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Friday, January 30, 2015

A Year in the Life of a Total and Complete Genuis, written by Stacey Matson. Scholastic Canada, 2014. $14.99 ages 10 and up

"Why did I ever think I could be a writer? I have all these ideas in my head, but I don't know how to write them down. Or else I tell Nicole or Luke about them, and then when I try to write them down, all my ideas are gone. It's like someone took them away as soon as I said them out loud. I can't make my brain work. I can't even make my fingers type."

Oh, grade seven! Do you remember anything about it? I have some vivid memories of days spent with friends, and the angst of adolescence. Arthur has much more to deal with than I did at the time.

Using variety in presentation, Stacy Matson (in her debut novel) helps us get to know Arthur through his assignments for class, the entries he makes in his journal, notes from his teachers and the emails that he writes. Arthur considers himself to be quite the exceptional writer, but he is definitely struggling with sharing his skills in any obvious way.

Writing has become more of a challenge since his mother's unexpected and untimely death in the spring of his sixth grade year. He returns to school later than other students in the fall, and that return has been very difficult for him. His writing now consists of bitter musings, or copying what others have written. These problems are generally faced with humor and offer some very funny moments for readers:

 “Most people say that it’s geeky
 That a boy who makes sweaters should quit
 But that’s when I say something cheeky:
 I tell them, ‘It takes balls to knit!’”

The secondary characters add heft to the telling. Up until March when she breaks her hip, Ms. Whitehead provides thoughtful and useful assignments for her students. She gives Arthur clear and helpful advice for his writing and encouragement to compete in the school writing contest. His confrontations with another student who struggles where Arthur does not has Ms. Whitehead setting him up to tutor Robbie. Their individual progress reports for the peer tutoring program show their developing friendship, while also being hilarious at times. Writing for the school newspaper introduces another teacher, Mr. Everett, who encourages Arthur to submit articles about a variety of topics and provides constant feedback concerning his writing.

Arthur is interested in winning the writing contest. He is also enamored of Kennedy and badly wants to win her heart. As his writing partner, Kennedy offers encouragement for his work through a series of very personal emails that recount her relationships, her hopes and dreams, and her ebullient personality:

"My bf wants to go as Fred and Wilma from the FLINTSTONES LOL! I told him that was crazy since I have BLOND hair, not red LOL! Now I think we will go as a fisherman and a mermaid LOL!"

So many of the various interactions made me laugh out loud, and some made me want to cry. I loved every minute spent reading about this young man and his relationships. Arthur may have his flaws concerning honesty; he is also intuitive, smart, capable of being a good friend and oh, so funny!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie, by Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2014. $21.99 ages 5 and up

"She grabbed Sweetie Pie and yanked his bony paws though the sleeves of a pink dress. "Aren't you pretty?" Sue asked, then dropped him into the dollhouse. He spun like a top, making a terrible mess. "That's not polite," she said, and tossed him back into the cage."

I wonder how any small animal really feels when it is leaves the comfort of a familiar setting to live with a new owner? In Chris Van Allsburg's latest picture book about such a hamster, we learn that thing are not always as good as they might seem.

Sweetie Pie has lost each of a dozen former friends to new homes. He himself has avoided such a fate by being belligerent and unwilling to play nice. Loneliness has finally caused him to change his ways. The next person interested in taking him home finds him reasonable and willing to discover the world beyond the pet shop window. There is excitement in the air.

Little does Sweetie Pie know he is leaving one cage to be trapped in another. Although his new owner often takes him out to cuddle, he is not particularly thrilled with it. Soon, she is concerned with other electronic pursuits. She feeds and waters him, but they spend little time together. Life becomes very routine and Sweetie Pie fills the alone time with consuming every bit of food that comes his way. Having become disinterested, his owner sells him to a friend.

Life goes from bad to worse! Constant confrontations between the resident dog and the interloper results in Sweetie Pie going to live with Sue. This results in a new and terrifying adventure in a plastic ball that moves much too quickly; soon, the hamster is lost and alone. A new owner, a new home and another misunderstanding. Oh boy, some life!!

Will Sweetie Pie ever find his place in the world?

I have missed Chris Van Allsburg's work. I think the last book I read was Queen of the Falls in 2011 (HMH Books for Young Readers). I have always been a big fan of his precise, detailed work and his ironic stories. In this, he does not disappoint. The softly colored illustrations are done in watercolor, pen and ink, and colored pencil. They almost give a false sense of the book being a gentle story about a pet. Sweetie Pie's pain at being caged, mistreated and finally lost is evident in his ever-changing expressions. Mr. Van Allsburg is a master at perspective and he clearly shows his readers the plight of a tiny creature whose life is not what we might think it should be ... until it is!
                                                                         

http://youtu.be/jurTVH6cfBE

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Take Away the A, written by Michael Escoffier and illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo. Enchanted Lion Books, Publishers Group Canada. 2014. $19.95 ages 4 and up



"Without the

          F

the SCARF
hides a SCAR. "


Two of my favorite books this year have been alphabet books. Previously, I sang the praises of Oliver Jeffers' fantastic Once Upon An Alphabet (Penguin, 2014). Now, I want to tell you about Michael Escoffier's Alphabeast of a book!

When I left my school library and teaching, we had an incredible array of alphabet books for our students to read and enjoy. I was in awe then, as I am today, that there are authors who can take such a simple concept and create a new model of excellence with 26 letters.

In this most amusing and inventive book, the author shows how removing one letter from a word can create a completely new concept:

"Without the L
PLANTS wear PANTS."

It took no time at all until I was trying my hand at doing the same. You know your readers best, and will know which kids will take this idea and run with it. The possibilities are endless, aren't they? Each of the double page spreads boast brilliant stylized illustrations that tell a story to enhance the choice of words and letter omissions made by the author. It is a perfect pairing.

Observant children will be aware that a little mouse is a frequent participant, or observer. There is humor in the depiction of the scenes, and more to the artwork than meets the eye in the initial reading. It is a celebration of language and ingenuity.

Read it again and then again, sharing it with eager listeners. You will be happy that you did and they will have much to say about the stories told here!
                                                                             

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ava and the Little Folk, written by Neil Christopher and Alan Neal, with illustrations by Jonathan Wright. Inhabit Media, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012. $13.95 ages 6 and up

"But as the sleds approached, he realized they were not very far away at all. They were simply very small, just like the man in front of him. None of them was taller than Ava's knee. And they were accompanied by dogs that were the size of siksiks, the little ground squirrels that burrowed into the ground around town."

Have you ever wanted to change your size whenever you chose to do so? Think of the possibilities ... being shorter than the acceptable height for a ride at Disney World ... easy, just get taller! Too tall to get inside the snow fort built by a group of friends ... easy, just get smaller. Who hasn't wanted to do those things?

Consider Ava. When we meet him, he is freezing cold, starving, and alone in his world. Imagine the joy he feels when he meets the 'small folk' who are willing to show him just exactly how he might change his world as he makes adjustments to it.

In this folktale from the Arctic, we meet those 'small folk'; they are so much a part of the literature of the North. They are renowned hunters. They can change size when the situation calls for it. They are able to change weather when it is needed. Now there is a skill that would make northern winters more palatable.

Ava's home is the North. Readers learn much about that harsh and wondrous environment through the authors' vivid descriptions:

"As he charged on, excitement  started to mingle with fear in his mind. He had heard the hunters in his village talk about huge white bears suddenly appearing in the white drift, like a phantom from nowhere, a sudden mass of claws and teeth, roaring. Those stories had plagued him in nightmares. Would a hidden bear pounce upon him? What if he could not fight or escape it?"

Jonathan Wright's illustration add lustre and life to the story being told. Realistic in the portrayal of the North, and of these characters, the artwork adds an appeal that will have readers poring over their expressions, their movement and the excitement of accompanying the little folk on the hunt.

It is lengthy, but this is a tale that will be enjoyed by all readers and listeners!   
                                                                        

Monday, January 26, 2015

Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story, written by Sebastian Robertson and illustrated by Adam Gustavson. Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2014. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"Summers, holidays, and many weekends were spent at the Six Nations Indian Reservation where Robbie's mother had been born and raised. Robbie and his mom would take a two-hour bus ride from Toronto up to the reservation. It was here that it all began; it was here where the rhythm, melodies, and storytelling of Robbie's First Nations relatives captured his imagination."

In an enlightening homage to his father and his successful career as a hardworking Canadian musician, Sebastian Robertson begins by sharing a note about The Band's final stage performance in 1976 in San Francisco. Only then does he take readers back to the beginning and chronicle the path that took Jaime Royal Robertson from a crib in Toronto to the world stage.

Influenced by his Mohawk heritage, his love for the storytelling of the elders, and his family's musical expertise, Robbie soon had a guitar in hand and a teacher who could not keep up with his need to know more than he was being taught. He took charge of his own learning and spent countless hours working at improving his skills. Encouraged by family, music became his life. He formed his first band at 13 and never looked back.

At sixteen he had written two songs for Ronnie Hawkins, and was on his way to making his mark on the music world. His belief in himself and his abilities led him on a journey that would change his life. Always willing to hone his craft, he took advice from Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan. The music scene at the time was changing.

Taking up residence in Woodstock, the Hawks worked at developing their own style and were known to the locals as 'the band.' The name stuck! The release of Music From Big Pink marked a real departure from much of the music of the day:

"Its roots were deeply embedded in the American landscape but the music was entirely unique - a mix of mountain music, Delta blues, rhythm and blues, Canadian folk, and rockabilly. There wasn't a name for it then, but there is now. It's called Americana Music, and The Band was instrumental in its creation."

The fresh and realistic oil paintings done by Adam Gustavson give readers a chance to see the world as seen from Robbie Robertson's perspective. They ensure that we are aware of time and place. I loved seeing the almost photographic images of some of the famous people Robbie met on his musical journey on the 'rock and roll highway.'

The timeline included is filled with useful information and rife with archival photos. An interview between father and son is a very special addition in which Sebastian encourages readers to do what he did - interview your parents! You will never be sorry that you did.
                                                                          

http://youtu.be/d-iW1-xgLEY

http://youtu.be/RDnlU6rPfwY

Blue on Blue, written by Dianne White and illustrated by Beth Krommes. Beach Lane Books, Simon & Schuster. 2014. $21.99 ages 3 and up

Clouds swell.
Winds blow bolder.

Weather changes.
Air grows colder.

Gray on gray.
Dark and glooming.

Black on black.
Storm is looming."

There is work to be done every day on a family farm. Some of the family work harder than the rest. As we begin the day with them, Mama is already to hang laundry, the garden is hoed, and the pets are off on a romp. From the top bedroom window, a little girl watches the action. As Mama pegs the laundry and the baby plays happily on a blanket in the grass, our little girl skips rope. The wind
appears  to be getting up.

Turn the page and ominous looking clouds are blowing in, and an awareness for the coming storm is felt. With thunder and lightning roaring in the background, the little one has found shelter under the blankets on her bed. If you look outside her window, you can see Papa trying to get a horse and colt into the warmth and safety of the barn.

Everyone and everything is affected by the power of the raging storm. It seems to last forever. When it subsides, there is nothing to do but enjoy the aftermath ... and enjoy it they do!

Perfectly picked for their power and their rhythm, the words chosen to tell this timeless tale of a day in the life of a young child will have little listeners begging for more. It is sure to evoke chatter about other rainy day terror, and fun.

Beth Krommes' watercolor and scratchboard artwork is, as usual, glorious. She captures the bucolic beauty of the farm and its environs while also showing the storm at its wildest and scariest. From bright, inviting, morning sunshine and the lasting power of the storm to the joy in muddy play and the starlit sparkle of a summer evening, her images are detailed and layered ... yet stunningly simple in the story they tell. There is so much to see; you will immediately return to the story's first page and begin all over again.

"Sun sneaks back.
Warms the air.
Muddy, muddy ...
everywhere!"                                                                       


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Branching Out: HOW TREES are part of OUR WORLD, by Joan Marie Galat. Owlkids, 2014. $13.95 ages 8 and up


"When you plant a silk cotton tree, you plant an umbrella tree species - one that a large number of animals use for food and habitat. You might also help increase the population of the endangered white-rumped vulture, which favors this tree for roosting and nesting."

This is nonfiction that will be welcomed by readers in grades 3 and up. Each section provides informative text about a variety of trees around the world, and adds intriguing details that make natural connections concerning our dependence on the tree being described.

Each of the 11 trees featured is given a full page illustration which begs comparison from one tree to the next for interested readers. I like the maps that show where the trees are found in the world, and the fact boxes that add meaning to the rest of the text. Close ups offer details that might be missed otherwise, and are well done.

Carefully researched and wisely chosen examples of how trees impact human lives mean that the trees included are very important to each of the ecosystems where they are found. It is a most useful introduction for young readers, and will be much appreciated by those interested in nonfiction writing.

In her introduction, Joan Marie Galat explains much about all trees: why we need them, the impact they have on nature, the definition of their parts. She goes on to explain how the book is designed and why it will be useful to readers. In the end, we all understand how much trees matter to the health of our world. I was fascinated by how much she had to share with her audience. I like that she encourages each one of us to do our part in replacing trees that have been lost, and are much needed for the future. Many details are included: common and Latin names, leaf silhouette, native growing locations, appearance, and average height.

Accessible and informative, the author also includes a glossary and an index that prove useful for returning to favorite parts, and to understanding new vocabulary.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Coyote Run, by Gaetan Doremus. Enchanted Lion Books, Publishers Group Canada. 2014. $18.50 ages 5 and up

"The Old West.

A chase.

Near capture...escape!

It seems that there is no Enchanted Lion book to be found that isn't worthy of your attention. Coyote Run is the newest in the Stories Without Words series and had me looking back to my childhood love of westerns. It actually had me dreaming about the simplicity of life in the 1950s, free of worry and smitten with western heroes and their dramatic encounters as they worked to save those around them from harm. What did I know about the world beyond my neighborhood at that time. As I remember it now, very little!

This tiny treasure causes 'readers' to think and to smile. It is a tad peculiar as we are observers of a coyote breaking out of jail, only to be pursued by an unusual-looking sheriff. When they finally come to a stalemate, the coyote's attention is drawn to a tiny ladybug. Have we seen her in a previous spread?

Her presence sidetracks the two from their confrontation and completely changes their reaction to the situation at hand. Deciding to be friends rather than enemies, they lay down their weapons and spend a lovely evening together. Others in pursuit have no idea about the events that precipitated a new warmth between the two. So, when the posse arrives, the sheriff and coyote make a run for it. When they appear to have run out of options at the edge of a cliff, you won't believe what happens!

The characters are surprising, the fantasy reassuring, and the hero unexpected but most welcome. This is a tale of friendship and adventure, of pursuit and escape; it entertains and endears its characters to those who will share it.