Quote of the Month

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

Friday, February 6, 2015


When you've been a teacher librarian for years, sometimes within the same district or building, you have the privilege of working with and watching all the guys and gals grow from kindergarten through graduation.  You come to understand each individual personality.  You can easily spot when one of your students has had a rough start to their morning.

If this shift in behavior should last more than a day, it's usually because something has changed in their home life.  A stable and loving family unit, no matter the makeup of its members, is essential.  There's no doubt about it, change is hard.  Distinguished author Kathi Appelt and well-known illustrator Jill McElmurry have combined their significant talents to bring readers, When Otis Courted Mama (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 6, 2015).  It's looking like a new wind is blowing through the cactus for one small coyote.

Before Otis, Cardell had a mostly wonderful life.

His mama and daddy were everything he needed.  They loved him beyond measure.  With every fiber of his being he returned their love.  This was an unbreakable trio of affection.

No one could cook the specialty pancakes with specialty syrup like Cardell's daddy.  No one could run like a ghost across the sand like Cardell's daddy.  When Cardell's daddy tipped his nose skyward and sang; the very stars and moon seemed to reply.  It was a bit of an inconvenience that his daddy lived with his stepmama and stepbrother in another part of the desert, but Cardell still had his mama all to himself.

No one could seek out desert delicacies like Cardell's mama.  No one could capture the beauty of morning and evening skies on canvas like Cardell's mama.  When Cardell's mama smiled; the very stars, moon and yes, the planets, seemed to shine brighter.  It was more than a bit worrisome when a new neighbor began to call on Cardell's mama.  Cardell did not like this at all.

When Otis brought flowers, Cardell felt a growl grow.  There had been other gentleman callers but Mama and Cardell had decided they were not a good fit.  Otis was an entirely different breed of coyote.  Cardell sent out a challenge from deep in his throat.

Now Cardell's mama had not taken a fancy to Otis without good reason.  Cardell is about to meet his match.  A sweet treat, sky-high leaping and a night around the campfire might just seal the deal for a new family to form.

Before you've even finished the first page you will be reading this book aloud; unable to help yourself.  Kathi Appelt has a way of picking and choosing words which sing right off the page.  Her use of repetition creates an irresistible beat.  She uses the storyteller's technique of three masterfully.  By telling us how wonderful Cardell's life is with supporting examples, she builds toward the uh-oh moment when Otis arrives.  Here is a sample, a continuation of the first page passage.

He had a perfectly good mama and a perfectly good daddy.  Both his perfectly good mama and his perfectly good daddy adored him.  And Cardell adored them, too.  With good reason.

All I can say, looking at the matching dust jacket and book case front, is a certain coyote is not very happy.  Not happy at all.  Disgusted, disgruntled and grouchy.  The placement of the single eyebrow tells a tale.  On the back we can easily see the reason for his apparent unease.  Set in a background of blue is a picture frame hanging from a nail.  Cardell and his mama are nose to nose in contentment.  A traditional red, black and white bandanna print covers the opening and closing endpapers.  A peaceful adobe home sits beneath the title.

Page by page Jill McElmurry matches the narrative enhancing the setting and character's personalities with her illustrations rendered in gouache on watercolor paper.  Moving from a double-page image to two smaller paintings on a single page followed by several full page pictures before the next two-page illustration she creates a visual flow for us to follow.  Extra details like the scarf around the stepmama's neck, the bolo tie on daddy, the desert flowers in front of mama's ears and the cowboy hat Otis is never without add to the southwestern flavor of the story.  The ears, eyes and mouths on all the coyotes are fully animated with emotion.

One of my best loved illustrations is of Cardell and his mama at night lying beneath the stars and a full moon.  It spans across two pages.  They are placed among desert plants in hues of golden yellow, deep greens and deep blues.  Mama is curled around Cardell.  His head is lifted toward her head turned toward him.  They are nose to nose.  It's a given Cardell feels like his life is mostly wonderful.

When Otis Courted Mama written by Kathi Applet with illustrations by Jill McElmurry may be one of my favorite books about stepparents and blended families.  Magic happens when stellar storytelling and glowing illustrations meet.  If you are looking for a fantastic read aloud look no further.  Put on your cowboy boots, hat and scarf and get ready for a howling good time.

To explore the websites of Kathi Applet and Jill McElmurry please follow the links attached to their names.  Eleven blogs were a part of a tour promoting this title.  You can follow the links for all of them beginning with Cracking The Cover.  Here is a link to an activity page found at Kathi Applet's website.  If you are interested in a curriculum guide, the link is here.

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