Thursday, January 04, 2007

P.S. Happy Universal Letter Writing Week

Next week is Universal Letter Writing Week, and I have some letter-themed books to share with you today.

If your child is participating in the Battle of the Books, he/she may have already read Kate Klise’s Regarding the Fountain: A Tale in Letters, of Liars and Leaks. Through letters and occasional newspaper clippings, we learn the story of Dry Creek Middle School’s need to replace their leaky water fountain. There’s something not quite right about this middle school and the water fountain, though. Ever since the middle school (and the fountain) opened, the town has been forced to pay for their water. In fact, the town used to be called Spring Creek in honor of the gushing creek that provided free and clean drinking water for all.

Add in an “artistic” fountain designer, two dastardly town merchants, a committed schoolteacher, and a determined class of sleuthing fifth graders, and you have a delightful and hilarious novel perfect for third graders and above.

If you enjoyed Regarding the Fountain, check out Regarding the Sink and Regarding the Trees.

Peg Kehret’s My Brother Made Me Do It tackles a subject not often covered in children’s literature: juvenile arthritis. Eleven year old Julie Walsh is assigned a senior citizen pen pal, albeit reluctantly. Through Julie’s letters, we read of her younger brother’s antics, which always seem to get her in trouble, her ingenious plan to get elected to the student council (which almost gets her in additional trouble), and the diagnosis and treatment of her juvenile arthritis.

Some children’s (and young adult) novels that deal with chronic illness are more about the disease/condition than they are with the child dealing with the disease/condition. Although Julie’s arthritis significantly changes her lifestyle, her disease does not overshadow the entire book. She deals with JA in a realistic and age appropriate manner (sometimes, books like this turn the child into a wise young child or a saint). The tone of the letters ranges from exasperation, to excitement, to disappointment, and several emotions in between. Misperceptions about JA still exist (some don’t even realize that children can become afflicted with it), and a well written book like this can help to dispel those misperceptions.

Bunny Mail by the ever popular Rosemary Wells reminds me of The Jolly Postman, except there aren’t any inserts to lose. This one stars Max, who really wants a red motorcycle. He makes the brilliant decision to write to Santa Claus, but unfortunately the postman can’t read his handwriting. The postman assumes the letter is for Max’s grandmother and delivers the letter to her. This starts a chain of confusing letters until the situation is happily remedied by, of course, Grandma. This is another charming story from Wells and is a “lift the flap” book, which is always fun for a toddler.

Miss Lewis is a pretty cool teacher; so cool, in fact, that she writes her students of her adventures traveling around the globe. Miss Lewis is particularly interested in nature, and always happens upon a spot recently vacated by a wild animal native to the country she is visiting. After she describes the area, she ends her letter with “Who’s been here?” The reader turns the page and discovers a two page illustration of a kangaroo and her joey/giant panda and her cub/macaws/and so forth. Lindsay Barrett George’s Around the World: Who’s Been Here? is a travel guide and nature guide in an easy to read picture book setting. Lots of colorful illustrations invite the reader to examine Miss Lewis’s travels at a closer angle.

Irene Kelly’s A Small Dog’s Big Life: Around the World With Owney is based on an actual dog who traveled around the world via postal trains. It all started back in 1889, when a scruffy but very friendly dog wandered into a post office in Albany, NY. The postal workers quickly found out that the dog, which they named Owney, loved the post office life, especially lounging on the mail bags. One day, after watching the postal train come and go for days, he hopped on board. He traveled from post office to post office, collecting tags, ear scritches, and fans all over the world, from the United States to Mexico to China and Egypt, with other places in between. Unlike other picture books written in letter form, the letters in this book are the easiest ones on the eyes-no funny scripts in this one. It would be a fun picture book even if it was not based on fact; the fact that this really happened makes it much more fascinating. Please note that the author’s note explaining Owney’s fate is not a happy one (Owney bit a postal worker who handled him roughly and was put down; his supporters insisted that he had lost all his teeth at the time of the incident).

The National Postal Museum, located in Washington DC and part of the Smithsonian Institution, has a permanent exhibit on Owney.

I’ve saved my favorite book for last: Jerdine Nolen’s Plantzilla. Mortimer has been lucky enough to take home the classroom plant for the summer. His parents, who seem like the type of parents big on Learning Opportunities, are delighted. However, Plantzilla is not your ordinary houseplant. I’m not going to give too much away, but it’s a bit like a kiddie version of Little Shop of Horrors without the crazy dentist and with a happy ending. The pictures of Plantzilla taking over everything are hysterical (my favorite is the kitchen scene, with the “Honey Roasted Prune Flakes” cereal box). Some letters are written in script, which makes it a little difficult to read.

(There's also Plantzilla Goes to Camp.)

We also have The Beatrice Letters by Lemony Snicket.

If you're looking for nonfiction books about letter writing, try Messages in the Mailbox or How to Write a Letter.

We also have books about e-mail: Snail Mail No More by Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin and The Naked Mole Rat Letters by Mary Amato.

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