Friday, March 11, 2011

Grammar School Picture Books

Picture Books That Even Boys Will Like

As a literacy teacher/school librarian this year, I had the unique experience of trying to find books each week for a set of male triplets in the second grade. It was all they could do to sit still when they were together. What I discovered was that the books that entranced them, that they sat still for, and that they liked best, were books based on real stories about animals. Stories were more interesting to them, if they were "real".

Tara and Bella: the Elephant and Dog Who Became Best Friends, text and photography by Carol Buckley, is just such a book. Tarra, originally with a circus, was the first elephant resident at an elephant sanctuary established in Tennessee. Amiable and helpful by nature, she was the elephant who introduced all the other elephants, who soon joined her at the facilities, on the day to day workings of the sanctuary. Most of the elephants found another elephant to be a best friend, but only Tarra became best friends with a stray dog named Bella. When Bella was injured, Tarra's response may be surprising to some.

Another "true" story is Nubs: the True Story of a Mutt, a Marine and a Miracle, story by Major Brian Dennis, Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery. Thousands of wild dogs have recently been shot in Afghanistan, but Nubs' story, although at first harsh, has a happy ending. After living on desert rats and scraps thrown by Iraqi soldiers, Nubs traveled seventy miles to follow an American GI sent to train those soldiers, and the one who fed him his rations and bandaged his wounds. Marine Major Brian Dennis, so impressed with Nubs' determination to get himself adopted, started a collection to send Nubs home to the States, where they were finally joyfully united.

Two more true dog stories, illustrated in pastels and what looks to be watercolors, as opposed to photographs, are another book by Kirby Larson, The Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival and Beth Finke's story about her own seeing eye dog Hanni, Safe and Sound. These two are especial favorites of mine, winners of the Henry Bergh Award (ASPCA).

Readers will need kleenex when reading The Two Bobbies. It is the story of a cat and a dog left during the Hurricane in New Orleans, who refused to be separated and who walked the streets alone for days before finally being rescued. The fact that the cat was blind, that she found her way by following the sound of a chain around his neck, and that the dog saved her from drowning and then protected her, will break your heart.

I was lucky enough to meet both Hanni (the dog) and Beth Finke (the owner) journalist and writer of her book Safe and Sound at an American Library Association Convention. Their story of mutual dependence and love, and her realization of all that the dog has had to give up to be a part of her life, will also make you cry. The illustrations are so life-like as to almost be photographs. The illustrator lived with Beth and her dog for a few weeks to make the book as realistic as possible.
Fictional Dog Stories Based on Reality
Most authors write at least partly from their own experience. Maybe that is why, The Five-Dog Night written and illustrated by Eileen Christelow rings particularly true. Who hasn't been part of a sleeping dog pack if he/she is a dog owner? I am not sure about you, but I have the fuzzy clothing to prove it. This funny story is about a farmer in Vermont and what he considers a "busy body"female neighbor who is worried he isn't piling the blankets on enough on cold winters' nights. He has a lesson to teach her.

Talking about winter, I think most children need a Christmas book, that one book taken out every year, that means the season is finally here.

My favorite book for that is a recent publication with the most beautiful almost life-like illustrations I have ever seen of cats, kittens and barn animals, On This Special Night, written by Claire Freedman and illustrated by Simon Mendez. You'll almost believe cats must have been there in that stable at Bethlehem.

Another holiday picture book both younger and older students will love is Cynthia Rylant's In November. Cynthia Rylant illustrated her first books, but somehow has been lucky enough to have as her illustrators some of the best in the business. School librarians will tell you that this is one of their favorite books for Thanksgiving, as everyone, including the house mouse, gets ready to hunker in for cold. Jill Kastner's
watercolors make the best use I have ever seen of white space and her painting of the farm animals and dogs, trees and family around the Thanksgiving table lend a feeling of warmth and security even as the snow begins to settle in.

Also unique is Cynthia Rylant's An Angel for Solomon Singer, with illustrated paintings by Peter Catalanotto. The story is a different one than those Ms. Rylant usually tells. It is the story of an old man, down on his luck. Forced to live in an old apartment in a city, he remembers the cornstalks of his boyhood home. He is desperately lonely, until he happens to walk into a restaurant with a waiter named Angel who makes him feel at home. Solomon Singer is a man who dreams of what once was, and who still has some simple dreams of the future, like of owning a cat. It is a story of kindness and community and love.

In my next blog, I will talk about books for children whose grandparents have died, or who may soon die. They are quiet and elegant books also about memory and the old and ensuring comfort for those who have to leave this life and those who are left behind.

1 comment:

  1. I've also had the pleasure of meeting Beth Finke and her Hanni--what a lovely and loving pair of friends they are! Beth won the ASPCA Henry Bergh Children's Book Award for Safe and Sound. Thanks so much for including Two Bobbies and Nubs in your roundup of picture books that even boys will like. And you're right, they love books about animals, especially true stories. Their response is so heartwarming!