How to Clean a Hippopotamus: A Look at Unusual Animal Partnerships by Robin Page

how-to-clean-a-hippoBibliographic Info:
Page, Robin. 2010. How to Clean a Hippopotamus: A Look at Unusual Animal Partnerships. Ill. Steve Jenkins.  ISBN 9780547245157.

Did you know there is a bird that hops into a crocodile’s mouth to help clean the fearsome creature’s teeth? Did you know there is a small crab that scares away predators by using sea anemones like a cheerleader’s pom poms? In How to Clean a Hippopotamus, Robin Page and Steve Jenkins offer a concept book that gives young readers a glimpse into symbiosis.

Page and Jenkins have covered a topic sure to lure readers. Animal books are popular with children, and the concept of animals helping each other when they might otherwise be predator and prey will be particularly fascinating to children. The text is fairly simple and on a second grade reading level, although older elementary age children will also enjoy this title. Significant words such as an animal’s name or an action are printed in bold text. For example, “The tuatara is nocturnal. It sleeps during the day and hunts at night” (Page 2010). Over 20 symbiotic animal relationships are shown. At the end of the book, there is a thoughtful look at the relationship between humans and dogs.

The illustrations are cut and torn paper collages, although I did not realize it during my first reading of the book. “Jenkins’s trademark collage illustrations continue to impress with their vibrant and stunning manipulation of cut and torn paper” (Dean 2006). Jenkins work is truly stunning in its intricacy and detail. The images are arranged in panels like a graphic novel, accompanied by floating text and colored text boxes that are easy to read and never overwhelm the images. Each animal pairing has a clever title, such as “Wider, Please,” in which the Egyptian plover picks meat from a Nile crocodile’s teeth.

The last three pages present information about different types of symbiotic relationships, such as parasitism and commensualism. There are also thumbnail images of each page, with descriptions of the size, habitat, and diet of each animal. A list of suggested titles can be found beneath the copyright information. This 2001 ALA Notable Book for Children may read on a second grade level, but it is appropriate for even younger children as a means of discussing the animal world. In your classroom or storytime at your library, ask the kids to list any symbiotic relationships they can think of. Here is a fun craft idea: using either pre-cut animal shapes or the children’s own drawings, ask kids to make up their own symbiotic relationships and describe how the animals might help each other.

Dean, Kara Schaff. April 2010. School Library Journal.|28858056|27775879&mc=USA#. Accessed October 22, 2013.


Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea by Sy Montgomery

The-Quest-for-the-Tree-Kangaroo-9780547248929Bibliographic Info:
Montgomery, Sy. 2006. Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780618496419.

Imagine a place that has remained virtually unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. Moss and ferns adorn trees in forests mostly unexplored by scientists. In this ancient and seemingly magical place is a timid creature that exists only in this forest. The cloud forest of Papua New Guinea is home to the elusive Matschie’s tree kangaroo, a tree-dwelling kangaroo. In this richly detailed photo essay book, author Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop give readers more than just a glimpse into the world of the tree kangaroo; readers are treated to a narrative that describes the journey to the cloud forest and what all that journey entails.

The book begins with two illustrated maps; One shows North America and South America in relation to New Guinea and the other shows a close-up of the New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula. This gives the reader an idea of how far away the tree kangaroo’s home really is. What really drives it home is the description of the journey from the small 12-seater plane to the group’s final work site. Before the journey begins, lead scientist Lisa Dabek is introduced. Her story of persevering toward her goal of working with animals despite fur allergies and asthma should inspire children with similar problems. From there, the other members of the exhibition are introduced and the journey truly begins.

Gorgeous, boldly colored photographs adorn every page. “Stunning close-ups of plants, insects, and birds vie for attention with panoramas of moss-draped trees in the eerie, ancient forest” (Piehl 2006). Many animals other than the tree kangaroo are shown and there are a several highlighted sections that go into more detail about the local people, cloud forests, advice for kids from Lisa, and even a glossary of words in Tok Pisin, a local language. Particularly interesting is a passage that lists all the items that are packed for the plane ride, including “20 liters of kerosene”, “6 boxes of dishwashing detergent”, and “48 rolls of toilet paper” (Montgomery 2006).

The layout of the book is simple; Large spreads include a photograph on the far left and far right and clean, easy-to-read text between. The reading level is suitable for children in fourth grade or higher, although advanced or eager younger readers may find this a challenging but worthwhile read. Quest for the Tree Kangaroo was nominated for the Sibert award in 2007, won the Orbis Pictus award in 2007, the ALA Notable Books for Children award in 2007, and won a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year award in 2006. Librarians would do well to add this title to their library’s collection.

This book lends itself as a great catalyst to a discussion of conservation and endangered species with children in upper-elementary. This could also lead to the introduction of books about the food chain and eco-systems.

Piehl, Kathy. December 2006. School Library Journal.|17660960|13392470&mc=USA#. Accessed October 17, 2013.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie: Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Michael Slack

EdgarAllanPoesPie_JPatrickLewisBibliographic Info:
Lewis, J. Patrick. 2012. Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie: Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780547513386.

From Edward Lear to Robert Frost, former Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis emulates some of the most famous English-speaking poets with a collection that is cleverly filled with math problems. Each poem is a twist on an original, published poem and maintains the original’s poetic form. Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven” becomes “Edgar Allan Poe’s Apple Pie.” It begins “upon a midnight rotten”, makes reference to a forgotten apple pie, and ends with the question, “How many cuts / Give me ten pieces?”. The answer, which I refuse to reveal, is given in small, upside-down text on the next page.

Artist Michael Slack provides digitally rendered, retro-style art that pops with amazing textures and colors. Children familiar with the now-defunct cartoon Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends may enjoy the similarities between Slack’s illustrations and the show’s. Each illustration fits well with the subject of each poem. In the illustration that accompanies the poem “Robert Frost’s Boxer Shorts”, a round-bellied man sits atop a horse clad only in boots, gloves, a cowboy hat, and underwear. The horse is drawn bug-eyed and his legs are comically short.

Lewis succeeds in reproducing a Rubaiyat Poem, which is a beautifully fancy way of saying a set of quatrain stanzas. The poem’s funny ending is sure to amuse young readers: “These boxer shorts are not half bad / With lions, tigers, stripes, and plaid. / My tightie whities look so sad. / My tightie whities look so sad”. The math puzzler in this poem is the question of how much money was spent purchasing boxer shorts. The answer is, of course, flipped upside-down at the bottom of the page. Some of the math puzzlers are fun to solve, such as how many cuts it will take to produce five slices of pie. Other puzzlers are a bit trickier and may require a pencil and paper for folks like me who are not that quick on the draw.

The book ends with a section called “And now some prose about the poets…” Slack provides bust illustrations for Lewis’s short, but informative bios of each poet. This book is an excellent resource for school librarians who want to introduce students to new poets. The math puzzlers even make the book a great tool for math teachers. “This book could come in handy for a variety of different classroom purposes, but confirmed mathletes are probably the best bet for an audience” (Chipman 2010). Although it can be incredibly challenging, students and young library patrons, particularly those who belong to a creative writing club, might enjoy trying a hand at giving an old poem a new twist. Ask the kids to work in groups to facilitate brainstorming and to make the process less daunting.

Chipman, Ian. April 2012. Booklist.|36322755|35649920&mc=USA#. Accessed October 8, 2013.

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Under-the-MesquiteBibliographic Info:
McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. 2011. Under the Mesquite. New York: Lee & Low Books. ISBN 9781600604294.

Lupita, the main character in Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s novel in verse, is a seventeen year old girl who is the oldest of eight children. When Lupita is young, her parents move the family from Piedras Negras, Mexico to “los Estados Unidos” (the United States). The family’s ties to Mexico remain strong, as many weekends and summer vacations are spent in Piedras Negras. The reader quickly learns that Lupita’s strong and beloved mother, the sun which the family revolves around, has cancer. Lupita is devastated, but as the oldest child she is duty-bound to compartmentalize her sorrow in order to survive school and help care for her seven younger siblings. Lupita is a talented poet and aspiring actress, and she learns to use these methods of expression as an outlet for her confusing and sometimes suffocating emotions.

McCall’s lyrical novel in verse evokes intense sorrow, the warmth of family connectedness, and the pride of cultural identity and traditions. “It’s the look at an immigrant family, balancing traditions and cultures” (Burns 2012). Lupita spends her childhood traveling back and forth between Mexico and the United States. She is a child of two cultures and is proud of both, but it is difficult to live in two worlds. In one scene, Lupita’s friends Sarita and Mireya return Lupita’s misplaced journal in which she writes her thoughts in the form of poetry. Fearing that her friends have read her secret thoughts, Lupita says, “My heart becomes a butterfly / trapped in a glass jar, beating / its wings wildly in my chest”. The next stanza contains an excerpt from Lupita’s journal, which describes her friends in a moment of cruelty: “all the girls around me / dropped their scarlet / mouths wide-open, like a circle / of Venus flytraps.” McCall’s use of similes and metaphors, as presented above, are outstanding.

Peppered throughout the book are words and phrases in Spanish. Some of the words are easy to figure out with context clues, but others require the use of the handy glossary located at the back of the book. These Spanish words and phrases add an extra depth to Lupita’s cultural identity and her family’s traditions. In the end, Lupita’s loss becomes her motivation; she is a stronger, better, and more beautiful person for it. It is no surprise that this book was awarded the 2012 Pura Belpre Award.

This book is an excellent bridge to discussions of cultural identity for teens. Ask teens to make a list of five to ten things they believe is part of their culture. The lists can include foods, words and phrases, holidays, clothing styles, or anything else that the teens may think of. Encourage each teen to write a poem using at least three items from his or her list. Take this opportunity to discuss different types of poems, such as haiku, limericks, and free verse.

Burns, Elizabeth. January 2012. School Library Journal. Accessed October 6, 2013.

This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

ThisIsJustToSay_byJoyceSidmanBibliographic Info:
Sidman, Joyce. 2007. This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978061861600.

This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness is a slim volume with lots of heart. In just 47 pages, characters come to life within the space of just a few dozen lines of poetry or less per page. The premise of Sidman’s book is clever and believable. Sixth grade teacher Mrs. Merz asks her students to write poems of apology to individuals they have hurt in some way. The students decide to share the poems with the people they are written about, and most of those people respond with their own poems. What results is a diverse collection of poems that range from funny to sheepish, sorrowful to honest.

The whimsical, collage-style art lends a light-hearted feel to even the most serious poems in the book. Artist Pamela Zagarenski supplies a fresh illustration for each poem. For the poem “It Was Quiet” in which Tenzin mourns the loss of Einstein, his beloved dog, Zagarenski sketches an angelic dog using notebook paper, pen, and watercolor, which is then pasted to the top of the page. At the bottom of the page is a weeping Tenzin, and between him and Einstein is a bird with an envelope in its beak. This is a clever addition to the illustration, as birds are seen as angelic messengers in many cultures. A green page dotted with four-leaf clovers serves as the background for the poem “Lucky Nose.”

Sidman’s poems cover a range of forms. “Spelling Bomb” is, according to an author’s note at the bottom of the page, a pantoum. “The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines in the next stanza”. There is even a haiku and a poem in two voices. Many of the book’s poems overflow with wonderful imagery. The last poem in the book is titled “Ode to Slow-Hand” and both describes the class pet and begs forgiveness with a repetitive “los perdonamos” that occurs between couplets. The class pet, a lizard, is beautifully described with the couplet, “his belly: soft as an old balloon / his tongue: lightning’s flicker”. In “Next Time,”  Jewel yearns for her father to return home and describes herself as, “a slow, sad tornado”. Although there are several very serious and sad poems in this book, there are plenty of funny poems, too, such as “I Got Carried Away” and “Dodge Ball Crazy” in which Kyle and Reuben respectively write to each other about participating a bit too enthusiastically in a game of dodge ball.

There is one flaw that I found with this book. The first section consists of the apology poems and the second section consists of the response poems. Each apology and response should be read together for a greater impact, but some of this impact was taken away in flipping through the pages to find the poems that go together. Young readers, however, may enjoy the hunt for the pairs of poems. Not every response poem is a direct apology, but readers will be pleasantly surprised by most. “Children will find much to identify with in the situations presented in the apology poems, and they’ll appreciate the resolutions given in the responses” (Enos 2007).

Teachers, librarians, or even those who host a creative writing club would do well to use the premise of the book as an activity; ask your students or young patrons to write an apologetic poem of their own. If they feel comfortable, ask them to share the poem with the person to whom the poem was written. For a bit of mystery, keep the authors of each poem anonymous and post them on a wall or bulletin board for others to read. Perhaps this will inspire responses from other students or patrons. This activity would be a great way to celebrate National Poetry Month in April.

Enos, Randall. May 2007. Booklist.|16843802|13459918&mc=USA#. Accessed October 1, 2013.

The Lion & The Mouse by Jerry Pinkney

TheLionandTheMouse_JerryPinkneyBibliographic Info:
Pinkney, Jerry. 2009. The Lion & The Mouse. New York: Little Brown. ISBN 9780316013567.

On the African Serengeti, a mouse barely escapes the clutches of a hungry owl. The mouse inadvertently ends up in the paw of a fearsome lion. Surprisingly, the lion lets the mouse go. When the lion is later snared in a trap left by humans, the mouse hears the lion’s roar and answers his call. The mouse works to free the lion, then both go their separate ways.

Jerry Pinkney’s retelling of Aesop’s fable is a wordless picture book. In truth, there are a few onomatopoeia at key moments in the story, but these words are part of the illustrations and not text added later. Pinkney’s illustrations are richly colored and vividly detailed. “Additional African species grace splendid panoramas that balance the many finely detailed, closeup images of the protagonists” (Publishers Weekly 2009). Deep yellows, oranges, and golds sweep across each page, occasionally contrasted by verdant green foliage. There is nothing cartoonish about Pinkney’s illustrations; the animals are drawn realistically, with much respect and care. The medium of pencil, watercolors, and colored pencils on paper and the minutiae of details truly drive the narrative.

This 2010 Caldecott award winner needs no text for readers to understand the story. We never know why the lion chooses to free the mouse. We never know if the humans are poachers, game wardens, or researchers. We never why the mouse chooses to rescue the lion. In this fable, actions speak louder than words and the actions here speak of kindness. A single act of kindness has the potential to create powerful, positive changes. This book provides a wonderful opportunity for parents, teachers, and librarians to discuss with children the concept of random acts of kindness. Some older elementary age children may benefit from a discussion of poachers in the wilds of Africa. Children may also like to discuss different ways that the small can help the big, or the strong can help the weak. With the combination of compelling story and richly detailed illustrations, each child is sure to immerse him or herself in this story of kindness.

Publishers Weekly. July 2009. Publishers Accessed September 24, 2013.

The Three Ninja Pigs by Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Dan Santat

Three-Ninja-Pigs_CoreySchwartz_DanSantatBibliographic Info:
Schwartz, Corey R. 2012. The Three Ninja Pigs. Ill. Dan Santat. New York: Penguin. ISBN 97-0-399-25514-4.

The classic fable of the Three Little Pigs is given a comic book-like twist in this retelling that delivers plenty of punches, kicks, and limericks to boot. The basic plot remains the same: a mean and hungry wolf is determined to defeat (and eat) the pigs, and each pig chooses a different method to keep the wolf from achieving his goal. In this version by author Corey Rosen Schwartz, each pig chooses to study a different style of Japanese martial arts in order to defeat the wolf. Pig one chooses aikido, pig two chooses jujitsu, and pig three chooses karate. Each confrontation takes place at the house of the individual pig, and fans of the original will be happy to see that the houses are straw, sticks, and brick, respectively. Pigs one and two fail, but the stoic and dark-haired female pig three wins the final battle with her mix of determination and persistence.

Dan Santat illustrates the characters in a hilariously anthropomorphic style. The art is vibrant, full of movement, and the characters appear to jump off the page. Santat utilized a sumi brush on rice paper technique combined with Adobe Photoshop, which gives an Asian-aesthetic to each image. The illustrations come across as an homage to Japanese art and culture. When the wolf confronts the female pig outside of her home, they are surrounded by falling petals from a cherry blossom tree while a serene statue of a pig-like Buddha meditates in the background. From each pig’s home to the dojo, Japanese-style architecture is represented with great care.

Perhaps most surprising about the book is Schwartz’s uses of limericks for each spread. There is never a hitch in the rhyme and, when paired with the action-filled illustrations, the structured verse keeps the momentum moving forward to the final battle scene. Facing the wolf in preparation for the fight, Pig Three says, “Quit huffing and puffing, / and I am not bluffing. / I warn you, I’m willing to fight.” The rhymes are snappy and laugh-out-loud funny. Classroom students may enjoy taking turns reading each limerick aloud. “Schwartz’s irreverent verse never falters—and any book that rhymes “dojo” with “mojo” is one that’s worth a look” (Publishers Weekly 2012).

This book has wide appeal. Children (and adults) who love the classic fable, fans of martial arts or ninjas, poetry lovers, folks who want a little bit of girl power in a picture book, and admirers of Japanese art and culture should all find something to enjoy. The glossary at the back also offers a great lesson in new vocabulary, as well as a further lesson in culture. This is definitely a story that many children would love to act out, so a reader’s theater is my first suggestion. For a writing exercise, ask children to come up with different settings for a new story about the wolf and pigs. On a personal note, this is now one of my top favorite children’s books and I cannot wait to share it with the families who visit my library!


Publishers Weekly. July 2012. Publishers Accessed September 19, 2013.