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Monday, March 2, 2015

Stop, Thief! Written by Heather Tekavec and illustrated by Pierre Pratt. Kids Can Press, 2014. $18.95 ages 5 and up

"He wasn't gone long
until he heard a strange
buzzing sound. He followed
the buzz to a small orange
carrot. On the orange carrot
there were some feathery
green leaves. On one of the
leaves was a tiny blue bug.
And the bug was chewing
the leaf!"

Max likes nothing better than to help where help is needed. So, when the farmer asks him to help catch a thief, Max is on it! The farmer explains:

"I don't know what he looks like," the farmer said, "but he's been stealing all the carrots, berries, beans and cherries. Go catch him before he eats my whole farm!"

Max is off in a New York minute, rope in mouth and the thief on his mind. It isn't long until he sees that blue bug. He knows he has managed to catch the culprit in quick time! The bug escapes and Max explains to a nearby munching bunny that the bug is the thief who's stealing food from the farmer. While the rabbit munches, he sends Max off in pursuit of the perceived thief. (Kids will be quick to admonish Max that he is missing the point!)

He sees the bug at every turn. Max can't get close enough to slow him down. A pig, and then a goat do their best to encourage Max to continue on, while munching berries and beans to their heart's content. Finally, three crows listen to Max's description of the thief and add their two cents' worth. When he assures himself that the bug is truly gone (missing another blue bug sitting on the fence), Max returns triumphantly to the farmyard. The animals prepare a party for the rural detective, leaving us with a perfect surprise ending.

 As I have mentioned before, the best picture books result from a perfect pairing of scripted and visual text. Pierre Pratt uses gouache to add another layer to this humorous and most enjoyable detective romp. His full page spreads have story going on the background as we trail Max on his search. This visually rich book shows his penchant for diagonal lines to show motion, his warm color palette and the expressive face of his main character. He also shows young readers exactly what is happening, while Max appears totally oblivious to the facts presented in the artwork.

Fun to read, and funnier to observe the actual goings-on, this is a book that should be shared ... and often!                                                                               


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Fish in a Tree, written by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin. 2015. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"Monday is vocabulary day, when Mr. Daniels goes over the new words for the week. As far as reading lessons go, this isn't so bad. All I have to do is listen as he tells us the word's meaning, and I can usually remember it because I make mind movies about each one and that helps me remember. I've always had one important rule in the classroom, which is to try to lay low."

I love and admire Ally Nickerson!
I love Ally's mind movies!
I love Ally's Sketchbook of Impossible Things!
I love her big brother, Travis!
I love her new teacher, Mr. Daniels!
And I love FISH IN A TREE ... let me tell you about it.

Ally has just started her stay at yet another new school. It's the seventh one in seven years, and that would be hard for any child. Her father is in the military, and that means that the family is often on the move. For Ally, her days here are the same as in every other place she has been. She works double-time to ensure that no one will see her real struggles with reading and writing. She acts the clown and disrupts the class to take attention away from what she cannot do, and to be sent to the principal. She hates school and we come to understand the many reasons for that. To avoid some of the pain of her many school failures she creates elaborate and vivid mind movies:

"I watch a mind movie of her taking a stick and drawing a line in the dirt between us under a bright blue sky. She's dressed as a sheriff and I'm wearing black and white prisoner stripes. My mind does this all the time - shows me these movies that seem so real that they carry me away inside of them. They are a relief from my real life."

When Mr. Daniels is hired as a substitute while the classroom teacher is on maternity leave, things begin to change. He sees Ally's strengths and focuses on those, eventually giving her the confidence to share her struggles with him, and to ask for help. All the while, we are completely aware of how bright, intuitive, strong and funny Ally is through her powerful first person narrative. She knows herself very well and is fully that her brain works differently when it comes to learning to read and write. She doesn't need others to know.

Mr. Daniels is not the only one who sees what is wonderful about Ally. She has two terrific friends in Keisha and Albert. They are strong secondary characters who want to be her friends, and who appreciate her sense of humor, her feisty responses, her incredible stories and eventually, her secrets. Travis is the big brother we all would want to have, or be. He gives her strength while struggling with his own learning problems. He shares his dreams, and he loves Ally unconditionally.
This portrait of dyslexia and its repercussions for one young and admirable girl is so well drawn. The shame felt and perpetuated by misunderstandings is clear through Ally's impeccable voice. In the end her story is hopeful, and a worthy follow-up to Ms. Hunt's first book, One of the Murphys. You should read both. They are books for your heart!

"Keisha laughs again. "One thing's for sure. We're not going to fit in, but we're going to stand out. All three of us. You wait and see. You're going to be a famous artist and Albert is going to cure cancer or invent talking fish or something." "Talking fish? What would they say? 'Please don't fry me?'" I push the door open, and her face is just like I imagined. "And you're going to have a big baking business, right?" "Maybe in my spare time. I'm also going to rule the world." I laugh. Then swallow hard. "Thanks for being my friend, Keisha."

Saturday, February 28, 2015

I Don't Want to Be a Frog, written by Dev Petty and illustrated by Mike Boldt. Doubleday, Random House. 2015. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"Because you're a

I don't like being
a Frog. It's too

Well, you can't
be a Cat."

Who hasn't wished, at one time or another, to be someone or something different? Thinner, taller, more melodic, younger, older ... the list goes on. Frog is no different from the rest of us. What he doesn't like about being a frog is that frogs are too slimy, too wet and eat entirely too many bugs. Other animals have a certain allure.

While reading a book about cats, he tells his father that he wants to be one. His father is patient in his explanation that his son is, in fact, a frog and cannot be a cat. Not to be undone, the little one changes his mind to an animal that has similarities - he wants to be a rabbit. He can hop! His father points to his ears as an explanation for another unwise choice. Poor son! Poor, beleaguered dad!

When a pig passes by, a third wish pops into his head. Again, his father explains why being a pig is not possible. And certainly not an owl. There are many reasons why that cannot happen. As they share their tasty bug sandwich, Papa nixes any change at all. To the rescue comes a huge, hairy wolf with a cautionary comment about his own personal diet. He loves to eat cats, and rabbits, and pigs, and even owls. In fact, he's pretty hungry right now. Luckily there is one thing he never eats!

Mike Boldt does a terrific job of creating a dynamic duo whose expressions and personalities are the ideal accompaniment to this funny story. The youngster, mouth wide open at all times, is the epitome of the ever-questioning child and the father, glasses intact and advice at the ready, is endlessly patient. They are pitch perfect. The colored speech bubbles will help early readers share read this funny tale, and then share it all over again using the other voices.

Who Wants a Hug? Written and illustrated by Jeff Mack. Harper, 2015. $21.99 ages 3 and up


"Poor skunk," said Bear. 
"You look like you need
a hug."

cried Skunk.

"It's okay," said Bear.
"I'll save  you one for later."

It's got to be tough being a skunk when there's a bear around who's constantly handing out 'bear hugs'. Skunk is pretty good at pretending that it doesn't matter much at all. In fact, he sets himself the task of making Bear smell just like him, or worse. He uses his case full of 'Super Stinky Tricks' to bring that un'bear'able hugger to his knees ... stinking to high heaven, and then being rejected by every single animal that ever begged, or cajoled, or just stood close enough to Bear to garner the warmth of one of his many warm embraces.

Every time Bear offers to hug Skunk he is rejected. Each time he is rejected he lets Skunk know that he will save him one 'for later'. The plotted stinky tricks backfire when Skunk becomes the object of his own chicanery. It is very funny for young readers (and listeners) to predict what is bound to happen and then, to giggle gleefully when it does. A dead fish catapulted directly at him misses when the engaging Bear bends to stroke a nearby earthworm, and the fish springs back from the tree it hits ... a direct SMACK to Skunk's face! There are two others, equally funny, that result in Skunk finally admitting defeat. He is dejected by it all.

Of course, Bear is right there to offer up consolation in the form of a hug. Skunk can no longer resist! The results for both animals play out in the final five pages, much to the delight of everyone who will share this story.

The characters are lovable, each in his own way. Jeff Mack fills the pages with expressive faces, funny situations and offers up perfect dialogue for his audience. Inadvertently, we might all realize that those old wooden clothes pegs still have some life in them!


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Charlie's Dirt Day, written by Andrew Larsen and illustrated by Jacqueline Hudon-Verrelli. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015. $18.95 ages 4 and up

"Nannies and grannies
and moms and dads and
boys and girls and cats
and dogs and wagons and
wheelbarrows and
buckets and bowls and babies ... and now Charlie
and his dad, too!"

Charlie is enjoying the view from the balcony when he notices a hubbub in the street below. Calling to his dad to tell him that there is some excitement in the form of a parade, Charlie is surprised when the two quickly follow along.
Arriving at a nearby park, he is further surprised to see that the parade ends at a huge pile of black dirt. It's the mayor's annual Dirt Day Giveaway. There is  'free dirt for everyone.' But it's not just any dirt.

"It's the richest, dirtiest dirt you'll ever see. It's fresh compost. Your gardens will love it."

Charlie has questions for the man who is encouraging people to take some dirt home. From him, he learns how compost is made, and how people use it. A neighbor explains how he will use the compost ... and that the end result will be a delicious (and famous) spaghetti sauce.

Home Charlie goes with a little clay pot full of soil and one small seed. What will it grow?

Back matter includes further information on dirt, composting, gardens in the sky (rooftops and balconies), worms, and how to make your own 'compost in a cup'.

Let's keep our fingers crossed for warmer weather so we can all 'get growing'!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hungry for Math: Poems to Munch On. Written by Kari-Lynn Winters and Lori Sherritt-Fleming, with illustrations by Peggy Collins. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015. $ 18.95 ages 5 and up

"He was hungry for math,
always ready to munch.
Math for his breakfast,
math for his lunch.

He'd pig out on pie charts
and bar graphs galore,
binge on skip-counting,
and still ask for more."

In their second poetic collaboration (following aRHYTHMetic, 2009), Ms. Winters and Ms. Sherritt-Fleming put the emphasis on math and number concepts that include shapes, patterns, counting, symmetry, estimating, and measuring time.

It's full of fun with numbers and sure to please both teachers and their students with rousing rhythms and a connection to the math that is a part of everyday life. Patterns in the sounds of music, 2-D shapes seen everywhere we look, fifty rot-TEN dragons hiding in five groups of ten, and the symmetry in the shape of a bee are all incorporated into lively, rhythmic language sure to make enjoyable reading and learning in math class.

The Balanced Bee

Three circles, tall not wide.
Six legs - three per side.
Two plus two wings, on its back.
Bands of yellow, white and black.
Compound eyes to spy the view.
Antennae, not one - always two.
Now fold your paper.
It's plain to see.
Bees are balanced.
It's symmetry!"

So, fire up the math and get munching.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Walk on the Wild Side, written and illustrated by Nicholas Oldland. Kids Can Press, 2015. $16.95 ages 3 and up

"One sunny morning,
the bear, the moose and
the beaver decided it was
a great day to climb a
mountain. To get to the
mountain, they descended
into a valley ...
Walked through a grassy
field ...

If you are a fan of the first four books in the Life in the Wild Series (Big Bear Hug, The Busy Beaver, Making the Moose Out of Life and Up The Creek), you will be delighted to join these three fast friends on yet another adventure. This time, they decide that climbing a nearby mountain might just be the perfect outing. Off they go!

They have a trusty map, a walking stick, a compass and a red bird. They love adventure, as you know; they are very competitive, as you also know. So, you have probably figured out that things will not go according to plan. You will also know that there is sure to be a laugh or two.

The first part of their trip involves a valley, a grassy field, a stream and a deep canyon (DON'T LOOK DOWN). As they reach the foot of the mountain they are about to climb, they sit for a snack and a chat. How to make the trek more interesting is the topic. Beaver knows ... they will race to the top. Oh, boy!

Moose is in the lead when he jumps out of the way of a boulder and falls over the side of the mountain. The bear is willing to try saving him. Inevitably, it is beaver to the rescue. The rest of the trip plays out as one of the recurring joys for this team of forever friends.

Nicholas Oldland's digitally created illustrations will be familiar and charming to fans. The characters are droll, and endearing. The setting is cleverly designed. If you want a book about friendship and being kind, this would make a perfect story to read aloud!        

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The War That Saved My Life, written by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin. 2015. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"On crutches I didn't need a taxi, so we walked right down the main street. I walked down the street, bad foot and all, and nobody stopped me. We went into the shops and bought meat and veg and groceries. I went into the shops and nobody turned me out."

In another war story for today, we meet Ada who has never spent a minute outside the family's third-story apartment. Her mother will not allow it; she is ashamed of her daughter and her twisted foot. Ada sits at the window and waves to others, and longs to change the circumstance that keeps her trapped inside and crawling wherever she wants to go in the drab one-room living space.

Once she understands that only she can change how she moves about, she deals with the daily agony of learning to walk despite her twisted foot. She keeps this from her mother. When talk turns to the children in London being sent to the country to keep them safe from Hitler's bombs, her mother has no intention of letting Ada leave:

"What about me?" My voice came out smaller than I liked. "Am I going? What about me?"
Mam still didn't look at me. "Course not. They're sending kids to live with nice people. Who'd want you? Nobody, that's who. Nice people don't want to book at that foot."
"I could stay with nasty people," I said. "Wouldn't be any different than living here."

We learn in quick time that the resilience Ada shows in learning to walk is only the beginning of a fight for a better life for her and for her little brother, Jamie. They escape, without their mother's permission, to the safety of the train taking them away from London. A woman with no children, and no wish to have any or knowledge about caring for them, reluctantly takes them in. Crutches help Ada navigate the farm and its surroundings. Finding a horse that is rarely ridden, and learning to ride it is just one more obstacle she faces with grit and determination. It takes time; reluctantly, Ada accepts that Susan cares for them and is giving them a good life. There is so much for the two to discover in the safety of this new home.

Ada's first person narrative lends humanity to the people she meets, tenacity to the many troubles that must be faced, honor to the power of community and love. Her resolve is heightened knowing that there are those who will love her unconditionally,  and that makes all the difference.

This story is written beautifully. Ada is a fine and memorable narrator, the setting is realistic and dramatic, the characters are worthy of our admiration. You will not soon forget them!

Half a Man, written by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Gemma O'Callaghan. Candlewick, Random House. 2015. $19.00 ages 10 and up

"I couldn't help myself.
I had to look again at the
forbidden places. He had
three half-fingers on one
hand and no fingers at all
on the other. His top lip
had almost completely
disappeared, and one of
his ears was little more
than a hole in his head."

Not all of the scars of war are visible, as many of our returning military troops and their families know. In Michael's grandfather's case, the physical scars are all too visible. They do not in any way account for the internal scars that are also a part of each waking day for him.

Michael vividly remembers the nightmares he had as a child. One of the enduring ones seemed to coincide with his grandfather's infrequent visits. In the dream, he sees a great ship going down in flames, men on fire jumping into the sea, and his grandfather swimming in search of a lifeboat and a modicum of safety. No one will help the man who comes to the side of the boat and raises a pleading hand which has no fingers.

Before each visit, his parents warn Michael never to stare at the injuries his grandfather has incurred as a sailor on a merchant marine vessel during WWII. A torpedo sank the ship, killing many and leaving his grandfather with ghastly scars on his face and hands. When the time comes for Michael to spend summers with him, fishing and living at his island home, Michael learns a lot.

"He was silent, I discovered, because he liked to keep to himself. I'm a bit the same, so I didn't mind. He wasn't at all unkind or morose, just quiet. He'd read a lot in the evenings, for hours, anything about boats - Arthur Ransome, C.S. Forester, and Patrick O'Brian. He didn't have a television, so I'd read them too. I think I must have read every book Arthur Ransome wrote during my summers on Scilly."

It is not until Michael is 18 and out of high school that his grandfather shares the full story of the horror that changed his life. He explains that his disfigurement and the choices he made following his return led his wife to leave him, taking his daughter (Michael's mother). He says that he understands:

 “No one wants a monster for a husband. No one wants half a man….”

His death, and a note left to his grandson asking that the family gather to scatter his ashes in the sea he so loved, is the catalyst for some healing. This is an emotional tale told with the grace we have come to admire in Michael Morpurgo's powerful writing.

Last Stop On Market Street, written by Matt De La Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson. G.P. Putnam's Sons, Penguin. 2015. $

"They sat right up front.
The man across the way
was tuning a guitar.
An old woman with curlers
had butterflies in a jar.
Nana gave everyone a big
smile and a "good afternoon."
She made sure CJ did the same.
The bus lurched forward
and stopped, lurched forward
and stopped."

Do you find yourself often wishing for something more? One of the real pleasures of growing older for me is that I know I have more than enough ... and really don't have much on  my wish list. That is not to say that others should feel the same way. I want to be 'just like Nana' in this wonderfully brilliant new story from two superb artists.

CJ and his Nana have been to church and are now waiting at the bus stop.

"Watched rain patter against the windshield of a nearby car.
His friend Colby climbed in, gave CJ a wave,
and drove off with his dad.
"Nana, how come we don't got a car?"

It is the first of a number of querulous questions from a grandson to his patient grandmother. As the bus pulls up and they climb aboard, they happily greet the bus driver, and the people who are sharing their ride. CJ is filled with questions and comments about how lucky his friends are not to have to ride this bus, and about the people on board. He sure feels sorry for himself. As new passengers climb on, Nana is welcoming. She encourages her grandson to see the beauty in the diversity of the world around them. Rather than coveting the music player and earbuds that two other young passengers have, why not listen to the guitar-playing singer across the aisle from him. Will CJ feel the magic?

"He saw sunset colors swirling over crashing waves.
Saw a family of hawks slicing through the sky.
Saw the old woman's butterflies
dancing free in the light of the moon.
CJ's chest grew full and he was lost in the sound
and the sound gave him the feeling of magic."

At the 'last stop on Market Street' the two disembark and stroll toward the soup kitchen which is their weekly destination. Along the way, CJ manages to see through his Nana's eyes the possibilities in the world and the people that surround them.

"I'm glad we came."

In a pairing that shows just how perfect an illustrated book can be, we are witness to the beauty of  'story'. Matt De La Pena's tale is wondrous and magical, loving and lovely. Christian Robinson's seemingly simple 'acrylic paint, collage, and a bit of digital manipulation' illustrations are flawless in depicting the Nana's community that is so inspirational and uplifting. Because of their collaboration we are 'a better witness of what's beautiful.'

 There are days when it does seem difficult to find beauty in the world ... even for adults. Would that we all had CJ's Nana to stand by and remind us how truly lucky we are, and how grateful we must be.

How thrilled was I that, on the day I received a copy of Last Stop on Market Street, I heard a short interview with Matt De La Pena and Christian Robinson on NPR Morning Edition? In the interview they were asked if the experience they were sharing came from their own lives. Both said that it did. Their grandmothers had been instrumental in their upbringing, and both had encouraged the boys to be thankful for the each of the blessings in their lives.

Here's the link to the interview on NPR:

The Bus Ride, written and illustrated by Marianne Dubuc. Kids Can Press, 2015. $16.95 ages 4 and up

"This is the first time
I'm taking the bus by
Mom packed me a
snack - and had me
bring my sweater in
case I get cold."

This is the first of two books about buses today. Each helps us to see how truly diverse our world can be!

I love the way this book is designed. Opening to the first page gives the reader the feeling of riding a bus, with its long horizontal lines and the opportunity to include so much in the artwork on the double page spreads. We watch as the bus pulls up to where a small girl and her mother are holding hands at the #18 stop. Clara gets on board, waves to her mother from the window, and promises to be good.

Her companions on this first solo bus ride are numerous and varied; with each stop those passengers change. In a strong first person narrative, Clara lets us know that she is well prepared for the ride - she has a snack, and a sweater. As they roll along, the action is non-stop and certainly in need of our attention. Each double page spread is filled with details about her fellow passengers. As we go, she gives us a play by play of the outside world as well.

The setting changes are evident through the windows of the bus, and include a short, somewhat scary pass through a dark tunnel. We watch as passengers get on and off the bus, each illustration adding telling vignettes of their lives and family. A goat offers a small flower from a large bouquet, the sloth sleeps, the mole mother is distracted by her exuberant family of three little ones (who seem to have enough energy for several more), the sloth sleeps, the turtle tucks in every time the action becomes too much for his quiet personality, a woman with a newspaper full of telling headlines remains faceless, the sloth sleeps. Each character has its own distinct personality.

There is no being alone on this bus ... and that is the delight of it! Adventurous and full of charm, with illustrations that will have little ones wanting to pore over it again and again, we are reminded of Little Red Riding Hood but never feel threatened by the animals who share Clara's space as she makes her first trip alone to Grandma's house. Imagine the stories she will have to tell her grandmother of the community of fellow travellers she met along the way!