The Valentine Cat

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Bulla, Clyde Robert (1959). The Valentine Cat. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, Inc.

One of the blessings of having half a dozen kids is that you get to enjoy certain read alouds time and time again. The Valentine Cat by Clyde Robert Bulla is one of my favorite holiday traditions, and I’m sharing this post in advance in hopes that you may be able to get your hands on a copy before February 14th.

When Tell, who makes his living as a shoemaker’s assistant, takes in a half-starved, little cat with a white heart marking his black head, it not only brings companionship to his lonely evenings, but awakens the painter he once was. Brushing off his old paints he covers the walls of his flat with paintings of the cat playing and exploring. One day the cat is stolen by the local chimney sweep, Ketch, who hides him and uses him as a “magic broom” to clean tight spots in chimneys. Word of his cleaning success reaches the palace, and he is called to sweep out a chimney for the red room, where Princess Florinda is excitedly planning a Valentine’s Day party.

While completing the assignment, the evil chimney sweep slips on the snow covered roof. Down the chimney plops the cat, terrifying the palace staff below. Princess Florinda gets a new pet- until the Valentine Cat escapes during the holiday parade, and finds his way home to Tell. The guards are just about to arrest the humble Tell for stealing the royal feline when the princess notices the paintings, and defends his innocence:

“I believe him,” said the princess. “It’s plain to see the cat once lived here. There are pictures of him all over the walls.” She said again, “What a beautiful room!” She asked, “Could you paint my room like this?” (Bulla, p.50)

And so Tell finds himself living in the palace, doing what he loves best, and reunited with the stray he had found. Good is rewarded, evil is punished, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Clyde Robert Bulla wrote more than fifty books for young readers, among them A Lion to Guard Us, Viking Adventure, The Sword in the Tree, and Daniel’s Duck. His titles also include several excellent historical fiction resources for young readers.

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The Kite Fighters

Park, Linda (2000). The Kite Fighters. New York, NY: Random House.

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Linda Sue Park is one of my all time favorite authors. In October of 2012 I had the privilege not only of hearing her speak, but of sitting beside her for both lunch and a campfire, when I attended the Books That Rise Above conference offered by the Highlights Foundation. She is best known for her Newbery award winner A Single Shard, however my personal favorite of all her books for children is The Kite Fighters.

Set in 1473, The Kite Fighters is the story of a second born Korean son coming to terms with his role in the family. Young-sup, and his older brother, Kee-sup, are more than excited about the annual New Year kite fighting competition. Kee-sup is gifted at kite design, but it is Young-sup who naturally possesses skill at flying. As the elder brother it is Kee-sup who is expected to bring honor to the family name, and who subsequently receives the boys’ father’s attention. Young-sup and Kee-sup remain close even as the expectations change when Kee-sup is “capped” (recognized as an adult in Korean culture).

I love the way Linda Sue Park keeps the brothers’ friendship strong, even allowing Kee-sup to risk correction for disagreeing with their father. And I love how she weaves in the young king’s loneliness for friends his own age. I also really like that it isn’t until the end of the story that the boys’ father begins to see things differently.

Rich in cultural knowledge, The Kite Fighters is an excellent example for upper elementary aged readers of a radically different set of  customs and traditions. It is brimming with experiences easy for young readers to identify with: sibling and parent relationships, fairness and honesty, and competition. They will hardly notice they are learning history- and if they’re anything like me, Young-sup, Kee-sup, and their friend, the king, will remain favorite characters for years to come.

Also recommended by Linda Sue Park: A Single Shard, A Long Walk to Water, The Firekeeper’s Son, and Seesaw Girl.

Top Ten Picks for Toddlers

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As a homeschooling mom of six and an early intervention provider for more than twenty years, I have held more board books in my hand than almost anyone- save perhaps those stocking the shelves at Barnes & Noble. Before I list some wonderful titles, I’d like to provide you with a crash course in toddlers and books.

  • A six month old will eat a book.
  • A nine month old will explore the mechanics of turning board book pages.
  • A twelve month old will look at pictures in a book.
  • A fifteen month old will point to pictures in a book.
  • An eighteen month old will name pictures of familiar objects and animals in books.
  • A twenty-one month old will turn paper pages and name even more.
  • A twenty-four month old realizes there is more to books than just pictures.
  • A twenty-seven month old is beginning to enjoy hearing familiar picture books read.
  • A thirty month old will listen to a picture book story for five minutes.
  • A thirty-six month old will fill in familiar words and phrases in picture book stories.

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This, of course, is just a reference point for typical learners. Some children will be more interested in books than others, and consequently will explore them earlier or later. Up until about eighteen or twenty-one months of age, books that allow children to recognize and learn the names of new objects and animals are the way to go, starting with those that only have one on each side of the page. Once they are consistently pointing to pictures of single objects, books with five or six photos on a page allow them to learn scanning. At around a year and a half to two years, short picture book stories can be shared. Super short books can be read to a child whose attention span is only about two minutes, and can be a great way to start. Stories that can be read rhythmically should be, because all language has rhythm and cadence. Books that actually have a plot will be better understood by a two and a half year old, and humor in books may not be recognized by kids until they are closer to three.

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So without further ado, my recommendations for a two year old’s library are as follows:

Alborough, Jez (2000). Hug. Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press.

Brown, Margaret Wise (2007). Goodnight, Moon. New York, NY: HarperFestival.

Henderson, Kathy (1998). Counting Farm. Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press.

Horacek, Petr (2008). Choo Choo. London: Walker Books Ltd.

Martin, Bill Jr. (1996). Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Rathmann, Peggy (1994). Goodnight Gorilla. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Rosen, Michael (1989). We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. New York, New York: Scholastic Inc., by arrangement with Little Simon.

Spinelli, Eileen (2001). When Mama Comes Home Tonight. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Stickland, Paul and Henrietta (1997).Dinosaur Roar. New York, NY: Dutton Children’s Books.

Stickland, Paul (2006). One Bear, One Dog. Wincanton Somersat, UK: Backpack Books by arrangement with Ragged Bears Publishing Ltd.

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The I Can Read History Books

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Looking for an informal way to teach American history with six, seven, and eight year olds? The I Can Read series, home to the Little Bear and Frog and Toad books, is wonderful source of engaging, easy to read stories about our country’s earliest years. Beginning in 1635 with Roger Williams founding of the colony of Providence,  and continuing through the early twentieth century, historical fiction written from a child’s viewpoint is extremely well presented.

We learn the history of things we may have never given much consideration to: the origin of skis in Snowshoe Thompson, nineteenth century hot air ballooning in The Big Balloon Race, the race to find dinosaur fossils in Dinosaur Hunter, and traveling libraries in Clara and the Bookwagon. There are lessons in emigration and immigration (The Long Way to a New Land, The Long Way Westward), westward expansion (Prairie Friends, The Josefina Story Quilt, Wagon Wheels), and well known historical figures (First Flight: The Story of Tom Tate and the Wright Brothers). In Clipper Ship we see young Meg and Jamie homeschooled (or should I say shipschooled?) and the amazing experiences they have as they sail with their captain parents around Cape Horn, journeying from New York to California. (Do you suppose using a telescope, chronometer, and sextant would count as technology class credit?)

Each book has it’s own entertaining twist to it. Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express includes notes to William Cody’s mother at the end of each chapter assuring her that “nothing much happens”, which the reader knows otherwise (Coerr, 1995). In The One Bad Thing About Father Teddy Roosevelt’s son describes how “Being President can practically ruin your whole life” (Monjo,1987). In Hill of Fire a Mexican farmer laments, “Nothing ever happens,”- until he witnesses the formation of a volcano right before his eyes (Lewis, 1971).

While this is not a specifically Christian collection of titles, the time period in which the stories are set was one where faith in God, imploring Him for protection, and adherence to higher laws, were the norm. Consequently you find parents encouraging their children to trust in God (Finding Providence), pray for safety (Indian Summer, Clipper Ship), and choosing to do what is right even when disobedience to man’s laws require it (The Drinking Gourd). In addition, you find resourcefulness, courage, wisdom, and a strong commitment to family. Other I Can Read historical titles include The Boston Coffee Party (not a typo!), The Battle for St. Michael’s, Sam the Minuteman, George, The Drummer Boy, The 18 Penny Goose, Six Silver Spoons (think Revolutionary War for all of these), Little Runner of the LonghouseSmall Wolf, Three Names, The Pig War, Snorri and the Strangers, Long, Tall Lincoln, How Far, Felipe?, and Chang’s Paper Pony. The I Can Read books also include some science titles including A Nest of Wood Ducks, Hidden Animals, Ants are Fun, and Greg’s Microscope, to name a few.

Written for grades two to four, these books make excellent read alouds for first graders, and shared or independent reads for second through fourth. The author’s note pages describe historical accounts and provide contexts following each story. The aforementioned titles have been published by HarperCollins, in various years, over the past quarter of a century. All are currently available on amazon.com.

 

The Cinderellas

With more than five hundred international variations, and dating as far back as the ninth century (with the Chinese story of Yeh-Shen), the story of a patient, kind, and unfairly treated young woman being rewarded for her goodness, has been told in many ways. Here in the states we know her as “Cinderella”, but many a name has been given to this beloved fairytale heroine. The following are just three of the many versions that have been shared around the globe.

Kongi and Potgi

Han, Oki S.(1996). Kongi and Potgi: A Cinderella Story from Korea. New York , NY: Dial Books for Young Readers.

In Kongi and Potgi young Kongi is forced by her mean stepmother to do all the work that would normally be shared  by her daughter Potgi and herself, in addition to her own chores. Nobly, Kongi never complains. When the announcement is made that the prince is seeking a bride, and a grand ball is to occur, Doki gives Kongi near impossible tasks to prevent her from attending and being competition for Potgi. As often seen in Asian fairy-tales, animals come to the aid of our heroine: an ox helps her to hoe the land on the hillside, a toad plugs a water jug with a hole in it, and sparrows remove the kernels of rice from their shells. A rainbow in the sky brings angels, who dress her in the finest silk, and four men come down with a sedan chair in which to carry her. In this Korean version, the glass slipper is a jewel-like one.

What I love about this version is that not only do we see Kongi’s patient, humble character, as we do in all of the Cinderellas, but we also see her forgiveness:

“At the wedding reception Doki and Potgi could barely look at the bride, for they were ashamed of the way they had treated her. But Kongi welcomed them warmly and forgave their unkindness. Her father could not have been more proud.” (Han, p.32)

As indeed our Heavenly Father is when we ourselves forgive others.

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Cendrillon

San Souci, Robert D. (1998). Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Cendrillon is an adaptation of a traditional Creole version of Cinderella told in first person narrative by our character’s godmother. When the widowed father remarries it is to a “cold woman, and puffed up proud” (San Souci, p.7). A new daughter, Vitaline, is born and spoiled, while Cendrillon is given work that leaves her hands red and blistered, is barely fed, and sleeps on a hard pallet. The stepmother’s refusal to allow her to go to a birthday party for Paul Thibault, who Cendrillon likes, brings her to tears, and the godmother promises to find a way for her to attend.

Reminiscent of the Disney version, the stepmother and sister make demands of our heroine the minute they leave for the event. The godmother uses a wand of mahogany to turn a breadfoot into a coach, agoutis (animals like guinea pigs) into carriage horses, field lizards into footmen, and an opossum into a coachman. Cendrillon’s sky blue velvet dress is accompanied by a matching turban, jewelry, and pink slippers. Her godmother chaperones her and enjoys chocolate sherbert until the midnight chimes toll.

One cannot help but love Cendrillon’s godmother, her devoted advocate with a most unique personality. “If you cut off those big toes,” she calls out as Vitaline is trying to fit into the slipper, “it would be a fine fit.” (San Souci, p.35). And one cannot help but love Cendrillon, who refuses the offer to be dressed elegantly once again for the prince, in favor of him seeing her as she truly is. This version is beautifully rich and I can’t imagine reading it with anything but a Creole dialect to add flavor to the wonderful illustrations.

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Adelita

De Paola, Tomie (2004). Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story. New York, NY: Puffin Books.

Tomie de Paola’s fairy godmother in Adelita is the young lady’s nurse, Esperanza, who has been with the Mercado family since before she was born. Esperanza perceives the coldness of her future stepmother, Dona Micaela, and her daughters, Valentina and Dulce, even before the wedding takes place. As in all of the Cinderellas our heroine never complains, in spite of the clear favoritism that is being shown. She has, after all, Esperanza, and “Because she knew Esperanza loved her, Adelita’s heart stayed as warm as the fire in the hearth.” (De Paola, p.10).

When Adelita’s father dies, the stepmother no longer needs to conceal her jealousy, and moves her up into the attic. One day, as Adelita is helping Esperanza in the kitchen, the cruel stepmother fires Esperanza. At this Adelita does begin to despair. An invitation arrives for a party at the ranch of the Gordilla’s in honor of their son Javier’s homecoming. After the stepmother and sisters leave for the party Esperanza, having dreamt of Adelita’s not being allowed to go, arrives. Finding a beautiful dress in Adelita’s mother’s old trunk, she dresses her, braiding flowers and ribbons into her hair.

Javier takes one look at Adelita and falls in love with her. “Adelita’s heart was full as well and all the meanness she had suffered over the years began to melt.” (DePaola, p.20). There are no glass slippers in this version, but rather her mother’s rebozo (shawl), hanging out of her window, leads Javier to Adelita’s door. Ad you can probably guess, this couple lives happily ever after as well.

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The Cinderellas can be wonderful family read-alouds for a couple of weeks, enjoyed by older and younger members alike. They lend themselves readily to discussions of character, and of good overcoming evil. They can also be used to teach literary comparisons and analysis, (as kids talk about similarities and differences between the stories), cultural awareness as they are exposed to storytelling, artwork, and descriptions of celebrations and places around the world, and geography as they locate the settings of the tales on maps and globes. Nothing complicated: just the joy of reading shared between parents and siblings using stories they will recollect for years to come.