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Friday, May 27, 2016

The Kid From Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton, written by Audrey Vernick and illustrated by Steven Salerno. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Raincoast, 2016. $24.99 ages 8 and up

"The team was made up of older teenagers and women in their twenties, but the manager allowed Edith to try out ... even though she was still in elementary school. Edith was so good she made the team. Edith was so good she was named starting shortstop. Edith was so good she was playing professional baseball ... "

Audrey Vernick is a baseball fan ... it's not hard to tell. As she did in 2012 when she wrote a book about the 1930s Acerra family in Brothers at Bat, she opens our eyes to another legend of the game in The Kid From Diamond Street.

Edith Houghton played ball in the early twentieth century, at a time when most girls did not.

"It didn't matter that there was no such thing as Little League. Or that most girls didn't play baseball. If there was a sandlot game anywhere near her house on Diamond Street, you could bet she was right in the middle of it."

Baseball consumed her. When she wasn't playing, she was watching. She was much admired by her teammates, playing mostly with males. She was only ten when she heard about a Philadelphia women's team. They were called the Bobbies, and looking for new players. She made the team! Her hair needed a new cut, the uniform didn't come close to fitting her, and she impressed everyone who watched her play.

The team's success mattered little to the young woman. She just wanted to play the game. A chance to travel to Japan was a welcome adventure. Practicing on the ship's deck was great fun, providing hours of improving skills, as well as much enjoyment in watching balls sail over the rails and into the ocean waters. Japan was nothing like home: so much to see, baseball to be played in city after city, singing and playing instruments together with her teammates.  Despite the fun, Edith missed home and her family.

When the team returned, Edith arrived with many wonderful memories and a continuing love for the game that had afforded her so much adventure. Edith played for other teams, took a turn at scouting in high schools and colleges, and remained a fan of the game until her death in 2013, just days short of her 101st birthday.

Hers is a remarkable story well told. Steven Salerno creates illustrations in 'charcoal, ink, and gouache, with added digital color rendered in Adobe Photoshop'. They take us back to the 1920s when Edith found fame in the game she so loved. They bring the audience into the ball parks  of the time and to a faraway country. His sweeping double page spreads leave the reader fully aware of what life was like for a very young girl whose talent for playing and love of the game were unmatched.

An author's note concerning the time following the Japan trip and archival photos are welcome.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Only Child, by guojing. Schwartz & Wade, Random House. 2015. $23.99 all ages

"The story in this book is fantasy, but it reflects the very real feelings of isolation and loneliness I experienced growing up in the 1980s under the one-child policy in China. When I was young, both of my parents had to work to support our family, so during the day, my grandmother would take care of me. But still, sometimes - if they had to rush to work or if Nai Nai was busy - "

It is loneliness that inspired the author to create this unforgettable and uplifting wordless picture book . Despite the best intentions of the entire family, there were problematic days. One particular day her father put her on the bus alone to travel to her grandmother's house. It is that experience that lead to this fantasy.

In each powerful image the author raises our awareness for the sense of isolation felt by a child left alone. She entertains herself with any number of things and finally sits to look through a scrapbook filled with family photos. In it she sees photos of her Nai Nai celebrating her last birthday. Those images are enough to spark purpose in her; she decides that she will leave a note, get dressed, and take the bus to her grandmother's house.

As she watches the passing sights from the bus window she falls asleep. She awakens to discover she has passed her stop. Off she runs into the woods ... alone again. She is frightened until she meets a majestic stag who carries her up to the clouds. Their adventure has begun. They meet a very special friend, play and explore this fantastic world throughout the day. When night falls, the stag returns the child to her home, where grateful family provide a warm and loving welcome.

Soft pencil drawings and the author's personal connection to the story told offer many moments of love and longing, and finally belonging. The warmth of the relationship between child and stag is evident as they meet, explore, play and share an afternoon adventure. The perfectly paced storytelling is stunning. It evokes emotions  that will capture the full attention of all who share it ... 8 or 80.

Absolutely beautiful, and not to be missed!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

How the Sun Got to Coco's House, written and illustrated by Bob Graham. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2015. $23.99 ages 4 and up

"The sun tumbled end
 over end.
It was caught briefly
in the eye of a whale ..
then headed up the beach
and out over frozen forests,
making shadows on the snow
and in Jung Su's footsteps.
The rising sun met birds
still flying south for the
winter and a plane ... "

If you have never read Bob Graham's marvellous books, please head out today and borrow a 'bunch' from your library. I have been an avid fan of this soft-spoken, thoughtful Australian writer and illustrator for many years. His many books, which seem so genuine and simple, are indeed quite extraordinary! You won't be sorry to spend a hour or so with his work. Each signature pen and watercolor illustration is packed with visual imagery meant to draw his young audience into thinking about the story being told. So it is with Coco.

You can see when looking at the front cover above that it is nighttime. If you could see more closely, you would note a starry night, a snowy backyard, a light in a window, and a young child (and canine companion) looking out into the darkness. The warm yellow glow from the lighted window and the soft light of the moon is calming. Open the book to find that young child hoisting the dog up onto the pink bed cover. The room is small, softly lit, and awash with things of importance to a small child.

Have we come to the title page yet? We have not. But, we are collecting information as we go. A turn of another page and we note the mother kissing the child, the father kissing the dog, and a wider perspective on the bedroom. Turn the page again, and our story begins with a polar bear mother and her two cubs ... oh, so far away from Coco's bedroom. Where they are, the sun is just poking its light above the horizon. From that moment we follow the sun on the journey it makes each and every day ... from sunup until sundown. We make many stops along the way, all the while knowing that we will eventually return to Coco where the sun has been shining throughout a long and busy day. Be sure to finish with a look at the back cover, too.

Constantly changing our perspective on the quiet action of the sun's movement across the world, Mr. Graham assures that there is much to hold our attention. The soft colors, the panels used to move us from place to place, and the occasional double page spread capture many beautiful moments.  The pace of the story is as warm and soothing as the sun's rays, allowing for a most pleasurable read.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Paperboy, written by Vince Vawter. Delacorte Press, Random House. 2013. $8.99 ages 12 and up

"My face felt hot with everybody staring at me like I was Clarabell the Clown on a stage without a horn to honk. The burning in my face and neck wouldn't go away. The grown-ups finally stopped looking at me and started talking and smoking and drinking their wine like everything would be hunky-dory if they just ignored me."

There are some books that leave an indelible impression on the reader. Paperboy is one of those middle grade novels for me. I had read about it when it was first published and knew that I wanted to read it. Serendipitously, I finally came upon a copy while searching for another book. Vince Vawter's debut novel has scenes and a story that I will never forget. I think you should find a copy, too.

The narrator is a stutterer and uses his father's typewriter to tell his story. It begins:

"I'm typing about the stabbing for good reason. I can't talk.

Without stuttering.

Plus I promised Mam I would never tell what happened to my yellow-handle knife. Mam might say that typing is cheating but I need to see the words on paper to make sure everything happened the way my brain remembers it. I trust words on paper a lot more that words in the air."

Imagine starting a book talk with that lead ...

It's a Memphis summer in 1959 and our narrator is 11. Little Man is a terrific ball player, an aspiring writer and a good friend. He has agreed to take over his best friend's newspaper route while Rat is on vacation. Thus, we meet two of the people whose papers he delivers, and an intimidating junkman bent on proving he is a ruinous opponent ...

Through quiet and compelling narration we learn that life is not always easy for the young. Emotional scenes, especially those involving his African-American caregiver and housekeeper Mam and the racial injustice and segregation she faces, grip the reader. When the bully forces her hand, Mam must step in to protect Little Man, her beloved charge.

Finding your voice in this world can be a daunting task for anyone. Sharing the narrator's world helps the reader realize what the world is like for a young boy whose voice is often unheard due to his difficulty in controlling his stutter. Seeing through that window is an eye-opener and is sure to generate genuine admiration for the boy who is sharing his story.  There are setbacks, and there are successes. He learns through his encounters that everyone struggles with something ... an important thing for each one of us to remember. This is beautiful and memorable writing.

An author's note only ups my admiration for this amazing book:

"My first recollection of my stutter is just before I was five. I have
been stuttering - sometimes fiercely, sometimes gently - for more
than sixty years now. Despite my impediment, I had a rewarding
career in newspapers, and to my continued amazement, I enjoy
telling my story to audiences, especially young people.
Have I been cured of my stutter? No. Have I overcome it? Yes."

Bravo, Mr. Vawter!

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Seventh Most Important Thing, written by Shelley Pearsall. Alfred A. Knopf, Random House. 2015. $19.99 ages 10 and up

"As they stood there in the darkness, with little sunbursts of light from the tree shining on their clothes and faces, Arthur felt strangely hopeful for a minute. It was as if their old life had briefly flickered back on, like an old movie - as if none of the bad things had happened to them yet. Barbara, who could be a real pain in the butt sometimes, had this sweet, angelic expression on her face."

Dealing with his father's death has been extremely difficult for Arthur, as you would expect. So, on a November day in 1963, after learning that his mother has cleaned out the hall closet of all of his father's belongings, Arthur is uneasy, hurt, angry, and determined  to get his father's stuff back. Out he runs to check the garbage cans. The cans are empty. When he sees the old Junk Man, who wanders the nearby streets checking those cans and filling his old rickety shopping cart, wearing his father's Harley-Davidson hat he snaps! Furious and out of control he picks up a brick and heaves it at the old man, hitting him hard at the shoulder and earning himself a three week stay in Juvenile Detention.

His appearance in court is fraught with increased anguish; he must now face the judge for sentencing. Worse than that he must face James Hampton - the Junk Man - and see what his anger has done to him. The judge has a lot to say before finally pronouncing sentence:

"The judge fixed his gaze on Arthur. "Instead of sentencing you to the Juvenile Detention Home for an exceedingly long time - which I won't hesitate to do if I ever see you in my courtroom again - Mr. Hampton has requested that you be assigned to work for him until his arm has healed."

And now, you are at page 21.

What follows, as Arthur pays his debt to Mr. Hampton and society, is redemption versus retribution. Mr. James Hampton is a famous folk artist, best known for the Throne of the Third Heaven, an installation made from bits of light bulbs, foil, wood, coffee cans, mirrors, bottles and cardboard.  Now, Arthur is to collect those pieces of junk that Mr. Hampton can no longer gather. They are the seven most important things.

Arthur is wary of the Junk Man and has no idea why he is doing what he is doing. As luck would have it, Mr. Hampton becomes a mentor and a guide as Arthur struggles to accept all that is
happening in his life. When things go sideways, it is up to Arthur to prove that he is worthy of the redemption offered.

With wonderfully engaging characters, the novel explores grief, friendship, art, and love. The voices are strong and distinct. The humor is lighthearted and necessary. The pace kept me reading, always wanting to know more and inspired by the consistently good writing. 

An author's note and archival photographs of the artist and his work follow to provide context.

What a remarkable book to share in middle years classrooms!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, written by Michel Chikwanine and Jessica Dee Humphreys , with illustrations by Claudia Davila. Kids Can Press, 2015. $18.95 ages 10 and up

"He burst out laughing and hit
me across the face with his gun.
I realized then that this was no
joke. I was thrown into the back
of a truck with several other boys
and driven into the hills. I was
so scared. Kevin was in another
truck. I couldn't talk to him. I
couldn't even see him. When the
truck stopped, we were ordered
to get out ... "

There is absolutely no way that we can imagine what life as a child soldier is like - unless we live it. Michel Chikwanine was only 5 in 1993 when he was kidnapped by rebel militia soldiers. He was, at the time, playing soccer with friends in the field near his school. It wasn't until they heard gunfire that the boys realized these soldiers were different from the government soldiers they often saw.

"We had never seen soldiers like these before.
They had red eyes and scruffy hair; they were
wearing shabby t-shirts over ragged jeans
and cheap rain boots."

The rebels gathered the boys, lined them up and initiated them into their army through a wrist cut. Into that wound they rubbed a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine. What happens to Michel next is brutal and terrifying - and too true.

This tragic graphically rendered story is told with empathetic understanding and great skill. There is so much more to it than Michel's kidnapping and terrifying time with the rebels. We also learn about the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, what happened to his family following his escape, and finally of his life as a refugee before becoming a Canadian citizen. While the illustrations depict the emotional effect of the violence experienced, they are not explicit except through the facial expressions of the children. That makes it so immediate and compelling. To know that it is still happening is almost inconceivable after reading of Michel's harrowing journey to where he is today.

This fine book is a worthy addition to the CitizenKid series from Kids Can Press. It is an inspiring tale of courage and understanding, and Michel shares it in speaking engagements and in his work as an activist to change the world. He reminds his readers that he tells his story for a purpose:

"I have discovered that people do care!
I am part of a movement of young people
who want to help, who are passionate
and who will take action so that what
happened to me will not happen to the
children of the future."

He finishes with a perfect quote from his father, a human rights lawyer, who inspired him to work toward positive change.

“If you ever think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.”

Michel's story is followed by a number of pages in back matter that tell the audience more about Michel himself, about child soldiers, about what is being to done to help and how we can all help to make a difference.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Bear and the Piano, written and illustrated by David Litchfield. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Raincoast. 2016. $23.99 ages 5 and up

"... the sounds that came from the strange thing were beautiful, and the bear had grown big and strong and grizzly. When the bear played, he felt so happy. The sounds took him away from the forest, and he dreamed of strange and wonderful lands. It wasn't long before the other bears in the forest were drawn to the clearing. Every night, a crowd gathered ... "

The discovery of a piano is the woods is lost on a small bear cub. He has never seen one, and has no idea what it is. He learns quickly that it makes a terrible sound! As he matures and continues to spend his time playing that piano, he is amazed to find that he has a talent for making wonderful sounds come from it. Other bears in the forest are equally impressed with his talent and love to listen to him play for them.

When a father and daughter out for a hike hear him play, they convince his that he should take his talent where it would be truly appreciated. They promise fame and fortune, and a future filled with 'sounds so beautiful they will make your fur stand on end.' Thinking first of his forest audience, the bear knows they will be sad if he leaves; the call of the world is too strong. He agrees to accompany the two back to the city where he attracts fans galore and great admiration.

His dreams realized, he lets his heart dictate his next move. He misses the forest and his friends. He wants to return home. He does so with trepidation, afraid that his friends will not be as happy to see him as he is to see them. What he finds will make your heart sing.

This is a story that will have different meaning when shared with a wide range of readers. Little ones will see if for what it is ... a story of friendship, and imagination. Reading it to older children will have a totally different effect ... a story of music, fame, finding one's place in the world, and home. It will resonate with all who share it!

This is David Litchfield's first book. I am sure it will not be his last. The story is poignant, beautifully written and the artwork is stunning. Done is mixed media, it is textured and infused with light page after page. Filled with emotion, readers will experience all that the bear feels in the forest, in the city, and when he returns home. The warmth of the colors used, the ever-changing design, the lovely telling endpapers ensure that this is another book for my 'keeper' shelf and one to share with those you love.