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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Through The Window: Views of Marc Chagall's Life and Art. By Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary Grandpre. Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House, 2018. $23.99 ages 6 and up

"Through the window,
the misfit sees ...

Two-faced slivers of St.
Petersburg, glittering city
of czars and princes,
neighbors crammed in
filthy rooms, Russia's
poor, ignored."

From humble beginnings in Belarus Marc Chagall (born Moishe Shagal) found great success within a community of French artists, when he moved to Paris and let his imagination inform his life's work. He was always an observer, spending much of his early years peering through the window at life in his small village, taking classes where his artistic acumen was unappreciated, and painting store signs to keep food on the table.

The move to Paris changes his life entirely. Then, WWI wreaks havoc on his newfound celebrity. Returning home for his sister's wedding, he finds himself caught in its darkness and unable to leave.

"Leaders wrestle for power, crushing freedoms in life and art.
Restless crowds controlled through muscular portraits.
His radical canvases, orange faces, sky-blue horses,
called harmful, hated."

His eventual return to Paris, with his wife and daughter, brings new acclaim and much success. Life is good there for many years. WWII again forces a move ... this time to America and renewed inspiration for his artistic expression.

"Through the window,
the old man sees ...

 A rippling kaleidoscope of magic memories.
His dreams, real and imagined,
broken apart and fit back together."

Today, the world can see through Mr. Chagall's stunning windows!

As you can tell from the passages quoted, the text is brilliant and is beautifully enhanced by Ms. Grandpre's stellar artwork. The endpapers are filled with familiar images from Chagall's art, and the author's note provides a concise but relevant look at his life from birth to death. A list of sources completes the information provided.

This is the third collaboration for the two artists, and is a worthy addition for home and classroom libraries. Be sure to look for The Noisy Paint Box (Knopf, 2014) and Vincent Can't Sleep (Knopf, 2017), and think of adding them to your collection.

We can only hope that there is another in the works.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Grand Expedition, by Emma Adbage. Translated from Swedish by Annie Prime. Enchanted Lion Books, Publishers Group Canada. 2018. $23.95 ages 3 and up

"We find a good bag and pack
everything we need. A pocket
flashlight, a nature book, a toy
knife for each of us, and
something to snuggle with.
Iben takes a jump rope, too.

"In case we need a lasso!'

Now we just need treats."

Some kids love 'camping' in the backyard. Many anticipate such adventures with great delight. The children in this book are a prime example of that thinking. The narrator and sibling Iben have a plan, and are keen to share it with their father. It is to be a 'grand expedition.'

When it comes to sustenance, the cupboards are empty. Dad suggests pickles. The two are gobsmacked. They need treats. Dad is not helpful. Off they go as Dad waves goodbye and they head toward the perfect spot in the backyard. They spend their time doing just what they want to do. A flashlight helps create ambiance, but does nothing to assuage the discontent when the pickles are consumed and the nursery rhymes have run out. Boredom sets in, as well as discomfort. A mosquito is the final straw. They head inside. It's the end of a longed-for adventure and the beginning of a peaceful night. 

The winsome illustrations are perfect, adding small details that are oh, so charming. Before your kids embark on their next camping adventure, read this book and then send it out with them.                                                                             

Sunday, September 23, 2018

How To Be A Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals. Written by Sy Montgomery and illustrated by Rebecca Green. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Raincoast. 2018. $29.00 ages 10 and up

"For most of our lives together, Tess interrupted our work constantly to lay joy in our laps. After our morning outing, when we'd fed Christopher and the Ladies, Tess would sit quietly in my office or in Howard's for about an hour. Then she'd have had enough. As we were writing, suddenly a ball or a Frisbee would appear on one of our laps. We'd have to go outside together to play. There were times ... "

I have been an admirer of Sy Montgomery's work for a long time. I am a long-time fan of the Scientists in the Field series from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and many of those books showcase her brilliant writing. She is a consummate researcher and journeys often with well-known scientists to learn more about the creatures that so fascinate her.

In this new book, she shares her love of the animals who have been her teachers.

"All the animals I've known - from the first bug I must have spied as an infant, to the moon bears I met in Southeast Asia, to the spotted hyenas I got to know in Kenya - have been good creatures. Each individual is a marvel and perfect in his or her own way. Just being with any animal is edifying, for each one has a knowing that surpasses human understanding. A spider can taste the world with her feet. Birds can see colors we can't begin to describe. A cricket can sing with his legs and listen with his knees. A dog can hear sounds above the level of human hearing, and can tell if you're upset even before you're aware of it yourself."

Her stories begin with Molly, a Scottish terrier, who was as tenacious as the young girl wanted to be. Then, moves on to entertain and engage readers with a varied host of animals that have impacted her life in many ways. Her travels have taken her to various locations and introduced her to emus, a tarantula, hyenas, the moon bear, pink dolphins and the great white shark to name a few. She also pens other stories of pets who have made her life better, including Christopher Hogwood, a runt pig who grew to weigh more than seven hundred pounds, a weasel who visited at Christmas one year and killed a favorite chicken, the chickens who followed Sy and her husband Howard wherever they went. It is a wonderful, sometimes heartbreaking, collection of stories. Each creature chronicled here became an important part of her life, and changed her ... for the better. Her stories fascinate and will give readers pause to think on the beauty and pain that is life on this planet. 

Back matter includes a collection of archival photos, a list of books that provided inspiration for her writing, and a comprehensive list of the books Ms. Montgomery has written for both children and adults.

Check her website at

Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Big Mooncake for Little Star, written and illustrated by Grace Lin. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2018. $23.49 ages 4 and up

"And Little Star remembered
as she brushed her teeth,
washed her face,
snuggled into bed,
and fell asleep.

But in the middle of the night,
Little Star woke up."

Baking a mooncake with her mother is a very special time for Little Star. She watches carefully as her mother places that mooncake in the sky to cool. She listens carefully to her mother's instructions about not touching it until her mother tells her it is time. She goes to sleep knowing exactly what she is to do.

But ... even in sleep she thinks of that mooncake and cannot resist getting out of bed to have a nibble. Only a little one, and then she is quickly back in bed. Knowing that mooncake hangs in the sky is too tempting for a little girl. Each night she sneaks out of bed to take another little bite ... until there is nothing left but crumbs.

"Until one night, Little Star's mama went to look for the Big
Mooncake. Where was it? It was gone! Instead of a glowing,
round cake, there was just a trail of twinkling crumbs."

Unperturbed, her mother has the perfect solution.

What a beautiful way to learn about the moon and its phases! I know that I will be asked to read it many times, and deservedly so. Little ones will love to be in on the mischief evoked by Little Moon's constant visits for 'just a wee nibble.'

The gouache artwork is extraordinary! The endpapers see mother and daughter preparing the mooncake together (and include a number of lovely details), and the black backgrounds allow the bright yellows of the moon and stars to illuminate every page. It is headed for my 'keepers' shelf!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Missing Mike, by Shari Green. Pajama Press, 2018. $18.95 ages 10 and up

"Dad's arm shoots out
stops me
steers me
toward the car.
"Where's Mike?" he asks
and I tell him Mike's gone
and I have to find him - I know
I can find him.
I just need time.
"There's no time," Dad says.
I twist away
run for my bike ... "

This is a pretty ominous beginning for a tale that speaks to some of our worst fears. What if ... 

What if your house and community was in the path of terrifying wildfires? What if your dog was
so scared he ran away to escape the smoke and unease felt about the approaching danger? What if you had to leave without him?

Having spent a good part of the summer here listening to reports of the destruction caused by wildfires on the west coast of Canada and the United States, this book is an excellent way to get kids thinking about the dire consequences of such events in peoples' lives. It is a moving account of the terror and anguish felt by those who live where those fires rage.

With the news that they should be prepared to evacuate at any time, Cara, her sister and her family make the preparations needed to be safe. It is still alarming when the police officer comes to the door, giving them ten minutes to get out.

"Ten minutes.
Ten minutes to pack up and leave our home.
Ten minutes to grab out just-in-case backpacks
and as much food and clothing
as we can
toss it all into the trunk
with the emergency bins
full of bottled water
protein bars and a baggie of Mike's kibble
first-aid kit, radio, flashlight, tarp
and matches - which is about the stupidest thing

There is no time to find Mike, and Cara is heartbroken. She has loved that dog since the moment she saw him at the shelter, a one-eyed grown mutt that is also missing a part of his ear. They spend every minute they can together. We know before they have to leave just how much Cara and Mike love each other. It is almost impossible for her to deal with leaving him behind them.

Their flight is terrifying as they travel the one road out of their community, with trees burning, cars stalled along the way and ash filling the air. It's hard to breathe, harder still to keep calm in the resulting chaos. They finally make it to a shelter, find a host family to stay with, and make new friends. All the while, Cara cannot escape the alarming concern she is feeling for her cherished pet.

The tense telling will keep readers intent on reading (or hearing) more. While there are bright spots along the way, Cara and her family are faced with uncertainty, fear, and a hope for a return to their community. When they finally get the okay to go back, they are faced with the tragic and uplifting results of the catastrophe. To say much has changed is an understatement. Cara, who has been reflecting on the meaning of 'house' and 'home', discovers they are distinctly different things.

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees, written and illustrated by Don Brown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Raincoast. 2018. $26.99 ages 14 and up

"Hundreds, then thousands flee.
Many simply cross into Jordan and Lebanon, where they try to take up a new life. Others pile up at the Turkish border. Turkey will officially accept those with passports. The mass of people are without and sneak in. The night is cold. Families with nothing but the clothes on their backs steal toward the Turkish border in silence. We felt maybe it's our turn to die, but we didn't want to die. So we made up our minds to leave."

It has only been seven years since the civil war in Syria began when a group of teenagers were tortured and imprisoned for speaking out against the Assad regime. It was the beginning of a long and continuing war between the country's dictator and those who oppose his rule. Protesters were met with tanks and bombs, causing millions to flee for their lives. The resulting refugee crisis has had worldwide repercussions.

In his new book, Don Brown provides a clear look at the awful reality that is the life of those fleeing hatred and persecution in their home country. He does his best to let his readers know about the conditions the Syrians face as they try to find peace and security elsewhere; they cannot find it at home. He tells of dangerous and insidious smuggling schemes, neighboring and other countries of the world who do not welcome their arrival, the dangers inherent in fleeing for their lives, and the sadness and anger many feel for their circumstances. Resentment has grown throughout the world for those seeking asylum. There are many tragedies, but also joys shared as some find new homes. The refugees are resilient, determined and always hopeful.

Emotional renderings of this very real tragedy allow the target audience to begin to understand the enormity of the crisis. Grief, fear and total exhaustion is clear on every page. It is a heartbreaking account of the exhaustive research Mr. Brown has done while visiting refugee camps in Greece and seeing first hand what life in like in the camps where they are housed. He provides a journal summary of the visits he made a year ago, focusing his attention on the people, rather than the reasons for their flight from their homeland.

"This last visit to a camp heightened the discomfort I'd experienced on my first visit - that I was a voyeur to tragedy. The notion of having refugees recount their awful experiences of exodus seemed unnecessary and cruel. After all, those terrible stories are already widely circulated. My unease was hard to shake. In the end, I found value in the visits by their having made me a more sensitive witness to the refugees' dilemma and a more powerful advocate for their salvation."

These are ordinary people experiencing untold hardship. If you want a starting point for discussion, you would do well to share this honest, clear, and authentic account of what life has been like for so many. For those wanting to know more, the author provides pictures, a summary of his visits to the camps, source notes, a lengthy bibliography and a poignant poem of hope by Sahir Noah.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

CHAMPION: The Story of Muhammad Ali. Written by Jim Haskins and illustrated by Eric Velasquez. Bloomsbury, Raincoast. 2018. $23.99 ages 8 and up

"Not long afterward, Cassius Clay walked into a restaurant and ordered a glass of orange juice. The owner would not serve him because he was black. Cassius said that the pain he felt was like having to take punches without hitting back. After the Olympics, Cassius turned professional. From then on, he fought for money. A group of local white businessmen paid his expenses."

Let me just say this: I am NOT a fan of boxing. I do, however, have great admiration for Muhammad Ali. It was not always that way. Like so many, I was taken aback by his confidence, but loved his humor. His braggadocio captured the attention of many, including myself, and garnered ardent fans. I was not among them, although I will admit I watched him fight on a few occasions. He commanded attention!

Ali did so much in his lifetime; this book is evidence of that. Jim Haskins knows exactly how to capture the reader's attention with a story that begins on January 17, 1942, the day Cassius Clay Jr. was born. He introduces readers to  the Clay family, his early family life and then takes us to his twelfth birthday when the red bicycle he received was soon stolen, and never returned. Ready to fight, young Cassius was advised that he had better learn how to do it first. The policeman who shared that advice offered to teach him to box. What a beginning for the young boy who would become the most famous of all boxers!

The book then follows his life, with honesty and clarity, through the triumphs and tragedies he experienced. Fans will be familiar with his gold medal win at the 1960 Olympics, his conversion to Islam, his refusal to fight in Vietnam, his highly publicized bouts, his retirement from the ring and his battle with Parkinson's. I cannot tell you how emotional I felt with he appeared bearing the final torch at the Olympics in Atlanta. Millions watched and I feel to safe to say that many felt the exactly the same way as I did. It was awesome ... and heartbreaking. 

This story is told with honesty and admiration. The artwork, painted in oils, is rich in detail and visually stunning. It is a tribute worth adding to your list of essential picture book biographies.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Stone for Sascha, written and illustrated by Aaron Becker. Candlewick Press, Penguin Random House. 2018. $23.99 ages 4 and up

"A wistful walk
along the beach
to gather cool
polished stones
becomes a brilliant
turning point in the
girl's grief."

We know Sascha loved her dog. We see it in the portrait of the two before the story begins. Her arms surround her pet with love ... they are content in each other's company. As we turn to the story, we are witness to Sascha picking a handful of warm yellow wildflowers, then running to embrace her mother while her father prepares to bury her beloved pet with its bone. Her younger brother chases a butterfly. The family watches as Sascha places the flowers on the burial mound, then lets her alone to say a final goodbye.

The scene shifts to the family leaving on vacation. Sascha looks back as the car pulls away, her eyes turned toward the burial site. As her parents begin setting up camp at the edge of a lake, Sascha is seen gathering stones from the beach before throwing them back into the water.

Again, the scene shifts to a streaking comet headed straight for Earth. The next section of this amazing, breathtaking book takes readers back to the time of the dinosaur when the comet crashed and then through time to the present. Each new spread shows 'readers' the many transformations the  remnant of the comet makes as it passes through time. It is quite the journey! Finally, Sascha retrieves the golden stone from the water. With closed eyes, and seemingly at peace, she holds it to her cheek. Once home, it provides a permanent marker on her pet's grave.

Time passes, grief is unmistakable, and memories hold loved ones close in our hearts. There is so much beauty here ... in the wordless storytelling itself, and the exceptional artwork that makes connections through time and place.