Thursday, October 8, 2015

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Day 8: Lentil

Book Detectives ~ Lentil @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

[Click here to read other posts in the series.]

Let’s try something a little different today and discuss a classic children’s picture book.

I adore Robert McCloskey. He’s the Normal Rockwell of children’s literature. His books are filled with cheerfulness, ingenuity, mischievous kids, Main Street America, and illustrations full of life and personality.

Lentil is a short, entertaining picture book. It could serve as a lead-in to McCloskey’s chapter book Homer Price (which in turn serves as a great lead-in to analyzing chapter books, since each chapter contains stand-alone stories and can be discussed individually).

Serve a big picture of lemonade for this Book Detectives meeting. Even better, have harmonicas for the kids (and ear plugs for the adults).

Man vs. man conflicts are hard to find in children’s literature, so if you are trying to find a picture book for each type of conflict—man vs. self, man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. nature, man vs. fate/God, man vs. machine/alien/supernatural—this is a good place to start.

Crime Scene [Setting]


Town of Alto, Ohio—cheerful, lovely, friendly, old-fashioned (fictional town but could be real)

Small Town, USA

Main Street, Train Station

A safe, happy world full of kind citizens, parades, and ice cream


Published in 1940

Beginning of WWII (just after Hitler invaded Poland, just before Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor)

A short time in a boy’s life (the main action happens in a single afternoon)

Suspects [Characters]


Lentil—boy (9-12 years old?), positive, cheerful, kind, persistent, carefree

Old Sneep—man, grumpy grumbler, wants others to be as unhappy as he is

Townspeople—friendly, cheerful

Colonel Carter—important, generous

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Lentil @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Day 7: The Language of Birds

Book Detectives ~ The Language of Birds @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

[Click here to read other posts in the series.]

The Language of Birds is a retelling of a Russian fairytale, each page filled to the brim with text and illustration.

The conflict seems to be the most difficult story element to identify. In The Language of Birds, we’re not sure that Ivan wants or needs his father to believe him or that he is working toward getting his father to believe the truth, but the first hint of discord is when his father doesn’t believe the truth and yells at him, “Wretch! To invent such a tale! Serve you, indeed! You can spend this night with your friends, the birds. Let them serve you!” Ivan is punished, even though he tells the truth. And then, when he finds out that his brother’s story (which their father had believed) was a lie, he seems upset. “But my story is true!” protests Ivan. Other characters end up believing him (though not at first) during the story, so it seems that the actual resolution comes when his prophecy regarding his father serving him comes true.

With older children, it might be interesting to compare this story to the Biblical stories of Joseph and His Dreams in Genesis 37 or the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.

Crime Scene [Setting]



Fairy tale world

forest—green and mysterious



1700s or earlier, old-fashioned, time of pirates

The story must cover a long period of time because the father says “Long ago, before I lost my fortune, I was a rich merchant.”

Suspects [Characters]


Ivan—truthful, kindhearted, not greedy, humble

Vasilii—liar, greedy, boastful, dishonest

Ivan and Vasilii are brothers, young men

Merchant—father, wealthy, values $ above all else, judges by outward appearance

Sailors on boat

Czar Demyan

Princess—beautiful and smart


31 Days of Book Detectives ~ The Language of Birds @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Day 6: The Master Swordsman

Book Detectives ~ The Master Swordsman @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

[Click here to read other posts in this series.]

Alice Provensen (along with her husband, Martin) is one of my favorite picture book authors and illustrators. This lovely book contains two stories from Ancient China. The Master Swordsman is a charming and humorous story with great illustrations and fun repetition.

“How heavy the pails! How endless the wood! How far the well!”

‘“LOOK SHARP!” glugged the jug… “ATTENTION!” clacked the box… “BE ALERT!” creaked the log. “THAT’S THE WAY” wheezed the teapot.’

This is another story in which the conflict is harder to identify. It is clear that Little Chu needs to learn how to protect his village, but the antagonist seems harder to identify. He has to be patient and persevere (Man vs. Self), but this doesn’t seem particularly difficult for him. He has to stand up to the bandits (Man vs. Society), but that doesn’t seem to be the central conflict. He seems to need time to learn the skills and wait for his moment to arrive (Man vs. Fate).

I think some cabbage-chopping is needed after reading this story. Or, at the very least (and more safely), some tea-drinking. Or maybe a long list of chores…

Crime Scene [Setting]


Ancient China

Little village of destitute rice farmers with huts in valley near mountains, each with a small piece of land

Lonely hut in mountains

Seems like the real world until objects start talking


Ancient China

Little Chu wandered months before finding Master Li

2 years passed at Master Li’s hut

Suspects [Characters]


Poor rice farmers

Mean bandits

Little Chu—boy, wanted to help, brave, leader, hard worker, tolerant, agile, chef

Boy’s parents

Master L—volatile, cunning, old, wise, deliberate, strong, patient

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ The Master Swordsman @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

[P.S. I had flashbacks of The Karate Kid the whole time I was reading this story. Grin. Maybe older students could compare the two.]

Monday, October 5, 2015

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Day 5: Seeker of Knowledge

Book Detectives ~ Seeker of Knowledge @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

[Read the Introduction to this 31 Days series here.]

[Read a little more about our analysis process here.]

Seeker of Knowledge: The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs is the perfect length for reading aloud at a Book Detectives meeting. It’s a fascinating biographical story, blending history (ancient and modern) and literature with wonderful illustrations. If you’re wanting to add a craft to your Book Detectives meeting, this story is begging for a hieroglyph art project!

Crime Scene [Setting]


Paris, France [house, roof]

Egypt (Rosetta), Nile River

Real world


Champollion’s whole life (40 years)

Born 1790 (George Washington, French Revolution, Napoleon) [Fair warning: CC students will be breaking into song…]

True historical story

Suspects [Characters]


Jean-Francois Champollion—seeker of knowledge, loved ancient languages, obsessive, passionate, young

Brother—encouraging and helpful


Napoleon—wanted to dominate world, fascinated by Egypt

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Seeker of Knowledge @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

Sunday, October 4, 2015

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Day 4: Temple Cat

Book Detectives Temple Cat @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

[Read the Introduction to this 31 Days series here.]

[Read a little more about our analysis process here.]

Temple Cat is a simple picture book, perfect for younger ages or for beginning-level analysis. It is short and the illustrations are rich.

Authorship: Some kids may be familiar with a chapter book by the author, Frindle, which is one of the books discussed in Deconstructing Penguins. I try to point out other books by the author or share a bit about his or her life if possible.

The protagonist in this story isn’t a typical protagonist. When animals are the main character in a story, the character who needs or wants something, they are usually given human traits. They talk. They think. They have human emotions or needs or desires. When we are discussing the conflict, I remind kids that “man” (as in “man vs. society”) means hu-man, as in a character with human traits. It can be an animal or a boy or a woman or even a thing that has been personified, such as a toy. In Temple Cat, however, the cat is most definitely a normal cat and not a human (or a god)—but that is the point of the story!

Crime Scene [Setting]


Neba, Egypt

Temple—formal, regal, shiny, glamorous, magnificent, somber, boring


Fisherman’s Hut—enjoyable, delicious, plain, tiny, humble, comfortable

Real World


Ancient Egypt

Whole life—from the time he was a tiny kitten

3-4 days of traveling

Suspects [Characters]


Cat—Egyptians think he is a god, he acts like a cat, does not talk but thinks and feels and wants

Servants, priests, Egyptians—worship and spoil cat

Fisherman and children—love cat

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Temple Cat @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

Saturday, October 3, 2015

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Day 3: Gilgamesh the King

Book Detectives ~ Gilgamesh @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

[Read the Introduction to this 31 Days series here.]

[Read a little more about our analysis process here.]

Gilgamesh is the second oldest recorded fiction story in the world, also originating from the city of Uruk in the ancient civilization of Sumer. Gilgamesh the King, retold and illustrated by Ludmila Zeman, is the first in a trilogy of gorgeous, simple picture books, a perfect length for reading aloud at a book club meeting.

I found the conflict a little more difficult to identify in this story. Gilgamesh wants to be the most powerful person in the world, but what he needs is a friend. He is battling his own nature, but he also fights Enkidu for supremacy. And, clearly, the people of the city also need mercy. The battle between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is the turning point for all of these, though, and it symbolically takes place on the great wall. Gilgamesh does not get what he wants but he gets what he needs, and the people also get what they need and want as a result.

Crime Scene [Setting]


Land of Mesopotamia

Great city of Uruk—dazzling, beautiful, great wall

Forest—lush and full of animals

(The location is a real place, but at least part of the story is mythology.)


“Long ago”

Ancient civilization of Sumer

Suspects [Characters]


Gilgamesh—King, sent by the Sun God to rule Uruk, part god and part man, looked human but didn’t know how to be human, had power and wealth but was alone, bitter and cruel

People—overworked and hungry, in despair

Enkidu—sent by the Sun God, made from clay of the earth, strong as Gilgamesh, wild creature-man, lived with the animals in the forest, kind

Shamhat—woman, musician, beautiful, loved by all, tender and kind

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Gilgamesh @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

[FYI: The author has altered the story in order to avoid the graphic nature of the original. This picture book is appropriate for younger ages. There is one page that some parents may take issue with, however. The illustration shows Enkidu and Shamhat kissing and reads, “In the days that followed, Shamhat taught him to speak and to sing and she fell in love with him. They explored the ways of love together and Enkidu promised he would stay with her always.”]

Friday, October 2, 2015

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Day 2: Lugalbanda

Book Detectives ~ Lugalbanda @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

[Read the Introduction to this 31 Days series here.]

We have jumped in the “Way Back” time machine and returned to ancient history this fall in our homeschool, so it is fitting to kick off this Book Detectives series with a few ancient literature selections.

Lugalbanda is about as ancient as it gets. It is the oldest recorded fictional story, dating from 2400 BC (hundreds of years before the earliest text of Gilgamesh). This is a long picture book retelling, with lovely color illustrations on each two-page spread. It also contains six pages of excellent historical notes by way of introduction and conclusion.

In our Book Detectives meetings, once we’ve read the story, we begin discussion by exposing our “crime scene” and “suspects,” in keeping with our detective theme from Deconstructing Penguins.

Our “crime scene” is the setting, and our “detective tools” are the questions where? and when? I often ask specific questions from the extensive Socratic List in the Teaching the Classics syllabus, such as: “What is the mood or atmosphere of the place where the story happens? Is it cheerful and sunny, or dark and bleak? Is the setting a real or imaginary place? Does the story take place in a particular era? In what season? Over what period of time?

Our “suspects” are the characters in the story, and our main question tools are who? and what?  Who are they? What are they like? Man or animal? How old? What (quality) adjectives describe them?

When we’ve exposed our setting and characters, we move on to the plot chart. We usually identify the protagonist at the end of the exposition, when the first sign of trouble begins and causes the rising action. We identify the protagonist by asking Who wants or needs something? What is holding them back?

We then fill out the rest of the plot (rising action, climax, denouement, and conclusion) before writing in the conflict and finally discussing the theme. The plot is the specific, concrete details of the story and the theme is the universal, abstract ideas we take away from the story. Adam Andrews of Teaching the Classics says that the theme is different from a moral, and stories can say something about an abstract idea without giving the reader a moral conclusion (particularly in more complex works of literature). But children’s stories often lend themselves to specific moral lessons, and the kids often come up with one on their own.

My short disclaimer: I do not claim to have the “right answers.” These notes are merely my own interpretation (and those of the kids participating in discussion) of the clues in the text. Just as two detectives at a crime scene may come up with different conclusions based on the evidence, my interpretation may not match another reader’s.

Crime Scene [Setting]


Uruk—a Sumerian city-state in southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). A great city with brick buildings and paved streets

Zabu Mountains “where the cypress trees grow”

Lullubu Mountains “where no cypress trees grow”

Aratta—a legendary city with great artists and fine crafted objects, metals and precious stones


“A very long time ago.” Before 2400 BC. A time when people worshipped nature as gods.

The main part of the story happened over a year’s time, roughly.

[This was the culture in which Abram of the Bible lived.]

Suspects [Characters]


King Enmerkar—powerful ruler of Uruk, proud, jealous

Many gods

Inana—the greatest of all the gods, goddess of love and war, the evening star, chooser of kings and fates, home in Uruk

Lugalbanda—young and weak, loved and admired his brothers more than anything in the world, brave

Brothers—young men in the prime of life, princes, commanders in the king’s army, loving toward Lugalbanda

Anzu bird—gigantic, terrible monster of the skies, teeth of a shark, talons of an eagle

31 Days of Book Detectives ~ Lugalbanda @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

We usually don’t cover literary devices in our Book Detectives meetings due to time limitations, but this retelling of Lugalbanda contains wonderful examples of alliteration, similes, metaphors, repetition of phrases, imagery, personification, and more. For IEW students, this is great material for identifying dress-ups and decorations.

“For days men flocked to the city in answer to the king’s call. They covered the ground like a heavy fog and stirred up a cloud of dust so big it whirled up into the sky. Their shields clattered. Their spears spiked the air. They stormed through the fields of barley that surrounded the city and crossed the plains like a herd of wild bulls. And Lugalbanda went with them.”

“War won’t wait.”

“In the Lullubu Mountains, where no cypress trees grow, where no snakes slither and no scorpions scurry, where the little prince slept and the night was dark, the multicolored mountain of the goddess Inana rises like a tower higher than all the others. At its top grows a tree so big its branches cloak the mountain slopes in shade and its roots drink like snakes from the seven mouths of the rivers far below.”