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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Starring Me and You, written and illustrated by Genevieve Cote. Kids Can Press, 2014. $16.95 ages 2 and up

"I want to do MY play!

I want to do it MY way!

Grr...When I'm angry,
I grumble and pout.

When I'M angry,
I kick and SHOUT!"

Wahoo! Piggy and Bunny are back. I welcome them with open arms, much as I do Piggie and Elephant whenever they have a new story to tell. If you haven't read their first two stories (Me and You and Without You), you should!

In this third tale of friendship (with all of its ups and downs), the two search through a dress-up trunk with putting on a play in mind. The trunk has all the props they need. Once the curtain is hung between two step ladders, with the help of Frog and Butterfly, the stage (as they say) is set. On with the show!

That's when it starts to fall apart...Bunny is pretty shy and can't seem to get past the stage curtain. While Bunny finds hiding the solution to her shyness, Piggy 'smiles'. It's awkward to be at odds, and it exacerbates the responses they each have to their own performance. Once those little idiosyncrasies are in the open, perhaps the show can go on.

Well, no! Now, they have to agree on what kind of show they will present. The choice is not easy, and leads to more extreme reactions...that is, until they both see the light and recognize the need for compromise.

"Whatever we are, whatever we do,
the stage is always big enough for
me and you."

Mixed media artwork ensures that young readers know exactly how each of the friends feels at all times. Don't miss even the smallest detail on each page as Ms. Cote explores, once more, the many facets of friendship and emotion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Children of the King, written by Sonya Hartnett. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $17.00 ages 10 and up

"Her host at Heron Hall was, in appearance, like a wily criminal from an adventure tale. He was tall and lean, and his face was shadowy, and he wore his dark hair long, like a mane, which May had never seen a real-life man do. His eyes, too, were very black, as if only night-time sights were invited into them. There was something mysterious about him..."

Oh, I could go on and on, sharing paragraphs and pages of perfect prose. Sonya Hartnett is an exemplary storyteller. Here, she continues her impeccable writing about the effects of war on children and families.

We begin in World War II London, in the days before the Blitz. The Lockwood family, without their father, is sent to the countryside to live at Heron Hall with Uncle Peregrine. Cecily, Jeremy and their mother are not happy with the decision made for them. At the train station there are other refugee children, alone and wondering who might provide care for them. Cecily convinces her family that they should help. She chooses May. Cecily likes the idea that she will take charge of the younger girl. May has other ideas. She is independent, headstrong, and does not easily accept being told what to do.

It is May who discovers the Snow Castle while wandering the surrounding countryside, and the two young boys who hide within its ruins. The boys are an interesting pair:

"From behind the wall, unhesitating, stepped a younger child. If the boys were indeed brothers, the first must have taken after one parent, the second after the other, for they did not look much alike. One seemed a collector of stamps, the other a player of rough games. The younger's face was not wary but cheerful, his frame not gangly but robust. Both of them, however, had pretty, dove-grey eyes and both of them wore their mousy curls long, all the way down to the collar. It took Cecily a moment to remember who else kept their hair like that, in a lion's mane, and realised it was her uncle Peregrine. And Cecily, who knew a bit about clothes, saw that those the brothers were wearing - linen shirts, velvet jackets, leather boots, calf-length cloaks - were well-made and costly, and something else as well, something she couldn't immediately define."

Now, we are set to hear the story within a story...Peregrine is willing to share his tale of Richard III and his nephews, and connect it to the Snow Castle that holds such intrigue for the children. As he shares pieces of it on successive evenings, the two stories merge into a truly mesmerizing tale of historical fiction that will have readers (and listeners) glued to their seats and making many connections. As we are firmly rooted in the story that compares the uncertainty and terror of the German attacks on London to the peaceful tranquility of the Lockwood estate, we also gain knowledge of a harrowing time in Britain's long history, when power also reared its ugly head:

"We don't know every single detail of what the King said and did; but we do know that, in the quest for power, truth is always the first thing left behind. Most people doubted the King had promised to marry another, but the Duke chopped the heads off a few people who said so aloud, and after that nobody argued. The King was dead, crazy Clarence was dead, the princes supposedly weren't royal, and the Duke was the only person left standing to claim the crown. He made a show of refusing it; his friends begged him to reconsider; he reconsidered and agreed. On a tide of lies and disloyalty, the Duke had become King."

Two stories told seamlessly, in the hands of an incredibly accomplished teller of tales. Complex and compelling, this is truly historical fiction at its best.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Silver People:Voices From the Panama Canal, written by Margarita Engle. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2014. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"The tourists ask for whole collections
of rare butterflies for their children -
wild butterflies, caught and pinned,
not just a few drifting wings,
like the ones I find after migrations.
And they want skins. Jaguar. Puma. Snake.
And crocodile teeth, peccary tusks,
fossil shark teeth from the Serpent Cut.
Anything sharp, so they can pretend
they know danger.

No! She does not yet disappoint on any level. I remain in awe of Margarita Engle's unerring research and her beautifully poetic and flawless ability to tell stories that matter to her...and to make them matter to us!

In her newest novel in verse, she uses an impressive collection of voices to tell the story of the construction of the Panama Canal. The story begins with Mateo, from the island of Cuba. He has good reason to think that finding work anywhere will provide a better life than the one he is living:

"I am not an ordinary war orphan.
Papi is alive, but the family part
of his mind
is deeply wounded.
He drinks so much rum
that he believes I am
his enemy - a Spaniard
from the country
that lost the war
and left so many
of its soldiers
I'm only fourteen, but I'm strong
for a starving boy."

A recruiter promises the world to those who have nothing, and want anything. Mateo convinces him with lies to take a chance on a too young boy. Might it be a mistake?

"Hunger at sea for three days
feels like a knife in the flesh -
twisted blade, rusty metal,
the piercing tip of a long
called regret."

I wanted to take him in my arms and protect him from what is yet to come.

There are recurring voices from the forest: the howler monkeys, glass frogs, blue morpho butterfly, trees, eagle, sloth, tree viper. Each is affected by the workers who come to cut a path through their home, with little concern for the balance of nature and the damage being done. We also meet Anita, a young girl who gathers herbs from the rain forest and Henry, a Jamaican worker who has no status among the workers because of the color of his skin and who faces death and degradation each and every day:

"We also watch the medium-dark
Spanish men, relaxing as they sit
on their train tracks, grinning
as if they know secrets.

We have no place to sit. Not even
a stool. So we stand, plates in hand,
and undignified."

Augusto is a Puerto Rican, a geologist who sees promise in Mateo and offers him some reprieve (on Sundays) from the dreary, backbreaking work that he has promised to do. Through his connections with these people, Mateo finds a place in his new 'home', and we can leave him knowing that he will be all right.

Voices of historical figures, including Theodore Roosevelt, reflect some of the thinking of those in charge of this mammoth undertaking. Creating lovely language and memorable characters is what Margarita Engle does so well. Here, she makes an important page in history come to life for her readers. There is so much to learn about the pervasive racism, danger, wage discrepancies, conditions, ecology and character.

In an interview with Robyn Hood Block (, Ms. Engle had this to say about the choices she makes in writing verse novels:

"The two things I sacrifice in exchange for using the verse novel form's magic are:

1. dialogue---When I encounter dialogue in a verse novel, it usually feels disorienting, so I search for other ways to have characters communicate.
2. detail---I feel the need to research like a maniac, and then omit most of what I have learned. This forces me to only include those aspects of history that seem most important to me. In other words, it forces me to remain constantly aware of what I am really trying to say to young readers.

Powerful words to add to the power of the words you will enjoy when you read this moving account of an historical event.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Open Very Carefully, words by Nick Bromley and artwork by Nicola O'Byrne. Nosy Crow, Candlewick Press. Random House, 2013. $18.00 ages 3and up

A really big scary one!

What's he doing in
this book?

He might bite your
finger or scratch your

Crocodiles like to do that.

You know there's foul play afoot when the warning 'Open Very Carefully' appears stamped across the book's inside title, The Ugly Duckling. Not only that, but there is a scribbling across Hans Christian Andersen's name below that title. In its place, we see that Nicola O'Byrne is responsible for the illustrations and Nick Bromley has created the text. Seems suspicious, wouldn't you agree?

The pastoral scene that accompanies the first page of text seems innocuous enough, doesn't it? A mama duck followed by three perfect yellow ducklings and one bigger white bird wearing a red knit cap. They are at ease, and enjoying their time on the pond. Check out the text that faces this family outing and you are sure to notice a long, spiky green and yellow tail:

"I'm trying to read you the story "The Ugly Duckling", but there's something in the book that shouldn't be here!"

OOPS! Sure enough, it's a crocodile, and it's bound to cause quite the interruption. You should be very, very careful when there's a crocodile in your vicinity. He's eating the letters on the page! Now, words and sentences! Perhaps a rocking motion with book in hand will inspire sleep. It works!

Will messing him up with a crayon while he sleeps send him looking for greener and more accommodating pastures? Can we help him leave? You'll never guess how he makes his escape!

The tiny red-capped swan acts as our narrator and guide in this delightfully interactive tale, allowing all young listeners to play a role is ridding the book of this obstreperous interloper. Kids love books that allow them to play a role in its outcome. They are sure to want to help get that crocodile set on a new path. They will delight in the many problems that his presence creates, and in his solution to escape the trap in which he finds himself.

Oh, please read it again...and again...and again! You won't be sorry.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Moonday, written and illustrated Adam Rex. Disney Hyperion, Hachette. 2013. $17.99 ages 4 and up

"From Dad's shoulders,
I brushed the moon with
my fingertips.

It was chalky and cold.

I climbed into a crater.

"I'm going to have a look around."

With my kids living in different cities than I do, and the opportunities to see them not always plentiful, I find that I take comfort in knowing that the gorgeous full moon that I see is the same one they are seeing. It is a peaceful, easy feeling!

What if that moon actually made its way to your backyard? What a remarkable and unsettling experience to go to sleep while travelling in the car and then awaken to bright moonlight right in your own backyard! In the morning the moon continues to shine through the bedroom window and entices the family outside to see it. Filled with wonder and with bewilderment at its failure to disappear, it does provide adventure:

"I walked over
and under
and around
to where Mom and Dad waited." 

Everywhere else, darkness remains. People go to work in the dark. Children fall asleep in school. Even the teacher can't get her act together in trying to connect the moon to each of the day's lessons. I love the double page spread that shows how yawns pass from one person to the next, all the way through the park to follow the young girl home.

Mom and Dad are working to hide the moon, but they can't hide it enough to control the tides. When water begins to engulf their backyard, they know it is time for action. Another drive in the country entices the moon  to follow, and it eventually lands at the top of the trees where the family first saw its glow.

What a visual and imaginative treat this book is! Not only does it allow a child's imagination to go where it may never have dreamed, it offers a luminous adventure for one family. The two car trips are perfect; the first encourages the moon to follow them home, the next returns it to its place in the night sky. It is a practical, and somewhat humorous, solution to the dilemma of MOONDAY.

Adam Rex fulfills a promise to his readers with the luminous artwork he creates beginning with sunset in a small rural area. Turn the page and you can see darkness settle in, lights begin to illuminate windows, and a rising full moon. That moonlight marks every page, glowing with welcome, brilliant light. You can almost touch it. Even when the family tries to disguise it, it offers a translucent glow. Once the moon has been returned to its place in the sky, the sun can bathe the village in early morning light. A new day dawns!

Truly captivating!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, written by Alan Bradley. Doubleday Canada, Random House. 2014. $29.95 ages 10 and up

"He brightened at once. "Can you keep a secret?" he asked.
I nearly laughed in his face. Of all the billions of people who have ever trod the face of planet Earth, none of them - not a single blessed one! - has ever been as much a master of the zipped lip as Flavia de Luce. I crossed my heart and my lips and showed him the two-fingered bunny-ear sign."
When we left Flavia and the de Luce family at the end of the fifth book in this wonderful series, Speaking from Among the Bones, they were in shock. Then, we were left to wait until the sixth volume of the Flavia chronicles (as I have to come to call them) was written and published. Luckily, we didn't have to wait too long. Thanks to you, Mr. Bradley!

There are some surprises. Flavia is almost twelve now, and has experienced a year that would knock the wind out of most people. Flavia is definitively NOT most people. She is a force to be reckoned with by almost every single person and event encountered. Some things remain unchanged. Her father is still distant. Her older sisters are still annoying. But, facing the truth of the revelation at the end of the last book sets the family on a new, mysterious and sometimes treacherous course.

Off they go to meet the train that is carrying her mother home. Who is the young man who tries to get a message to Flavia, and ends up dead on the train tracks? Why is Winston Churchill at the station? Why does he have a message for Flavia? Does it have something to do with her parents and their travels during WWII? We are left to is the case with all of Flavia's mysterious adventures.  
This book is not so much about murder, as the others have been, as it is about a story of the de Luce family itself. Their family home will soon be theirs no longer. When her mother is returned to the family, they are left to deal with the many repercussions of her death and to wonder if it was an accident in the mountains that actually caused it.
I so love the characters that Alan Bradley has created for this series of books. In this one he adds a number of quirky and authentic  characters whose presence is absolutely necessary to solving this new mystery. We meet Tristam Tallis, who now owns Flavia's mother's plane, Blithe Spirit. What does he know? The funeral brings a rarely seen cousin into the family fold. Lena de Luce and her daughter Undine add a touch of humor, and some drama. Undine is very bright, outspoken and an immediate thorn in Flavia's side. Their encounters are worth rereading. Aunt Felicity and Dogger play an ever-increasing role in Flavia's attempts to make sense of everything that is happening around her.

Flavia holds her place as one of my very favorite characters from all of my reading. She is an astute and capable narrator. Her charm, wit and intelligence continue to strengthen my admiration...and she is so funny! She loves a challenge and does not back down from any new development. She is growing up, and I am keen to see what the future has in store for her. Emotional and touching, this is a book that changes what we might expect in the final four books planned for her. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems, written by J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian with pictures by Jeremy Holmes. Schwartz & Wade, Random House. 2014. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"That`s not brown paint,
It`s chocolate fudge.
And here and there,
A whipped-cream smudge.
The light on top`s
A real cherry!
They sell this car
At Motor Dairy -
This Model T(spoon`s)
One sweet deal.
Besides, it`s got
Put two very clever poets together to pen a collection of poems that honor 'crazy cars' and you are in for a great deal of fun. This is a book that will have strong 'appeal' for all...full of lively language, flights of fanciful imagination, mobile oddities, and packed with wordplay (a not uncommon expectation considering the poets and their reputation for such).

Their cars of the future are crazy indeed, and inspired. They find life in many recognizable forms, including the High Heel Car, the Bathtub Car, the Hot Dog Car and my personal favorite, the Mini-Mini Car! There is no stopping these gentlemen once they get started...and it's the same for their wacky and wittily designed vehicles.

"Balloon Car

My daddy drives a car that floats
an inch above the street -
a hundred colorful balloons
tied to a bucket seat.

And once he blows his car up,
Daddy never wants to stop.
But boy, does he get mad at me
When I call out - "Hey, Pop!"

The possibilities are seemingly endless. Read this once, and then read it again. See what happens when young listeners are allowed to let their imaginations run free...what type of crazy car might they dream up to take them to sea, to space, or to the next town? It is perfect for young readers...I can hear a poem coming on...order this one today and share it often. Your children and students will almost certainly be inspired to create their own wacky cars. Quite the journey for all involved.
Jeremy Holmes has created his own souped-up version of the poems. The art notes state that he uses pencil and watercolor, that were then digitally colored to create the detailed spreads that stretch across the pages. His color palette is fresh, and ever-changing. The pages are busy, in keeping with the motion created in the poems themselves. The table of contents is stellar, including a blueprint for each of the upcoming vehicles. Tire-tracked endpapers add to the appeal, and promise a good deal of driving fun!