addresses his audience directly, making it more difficult for the reader to become absorbed in the story and feeling much more like a school lesson.

Additional relevant information: This book has been updated many times, both by Van Loon and by his son, to include more up-to-date information. The most recent version covers events all the way up to the 1990s. The version I read was the original, so I cannot speak to how these updates have affected the integrity of the original text.

The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb

  • Title: The Nazi Hunters
  • Author: Neal Bascomb
  • Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 0545430992
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 256
  • Age Range: 12+
  • Genre: historical non-fiction
  • Award(s): YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction

Author information: Neal Bascomb has written several non-fiction titles for adults and teens. His website includes a brief biography of the author as well as a list of his titles. There’s also a link to Bascomb’s blog, where he discusses relevant information about his work, such as appearance dates and awards his titles have won. It does not appear to have been updated since 2010. His website also links to his Facebook page, which seems to be updated more frequently and serve a similar function as the defunct blog.

Reviews: This title received positive reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist. Both reviews commented on the thorough nature of Bascomb’s research as well as the finesse with which he blends fast-paced storytelling with significant historical events. SLJ commends how Bascomb rounds out the figures he presents in the narrative, saying that Bascomb “depicts Eichmann as more than just a soulless Nazi monster and target; he is also seen as a father and husband, giving this account some balance”.

Readers annotation: How far is one team willing to go to capture one of the most notorious war criminals of all time?

Summary: After World War II ended, Adolph Eichmann managed to evade the authorities and escape to Argentina, where he began a new life with his family under an assumed name. A blind man and his daughter are the first to believe that Eichmann might be more than he pretends to be, and their belief leads Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor himself, to open Eichmann’s case. Thus a plan to capture Eichmann begins to form. A team is created to take care of every detail of his capture, from forging necessary documents to physically catching him on his walk from the bus to his home after work. The team is successful in capturing Eichmann, but the plan does not go as smoothly as desired. Eichmann’s sons and other Nazi sympathizers try to locate Eichmann during a nerve-wracking few days in which the team must keep Eichmann hidden while also trying to convince him to go to Israel voluntarily. Eventually, Eichmann does agree and he’s smuggled out of Argentina on a special plane. Once in Israel, he stands trial, is convicted of crimes against humanity, and is hanged.

Evaluation: This book excelled at building suspense and keeping the reader’s attention throughout the story. Although this is a non-fiction title, it read like a spy thriller, a fact certain to please younger readers. The importance of Eichmann being brought to justice is highlighted, not only through Bascomb giving personal history of members of the team sent to capture him who lost friends and relatives due to Eichmann’s policies, but also by explaining why it was crucial to try him so that the younger generation would never forget the atrocities of the Holocaust. My one critique is that I wish this title had gone deeper into the events before and after the plot to capture Eichmann, such as a bit more detail about what Eichmann’s role was during the war as well as the testimonials at his trials and the worldwide reactions and ramifications it had. These subjects were discussed in the book, but not at the length it deserved, leaving those unfamiliar with Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust unclear about the details of his atrocities. However, I understand that a thorough look at Eichmann and the larger ramifications of his trial were not the main goal of this work (the title, Nazi Hunters, makes it clear that the emphasis of the book would be the hunting of Eichmann, and, indeed, never even mentions his name in the title) and overall this book was an entertaining and informative read that will appeal to a wide range of teens.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5  The pacing of the story is great, the details about and portrayals of the team who worked to capture Eichmann brought them alive, and the importance of Eichmann’s capture is made clear. More backstory on Eichmann and reactions to Israel’s secret plan to capture him would have strengthened this already solid read.
  • Popularity: 4/5 As mentioned in previous posts, this title may suffer in popularity due to the mere fact that it is non-fiction. Readers willing to try a non-fiction title will find much to love in this fast-paced and memorable title.
  • Appeal factors: spy plots, Nazis, narrative non-fiction, World War II, Holocaust.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who would like another title that is narrative non-fiction and focuses on the theme of achieving justice for a wronged group of people would enjoy Steve Sheinkin’s The Port Chicago 50. This book follows the explosion at Port Chicago and the trial of 50 African American sailors, and readers will find this book has much in common with Bascomb’s title.
  2. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is a good selection for readers who enjoy WWII stories. Although Wein’s narrative is fiction, it too looks at the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the courage of a small team of people in combating them.

Book talk ideas: World War II and Nazis are high interest topics, so start by giving a little bit of background on Eichmann’s role in the war and the fact that he escaped justice and fled to Argentina. Talk about how important it was to Israel and Holocaust survivors that war criminals be brought to justice, and then explain that when Eichmann’s location was discovered, a team was put together to do just that. Mention that the book is fast-paced, reads like a spy thriller, and has the benefit of being something that actually happened.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Bascomb highlights each team member’s relationship to the Holocaust. How do you think this influenced their approach to catching Eichmann?
  2. Do you have any sympathy for Eichmann? Why or why not?
  3. Do you agree that it was important to bring Eichmann to trial in Israel? For what reasons? Do you think this has had lasting ramifications?

Reason for reading: As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I have a particular interest in World War II books, both fiction and non-fiction. I think this is because that time period showed both the best and worst of humanity–people fighting for their beliefs, sacrificing themselves to save others, showing kindness in moments of despair or crisis, as well as depravity, cruelty, and dehumanization on an unparalleled scale. When this title won a YALSA award this year, I knew it was a book I wanted to read. I was especially intrigued by the story of how WWII criminals were hunted down and brought to justice years after the war had ended.

Additional relevant information: Among other information on his Facebook page, Bascomb posted a New York Times article from September 2013 about a 92 year old Nazi who was being tried for war crimes he committed during WWII. This shows that there is still an attempt today to bring Nazi war criminals to justice while they are still alive, and is a great modern connection that can be made with this title.

There Is a Bird on Your Head! by Mo Willems

  • Title: There Is a Bird on Your Head!
  • Author: Mo Willems
  • Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
  • Year Published: 2007
  • ISBN: 1423106865
  • List Price: $8.99
  • Page Count: 64
  • Age Range: 4-8
  • Genre: humor
  • Award(s): Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Winner; Charlotte Award Winner.

Author information: Mo Willems is a giant in the youth literature field. He has created beloved children’s characters such as Pigeon, Knuffle Bunny, and Elephant and Piggie, and his work has been honored with numerous awards. His website includes a link to FAQs, including a biography that mentions his work on Sesame Street, his artwork that has been displayed in galleries, and, of course, his written works. He also has a blog in which he posts whatever is important to him at the moment, such as new book releases, tour dates, or anything else that is on his mind. He also has a link to merchandise on his website, and it made me desperately want some Elephant and Piggie postcards. His website also includes links to games and other fun activities for children.

Reviews: It was difficult to locate reviews on this specific title, but the Elephant and Piggie series as a whole has garnered many positive reviews. Both Kirkus and School Library Journal mention the humor and wit of the series, and Kirkus also mentions the valuable lessons about friendship that these books teach. Booklist says these books are “accessible, appealing, and full of authentic emotions about what makes friendships tick”. School Library Journal named There Is a Bird on Your Head! as #60 on a list of top 100 picture books.

Readers annotation: Uh oh! Gerald has a bird on his head!

Summary: A bird lands on Gerald’s head. He doesn’t like it. Then a second bird lands. Then they build a nest. The birds hatch their eggs on Gerald’s head and the entire family continues to live there, much to Gerald’s chagrin and Piggie’s delight. Finally, Piggie suggests that if Gerald doesn’t want the birds on his head, he should just ask them to leave. He does, and they migrate to Piggie’s head.

Evaluation: This book is a delight. Gerald and Piggie are simply rendered characters, but their simplicity does not inhibit a wide range of emotions and expressions that convey their feelings to the reader. The plot is well executed, builds the silliness of the situation to a superb high note, and then resolves in a funny and satisfying way. The dynamic between Piggie and Gerald is classic and wonderful, with Piggie’s over-the-top enthusiasm balancing out Gerald’s frantic and worrywart nature. The dialogue between the two is rich with comedy, and adults may find themselves laughing just as much or more as the children they are reading this book with (I definitely laughed out loud a few times). This book holds up to multiple readings, and the reader will enjoy looking through it again and again.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This book is hilarious for readers of all ages. The artwork is simple and adorable, and the plot is clever and well-executed.
  • Popularity: 5/5 This is a perfect title for new readers. Children will delight in the increasing ridiculousness of Gerald’s situation, and they’ll enjoy the twist at the end. This book will keep kids laughing and make them want to read more books about this duo.
  • Appeal factors: Elephant and Piggie, humor, friendship, early reader, simple artwork.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Fans of Gerald and Piggie’s friendship may also enjoy reading Ten Things I Love About You by Daniel Kirk. His story also features two animal best friends in a silly situation.
  2. Of course, readers who enjoyed this book will also love Willems’ other Elephant and Piggie titles. There are currently 21 books in the series, with the most recent being My New Friend is So Fun!

Book talk ideas: Elephant and Piggie really need no introduction, but instead of talking specifically about this book, start by talking about the greater concept of the Elephant and Piggie books. Gerald and Piggie are two friends who are very different–Gerald is a worrywart and Piggie is a carefree optimist, but they are both loyal friends who care about each other and enjoy having fun together. In There Is a Bird on Your Head, we get to see how Gerald deals with the fact that a bird lands on his head, and we also get Piggie’s reactions to the situation. Tell readers it’s a great book to share with parents or friends, and that it is sure to have them laughing at Gerald and Piggie’s antics.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. How would you react if a bird landed on your head?
  2. Do you think you are more like Gerald or more like Piggie? Why?
  3. What did you think of the end of the story?

Reason for reading: I’m ashamed to say that I’d never read an Elephant and Piggie book before this semester. I’m a huge fan of Mo Willems–the Pigeon books and Edwina are some of the most delightful children’s titles I’ve encountered–but a lot of his other work was not familiar to me. After the class presentation on Mo Willems I went on a reading binge and checked out most of his titles. There Is a Bird on Your Head! was my introduction to Elephant and Piggie world, and after I read it I was hooked. I’ve since read all of the titles in the series, and I absolutely adore them.

Additional relevant information: Gerald was named after Mo Willems’ favorite singer. Elephant Gerald. Ella FitzGerald. Get it? It talks about that and his decision not to give Piggie a name (he says she’s too essentially Piggie to be called anything else) in this interview with Entertainment Weekly.