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The Closet

(Back to the Front Porch)

Enter the closet where we shed light on sensitive topics. This closet may contain mature subject matter. Reader discretion is advised. 

Falling Angels by Colin Thompson (Hutchinson Publishers)
 
I was immediately drawn to this book by it’s intriguing cover and unique title.  Who says you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. From the first page I was drawn into a beautifully imaginative world where from infancy Sally, the main character, spends her nights flying through her town and eventually the world.  Her grandmother is the only one who believes the wild stories Sally tells of the exotic places she visits.  Each night she brings back treasures from far away lands, gives them to her grandmother. 
 
As the story progresses we learn that the grandmother has her own box of treasures which she gave to her grandmother during her falling days.  Sally is amazed and asks why everyone cannot fly.  The grandmother’s response is my favourite part of the book. She says, ‘Some people see the world with their eyes. Some people see the world with their hearts. All you have to do is keep your dreams alive.’ 
 
Sally’s grandmother has one last wish before she dies and that is to feel the hot sun one last time.  When she arrives at her favourite place she takes her last breath and stays there forever.  This is a beautiful and simplistic way to present what may happen in death and what the afterlife might be like  This last scene provides a comforting version of death for children who have lost loved ones.
The intricate illustrations by Thompson are breathtaking.  Each page is rich with detail and new things are revealed with each reading of the story.  I would recommend this book for the young or the young at heart

Where the Wild Things are, Go Away Big Green Monsters and There’s a Nightmare in my Closet

For the past couple months, my two and a half year old daughter has been talking non-stop about monsters.  Often bringing them up even at the oddest times.  “Mummy, are monsters nice?”  she says as we sit and colour together.  “Mummy, do monsters live in my closet? she asks as we drive to the grocery store.  This newest fascination about monsters had left both my husband and I perplexed.  Where in the world had our daughter learned about monsters, let alone talk about where they live or how scary they are?  Her world consists of very little television and she has never watched a movie.  And yet, here she was talking about monsters as if she sees them on a daily basis.  I wanted to understand where this new fascination began so I did a little research.

And to my surprise, there is a lot of information and research concerning toddlers and monsters.  It seems that around the age of two to three years old children begin to develop these new fears.  This is also the time that children are learning how to express themselves more clearly and as a result they can better explain and vocalize their fears. 

I headed off to my local bookstore.  Being an avid reader my-self, I often turn to books when I am introducing a new subject to my students.  I thought what could be a better way to help my daughter understand that monsters are in fact friendly by reading about them in books.

The first book that I came across I had read many years ago and it was just made into a major motion picture, “Where The Wild Things Are” written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The story is about a little boy named Max, who being a typical two-year-old, is sent to his room by his mother for being mischievous.  Through Max’s vivid imagination his room turns into a mysterious wild forest and sea where he sails to the land of Wild Things.  There he encounters fearsome looking monsters but is able to tame them “by staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once”.  What is so great about these monsters is that they look scary and ridiculous at the same time perfect for any two year olds imagination. The illustrations are truly beautiful and striking.  The book is about so much more than just monsters but a perfect addition to anyone looking to help conquer a toddler’s fear of monsters.

The next book I came across is “Go Away Big Green Monsters” written by Ed Emberley.  This book was recommended as the  “the ultimate empowering tool” to overcome ones fears about monsters.  What is so great about this book is that with each page the monster is slowly created by using cut outs in the book.  First the two big yellow eyes appear, then the long bluish-greenish nose.  By the time you add the big, scary green face, you’ve got one scary monster.  Then the same process is done in reverse so that the cartoonish monster can be taken apart.  As each page is turned, the text “Go Away” is repeated on each page followed by an exclamation mark.  Thus reinforcing to the child that they are in fact in charge of the monster.  At the end of the story when the monster is gone the reader is left with the accompanying text, “GO AWAY, Big Green Monster! And DON’T COME BACK! Until I say so.”  Again giving the reader complete control over the monster and hopefully encouraging them to conquer their fears and start the book all over again.  This is another great book that helps the child take charge of their own fears by empowering them to create their own monster.

The last book that I bought is called “There’s A Nightmare In My Closet” written by Mercer Mayer.  This book is about a little boy who conquers his fears and gets great joy from the monsters in his closet.  Every night he climbs into bed and hides his head under the sheets to hide from the monsters in his closet.  But one night he decides to put on a helmet and outfits himself with a toy canon, toy soldiers, and a pop-gun to rid himself of his “nightmare” once and for all.  When the monsters come out of the closet he is ready for them.  He threatens to shoot the monster but the monster does the unimaginable and starts to cry.  The little boy ends up tucking the monster into his bed and they happily share his bed together. 

The notion of a ‘big scary monster’ and our own conceptual images of these abstract phenomenon’s can be both daunting and compelling.  The mind of a child is complex and intriguing and it’s not a surprise that children are drawn to monsters in the same way they might be drawn to a catchy tune or an avid color scheme – all offer an opportunity for the child to develop their imagination.
What is most scary about a monster, is the image it conjures up in our minds.  As these books have demonstrated, the power of the human mind and the strength of our own imagination is far greater than reality itself.  In all of these books, the monsters ended up being vulnerable, powerless creatures.  The lesson here is teaching our children the balance between what is real and what is make believe and allowing them the opportunity to explore both without compromising the other.  This is not an easy task but these books were written to help bridge the gap between imagery and true existence and to open the dialogue between parents and children about subjects and issues that are usually difficult to discuss.

miss 405Meeting Miss 405

Lois Peterson, Orca Young Readers

Holidays are for reading and so I did. Wanting to catch up on my bibliography list I sat by the wood stove and began at the top of my accumulating pile. Six books later I feared that the current troop of today’s authors had lost their ability to create good children’s books. Grant it some of my selection were recommended by my seven year old grandson and others were non-recommended kid’s favourites such as the Goosebumps series. As I had never read a Goosebumps I thought I should at least read one. And I had promised my grandson to read several of his favourites.  Surprisingly enough neither of those rated at the bottom of my list. Oh, no there were much worse books. Even ones by well known Canadian authors, obviously written to accomplish a good deed but failing to become literature, and I was looking for literature. My seventh book made the whole day worth while.

“Dad says you can learn what is  most important about a person in the first fifteen minutes after you meet them.”

This is the voice of Tansy. The concept is easily applied to books, especially this one, as the author accomplishes so much in a mere 100 pages. This chapter book is a keeper, it deals with depression and bullies in an atmosphere of sunshine. Tansy’s personality sparkles with curiousity and intelligence. It was a joy to spend the time with her.

Within the pages one learns about mindfulness from the “super-concentrated” Miss Stella, the sitter as she delicately shares time with Tansy. Nothing is pushed, everything is open to explore, including her cupboards. And Tansy does explore. As we follow Tansy through her explorations of life and cupboards we discover along with her how to deal with the bullies at her school and emotionally with her ill mother who is “away staying with Grandpa”. The book is written in the first person in an authentic child voice. Totally believable and wonderfully imaginative. It reminds me of “Flowers for Algernon” and “Mister God, This is Anna” both books that will live in my bookshelf for a very long time. The chapters are short and easily read by a young child who is comfortable with reading chapter books. I would be most interested to know if an eight year old finds this book as interesting as I did or if it is only my adult self that enjoyed the child voice. I suspect that a child who might be dealing with similar problems to Tansy’s would find this book a comfort to read, as well as enjoyable and useful. It does not preach nor is contrived but flows smoothly through the story.

The author, Lois Peterson, weaves several story lines with ease through the book, entwining them with the expertise of a fine author. Originally an adult short story writer, her move to children’s books shows her as talented and intelligent, one who understands story structure, development and audience. A relief after the previous six books in my day. I loved it.

enemyThe Enemy: A book about peace (2009) written by Davide Cali & illustrated by Serge Bloch

 A simple premise begins the book: There is a battlefield.  In the battlefield are two holes.  In each hole is a soldier.  They are enemies.

 Every so often you stumble across something that becomes a treasure. This simple picture book is just such a find.  While recently perusing the children’s picture book collection at my local library I came across an unadorned book with a black and white and khaki coloured soldier drawn on the cover, entitled, The Enemy:  A book about peace.  What a find.  Drawn to the cover, I scooped up the book and flipped through it to discover a simply worded and minimally illustrated story about the absurdity and pointlessness of war. 

 In the past, and perhaps nowadays, it was unthinkable in times of war to think that the enemy could be human like us.  One is told that we should think of the enemy as not being human and that the enemy doesn’t have a mother or father, or family who love him.  We have come to believe that the enemy wants to hurt us, to hurt our family, to destroy our way of life, and dislikes peace.  This book proposes the contrary – that our enemy is very much like us. 

 Appealing to both children and adults alike, its innocent narration is complimented by charming little black and white and khaki coloured sketches of a soldier in a trench, similar to those of World War I, waging battle with an unknown enemy.  The soldier has few props – just a weapon and a manual on war. Thinking it was written years ago in memory of veterans of WWI and II, I was surprised to note that it was newly published in April 2009.  Similar to other post-modern picture books, the story starts on the jacket and end pages of the book as soon as you open it, and it questions the conventional wisdom of war and the military.  As well, its ending is unresolved and left open to interpretation.  Interestingly, and thankfully, the text and illustrations are free of any national or political party symbols, allowing the book to be viewed as being generic as to country and origin.

 The Enemy is an easily readable book dealing with the weighty issues of war and peace, propaganda and the human condition, current both yesterday and today.  I’ll be using this book with my junior high social studies classes.

daddyDaddy’s Wedding” by Michael Willhoite

As I was searching through the library one day I came across this book called “Daddy’s Wedding”, written and illustrated by Michael Willhoite in 1996. This book is the sequel to the headline-making Daddy’s Roommate (1990. This time Daddy is getting married to his partner, Frank, and asks his 10-year-old son to be the best man at their “wedding”/”commitment ceremony.”

An Amazon weekly review stated, “If the reception of Daddy’s Roommate is much of a predictor, people’s responses to this book will center almost exclusively on its politics, not its artistic merits. Those in the market for picture books about gay parenting will laud Willhoite’s candor and forthright approach, and overlook the cartoonish art and mediocre text. For others, the subject matter alone will suffice to condemn the book. If applied to another theme, the meager talents showcased here wouldn’t draw much attention, but with same-sex marriage such a hot topic right now, the one thing the book won’t be is ignored.”

This book is said to be aimed at ages 3-7.

I personally think that this book could be a great resource for anyone who may need some assistance in covering the topic of same sex marriage with a child of any age. This story sheds some light on the subject with a very literal story line while casting the situation in a very positive and educational light. The main child character, 10 year old Nick, even gets to have an important role in his Father’s Wedding as he is asked to be the best man.

Other books by Michael Willhoite include:

stuckStuck in Neutral

Terry Truman’s novel, Stuck in Neutral, definitely belongs in the closet for addressing issues not often raised in young adult fiction.  The novel takes a provocative look at the life of Shawn McDaniel, a 14-year-old suffering from cerebral palsy.

Stuck in Neutral is told from the point of view of Shawn himself, an incredibly authentic and endearing character who leads the reader on a journey through his mind, the only thing he has any control of.  Shawn introduces himself to the reader and explains how his amazing gift of total recall evolved.  Shawn also describes his condition in incredible detail.  He is frank to say the least.  When given his annual psychological educational assessment, it’s determined Shawn has the mental age of three months.  Every single person in his life, including his family, believes he is, as Shawn puts it, “dumb as a doornail.”  Only Shawn and the reader know just how far from the truth that is.  Shawn points out how aggravating this information gap is when he states:

I do sometimes wonder what life would be like if people, even one person, knew that I was smart and that there’s an actual person hidden inside my useless body; I am in here, I’m just sort of stuck in neutral.

Shawn’s most gripping statement appears at the end of Chapter Two: The bad news is complicated; difficult to explain. In a nutshell, it’s that I’m pretty sure my dad is planning to kill me.

Shawn doesn’t want to die, but his father just may believe that ending Shawn’s life will save his son from endless suffering and what empathic father wouldn’t want that?

The rest of the novel chronicles just how Shawn came to this disturbing conclusion.  Along the way, the reader learns how he believes his condition impacts his parents’ marriage, his siblings’ lives, what it’s like to have a seizure and his whole take on formal education for the “uneducable child”.

Truman’s use of first person is intense, but has raised numerous questions for me.  For example, how would Trueman know that seizures suffered by people with cerebral palsy are pleasurable? Through Shawn’s internal monologue, Trueman also points out tests to assess cognitive awareness are ineffectual.  If this is the case, how would such genius ever be realized?  In other words, how would Trueman know that making Shawn smart would be realistic? 

Luckily, Trueman includes a note at the end of his novel explaining that his son also suffers from cerebral palsy and cannot communicate at all.  When writing Stuck in Neutral, he created a character based on what his son’s world might be like, but admitted no one truly knows.  Despite this admission, the fact that Trueman has a son with the condition somehow makes the story that much more authentic. This novel has truly changed my perception of disabled people and provided me with insight into living with a disability.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone planning to read the novel, so I’ll keep my final comment foggy. Euthanasia is a dark and controversial topic.  Shawn thinks his dad plans to kill him out of love; Shawn is near genius, but has no way of communicating the truth. For me, this detail evoked the most haunting question of all.   What about the real-life cases of loving parents euthanizing children suffering from conditions such as cerebral palsy?  Were those children just stuck in neutral?

david's heartSearching for David’s Heart

Searching for David’s Heart was one of those novels that came to me from out of nowhere.  It happened upon me by chance, with no recommendation or reference from any source, and it has stayed with me ever since.  It is one of my favourite books.  Well written, engaging and genuine, it will have you wrapped up in it from the beginning to the end. 

I read this book to my fourth grade class several years ago.  I issued no tests or assignments related to the book…. We read it for the pure enjoyment of the read.  For 15 minutes a day, we fell in Darcy Deeton’s world.  The book opens with typical young teenager angst.  Darcy is jealous that her beloved older brother David is spending so much time with his new girlfriend… time and attention that he used to share with Darcy.  The reader senses a distance between Darcy and her parents, and it becomes clear early on that her father is racist, widening the gap even further.  The other family member is a grandmother (MeeMaw) whom Darcy is begrudgingly forced to visit in a nursing home and whom she refers to as a ‘vegetable’. 

Very early on, David is tragically killed in an accident, and Darcy blames herself for his death.  She becomes consumed with his death, isolating herself from the world around her.  Feeling lonely, angry and abandoned, Darcy decides that she must find the only part of David that remains: his heart.  She and her best friend Sam secretly set out on a mission across the country to find the organ recipient of David’s heart. 

This novel addresses issues of growing up, changing friend and family dynamics, abandonment, losing someone you love, finding strength to move on and so many more.

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to teach the same group of students with whom I had first shared this novel.  I like to take suggestions for read aloud books on sticky notes every once in a while from the class.  To my surprise and delight, several of the students requested Searching for David’s Heart again.  Surely this is a testament to the quality and lasting impact of this novel.  It’s a great choice for a Must Read list.

Unheard Voices in the Park

voices1Issues related to a person’s socioeconomic status or social class are often misunderstood or go unspoken.  Anthony Browne’s, Voices in the Park, does an amazing job sharing four different perspectives of an afternoon trip to the park, using four markedly distinct voices.  The characters are gorillas with many human characteristics, typical of other Browne stories. 

This story involves two families taking their dogs to the park.  We assume the first family, consisting of a mother and her son, Charles, is quite well off, with their pedigree Labrador and large house with a white picket fence.  This mother is responsible for sharing the initial perspective of the afternoon’s activities via the First Voice.  Her idea of a walk in the park involves sitting on a bench quietly with her son while she plans that night’s dinner.  She quickly turns judgemental and uses a variety of negative adjectives to describe the unexpected goings on around her, such as “scruffy mongrel…horrible thing…frightful types…very rough-looking child”. 

The Second Voice comes from an unemployed father who takes his dog, Albert, the “scruffy mongrel”, and his daughter, Smudge, the “very rough-looking child” to the park in an effort to get out of the house.  He spends his time sitting on a bench trying to find a job in the newspaper, all the while envious of Albert’s endless energy.  It was so refreshing to see that his daughter chatting to him on the way home was enough to cheer him up.

voices 2The Third and Fourth Voices come to us via Smudge and Charles.  One would expect that the child who seemingly has everything would come across as being a happy child.  The book does a fabulous job reminding us that things aren’t always as they seem.  Charles’ perspective is shared through grey skies, and through his routine life, seems sad and lonely.  Symbols of his mother, mainly her distinct hat, perpetrate many of his visions of the world around him.  Smudge’s world, on the other hand, seems to involve sunny skies and the welcome unexpected.  Both children make judgements about one another, eventually changing their minds about the other.  In the end, Smudge clearly sees through to Charles’ sadness and Charles is able to find amazement in Smudge’s adventurous spirit.

voices 3Probably the most remarkable feature of the book is its powerful use of illustrations and differing text type.  With each voice, the text type changes and the pictures reflect the feelings of each perspective.  It’s interesting how Charles and Smudge’s father have similar grey backgrounds and skies, while Smudge and Charles’ mother have similar bright, sunny skies. 

I love how each and every time I pick up this book, I find something in an illustration that I haven’t noticed before.  Trees may find themselves on fire, as fruit, with sliced trunks, growing in the shapes of hats and even gorilla heads, or standing with their mouths open wide.  And what about a crying Mona Lisa, a single bicycle travelling in opposite directions, King Kong, and an airborne Mary Poppins?  There are so many hidden meanings behind each symbol that are crying to be discovered.

To say this book is both powerful and intriguing when it comes to thinking about social class and perspective is an understatement.  It allows us to freely connect with a variety of voices…in the park.   

lunaLuna

By Julie Anne Peters

I was deeply moved by this novel and could not put it down as I desperately wished for the happy ending I feared would never come.  Luna stayed with me even when life interfered and I was forced to put the novel down.  To me this is the hallmark of an exceptional piece of writing.

This novel is probably best suited for grades 9 and up due to the sensitive content.  It is about a teenager who appears on the outside to be a boy but knows that on the inside she is a girl.  At night she goes into her younger sister’s room and becomes “Luna” the person she wishes she could present to the world. 

I did feel compassion for Regan caught in the middle of Luna’s life and living a lie in much the same way Luna was.  Having a brother like Liam prevented her from finding a place within her social life at school.  This “brother” made her friends feel uncomfortable to be around and she guilty by association.  Regan’s reaction towards the transitioning of Luna was very believable.   I think that if Regan had been portrayed as completely oppositional or completely supportive toward Luna this would have tarnished the authenticity of the story. 

I find Luna to be the heroine of her own story.  She had the courage to finally break free of the social constraints that were subjecting her to such continual torment.  She knew in her heart that she was living a lie and she decided to take action.  Regan also took action when she refused to copy Luna’s science work.  She too made the decision to take responsibility and control of her life.

The combination of my own socialization and my personal lack of exposure had left me with no other perspective than to view transsexuals through our society’s gender tainted glasses where shades of “normal” did not include Luna. Perhaps now I will see a little bit clearer. Perhaps now I will see a little bit more.

Seuss takes on the arms race in The Butter Battle Book

butter battleOne of my favourite Doctor Seuss books The Butter Battle Book deals with the topic of war.  Inspired by this I began thinking that war might make a good “taboo” topic for the closet.  My search for further children’s books on the same topic yielded mostly books intended for older students.   “I don’t know how you would approach that topic with young children,” the librarian told me.  This got me to thinking about how Seuss handled it in The Butter Battle Book.  The answer is simple.  What Seuss does in The Butter Battle Book is satirize war within his trademark nonsense, child friendly type world.

Like many of Doctor Seuss’s best books (The Lorax, Yertle the Turtle) The Butter Batter Book takes on a very “grown up” topic using a make believe world and characters along with nonsense worlds and images  to represent very real life issues.  The book specifically satirizes the cold war between the Soviet Union and United States and the ensuing arms race.  Two different groups of people (the Yooks and the Zooks) live on separate sides of a large wall, (possibly representing the Berlin Wall.)  The two groups are at war over which side to butter their bread, the Yooks butter the top of their bread while the Zooks butter the bottom.  This represents the ideological differences of communism and capitalism between The Soviet Union and United Sates.

Through out the course of the book the Yooks and the Zooks continue to build up larger and larger weapons, each side continually trying to outdo the other.  They are of course silly nonsense weapons representing the weapons build up in the arms race.  Their arms race in the book culminates with each side developing a “Big-Big Boomeroo”, a small red ball capable of destroying everything (of course representing the atomic bomb).  The book ends quite darkly with both sides threatening to drop the “Big Boy Bomeroo”.  The boy shouts to his grandfather, “Be careful! Oh, gee!  Who’s going to drop it?  Will you…? Or will he…?” and the grandfather responds “Be patient, we’ll see.  We will see.” And then we simply see a blank white page.  There is no peaceful resolution to the conflict and neither side learns any less about tolerance (though we hope the reader does). It is unusual for a children’s story not to end happily and usually with a lesson learned.  This story almost doesn’t seem to end at all.

I have always enjoyed Seuss’s satire of the cold war and he displays a unique ability to convey his message in a way seemingly intended for children.   I can certainly see it being used with an older group of students in learning about the historical significance of the cold war as a means of opening up discussion on war or tolerance of different beliefs, issues which are still very much relevant today.  I am not sure how I would handle this book with younger children, however.  The book starts off as most Seuss books and for awhile seems contained in his nonsense world.  As it continues on, however and the weapons get larger it becomes more real.  I believe that if a child is going read this book he/she needs to be able to understand its full significance.  They need to understand (in as basic terms as possible) the historical background of the book and its anti war message.  A child reading the story as is might not interpret it as it was intended. A review I researched of the book noted that children might misinterpret the message as being that it is necessary to continue to build up your arms as it is the only means of ensuring your protection. Of course younger children may not interrupt a message at all and simply appreciate it for the stories’ sake.  But this does not mean that they might not find it disturbing.  Of course I would advise a great deal of discussion to accompany this book with any age group. As with all controversial issues teachers will have to use their discretion when deciding whether or not their students are mature enough to handle this topic.

Lois Lowry’s The Giver is one of my favourite books to explore with older students. 

The_GiverThe novel is set in a seemingly ‘perfect’ society – one in which there are strict rules that everyone follows without question or curiosity.   Readers are introduced to Jonas, the main character, and his friends and family.  In this society, devoid of emotion and individuality, all important decisions are made for its population by a group of elders.  The community members are devoid of personal emotions.  Pills are even taken by all community members to inhibit ‘stirrings’ of a sexual nature.  Life partners are even paired up and children assigned to create family units.  At the age of 12, members are given their life ‘assignment’.  Some members are selected as Caregivers to the Old, others as Directors of Recreation, and still others as Birth Mothers, who are designated to have one child a year for three years, then to work hard labour for the rest of their lives.  These assignments are carefully selected for each community member based on years of close observation by the elders. 

The elders have noticed something special about Jonas, and he is pulled aside to be given the special assignment of becoming ‘The Receiver’.  The Receiver of Memory is meant to harbour all of the memories and feelings (good and bad) on behalf of the community, to spare them of confusion and disorder that would inevitably arise if everyone had emotions and feelings that put self-interest above the good of the community.  (The elders believe that one person needs to hold all the memories, rather than eradicate them completely, to ensure that mistakes made in the past are not repeated.)

In private sessions, Jonas begins to receive memories involving feelings and emotions from The Giver, the current but aging harbourer of all memories.  During discussions with The Giver, and internally, Jonas begins to question the rules and decisions made by the elders, they way the community is run and its members controlled, and the consequences of regimented versus free society. 

This novel offers opportunity to consider and explore notions of freedom, government and democracy, death, euthanasia and suicide, puberty and sexuality, family structures and dynamics, education and so much more.  It is a book you can’t put down, and Lowry leaves you wondering about Jonas, the community, and your own life choices well beyond the last page.

and-tango-makes-three-300and Tango makes three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. Illustrations by Henry Cole

To truly define “family” in today’s society has become more and more challenging as our world grows increasingly diverse. According to recent statistics, grandparents are raising more than 1.4 million school aged children, 1 million children are adopted each year, over 1 million children will face a situation of divorce or separation, 5 hundred thousand children will live in foster care and between 6 and 10 million children live in homes with bisexual, gay or lesbian parents. It is with this information that I feel so passionately about bringing awareness to children about family diversity and how we need to embrace our differences and learn from one another (localschooldirectory.com).

 I remember one of the first times that, as a teacher, I first began to realize the importance of teaching children about diversity. I was sitting in the staffroom and joined a conversation regarding what people were planning on doing for an art project for the upcoming Father’s Day. I began to listen to what one of my colleagues had to say regarding the subject. She began to explain how she didn’t engage in Father’s/Mother’s day activities in her class because many of her students came from diverse family backgrounds. Being a new teacher I hadn’t given it that much thought, up to that point, and began realizing that it was something I needed to educate and prepare myself for. Although I agreed with my colleague’s argument, I didn’t feel comfortable completely eliminating certain holidays/celebrations. Instead I decided that this was an opportunity to share and educate my students about Diversity, with a particular focus, at that time, on Family Diversity.

Here I am 4 years later still trying to find new books to share with my class regarding the topic of family diversity.  I am still surprised to find very few picture books that I feel would engage younger children. During my recent search, one book that did capture my attention was the story of Tango in “and Tango makes three”. The heartfelt tale of Tango, based on actual events witnessed at a Central Park Zoo, is about two male penguins that want to be like the other couples who are hatching eggs. Despite countless efforts to hatch a rock, the zookeeper helps out by giving them an egg (Tango), who they later adopt and raise as their own. After reading this story I was eager to find out more about the book and its authors, so I quickly ran to my computer to perform a search and was amazed to see how much criticism the book had provoked. I would never have thought that a children’s book could stir up so much emotion in its readers? The American Library Association reported that “and Tango makes three” was the most challenged book 3 years running and made the top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2008.  The book has been widely opposed by parents and administrators all over North America and continues to be pulled off shelves in both public and school libraries.

Even though I enjoyed this book and think it does a great job at illustrating what real families look like today, I’m not entirely convinced it is a book that is the best fit for the classroom, due to growing parental concerns. With that being said, it is enlightening to see that there are real life stories out there to be shared and look forward to seeing more of them in the future. Maybe with time, more people will realize the importance of sharing these stories regardless of how different the families in them are to their own. So even though I didn’t find a book for my classroom, I did find a story that I will gladly share with family and friends JJ

So I guess my search continues… I am always looking for more great books, so recommendations are always welcome!!!

Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. (1986) Little Brown & Company.

dinosaurs divorceMy sister first discovered this book when she had just separated from her ex-husband and was looking for a book about divorce to read with her children.  She passed this book on to me to read as I too had lots of questions and wanted to learn how I could better communicate with my niece and nephew about their new family life. 

Dinosaurs Divorce is told through the lives of dinosaurs and plays out as a comic strip.  What I really like about this book is that each chapter deals with a different topic.  Topics include; why mom and dad divorced in the first place, to it’s ok to love both parents, to having two homes, to parents getting remarried and having half-siblings.  As a result, some of these chapters may not be suitable for every family.   However, depending on the family situation, the reader can pick and choose the chapters that are applicable to them and their children.

The illustrations in this book are bright and a lot of emphasis is put on the facial expressions of the dinosaurs.  At times the dinosaurs get visibly upset, sad, angry and frustrated.  Some of my favorite discussions with my niece centered on these cartoons.  By talking about how the dinosaurs were feeling in turn, opened the door to conversations about how my niece was feeling.

The accompanying text is not complex and simple terms are used making it easy for children to understand what is being said.  The suggested age for this book is 4 to 8 years old however, older children may enjoy reading it.

Even though my sister was the one who initially found this book I have suggested it to many friends who are going through a divorce themselves.    It can be used as a great resource and read over and over especially if the family life changes again.  I also recommend that the adult read the book to their children to be able to explain/clarify the situations and emotions in each chapter. 

Skim by Tamaki, Mariko. Illustrations Jillian Tamaki. Skim. Toronto: Groundwood, 2008.

Skim2I first noticed this book because it kept popping up in graphic novel reviews and lists of books to read, so I got a copy and read it. It was not an easy task, as I don’t like the dark side and this book takes you there. It is a quick read and one that you don’t want to drop or leave for any period of time.

Skim is a self-contemplating, consciously awake sixteen year old surrounded by the cliques and cliches of a private girls school. Every sixteen year old girl’s life is constantly in turmoil, with extremes in emotional altitudes and plummeting depths. No triviality is encountered in this book as it faces an array of subjects including divorce, suicide, gay sexuality, and depression.

When a teacher asks her, “Why do the students call you Skim?”, her answer “Because I am not.” is the backbone of this book. The story does not skim the surface but reaches down into the wonderings and wanderings of a girl well used to contemplating the world from an outsiders view. The character is created with sympathy and compassion but with an honesty that rings true, if not to the cringing adult readers as they read the language the girls use, then to the teenage girls that pick it up and see familiar layers of themselves. Skim is real, and through her story, questions are posed and thoughts contemplated. There is lots to digest here and it is not a light lunch.

Side-by-side to the rough language is beautiful prose with metaphors that ring with imagination, (“It feels like there is a broken washing machine inside my chest…” “My eyes felt like bathtub plugs.” ) and illustrations that go beyond the words with a casualness in their style that hides the well planned structure of the book.

 Read to the end. No pick up and drop book. It is a one sitting read and well-worth it.

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22 comments

  1. Luna was suggested to me to read by a classmate. I too loved it and found it contained authentic and honest characters. It was interesting to note that the main character was not Luna herself but her sister and that the book delved into the perspectives of both characters. As a parent, I also found the reactions of the parents to be most thought provoking, although their story was incomplete in the book, it left me with my thinking cap still on, long after I finished reading.


  2. Voices in the Park sounds utterly facsinating. As I read the description above, I couldn’t help but recognize the endless possibilities for reading and writing workshops in my grade 9 ELA classroom. I can picture my students having great fun experimenting with Browne’s stylistic devices (font, illustrations, etc.) The book would also make a great springboard when discussing social class and perspective. Thank you for introducing such an amazing resource!


    • Wow! What a wonderful response on Voices in the Park. I had recently read the book but did not get as much out of it as the response posted above. I reread the book and was amazed at all of the social class issues and judgement that can also be discussed with the book, besides perspecitve. I found this book in my school’s literacy library. It was sent to the school by the board as part of a literacy infusion and came with a mini-lesson workshop planning sheet. I read this over before reading the book so I think I was more focused on the questions and discussion ideas that the mini-lesson suggested then my own thoughts and ideas.


  3. “Voices in the Park” is a book that should be in every classroom in every grade. It is a training manual for visual literacy and is so intriguing that you want to pick it up again and again to ‘see’ what else you can ‘read.’

    Love it too! Great review.


  4. The variety and types of literature that can be discussed in the closet are endless. I am always curious to see what will pop up next. My interest has been peaked by a number of books discussed here in the closet and many have been added to my list of must reads. I enjoy the types of books that address and raise powerful and controversial issues. These types of books tend to force readers to wrestle with their own thoughts, allowing them to figure out their own stance. This is what good literature does. Reading these types of books allows you the freedom to learn, address and explore often challenging, provocative and ethical issues. I am intrigued by the variety of issues being raised by many of these books. Issues surrounding identity, family, acceptance, and tolerance are just a few of the issues raised in these books. I am particularly interested in reading Searching for David’s Heart, Stuck in Neutral and Luna. These are all new titles to me and anxious to get my hands on them. Thanks to those of you who have recommended them.


  5. Where the Wild Things Are is not a book that was a favourite of mine until three years ago. In fact, I had not read it until three years ago. I wasn’t a fan of reading about monsters, so saw no point in picking it up. I was moving to a new school to teach a grade (grades actually) new to me and my class was being put into the portable. I needed to find a theme but I didn’t know where to start. Since I had a lot to do I put the theme on the back burner and went on the hunt for some books to start a library that would be appropriate for Grades 3 and 4. Anne at Tattletales was extremely helpful in helping me choose books for my classroom. Where the Wild Things Are, was one of the books I decided to purchase. From the moment I read it, I felt a connection to that book. I realized that was going to be our theme. I went to Woozles and purchased the print for our classroom, the day before the kids started school. You may be wondering why I chose that book. I didn’t choose it because we were where the wild things were, but rather the message behind it. I thought it would be a good theme because just like Max, I wanted the students to know the portable was a safe place for them to make mistakes and that it would all be okay. Also it was a safe place to use their imagination and take chances in their learning. The kids really liked the theme. Although I moved into the building the following year, I continued to use Where the Wild Things Are as our theme so the students knew it wasn’t just the portable that was the safe place, but rather the entire school was a safe place to take chances in their learning.


  6. The Giver is a perfect book for students aged 12-15 years. For teens, these years are some of the hardest. They are still trying to figure out who they are while battling changes in their bodies and the peer pressure of those around them. This book deals with these matters in an alternate reality setting, which makes it more interesting for the students to read than a simple “coming of age” novel. The Sci-Fi nature would appeal to them more. It encourages teens not to take everything that is told to them at face value. It provokes them to explore and learn while discovering the never-ending reaches of their imaginations. Jonas, the main character, lives a life where everything he does and everything the people around him do is dictated and controlled. When he is chosen to be the new Giver, he is pushed to test everything he has known. Although it may have an underlying theme of challenging authority, it also shows the trouble Jonas has adjusting to the changes he’s feeling, which may relate to the way adolescents feel while going through puberty, and what he’s learning about his so-called “perfect” society. Another interesting thing about the book is that there are discussion-provoking questions in the back that can better help students understand the concepts in the book and provide great opportunities for class discussions.


  7. The Closet is full of such interesting titles. I was immediately drawn to Falling Angel. It reminded me of The Lighthouse by Robert Munch, and A Special Place in My Heart (author unknown). All very sensitive books to help students understand the stages of life and help deal with a death of a loved one.
    I was first introduced to Where the Wild Things are over 25 years ago, I read it to my own children and to my students and it is a hit every time, whether you read it and leave it, or develop it further into a performance or art activity.
    My son read and recommended Luna to me. I am so thankful that authors such as Julie Anne Peters are writing such incredibly sensitive subjects into beautiful stories. It was an opening to a very deep and meaningful conversation with my teenage son. He said that it cleared up some misconceptions he had and that he wished people were more open and honest about discussing the topics of homosexuals and transsexuals. It is a very emotional perspective for both Regan and Liam/Luna. We felt compassion and empathy for both characters throughout the novel and both agreed it was a bittersweet ending. It is sad to think just how realistic this piece of fiction is, and a shame that people have to make such hard choices just to live life in a way that makes them comfortable. My son also recommended the sequel to The Giver which is titled Gathering Blue, so if you enjoyed The Giver you may want to add it to your shopping list, I did!


  8. The Closet deals with sensitive topics and issues I believe are important to expose our students to in today’s changing world. At first glance, we may feel some of these books deal with subject matter that may not be appropriate for our students or teachers may not be comfortable dealing with particular issues that arise in these books, but we need to acknowledge that our students’ lives may be reflected in the lives of some of these characters. More importantly, it is our responsibility to make sure our classrooms are inclusive and that we recognise the diversity that exists in our world through the students we teach. Students need to feel like they exsist in our classrooms by seeing their reflections in what they read and what they are exposed to in school. Giving students opportunities to explore sensitive issues in books like “Daddy’s Wedding”, “Luna”, and “Skim” is important because it gives them a safe environment to express their opinions, respond to the books, and discuss these issues with their classmates to become more informed and to diffuse any preconceptions that may exist from past social and cultural experiences. “Voices in the Park” and other post-modern picture books are great resources for teaching critical literacy. Getting students to be emphathetic and see different perspectives is easily done through these types of texts. A great activity to do with “Voices in the Park” is to have students rewrite the ending from the perspective of the dogs.


  9. I recently reread the book The giver by Lois Lowry. It is such a fantastic book with so many things to think about and discuss relating to life choices. I read this book once with a grade 6 class and loved discussing it with them – especially the ending where it is left for the reader to decide what ultimately happened to Jonas!


  10. I recently came across the book And Tango Makes Three. Although it addresses a topic that many teachers fear because of parents’ reactions, teachers will now have the support from the Nova Scotia Department of Education. In a recent roll-out of books from the DOE, And Tango Makes Three was included in the collection. Other books included are In Our Mothers’ House, Molly’s Family and A Tale of Two Daddies. These books explore the meaning of family and should be used to explore diverse family structures.


  11. I have to admit that this section of the house is one of my favorites. This could be because of the grade level that I teach upper junior high school. The serious issues in some of these books are a must to introduce in the classroom. In our today’s world of students, we have many students that have the same sex parents. To be able to introduce other students to realize the struggles some face in everyday life. I was particularly interested in the book “Stuck in Neutral”. What an explosive book to share with students that can spin into interesting ethical discussions. There are a few books recommended on this site that deal with gender issues. Students in the upper junior high levels deal with social issues and gender issues and some of these books would be important, I think, to introduce. This section of the house also deals with books concerning depression, divorce, and sexual orientation which certainly are important issues to discuss in the classroom. Time to load up on some of these books!


  12. Recently I was at Chapters with my 14 year old daughter while looking for books for her I stumbled across ‘LUNA’. I was very taken by the subject matter and I bought the book because I wanted to know more. Transgender is not something that is openly discussed so I was very naive to the content. I read the book in one day. I could not put it down as I was so concerned for the well being of Reagan. I wanted her to rise above everything and I wanted Liam to be accepted as LUNA and be proud. The word ‘acceptence’ was constantly ringing in my head. The book has helped to open my eyes up to Transgender and what it means. I was so impressed that I asked my daughter to read the book. We had a lengthy conversation about the implications of this book to teenagers today. I have told anyone who will listen all about this book and how they should read it. This is one of those books that will stay with me forever!!!!

    A must read.


  13. “Luna” has been on my to-read list for years now, and after reading all the rave reviews here I will need to move it to the top!

    One book that has made a long-lasting impression on me is “Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott. In it, a fifteen-year-old girl called Alice is surviving as the captor of a man who kidnapped her five years earlier. Now that she is maturing physically despite his efforts to keep her childlike by starving her, he has given her the job of locating a new “Alice” who will replace her. Alice knows that she will die when she finds a replacement, but she has no choice but to befriend a young girl at a nearby park.

    At 160 pages, “Living Dead Girl” is mercifully short and packs an emotional wallop. It is not correct to say that I enjoyed this book since it is not an enjoyable read, but it is masterfully done. It has been two years since I’ve read it myself, and during that time I have had numerous conversations with people who have read it and all thought highly of it. Not for the faint of heart, I recommend it highly.


  14. I recently read read “Every Human Has Rights: A Photographic Declaration for Kids”, published by National Geographic. Every page deals with one right, written in text and contains several pictures of real people, with text that connects the pictures. Each page also contains personal narratives or poetry written by children from all over the world expressing their experiences.
    It is a very powerful book for readers of all ages, especially because of the poetry and perspectives of young people. It could be used in junior high and senior high classrooms to introduce a unit or to use as a spring board for a class discussion.
    I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is trying to raise children’s awareness or interest about human rights.


  15. Another title, I came across and would like to share is “T4”, a novel in poetry written by Ann Clare LeZotte. The story takes place in Germany in 1939. It is about a girl who’s family has to put her in hiding from the Nazi’s because she is deaf. The free verse form of the text is instrumental as the reader becomes a witness to the darkness of this time in history, from the perspective of a young girl who leaves her family to survive and continues to hold out hope that she will see her family again.
    This book is a wonderful resource for teachers who are interested in adding to their classroom resources about WWII. It is a short novel that could be read aloud to a class to spark discussion or as and independent reading novel in the English Language Arts classroom. The book could also be used to expose students to free verse poetry. Although this is serious subject matter, is a beautifully written novel for readers of all ages.


  16. Wow, What a great list of recommendations. I will have many books to add to my must read list, in particular Luna by Julie Anne Peters. I have heard of this book and have been encouraged to read it on a few occasions. I did not really feel the desire to give it a chance until reading the recommendation on this site. I am now excited for the business of work to calm down so I can have the chance to do some reading for pleasure. Thanks for the push. I have read a few reviews of her new book She Loves You, She Loves You Not, and it sounds great. It is about a young girl who breaks up with her girlfriend and moves away to live with her mother who had abandoned her at birth. The reviews sound great and I am anxious to read that as well. Thanks so much for all of the great suggestions.


  17. In today’s society, it is undoubtable that there is a strong justification, and need for gender identity enlightenment. I was pleased to see this theme included in your blog. However, I cringed slightly when reading the title of this page,’The Closet’. What lies within this section of the blog is much more empowering and enlightening, for me ‘The Closet’ places a much darker visual image in my mind. That being said, I very much enjoyed reading the entire blog, and will definitely be drawing upon the site as a quality resource for my Literacy practices.

    As an experienced educator of lower elementary students, I find myself captivated with the biased ideals the majority of children hold, of the differences between boys and girls. These preconceived attitudes towards boy versus girl likes, and dislikes, often reflect in the choices they make regarding their interests; toys, books, colours, working partners, preferred members of table groups, friends, and types of play.

    Gender identity, the inner sense of being male or female is developed early in a child’s life as they observe the world around them. This is a time for them to find their niche, their place within the world of male and female gender domains. Research suggests young children’s developing gender identities and gender self-awareness can be impacted while observing adults, and other children engaging and interacting with social and cultural experiences; as well as interactions with books, software, and social media.

    As an educator, I can facilitate an awareness of gender not being a dichotomy, but rather more of a spectrum. A mindfulness facilitated through knowledge for boys and girls, and perhaps most importantly, self-acceptance from a child exhibiting gender confusion. An examination of gender variability may prove to be an invaluable component, in contributing to the well being and healthy development of elementary aged children. Positive dialogues would enrich awareness of gender variability, and then hopefully by increasing awareness, there would be a carry over, which would support a healthy adolescent development. As educators, we must be mindful in our presentation of both classroom literacy tools, such as basal readers, picture books and software, as well as our verbal presentation of gender bias.

    Book suggestions for the fostering of gender identify enlightenment:

    • 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert. 2008. Gr. 1-5.
    Every night, Bailey dreams about dresses. But in the daytime, his parents tell him he shouldn’t be thinking about dresses because “You’re a boy!” Then Bailey meets someone who is inspired by his passion.

    • The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein. 2002. Gr. K-3.
    Because Elmer has different interests than the other male ducks, they taunt him and call him a sissy. When Elmer saves his Papa, the other ducks come to realize that Elmer’s specialness is something to celebrate.

    • The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke. 2001. Gr. K-3.
    King Wilfred teaches his daughter the same knightly skills he taught his sons. But when she turns 16, the King insists on a joust, the winner of which will win Violetta’s hand in marriage. Violetta has other plans.

    • Oliver Button is a Sissy by Tomie dePaola. 1979. Gr.K-3.
    Oliver has to deal with classmates who harass him because he prefers activities like painting, reading, and dancing, instead of playing sports.


  18. I think that this is my favourite section of this blog. I have been an educator for over 6 years now and I feel as though I am restricted in the topics that I can bring up with my students. I teach junior high and high school and, although there are many books that bring up controversial topics, I find that many are challenged by my school and are unable to be found. Therefore I am always looking for new books that can bring converstions, enlightment and new perpectives to my students. I think that it is at their age, when are starting to become young adults, that they have to be exposed to these topics.

    I like that many of these books are children’s books as well. It is maybe something I can bring up with my fellow teachers since I teach at a P-12 school in Truro. The only problem I see here is that all the books on the list are in English. I wonder if any are translated in French since we are a an all French school. Although I think maybe I could suggest it to my colleagues who teach English.

    I have recently read a book in my class called “Le cri” by author Martine Latullipe. It is a book that discusses the horrors of bullying but through the eyes of a bystander who does not do anything to help the bullied girl in the book. It was powerful and my students had a lot to say about it. I think it is a topic that has now become to hyper-popular in the media that kids have become tired to hearing about it it seems. Showing them what bullying really is and how it can affect someone’s life was enlightening to them. The book is fairly recent and the girl in the book is also cyberbullied which is not as reprensented in the books I have read about bullying.

    This part of the blog was great and I look forward to reading some of the titles on here and seeing if I can use them in my classroom. Although, reading through the previous comments, I have to agree with the comment made by Darlene Lambert that the title of this page is misleading. I did not expect this topic to be in this page. I was pleasantly surprised by the selection but I think that maybe the name should be something more powerful.


  19. I love how most of the books in “The Closet” are concerned with fear and facing fears. From “Go Away, Big Green Monster!” to “There’s a Nightmare in my Closet,” these books offer a safe way for children to confront their fears. Monsters, in all forms, can be particularly scary to young children, especially when the lights go out. By exploring fear and the unknown through literature, children can devise strategies for making the dark non-threatening. Deconstructing monsters, as well, boils them down to their most basic qualities, which may not be scary at all! Monster books show that monsters can be defeated, or that they’re not something to fear. Many monsters depicted in children’s books are cartoonish, which can also help soothe anxieties at bedtime.


  20. I saw first hand how Terry Truman’s novel, Stuck in Neutral, impacted a grade 8 English class for the positive. The novel gives insight into disability awareness, The reader learns a great deal about themselves, prejudices and familiar struggles as you witness Shawn’s complete inability to communicate to anyone in his world. I found the inner dialogue of Shawn McDanie to be powerful. A great read!


  21. Tango makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and Illustrations by Henry Cole is a wonderful story about family and diversity. It sheds light on how families come in different forms. This story is uplifting, non-judgmental and is based on a true story. I am thrilled to see this book listed and I feel it is a must read!



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