The House with Chicken Legs

The House with Chicken LegsThe House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

All 12-year-old Marinka wants is a friend. A real friend. Not like her house with chicken legs. Sure, the house can play games like tag and hide-and-seek, but Marinka longs for a human companion. Someone she can talk to and share secrets with.
But that’s tough when your grandmother is a Yaga, a guardian who guides the dead into the afterlife. It’s even harder when you live in a house that wanders all over the world . . . carrying you with it. So when Marinka stumbles across the chance to make a real friend, she breaks all the rules . . . with devastating consequences.

My Review

If I hadn’t seen this book in a scholastic book order for only $3 I’m not sure it would have ever caught my attention. But I’m glad it did. The idea of guardians who guide the dead each night to the afterlife combined with aspects of Russian culture was very interesting. What I appreciated most was the look into the struggle it can be to feel like you fit in anywhere, especially in those early teen years. And the portrayal of the guilt that comes when we make choices we know deep down are wrong. Add to that having to deal with the consequences of those choices and take responsibility for them and I feel this is a great read for any middle grade to early teen reader (or for an adult who just enjoys children’s literature). The teaching points are effective without being preachy. The characters are likable and relatable in their imperfections, while also being “good.”

This is not an epic story or adventure, so the rules of the fantasy world are not overly explicit, but that didn’t interfere with the entertainment value for me. However, I think I would have given 4 stars if the ending had had a little more umph to it. It seemed to resolve rather neatly rather quickly, without fully explaining how exactly the change in “rules” was possible. The story has folktale/fairytale/fable feel, or like a or a tale that might have fit in the Russian version of Arabian Nights – cute, entertaining, quick to get into and quick to finish.

Age Recommendation: Perfect read for middle grades on up.

Appropriateness: Death is an integral part of the story which may be a sensitive topic for some, but it’s addressed with such warmth and care that there isn’t anything sensationalized.

Classroom Use: This would be an ideal read aloud from grades 3-6. So much discussion material about death, choices, consequences, destiny, family, friendship, loneliness, love, not to mention the Russian culture and the geographical locations of the various story settings.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in The House with Chicken Legs I think you would also enjoy The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery, Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath,  Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, and The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo.

 

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Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

Sadako and the Thousand Paper CranesSadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this one with the idea of using it for my high level reading groups in my third grade class, so I wasn’t just looking for good story and writing as I read. I was looking for content that could spark discussion and provide opportunities for really diving into comprehension on all levels of thinking. This telling of Sadako gives all of that and more.

The story is heartbreaking, particularly because it’s all true, but it’s told with sensitivity and perspective perfect for young minds. In the second paragraph of the prologue the author tells you that this story is about a girl who dies from radiation poisoning so right from the get-go you know this isn’t a “happily ever after story.” And it is so sad. The author highlights the tragedy of the whole situation, of a life taken long before it should be, but it’s done with a simplicity that keeps it from being traumatizing even for kids. And in the end there is a feeling of lightness, just like a paper crane hung on a string. It’s the example of Sadako’s child-like faith and hope despite terrible pain and injustice that leaves you motivated to see good and possibility in the world even with all the problems and uncertainties.

The book is short – 9 chapters and an epilogue. I finished it in less than an hour, but it still has plenty of depth. There is so much to ponder regarding war, death, responsibility, choice and consequences, faith, Japanese culture, family, and helping others. It opens the door to looking at our country’s actions in Hiroshima in WWII from many different perspectives.

This book will be perfect for my reading groups. I even created some worksheets with questions they can write responses to as they read to test their comprehension and to also prompt them to think more deeply. You can download them here: sadakoandthethousandpapercranes

Feel free to use them in your classroom, book club, or anywhere else.

Age Recommendation: This book is easy to read, but the content is thought-provoking and a little heavy  so I would recommend it for 3rd grade and higher. It’s a great introduction to Sadako for adults. It makes me want to find out more.

Appropriateness: Despite the heavy subject matter there is nothing that would be inappropriate for children. This one leaves you better for having read it.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Sadako you should also read So Far from the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Teaching Resources: Here are the worksheets I created for my high level reading groups to answer questions about the book: sadakoandthethousandpapercranes

 

The Magician’s Elephant

The Magician's ElephantThe Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: When a fortuneteller’s tent appears in the market square of the city of Baltese, orphan Peter Augustus Duchene knows the questions that he needs to ask: Does his sister still live? And if so, how can he find her? The fortuneteller’s mysterious answer (an elephant! An elephant will lead him there!) sets off a chain of events so remarkable, so impossible, that you will hardly dare to believe it’s true. Here is a dreamlike and captivating tale. In this timeless fable, the author evokes largest of themes — hope and belonging, desire and compassion — with the lightness of a magician’s touch.

My Review:

What a pleasant visit I had in the city of Baltese. I met a bright assortment of characters, each looking for the place they were meant to be and the people they were meant to be with, and who were all connected by the magical appearance of an elephant. I read other books by Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn Dixie) years ago and I remember enjoying both of them which is why I wanted to give this one a try. The Magician’s Elephant lives up to the same clever wit, delightful characters, and pleasing prose as DiCamillo’s other books.

This book was a pretty quick, easy, and cute read, totally fitting it’s children’s literature classification, but it has a deeper message about hope, faith, human connection, and achieving the impossible. It read a little like a fable to me and reminded me of the Canterbury Tales, not that I have actually read Chaucer’s work in its entirety, but I do remember what I learned and read of it in a Humanities class. Just as Chaucer assembled a variety of pilgrims to tell their stories, DiCamillo introduces readers to several of the residents of Baltese: the Magician, the Lady, the Soldier, the Policeman, the Orphan, the Nun, the Countess, the Beggar, the Dog, the Servant, the Boy, and of course the Elephant. The chapters alternate between these characters’ points of view and we learn about their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, and the elements that stand in their way of achieving them. I admire how the author reveals so much about the characters and their stories in so few words. Their unique and endearing quirks make them memorable and entertaining.

Their are some bleak aspects to the plot, but the charming writing portrays an underlying humor and hopefulness in the events. The pages aren’t necessarily action-packed, but desire to reveal the mystery of how all of these individuals will overcome their misfortunes, and how they are all connected made it a page-turner for me. It may not appeal to all readers, but the strong characterization, uplifting themes, and the smart writing left me with happy ponderings and that feeling of contentment that comes from enjoying warm moments with old and new friends.

View all my reviews

Age Recommendation: The actual words are easy and the book is not long, but the themes have some depth to them, so while 3rd graders and some 2nd graders could likely read the book easily enough I think your average 4th grader would comprehend the message more easily.

AppropriatenessNothing to worry about here unless you have a particularly sensitive young reader who might have a hard time with the hardships of orphans and animals.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this book you should read The Tale of Despereaux also by Kate DiCamillo, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, The BFG and pretty much all other books by Roald Dahl.

Topics and Questions for Discussion: This section may contain spoilers so if you haven’t read the book and don’t want anything to be given away stop here.

1. Leo Matienne, the Policeman is described in chapter 3 this way, “Leo Matienne had the soul of a poet and because of this he liked very much to consider questions that had no answers. He liked to ask ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not?’ and ‘Could it possibly be?’ ” Why are these questions “poetic?” Why do they have no answers? How does asking these questions make Leo different from some of the other characters?

My thoughts: Leo’s questions allowed him to consider the impossible and to think through ways to achieve it. It gave him a more hopeful attitude, a new perspective and he was later in the book able to inspire the same thoughts in others.  That is what poetry can do as well which makes him a poet.

2. In chapter 3 Leo Matienne stands at the top of a hill and watches the lamplighters do their work on the street below. This reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Little Prince and the lamplighter that the Little Prince visits. The Little Prince says he thinks the lamplighter is the least absurd of the grownups because his occupation is useful and beautiful. Would Leo agree with the Little Prince? What about his character supports your answer?

My Thoughts: Leo would agree with the Little Prince. He stops at the top of the hill to view the lamplighters at work because it is beautiful which is indicated by the fact that watching the lights spring to life inspire his poetic thoughts about the elephant. In the dark of the city the lamplights must have been a relief just as the Little Prince found comfort in sunsets.

3. Baltese is covered in clouds and darkness and cold, but the real problem with the weather is that it won’t snow. How does the weather relate to the feeling of the characters and the events in the book? How does weather and light or dark affect you?

My  Thoughts: The dark oppressive clouds are full of the potential for snow but it doesn’t come just as the people of the city are full of hope and dreams for their future but unable to fulfill them. The exciting newness of the elephant spark an ember of hope that their dreams may be possible, and as soon as the main characters begin to fulfill their potential the clouds release their oppression and the snow falls. I love how snow changes a world, makes it softer, new, quiet, bright with whiteness, and clean. The snow-covered Baltese held the same hope and possibilities for the people.

4. Sister Marie has no doubt that “all God’s creatures have names.” What is the significance of names in the book? Every major character has one, even the dogs. What is the significance of names in life?

My Thoughts: Names give identity and individuality. They separate us and depending on our behavior can be known for good or bad in the world. They can also indicate our background or ancestry. The character’s names certainly made me think of them from different countries or gave me an indication of their status in society. Knowing a name indicates a connecting with someone or something. Even the elephant’s name was important to her though she couldn’t communicate it. She wanted to be back home where people would be able to call her by name. Once Hans Ickman remembers his dog’s name he is truly able to connect with the feelings from his boyhood and get on board with the seemingly impossible task of sending the elephant back in order to achieve healing for the city.

5. Why is Madame LaVaughn’s presence necessary for the Magician to undo the magic? What does he need from her? What does she need from him? Why do they say the same things to each other each day she visits the prison? Have you ever felt the power of forgiveness either by forgiving yourself or others?

My thoughts: They each want to be seen and recognized. They want validation of their problems and of their worth. They were each asking for something of the other in their repeated conversations, but they weren’t clear and were so focused on what they wanted that they couldn’t see what the other needed. The Magician forgiveness and Madame LaVaughn needed an apology and regret. When the Magician finally let go of the idea that his magic would be his legacy, when he finally forgave himself and communicated his sorrow  Madame LaVaughn could finally see that she mattered to someone and was able to forgive him. they both had a weight lifted.  The Magician could finally perform the magic needed to send the elephant back and Madame LaVaughn could see good in other people again despite her injury.

The Little Prince

This is one of my all time favorite books…Ok I’m going to take the leap and say it IS MY #1ALL TIME FAVORITE BOOK.  So to review it sufficiently will require a little of my personal history, biographical info about the author, and some interpretation and analysis. It will be just like high school English class all over again! (Get Excited! Get Get Excited! I say G-E-T..Sorry little high school flashback there.) But the book is just that great!

(Side note – I highly recommend the original English translation. The newer translations just lose some of the beauty and poetry of the language.)

It’s not easy to give athe_little_prince summary of The Little Prince. It’s one thing to tell what happens and another to explain what it is about. I can summarize the happenings by the end of this paragraph. It will take pages to attempt to express what it means to me. The story is told by a pilot who crashes in the Sahara desert, cut off from all civilization. As he is trying to fix his plane he hears a little voice request, “Draw me a sheep.” That is how he meets the golden-haired “Little Prince” who came to Earth with a flock of birds from his small planet. Over time the pilot learns of the other planets the Little Prince visited and more of the Prince’s own precious planet, and of the vain little flower that prompted him to leave it. In the process the pilot is reminded of what is essential for happiness.

Growing up I had a fascination with all things French and this book is just so FRENCH. My dad lived in France and Switzerland for 2 ½ years as a missionary so he spoke French fluently and introduced us to French foods and culture. He read to us Asterix and Obelix, Petit Nicolas, and of course The Little Prince. As a 9 year old I thought the grownups and their quirks were funny, and I found it refreshing to finally have someone give us kids a little credit for knowing important things too, to have someone finally understand how “tiresome [it is] for children to be always and forever explaining things to [the grownups].”  

planetThe idea of the Little Prince on his quaint little planet, barely bigger than a house, with volcanos to clean out (both the active and extinct since “one never knows…”) was as magical to me as any fairy tale. I fell in love the Little Prince, with his independent spirit and his desire to have friends and to care for them. I felt sad for him, being betrayed by his flower and having to leave her, then to have to leave the fox, and finally the pilot, but I respected his selflessness. I worried about those pesky Baobab roots, and I wanted to hold and hug the Little Prince to keep him away from the bite of the golden snake. But then I believed he made it back to his star so it was a happy ending after all.

The next time I read the book was for French class so I read it in it’s original French and I loved it even more, probably because the syntax in French is so much more poetic and beautiful but also because I was older and was able to pick out the deeper meaning. Also I learned more about the author in class and knowing his story definitely gives the book more impact.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a pilot and loved it. He flew in war and in times of peace and received many awards and recognitions for it. He wrote the The Little Prince while in New York trying to convince the US to join WWII; the dedication in the book makes a lot of sense when you realize he was worried about his friends in France who were suffering the deprivations of war. When I found out Saint-Exupery actually crashed in the Sahara desert during a flight it gave me a new perspective on The Little Prince; he truly knew what being stranded in the desert heat without water or help in sight was like, and yet he chose to write about it with the wit, tenderness, and innocence of a child’s perspective rather than the drama, suspense, and worry of an adult. I like his outlook on life. The most interesting fact of all about the author is that he mysteriously disappeared over the Mediterranean, much like The Little Prince’s body disappearing from the desert sand.  If you want to know more about Antoine de Saint-Exupery go here.

I have now read The Little Prince in French and English countless times and each time I am filled with a range of emotions; I laugh, I cry, I ponder. The book is often categorized as a fable or parable because the funny and tender anecdotes actually reveal the foibles and follies of humanity, as well as our strengths and purpose for living. Jesus Christ in the New Testament counseled to become as a little child, and this book advises the same. Keep the hope and faith that allows children to be fascinated by the world and to find joy in the smallest things, like shapes in the clouds or the comfort of a loved toy. Keep the ability to love, forgive, and befriend that comes to children so naturally. Spend time on the things that matter; look outside yourself, be brave and seek to understand and experience all the beauties this world has to offer, work hard to contribute to world around you, and develop relationships built on trust and sacrifice.THe Little Prince

It is so much more fun and so much more powerful to learn these truths as you follow the Little Prince’s journey, so if you haven’t read it before, do. Do it now! You will make a lifelong friend and “You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them…In one of the stars [the Little Prince] shall be living. In one of them [he] shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.”

(You can find more of my favorite quotes from the book below.)

Age Recommendation: It is written as a children’s book with whimsical illustration so children will enjoy it. Probably 8 and older. But the true meaning of the story is for adults. The book dedication reminds us that “All grownups were once children though few of them remember it.” So I would say this book is for children and for the grownups who remember.

Appropriateness and Themes: Nothing to worry about here; the book content is clean and innocent as can be, but provides so much discussion material. This is a fantastic choice for book club, family read aloud, literature classes, and just for fun. Here is a list of discussion questions:

  1. What makes a career/hobby/pastime valuable? to yourself? to others?
  2. What does it mean to “tame” someone/something? Who/what has tamed you? Who/what have you tamed? How did you do it?
  3. What are the essential things that are invisible to the eye?
  4. How do adults lose the ability to see the elephant in the boa constrictor or the sheep in the box?
  5. baobabWhat baobab roots do you deal with in your life? What do you do on a daily basis to pull them up before they become a huge tree and take over?
  6. What experiences in your life have been as rewarding as the drink from the desert well for the pilot and The Little Prince?
  7. What reminders to you have in your life like the singing of the well and the stars serve as a reminder for the pilot?
  8. The Little Prince says, “Only the children know what they are looking for. They waste their time over a rag doll and it becomes very important to them; And if anybody takes it away from them they cry.” “They are lucky,” the switchman said. What do children teach us about connecting to people and things? What are they looking for that the adults lose sight of? What distracts the grownups from looking out the window as the train/life goes by? How do we get that knowledge and skill back?

Favorite Quotes

“I am looking for friends. What does that mean — tame?” “It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”  “To establish ties?”“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world….”

 

“People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”

 

“When a mystery is too overpowering, one dare not disobey.” 

 

“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for…” “They don’t find it,” I answered. “And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…” Of course,” I answered. And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”

 

“It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.”

 

“I do not much like to take the tone of a moralist. But the danger of the baobabs is so little understood, and such considerable risks would be run by anyone who might get lost on an asteroid, that for once I am breaking through my reserve. “Children,” I say plainly, “watch out for the baobabs!”

 

On our earth we are obviously much too small to clean out our volcanoes. That is why they bring no end of trouble upon us.”

 

I must endure the presence of two or three caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.” 

 

I myself own a flower…which I water everyday. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week…It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars.”

 

“Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”

 

“It is much more difficult to judge oneself than to judge others. If you succeed in judging yourself rightly, then you are indeed a man of true wisdom.”

 

“Why are you drinking? demanded the little prince. “So that I may forget,” replied the tippler. “Forget what?” inquired the little prince, who was already sorry for him. “Forget that I am ashamed,” the tippler confessed, hanging his head. “Ashamed of what?” insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him.“Ashamed of drinking!”

 

That man [the lamplighter] would be scorned by all the others…Nevertheless he is the only one of them all who does not seem to me ridiculous. Perhaps that is because he is thinking of something else besides himself.”

 

“The proof that the little prince existed is that he was charming, that he laughed, and that he was looking for a sheep. If anybody wants a sheep, that is a proof that he exists.” 

 

One never know where to find [the men]. The wind blows them away. They have not roots, and that makes their life very difficult.” – said by a flower

 

“What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…”