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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

This Is My Home, This is My School. Written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean. Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2015. $21.99 ages 5 and up

"Of course, we have a
trusty school bus.
It's always ready to
take us to ...
the library.
Or ...
on field trips!
This is our art room.
This is the world!"

I hope you listened when I told you that you needed to have Jonathan Bean on your children's literature radar, and that having Building Our House (2013) in your library was an absolute necessity. If not, here's your second big chance! If you did read and value the story that Jonathan tells of his parents and their need to raise their children in a more natural, respectful rural setting, you will not be surprised to learn that they were also parents who saw great value in homeschooling their children.

The blond boy who narrates this book is Jonathan himself. Its detailed, joyful pages allow his readers to learn more about his home, which was also his school. He and his sisters lived in a house filled with classrooms where 'Home and work, work and school, school and home were all seamlessly connected by my parents' curiosity to learn and teach'. He is obviously totally content with the learning that took place every day in every way - from the sofa in the living room, to the basement where science experiments were carried out, to the kitchen where the essentials of meal preparation and baking were practiced, to the pond which offered up any number of specimens to be examined, to the backyard which was the perfect playground for reading, building, swinging, constructing, and caring for a multitude of animals as their homework.

Every opportunity for new learning is captured in his colorful watercolor spreads. They are full of action and chaos, while also allowing a look at the joy that the four children found in being schooled in life with their parents as their guides. Nothing of importance is missed. Field trips and 'phys-ed' are taken with other children; art classes in the outdoors might have many participants. The sun-dappled colors, the happy exuberance of the teachers and students, the many little vignettes kept my eyes constantly wandering and wondering as I moved from one spread to the next. I especially love the double page spread that shows clearly the many hats Mom must wear throughout a very busy day. When she finally flops into a rocking chair exhausted, the children realize she needs assistance. They bring her the phone - she calls in the substitute! Hilarious to be sure ...

There is so much energy here - a perfect place for learning about life.  


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Nameless City, by Faith Erin Hicks with color by Jordie Bellaire. First Second, Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2016. $17.50 ages 10 and up

"A leg of lamb, two loaves of bread,
and an onion. That enough food for you?

For now, put it there and let's go.

So how do I do this?
Do what?

Run. Like you."

This is the first in a new series about Kai and Rat - two young people who meet and become friends despite the fact that they are members of opposing sides in a conflict that has lasted for generations. Many nations have taken control of the City over the years, changed its name, and tried to control the only way to get through the mountains to the ocean. The City settles, and then another nation advances, takes control and rules for a time. The new rulers never last long, nor does the name they have given the City. Those who live on the inside call it The Nameless City.

Its inhabitants have lived in peace for thirty years. Despite this, they are always training for battle. Kaidu, whose father is one of the ruling Dao, has journeyed from his home to the city to begin that training. He is not committed to it. He wants to get to know his father, a strong and fair leader who does not always agree with the others in power. Kai is content to read, rather than take part in the training that is his lot for now. On the first night he reads a letter from his mother, leader of the their tribe in the homelands. She encourages him to find his own way.

While wandering the streets with his father, they encounter a young girl named Rat, an orphan and a resident of the Nameless City. The two are often at odds, and very compelling characters. Kai is curious to learn all that he can learn. Rat is a sassy street girl who can, if she is willing, teach him what he needs to know. She agrees to teach him to run free on the city rooftops if he will make sure she has the food she needs to survive. He agrees to her terms.

Their adventures show Kai the truths about the city, exploring important questions of history and identity. Together the two learn of a plot to assassinate the General of All Blades. They must work together to stop it. The pace quickens, and it is a race to a satisfying finish.

You know that I have little experience with reading graphic novels, and make no pretense concerning my knowledge of this genre. I can tell you I love the art, the characters, and the setting that Ms. Hicks gives such life. The action scenes are fully realized, held my attention and had me turning pages as quickly as I could manage it. I went back again and again to certain scenes. I will be as keen as other fans to read the second book planned for this trilogy!

Monday, May 2, 2016

When Mischief Came to Town, written by Katrina Nannestad. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Raincoast. 2015. $23.99 ages 8 and up

"By the time she sits down at the table with a cup of tea for herself and a glass of milk for me, I have gobbled all three pieces of bread. The remaining butter looks like it has been attacked by a hungry troll, and the jam bowl is empty except for a few blackberry seeds clinging to the sides. My cheeks are bulging with the last piece of bread and jam, my tongue is dancing with sugar ... "

We meet Inge aboard a boat on her way to the island where her grandmother lives. It is 1911 and she is ten. As they make landfall, Inge can see her grandmother waiting for her. She knows who she is although she has never met her. Grandmother is the only woman waiting.

It is an inauspicious meeting, as a passenger goat whose softness has allowed a comfortable pillow for a young, unhappy girl has taken advantage while she slept and chewed off one whole braid. It is just the beginning of the trouble she will cause for the old woman and unlikely guardian. They head off to the farm that Inge will now share with her mother's mother.

The fun has really just begun. Inge is a lively, active, mischief maker. She is spirited and impetuous. Her grandmother is not amused by many of her actions, responding with anger and quick slaps that take Inge completely by surprise.

"I think of the horrible misunderstandings with the dancing snowflake that ended with a slap and harsh words. Then I recall how pleased Grandmother seemed when I thanked her for my soup. Perhaps I should learn to be thankful for the good things as they come along, no matter how small. That would show Grandmother that I am a decent girl. It might even make her love me."

Inge is hard not to love! She has such spunk and character. Despite the troubles and shenanigans that often follow closely on her heels, she inches her way into the hearts of some of the islanders, and especially her grandmother's. It takes time. It is her personality that keeps the reader on course and wanting to know what trouble will find her next. Her grandmother is in perfect contrast to Inge's exuberance. She is all business. The farm requires hard work and cooperation. The workload must be shared. Inge has lots to learn, but she finds joy in the animals and some of the people she meets.

The 1911 island town is very different from Copenhagen where Inge lived with her book-loving, gentle mother and their servants. There, she lived with few rules and a loving parent who indulged her strong-willed daughter, encouraging her imagination and opinions. In Bornholm, life is much more traditional - school days are endless, music lessons uninspired, playgrounds and rough play free to boys, not girls. Inge has much to say about it all!

Food and talk of food plays a role and so does humor. It is a perfect book to read aloud in a classroom, or as a family read. I promise there will be lots of laughter, and Inge will steal hearts. Engaging and heartwarming, while also exploring grief and love.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, written by Roxane Orgill and illustrated by Francis Vallejo. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2016. $25.00 10 and up

"Hundred-and-twenty-six street
on a Tuesday morning
"Hi ya, Monk!"
"Fump, my man!"

camera guy's sweeping
jazzmen like bundles
toward number 17

they don't notice ... "

Poor Bret! The last time we had lunch together, I blathered on and on about a wonderful collection of poetry I had recently read. It was the story behind a famous photograph taken by Art Kane for a special issue of Esquire magazine that captured my interest and led to my sharing the story with him. The focus for that month's issue in 1958 was jazz.

To that end, as graphic designer, he thought he would invite American jazz greats to be a part of a photo to be taken and published. He would take the photo, although he had to borrow cameras to do it. He found just the right brownstone in Harlem, set a date and time, and counted on Local 802 of the musicians' union to get the word out. All jazz musicians were invited. Since there would be no music, instruments were not required.

Arriving at the site on Tuesday, August 12, 1958 for the 10 a.m. shoot, Mr. Kane found himself alone. Not too surprising as he was early. He waited with great trepidation in hopes that his plan would work! The street was blocked off, the timing would allow the best light. Would anyone come?

"nobody here yet
it's only nine
look right
where they come from the train
look left
where they exit a taxi
where to put them all
what if only four come
or five
"The Golden Age of Jazz"
with five guys
look left
look right
a crazy request"

The poems pay careful attention to the jazz greats who are there for the photo, their clothing, some of the neighborhood children, and lead to lining up for the picture taking before opening into a foldout spread of the photo itself. The final two poems are about Alfred, one of the young boys who gathered to check out the action and became a part of the group shot. He is gazing in awe at finding himself in a magazine;  and a poem in praise of Art Kane whose brilliance made it happen.

Included and most helpful is an introduction, an author's note which includes a guide to identify those who are in the photo, short bios about each of the jazz greats, a note about Harlem 1958, source notes, a bibliography of books, articles, audiovisual materials and websites. It is a terrific read, and is sure to find favor with jazz fans everywhere.

Francis Vallejo’s acrylic-and-pastel artwork captures the people, the setting, the diverse personalities,
as well as the drama and fellowship inherent in attempting such an amazing event. It is quite the incredible debut for this very talented artist. I will look forward to what he chooses to do next.

Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths, written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Josee Masse. Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin, Random House. 2016. $21.99 ages 10 and up

here ... "
a nymph?
an echo?
Leave me,
foolish pursuer!"

I cannot, for the life of me, imagine the writing and rewriting that begins when Marilyn Singer finds herself ready to pen another book of reverso poems! This is the third time she has done it, following on the success of Mirror Mirror (2010) and Follow Follow (2013). It is a poetic form unique to this incredibly talented and accomplished writer and poet. I am in awe all over again!

If you haven't seen her other books, there are two poems side by side. The second poem reverses the lines of the first one ... exactly! The only changes come in the rules of grammar that determine what is capitalized and where punctuation is placed for the second poem to make perfect sense. Each poem is about the same story. After two books that retold classic fairy tales, Ms. Singer turns her attention to Greek mythology.

In order to write such stories, you must know a lot about the mythology itself. Then, you tell the tale from differing points of view. There are twelve poems included. They inform readers about Pandora, Arachne and Athena, King Midas and his daughter, Perseus and Medusa, Bellerophon and Pegasus, Narcissus and Echo, Pygmalion and Galatea, Theseus and Ariadne, Icarus and Daedalus, Melanion and Atalanta, Demeter and Persephone, and finally Eurydice and Orpheus.

Short summaries of the pertinent parts for each story are included at the bottom of the poetry page. They help readers new to the mythology with the gist of the tale, and provide a review for those of us who have a tough time keeping all myths clear in our minds.

"To stop the Minoans from attacking them, every nine years the Athenians were forced to send fourteen boys and girls to the labyrinth in Minos, where they were eaten by the Minotaur, a creature half bull and half man. Theseus, who was to become kind of Athens, put an end to this by killing the monster. The king's daughter, Ariadne, gave Theseus a ball of thread to help him find his way back out of the maze."

After reading the book more than once, I think that I have many of the myths finally sorted out in my head. That is some feat, after all these many years. What an introduction it provides for any classroom teacher wanting to introduce students to these timeless tales, and to the concept of varying points of view.

This third book is also the third collaboration for Ms. Singer and Josee Masse, who creates her acrylic images in blues and golds ... each of the split-down-the-middle illustrations clearly matching the two stories being told in the poetry. Their symmetry is awesome and invites careful study. 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Boy Asked the Wind, written by Barbara Nickel and illustrated by Gillian Newland. Red Deer Press, Fitzhenry & Whiteside. 2015. $19.95 ages 8 and up

"Then wildly, loudly,
Cape Doctor howled the
smog away.
For fifteen nights and
fifteen days
she cleared the air of
fumes, of haze,
of dust and smoke
from factories."

Gifted authors seem to take every opportunity that presents itself to tell a new story. Barbara Nickel's son was the inspiration for this lovely tale about the wind and where it lives:

"A boy asked the wind, "Where do you live?"
And the wind up high in the flag shivered,
the wind down low in the grass rivered
over his toes to scatter the leaves."

The wind responds by taking the boy on a journey around the world, showing him the five types of wind explored in Ms. Nickel's poetic text. She celebrates those winds, allowing her readers to see the benefits they bring and the effects of the climate and geography on the way they work. The lovely descriptions create word pictures to help readers understand the wind's many faces. There are so many lovely images created in stunning poetry.  

Each description shows the increasing power of the wind. It affects humans and animals in all five regions of the world: Canada, Nicaragua, South Africa, Iraq and Greece. It ends quietly, bringing its story full circle for the boy who initially asked the question:

"remember ...

Chinook, Papagayo, one wind,
Cape Doctor, Shamal, Zephyr, one wind
with many voices, one wind with many faces.
My home is the world."

Gillian Newland's watercolor images so beautifully embody the way the wind changes, and the varied settings for each: prairie, ocean, mountainside, desert and finally, the gentleness of the zephyr wind which returns the boy home. End notes add appreciated information about the winds, alongside a world map and a glossary.

If I Had a Gryphon, written by Vikki VanSickle and illustrated by Cale Atkinson. Tundra Books, Random House. 2016. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"If only I could have a pet
With strange, exotic powers,
I know that I'd find lots to do
To while away the hours.

If I had a unicorn,
I'd braid her silky mane.
I'd make her silver horseshoes
That tinkled in the rain."

Two books of poetic verse for the last day of National Poetry Month. It's been fun to tell you about so many wonderful books during April.  I hope you will find the time to read them to your children at home, and at school.

I read this book to a large group of early years children on Thursday. They were intrigued by all of the imaginary creatures, and eager to turn the pages in order to see which one came next.

Sam has a wonderful imagination, and thinks that any pet would be better than her rather boring hamster. He really doesn't do much ... eat, sleep, hide in the shavings in his cage. Oh, and he drools when he's sleeping, which they thought was pretty funny.

While reading a book about mythological creatures, Sam is inspired. She imagines on page after page what it might be like if her pet were a unicorn, or a hippogriff, or a sasquatch. As Sam thinks on the fun she could share with each new creature she envisions, she also considers the kind of problem she might have to deal with in their wake. Unicorns are terribly shy, hippogriffs intensely active, and a sasquatch requires a lot of grooming. Hmmm!

Perhaps a small, well-behaved hamster is just exactly what she needs, all things considered.

I very much enjoyed reading this rhythmic text, and watching the faces of the children as they met each new creature. They were entertained start to finish, and that is just exactly what we want books to do for our young listeners. I'm sure that Sam is not the first, or last, pet owner to bemoan the fact that their pet doesn't seem all that exciting. Given the other choices she considered, it really didn't matter all that much. The final spread has us all chuckling as we realized that perhaps Sam's hamster wasn't quite as boring as we were led to believe. Kids love a happy surprise to end their books.

This book is perfect for readers who love a little magic in their creatures. Cale Atkinson does a terrific job of making them come alive, in keeping with the imagination and adventure described. The images are created in 'photoshop, fairy dust and phoenix ash' ... which explains why they are so textured, colorful and filled with emotion, I would guess. They also add a great deal of humor to this rhyming tale, causing readers to take the time to check out every detail.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Pink Is For Blobfish: Discovering the World's Perfectly Pink Animals. Written by Jess Keating, with illustrations by David DeGrand. Alfred A. Knopf, Random House. 2016. $21.99 ages 9 and up

"Pink is for PINKTOE
It is very easy to spot
mysterious Antilles
in pet stores, but much harder to find them in the wild. At night, they scurry out of their funnel webs ... "

For all who think that pink denotes princess parties, cupcakes, and immeasurable cuteness, this is a book that will shatter those illusions.

The only thing that this collection of very odd, and not necessarily well-known, creatures have in common is their color - pink! Other than that, there is little to make you think they form a cohesive group.

Right from the first double page spread, readers will be astounded by the seventeen living beings that Jess Keating has chosen for her informative book. Some are highly unusual, others are little-known, and there are some that will be familiar to many. On the left side, there is a clear photograph and a repetitive heading - pink is for ... On the right, a short paragraph begins the reading:

"Bizarre BLOBFISH are made of gelatinous goo, which is less dense than water. This allows them to lazily drift through the ocean like bloated pink balloons. Blobfish don't hunt for food. Instead, when something edible floats by, they simply open their mouths and gulp it down."

A second cartoon-illustrated information blurb adds intriguing bits of text to further inform:

"Pretty in Pink?
The blobfish was recently voted the ugliest animal in the world in a poll taken by the Ugly Animal Preservation Society. Luckily, blobfish don't use mirrors, so they aren't bothered by their less-than-cute faces. As if this wasn't bad enough, another name for the blobfish is "fathead sculpin." These fish can't catch a break!"

Then, a sidebar gives pertinent other facts: species name, size, diet, habitat, predators and threats.
Vocabulary words that might prove difficult are shown in bold lettering, and then included in a glossary found in backmatter. The habitat of each is color-coded and plotted on a world map.  Finally, the author makes some worthwhile suggestions for those wanting to learn even more.

Stories from Bug Garden, written by Lisa Moser and illustrated by Gwen Millward. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2016. $22.00 ages 5 and up

"Lightning bug loved playing games:
duck, duck, goose.
He never, ever won at
but he was the all-time champion of

In a garden that seems to have been abandoned, we meet a playful group of small critters. Each one has their own story, set within and alongside light and airy illustrations. They are those creatures you would be most likely to see in a garden habitat, and little ones will love to hear what they do with their time. In fact, they might find the creatures trying to do what children themselves like to try.

For instance, the first bug we meet is the ladybug. It turns out that she doesn't really enjoy ladylike pursuits; she would rather be barefoot, make angels in the mud, and try using a blade of grass as a whistle. What kids don't like to do those things?

As we stroll, we come upon horsefly and butterfly, dragonfly, bee, roly-poly, ants both big and small, cricket, earthworm, snail, and lightning bug. Each plays a role in the garden while enjoying its beauty and the fun times to be had with the garden's many other inhabitants. Gwen Millward uses ink, pencil and watercolor to fill the verdant garden with cheery details. They provide for interested attention in the little ones who will pore over the humorous spreads.

This book is a great deal of fun to read aloud, at a time in the year when we are all patiently awaiting the warmth that will allow planting a brand new bunch of seeds, and time to wait for new plants to poke out of the ground and provide a home for the host of creatures mentioned in these dialogue-rich, poetic short stories.

"Bee sat on a lilac branch
and watched the clouds.
"Shouldn't you fly around?" asked Dragonfly.
"Shouldn't you sip nectar from flowers?" asked Lightning Bug.
"Shouldn't you make honey?" asked Horsefly.
"I don't want to do any of those things," said Bee.
"What do you want to do then?"
Bee settled back to watch the clouds.
"Just be," said Bee."

Thursday, April 28, 2016

I Like Old Clothes, written by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Patrice Barton. Random House, 2012. $18.99 ages 5 and up

"I like old clothes.
I really do.
Clothes with a history.
Clothes with a mystery.
Sweaters and shirts
That are brother-and-sistery,
Clothes that belonged to a
friend of a friend ... "

I have been looking for this book for a few years, and was happy to finally find it so that I could share it with you. I wanted it to be part of the celebration for National Poetry Month. I have always admired Mary Ann Hoberman's poetic picture books.

If you are a parent, you know that your children generally have more clothes than they need. If you are lucky enough to have friends whose children are older, you may often be the happy recipient of hand-me-downs. In many cases, they have rarely been worn and are in prime condition, if a little comfy.

If your child is anything like the little girl who narrates this poetic text, then old clothes are exactly what's needed. Her love of clothes that come from other people sets her apart from many. She loves to wear them when she dresses up for play, and also on any given day. She finds them full of comfort because they are broken in and someone else has loved them, too.  She shares her many reasons for loving old clothes with candor and care. If you are keen on recycling and reusing, it's an added bonus.

Patrice Barton's softly colored and imaginatively textured images are as comfortable as the clothes so loved by our joyous narrator. The fabrics used and carefully blurred lines enhance the warm feelings associated with spending days in old favorite duds.

Hooray for the sustainability inspired by hand-me-downs, and of old stories refashioned for a brand new audience. Lovely!

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, by Laura Shovan. Wendy Lamb Books, Random House. 2016. $21.00 ages 9 and up

"Our teacher's all dressed up
as this Emerson dude
who wrote about nature
and the things that he viewed.
He was walking in the sunshine.
He was swimming in the sea.
He was drinking up fresh air
and writing poetry.
Ralph Waldo was a poet.
Never heard of his before,
but his name's right there ... "

When the announcement is made that this year will be the last for Emerson Elementary, it is both a surprise and a shock. Yes, it is part of urban renewal for their area of the city. The school is a wreck and in need of major renovations. There are fewer children enrolled each year, and test scores are not good. Their community needs a supermarket, as they have no place to buy affordable and nutritious food for its ethnically diverse families. Solution: bulldoze the school and make way for a supermarket ... a sure sign of progress.

What about the school community? The announcement is the catalyst for Ms. Hill to announce that this year will be her last year of teaching. She has been there for a long time, and cannot imagine
teaching elsewhere. A time capsule is to be buried at the site. As they will be the last graduating class, Ms. Hill tasks her students with keeping a poetry journal through their fifth grade year to give voice to their thoughts and feelings.

Each poem, written in varied form, introduces readers to the 18 fifth graders, their opinions about the closing and many of their experiences at school, in the community and at home. We travel right along side them as they navigate the joys and sorrows of friendship, their worries for the future, the school events that make their year memorable, and the emotion as they face their final day. They will discover voices they didn't know they had, a camaraderie that comes from sharing a final year together. They will go on to middle school, they will 'move up', they will be changed.

Laura Shovan might just be a fifth grader herself, don't you think? The voices are authentic and the students are so worth knowing. They are funny, emotional, individual, honest. Yes, they struggle. They also stand together to put up a fight for their school and its future, informing themselves (with help) in how to best present their case. I like each one of them.

The author provides a 'closer look' at the persona poetry that makes up this collection, inviting her audience to be sure to read poetry. She then lists the poetic forms favored by the students, including suggestions for trying to create a poem for each. By suggesting a title from the text as model to accompany her suggestions, she invites readers to take an even closer look. A glossary is also useful.