Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Turning Fact into Fiction

You will soon start to write your own picture books, but how can you turn the social issues you have been reading and writing about into picture books?

Jeanette Winter's The Librarian of Basra is a useful mentor text. The Librarian of Basra was inspired by a New York Times article written on July 27, 2003.

If you compare the article to the picture book, you'll see that the skeleton of the picture book is taken from the Times--both versions of the story explain that before the start of the Iraq war, a librarian asked government officials to help her remove the books to a safe location, and when they refused to help her, she enlisted friends and neighbors to help her secretly move thousands of books out of the library, saving them from ruin.

How is The Librarian of Basra different from the article, though? Winter didn't just copy the article word-for-word--first of all, that would be plagiarism, and second of all, most New York Times articles don't interest young children!

Some differences to consider:
  • how do the events in the story unfold? Chronologically? Why or why not?
    • remember, newspaper articles' primary purpose is to provide information, while a picture book like this one wants to provide information and, more importantly, entertain young children.
      • compare the first two sentences:
        • "Alia Muhammad Baker's house is full of books. There are books in stacks, books in the cupboards, books bundled into flour sacks like lumpy aid rations. Books fill an old refrigerator. Pull aside a window curtain, and there is no view, just more books." (New York Times)
        •  "Alia Muhammad Baker is the librarian of Basra, a port city in the sand-swept country of Iraq." (The Librarian of Basra)
  • What does the picture book leave out that the article includes? Why would it not include this information?
  • What information does the picture book add that the article doesn't contain? Why would the author choose to add it?
  • What role do the illustrations play in the picture book? Are there places where the book lets the illustrations do the talking for it?
  • How are the tone and word choices different? What are the intended audiences for the article and the book?
  • What other differences do you notice?
How might a story like The Librarian of Basra be turned into an allegory? What is the main idea Jeanette Winter wanted readers to take away from the story? Is this just a story about a woman who loves books, or do the books represent something? Are they a symbol for something else?
If this story were to be turned into an allegory, what item could represent the books? What conflict could represent the war, or the British soldiers, or the government officials? What sorts of creatures might represent the librarian and her friends?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Journal Entry #5: Big Ideas

After Ms. Galang discussed the web in Charlotte's Web the other day, I started to think about the actual words on the web. 
E.B. White cared a great deal about words (he did, after all, write what is considered by many to be the definitive writing style guide), and, since Mr. Zuckerman decides, on the basis of the words in the web, that Wilbur is too special to slaughter, it's really not too much of a stretch to say that the plot of Charlotte's Web hinges on the notion that words can literally save someone's life. It makes sense, therefore, that the words used to do just that are worth paying attention to!
Charlotte first writes "Some Pig," then "Terrific," then "Radiant," and finally, simply "Humble." The order of these words is interesting. When Charlotte is left to her own devices, she comes up with the relatively simple (and slightly ambiguous) praise "some pig!" She soon realizes that she needs to up the ante:
"I need new ideas for the web. People are already getting sick of reading the words 'Some Pig!' If anybody can think of another message, or remark, I'll be glad to weave it into the web. Any suggestions for a new slogan?" (87)
Once she is no longer limited by just her own vocabulary, and can rely on the other animals to suggest words (and provide their correct spelling), Charlotte is able to become more ambitious in her descriptions of Wilbur.
It makes sense that the words she weaves would paint an increasingly impressive picture of the pig--she is trying to convince people that a miracle is occurring, and she would certainly send a confusing message to the humans if the words became less impressive. If that was the case, it might mean that Wilbur was becoming less impressive, too! 
I had actually forgotten what the final, triumphant word was when I reread Charlotte's Web. I imagined it would be something like "Magnificent!" or "Spectacular!" I thought it would be something that would increase the sense that Wilbur is amazing. Instead, E. B. White chose to use the word "humble." Why? He could just have easily had Templeton come across a used newspaper with a word like "phenomenal" or "miraculous," so why choose a word that emphasizes how little Wilbur himself thinks of himself?
That, of course, is why "humble" is so important--because it emphasizes that Wilbur can think. The use of “humble” in the web shifts the focus of the miracle being woven there. The other words describe how great Wilbur is, but great at what? After all, “terrific” could mean that he would make terrific bacon one day! 
While I think Wilbur is a charming character, I can’t help but feel that he does little to deserve Charlotte’s first descriptions, and I think I’m not alone when I found myself agreeing with Mrs. Zuckerman’s observation that the writing in the web is a sign that they “have no ordinary spider” on their farm (80). “Humble,” however, is different. By using it, Charlotte implies that Wilbur has a personality. He has feelings and emotions. Does a creature with feelings and emotions deserve to be slaughtered? 
Wilbur doesn’t win first prize at the fair, and the final word written about him is simply “humble.” I think the message E.B. White is trying to express is that a person’s (or a pig’s) actions and personality are more important than simply being deemed The Best. After all, the fact that Uncle won the blue ribbon in no way means that his life was saved. In fact, his size probably means that he is even more likely to die. 
Wilbur’s life wasn’t saved because Charlotte convinced people that he was better than all the other pigs. It wasn’t because he was a terrific pig, or even a radiant pig. Wilbur is allowed to live because Charlotte manages to show the world that he’s a remarkable, complex creature.