“'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrench

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'”
-- from
The Wind in the Willows

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

SPIKE: The Mixed-Up Monster ▪ Picture book (non-fiction)

SPIKE:  The Mixed-Up Monster
by Susan Hood  illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Available now   Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books   Ages 3 - 8
Meet Spike, a lovable monster—and a real-life salamander—who’s looking for friends in this lively picture book that includes Spanish vocabulary.
Highly Commended for the 2013 Charlotte Zolotow Award (presented annually to the best picture book text by the Cooperative Children's Book Center)
Story:  Spike is a scary-looking salamander who keeps trying to frighten other animals—until he finds that using fear is not the best way to make friends. And since Spike lives in Mexico (he is an endangered species called the axolotl), this story is peppered with easy-to-understand Spanish words. In addition to a charming tale of friendship, this picture book contains nonfiction information about the axolotl and a Spanish/English glossary.  As the Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books writes, "use this in a lesson on unusual animals, Mexican fauna, or possibly include it in a monster-themed storytime to throw a nonfiction twist into that popular theme."
The Story Behind the Story: I spoke with Susan and Melissa and they have LOTS to share about the making of this book.  Plenty of background that will be helpful in showing students what goes into the thinking of making of a book.  Per author Susan Hood:  "One day I stumbled upon this photo in a book about baby animals. I was dumbfounded! I couldn’t believe this pink Muppet-like creature with its blue eyes, feathery spikes and slight smile was real.  I discovered it’s a type of Mexican salamander.  And the more I researched, the more I was fascinated.
One Home In the wild, this impossibly cute critter lives in only one place in in the world—Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City, the capital of Mexico and its largest city.

The Peter Pan Effect Axolotls never grow up—just like Peter Pan! While most salamanders lose their gills and develop lungs for a land-based life, the axolotl never goes through metamorphosis. It lives its whole life and even has children as a teenage water baby.

Superpower  Axolotls has long been studied by scientists because of their amazing regenerative powers. Just as a sea star can regrow a lost arm, the axolotl can…get this!...regrow a lost limb, its tail, internal organs, even parts of its brain and spinal cord.  The fact that the axolotl is a vertebrate like us has enormous implications for science and medicine.

Ecological Peril Unfortunately, the lake where the axolotl lives is now a major tourist site called The Floating Gardens, and according to the Washington Post, a crashing ecosystem. A recent article in The New York Times reports that as result of this pollution, the axolotl is
critically endangered, about to go extinct.  And with extinction would go our window into the axolotl’s amazing biological traits.

Fan Base Given this backstory, I knew I wanted to write about the axolotl, but was convinced I would find a glut of children’s books on Amazon. Here’s what I found:

Pet Owner Guides: It turns out that many, many people keep axolotls as pets (see axolotl.org).
They have more than 9,000 fans on Facebook!
A Mad Magazine connectionAxolotl” was one of the odd words Mad frequently used in comic strips, along with words like “potrzebie,” “furshlugginer” and “veeblefetzer.” Mad also published a poem about axolotls —a take-off on William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”
An Adult Short Story: Like the narrator in Julio Cortázar’s “Axolotl," I was transfixed by this little guy

So, I started writing. You might wonder why Spike is “a mixed-up monster.”  The name “axolotl” comes from the native Aztec language (Nahuatl) and means “water monstrosity,” “water sprite” or “water dog” after the Aztec god Xolotl. 

I thought Spike might have a little identity issue. In the story, he believes he’s a monster, given his slithery tail, spiky crown and stumpy teeth. So he acts monstrously, trying to scare all his friends. There’s only one little problem. Spike is no bigger than a lily pad. So no one is afraid of Spike. Then one day, when a real monster appears at the lake, Spike discovers his true nature and what it takes to make a friend.

The book uses a few Spanish words to reflect the Mexican setting, and includes a glossary. It also includes all the facts about the axolotl and the other animals in the back for the book.

I’m hoping that SPIKE can help call attention to the plight of the axolotls and support the efforts of Dr. Luis Zambrano, a biologist who is trying to save them."

And, if that wasn't fascinating enough, wait until you read (and see!) what illustrator Melissa Sweet has to share: "Susan and I had worked together a long time ago when I did illustrations for Nick Jr. When I got the call that she had written this book, I wasn't at all sure I could fit it in, but I was intrigued.Then I read the story, saw the picture of the axolotl, (who was preposterously cute!) and I was smitten with both.

Usually I do quite a bit of research for picture books, especially one with a nonfiction slant. 
Axolotls come in various colors and we decided that, since they are green in the wild, Spike would look best this color. The other animals in the story are also true to their species, but in my artistic style and anthropomorphized so they can have a lot of emotion and expression. The sketches in my dummies are notorious loose. It's hard to plan a collage--you just have to start."

"Sometimes when I set out to find the collage materials something shows up that will set the tone of the book. In this case, I found a paper with colored squares arranged in a grid in gorgeous, earthy-hues. That paper is used on the endpapers and throughout the book, even in the stem of the flower below: 

Our art director, Lizzy Bromley did such beautiful job with the book design.I was over the moon when I saw how she used the type on the jacket.  The hand-lettering in the book is done separately but I create it by drawing, painting and cutting out each letter. All books are huge team effort, and on this one everyone went the extra mile. We just wrapped up the Activity Guide for SPIKE which will be available on our websites. (Crafty kids, get your scissors out!).

Check what reviewers are saying: EarlyWord, Kirkus, 5 Minutes for Books, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Booklist, among many others.



Anonymous said...

As soon as I saw this book, I thought, "Wow, that cover is going to make kids want to read it." The fun of the cover illustration continues throughout the book, making it very visually appealing. It would be a very good book for a group read, as well, with a story that is fun, touches on self-identity, and includes some Spanish words (with a glossary at the end). It fosters interest in an unusual animal, and I really like fiction books that have nonfiction information at the end, encouraging kids to investigate further. This is particularly well done in this book, with beautiful photos and easy to understand facts. This book is good for a variety of ages, and could be the springboard for teachers to use in a variety of different lessons. I give it a 4.

Pat Hensley said...

This is a great young children’s book with wonderful opportunities for learning. The illustrations are colorful and eye catching. The story is interesting and can be used for vocabulary development. It also gives Spanish words to introduce other cultures into learning. At the back of the book, the Spanish words and definitions are also given. The animals that are mentioned would be a great way to incorporate the book into a science lesson. In the back of the book, the author gives more information about the animals. This book would also be a great book to talk about social skills such as making friends, being different, feeling good about yourself, and individual strengths. After reading this book, students could be encouraged to draw their own monsters which would incorporate art with reading. Students might also want to find out more about other animals that some people might consider monsters.

I would definitely give this book a 5. This book would be great in an early childhood classroom or the school library. It would be useful for a class lesson or just for entertainment.

Pat Hensley
Greenville, SC

Mrs. Null said...

When Spike (a character inspired by the critically endangered axolotl) is struggling to validate his monster appeal, he learns that friendships have more value (especially when they start with a nice smile). The integration of other creatures from Mexico and the inclusion of Spanish words(and glossary),give the characters and setting authenticity and gives the reader more meaning to construct schema from. I love Melissa Sweet's art style, and she continues to find just the right elements to make each picture feel like a stand alone piece of art in Spike. After reading the story I read the informative text in the More About Spike and His Amigos section and was completely empathetic for each of the "characters' and who they represent in nature. Save the axolotl!

Anonymous said...

Very cute tale - loved that the main character is an axolotl (I had never even heard of one). A real bonus is the informational text at the back that gives details about the animals featured in the story - perfect combination of fiction/non-fiction.

Anonymous said...

Love this book! The story is very sweet. The illustrations are beautiful and cheerful. Love that it is educational in so many ways, yet entertaining so the kids keep asking for more. I would definitely recommend this book and give it a 5.

Julia Pitau said...

Beautiful illustrations hands down! I didn't realize there would be Spanish intermixed in the text, which threw me off just a bit. I was glad to see the author included the translations in the back of the book. I also enjoyed learning about the actual animals in the back of the book. Short and sweet. A picnic basket rating of 3 1/2 stars.

Denair Charter Academy

Anonymous said...

Very cute story of an axolot who is clearly in search of her own identity. I think students will enjoy the colorful illustrations, message behind the story & all the bi-lingual words. I especially like the photos and descriptions of the real creatures at the end of the book and the spanish-english translation. I'd rate it a 5.

Pat Kramer said...

This book is awesome! The colorful illustrations hold children's attention. It's a grear book for a writing mini-lessons in many areas (adjectives, active verbs, use of quotation marks and dialogue). Love the incorporation of Spanish words too. My special education class loves it! (Also great for early elementary.)

wordwarrior said...

Spike the Mixed Up Monster is a delight. The book came in my mail and I thought, "what a beautiful book and enchanting story!" The Spanish words were an unexpected pleasure. I teach ESL at the High School and elementary levels. Spike is a "bridge the gap" book for adults and children experiencing a new language. I feel that Spike helps students learn science, experience new vocabulary, and appreciate the similarity and differences between people and cultures as they see Spike discover who he is and who the other creatures in the book are as well.
I truly enjoyed meeting Spike throughout the pages of the book and seeing how Spike coped with his problems.

I will recommend Spike to the younger reading teachers as well as my ESL peers. I give Spike a 5 for younger reader and any level ESL new language learners.

linda said...

I absolutely love this book, from cover to cover. The book is a great link to teaching about identify and social skills. There are so many uses for the book-teaching the craft of writing, verb usage, "dead words",timelines. I give it a 5 plus!

NMills said...

Cute story. I enjoyed the introduction and use of Spanish words. Loved the photos of the actual "monsters" 4 out of 5

Jennifer Sherman said...

I absolutely loved the illustrations in the book. My students absolutely love the pictures as well. They were actually fighting about who got to listen to my recorded reading of the book in our listening center. Any book that gets students excited about reading is a great book. The Spanish vocabulary is incidental, but our Kindergarten Level Spanish teacher thought it would make a nice introduction to the language at the beginning of the year. I think it would also lend well to social education.
I give this book a 5.

Jennifer Sherman
Orem, Utah