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Friday, December 19, 2014

Audrey (Cow), written by Dan Bar-el and illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss. Tundra Books, 2014. $ 21.99 ages 8 and up

"First time out of the barn, Audrey was talking about going to the farthest fields and tasting this grass or that clover, or maybe talking to a passing fox. Imagine, talking to a common thief! I'd been here a lot longer than she had, but I never ventured past the first hill. And why should I? Plenty of grass nearby - who needs to go farther?"

Your life will be better for having met Audrey! She is a Charolais with big dreams - her heritage is, after all, French. We meet her first through the voices of the animals who share her farm home. They each have an opinion about who Audrey is, and don't mind sharing it. Her best friend is Eddie, a sheep dog, who has been with Audrey since birth. Eddie is her staunch supporter; when the going gets tough, Eddie steps up and lends a paw for anything she might need. His father is not totally pleased with Eddie's loyalty to the cow. He has his say, and then lets Eddie do what he thinks he must. Then, there is Roy, a horse. Roy keeps track of all the goings-on in the farmyard, and shares what he knows.

The farm family works hard. Cows are raised to provide meat and milk. That being said, it is the lot of some of them to be sent to Abbott's War, which is quite the scary proposition. Others have gone before Audrey, including her mother. Audrey wants more from life. With help from her farm friends, including the brilliant pig Buster, she plans an escape from the truck that is being sent to take her away.

The escape plan works; Audrey is able to break away from the truck and head into the forest. It is a brand new world, and she finds herself alone and frightened by it. As she makes her way down forest pathways, she realizes that there is much to see and to explore, new animals to make friends with, and others who see her in the same light as the farmer did. The darkness and unfamiliar territory causes untold worry and concern, as do those humans who are trying to track her down.  Audrey has a poetic heart and a longing to be more than meat in the supermarket, and she is going to do her best to avoid that lot in life. As her story progresses, more voices are added to the mix. Each wants to share a personal perspective on Audrey's attempt to shape her own destiny. She manages to evade capture for a good long while.

The personalities and voices are unique and very entertaining. Dan Bar-el makes each singular and absolutely believable, making this a tale that would make a wonderful readaloud for family story times and for classroom sharing. The illustrations add interest and provide a warmth that is totally in keeping with the text they accompany. The first-person narratives are short, and move the story along quickly. Funny, captivating, thoughtful and very cleverly written, this is a tale that will find a place in your heart and live long in your memory.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The River, by Alessandro Sanna. Enchanted Lion Books, Publishers Group West. 2014. $28.50 all ages

"Here winter is warm breaths exhaled into the freezing fog, and shapes that simply vanish, stolen away by the dense afternoon light. An old country schoolhouse warms the children with their cold feet. In the stable, a calf is about to be born."

I am quite sure that I will never stop singing the praises of Enchanted Lion Books and the truly unique and lovely books they publish. I was delighted to receive a copy of The River and to take the time to pore over every page at my leisure. It is filled with brilliant detail, and the events seen as the seasons change.

The first chapter sets our focus on autumn, and builds brief sketches concerning life along the banks of a river. Each of the four chapters is introduced by the author. Then, his amazing illustrations provide a look at the life he lives on the banks of the Po River in northern Italy. He captures life as it evolves, virtually in his own back yard and over a period of years. Life constantly moves and shifts, just as the river's water does. It has its ups and downs, but is always moving forward, filled with life and inspiration. Each season offers a fully developed story of its own!

The watercolor images are done as full-page or a series of panels, each offering a part of the story being told. You cannot help but pay close attention to get the full meaning of every piece of the visual narrative. Autumn brings flooding. Winter is much warmer than what we would expect. Spring is as spring is everywhere - full of sunshine and new life, and music. Summer brings searing heat, and some discomfort.  As the seasons give over one to the other, so do the colors used to bring each season to glorious life for those who share this remarkable book. I guarantee that once you have made your way slowly through its pages, you will be inclined to start all over again. Do! It is so worth it...

Virtually wordless, it is quickly evident that the gorgeous artwork speaks for itself, captures attention fully and might even inspire readers to take a close look at their own environs and to try to capture life as it happens in their own neighborhood. It is a sketchbook for an artist, a seasonal journal for a writer and a worthy addition to any collection.                                                                             

Construction, written by Sally Sutton and illustrated by Brian Lovelock. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $18.00 ages 2 and up

"Hoist the wood.
Hoist the wood.
Chain and hook and strap.
Swing it round,
then lower it down.


If you have a toddler who is as enamored of construction vehicles and building sites (as are most young children), you would do well to have the three books that make up this very appealing series ... Roadwork (2008), Demolition (2012) and now this lively and perfect addition!

It runs the gamut from digging the foundation, through every phase of building, to adding the final touches to a place of learning and delight for little ones. The rhyming text and the rhythm of the words will encourage listeners to read along as the work moves smoothly from first page to last.
Repetitive phrases are just the right touch for early readers. The fourth line of each stanza allows imagination and noise as the author creates sound effects to match the phase of construction being described.

Ink, acrylics and colored pencils are used to great effect as each spread shows clearly what happens, and who makes it happen. It's a huge undertaking and the illustrations show that clearly. Brian Lovelock uses changes in perspective to great effect, allowing those who share the book to see how the scene looks from above and below. This gives perspective to the various scenes. It will take time and effort to see everything, and everyone who plays a part as the building rises from the ground to become a hub of activity for the community.

Finally, an additional page provides necessary information about the machines and the clothing that the construction workers don before going to work.  The endpapers would make a perfect jigsaw puzzle - thousands of bolts spread across the double page.

If you want noise, engagement in the process and learning about the way construction of a building works, and a little one interested in such things, you would do well to find this fine series and share it.                                                         

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014. $20.99 ages 8 and up

"Teenage Peter was tall,
thin - and very shy. He
spent hours reading science
books. He especially liked
one written by Linnaeus,
a man who made lists just
like Peter did. Linnaeus put
the names of animals and
plants in categories, and that
made nature much easier to

I'm sure that I have no new words that have not already been shared to describe this spectacular new book from the impressive and much honored Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet. You will not get past the title page before realizing that you are in for a treat! In fact, I spent a great deal of time right there, in well-deserved admiration for everything that Ms. Sweet has placed on that page. The letters of the alphabet, images to match those letters, a set of labels to describe the title page itself. Wonderful to say the least!

Peter Roget loved lists. This dynamic team use that love of words to build a story that immerses its audience in his life from birth to death:



Grown Up
Middle Age
Prime of Life
To Wind Up
Draw to an End



He loved books, words, and being alone to think. As he made his lists and considered their importance to him, he decided that he would like to have a book that listed all those words a person might choose to use. The idea for a thesaurus became paramount to his thinking and his work. The process was slow and tedious, but he was persistent and focused on the task he had set for himself.

Each page has plenty of text that helps a reader understand what life was like for the young boy. At no time does it overwhelm with information. It does give us a clever and enlightening glimpse into the keen interest that helped him as a student, and filled his days. His mother showed concern for him, and his endless lists. Peter loved the order they gave to his world.

His thesaurus was not his only accomplishment; Peter was also a lecturer on many and varied issues, a writer, and an inventor. His first thesaurus was published in 1852 and has never been out of print. Of course, it has been added to in the intervening years. His legacy and his belief in the power of words is evident at every turn of the page; at times, shared with a touch of fun. His mother often worried when he spent long periods of time on his own.

"Perhaps worry wasn't quite the right word.
What was the right word?
Peter began a new list:

Plague, provoke, harass.
ENOUGH to drive one MAD.

How wonderful it felt to find just the right word!"

This is an extraordinary book. Its story is told with compassion for a young loner, and with joy and inspiration for those who will share it. I hope that you look for it in your local bookstore or at the library, and that you give yourself ample time to savor the words and immerse yourself in the images that Melissa Sweet creates to accompany the rich text.

An Author's Note explains the research process that resulted in this truly amazing book, and why she wanted to write it:

"When I began to poke around in the real, historical details of Roget's life, I discovered that it encompassed more drama and contradictions than anything I'd written about in fiction. His transient and often lonely childhood, his precocious intellect and nervous habits, his friendships with inventors, his travels, and his medical career - all of these combined to create a broad and fascinating life that I wanted to share with young people."

An Illustrator's Note also adds interest:

"The idea of classification and scientific illustration crept into my collages, along with imagery from Roget's Bridgewater Treatise, old botanicals, vintage papers, book covers, type drawers, watercolor and mixed media. The back endpapers list Roget's thousand words with an abbreviated Plan of Classification."

Additional praiseworthy backmatter includes a chronology, selected bibliography, suggested additional reading, sources for the quotes used, and even a photo of one of the pages from his original work.

You NEED to have this book. You really do!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole, written by Bob Raczka and illustrated by Chuck Groenink. Carolrhoda Books, 2014. $19.95 ages 4 and up

"December 11th

Kisses from Mrs.

Claus under the mistletoe

tickle like snowflakes."

You will have to wait until next year to bring out your copy of Santa Clauses to use as a memorable and most enjoyable advent calendar. One haiku for each day, all written by Santa himself. Don't let that stop you from reading the whole thing at one go right now!

Bob Raczka paints a picture of the man himself in an introduction before we begin his daily poetic diary:

"Santa is a man of many talents. He's a
toymaker, a reindeer trainer, a sleigh
pilot, and a world traveler. But did you
know that he is also a poet ...

...Now you can peek at Santa's haiku,
one for each day from December 1 to
December 25, and catch a glimpse of life
at the North Pole. Hear the snow crunch.
Smell the gingerbread. And see a side of
Santa you've never seen before."

Each of the poems is a little piece of Santa's daily endeavors in the days leading up to his journey from house to house bringing joy to boys and girls around the world. We are invited inside for some of the events, and also made welcome in the great outdoors through Santa's descriptive, thoughtful observances. Seems that Santa and the Mrs. partake in a number of activities that reflect what many children love to do ... making snow angels, wrapping presents, watching the night sky, listening to old favorite songs on the radio, mistletoe kisses (ewww!) and hot chocolate.

One of my personal favorites is this one:

"December 17th

Sitting by the fire
reading "A Christmas Carol,"
listening for ghosts."

Santa is reading, Mrs. Claus is basking in the warmth of the fire and the family cats, while tiny elves listen in from the darkness that surrounds them.

Each poem is placed with care on single and double spreads, allowing ample room for Chuck Groenink's wonderful illustrations to shine. The palette is subdued, the images speak to a time in the past, and the quiet tone make this a perfect bedtime read, adding one new poem each night until you read through the entire book for Christmas Day.

Amidst the craziness that is often our lead up to Christmas, this quiet, joyful book shows children that the season can be comfortable while also celebratory. It is sure to become one of our new favorites! If you have a cup of hot chocolate at the ready and a warm and cozy blanket, you are fully prepared to sit contentedly and bask in the beauty of both words and art. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Catch That Cookie! Written by Hallie Durand and illustrated by David Small. Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin. 2014. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"But Marshall sat down,
considering the evidence.
The raisin in his pocket...
and the bad handwriting.
What if the G-men could
That's when he saw the
silver ball on the gym floor..."

When I was teaching kindergarten, we often started the year with The Great Gingerbread Chase. It was designed to help those new to the school find their way around, and to meet older students that they would be able to count on when they needed help. We spent the first week reading a variety of picture book variations on the traditional story and by Friday, we were ready to execute the chase. It was a great hit!

In Mrs. Gray's class, reading tales of runaway cookies is a lead-up to a lesson in cooking. As they listen to the many variations, Marshall expresses his doubt:

"They can't run for real," he told
everybody. "No way."
"Hope you're right," Mrs. Gray said.
"Because we're baking ours today!"

Marshall gave a nod.
He knew he was right."

You know that child, right??

The cookies are prepared, decorated prior to baking, and locked in the oven. Oh, my! When the timer announces that the cookies are ready to eat, they have disappeared. Rhyming notes provide the clues needed to begin the hunt:

"Too bad you didn't catch us,
'Cause we taste like candy.
Now we're on vacation
On a beach that's _ _ _ _ _."

As they follow the clues, Marshall finds his resolve ebbing. A raisin in the big black pot, tiny footprints in the gym, a silver decoration left behind...soon Marshall is leading the chase, with an idea that might roust the tiny men out of hiding. Success! And the satisfaction of knowing that he is a super sleuth!

David Small creates wonderful watercolor images to ensure that young readers are fully engaged as this story is shared. Marshall is a redheaded, freckle-faced young man with a distinct air of doubt when we first meet him. He is forthright and full of confidence. The variety in perspective and loose lines keep young readers moving forward as the children extend their search. The final rear view mirror scene is full of fun! In the end, the gingerbread man suffers the fate of all cookie treats! YUM!


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Memoirs of an ELF, written by Devin Scillian and illustrated by Tim Bowers. Sleeping Bear Press, 2014. $17.99 ages 5 and up

"Launch time. Santa kisses Momma Claus and waves to the other elves. I've got the GPS. Bobbin is in charge of the toy bag. And Nutshell has the Nice List.
Little-known fact: We don't even bring the Naughty List with us.

Ever wondered how technology has made Santa's Christmas Eve journey more efficient? Isn't that what all the new gadgets are supposed to be doing for us?

In this third Memoirs book, following those that tell the daily tale of both a goldfish and a hamster, we are privy to the 12 hours that it takes Santa and his elves to make their yearly run, presents in tow and technology at hand. The first entry is recorded at 9:45 on Christmas Eve and lets readers know that the countdown is on ... two hours and they 'launch'. Spark snaps an 'elfie' to show that he is as ready as he can be. His job is to keep Santa running on time, and to ensure that every corner of the earth is visited. The reindeer are chomping at the bit, a text is sent to Santa. Midnight, a hug for Mrs. Claus, and they are off!

Timed updates keep readers apprised of the route, the many little known facts to be shared and Santa's joy at the toys being delivered. It is not unusual for the elves to hurry him along when they find him playing with his favorites. With only 30 minutes left before dawn, the last gift is delivered, a carol is sung and the team heads for the North Pole, only to discover the sled has a stowaway.

"But as we're unloading the sleigh,
Bobbin says he doesn't think the toy bag is empty.
How can that be? We gave away every present on the list.
But it's not a present in the bag, and it just licked Bobbin's ear."

Oh, my! What a dilemma:

Well-known fact: Santa gives things away.
He does not take things!"

Off they go to return the puppy Tugboat to his forlorn family, making Christmas merry and bright as it can be!

Appealing expressions and humorous details in the artwork will elicit comments and delight from your young listeners. Be prepared to share it more than once.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Here Comes Santa Cat, written by Deborah Underwood, with pictures by Claudia Rueda. Dial Books, Penguin. 2014. $18.99 ages 4 and up

"You're going to give
presents to children?

That's wonderful!
What happened?

The children didn't
want the presents?

What were you giving them?"

It was only recently I told you about Here Comes the Easter Cat. I love that book! So, I was anxious to see Cat in Santa garb when I heard that Deborah Underwood had written another installment. What a fun experience it has been to read it numerous times! I am almost giddy to read it to my granddaughter next week when she arrives.

This time Cat is going to take the proverbial bull by the horns and ensure that he gets a Christmas gift, even if it means he has to give it to himself. I wonder why he worries that he may not get one? Do you think he knows the naughty and nice song? I love his self-satisfied smirk as he finishes checking out Christmas store windows. There must be something there he especially likes, don't you think?

Lessons need to be learned; there is much that Santa does that is not usual fare for a cat. He has to learn about chimneys; he doesn't like that much and certainly looks worse for the wear. Why use reindeer when you can use a jet pack? Of course, you must be efficient at that as well.

Imagine his consternation when the real Santa doesn't gift himself. Rather, he gives gifts to others. At this point, do you think nice might work? You will love to see how much trouble a cat can actually generate while trying to help. In the end, he endears himself to a kitten, his indulgent narrator, and even Santa himself.

This is a terrific sequel and it reminds me that a gifted team is more than capable of repeating the success of the first one. It also gives hope to the dream that there may just be an upcoming addition to what might then be called a series. Although there is no hint at what is around the corner, might Cupid Cat be far from thought? My fingers are crossed!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dashing Through the Snow: A Canadian Jingle Bells, written by Helaine Becker and illustrated by Werner Zimmermann. Scholastic, 2014. $16.99 ages 3 and up

"Maple candy dish -
What a letdown for this loon!
All she wants is fish,
She steals some from Raccoon.

Owl unwraps a prize,
So does Caribou,
Wouldn't it be wise for them
To make a switcheroo?"

I am sure there is a teacher, or more than one, out there who discovered this terrific new book prior to the holiday season and preparation for the annual Christmas concert. It would a great performance piece for a classroom!

It's the second book that Ms. Becker and Mr. Zimmermann have created in honor of a Canadian holiday season, using the tune and rhythms of Jingle Bells to share a very unique look at the True North and its many animals and wintry scenes.

It begins with Beaver and Porcupine setting off for a wild ride on a Ski-Doo over the northern landscape. Every animal had better get out of their way, it seems. With Sasquatch attached to their front bumper they look up to the sky and see not only the beauty of the aurora borealis, but the joy to be found in Santa's overloaded sleigh. In a quick moment, Sasquatch creates chaos that dumps many gifts from Santa's load, gift-wrapped but not tagged.

In the ensuing confusion, the animals open gifts that don't match their wishes or personalities, but it doesn't take much to make everyone happy. With melodic music and a lovely final surprise, they gather as friends to count their blessings.

Werner Zimmermann's detailed watercolors offer humor, and a good deal of energy to the celebration. It will take a number of readings to know that you have finally seen all there is to see.
I especially love the conflict that results when the loon takes a liking to raccoon's salmon; wait! it was also fun to watch caribou try to figure out just exactly what to do with the gift he opens. I guess you
will need to get this book to see for yourself!

Share it with your children more than once, and you might find them repeatedly singing brand new words to an old, familiar song. You are sure to join in the fun!