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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Cat Named Swan, by Holly Hobbie. Random House. 2017. $23.99 ages 3 and up

"Yet day by day, he found
enough food to eat.
Day by day, he managed
to elude the threats that
surrounded him.
He survived.

One morning, though,
he did not escape the
peril that came down on him."

Poor little kitten! No family, no home, no way of truly knowing how to live in such a dangerous world. Yet, he manages to survive, though not exactly thrive.  When he gets stuck in a tree, he needs help. Oops! He is saved (or is he?) by an animal control officer.

Food, companions, no danger to avoid, and safety for a little one who has known none of it.

"Boredom was better than misery."
The boredom quickly ends when a forever family scoops him up and takes him home with them.

" ... he learned that the house was his house, the yard was his yard. He learned that the people were his people and he was theirs. He belonged to them and they belonged to him."

Much loved, eager to discover both the inside and outside of his new surroundings, Swan makes the most of every perfect day ... and night.

Holly Hobbie uses pencil and watercolors to bring Swan and his two very different circumstances to glorious life for her readers. From the dull and dirty city we are transported to the joyful colors of a rural landscape. She shows first the terrors, then the joys, in realistic and winsome art. She matches the energy and emotions felt by all and we are lucky to be rapt observers of Swan's transformation.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Grand Canyon, by Jason Chin. A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan. Raincoast. 2017. $27.99 ages 8 and up

"As you approach the rim of the canyon, the climate becomes cooler and more moist. Vegetation on the sloping Toroweap Formation is more dense than below. Before exiting the canyon, however, there is one more layer to scale: the Kaibab Limestone. The Kaibab cliffs are full of marine fossils that tell us about life here 270 million years ago ... "

It's a father and daughter excursion that leads us to observe the many wonders of the Grand Canyon. Luckily, we have a rocking chair observation station and will not actually feel the rigors of the challenging trek from the South Kaibab Trail up, up, up to the South Rim.

As they go, we have a great view of the geological landscape that has so inspired and intrigued visitors. By reading the accessible text and spending time pondering the incredibly detailed images, we learn a great deal about the creation of this mesmerizing place. From its basement rocks which are as much as 1.84 billion years old to the Ponderosa pine forest above the rim, Jason Chin affords us a most interesting lesson in geology and the passing of time. An illustrated image of the more than twelve rock layers found there is provided near the beginning of our trek, and acts as a guide and a reference as we move up the canyon.

The science lesson here is so beautifully constructed, and most enjoyable for his audience. He fills the borders with the flora and fauna of each habitat, the rock formations, the development of the layers, the fossils found in the various layers, the weathering and erosion, and the climates of each. It is a complex story made easier to comprehend through this stellar presentation. Cutouts at various points along the way peek through and give the child a chance to take a step back in time and experience first-hand the many changes the canyon itself has undergone.

Back matter runs to six pages and expands our knowledge for how the canyon was actually carved through eons. A short discussion of our journey, a look at the human history of this remarkable place, the ecological communities that are prominent in the canyon itself, its geology, formation, the Colorado River and the mystery of its formation are each briefly discussed. He adds a note from himself and then one about his illustrations before providing an extensive list of resources for further study. The man did his research. His art reflects his personal visit. A cross section of the canyon and a glorious four page foldout to give a panoramic view will hold readers in awe of its 'grand'eur.

Jason's author's note voices a wish for his readers:

"This book is my tribute to the canyon and also to the power of the imagination. After all, it's imagination that makes both science and art possible. I hope that this book captures my readers' imaginations, just as Grand Canyon has captured mine."

Monday, April 24, 2017

ida, ALWAYS. Written by Caron Levis and illustrated by Charles Santoso. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon and Schuster. 2016. $23.99 ages 5 and up

"Then the two friends flopped onto their favorite rock while the city pulsed around them. "I wish we could see it," Gus sighed. "You don't have to see it to feel it," said Ida. "Listen." They heard buses groan; police whistle; taxis honk; pigeons coo; ... "

In the gentle story of loss and the grief that follows, we meet Ida and Gus. They are two polar bears making a life in a city zoo. Gus is constantly attentive to Ida, loving being with her and sharing happy times and adventures.

"When the sky grew dark, Gus and Ida waved good night and crawled off to their caves. With the subways humming underground, they added their snores to the sounds of their city. Every day was always the same."

Until it wasn't ...

While they love being together, life changes for them. Ida doesn't always have good, happy days. She is tired, and cannot enjoy swimming as she used to do. She sleeps for lengthy periods of time and even coughs often. One day, Ida didn't come out of her cave.

"Keeper Sonya came instead.
Sonya told Gus that Ida was very sick.
Usually, there's a way to make a sick bear better,
but this time was different.
Ida wouldn't hurt, but she would get tired
and too weak to swim and play."

Caron Levis does not shy away from death, wanting her audience to know that it is a part of life. She even allows the two bears a growling, heartbreaking rant for what is going to happen. When it stops, the 'fold' into each other and enjoy the rest of their days together, wondering and guessing and imagining what is to come. As Ida's health declines, Gus is a constant companion. Gus is there when Ida breathes her final breath, and he is heartbroken. That is as it should be. But, he always remembers Ida and knows she is still 'there'.

"He steps into the spot
where Ida liked to soak in the sun.
He listens to their city pulsing around him.
He remembers that Ida said
you don't have to see it to feel it."

Filled with beauty and emotion, this is a story that will resonate with every child and adult who shares it. The digitally rendered artwork is so effective in its moody colors. There is sadness in the love lost,  and joy in the remembering. Their world is most often filled with blue skies, that change dramatically with Ida's death, and return to wonder with acceptance.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Like Bug Juice on a Burger, written by Julie Sternberg and illustrated by Matthew Cordell. Amulet, Abrams. 2013. $8.95 ages 8 and up

"I remembered my whole rotten
My flying fall.
My stinging hands
and knees
and chin.
This stupid, lumpy bed,
which I couldn't even make.
The swim test.
The mosquitoes.
The no-candy rule."

Going to summer camp was a nightmare for someone who got as homesick as I did. The memories are as clear today as they were 53 years ago. Everything that we did was meant to be fun, and educational. For me, it was torture. So, I commiserate with Eleanor's worrying as she prepares to go Camp Wallumwahpuck rather than getting a dog ... some surprise from Grandma Sadie!

"I was just remembering
how much your mother enjoyed
sleepaway camp,
when she was a girl.
I think you'd also enjoy it.
So I'd like to treat you to sleepaway camp
this summer."

Leaving Brooklyn on a huge bus, with one new acquaintance, and arriving at camp is frightening. The surrounding forest is full of whining bugs. It's much too quiet. Her swimming skills leave something to be desired, so she has to wear a life jacket - even when jumping on the trampoline that floats on the lake. The food is unfamiliar and unpalatable. Readers who have experienced some of those same fears and worries will be entirely sympathetic to Eleanor's plight.

As we read from chapter to chapter a new and unique event is described. Told with plentiful dialogue and in first person, it is made more dramatic and accessible for the reader. Gradually, with support from other campers and concerned counselors who are becoming her friends, Eleanor begins to adjust to camp life and to see some of the things that make it special. She does not have the same love for it that her mother remembers so fondly, but she makes the best of it. She does have a new friend, and learns about caring for a goat.

"You see?" I said to them.
"I'm a huge help with animals.
And dogs are animals!
So can we get one?
My parents looked at each other.
"We'll see," my mom said.
And my heart went flying.
Because I could tell,
I could just tell,
that she really meant

Matthew Cordell, as he did in Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie (2011) and Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake (2014), creates detail-filled line drawings that are emotional and telling.  Full of energy and the terrors and joys of camp life, they add humor and sympathy for an earnest and apprehensive new camper.

I love one message that Eleanor reads on the Wall of Feelings, a place where campers share their thoughts about camp. Eleanor has total understanding for its words.

"I don't care what everyone says -
I don't love this camp.
but I don't need to love it.
I just need to survive it."


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Life on Mars, written and illustrated by Jon Agee. Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin. 2017. $23.99 ages 4 and up

"It's dark. It's cold.
I've brought this gift
of chocolate cupcakes.
I don't think I'll find
anybody to eat them.
Wow. I was wrong.
Mars is nothing but
miles and miles of
rocks and dirt! It's
obvious. Nothing could
possibly live here."

Early years listeners and readers are going to love knowing more than the young boy who shares his observations about Mars. He has always wanted to travel to the planet, firmly believing that he will find proof of life there. Once he arrives, he realizes just how dark and rocky it is. His gift of chocolate cupcakes may be for naught as he wanders aimlessly on the desolate landscape. He begins to have doubts of his own.

Abandoning his gift, he heads back to the spaceship. Wait! Don't give up! As he wanders, he loses his way and is astonished to finally find a living thing  - it is a bright yellow flower. He is ecstatic. Now he will be able to prove to the naysayers that he was right. There is life on Mars! As he continues his search for the spaceship, he is further surprised to see the box of cupcakes in a different location than where he thought he left it. No matter. He picks it up, carries it and the flower to the top of a nearby mountain and sees what he has been looking for - his spaceship. It's time to go home, where a bit of a surprise awaits.

Once again, reading this book for the first time, without benefit of illustrations, will allow kids to put their imaginations to work and also garner many different visual interpretations of the text. Once you read it the second time, while sharing Jon Agee's brilliant and telling artwork, they will see the story as the wonderful joke that it is. Now, they will see what the spaceboy is not seeing - a rather large, orange, pear-shaped Martian who tracks him and apes his sentiments as he explores the red planet. Only one joke, but it will have little ones screaming out warnings and hooting as the creature silently shares his take on the alien visitor and his exploration.

Jon Agee knows how to tickle funny bones and produce terrific books with memorable characters. His illustrations are full of fun, and his text is perfect for kids just learning to read on their own.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Ninja! Attack of the Clan, written and illustrated by Arree Chung. Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2016. $19.50 ages 4 and up

Yes, Maxwell ...
Want to play hide-and-seek
with me?
Yes, Maxwell.
I'll hide, you seek.
Yes, Maxwell.

A ninja must be concealed.
Where should I hide?"

Maxwell is ready for combat. All he needs is an opponent. His entire family is busy at their own pursuits. Mom is making dinner. Cassy is playing with blocks. Dad agrees to a game of hide-and-seek even though he is lost in work on his tax return. He immediately forgets that he has made that promise.

It takes Maxwell a long time to find the perfect hiding spot, and he is discouraged by his father's forgetfulness. What can a ninja do? Off he goes to practice an important ninja art - meditation. It doesn't help. When his mother calls him for supper, he is astounded to find no one at the table. We all can see what's in store for him. The wait for results is worth it for every young reader!

There is a surprise attack, captured in bold colors, expressive faces and a wild series of battles. The artwork throughout is full of panels that aptly show all the emotions that our young ninja is feeling. Fine details add depth and understanding. It's comic book style and ever-changing perspectives are full of interest. Be sure to watch how mood changes the colors used to portray the action.

It is a story that will have great appeal for children and the parents who share this second story about Maxwell. (Ninja, Henry Holt, 2014).

Thursday, April 20, 2017

My heart is laughing, written by Rose Lagercrantz and illustrated by Eva Eriksson. Gecko Press, Thomas Allen and Son. 2014. $26.50 ages 6 and up

"Ella's mother scolded them and said they couldn't take any more chairs. And Ella's extra father agreed with her. Ella has two fathers. A real one she never talks about and an extra one called Patrick. Except that Ella calls him Paddy. Paddy said that chairs belong at home in the kitchen and not in the park. Dani and Ella stopped playing monkeys and went to play with their hamsters ... "

Ella has gone, and Dani continues to miss her every day. At school she wants to keep Ella's desk free for her, in case she comes back. She lets her classmates know those wishes. Her teacher is not optimistic that Ella will return; Dani is sure she will.

Trying to encourage Dani to reach out and explore other friendships, her teacher places Dani between Vicky and Mickey for lunch. What we, as readers, see is the way the two girls treat their classmate. They bully and pinch her mercilessly. In anger, and to defend herself, Dani uses the sauce at the table to allay their bullying. Some lands on the teacher! Dani can't believe the result of her actions. She runs home. No one is there, which allows her to cry in private about all that is troubling her.

"But most of all she cried because Ella hadn't
come back yet.
She cried so hard that
her eyes went as red as
a white rabbit's."

Things don't get much better when her father does get home. He says she must go to school and apologize. She will not! Left alone, she uses memories of her friendship with Ella to cheer her up. I like that the author uses a flashback to provide back story for those who have not yet met Dani. Finally, ready to talk with her father, she finds him in the kitchen. When everything is finally sorted out and they return to school, they are able to explain what happened and set the wrongs right. All this is due to Dani's very optimistic way of looking at life. It makes her a most worthy protagonist and is sure to garner fans for Rose Lagercrantz's other stories about her.

It is an honest, sad and challenging at times, and yet joyful tale. We learn quickly that Dani is a girl worth knowing better!