January 03, 2013

(++++) GRAMMAR GOODIES


Exclamation Mark! By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld. Scholastic. $17.99.

Pigs in Pajamas. By Maggie Smith. Knopf. $15.99.

Miss Pell Never Misspells. By Steve Martin. Illustrated by Martin Remphry and Michael Garton. Scholastic. $9.99.

      The simple, hilarious yet touching tale of a punctuation mark that, unlike all the round periods, sports a long line atop his head, Exclamation Mark! is all about finding fulfillment at the end of a sentence and accepting that different characters all have their place in life (and writing) and are all well-equipped for their purposes. The title character in this latest delightful collaboration between Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld has the usual concerns of young children: he just doesn’t fit in, isn’t like everyone else, and is “confused, flummoxed, and deflated” (with each of those words causing his usually straight above-the-head line to droop in a different way).  Then the exclamation meets someone (something?) else with an atop-the-head drawing, but while the exclamation’s is straight, this one is hook-shaped. Yes, it is a question mark, talking entirely in questions – incessant questions, repetitious questions (“Is there an echo in here?” needs to be asked twice), an endless stream of questions that becomes so out-of-control that the exclamation point eventually yells, very loudly, “STOP!” Well, “He didn’t know he had it in him,” but now he does, and as the questions continue (at a slower pace), the exclamation mark “pushed himself a bit more,” exclaiming more and more emphatically in “a world of endless possibilities,” and then he rushes to all the periods to show them what he can do.  Everyone is delighted, everyone is happy, the anthropomorphized punctuation marks are adorable and genuinely funny, and the book manages both to show how exclamation points and question marks are used and to make an effective point (that is, a punctuation point) about the importance of being an individual and living up to your particular role in life. Clever, very clever, from start to finish!

      The story is more straightforward in Pigs in Pajamas, but this tale too has a lesson behind it: the many and varied uses of the letter p. Penelope Pig has a sleepover party, for which she prepares with her parrot watching all the activity and exclaiming, “Polly loves a party!” “Polly wants a present!” “Polly wants a peanut!” The piggies at the party bring presents, eat punch and pies and pudding, have pizza topped with pickles, pin tails on a pony, play piano and prance about, then get so pooped that they pick plop-down spots where they plump up pillows and fall asleep – without the usual “z’s” indicating sleep because, as a mouse in the corner of the room points out, “This book is about the letter P!”  And there is more here than just the story: the final page invites young readers to search for many “p” objects in the illustrations – penguin, pillows, pick-up sticks, pansies, piano, pancakes, pineapple, pigeons, perfume, pincushion, and so on.  Maggie Smith keeps the poetry (another “p” word!) light and lively, the illustrations amusing, and the whole production’s pacing perfectly pleasant.

      Miss Pell Never Misspells is a more overtly instructional book, offering memory techniques for language, math, geography, science, history and other subjects. The book’s title shows its approach: the word “misspell” is easy to misspell, but not if you think of it as “Miss Pell.” Along the same lines, when learning a foreign language, you can remember that the Spanish word for “whale” is “ballena” by picturing a whale dressed as a ballerina. The sillier the association, the better, because it is the silliness that jogs your memory.  Subtitled “More Cool Ways to Remember Stuff” and also published under the title In 1492, Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue, this book offers acronyms (PEMDAS [or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally] for the order of operations in a math problem: parentheses, exponents, multiplication and division, addition and subtraction ); mnemonic images (to recall that the Antarctic is the south pole area, not the north, imagine an ant heading south for vacation); and absurd sentences (energy from the longest wave to the shortest can be recalled with “Rich Men Inflate Vegetables Lovingly Using Xylophones. Great!”  (The first letters stand for radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma radiation.)  These techniques are applied to all sorts of information: “Symphonies Played With Brilliance,” for example, to remember the instrumental sections in an orchestra – strings, percussion, woodwind and brass. But some memory aids are easier to use than others: there is a perfectly reasonable poem containing the names of all of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, but remembering the poem is itself a considerable chore.  Still, the basic approaches here are usable in a wide variety of situations, and the discussion of techniques at the book’s conclusion (explaining chunking, the memory palace and other approaches) can help young readers construct their own memory aids for use in many circumstances. There are also suggestions for memory games to play on your own or with someone else – a way to make memorizing, which can easily descend into drudgery, considerably more interesting and enjoyable.

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