Tuesday, December 22, 2009


A little over a week ago, author and national ambassador of young people's literature, Jon Scieszka shared the state of children's literature, more or less concluding that children's literature is kicking major bum-bum on most fronts--including in humor, graphic novels and the popularity of series like Twilight.  The article is worth checking out, especially since he makes a lot of excellent book recommendations.

But, in honor of Mister National Ambassador, I thought I'd review one of Scieszka's picturebooks that I hadn't read before:

Cowboy and OctopusScieszka, J. & Smith, L.  (2007).  Cowboy & Octopus.  New York:  Viking.


Appetizer:  This my few but dear readers, is an EPIC 32-page, emotional, fun and angsty humorous look at an unlikely friendship between Cowboy and Octopus.

Scieszka and Smith are masters of the funny and weird.  I don't know how they do it.  Keep doing it.  Over and over again.  But through strange and unusual images and styles, repetitive language that touches on real childhood experiences, they manage to create one work of art after another.

Cowboy and Octopus is concerned with the nature of friendship, first focusing on how this odd pair became friends and how they helped, supported and even forgave one another.  While the book could easily be a read aloud for one sitting with kindergartners or first graders, the picture book can also be split up into short stories that would be perfect for kids to read individually with a teacher.  (There are some complicated words throughout the book, probably too many for wee little ones--"Octopus," "lettuce," "Halloween," etc.  AN ADULT IS NEEDED at least for the first few reads.)

Also, since I just mentioned the vocabulary, it's also worth noting that there are a few Spanish words (loco, adios, amigos).  This could either become a picturebook to use to help Spanish speakers feeling represented or as a teaching moment to help children learn a few Spanish words.  Either way, it makes me happy.

Dinner Conversation:

"Cowboy meets Octopus."

"Octopus says, "Some things work better with a friend.""

""You wanna be friends?" says Cowboy.
"Certainly," says Octopus.
So Cowboy and Octopus shake hands..."

""I cooked all my favorites just for you," says Cowboy.  "Beans and bacon, Bacon and Beans, and just plain beans...with a little bit of bacon."
"Oh my," says Octopus.
Octopus doesn't like beans.
He doesn't like bacon."

To Go with the Meal:

Aside from encouraging an enjoyment of reading, this picturebook also shows the importance of friendship and that it can develop between unlikely buddies (or even creatures!).  Plus, it gives a good idea of how to make a friend on the playground for wee little kids who are nervous about starting at preschool or kindergarten.

Speaking of friends, Scieszka and Smith have had quite the successful and extensive writing-illustrating partnership.  A teacher could just mention their partnership friendship to encourage students to read some of their other collaborations (The Stinky Cheese Man and Squids Will Be Squids being some of the most well known).  But a teacher could also share how Scieszka and Smith have both also worked on their own projects individually, how sometimes friendships work best when the friends can enjoy being alone as well as together.

In response to the story, students could create their own friendship stories using magazine cut outs to make the illustrations, following Smith's style.  They could also share all the knock-knock jokes they know, their own plans (or previous) Halloween costumes

While I firmly believe Cowboy and Octopus could appeal to both girls and boys, it would be a good book to try to encourage reluctant male readers to pick up books since cowboys and octopi could be of particular interest to them.

Tasty Rating:  !!!

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