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Monday, September 1, 2014

I Feel Five, written and illustrated by Bethanie Deeney Murguia. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $17.00 ages 4 and up

"On his fourth birthday,
Fritz Newton ate
birthday pancakes, got
his very own cape, and
picked apples for birthday

Being four was fun,
but tomorrow...
Fritz will be five!"

Do you remember being 5? It's hard for me to remember 60! Having taught kindergarten for most of my 32 years in education, I remember a great deal about five year olds. So, I know how they feel about birthdays, and especially about being FIVE!

Fritz is definitely thinking that his birthday is about to make a big difference in his life. He leaps from his bed, cape in hand and ready for anything. In truth, being 5 is no big deal. He feels a lot like he did yesterday! His parents help him celebrate with  5 pan'cakes', candles and balloons. It doesn't change much. Perhaps his birthday sneakers will be just what is needed.

Still, he can't do any of the things that he couldn't do yesterday. His teeth are still intact. The school birthday crown doesn't even work. When a new friend shows up in the park, in need of some help, it causes careful thought on Fritz's part. After helping, he thinks he might feel a shift. What a great story for kindergartners, or anyone looking for a change!

Every turn of the page invites familiar feelings for young readers. He is so happy when the calendar turns to his birthday. His smiling face, his hero cape, his leap to wakefulness. The spreads focus on Fritz as he navigates the ups and downs of his special day. Add it to your birthday book box, and celebrate along with Fritz the slow changes that affect each one of us.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Rules of Summer, written and illustrated by Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic. 2014. $19.99 all ages

"This is what I learned
last summer:

Never leave a red sock
on the clothesline.

Never eat the last olive
at a party."

If you know Shaun Tan's work, you will not be surprised to find yourself in the surreal world of two brothers thinking back on their previous summer. It is meant to be an explanation for all that was learned at that time. Yes, the lessons are curious and the illustrations that Shaun Tan has created to accompany them even more so.  This world is definitely odd, and sure to inspire much speculation from those who look at it alone, or together.

Many readers will be delighted with the rules and their counterpart artwork. Others might feel somewhat frightened by them. The boys live in a world of their own making, but that world seems familiar at the same time. In sharing some of Shaun Tan's books, readers either get it, or they don't. The more I look at the images, the more intrigued I am by all that he brings to the picture book world.

Tan's brilliantly colored acrylic and oil artwork evokes an imaginary world where kids can let their imaginations carry them to new experiences. They are puzzling, and offer no easy answers to the questions they might inspire. The rules that an older sibling voices often make no sense to the younger one. But, follow the rules they do; even if it makes them uncomfortable. Watching closely as the two navigate this game set up by the older brother gives readers a true sense of their relationship. Ultimately, the brothers experience the summer together, and with much appreciated success.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Jubilee, written by Alicia Potter and illustrated by Matt Tavares. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $19.00 ages 8 and up

"The Temple of Peace was now the biggest building in America. It was so big that people were afraid. What if it collapsed? they wondered. Some days, the talk sent Patrick straight to bed. Some nights, it kept him wide awake with worry."

Well, I've said before, and now I am saying it again. There are many, many people whose stories I do not know. Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore is just one more of them.

Thanks to Alicia Potter and Matt Tavares, and this new collaboration, I am more informed than I was yesterday. Let me tell you a bit about Mr. Gilmore. He was born in Ireland and music was his life. He played in his town's band and sang in the choir. It started in church and moved beyond church walls:

"It was wonderful! But Patrick longed to hear more notes and even bigger sounds. And he knew just how to accomplish that. He would become a bandleader."

A move to Boston, 'the country's music capital', was where his dream came true. With the onset of the Civil War and his enlistment in the army, he took his music to the troops. He became uniquely aware that music had great power to lift the spirits of his fellow soldiers. The war's end was all the inspiration he needed to do something quite wonderful: 

"Patrick would create the biggest, boldest, loudest concert the world had ever known. The music would celebrate the bravery of the soldiers! The unity of the land! The end of the war! The concert would be a peace jubilee."

Told that his idea for a five day celebration was too everything, Patrick moved forward, and even found sponsorship for the project. Planning in earnest included construction of a Temple of Peace; once it was done, Patrick could get on with the work of the jubilee itself:

"At three o'clock, one thousand musicians tuned their instruments.
Ten thousand singers took their places beneath two angels holding olive
branches - the sign of peace. The concert was about to start!'


As so often happens with books for young readers, we learn here about a relatively unknown event in a country's history. Thanks to Ms. Potter's able storytelling and Matt Tavares' watercolor, gouache, ink and pencil artwork, we are captivated audience members at this bold and raucous celebration of the sounds of music.  For those readers who attend concerts today, this is a lesson from the past that helps us to understand the joy we continue to feel when we share music today.

An author's note and bibliography add essential information.                                 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Emily's Blue Period, written by Cathleen Daly and illustrated by Lisa Brown. Raoring Brook Press, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2014. $19.99 ages 6 and up

""Do you like this?" asks Dad. It's a soft cube you can put your feet on. NO. No. "What about this?" It's a big square rug. No. Everything is pretty, but nothing looks like home. Did you know that Pablo Picasso was so poor when he moved to Paris that he couldn't buy furniture? Really? He painted furniture on his walls..."

If you are an artist, you probably know the powerful effect that working at your craft has on your mood and your daily life. Emily is filled with the sadness that envelops a child when parents make the decision to separate.

At the same time, her teacher is introducing Pablo Picasso to her students. In honor of the artist, Emily begins thinking of a name change to:

"Emily Emilia Rosita Jenny Juanita de los Alto Igor de la Eyeball Montoya Fluffy Pinchner."

When her parents separate, Emily compares their mixed-up circumstance to Picasso's art. As she and her brother help their father search for furniture for his new space, she is aware of the cubist look of all they see. None of it looks like home to Emily and her brother. Jack strongly shows his displeasure and annoyance at the changes that are coming. Emily avoids assigned art projects, telling her mother that she is emulating Picasso:

"When Pablo Picasso was very sad he only painted in shades of blue.
And now I am in my blue period."

Using pencil and watercolor, with some digital collage, Lisa Brown chooses soft colors and simple lines to help express the feelings that are so prevalent for Emily. The chapters move seamlessly from one to the next in double page spreads that are perfectly designed.  The story is told with sympathy for Emily's struggles without being overbearing or maudlin. Emily is an artist and it is art that helps her through difficult times; finally, she is able to define the family's new dynamic in her own style when a collage of her house is her new art assignment.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

If I Had a Raptor, written and illustrated by George O'Connor. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $18.00 ages 4 and up

"A baby raptor is so teensy
and tiny that she would be
easy to lose.
I'd give her a little bell
so I could always find her.


There you are!"

Aren't puppies cute? Aren't kittens precious? Aren't babies priceless? Of course, they are! Wouldn't it be wonderful if they stayed that way? Growing can result in unexpected concerns for all. Remember your three year old? Your fourteen year old? We are shown in this tale of pet ownership just how easily things can go awry.

When she spots a cardboard box offering 'free raptors', the pigtailed, jaunty little girl is joyous. A baby raptor is chosen and toted home...'all teensy and tiny and funny and fluffy.' Are you thinking what I'm thinking? An attached bell helps keep the raptor from getting itself lost; it does nothing to stop it from growing at exponential speed. As it grows, the audience watches the gleam in its green and beady eyes. What might it have in mind for its young owner?

So much of the story's enjoyment is visual. Using pencil and watercolor, and some digital tweakery, George O'Connor offers up a story of pet ownership that could have ominous repercussions if it weren't for the self-assured stance of its high-spirited young owner. She appears to have no concerns about a predator that might have ulterior motives for remaining captive. While the words tell one story, the illustrations tell another. Plenty of white space keeps us focused on the two characters, always aware of both perspectives on the joys of having a pet to love.

Being awake early in the morning has never been such fun! What a way to start the day...


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, written by Sheila Turnage. Kathy Dawson Books, Penguin. 2014. $18.99 ages 10 and up

""What was that, Dale?" I said I'll sing," Dale said. "And play my guitar if I learn it good enough. If anybody wants me to." "I do," said Sal. "Then it's settled," Miss Lana said. "This is just what we need to help us focus." "She's right," Dale told his brother. "Stress focuses you right up until it sucks your brain dry. Standardized testing taught me that."

I think that I should tell you right up front that I am eternally grateful that I read both books about Tupelo Landing this summer. In this follow-up to Three Times Lucky, I was ever thrilled to be back with these amazing characters in their quirky, lovely town.

Mo and Dale are still in charge of the Desperado Detective Agency; they don't have a lot of work. When an old inn is sold at auction to an inattentive Miss Lana, their next case presents itself in the form of a ghost. Who is she? Why is she there? Coincidentally, their homework assignment is to interview someone from the past. Extra credit will be given to whoever interviews the town's oldest member. They determine the ghost to be the subject of that homework because 'ain't nobody older than dead'. As they begin to do their research, they make some interesting discoveries and uncover a number of secrets. Those secrets must be revealed in order to solve the mystery that the ghost has put in their path.

It was wonderful to slip right back into the lives of those friends I had met so recently. Once again, I found myself savoring the writing talent of Ms. Turnage. Once again, I read with highlighter in hand and 'messed up' a novel with bright orange markings. I read the passages out loud to myself again and again, even reading them to my grown children in daily calls to Winnipeg and Victoria. They laughed with me, and indulged my enchantment with each of the wonderful characters.

Mo's voice is so strong and entirely fresh and original. Please indulge me as my kids did:

"Few people know it, but waitressing is like deep cover - with tips."

"Miss Lana's built tall and slender. I'm built more like a roller derby queen, but that could change at any minute. Puberty happens."

About the subject for their interview, their teacher suggests family as a resource. Mo is quick to let the audience know that she and Dale lack in that area:

"Dale stopped breathing. Dale and me both run short on elders. Mine live somewhere Upstream. His are mostly Up the River."

Are you willing me to stop? Okay, only one more:

"The problem with having a temper is you find out what you're going to say at the exact same minute everybody else does."

Please...just this:

"Dale always claimed two speeds for forgiving: fast or never. I suspect he's developing a new gear just for his daddy. One that grinds slow. Real slow."

You need to read this to your students and children, then put it on your 'keeper' shelf. That's where my copy is, and I will be very careful about lending it. I want to read it to my new grandbaby when he or she is old enough to hear it, and we will find wonder in it together!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

fly away, written by Patricia MacLachlan. Simon & Schuster, 2014. $18.99 ages 6 and up

"I have known for a long time that Teddy can sing perfectly in tune even thought he is not yet two. We all know he doesn't speak words yet. But only Teddy and I know that he sings. He doesn't sing the words, but sings every song with "la la la." He sings to me every night, climbing out of his bed, padding into my room in the dark."

I love the warmth and quiet charm of Patricia  MacLachlan's writing. She pens family stories that are filled with love and heart, and always leave me wanting to read them again. I think they are a perfect for reading aloud in early years classrooms as a new year begins.

Lucy and her family make an annual trek to North Dakota to pay a visit to her Aunt Frankie's farm. When a forecast flood threatens, the family sets off quickly, despite Frankie's insistence that they not come and face the danger. As they travel, we learn about Lucy's family. They love music, and they sing beautifully. Well, everyone but Lucy. Even her little brother Teddy sings (only Lucy and Teddy know that).

 “Teddy has music but no words,” says Lucy. “I have words but no music. We are a strange pair.”

Lucy has taken up her father's earlier dream of being a poet. Lucy works hard to find the words that will say all she wants to say, and prove to her father how beautiful words can really be. In fact, she hopes to show him a poem that is as beautiful as the cows he so loves.

Their arrival coincides with the dangers of a rising river and rushing water. When that danger threatens her Teddy's life, what will the family do?

What a family they are; how lucky we are to get to know them through Lucy's clear and earnest voice. The characters are honest and true, the dialogue engaging and real, the action is paced to keep readers engaged from start to finish.

This novel invites readers into a family that is pure joy. We love every minute we spend with them.  All of the family members have their own specific gifts and quirks, they communicate effortlessly with one another, and the entire book feels like you have entered someone’s home and are having a lovely visit. MacLachlan creates dialogue that feels real, but even more so she has created characters that are alive and honest on the page.

Patricia MacLachlan is, and always has been, a faultless storyteller. We are blessed to have her stories to share with our children. Her work is worthy of study and sharing in many of our classrooms and homes.