Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet: March 2015

New Book Behaviors

  • Finishing sentences. Little Miss Muffet has a few favorite words in her vocabulary now, and when we read to her, my husband and I will occasionally pause and prompt her to fill in a missing word by pointing to its picture. Sometimes she gets distracted by something more interesting and leaves us hanging, but most of the time, she happily says the right word, then laughs to show how pleased she is to participate.
  • Interacting with lift-the-flap books. Lots of Little Miss Muffet's lift-the-flap books are simple hide-and-seek stories which pose yes or no questions, such as "Is Mommy behind the chair?" In the past couple of weeks, Miss Muffet has started shaking her head and saying "No," as she lifts each flap. (She doesn't quite know what to do yet when the answer is not no, but we'll get there!) 

Three Current Favorites 

Miss Muffet's basket was overflowing with way too many books this past month, so it was hard to tell which ones were her true favorites. Only three really stand out as memorable, as they are the ones she consistently brings to me and demands to hear.

  • Richard Scarry's Best Word Book EverWe've only owned this book for a few days, but it is an endless source of entertainment. We got the original 1963 edition from a used book store, and Miss Muffet can't get enough of pointing out the objects she knows and asking to know the names of unfamiliar ones. So far, we've spent a lot of time naming zoo animals, kitchen gadgets, clothing, and vehicles, and there are still entire pages we haven't even touched.
  • Little Lions by Jim Arnosky Another used book, this one was a story time favorite when I was working. It's a very simple story about two baby mountain lions cuddling and playing with their mother on a ledge. The illustrations are all pretty similar, but Miss Muffet gets the biggest kick out of pointing to the cubs and to the butterflies that fly above them in some of the illustrations.
  • Bugs by Andrews McMeel PublishingThis board book came from the library, and it is the book which first prompted Miss Muffet to pretend to fly like a butterfly, a motion which she now also does with her little stuffed butterfly. Having this book in the house for three weeks was a nice change of pace from identifying and making the sounds of farm animals, and it was a great way to introduce insect vocabulary into Little Miss Muffet's repertoire. 

One Tip from Mom 

  • Don't just read board books. Many parents feel that they have to limit their babies and toddlers to board books because otherwise, their kids will destroy books and rack up library fines. I have not found this to be the case. Miss Muffet has only ripped one library book so far, and it was a book that was already severely tattered and missing pages - she basically just continued a tear that was well underway. I regularly check out picture books for her, and she flips through picture books on her own almost every day. I don't leave her alone with them for long periods, because boredom does tend to lead to destruction, but she will sit quite nicely beside me on the couch and flip through book after book without leaving behind even a smudge. Some kids might be more prone to ruining books than others, but my advice is to give them the opportunity to treat books properly before deciding they can't be trusted to do so. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Reading Through History: Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman (1994)

The year 1290 is Catherine's fourteenth year, and the year in which she has promised her brother Edward she will write an account of her days. Her diary, which marks time according to Saints' feast days, tells of her contentious relationship with her father, her worries for her mother's health, her observations as friends and relatives marry and bear children, and her disgust for Shaggy Beard, the man to whom her father wishes to marry her off.

There is one thing that bothers me about this book, which is that it shows a young girl self-aware enough to flout the feminine conventions of her day. While Catherine's antics are funny and give the story a definite sense of "girl power" they come across as inauthentic because they are so unlikely. During this time period, a woman in Catherine's position - the daughter of a powerful man with a fierce temper - would likely do as she was told because there was no other option. She would not have role models to show her that anything happening in her life was unfair or wrong, and she would likely not have the luxury of talking back to adult authority figures. Maybe that wouldn't make as interesting a story, but it bothers me that the author seems to be incorporating contemporary values into a society that could not even begin to comprehend them.

That said, this book does include a lot of secondary details about the time period that are utterly realistic. Simple things like tooth decay and childbirth are handled in ways that to contemporary Americans seem bizarre and terrifying. The idea that Catherine's father would have a vein opened under his tongue to let out the "bad humors" supposedly causing his toothache made me wince, not just because it would be so terribly painful, but because advances in science have shown how ridiculous an approach this would be. I almost couldn't even read the sections talking about what happens to Catherine's mother after her baby is born. It makes me thankful to live in a time where babies can be born in hospitals, and infections can be treated with drugs.

Another thing I really loved about this book was all the information about religious practices. As a practicing Catholic, I love to see the Church represented respectfully in fiction, and it can be difficult to find books that are both well-informed on the subject and well-written. This book is both (which is especially pleasing to see given the poor treatment of religion in another of the author's books, The Loud Silence of Francine Green.) I enjoyed Catherine's description of the Saint for each day, and I liked the details about going to Mass and observing Lent.

Catherine, Called Birdy is a good choice for kids who have a hard time contextualizing history lessons, as it humanizes this time period and keeps a fairly light-hearted tone despite many dark moments. While it would  not be a sufficient study on the Middle Ages all on its own, the story makes a nice jumping-off point for teaching about day-to-day medieval living.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Reading Through History: The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean (2001)

After his father dies in a kite riding accident, the last thing twelve-year-old Haoyou wants to do is take to the skies. When other plans for supporting his family are thwarted by his evil uncle, however, it becomes clear that his only means of escaping poverty is to join the circus as a kite rider. As he travels with the Jade Circus in service of the Great Miao, he wows audiences with his performances, and looks forward to one day showing off his skills for Kublai Khan, the Mongol conqueror.

This exciting, well-plotted coming-of-age tale is a thrilling read with many wonderful lessons. It illustrates the enmity between the Chinese and Mongol cultures, the role of the circus within society, and Kublai Khan's specific rules regarding punishment and forgiveness. Haoyou becomes slowly aware of some harsh truths about his family, which leads him to understand the benefits of questioning some forms of authority, and to realize the value of thinking for oneself. The heroic feats Haoyou is able to accomplish with his kite also show the power of always striving to do the right thing, no matter the consequences to oneself. There is much to learn from this book, which can be used to spark any number of interesting conversations.

Unlike many other historical fiction novels where nothing much happens, this book is truly action-packed. Though there are plenty of moments where Haoyou waxes philosophical about the state of his life, there is also a constant stream of excitement, including scenes involving theft, injury, and death. Haoyou is accompanied through much of the book by his cousin, Mipeng, who is believed to be a medium, even though she knows she can't truly speak to the gods, and she also has her share in the excitement, which is sure to please female readers of this otherwise largely male-dominated story.

I gasped out loud several times while reading this book, as the plot took unexpected twists and turns. McCaughrean really knows how to keep a reader interested, as every time I felt that Haoyou was the least bit secure, she would place another obstacle in his path and change his trajectory. Escaping from one situation often leads him into a worse one, and I had no choice but to keep reading to find out how he eventually finds a reasonably happy resolution. The short chapters also contribute to the quick pace of the story.

The Kite Rider is most appropriate for young readers in grades 6 to 8, and will appeal especially to readers interested in adventure and family stories. For another kite-themed novel (this one about contemporary Japanese characters), try Flying the Dragon.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Book Review: The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom (1960)

As the children's books editor for Harper & Row for over 30 years, Ursula Nordstrom was a key figure in the careers of many children's literature greats, including Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, and Charlotte Zolotow. Despite her role in publishing well-known books, she only published one children's book herself - The Secret Language. I have been wanting to read this book since I read Dear Genius, the published collection of Nordstrom's correspondence, and I was so pleased to stumble upon a paperback copy at a used book sale. I am pleased to share The Secret Language as today's Old School Sunday title.

When Vicky starts boarding school, she feels very much like an awkward outsider. Certainly none of the other girls step forward to welcome her, and being away from her mother for the first time is very difficult. When she meets Martha, however, she finds a kindred spirit. Both girls are content to be unusual, and soon they are sharing everything: a dorm room, their own outdoor hut, and a secret made-up secret language all their own. Though neither girl ever truly learns to love boarding school, they come to care enough for each other that they might just willingly come back next year anyway.

What is most refreshing about this book is its honesty about the girls' unhappiness at school. Nordstrom does not try to sugarcoat the boarding school experience, or even redeem it through the events of the story. Instead, she focuses on the unique friendship that makes school tolerable for both girls and explores the psychology behind the two girls' admiration for each other. Rather than indulging all the dramatic plot lines that come to mind when contemporary writers discuss female friendship, she delves deeply into these two specific characters and simply follows their feelings where they lead, focusing on the small moments and shared confidences that build up their connection to each other.

Apparently, Ursula Nordstrom wrote a sequel to this book, which she shared over the telephone with Charlotte Zolotow, but then subsequently burned before she died. While I suppose I understand the desire to remove all evidence of a piece of writing she didn't feel was up to her standards, I am so disappointed that we don't have anymore of her wonderful books to read all these years later. While The Secret Language is not as memorable as some of the more well known award winning books of the time period, it does highlight Nordstrom's respect for the emotions of children and her desire to provide them with relevant and well-written pieces of literature. The Secret Language embodies all the sound advice she gave to the authors for whom she served as editor.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Reading Through History: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (2001)

A Single Shard is set in Korea, in the 12th Century. Tree-ear, a young boy, and Crane-man, an older man with a deformed foot, are unusual in their small village of Ch'ulp'o in that they are homeless and make their dwelling beneath a bridge. Though they are not related by blood (Tree-ear does not know anything about his parents), they are family to each other, as they work each day to earn enough to eat in whatever way they can. Though he is poor and therefore unlikely to be apprenticed, Tree-ear's true passion is for pottery, and when he has spare time, he sneaks off to admire the work of Potter Min, a meticulous artist with a sad life story. When Tree-ear breaks something belonging to Min, the potter becomes furious, to the point that Tree-ear offers to work for him to repay his debt. Though the work is mainly drudgery, Tree-ear holds out hope that he will one day be allowed near the wheel himself. 

A Single Shard has much in common with The Golden Goblet. Though the settings are very different, the main character in each story struggles to overcome unfortunate circumstances in order to pursue an art form he truly loves. Between the two, A Single Shard seems more accessible for a broader, and perhaps also slightly younger audience. Though there is hardship and sadness in A Single Shard, there is not the violence and abuse that appears in The Golden Goblet, making it a less distressing story for elementary readers. A Single Shard is also partly a road story, which will appeal to young readers' (and especially boys') sense of adventure. (Though the "road" portion of the book could have been longer. It begins more than halfway through the story, which is a long time to wait if you're hoping for action.) 

The characters in A Single Shard, though few, are quite well-developed. The central friendship between Tree-ear and Crane-man provides an emotional core to the story that shapes the reader's feelings for Tree-ear and hope for his success. The slow reveal of information surrounding the tragedy that has struck Min's life is also very effective, and it enables the reader to feel Tree-ear's growing sense of affection for the potter and his wife. The kindness of the potter's wife, too, is notable, and she, of all the characters, makes an excellent role model for showing true charity to other human beings without asking for anything in return. 

Interestingly, this is yet another historical fiction novel in which a character has a disability, the third I have read recently where the affliction is a deformed limb, and the second where the injury is to the foot. In Thieves of Ostia, Lupus is mute because his tongue has been cut from his mouth. In The Last Girls of Pompeii, Julia's parents want to send her away because of a withered arm. In Shadow Spinner, Marjan has a crippled foot that limits her ability to marry or find work. While I wonder how prevalent these conditions actually were during the time periods represented by these books, I do think it is interesting that the authors chose to include them, and to portray the ways these characters were ostracized and stigmatized for being different. For elementary and middle school kids, these characters present opportunities to consider the injustices imposed by different societies and to think about how our current culture's treatment of the disabled is the same or different. 

Included as a preface in my copy of this book is Linda Sue Park's Newbery Medal acceptance speech. In it, she explains the inspiration for the book - a real piece of pottery from this time period which is decorated with cranes. For kids who feel that historical fiction is too far removed from real life, or who have a hard time connecting to books set in the distant past, having this connection to a real object might help them engage more with a story they would otherwise ignore. I also think that writing the backstory for a real object - historical or not - is a great exercise and a perfect writing assignment to accompany a literature study of this book. 

A Single Shard is a powerful, emotional, and exciting read about a time period and setting not often represented in children's fiction. It makes an excellent complement to a study on Korean history, especially thanks to the historical details given in the author's note, but it works just as well as a novel to read for enjoyment. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Reading Through History: Blue Willow by Doris Gates (1940)

Janey Larkin's migrant family doesn't have much. They live in a shack that belongs to someone else, and they move from place to place as opportunities for work arise and disappear. Janey has never attended a real school, and she doesn't have any friends. What she does have, though, is a blue willow plate. The last remaining reminder of her late biological mother, the plate represents for Janey a sense of normalcy and stability. Someday, her stepmother promises, they will have a proper home in which to display the plate. Janey thinks she may have found that perfect place, but does she dare believe that this time her family might stay?

Published in 1940 and set in the 1930s, Blue Willow is a story about the difficulties faced by many people during the years of the Great Depression. Through the character of Janey, young readers are given a very personal glimpse into the experience of a poor migrant family which helps drive home the hardships real people were up against during that time. Janey's desires to be normal, to fit in, and to feel secure and stable are relevant to every child, regardless of time period, a fact which helps the story continue to hold up 65 years later.

The writing in this book is not difficult to read, but it is filled with evocative images that bring the story to life. Particularly memorable are the moment where Janey first discovers the home of the man who owns her family's shack, and the visit to the fair, where Janey encounters her very first library. This is one of the only children's books I've read where a child's love for the library feels authentic. Janey's poverty makes her truly appreciate the notion of free access to books in a way that can't be read as anything but sincere.

At the start, this book seems like just another depressing historical fiction story, but it turns out to be something much different, and the ending does not take any of the tragic turns I might have expected when I first started reading. The way everything comes together might feel a little too easy to a jaded adult reader, but for a child, the hope presented by the story's resolution will be very pleasing and comforting.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Reading Through History: Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher (1998)

Shadow Spinner, is set in Ancient Persia. Marjan has a crippled foot, so though she is a wonderful storyteller, her future is uncertain due to the stigma attached to her disability. Therefore it is a surprise when she is summoned by the sultan's wife, Shahrazad, to assist her in finding more tales to tell her husband, who keeps her alive only to hear her stories each night. What follows is a heart-pounding adventure where Marjan puts her own safety at risk to help the storyteller she so admires.

This book is completely engrossing. I have heard different versions of the story of the 1001 Nights, but this one really sticks with me. Shahrazad is portrayed as a tough, but real person, whose intelligence is both a blessing and a curse in her society. In all the times I've heard about this character, it never occurred to me how nerve-wracking it would be if she suddenly ran out of stories or accidentally repeated one. The thought that she would hire someone to help her never crossed my mind, and I love that the author chooses a girl who would be an unlikely hero, and that Marjan rises so bravely and completely to the challenge.

In addition to being a really exciting story, this book also has a gimmick that helps it keep the attention of teen readers. Each chapter opens with a small life lesson from Marjan which foreshadows or summarizes what she will learn in the episode to follow. These little snippets read like contemporary advice columns in magazines, which teens will easily recognize and feel comfortable with. The ancient Persian setting is also really well-described, and because Marjan must sneak in and out of the palace to run her errand for Shahrazad, the reader is given insight into life among royalty and life out in the city, as well as an understanding of the role of storytelling and oral tradition in this society. In a world where we can Google everything we've ever forgotten, the task of memorizing a story to pass it on to someone else sounds completely daunting!

This is an excellent book for middle school and high school students, and will perfectly complement any lesson on Persian history or the Arabian Nights. It desperately needs a more engaging cover because the hardcover edition looks like an outdated adult novel, and the paperback is not much better, but readers who look past appearances will find Shadow Spinner to be one of the most exciting historical fiction novels available.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Book Review: The Zebra Wall by Kevin Henkes (1988)

Adine is the oldest of five sisters, all of whom have been named in alphabetical order. Her mother is expecting a new baby, and everyone just assumes it will be a girl. When their mother's labor begins a month early, the girls begin to prepare the nursery with an F-themed decor, according to family tradition, and all of the girls eagerly anticipate meeting their new little sister. When the baby turns out to be a boy, no one - including Adine's mom, who is deemed unable to have anymore children - knows quite how to react. In the meantime, Adine locks horns with her aunt Irene, who comes to help out the family, but whose husky body, obsession with cats, and pushy attitude embarrass Adine.

Everything about this book is very 80s. The cover features children wearing hairstyles and clothing long forgotten, and the adults in the story smoke in front of the kids. Parents are not yet able to find out the sex of their unborn children during routine ultrasounds, and they photograph their children using Polaroid cameras.The kids play with Cabbage Patch Preemies and Fisher Price people and there are references to Willard Scott's regular appearances on the Today show. For adults, the nostalgia abounds, but kids are unlikely to feel the same sense of warmth toward these now-obscure references.

As a story, it has much in common with sit-coms of the day. Aunt Irene is so outlandish, she is nearly a caricature. Her gruffness and her obsession with cats seem like such cliched characteristics to give to an unpleasant relative, and though she is redeemed and even appreciated by the end of the story, she still lacks the depth that Henkes gives to other characters in his later novels. But really, the thrill of reading this book comes from the knowledge that Henkes does go on to write much better stories. It is remarkable that the same man who writes such lyrical novels as Olive's Ocean and Junonia is also the author of this light sitcom of a novel. To note the evolution from this book to those is just so interesting.

The Zebra Wall is a fun family story, and it is a lot like Ten Kids, No Pets and Eleven Kids, One Summer, two novels by Ann M. Martin which I read over and over again in childhood. Even the alphabetical names are common to both families. I don't think The Zebra Wall holds up too well for today's audiences, but anyone who can remember the late 80s should get a kick out of it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Reading Through History: Bo at Iditarod Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill (2014)

Bo is back! In her second adventure, she and newly adopted younger brother Graf set off with their papas (gold prospecting partners) for their new home at Iditarod Creek. Unlike Ballard Creek, this new town is heavily populated, but has few children. Houses are moved from place to place as necessary to facilitate access to gold, and there are loud dredge machines that make frightening noises. Though Bo misses her old friends, she makes the best of her new experience by getting to know all the interesting people around her, including a mysteriously sad boy who might be in trouble.

This book is fascinating. It includes information about gold prospecting, Eskimo culture, relations between people from different racial and cultural backgrounds, and the nature of adoption in this specific time and place. There is lots of discussion about language - off-color words to describe others, differences in language even among people from the same culture, even what to call a couch (or divan, or sofa). Interesting details reveal what it was like to get an education at home, and how adults could grow up without ever learning how to read and write, only to be taught later by their own children. Words seems to be the main focus of the story, and the message about their power comes through loud and strong.

Unfortunately, some of the language itself makes it hard to know who will - or should - read this book. Certainly the first story about Bo would make a fine read-aloud for even a preschooler, but this second book uses racial slurs in confusing contexts (sometimes as insults, sometimes as nicknames) and it throws around the "b word" in a playful way without ever really explaining what it means or why it might not be okay for Bo - or other kids her age -to say it.  I fully believe that these details are accurate for the time period and the nearly childless male dominated environment Bo and Graf are living in, but I would still hesitate to read these words out loud to my child. If I were looking for a way to have a specific conversation about sensitive language, this book might help me do that, but if a mom picked up this book unwittingly based on her child's love for the first one, she might find herself faced with some uncomfortable discussions she was not prepared for.

Also possibly troubling to younger audiences would be the abuse of Renzo, the boy who Bo's family befriends and helps. There aren't many details, and they are mostly filtered through Bo's optimistic and innocent point of view, but the thought of a young boy nearly freezing to death in a piano box could be troubling for very little kids.

I liked this book very much, but I feel like my book talk of it for a parent would be more of a warning label than a promotion of the book, because it is so deceptively mature in content.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Reading Through History: Sondok, Princess of the Moon and Stars by Sheri Holman (2002)

This book, which is part of the popular Royal Diaries series, focuses on a young Korean woman who will one day inherit her father's kingdom, despite the fact that only males have ruled in the past. Visitors from neighboring countries look down upon her father for this decision and upon Sondok herself for her "inappropriate" interest in reading the skies. Sondok expresses her feelings to her deceased grandmother by writing messages and slipping them inside her grandmother's ancestral jar.

This book provides many interesting insights into Korean culture in the late 500s. Young readers will learn about the relationship between the Three Kingdoms of Korea, as well as Korea's relations with other nearby nations. They will see the way gender roles are enforced and challenged, and the way family dynamics determine the behavior of children in royal families. In the author's note, they will learn that Sondok was a real person, and that although some of her childhood details are the product of the author's imagination, she did go onto rule as the first female monarch of her kingdom and the second female ruler in all of East Asia. More than most of the other books I've read so far, this one is a history lesson unto itself.

There are some problems with the book. Though Sondok's way of keeping time is probably historically accurate, it's a little hard to follow the dates of her "diary" entries when you're used to modern Western calendars. Some subtle explanation early on in the story would have helped a lot. The entire diary concept is weak, too. It struck me as highly unlikely that a young woman with such respect for her grandmother would feel comfortable placing personal notes in her ancestral jar. Obviously, this entire series is devoted to diaries, so it was not necessarily a storytelling decision specific to this character and setting, but it does make parts of the story feel false and gimmicky. These issues aside, though, this book is really an excellent and enjoyable read, especially for science-minded girls seeking stories focused on their interests. Based on this book, I would say that the Royal Diaries is a much more valuable and well-written series than I would have guessed at first glance.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Book Review: Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai (2015)

Mai Le lives a charmed life in Laguna Beach, and she is all set to spend her summer hanging out with her best friend Montana and pursuing a boy so important that she can only think of him as HIM. Her plans are abruptly changed when her parents announce that she will be accompanying her father and grandmother, Ba, on a trip to Vietnam. Their mission is to uncover the truth about what happened to Mai's grandfather, Ong, who died during the Vietnam War. Though Mai understands Vietnamese, she doesn't speak very much, and she is completely out of place in a culture she has only ever learned about secondhand. At first, she does nothing but beg to go home and seek out every possible opportunity to charge her phone. As the weeks wear on, however, she begins to appreciate her family's home country and the importance of closure for Ba.

Listen, Slowly is unlike any middle grade novel I have ever read before. Author Thanhha Lai (whose 2011 novel in verse Inside Out and Back Again I have not yet read) fuses together the petty and superficial concerns of a boy-crazed middle school girl with beautiful observations about the Vietnamese culture, the impact of war, the differences between the Western and Eastern worlds and the experience of discovering one's roots. The language is poetic and atmospheric, if a bit dense, and information about the Vietnamese language, food, and etiquette are worked seamlessly into the story. Mai is a completely believable tween, as she struggles to reconcile her easy life in Laguna with what members of her family went through during and after the Vietnam War. She is also extremely likable, with a great voice, sense of humor, and sense of loyalty to those she cares about. Her personality combines the appropriate amounts of sass and sweetness for her age.

With all these things going for it, however, I still have to wonder how Listen, Slowly will be received by the intended audience. The romance storyline is not played up enough to be a hook, and the questions surrounding what happened to Ong are not enough of a mystery to grab readers from that angle either. There is a lot of dense description, and entire sections of translated Vietnamese (mainly spoken by Mai's grandmother and her contemporaries) that are very wordy and often hard to grasp due to their overuse of adjectives and polite expressions. There are also a number of times where characters speak Vietnamese and it is not translated directly, which could make the book feel more difficult to read than it really is, especially if the reader is intimidated by unknown languages. Names are also an issue - there are lot of them, and because of the way people are addressed in the Vietnamese language, many of them are also very similar, so it's hard to keep track of who is who. None of these are flaws in the book; they are just factors that might unfortunately work against it given the many less demanding titles available for this age group.

Listen, Slowly is beautifully written, unique and moving. It teaches about a country and culture American kids know little about and provides a lot of relatable background information about the Vietnam War, which serves to explain how the war affected not just Americans, but the Vietnamese, and their family members who have since come to the U.S. For classrooms studying this conflict, it will be an invaluable addition to the curriculum, and for kids who like to travel through books, it will be a wonderfully eye-opening journey.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review: Different Dragons by Jean Little (1987)

Ben is nervous about staying alone with his Aunt Rose while his parents are away. When she welcomes a large dog named Gully into the house for the weekend, he becomes even more worried. He doesn't want to admit to Hana, a girl his age who lives near Aunt Rose, that he is afraid of dogs, especially since Hana thinks Gully is so great, but he's also not sure he'll be able to survive sharing his living space with a dog even for just a couple of days.

In this novel, celebrated Canadian author Jean Little demonstrates a strong sense of empathy for quiet kids with big fears. Little creates a three-dimensional and believable child in Ben, and she describes his anxiety about interacting with dogs - and about taking chances in general - with great compassion. Many kids are afraid of dogs, and this book does a nice job of first validating their fears before attempting to dispel them. Ben comes to appreciate Gully on his own terms, not just because others say he must, but out of his own determination and gumption, and the result is a very satisfying story. The message - that we all have different dragons to overcome - is a perfect and necessary lesson for upper elementary school readers.

This book was first published in 1987, but it holds up quite well. There is very little reference to cultural or technological phenomena of the 80s, so it doesn't feel like an old book, and the subject matter is so universal, that it will never really stop being relevant. It has been republished as recently as 2007 (thought with an unfortunate cover sure to turn off kids who are apprehensive about dogs!), and though it is currently out of print, used copies seem plentiful online.

Different Dragons is similar in tone and style to books by Kevin Henkes, such as Junonia and The Year of Billy Miller. It may also appeal to kids who enjoy other "boys with fears" stories like the Alvin Ho and Justin Case series.