June 2, 2014

The New Girl . . . and Me by Jacqui Robbins, illustrated by Matt Phelan

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 1:07 am by suebe2

The New Girl . . . and MeThe New Girl . . . and Me
by Jacqui Robbins
illustrated by Matt Phelan
A Richard Jackson Book/Atheneum

When the new girl comes to class, the teacher says to make her feel at home.  Mia isn’t sure what that means but she’s pretty sure home doesn’t involve having a room full of kids stare at you while one kid calls you names.  When she introduced herself to the class, Shakeeta said that she had a pet iguana and Mia wants to hear all about this unknown animal, right up until Shakeeta threatens to punch the name caller if he doesn’t leave her alone.

Mia tries to find out about iguanas on her own, all the while keeping an eye on Shakeeta who clearly still doesn’t feel at home.  When they are both sitting on the bench while the others play soccer, Mia works up the nerve to speak to the new girl and soon they are laughing and talking about iguanas, which aren’t as big as scary dragons, and soon the two are on their way to becoming friends.

Lately, I’ve found a string of books that teach without preaching and this is another.  Robbins has written a book all about bullying but she never uses that word.  She just shows kids being kids.

Matt Phelan’s watercolors are light and airy and keep the story from being weighty and dark.  Even the iguana looks a bit sillier than they really do with a slight smile.  But the illustrations and the text pair together perfectly to create a story that is true, although it is fiction, in that it is so real but is simultaneously approachable.

This book should be in every classroom library and is an excellent choice for reading aloud and story times.  It makes a great jumping off point for discussions on acceptance and friendship and just being kind.

Some adults will be alarmed that no adult steps in at any point — not when the name calling starts, not when a punch is threatened, not when the two girls are isolated.  But that’s also what makes this book so empowering for kids and also so real.  Kids need to see that see what kids can do.  And, although adults don’t like to think about it, we are frequenly useless in bullying situations because we aren’t sure what to do either and, even if we do stop it right now, it starts up again the moment our backs are turned.

This is a story of two girls solving it for themselves by finding each other.  No grown ups.  No big solutions.  Just friendship and kindness and hope.


November 14, 2013

Bluffton by Matt Phelan

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 1:51 am by suebe2

by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press

Prepared for another slow-moving, summer day in Muskegon, Michigan, Henry can’t believe his eyes when the train pulls to a stop and out of one of the box cars climbs an elephant and a large group of people.  They look normal enough but who travels with an elephant?  Henry soon finds the answer — show people, vaudevillians. They’ve come to Michigan to stay at the summer cottages in Bluffton.

Soon Henry finds his way to Bluffton, a nearby community he’s never visited before, and there he sees a man practicing a high wire act, a zebra and three children who come diving out of a window accompanied by the threatening shouts of the man inside.  Henry meets the oldest boy, Buster, and discovers that he wasn’t in danger, this is all part of his family’s act.  They are knockabouts — comedians who practice rough and tumble, slap stick humor comedian.

Henry returns to Bluffton with a group of local boys to play baseball with the newcomers.  Soon Henry finds himself spending as much time as possible in Bluffton, loving the excitement of the performers pranks which he finds much more exciting than the ho hum hardware store his father owns.  This love for the excitement of vaudeville sometimes puts Henry in conflict with Buster who wants to play as much baseball as possible, sip lemonade with a cute girl, and just be.

Phelan does an amazing job with this fictionalized story of the childhood of Buster Keaton.  Phelan captures the excitement of vaudeville, contrasting it with the ordinary life that these children might long for but would never truly lead.  Subtly woven throughout the story are themes about being yourself and not always longing for what the other guy has.

I have to admit that I’m not always a huge graphic novel fan, but this one pulled me in and held me close from beginning to end.  In part, I was drawn in by the gentle water color look of the artwork, which contrasts sharply with the harsh film noir look of so much graphic novel art.  This homey, gentle look was perfect for this story.

Pick it up and prepare to be pulled into another time and another place.


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