Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Single Letter

It might be safe to assume in most school classrooms, when a teacher announces it's time to practice spelling, the reactions will be varied; ranging from excitement by a few, a collective sigh by many or outright groans by others.  When this same announcement is made by a professor at Hogwarts, wands will appear along with grins and heightened anticipation.  Definitions shift and change based on word use and context.

Playing with words, bending them to convey meaning, peaks interest in our reading and writing. It's a sign of taking joy in spoken or written language.  Author George Shannon loads up the pages of his newest book, A Very Witchy Spelling Bee (Harcourt Children's Books), illustrated by Mark Fearing, with frenzied fun.

Cordelia loved broccoli, spelling, and snakes.  

That's not all this little witch liked.  She spelled whenever she was talking.  If she asked permission to go outside to play she would say, "Mama, may I go outside to play, P-L-A-Y?"

Usually she did not have to ask.  Her mother would shoo her out of the house because she practiced spelling and her spells nearly nonstop.  Even then Cordelia continued, loving to zap letters changing one thing into another.

An O transformed her cat into a coat and back again.  Before the feline had time to feel normal, a K turned the creature into a tack.  Chances were, if you were around Cordelia, an assortment of surprises in all shapes and sizes could be expected.

Like a beacon, a sign posted in the park reading The Witches Double Spelling Bee, Held Every Ten Years to Celebrate Good Spelling and Spells, Saturday Next at the Big Old Barn, caught her attention.  Advising caution because of her age, her mother wanted her to wait to enter but Cordelia was confident, C-O-N-F-I-D-E-N-T.  She knew with every fiber in her being she could win.

Thirteen time winner, Beulah Divine, two hundred and three years old, heard the news, gleefully grinning at the chance to beat a youngster.  As the fates would have it, the contest was held on a dark, stormy night.  Witches gathered.  The rules were read.  The contest began.

A letter was to be chosen from a bowl.  Using the letter an object on stage needed to be changed into something else.  First Opal drew an M, changing some ice into mice.  Witch after witch drew, cast and transformed.  Cordelia wowed the crowd with her first feat.

Beulah shocked the crowd with her malicious enchantment, scaring all the remaining contestants, leaving only Cordelia.  With each casting the tension grew; the anger of the crowd at Beulah's tactics spiraling.  A scream from the crowd and a single letter changed the fates of both contestants.

George Shannon makes his own kind of magic in this clever tale of spelling and spells.  Using language he has crafted a believable story about the power of words, with or without witchery.  In Cordelia he has fashioned a character feisty in her determination to win, courageous in pursuing a goal. By having Cordelia repeat three key sentences each time she is faced with a decision, our admiration and empathy grows.  This technique generates a flow, a rhythm, between the story elements.  Here is a sample passage.

Beulah sneered at the crowd. "I'm a what?"
The barn fell so quiet, nothing was heard but the heartbeats of bats.
"Never mind," snorted Beulah, turning back to the bowl.
"Let's get this thing over.  I'm ready to win. And I don't want to wait."

Green-skinned dueling witches riding around the prize on the front jacket and cover, the flyer advertising the contest nailed up on the back, set the stage for events to come.  Jacket flaps, title page, verso and dedication page each feature a tiny significant picture, Cordelia zapping her cat, witches entering the barn, an owl perched near a pumpkin, pencils, a sharpener and a notebook and a witch's hat.  Rendered in pencil, then altered digitally, Mark Fearing waves his artistic wand to conjure illustrations focusing on and extending the text.

A striking use of green, blue, orange, red and purple shades appropriately depict the characters and setting.  Pattern and prints, a mix and match of many, color the witches' attire adding to their uniqueness.  Exaggerated facial features and expressions depict moods, marvelous magic and moments to be remembered.  By changing the size of and the perspective shown in the pictures, they mesh well with the narrative.

One of my favorite illustrations is a double page spread, showcasing Beulah zapping Cordelia (yes, she was that vile), red streaks extending from her fingers as the young witch is lifted into the air.  Beulah, large, toad-like in stature, arms extended, is leering squinty-eyed at Cordelia.  Cordelia's wide eyed look of surprise is in sharp contrast to the other. (Expect gasps and giggles.)

For a language arts lesson, a Halloween read or both, A Very Witchy Spelling Bee written by Geoge Shannon with illustrations by Mark Fearing, is the perfect pick.  Readers and listeners will love the battle of wits, the goodness of one winning over the badness of the other.  Your spelling lessons will never be the same.

Please follow the links embedded in the author's and illustrator's names to access their websites.  Mark Fearing has plenty of artwork on his blog.  This link to the publisher's website has a few more illustrations for you to view.

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