Unexpected Authors – George A. Romero

I am an unapologetic fan of zombie movies. I know, I’m a librarian so I should love film adaptations of Jane Austen books, and pine over Shakespeare’s plays, but I don’t. I love bad movies–movies so bad, that they’re good. If you know anything about the modern zombie genre (it encompasses movies, video games, graphic novels and books,) then you probably know the name George A. Romero.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Romero essentially created the modern zombie. Most writers, game developers and screenwriters follow the rules Romero created with his iconic classic, Night of the Living Dead. In the Newsflesh series by Mira Grant, an entire generation of children are named for him: Georges, Georgias and Georgettes are the norm.

But what does any of this have to do with books?? Well, have I got a surprise for you! Twenty years ago a publisher from Belgium asked Romero to write a children’s book. Romero jumped at the chance — after being typecast as “the zombie guy” in Hollywood.

The Little World if Humongo Bongo is an illustrated story about a humongous creature named Bongo. Bongo is tired of waiting for something to happen and so he decides to travel to the edge of the woods he lives in with his friend, Pongo. Bongo meets a new type of creature, tiny as ants called the Peanuts. They are scared of him, and then they worship him and eventually, they resent and attack him.

We find out in the story that Pongo, had a similar experience with the Peanuts before Bongo hatched from his egg. Bongo faces the grim choice of destroying the Peanuts or allowing them to take whatever they want. In the end, he realizes that Pongo was right, they should stay within their own Wood and wait for the next thing to happen.

I loved this book. I’m ecstatic that it is finally being published in English. Romero’s story and illustrations — he studied art in college — make his themes of tolerance and intolerance easily understood. He also brings to mind the issue of overpopulation. These seem like complex issues for children, but they understand a lot more than we give them credit for.

I found the book making me think of our own overuse and abuse of our home planet. Bongo’s explorations of the three parts of his planet made me think of mankind’s aspirations to colonize space. I hope we take tolerance with us and find it in return as we explore the vastness of space.

So, before you pass a book by because of who the author is or because of their latest scandal, think twice and hopefully grow as a reader and a fan.

Other unexpected authors of children’s books:

  • Madonna – I really loved Mr. Peabody’s Apples
  • Jason Siegel – I have his Nightmares series at school
  • Neil Patrick Harris – besides being an actor, he’s a magician and has started writing a middle grade magic-themed series
  • Sarah Ferguson – I have quite a few picture books by the former Duchess of York
  • Rob Reiner – love his book Tell Me a Scary Story…but not too scary
  • Steve Martin
  • Brooke Shields
  • Keith Richards
  • Derek Jeter
  • John Travolta
  • Tori Spelling
  • Whoopie Goldberg

I could go on for ages! But I’ll stop, ’cause I want you to read a book instead.

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A Drop of the Sea

The book I’m sharing today is not yet published. I’ve been reading advance copies of books because later this summer I’ll be presenting two classes on What’s New in Children’s Literature (primary & intermediate).

A Drop of the Sea by Ingrid Chabbert is about Ali, who lives in a desert with his great grandmother.

Ali knows that they have a good life and he is happy, but he wonders about his great grandmother, and if she has any regrets.

She is also happy but wishes she had taken the opportunity to visit the sea. So Ali decided to go for her. He will go and bring the sea to her. Ali’s trip is long and somewhat scary, but he gathers the sea in a bucket for her.

He carries the sea all the way home, but the trip and the heat of the desert take most of the water before he reaches home. All he has left when he gets home is a drop of the sea.

Great-Grandmother is content with this beautiful thing Ali has done for her. He has fulfilled all of her wishes.

I was really touched by this story. I think most of us have a wish or two that we let pass us by in life. The idea that such a simple act can be so profound speaks to our capacity for kindness and love.

You’ve probably heard a lot about kindness lately. I have. This sweet story helps us to remember that there are many wonderful qualities within all of us. If we remember that, it will be easier to spread the good in our hearts.

Telling Tall Tales: Paul Bunyan

The tall tale that my students know the most about was probably Paul Bunyan. Most thought he was probably from Wisconsin or Minnesota. They knew he was a giant, had a blue ox named Babe and that he made the Grand Canyon.

We enjoyed Steven Kellogg’s retelling of Paul’s life. The kids thought the illustrations were fabulous (Kellogg’s books are amazing!). They got a good laugh out of Paul being big enough to pick up a cow while still in diapers and wrestling bears — this seems to be a common theme in Tall Tales.

The kids were right in everything they knew about Paul, but there is a lot more. Yes, he is sometimes credited with coming from the forests of the upper Midwest, but earlier stories have him coming from Maine. The legends of his gigantic size are not part of the original stories, and Kellogg did not focus on that trait in his retelling.

The Grand Canyon was said to be made by Paul dragging his axe and the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota were supposed to be he and Babe’s footprints. The kids had never heard that the Northern Lights were caused by Paul and Babe wrestling, but a lot of those “facts” weren’t from Kellogg’s retelling. All of these additions to his story rely on him being a giant.

One great thing about Kellogg’s retelling was that Paul still roams the Alaskan wilderness today. It makes sense, as it is the last untamed American frontier.

There are a lot of great books about Paul Bunyan, and I wish I owned more of them:

I’d also like to get a copy of the Disney version of Paul’s story.

You can get it in a collection with stories about John Henry (the best of the set) and Johnny Appleseed to name a few.

Fairytale Basics: Bremen Town Musicians

I have to admit to being a bit ignorant of the fairytale The Bremen Town Musicians. Somehow I missed it as a kid, I guess. But it’s a funny story that appeals to both boys and girls, and so I introduced it to the first graders today.

We started with the version retold and illustrated by Brian Wildsmith. I don’t own this version, but it can be found on Epic! as a read-to-me title. I like those read-to-me books once in awhile for a few reasons. It is almost like having a guest reader, the recordings often do great voices and it gives me a break.

The kids weren’t sold at first, but by the time the animals – who have been cast aside for being old and useless – are all gathered and headed for fame in the Bremen Town Band, the kids were interested. Then when the animals “attack” and fool the robbers, the kids were all laughing. I like this version because it is a bit gentler than others. Some versions talk about the cat’s owner planning to drown her and the dog’s owner plans to shoot him. This one is much nicer.

I do own the Ruth Gross (pictures by Jack Kent) version, but it’s one with talk of killing the animals.

We followed the read-to-me original version of the story with Kevin O’Malley’s Animal Crackers Fly the Coop.

In this story, the animals (you’ll notice that the donkey is replaced with a cow) leave home planning to do stand up comedy in Bremen. It is literally packed with puns and what I would call uncle-jokes – they are so bad, they’re good. I got a few good-natured boos when I told the story.

The farmer who owned me was so dumb, he plowed his field with a steamroller…because he wanted mashed potatoes!

Why does a milking stool only have three legs?

Because the cow has the udder!

I have a couple of other books by O’Malley, but I think I also need to get this one:

I read online that it’s a fractured middle-eastern folktale.

Bremen Town Musicians is a fun book to Google. There’s a lot of versions with a variety of art styles. I found this groovy record from Russia (maybe?). Go look them up!

Fairytale Basics: The Ugly Duckling

If ever there was a fairytale about bullying, The Ugly Duckling is it. Hans Christian Anderson penned his classic stories beginning in 1835 — about 183 years ago! I decided to read this story to third grade, starting with a traditional version:

I had not read the story in years, and I was shocked at how awful it truly is. Before he even hatched, the mother duck is urged to abandon the larger egg and care for the kids she has. It’s very callus to say the least. I don’t want to get into politics but it reminded me of the idea of flippantly ending an unwanted pregnancy.

Then once he hatches, the mother duck quickly says she thinks he’s ugly. I was glad she stood up for him (slightly) in the barnyard, but the other farm birds pick at him and even his siblings join in. Can you imagine announcing that a child is ugly and then, just because he looked in your direction, smacking him?!? No.

There is more to the story, but suffice to say he is miserable. No one really shows him any affection except maybe the man who rescues him from freezing, and that is short-lived in the man’s chaotic home. The duckling is so utterly cowed and broken emotionally by all of this mistreatment that his is willing to let the beautiful swans kill him. This, of course, is when he realizes that he was a swan all along, and finally feels he has some worth.

It’s about bullying, but I think the message is off. None of the characters truly sees him as worthwhile until he changes over the winter, but the kids and I all think his worth wasn’t in his appearance, or at least it wouldn’t have been if it had been written today.

There are a lot of versions available, I have the book by Cauley (above), and an old Weekly Reader version.

I’d like to get Jerry Pinkney’s version next year.

There are some weird ones out there too:

Yeah, not high on my wish list.

This story does have a great parody to offset the seriousness of the story:

I’ve told you about Willy Clafin and Maynard Moose before. If you buy this one, get the CD, you won’t regret it!

This is a story that would need softening before I’d read it to little kids. I know there are kinder versions out there, but I’m going to keep it in 3rd grade in my school.

Just as a fun aside, the ugly duckling is quite prevalent in our pop culture. I’ll bet you’ve seen a movie or two where the nerdy girl is asked to prom by the cute boy on a dare and when she takes off her thick glasses she magically becomes beautiful.

Disney even made a reference to the story in one of my all-time favorite movies, Lilo and Stitch.

To quote Maynard Moose:

We are all a beautiful something or other…especially you.

Fairytale Basics: Hansel and Gretel

Of all the fairytales I’ll be covering, I find this one the most disturbing. The story typically follows the theme where the poverty stricken parents choose to abandon their children in the dark forest, and the children find their way to a gingerbread house where a witch imprisons them with the intent to fatten them up and eat them.

This is truly dark stuff! I always reassure my students that their parents would never ever consider abandoning them – that parents would starve themselves rather than let their children go hungry. But I’m going to be brutally honest here: history has shown that parents haven’t always thought that way. There are accounts of parents murdering their children during extreme famines, either to cannibalize or at least to trade to another family so neither has to eat their own children. The rationale that historians give for this way of thinking is that childhood mortality was quite low, and the parents could fend for themselves (as opposed to young children) and would eventually have more children to replace them. Many ancient cultures did not see children below certain ages as “people” yet, so maybe it made it easier to make these hard decisions.

Whatever the thinking, this is one of those classics that has left an indelible mark on our culture.

I’m going to start 1st grade off with the James Marshall version:

I imagine they will already have the basics of the story in their minds. We will follow up with a fun one, again from Corey Rosen Schwartz:

I don’t have a title picked to read to 2nd grade, but I did go ahead and read the Rika Lesser retelling with marvelous classical illustrations by Paul Zelinsky:

I asked the class for a volunteer to tell me the story quickly from memory. I was quite surly when one of our ESL students, who emigrated from India, was able to tell me the story. They did notice that Hansel and Gretel were left in the woods twice – most thought it was just once, and the differences in the makeup of the house. Most kids say candy or gingerbread but in this version the house is made of loaves of bread with sugar windows and pancakes for shingles on the roof.

There are a lot of different versions of this story available, and here are a few that I have at school:

This whole series is popular at my school! Nice third grade level picture books.

This is part of a whole series of early chapters that present three versions of each story from around the world.

I love Neil Gaiman, and the dark black and white brushstroke illustrations in this retelling really give a sinister feeling to the forest.

This is the first book in Adam Gidwitz’s trilogy. I have had it on my “to read” list for too long.

I didn’t realize this was a retelling until I did some online research. I brought it home right away when I figured it out.

Another very notable retelling if this story is by Garth Nix. It’s called Hansel’s Eyes and can be found in a short story collection:

If I found the original story disturbing, then this version horrified and terrified me. The story is in modern times and the witch doesn’t want to eat the children, she plans to harvest their organs. I don’t know why this scares me more than cannibalism, but it does. You can read a great write-up on it here at Through the Twisted Woods.

And just for fun, click here to watch Bugs Bunny’s attempt at Hansel and Gretel.

Presidents Day

Presidents Day is a day in America where we celebrate the great leaders of our past. It’s a time that I really enjoy sharing fun stories about these great men (and someday women), that the kids don’t expect.

I read presidential stories to more than one grade level, but these are my favorite stories.

The second grade students love this rhyming story about how George Washington lost all of his teeth. I always ask before we read what the kids know about his teeth, and most say that his false teeth were wooden. We find out in the book though, that his teeth were carved from hippo ivory. They were probably uncomfortable though, and I’ve read online that they were stained with Washington’s favorite drink.

I need to read up on it more, but while looking for this image, I saw an article where the claim was made that Washington’s false teeth came from his slaves. As I said, that idea deserves further research.

We also enjoy George Washington’s Birthday, where some of the common misconceptions about George are dispelled. No, he did not cut down the cherry tree.

A fan favoritewith the kids is President Taft Is Stuck In the Bath by Mac Barnett.

Most kids have never heard of Taft, but they love this outrageous story, perfectly illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. It’s a fun story because we don’t know if it’s true. It’s a fun way to reinforce the point that if we weren’t there in person, we just don’t know.

Teddy Roosevelt was another great president, whom we have to thank for the creation of our National Parks system. The kids enjoy the book The Camping Trip That Changed America and Teedie as well as other books about this colorful family man.

We read a lot about Abraham Lincoln, our school being named after him, so I like to read books to them about parts of his life they may not know s lot about.

I adore Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek by Deborah Hopkinson, and the kids appreciate the story Robert Burleigh tells in Abraham Lincoln Comes Home.

I also tell them about the sadder parts of Lincoln’s story, his sons.

I don’t do a lot of other specific presidents, but I display as much as I can. Sadly, I don’t own a book on every president yet. I need to write a grant to buy a new set.

Whether you agree with a presidents policies or not, it is a huge job to become the commander in chief. The kids learned that when we read, If I Were President. I explained it like this:

It’s not easy to make everyone happy. Let’s say You are president of Mrs. O’s room. You have to buy 1 pizza to make all of the kids happy. Some only want cheese. Some can’t live without pepperoni, and some want vegetables too. Oh, and there’s always that one kid that wants tacos instead. Not so easy after all.