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Monday, July 28, 2014

Two Speckled Eggs, written and illustrated by Jennifer K. Mann. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $17.00 ages 4 and up

"Finally it was time for silver-and-gold cake, Ginger's favorite. But Maggie didn't like coconut and Sara wouldn't eat the pineapple part. The rest of the girls just picked at the frosting and didn't touch the cake. Except Lyla Browning."

You know the scenario: a birthday party is on the horizon, and the birthday girl would rather not invite EVERY single girl in the class. Mom is adamant that if one is invited, they ALL get an invitation. So, Ginger invites Lyla, even though she would rather not. After all, Lyla is odd and a bit of an outcast.

As the party progresses the invitees would rather scuttle the party plans than abide by Ginger's directions. The tail for the donkey get stuck on the girls rather than the donkey. The egg in the egg and spoon race is ruined before the fun can even begin. Most have something to say about Ginger's favorite birthday cake, and refuse to eat it. Lyla Browning, who has been conspicuously absent from most of the activities while she investigates other more important distractions, loves the cake.

Ginger is discouraged by her friends' attitudes, and ends up in tears...until a ladybug lands on her nose! Lyla thinks it's funny, and so does Ginger. The presents are opened, the girls are off to other endeavors. The two are left alone with Lyla's present; it is the last ....and the very best! It's handmade, and holds two speckled eggs. When the rest of the girls have gone home, Ginger and Lyla discover mutual interests, and Ginger realizes it can be quite wonderful to have a friend who is independent, self-assured and giving.

Illustrations, done in pencil, gouache and digital collage assure that listeners take note of the story's characters, their demeanor, and their changing importance for the birthday girl. It's easy to see that a birthday party can be a bit of a challenge. This timeless story is a reminder that friends arrive in a variety of packages. It has a classic feel and is sure to inspire conversation for those who share it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

I AM OTTER, written and illustrated by Sam Garton. Balzer & Bray, Harper. 2014. $21.00 ages 4 and up

"But then every Monday we get bad news: Otter Keeper will be going to work. I do all sorts of things to prevent Otter Keeper from leaving, like trying to stop Monday from happening altogether, or hiding his lunch where he'll never find it. But my plans never work. Teddy and I think it's very unfair that we don't have jobs."

Funny how one thing leads to another! Prior to reading and savoring this joyous tale of good intentions gone bad, I had never heard of the very entertaining blog of the same name. Now, I know both and am, as always, thankful for the paths that reading takes me down. You won't be sorry if you take the time to check it the blog out for yourself:

Now, to the book! It's bright and happy and oh, so funny!

Otter's life is pretty darn good. A box on the front step marks the beginning for Otter and Otter Keeper, who finds the box, brings it inside and sets about making Otter feel comfortable and safe. It takes time and effort. Oh, and Teddy helps. Teddy is a stuffed bear who makes life more 'bear'able for both Otter and his new human friend.

The only glitch in the happiness shared comes with Monday mornings. Can you relate? That is the day when, no matter how many obstacles are put in his way, Otter Keeper must return to work after a companionable weekend of full-out fun!

Disgruntled at the weekly disruption, Otter decides that he wants a job, and one for Teddy, too. A toast restaurant seems a suitable enterprise. With a modicum of training, they are on their way to full-time employment. Oh, boy! Things do not go well from the start; soon, they have themselves in a frightful mess. OOPS! Otter Keeper is due home, and clean up takes top priority. How does one explain the mess? Where has Teddy gone?

Keen listeners will 'get' all the nuances of friendship with a stuffed bear, and will delight in the many details created by Sam Garton in digital illustrations that pop with bright color and fun, fun, fun. It is a perfect blend of text and art, allowing imaginations to run free. Any parent of little children, who love to drag out every toy, blanket, and piece of clothing they can find to create needed spaces, will understand and appreciate the double page spread that is the chaos created in Otter's attempt to be a fully functioning 'worker'.

Kudos to Sam Garton for creating a charming and happy story that is sure to garner new fans; hopefully, it holds promise for another meeting with these wonderful characters.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

It's An Orange Aardvark! Written and illustrated by Miichael Hall. Greenwillow Books, Harper. 2014. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"Wait. What if there's an
aardvark out there?

Aardvarks are gray and sneaky...
and they have long tongues
that are perfect for eating
carpenter ants, you know!

Goodness! I'm scared.
Gracious! Me, too.
Yikes! Same here."

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know how much I admire Michael Hall's previous three books: My Heart is Like a Zoo (Greenwillow, 2009), Perfect Square (Greenwillow, 2011) and Cat Tale (Greenwillow, 2012). You will then also be able to guess how happy I am to share his newest, brilliantly designed book about aardvarks, colors and silly speculation. It's wonderful fun, and worthy of your attention!

We know it's raining. Five little ants do not. They awaken with wonder, and speculate on what might be causing the noise by drilling a hole in the stump they call home. The hole should let them see what they are missing. One little ant is extremely cautious, sure that an aardvark awaits in secret, ready to use its long tongue to put an end to life as the ants know it. He is assured that a peephole should not be a problem.

Lo and behold, it isn't gray that they see. It is brilliant orange aardvark!! Only when they are really hungry for ants do they turn orange. Did you know that? Another hole is sure to offer up an additional clue. Now, it's blue...perhaps pajamas!

So it goes; each new peephole offers up a highly dramatic and new possibility. Careful listeners may guess where this story is headed, but it will do nothing to deter them from full enjoyment right to the very end.

The format, the incredible design and the full-out fun of the game this book provides is sure to have you reading it repeatedly, and eager young readers soon wanting to read it on their own...with all the drama and angst that is part of the repetitive text. The bold colors take up every inch of space on the book's full page spreads. Perfect!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Eruption! Text by Elizabeth Rusch, with photographs by Tom Uhlman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2013. $22.99 ages 14 and up

"The team has remained small, and as much as the scientists want to, they can't be everywhere at once. So when facing multiple crises, VDAP scientists have to ask some very difficult questions: How many people are at risk? How dangerous is the volcano?"

This is another worthy addition to the Scientists in the Field series. It tells readers about a small group of dedicated scientists who spend their time studying volcanic activity in hopes of keeping people in their vicinity safe. Three separate eruptions are included...from Colombia, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Since its publication a year ago, many other eruptions have occurred causing evacuations, health concerns, falling debris, and death. As students hear reports of volcanoes erupting across the world, this book can help them understand the geology of a volcano itself and the steps that are constantly taken to get clear information to those who are likely to be affected in so many ways. Such events are dangerous, compelling and of consuming interest to many.

Elizabeth Rusch explains the work of the Volcanic Disaster Assistance Program, as their scientists work to assist and train those who study volcanoes in monitoring techniques. They can even be called upon during a crisis. Her stories are well-researched, and tragic. The first happened in Colombia, when the Nevado del Ruiz erupted killing more than 23,000. It was November 13, 1985:

"Volcanic mudflow from the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz completely buried the town of Armero in up to fifteen feet (4.6 meters) of mud. All roads, bridges, and telephone, power, and water lines were destroyed. Sixty percent of the town's farm animals perished. More than 5,000 homes, 340 businesses, 50 schools, and 2 hospitals were wiped out. Three-quarters of the townspeople - more than 23,000 people - died."

Now, with advanced knowledge and an ability to read the signs that predict an eruption, scientists can assure that people are warned and brought to safety. With more than one billion people living close enough to a volcano that they might be reached by its eruption, there is continuing danger and an urgent need to keep the large group of international scientists always working to learn more. Once the people have been guided to safety and the danger has passed, life is likely to return to normal:

"We know two very frightening things about volcanoes like Mount Merapi," John says. "People always move back into harm's way...and the volcano always erupts again."

Astounding! Life goes on...

Vivid photos, exceptional research, a glossary, chapter notes, a bibliography and index are included. All assure that those with an abiding interest in these natural disasters get the information they need. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

If You Happen to Have a Dinosaur, written by Linda Bailey and illustrated by Colin Jack. Tundra Books, 2014. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"In winter, it' a snowplow.

And on hot summer days,
just park it by the pool.

Your friends will line up
to try your exciting new
diving board!

Just think of all the things
your dinosaur can do."

I haven't worked in a kindergarten or early years classroom for a while; I suspect that there are still many children whose appreciation of and hunger for anything 'dinosaur' remain strong. Is that true?

If you just happen to have one lying around, and are wondering what to do with it, Linda Bailey has some imaginative and amusing suggestions for you. Just in case you have trouble trying to conjure up the images presented in the text, Colin Jack does an admirable job of bringing them to glorious life.

For those of us who will be sharing this story (repeatedly) there is much to appreciate about it. The text is lively, and filled with some truly funny ways to use that dinosaur. With each turn of the page, the growing list of ideas will encourage giggles and perhaps even more tasks to be accomplished by such a useful helper:

"There are oodles of things you can 
do with a dinosaur.
Try taking it into your yard. 
It will mow your lawn, 
trim your trees, 
blow your leaves
and dig you a garden in not time flat."

Hey, I could use one of those! 

The boldly colored digital illustrations are a perfect complement to the joy found in the words. The expressive faces, the recognizable species, the many entertaining details will encourage children to explore further, using their own imaginations. There is sure to be talk as you share the many wonderful details. Should things with your dinosaur not go so well, or you don't have one, remember that you have options:

"But what if you don't happen
to have a dinosaur lying
around your living room?"

Now, the ball is in your court!

Just So Stories For Little Children Volume II, written by Rudyard Kipling and illustrated by Ian Wallace. Groundwood Books, 2014. $ 19.95 ages 6 and up

"Then the Head Chief cried and sang, "Taffy, dear, the next time you write a picture-letter, you'd better send a man who can talk our language with it, to explain what it means. I don't mind it myself, because I am a Head Chief, but it's very bad for the rest of the Tribe of Tegumai, and, as you see, it surprises the stranger."

This post has not much to say about Rudyard Kipling's stories. They have been shared for more than one hundred years, and are appreciated with each new generation for their wit and longevity.

In this second volume, Ian Wallace as their illustrator has included the final six "Just So Stories': The Beginning of the Armadilloes, How the First Letter Was Written, How the Alphabet Was Made, The Crab That Played with the Sea, The Cat That Walked by Himself, and The Butterfly That Stamped. These stories each help to explain the way in which things of the world originated and were created for Mr. Kipling's daughters.

In an illustrator's note that follows the stories, Mr. Wallace extols the 'fertile imagination' of the writer and offers an explanation for the thread that runs through his artistic interpretation:

"I have used my art to create connections between the stories. Characters and artifacts from one story periodically appear in another. This sometimes means that an object or character from one part of the world appears in another, or that objects from one story may suddenly appear chronologically earlier or later than you might expect. Watch for the leopard butterfly flying through all six tales, as well as other animals from the first volume such as the Elephant's Child and the Camel without his hump."

The artist uses mixed media (watercolour, pencil crayon, pastel pencil and chalk) in varying combinations and one predominant color for each of the tales; the environment dictates color choice. The full page framed illustrations are light infused and seem almost magical, in keeping with the tone of the stories. The rich colors and intricacy of the drawings bring these stories to the children of a new generation, and will be enjoyed by all. 
Be sure to check out Ian Wallace's blog post about his stay at Mr. Kipling's house in Vermont. It's here:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Maple, written and illustrated by Lori Nichols. Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin. 2014. $18.00 ages 3 and up

"Sometimes, when Maple was noisy (which was a lot), her parents sent her outside to play. Her tree didn't mind if she was loud.

Maple would sing to her tree...
and sway for her tree...
and sometimes even
pretend to be a tree!"

Do you love warmth and charm in the picture books you share with children? If you do, you want to meet Maple. Maple's parents plant a maple tree in the yard to celebrate her impending birth.

Maple loves her name, and the tree that also bears it. They are soul mates, welcomed at the same time and doing their growing together. There is nowhere Maple would rather be than outside with her tree. She loves to lie under the leaves and watch them dance. Through all of the seasons, Maple shows concern for her friend and does her best to ensure that it is safe, warm and has good company.

After a long winter, spring arrives. With its arrival come two surprises...a new tree and a baby sister, both named Willow. How will this new sister feel about first the maple tree, and then her own willow? What lessons has Maple learned that she might share with the baby?

Beautifully written and softly drawn to assure that young readers understand the grace and elegance of living things, and an affection and concern for them, Maple is a book that will be much appreciated. The muted tones of the digitally colored pencil drawings set a perfect mood. They will lure children back again and again to enjoy and to talk about what is on each page. The abundance of white space allows our focus to be on Maple and the many wonderful experiences she shares, both before and after the arrival of her new sibling.

The spreads that show Maple (and Willow) lying contentedly under the maple canopy just make you go aaaah!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hidden LIke Anne Frank: 14 True Stories of Survival, by Marcel Prins & Peter Henk Steenhuis. Scholastic, 2014. $18.99 ages 12 and up

"Those first few months after the war were hard for my parents. They suddenly had four children in the house, three of whom were crying, "I want to go back to my mommy." "You're crazy," I used to say to them. "You're with your father and your mother." My little brother was six weeks old when he left and three when he came back."

The stories in this Holocaust remembrance are of Dutch survivors who were taken to people who could help find places for them to hide during Germany's reign of terror. There was little that the Dutch Jews could do but hide, when Nazi troops stormed family homes and businesses in an attempt to round them up and send them to the concentration camps. In each case, the fourteen men and women share their memories of their lives in hiding. Their voices are strong and honest, and they make it painfully clear to readers how brave and kind the people of Holland were in helping to save their lives. Each story is different, but has remarkable similarities in terms of the fear, the isolation, the cramped quarters where they spent long hours and the constant moves they made to keep everyone as safe as possible. The end of the war did not end the struggles that had become a part of each life.

Their hiding began for most at an early age; some were as young as three while others were teenagers. Their parents often sent them to live with friends, family, and strangers in an attempt to ensure their safety. Often they did not see other members of their families again. In fact many learned later that no one else in their family had survived. Some were treated with kindness and warmth. They found new families to share their lives, even after the war ended. For others, the ordeal of being away from all that was familiar was made worse by the actions of their sponsors and the terrible conditions they had to endure to remain safe. For some being reunited with their parents after such a long and stressful time was difficult. So much had happened to each that they had trouble finding common ground once more.

Their stories are hard to read, and heartbreaking. The survivors tell them with candor, and no expectation of pity. Readers will not soon forget the horror each faced as they struggled to survive, with no real awareness of what the future might hold for them.

The authors include maps, footnotes, and photographs (both past and present) of those willing to share their stories. A glossary is added, and there is a website where readers might find further information.

There you will find animated films to add detail to these stories. Dots on the map will connect readers to the survivors, and their voices can be heard telling the stories in their own words and voices. A photo at the end of each shows the survivors as they looked when the interviews were being conducted with the authors. An info button provides additional facts and some archival materials. Unlike Anne Frank, their stories have not been shared. This book ensures that they are.

The Bambino and Me, written by Zachary Hyman and illustrated by Zachary Pullen. Tundra Books, 2014. $19.99 ages 8 and up

"As Pops and I stood up to leave at the end of the game, some big palookas grabbed us and told us to come with them. Yikes! I knew that wearing a Red Sox uniform would get me into trouble. After waiting in a dimly lit hallway in the depths of the stadium for what seemed like an eternity, I finally heard footsteps in the distance."

George Henry Alexander is 10 and he loves baseball. Babe Ruth is his hero. It's 1927 and days are spent playing ball with his friends, and wanting to be better at the game. Despite his lack of skill, George will not give up playing.

In this story that is every baseball fan's dream come true, Zachary Hyman conjures a tale of what might have happened for some lucky young baseball fan. He uses some of the Babe's own words in the telling, and it presents as a memoir from that very special time in baseball history when the Bambino inspired thousands of young boys to go after their dreams with all they had in them.

George and his Pops listen to every Yankee game on the radio. He knows that is as close as he is likely to get to his favorite team. Imagine his surprise when his parents get him two tickets to see the Yankees play against their biggest rivals...the Boston Red Sox. With Babe now on their team, George is beyond excited to see his hero play. A second birthday gift - this one from his Uncle Alvin in Boston - causes some angst. He opens the package to find a Red Sox jersey and cap! No way is he going to wear those to a Yankees game...

His mother has another opinion and she insists that he wear the gift his uncle worked so hard to get for  him. Embarrassed and disgruntled, George and his Pops head to the game, amidst jeers and insults from friends, neighbors and the fans at the game. The chance to see his hero outweighs the taunting that he must endure. When Babe steps up to bat and George cheers loudly, his red hat stands out in the sea of blue. Does the Babe see him there in the crowd? It seems so...he points in his direction and slams a home run to the great delight of the huge crowd.

The Yanks win! George is elated. That is not add to the magic of the day, George meets his hero who shares some wise words and a gift or two. Imagine!

It's a wonderful tale, made richer with artwork rendered in oil paint and walnut oil on board. The rich illustrations are expressive and detailed, evoking memories of a time past. The earthy tones, the red and blue hues, the use of light and shadow to establish mood, allow today's readers a brief historical glimpse at baseball in America in the 1920s.

The CD narrated by Jason Alexander is perfect. He is adept at using his best acting chops to bring this story to life. Accompanying music and sound effects complement his storytelling, and his spot-on voices add depth and much enjoyment. You will want to listen to it more than once.