Module 8 – Fantasy and Science fiction: The House of the Scorpion

  • Genre: This is a science fiction book set in the future in a time when science has advanced to the point that using clones as replacement parts is viable and when society is willing to sacrifice individuality in order to keep peace.
  • Book Summary: El Patron keeps a clone constantly at hand in order to keep replacing his parts as they break down. He rules his kingdom by maintaining a profitable opium farm between the United States and a fictional country that might as well be Mexico. It is a complicated story of greed, slavery, love, family, rebellion and more. Although futuristic, it touches on current events and raises ethical questions that current students will likely have to vote or act on in their lifetime. Matt, the protagonist, learns hard lessons on an ever-twisting journey to adulthood with an ironic and satisfying ending.
  • APA Reference of Book: Farmer, N. (2002). The house of the scorpion. New York, NY: Scholastic.
  • Library Uses: This would be good for a book talk in middle or high school. I used to think it was mainly a middle school book, but I am finding that it would be challenging for many of my high school students. It connects to the current issues of immigration, governmental corruption, the ethics of scientific/medical breakthroughs, and more.
  • Impressions: When this book originally came out, I was unable to persuade any of my colleagues that it was worth buying class sets of. Whether the length seemed daunting or they dismissed it because of its science fiction bent and their prejudices against that genre, I don’t know. I think it has enjoyed some popularity in classrooms, and I was just getting my high school colleagues to read it and consider it for a class assignment when I left teaching last year. It broaches so many good current topics in an engaging story that it’s wonderful to use not only for reading but for social studies connections.
  • Professional Review:

CHILDREN’S BOOKS; Disorder at the Border

By ROGER SUTTON      NOV. 17, 2002


By Nancy Farmer.

PARENTS of today’s young adolescents might remember when drug book meant ”Go Ask Alice” or ”Angel Dust Blues” — cautionary tales of use synonymous with abuse. While Nancy Farmer’s latest novel, ”The House of the Scorpion,” has as its setting the vast poppy farm of a drug baron, it is unconcerned with the perils of addiction, and its roots reach rather farther back into children’s literature — to ”Pinocchio,” for starters.

Matteo Alacrán is a clone, made from a cell taken from El Patrón, the elderly (really elderly; he’s 142 when the book begins) undisputed leader of the Farmers, the men who control the sinister borderlands of the United States and Aztlán, formerly Mexico. Although the law states that a clone must have ”its” (a pronoun the author uses with pointed effect) consciousness destroyed at birth, Matt has his — or are they El Patrón’s? — faculties intact. He’s going to need all of them to find out just who he is, what he is and why he was created.

These are questions of literature, of course, and like Collodi (or Spielberg, in ”A.I.”) before her, Nancy Farmer uses a boy who wants desperately to be human to get readers to think about what that means, and how far they are willing to expand their definition. Our empathy for Matt is established from the start, when we meet him living in isolation with a loving guardian, Celia, in the far reaches of the poppy fields in a cottage that is cozy but nonetheless a prison.

When three children — the first Matt has ever seen who weren’t on television — happen by and discover him, Matt thinks he’s found friends, but only until they and, more important, their father, see what is stamped on his foot: ”Property of the Alacrán Estate.” The revelation of Matt’s existence and his condition to the denizens of the estate puts into play the plot of allies (one of the children; his guardian, Celia; and a swaggering bodyguard) and enemies (just about everybody else). El Patrón’s loyalties extend only as far as himself, but does his concept of himself extend to Matt?

It’s a big, ambitious tale, and Nancy Farmer’s readers will be used to that; indeed, ”The House of the Scorpion” is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for young people’s literature. Her novels ”The Ear, the Eye and the Arm” and ”A Girl Named Disaster,” both Newbery Honor books, are also large-scale stories in which children battle inner demons and ferocious villains in a series of perilous adventures through hostile but richly conceived landscapes. Assisting all of these children are helper figures of folkloric dimension. Matt’s is the bodyguard Tam Lin, in legend a captive of the faeries, here a fugitive from Scottish justice who serves as Matt’s compass both moral and geographical, giving him the tools he needs to escape his fate and find his future.

Tam Lin is a welcome benevolence in a novel abounding in creepily gothic images: the cows gestating the clone embryos (”their bodies were exercised by giant metal arms that grasped their legs and flexed them as though the cows were walking through an endless field”); the ”eejits,” surgically brain-damaged laborers and servants who perform the repetitive tasks on the estate; a mindless clone screaming as its body serves its purpose, organ transplant, while Matt watches and recognizes their horrifying kinship.

The author ably keeps her elements in balance, so that the Dr. Frankenstein moments never become gratuitous; in fact, the unemotional narration at times seems detached, wary of lingering too long in any one place. The best scenes are the ones for which we get to stick around for a while — when Matt is kept for months in a sawdust-filled pen like an animal by a malevolent housekeeper, or later, when he escapes the estate and finds himself in a home for lost boys. The first scene is harrowingly desolate; the second has plenty of spirit and even some humor, as Matt finds himself leading a revolt.

While the question of Matt’s humanity drives the novel, it gets answered and then dropped too easily; still, it’s an enormous credit to Farmer that the story, character development and theme grow all of a piece. Details about how the Farms came to be, how Mexico became Aztlán and how Matteo Alacrán Primero became El Patrón become part of Matt’s story as well: we learn them as he does, and his knowledge moves the narrative forward.

Although ”The House of the Scorpion” is nominally science fiction, its conventions are primarily those of realistic fiction, with more than a whiff of the old-fashioned adventure tale, the kind we rarely see these days outside the fantasy genre. Both critics and young readers appreciate books about children in trouble, the former for reasons more high-minded than the latter. Although adults like to look for the social lesson in tales of dreadful circumstance, kids know that trouble is more exciting than contentment. Ask Pinocchio.

Awards: This book has won many state and other awards. The most prominent are:

National Book Award for Young People’s Literature – 2002

Newbery Honor – 2003

Michael Printz Award Honor Book – 2003

Readalikes: Fahrenehit 451 by Ray Bradbury – This futuristic book also deals with ethical dilemmas, but different ones than in Scorpion.

1984 by George Orwell – An older even more science fictional book than Scorpion, but with similar themes.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – A more contemporary dystopian book that deals with how to control populations, ethical choices, love, family, and friendship.


Little Roja Riding Hood

Book Cover Image:

Little Roja





Genre: This book is a picture story book found in the Easy or Everyone Fiction. It has vibrant, detailed, contemporary images to illustrate an update of the traditional tale of Little Red Riding Hood.

Book Summary: This rhyming update of a traditional story is captivating. Little Roja’s mom is watching telenovelas and Little Roja travels to her grandma’s house on a four-wheeler. Although it won an award for the amazingly detailed and fun illustrations, the rhyming text that smoothly comingles Spanish with English is delightful. The illustrations feature various little creatures on each page and birds that squawk in Spanish. You will want to look at the illustrations over and over to find all the fun details. In the end, the Big Bad Wolf does not prevail, but Abuela decides to get a security system. The modern twists will resonate with many young contemporary readers/listeners.

APA Reference of Book: Elya, S. M. & Guevera, S. (2014). Little roja riding hood. New York, NY: Penguin.

Library Uses: This is pure fun for story time. With older students you could use it for a creative writing lesson for students to write their own “updated” version of a traditional tale. I’m using it as the basis for my costume for our Halloween storybook character parade.

Impressions: I don’t know why everyone doesn’t know about this book. Or maybe everyone does, but I just haven’t heard of it. The rhyme of the text is smooth, not forced like so much rhyme is. It slides the Spanish words in easily. The contemporary touches are entertaining for adults who expect the traditional version, while creating familiar connections for our latino/a audience. The pictures are reminiscent of Greame Base’s Animalia, but not quite that detailed. This one is just for fun!

Professional Review: Kirkus Review. (2014, February 19). Retrieved from

Elya presents a modern twist on a familiar fairy tale in her signature style using rhyming, predominantly English text that skillfully incorporates Spanish words and phrases.

Red travels through the woods to take hot soup to her sick abuela. Along the way, she is tricked by a sly wolf. Roja must act quickly to rescue Grandma, and then the two devise a technologically enhanced plan to prevent visits from unwelcome predators in the future. The playful illustrations elevate the book, blending a whimsical fairy-tale land with contemporary Latino-American life. In the kitchen, where Mamá watches telenovelas while chopping peppers and garlic, three blind mice scamper about, a pair of mischievous goblins lurk outside the window, and symbols reminiscent of milagros, or prayer charms, rise up in the steam from the clay pot of bean soup. As Red travels through the forest, the birds call out warnings to her in Spanish—“¡Cuidado!” Throughout the text, the Spanish words appear in bold and italicized print. Context and an opening glossary provide the definitions rather than simultaneous translation. This results in a story that avoids becoming repetitive for bilingual readers and that readers who do not speak Spanish will also easily understand.

This spirited interpretation of a classic fairy tale successfully mixes magic and reality, as well as Spanish and English words. (Picture book. 3-7)

 Awards: 2015 Pura Belpré Award for illustration (Presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.)

Readalikes: The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka (author), Lane Smith (illustrator) – This is another “update” of a traditional tale. It isn’t modernized as much as much as it just shifts perspectives and gives the wolf’s version of what happened. Another fun story and a great lesson in perspective.

The Complete Story of the Three Blind Mice by John W. Ivimey (author), Victoria Chase (illustrator) – This story expands on the three blind mice song, which is included with the musical notation in the beginning of the book. The rhymes and story here are not on the same plane as Little Roja or The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, but it is a story along the same lines.

Fire! Fuego! Brve Bomberos by Susan Middleton Elya (author), Dan Santat (illustrator) – If you are looking for another combination of English and Spanish that’s rhyming and fun, this is a previous publication by the same author as Little Roja.

Picture books in high school

A I was reading picture books for older elementary students, I got excited. I guess it’s an English teacher thing, or a librarian thing, but I kept thinking about how great these books would be in high school English (and maybe social studies) classrooms. I couldn’t focus on just one book, and I wanted to remember and share the connections there are, so I made a chart. In high school, sometimes we get bogged down in”seriousness” and these texts not only ARE serious introductions or additions to common teaching points, they are FUN! Even high school kids love being read to, so here are some ideas:

Author Title Subjects it could be used for  
Gandhi, Arun Grandfather Gandhi Self-esteem, anger management, history Up to high school
Rosenthal, et al Duck! Rabbit! Perspectives Up to high school
Novak, B. J. The Book With No Pictures Reading motivation; close reading Up to high school
Clinton, Chelsea She Persisted Women in history Up to high school
Shannon, David A Bad Case of Stripes Being yourself Best in middle school, but up to high school
Scieszka, Jon The True Story of the Three Little Pigs Research, journalism, perspectives High school
Bunting, Eve Smoky Night Allegory, being judgmental, mob behavior Up to high school
Scieszka, Jon & Lane Smith Squids Will be Squids

(take-offs of fables)

Understanding implied theme, allegory, just for fun (I laughed out loud at Little Walrus), adages (Ben Franklin?) Up to high school

Rainbow Fish

I wrote this response to Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister in September, and am just now posting it.

  • Genre: This book is a picture story book found in the Easy or Everyone Fiction. It is a great example of this genre because while it has beautiful images to enhance the story, the text is necessary. It has a complete story, but no chapters.
  • Book Summary: In The Rainbow Fish, a self-absorbed, beautiful fish who wants to make friends, but can’t embarks on a voyage of self-discovery and changes as a result of his encounter with an oracle of sorts. The octopus (oracle) tells Rainbow Fish to give some of his shiny scales to others so they can enjoy them, too. Rainbow Fish’s first response is that this is an impossible task, but since the oracle disappears and there is no way or argue or ask about another alternative, Rainbow Fish is left with this one option.  Of course, on giving away his first scale, the result is positive, so he continues  to share his beautiful, shiny scales until everyone looks just like him and he has lots of friends…and it didn’t even hurt!
  • APA Reference of Book: Pfister, Marcus. (1992) The rainbow fish. New York, NY: North-South Books Inc.
  • Library Uses: Could be used as a fictional introduction to a project about nonfiction fish, or the beginning of a lesson/project about sharing.
  • Impressions: On the surface, this story is about sharing and has a nice message, but I have always been concerned that Rainbow Fish gives up what makes him unique, and in the end of his generous giving, they are all more like him. They have all been homogenized in a way. For some reason it reminds me of the rise of Hitler or the worst of communism. But I sometimes overthink things. Nonetheless, with a large dose of emphasis on the importance of sharing, I read this story to my own children several times. The beautiful watercolor images and the shiny scales are siren songs almost impossible to resist.
  • Professional Review: Publisher’s Weekly. (1999, January 25). The rainbow fish. PWxyz, LLC. Retrieved from

Despite some jazzy special effects achieved with shimmery holographs, this cautionary tale about selfishness and vanity has trouble staying afloat. Rainbow Fish, “the most beautiful fish in the entire ocean,” refuses to share his prized iridescent scales–which, indeed, flash and sparkle like prisms as each page is turned. When his greed leaves him without friends or admirers, the lonely fish seeks advice from the wise octopus, who counsels him to give away his beauty and “discover how to be happy.” The translation from the original German text doesn’t enhance the story’s predictable plot, and lapses into somewhat vague descriptions: after sharing a single scale, “a rather peculiar feeling came over Rainbow Fish.” Deep purples, blues and greens bleed together in Pfister’s liquid watercolors; unfortunately, the watery effect is abruptly interrupted by a few stark white, text-only pages. Ages 4-8. (Oct.)

 ReadalikesThe Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle

If You Give a Pig a Pancake by Laura Joffe

Stellaluna by Janell Cannon