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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Let's Do Nothing! Written and illustrated by Tony Fucile. Candlewick, Random House, 2009. $19.00 ages 6 and up

"I think we've done it all. We've played every sport ever invented, painted more pictures in a day than van Gogh did in a lifetime, baked enough cookies to feed a small country, played every board game we could find, read every comic book in th-
OK, Ok. Let's stop talking for ten seconds. All right. Ten seconds of nothing."

Frankie and Sal are sure they can do nothing...and they do their best to have it happen. But, in a young boy's world, it is an impossible task they set for themselves. They try and try and try! First they are statues, then giant trees, and then the Empire State Building. Frankie is a young man with a huge imagination and each time they set themselves to 'do nothing', he cannot help but imagine pigeons landing on his immobile statuesque frame, Sal's dog peeing on the base of the his tree, or King Kong threatening him from his aerie perch.

As Frankie imagines the happenings, vibrant colors fill the pages. When things are real, it is just the boys, and backgrounds of flat blue or white space. But the boys steal the show! You know they are full of mischief from the get-go and it is easy to imagine their adventures continuing ad infinitum. As they sit in their chairs, doing their best to do nothing, you can sense the raw energy, watch the expressions and be sure that a release of that contained power is in the offing.

I love this book! It is so much fun to read, and to watch and listen to the reactions as children listen in on two boys who cannot be contained. Finally, they are off to 'do something'! We have no doubt that it will satisfy them for a bit.

Come to the Castle, written by Linda Ashman and illustrated by S. D. Schindler. Roaring Brook, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2009. $19.95 ages 10 and up

"The Cook

I have no fresh capon. No porpoise or eel.
No sumptuous roast for a memorable meal.
Still I must follow the Lady's command,
A feast in two days? I'll use what's on hand:

Gizzards and livers and kidneys and feet—
Grind it up well into mystery meat.

Bind it with egg, mix it with spice,
Throw in some currants and mustard and rice.
Drop it in stews, bake it in pies,
Roll it in balls (or some other disguise).
Toss on some flowers, gild it with gold.
Present it with antlers or feathers. Be bold!

A fine work of art to fill them with awe—
So what if it's cold, or the meat is still raw?"

The irreverent voice of the cook is clear and cantankerous concerning the tasks set for her because the Earl of Daftwood is bored and must find something to fill his time. When he announces his plans for a tournament, it is left to his staff to deal with the fallout that such an event precipitates. Each has an opinion and few are flattering.

Linda Ashman obviously did her homework when creating this collection of poems that voice the concerns of those living and working in a thirteenth century English castle. While their humorous takes on the ado has the reader laughing out loud, we also catch accurate glimpses of their life and times. Their monologues dance with rhythm and rhyme and entertain readers page after page. Their tone leaves a clear message that while a party and jousting may be fun for the Earl and his family, it wreaks havoc with those who must make all the preparations at a time when nothing was simple. The differences between classes and the living conditions of each are evident and deplorable. But, the stories are told with great wit and humor and provide a most entertaining tale.

Steve Schindler uses the text to inform his illustrations which show the same irreverence and humor. The style chosen and the decorations added to each page's opening letter will have readers poring over the details and finding further fun. The revelry costs both servants and guests and in the end, most are dead tired and glad the tournament is finally over. The Earl, however, feels the only thing to assuage his somber mood and bleak outlook might be found in hosting another tournament.

The author adds a closing note to the text, further explaining the duties and positions she has chosen to portray.

Use this entertaining and informative book with Good Masters, Sweet Ladies (Candlewick, 2008)in an introduction to a medieval studies unit. They are both unbelievably good, while calling up totally different takes on similar characters. What a grand performance they would provide following your class study! What joy to read aloud with a middle years class!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Al Capone Shines My Shoes,written by Gennifer Choldenko. Dial, Penguin Group (Canada), 2009. $22.50 ages 10 and up

"Nothing is the way it's supposed to be when you live on an island with a billion birds, a ton of bird crap, a few dozen rifles, machine guns, and automatics, and 278 of America's worst criminals - 'the cream of the criminal crop' as one of our felons likes to say. The convicts on Alcatraz are rotten to the core, crazy in the head, and as slippery as eels in axle grease."

I loved Al Capone Does My Shirts (Penguin, 2004) and I think that if you are interested in reading this even better sequel, you should read the first one first. It will give you insight into the characters, the previous action and a productive couple of hours. You won't be sorry that you took the time to read it ahead of this second adventure.

It's still 1935 on Alcatraz where Moose's father is a prison guard and Al Capone is a prisoner. Moose's sister Natalie who has special learning needs (she would now be recognized as autistic) has found a place in a alternative school, the result of Capone's help. Finally, Moose can enjoy the life of a normal twelve-year-old without worry about his beloved sister. He'll have more time to spend with his friends and family...and then he receives a note from Mr. Capone. It seems he wants something in return. A small favor perhaps, but the euphoria doesn't last. Moose realizes that he is in over his head and he is not sure what he should do. It doesn't help that Piper, the warden's daughter continues to threaten him with his father's future position at the prison.

On one of Natalie's visits home from school, she carries a smuggling tool with instructions on where to leave it. Oh, Moose knows he's in big trouble! What happened to his attempts to be the good kid and do what was right?

Life on Alcatraz has its normal moments with arguments between friends, baseball, and just living the life of a middle grader. But, it is also fraught with danger when you consider that many of its inhabitants are hardened, menacing criminals who want an escape from the routines and rigors of prison life. As Moose's world seems to spin out of control in terms of returning a favor, he is dealing with issues of friendship, girls and family.

I love knowing more about the characters and being part of the terror and excitement that results from owing Capone a favor. It is also a book about friendship and trust. Moose learns some tough lessons about being honest with himself and others. His loyalty to his sister remains admirable and he will do anything to keep her content and flourishing. The story builds to a very exciting ending where the kids are safe, but Capone remains a threat.

What fun it was to read this book as a reward for finishing the 53 books that were on our list as one of the juries for the Canadian Children's Book Centre's Best Books for Kids and Teens 2010! I recommend it highly for your own interest or to share in a middle grade classroom. You will not be sorry.

One Beetle Too Many, written by Kathryn Lasky and illustrated by Matthew Trueman. Candlewick, Random House, 2009.$20.00 ages 8 and up

"Charles was the happiest when he was out alone collecting. He especially liked to collect beetles. He found them under the bark of trees, in rotten logs, between the cracks of old stone walls, and even in puddles and ponds. Looking through his looking glass, he would wonder why the diving beetle had a smooth back and the whirligig beetle that spun in circles on the pond's surface had no grooves at all."

Such questions make for scientists, I would think. Having just read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate(Henry Holt, 2009) in a world that recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of Darwin's On The Origins of the Species, I find myself recognizing that concept and while I am not of that ilk, thank goodness there are inquisitive, analytical, perceptive and puzzled people out there.

In an interview with Kathryn Lasky about the 'evolution' of her book, she said that it had taken many years to write. Lucky we are that all of her thoughts, questions and research resulted in a book that makes Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution available to young readers. It is written in chapters and they reflect the various times in Darwin's life.

As a young boy, he was always curious, hated school and wanted nothing to do with learning about Greek and Latin. His father was furious and felt he just needed more serious study...thus, sending him to he sent him to study medicine, which Charles found disgusting. His interest in science grew and his knowledge of medicine did not. Well, then there was the clergy. His real interests led him to become friends with a botany professor who saw him for what he was...'a much better scientist than clergyman'. John Henslow encouraged Darwin to take the position of naturalist on the Beagle and the rest is history. It was while on that voyage, he saw many sights, animals and events that led him to question the origin of the species.

In asking those questions and seeking plausible answers, he reflected on what he was seeing every day of the voyage. His powerful observations had him wondering about many assumed theories and he began to develop his own. While complicated, Lasky makes his story accessible for her audience and leaves us with a brief, but close, look at the man who continued to pose questions throughout his life and who once wrote, 'I am a complete millionaire in odd and curious facts.' That is a admirable legacy to leave for future generations.

Friday, January 29, 2010

How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? Written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin, Thomas Allen, 2008. $19.95 ages 6 and up

"Many animals reproduce by laying eggs. Some try to guarantee that they will have surviving offspring by laying thousands - even millions - of eggs. Most of the eggs won't make it, but chances are at least a few will hatch. Other animals produce only a few eggs but take better care of them, sometimes in surprising ways."

Here's Steve Jenkins again...and his wife, Robin Page. It won't take you long to figure out how much I love their work. It is their abiding interest in the world that brings us these wonderful books and they fill such a niche for young, inquisitive research type children. They provide wonderful, brilliant, expressive cut-paper collages and just enough information to answer questions without overwhelming their young readers.

As each new challenge is presented to the animals documented, there is a double page spread answer that tells how different animals solve the problems that face them. This is a book that can easily be read aloud to a group of children or pored over with one or two. Each animal depicted in Jenkins' detailed collages seem ready to tell their own story...they have such character and drama. The text is short, while still being very informative and readers will be left with much new learning when they are done.

A sample of the questions asked: how many ways can you snare a fish?, and how many ways can you eat a clam? A sample of the amazing facts: 'The Mexican burrowing toad digs into the mud with its large back feet, moving in a spiral as it burrows. The toad sucks in air as it digs, inflating its body like a balloon and pushing out the mud walls of its hole.' Who would not be interested in such a thing?

As is characteristic of the books that these brilliant collaborators produce, there is an added wealth in the notes at the back of the book. There, they add other important facts gleaned from their research which they know will be of further interest to those sharing this book. They are, of course, right!

If you want to know more about Steve Jenkins and his work, check out his website.

Life in the Boreal Forest, written by Brenda Guiberson with paintings by Gennady Spirin. Groundwood, 2009. $18.95 ages 6 and up

"The bear needs a thirteen centimeter layer of body fat to survive a long winter sleep. In one frenzied day he gobbles seventy thousand berries. His droppings spread seeds that grow into new bushes."

Showing us the beauty of this unique habitat is a task that both author and illustrator accomplish in this wonderful book that pulsates with the life of the boreal forest. That forest reaches from Alaska and northern Canada to Scandanavia and Russia and boasts a short summer, a wicked winter and the unparalleled beauty of spring and autumn. Readers will lose themselves in the elegance of the finely detailed illustrations, as is evident right from the cover. Who can ignore the fight for survival portrayed there?

Each fascinating panorama(which encompass three-quarters of the double page)invite readers to reach out and touch the creatures who grace the pages. As we examine each of these creatures in their natural habitat, we also feel the power of the forest itself...abundant with nourishment and inviting in the summer and autumn, then stark and often unforgiving as snow falls and winter food becomes scarce, and then revitalized as the days lengthen and the billions of birds return, more than two hundred species.

It is a truly amazing ecosystem and Brenda Guiberson fills it with the many sounds that have a place there. She articulately provides explanations for each double page spread; thus providing the information needed for her readers to understand its complexity and importance. She includes life cycles, habits and how the food chain works to keep the forest viable. She also makes it known to her readers that the forest is becoming smaller, as human settlements push closer.

An author's note makes a plea for awareness of the dangers this natural habitat is facing and suggests what we can do to improve its chances for survival. Much of the area is in danger because of the extraction of oil, deforestation, mining, moss harvesting, and global warming. There are steps we can take to protect it, but we must act now. A list of organizations working to preserve the boreal forest is also included for further learning.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Down, Down, Down, written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin, Thomas Allen & Son, 2009. $21.50 ages 8 and up

"They may be pursuing prey, escaping danger, or sending a message to others of their kind. Whatever the reason, sea creatures sometimes leap from the water into the air. A huge shark, surging upward to grab its prey, lands with a splash that could empty a swimming pool. A small, sleek squid barely misses us as it shoots by, slipping back into the water with barely a ripple. Other creatures break the surface as well..."

I am always excited to see a new book by the talented and research-driven Steve Jenkins. I eagerly anticipate what I am going to learn whenever I choose to take a close look at his newest offerings; and I am not disappointed this time either. There is so much to learn, and I never feel overwhelmed by what he chooses to share. That is why I would love it if you and your children and students would check out his work, no matter the subject. He amazes me with his wide ranging interests and his neverending questions about animals, habitats, the world and our place in it.

In this wonderful book, he chose one subject...the ocean and he fills us with so much informaion that I was mesmerized for an hour, returning to check the depths, the colors, the text. Beginning at the surface, he shows us how the gathered information will be shared. The illustrations are up to his usual standard, using cut paper collage and brilliant color (and then diminishing color)to let intrigued readers see the life that exists at each depth. There is a text box, filled with all that 'stuff' I didn't know and didn't know I wanted to know. On the right side, he shows a measuring stick so that we can follow it from the top to the bottom of the ocean.

We move from the surface to the sunlight zone and then down, down, down to the twilight zone, the dark zone, the Abyssal plain, the hydrothermal vents and the Marianis trench. Who would have guessed...except those whose passion and perhaps vocation is the study of this wonder-filled place.

You will recognize many of the creatures depicted in the sunlight zone...near the surface the water is warm and the sun keeps it that way. This is the place where people can dive to see the life that exists for 10 metres below the surface. After that scuba equipment is needed to make a dive. He gives us access to the life that exists in the twilight zone, where only animals can live. Without light, plant life cannot survive. It is completely dark to the human eye.

And so we go down into the even murkier depths of this astonishing ecosystem. The creatures become stranger, and have adapted complicated ways of protecting themselves and of finding food. Throughout the descent the sidebar keeps us attuned to the depth we have reached, the temperature at that depth and the ocean life that can still be found there. AMAZING! Kids will constantly want to share what they are learning as they go, appreciating the artwork, the accessible information shared and the chance to explore something rarely documented.

Nothing prepared me for what I would learn in this remarkable book and while it does not encourage me to try deep sea diving, or even yearn to know more about the ocean, it has upped my knowledge about something that I thought I did know, when really I knew very little. What a spectacular place this home called Earth really is!

Troll's-Eye View, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Penguin Group (Canada), 2009. $21.00 ages 9 and up

"His name was simply Troll and he had no other. His Mother had little imagination when it came to names, or anything else. Lack of imagination is why you so seldom see Trolls today. Except on the Internet."

An interesting take on the bad ones that people folklore: trolls, witches, ogres, wolves, giants, wizards and others. The authors are well-known and such clever storytellers that you cannot help but be caught up in their retellings of some very familiar fare. There are twelve short stories and three poems and each has its own originality, presenting the rapscallion as somehow misunderstood for their behavior. I particularly liked "The Unwelcome Guest' Rapunzel, who is presented as a spoiled and obnoxious young woman who has tricked the witch in order to find refuge in her castle; and it takes some sly thinking to get rid of her.

Some of the stories are dark and haunting but there are touches of humor that will have readers chuckling as well. If, like me, you enjoy alternate tellings of familiar fairy tales, I think you will something here to like and to share with your middle graders. They will love to sit and listen, and get a feel for the 'other side' of those villains that we so love to hate.

A few left me unsettled, and I know they will be mine for longer than I would like. The humor in 'Up the Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers' made me smile often (and laugh out loud) and left me with a genuine feeling of warmth for the woman who had to deal with a cheeky visitor who demanded that she give his cow back (which was stolen by the giant) or offer a trade...perhaps a hen that laid golden eggs or a harp? Here's a snippet:

"And people do keep climbing my old beanstalk, no matter how poor Jack runs all over, warning them not to, so there's any amount of company, and I hardly ever eat out. It's princes, mostly - they don't taste any better than anyone else, no matter what you hear - and once there was this whole bunch of dwarves, the dearest little fat fellows. Perfect timing, that was, because my bridge circle was meeting over here that day. So, I stay interested, that's what's important - being interested."

Great inventive writing, causing readers and listeners to stop and think about it, and a host of stories to be shared. The variety is amazing, the writing strong and the lingering memories will take you back to it again. It's always wonderful to hear 'the other side of the story' so well known to us. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Moon Over Star, written by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Penguin Group (Canada), 2008. $20.00 ages 6 and up

In 1969,
Grandpa led the singing in church,
The light of Sunday gleaming on his silvery head.
Through the open window our voices sailed
Over Star, our town.
Then we bowed our heads and prayed for
The astronauts,
Neil Armstrong,
Edwin Aldrin, Jr.,
And Michael Collins.
If all went well
A spaceship would land on the moon today,
And I dreamed thah maybe one day,
I could go to the moon too."

When Mae’s eyes turn skyward on July 20,1969, she is harboring a dream…the same dream that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins had earlier shared. As she reveals her dream to her Grandpa, an old tired farmer, she begins to wonder about his childhood dreams. The moon has helped her grandfather do his life’s work and perhaps someday it will help her to realize her own personal aspiration. For now, she can use her imagination and all the building materials available to make the dream a reality. Lovely language and gentle watercolor illustrations provide a glimpse at history in the making.

Almost Astronauts, written by Tanya Lee Stone. Candlewick, Random House, 2009. $20.00 ages 10 and up

"It was 1961 when they took their shot at being astronauts. Back then, women weren't allowed to rent a car or take out a loan from the bank without a man's signature; they could not play on a professional sports team at all. They couldn't report the news on televsion or run in a city marathon or serve as police officers. They weren't allowed to fly jets, either. And these were just some of the bigger examples.

None of that kept these women from trying to be astronauts."

We've come a long way, baby!

Meet the 13 women who should have been real contenders for America's early space program. ALMOST ASTRONAUTS is a book that has made me aware of the fact that I had never heard of these women and their fight to find a place in what was then a man’s world. When NASA was created in 1958, there was an unspoken rule in place: astronauts must be male, and they must be white.

While these brilliant women were capable, performed unbelievably well on all tests that needed to be passed before acceptance into the program and had all the qualifications, their dreams were not fulfilled. Their passage to space was blocked by prejudice, jealousy, and a scrawled note by a powerful man.

The author brilliantly portrays the thirteen with genuine interest in their story and the events that blocked them from being in those first spaceships. They are true pioneers of the space age. It took until 1983 for Sally Ride to be the first American woman astronaut on a Challenger flight. It gets me wondering about all of the other important stories of history that I actually lived through but have, to this point, missed out on.

S is for Save the Planet, written by Brad Herzog and illustrated by Linda Holt Ayriss. Sleeping Bear, HB Fenn, 2009. $19.95 ages 6 and up

"B is for bright idea
a bulb that lasts much longer."

Using a familiar format, the author shares with his readers a gentle reminder that we are visitors on this planet we call Earth and we must take steps to ensure its future, if we want to continue to enjoy life as we know it. It is up to all of us!

Much will change over the next ten years if politicians and the earth’s people work together to make things better for all. From A to Z, we are inundated with ideas that can begin to make the changes we must make to live better lives. Take care with lights, conserve fuel, recycle, reduce, reuse…. the messages are worth repeating until we all determine to take a bigger role in protecting our home. This is one of the books in the Planet Earth alphabet set and will be useful as additional information for those seeking to make that difference.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nana's Getting Married, written by Heather Hartt-Sussman and illustrated by Georgia Graham. Tundra, 2010. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"But ever since she met Bob, everuything has changed. Now Nana does her hair differently. She gets pedicures on Friday afternoons. And instead of staying home with me on weekends, she goes out with her boyfriend, Bob."

As readers of literature for the young, we are often privy to the feelings of sibling rivalry that results when a new baby arrives, or an older brother can do something that the younger one cannot, or a younger sister gets away with something that is not acceptable for the older ones. It is not often that we share stories of a grandparent's new love and subsequent changes that result for the jealous grandchild. At least, not until now.

Nana's love for Bob is the cause of much consternation for her young grandson. Since meeting her new love, Nana has changed her hair, wears flashy clothes, takes long bubble baths and wears makeup, for goodness sake!! The young man thinks it is GROSS and he approves of none of it.

The family tries everything to make the matter more palatable, but he refuses to change his opinion. He fakes illness, is naughty, cries, whines, pouts, and makes disparaging remarks to Bob about Nana's memory, her gallstones and even her bad knee. Bob shows no concerns...he thinks she is perfect!

When Nana sits him down and asks him to be their ring bearer when she marries Bob, his first reaction is an adamant refusal. But, Nana has some news for him and much reassurance. The day of the wedding dawns clear and bright, and no one is prouder of the two newlyweds that their very elegant and assured ring bearer!

Humorous dialogue, detailed artwork and a story with a bit of a twist make this a great readaloud. I know I will be using it as I make my rounds for 'I Love to Read' visits to schools in February. There is lots of room for expression in the reading, and to encourage discussions about change, and the new order of things.

A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk, written by Deborah Ruddell and illustrated by Joan Rankin.Simon & Schuster, 2009. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"In a watery mirror
the rugged raccoon
admires his face
by the light of the moon:
the mysterious mask,
the whiskers beneath,
the sliver of cricket
still stuck in his teeth."

I so admired Deborah Ruddell's first book of poetry, Today at the Bluebird Cafe (Simon & Schuster, 2007) that I was really eager to read this second book. Would I be disappointed? Could she possibly do as well as that first time? I am not disappointed! She has created a new and wonderful cache of poems about the forest. There are twenty-two of them and they are timed to reflect the passing of a year in that ecosystem...they begin in spring and end when it seems that winter may be bidding its final farewell. The animals of the forest are the focus, even while she is describing the vegetation and environs.

She is a master at choosing just the right word to make her rhyming verses appealing and entertaining, while informative. Humor is at the heart of much of this astute collection. I particularly love, and have often shared, the turkey's lament about our use of his personage for Thanksgiving art.

"My head is quite distinguished
and it's nothing like your thumb."

That is just a taste. It really is a riot to share in classrooms and with students who regularly employ the hand method for creating this poor, beleaguered creature.
Her word choice is impeccable and rhythmic. So much to share and such a welcome talent to the poets who are writing remarkable work for our students and children to enjoy.

Joan Rankin's watercolors give life to the creatures described and turn the forest into an endlessly interesting place to be. The textures are intriguing, and the brighter colors a perfect match to the muted backgrounds. While we are conscious that the focus of this collection is the forest, we are also clearly aware of those animals who make it their home. Readers will feel an immediate empathy as they note the expressions and postures of each woodland creature, from the turtle in sunglasses to the closely observed green tiger beetle.

If a pattern is established, we might have to wait until 2011 for her next wonderful collection. I know, now, that it will be worth that wait!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Posy, written by Linda Newbery and illustrated by Catherine Rayner. Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, 2008. $19.99 ages 2 and up

"She's a whiskers wiper, crayon swiper. Playful wrangler, knitting tangler. Spider catcher, sofa scratcher."

Even if you don't love kittens, you will love Posy. I promise you that! She is a striped ball of fur, who happily goes about her day doing what kittens are meant to do. At least, I think that's right. I have never had a kitten, never wanted one and still think my position holds. But, too much time spent with Posy could turn the most adamant stance to melted butter.

Her day begins with getting cleaned up and ready, and she moves on to partake of any feline fun she can imagine. She tangles herself in a pink ball of wool, sharpens her claws on the sofa's surface and then heads outdoors to see what trouble awaits. A chance encounter with another kitten results in spitting, squabbling and eventual peace. Her adventures inside and out show her inquisitive nature, her playfulness and even her fear of something larger and more assertive. Her happy return to hearth and home bring cuddles, reconnections and finally, sleep. It's been that kind of day!

The rhyming text, the brilliant illstrations bring Posy to glorious life as we share her day, her dreams, and her dilemmas. It's short and captivating, and will bring great joy to those who love the playfulness of kittens. It is as if Posy lives on these pages, with lots of white space surrounding her and lots of opportunity to explore her world. Lest you think it is a story only for the very young, please know that it provides a great lesson in perfect word choice and lets its readers experience the rhythms and rhymes of our beautiful language.

Nasreen's Secret School, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. Beach Lane, Simon & Schuster, 2009. $21.99 ages 6 and up

"Poor Nasreen sat at home all day,
because girls are forbidden to attend school.
The Taliban soldiers don't want girls to learn about the world,
the way Nasreen's mama and I learned
when we were girls."

Jeanette Winter begins with an 'author's note' that tells readers of her journey to its publication. The story of Nasreen was shared by one of the founders of the secret schools that were established in Afghanistan while the Taliban held power. At that time girls were not allowed to go to school and women weren't allowed to work outside the home, leave home without a male chaperone, and had to wear a burqa that covered their entire body, but for their eyes. So many things were lost in a child's life, including family.

Nasreen's story is told by her grandmother, a woman who defied the ruling Taliban and showed great courage to make her granddaughter's life better. She did so in the face of great danger to herself.

Nasreen's parents are both missing and she lives in sadness and silence, awaiting their return. Her grandmother is very worried about her and decides that Nasreen should attend a secret school for girls. Taking a great risk, she hurries her granddaughter through the lanes to a green gate where Nasreen is made welcome. Her silence remains, and while threats are made to the learning being done, the girls continue to learn about the world beyond the gate. Nasreen needs nothing. She is unresponsive and alone. When winter brings a long break from school, Grandmother and Nasreen continue the vigil for their family. Once school resumes another student, Mina, is brave enough to tell Nasreen that she has missed her. It is just what Nasreen needs to break her silence. In doing so, she shares her story and her deep sadness with her new friend. It is a marked change in the young girl. She begins to learn to read, write and do math this knowledge sustains her. Her abiding interest in this new world gives her grandmother strength to move forward, with a sense of certainty that soldiers will never be able to take away what Nasreen has gained while attending the 'secret school'.

Books like this one make us part of the world community, giving us an opportunity to know how other children live. It invites open discussion about war and how it affects children, how it changes their lives and how it causes people to be even more courageous in the face of such adversity. It shows us the resilience of the human spirit and informs our hearts and minds.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Hog Prince, written by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and illustrated by Jason Wolff. Dutton, Penguin Group (Canada), 2009. $20.00 ages 5 and up

"'Why?' Petunia would snort. 'We already live high on the hog.' But Eldon didn't think so. He was fed up with mud-wallowing and slop-gobbling. Instead, he dreamed of the princely life. After all, he thought, princes live in luxury and they always get the girl. What's not to like about that?"

Eldon does, indeed, have high aspirations and as he daily watches the glittering carriages pass his mudhole, he dreams of being a prince. When an inept and somewhat confused fairy godmother announces that he has been under a spell, he discovers that his escape from this tiresome tedium is dependent on a kiss from his true love.
Delighted and optimistic, Eldon kisses every beautiful lady he lays his eyes on, while Petunia (his best friend) follows in his wake. Petunia is offended by his behavior and when she finally lands a kiss on Eldon's portly cheek, she has something to say that needs to be said: 'you just don't get it, do you?' The kiss changes nothing.

As in other alternate tellings of a fairy tale, there is something amiss. We are soon to discover that the fairy godmother's message was meant for a frog (we knew that, didn't we?) and Eldon remains a porker. But he is a porker loved by Petunia and finally aware that he might have a good thing going here. The two seem happy with their new reality.

Petunia is persistent, patient and personable as she outsmarts the object of her affection. Eldon is egocentric, eager and finally enchanted by the turn of events when he discovers that his best friend is his best 'girl'. Both are endearing and humorous. The cartoon-like artwork adds to the appeal, giving us strong textures and charming twists for out visual enjoyment. Familiar fairy tale characters, the 'eeeuww' of the porcine kisses and the subsequent happy ending will make this a memorable and enjoyable read in an early years classroom, or at home.

How to Scatch a Wombat, written by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whatley. Clarion, Thomas Allen, 2009. $19.95 ages 8 and up

"I've studied wombats, tracking them through the bush, watching and keeping notes, slowly becoming a 'wombat expert', adding to the knowledge of these fascinating creatures. Over the years I've worked out ways that farmers and gardeners can grow vegetables, fruits, and flowers and coexist with Australian wildlife like wallabies and wombats without fencing them out or killing them."

The lesson I have learned in reading this superb nonfiction text is this: if you want to know about something you have no knowledge of, ask someone who has a great affection for it. In this case, ask Jackie French any question you can conjure about wombats, and she will regale you with anecdote after anecdote about her life with them on her farm and in the wilds of New South Wales. Her love for wombats began with a visitor named Smudge and has never ended. In her first book about them, Diary of a Wombat (Harper, 2002), the little beast showed us what power she could evoke when determination and stamina were hers...finally, making the humans adhere to her needs and temperament. What followed for author French was a plethora of inquiries from her readers wanting to know more about the species that few of us have ever seen. Years of observation and interest (thirty years and forty-eight wombats and counting) led her to put pen to paper again and to share with us 'all things wombat'. This book will answer most basic questions and add countless stories about little known creature. She includes a glossary of 'words to know' that is most helpful as we delve into her well-written chronicle.

Bruce Whatley adds to the allure with his illustrations that include realistic renderings alongside his cartoon-like drawings which show the rotund, furry and very likeable creatures as they go about living...their burrows, their ancestors, their babies and their food fetishes.

What a wonderful readaloud this would be to introduce your students to the scientific inquiry process that Jackie French used in order to learn all she wanted to know about these amazing creatures. She is a superb writer and we have the opportunity to share her enthusiasm, her observational skills and her patient determination to become an 'expert'. This is a winning work, fact-filled and never sluggish. Readers will move from one story to the next with interest and zest, always wanting to hear and to know more!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Diamond Willow, written by Helen Frost. Farrar, Douglas & McIntyre, 2008, $18.50 ages 12 and up

It's impossible to do justice to the beauty of design in this poetic story. So, I will not include a quote from it; but, I will strongly urge you to see if you can find a copy so that you, too, can enjoy the beauty of the land, the young woman, and especially the superbly chosen language used to tell it.

A young girl who loves her family, her dogs and her life in Alaska seeks solace in her Athabascan roots in a quest to find her place in the world. Willow loves to run the dogs with her father and at twelve, she thinks she is old enough to take to the trails and make the trip to her grandparents on her own. After much pleading she gets her wish. You know that all will not go well. Along the way as we hear the voices of her ancestors watching over her, we learn Willow’s story.

Told in free verse, with each entry shaped like a diamond and containing a bolded message for the reader, we are sled riders when Willow’s adventure turns tragic and frightening. Help comes from surprising places and while Willow thinks she is more interested in blending in than sticking out, she finds inspiration in the discoveries that she makes on her journey to being her best self.

Orangutan Tongs, written and illustrated by Jon Agee. Hyperion, HB Fenn, 2009. $20.99 ages 5 and up

"Should you shove a surly soldier
In the surly soldier’s shoulder,
The surly soldier surely will turn red."

It’s amazing how tough it can be to read aloud some of these tongue tanglers! They are so much fun and worth the work! You are sure to hear kids chanting their favorites when they finally acheive success and get them right. Then, have them read the poems as a team to see how well they do with that challenge. I find that whenever I try to share these poems, I experience trouble...even reading the words directly from text has my brain going the wrong way. That is a great part of the fun...and committing them to my memory bank is a seemingly impossible or improbable feat.

Jon Agee's watercolor artwork adds to the fun created in this wonderful book. He fills the pages with playful visual images that match the tone and text of the tongue twisters shared.

Now try this:

"A dodo'll dawdle, a dodo'll diddle,
A dodo'll doodle a doodle or two.
A dodo'll yodel, a dodo'll coo.
But that's about all that a dodo'll do."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Nic Bishop's Butterflies and Moths, written and with photographs by Nic Bishop. Scholastic, 2009. $19.99 ages 8 and up

"A creature so beautiful should belong in a fairy tale. But butterflies are real. They dance through the woods and glide over fields. You can see them in parks and backyards. And they always catch your attention."

Oh, that Nic Bishop! He never ceases to amaze with his outstanding attention to detail in nonfiction reading for the young. He is dedicated to his craft and has garnered amazing knowledge in his own searches for information to share with his audience. If you have been fortunate enough to see his other books, you will recognize the elements of this worthwhile work. The text is accessible and the presentation is familiar. He includes basic details such as habitat, migration, food, and life cycle. He adds those characteristics that make butterflies and moths unique, and gives space to metamorphosis and camouflage.

For me it is always the brilliant, and often breathtaking, photographs that give a close-up look at the real beauty of the species. He uses professional techniques to allow his readers perspective and authenticity. His afterwords give us a glimpse at the dedication that makes him a master of the genre. He waited long years and took a quickly arranged trip to Costa Rica to photograph a rare caterpillar with special abilities. There is rich information here and the images are glorious, with captions that offer explanation for the photos taken.

The afterword is always fascinating, an index and glossary are helpful and the sense of awe this book inspires is so worth your time and attention. Check out any book that has Nic Bishop's name on it. You will not be disappointed!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Tushy Book, written by Fran Manushkin and illustrated by Tracy Dockray. Feiwel, HB Fenn, 2009. $18.99 ages 3 and up

"Sitting down would NOT be cushy
if you didn't have your tushy!"

Oh boy, what fun with rhyme this book will homage to the 'tush' which will have kids rolling their eyes, covering their mouths and laughing time and time again. As you must know we are blessed to boast a tush...I mean, how else would we keep our underwear up?

Just the mention of the word 'tush' will send some into gales of laughter as books about anatomy often do. When they join in the reading, you can bet the first word they will recognize (it's written so many times) is TUSHY! Just repeating it will create hilarity. There are so many variations on the word that kids will remain interested throughout. Try reading it with a class of young kids, and you may not be able to finish. The text gives licence to 'voice' the narrator with small groups, your young children, your grandchildren.

It is all so endearing that even those aghast at such language in books for the young will find it hard to resist. The illustrations are filled with images of animals, people and 'bums', all of which offer opportunities for talk. It isn't a bedtime story so don't be tempted to share it when you are wanting youngsters to settle. Rather, be prepared for plenty of action and repeated readings. What fun!

Tsunami! Written by Kimiko Kajikawa and illustrated by Ed Young. Philomel, Penguin Group (Canada), 2009. $18.50 ages 6 and up

"Long ago in Japan, there was a wise old rice farmer who lived near the sea. The people in the village called him Ojiisan, which means "grandfather". Even though Ojiisan was the wealthiest person in the village, he lived a simple life."

The respect that the villagers have for Ojiisan is evident in the number of long uphill treks they make to seek his wise advice. When the rice harvest is to be celebrated he does not want to go; he has a feeling that all is not as it should be. He and his grandson, Tada, stay home. As they watch the villagers, Ojiisan feels a tremor in the earth beneath his feet. When it passes, he remains does not feel like others he has experienced. As he watches the sea, it begins to move out from the land and Ojiisan knows what that means. He has learned about the monster wave at his grandfather's knee. A tsunami!

He knows that they must warn the villagers who are celebrating in high style on the beach. He purposely sets fire to his rice fields. The fire is spotted and the celebrants run from the edge of the sea to help douse the horrible inferno. His ploy works...the villagers are safe above the sandy beach where the tsunami is about to wield its power. As the wave crashes onto land they watch in horror as their entire village disappears. Thankfully, all the villagers are safe with Ojiisan and Tada. As they rebuild their village and their lives, they never forget Ojiisan's actions and sacrifice.

The illustrations are mixed media collage and reminiscent of much of Ed Young's earlier artwork. He helps to tell this powerful story with action and drama in the pieces he creates. I particularly like the bird's eye view of the village after the tsunami has crashed ashore. There is so much destruction and chaos in the elements shown. The quiet peace of the night sky assures the reader that the storm has passed and all will be right at some point.

With the Haitian earthquake so much on our minds, it has led students and their teachers to discuss other disasters of the near past, including the Asian tsunami five years ago and the hurricane in New Orleans. They are stories that remain with us as we move forward, and remind us of the earth's infinite power.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Egg Drop, written and illustrated by Mini Grey. Knopf, Random House, 2002. $18.99 ages 4 and up

"The Egg was young.
It didn't know much.
We tried to tell it,
but of course it didn't listen.

If only it had waited."

Things can't be good!

The only thing this egg wants to do is to fly. It surrounds itself with a kite, a helicopter, feathers, balloons, a toy plane, a wind-up duck and loves to spend hours watching anything that can fly. Using all of its imaginative powers, it dreams of ways to make its most burning wish come true. But, it is young and naive to the ways of the world, and especially to the principles of aerodynamics. It did know one had to start high! So,up he goes. When he finally launches himself into space and revels in the feeling of freedom, he is ecstatic. He's certain that he has achieved flight...not so, I'm afraid. While he is moving through space, it is in a downward plunge and soon he is scrambled on the ground. Any attempts to 'doctor' him are futile; but he provides a great breakfast!

There is foreshadowing as we see in the above quote; thus, listeners are not too surprised to learn the Egg's fate. You will love sharing the illustrations as you go, noting the fun and irreverence that Mini Grey adds in her double-page spreads which are filled with varying perspectives, and a full of detail chronicle of the events here noted. When you are finished be sure to take a quick look at the endpapers, front and back, for another quiet chuckle.

Hugging Hour, written and illustrated by Aileen Leijten. Philomel, Penguin Group (Canada), 2009. $17.50 ages 4 and up

"Drool loved her grandma, but she missed her mom and dad. 'Do you know what time it is, dearie?' Grandma asked. Drool shook her head. 'It's three o'clock, and that means it's hugging hour!' Grandma and Drool hugged for one whole hour."

Poor Drool...she's feeling lost and alone when her parents leave her at Grandma's for a sleepover. She likes 'hugging hour', and playing with the house chicken, and the delicious dinner that Grandma provides. But, she is still anxious and missing what's normal in her young life. Grandma is a master at diverting Drool's attention to 'other things' when her granddaughter seems reluctant to spend the night. They share a bedtime story and Drool is tucked in, only to share her concerns with the sleeping chicken, who appears to be paying no mind to her worries.

Upon awakening to delicious smells wafting from the kitchen, Drool enjoys a pancake breakfast and wonders if Grandma might like to play dress-up. Grandma is busy knitting the longest Christmas sock imaginable for her beloved granddaughter. Poor Kip, the chicken....dressing up doesn't seem to be his favorite pastime. Then, it's hide-and-seek and Kip can't be found. In tears, Drool is sure he has disappeared, just as her parents have done. Grandma finds another focus...cupcakes! Before they know it, the doorbell rings and the wayward parents appear magically at the door. Drool is delighted, but eager for her next sleepover.

This would be a great book to use with Ira Sleeps Over (Houghton Mifflin, 1975)or Ben Over Night (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2003). Sleepovers can be traumatic for little ones who suffer homesickness...all three are reassuring and helpful.

A Foot in the Mouth selected by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka. Candlewick, Random House, 2009. $20.00 ages 10 and up

"My favorite poems
hold a wooden spoon of words
and whisper:

These are poems that beg to be read aloud…as all poetry should be read! Paul Janeczko has chosen 38 poems to share with his readers; they are all about the way words sound when spoken. The choices are many and varied….poems for one voice, or two, three or a chorus. The difficulty will come in choosing which one to learn, to share and to keep in your heart forever. There are ten sections and they include 'Tongue Twisters', 'Bilingual Poems', and are quite different from the two previous books that author and artist have produced which looked at patterns and forms in poetry. Chris Raschka honors the poem’s speaker in his accompanying illustrations; there is a lone dog, a young, very confident basketball player and even a Loch Ness monster. Each adds to the wealth of this fine collection.

The three books in this fine group would add depth and variety to a poetry unit, and give pause to think about which could be included as performance pieces. Watch for A Poke in the Eye (Candlewick, 2001) and A Kick in the Head (Candlewick, 2005).

Chicken Cheeks, written by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Simon & Schuster, 2009. $18.99 ages 3 and up

"This is a story with a beginning, a middle and a whole lot of ends."

On the title page we see a bear on a stepladder, looking up. A duck floats on an adjacent pond watching him. The duck comes ashore, while a mooose with a mouthful of weeds appears and two ants begin the upward ascent on the legs of the ladder. As the bear boosts the duck, we get a glimpse of a 'duck tail'. When the moose joins the chain, it's a 'moose caboose' and we get a sneak peek of a chicken steathily making its approach...hence, the 'chicken cheeks'. As the vertical tower grows, so does the list of names for the back ends of those involved...all are set to grab the honey in the hive at the top of the tree. When a frantic bumblebee shows its 'bum' in an effort to stem the flow of thieves, the whole tower crashes and all comes to an 'end'!

Another bum book for kids to love! The illustrations are so much fun, and really help to drive the plot as the zany cast of characters display their butts for all to see. The colors are bright, the expressions crazed and the perpendicular illustration gives young readers the real story. If you've been watching the ants as they played their part in the shenanigans, you will note that they are the real victors as the story winds down. The back cover boasts the skewed adage...'the end is rear.'

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eat it Up! Recipes by Elisabeth de Mariaffi. Owl Kids, Raincoast, 2009. $22.95 ages 5 and up (with help)

"To celebrate chickaDEE Magazine's 30th birthday, we've updated our one-of-a-kind cookbook. It's full of even more healthy and DEElicious recipes, specially designed to make cooking fun and creative."

This book has what kids who want to be cooks need: a robust cover, spiral binding that will keep the pages open and flat when they are following the delicious recipes included, safety advice, a description of cooking equipment and oft-used terms, a table of contents so they can find their favorites quickly, and an index. I haven't even mentioned the more than fifty yummy recipes that they might like to try. With some help and the clear, easy to follow instructions, enticing aromas will soon waft from the kitchen. We begin with the meal that no one should skip...breakfast. After an early morning wake-me-up, we move on to snacks, meals, party foods, desserts and finally, gifts from the kitchen. An allergy legend is shown and used, to keep young noshers healthy while well fed.

Full meals are described as well as theme parties, both having all the recipes needing to be prepared. Tip boxes add needed information for changing a recipe and there are how-tos to encourage chopstick use, time management, and tricks of the trade.

There are many tasty and tantalizing recipes here that are simple to make, delicious to eat and healthy...a winning combination.

Cook It Together, written by Annabel Karmel. DK, Tourmaline Editions, 2009. $14.99 ages 4 and up

"Take 10 top ingredients: tomatoes, corn, potatoes, rice, bananas, strawberries, apples, honey, chocolate, yogurt. Find out how they are grown or made, then turn them into fantastic meals!"

Herbs and spices are the perfect way to add even more flavor to the delicious recipes described here. Try cinnamon, vanilla, paprika, black pepper, ground ginger, root ginger, thyme, mint, dill, lemon grass, basil, chives, cilantro and parsley. MMM! Good!

I have tried several of these recipes. Yes, they are simple enough to be done with your children or grandchildren; but, they are wonderful fare for adults and their guests as well. There are ten sections to match the top ten ingredients, and at least two recipes for each. An opening top-of-the-page introduction gives information about the food, with clear and captioned photos to help with the understanding. The recipes follow and are well documented with numbered steps and more photos to give visuals of the whole process.

A table of contents, sidebars that include tips, and an index help readers to return to favorites. I am sure you will find many. Fun and nutritious recipes for pleasing meals, and creating them is such a great way to spend time with the kids in your life.

EAT THIS! NOT THAT! for Kids! by David Zinczenko. Rodale, HB Fenn, 2008. $21.95 ages 12 and up

"One of the biggest mistakes we make when we think about 'watching our weight' is to assume that our first goal is to eat less. In fact, what we really need to concentrate on is eating more - not more food or calories, but more nutrients. Because while our consumption of calories is way up, our consumption of essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and fiber, is actually down. That's right. We're eating more food, but we're eating less nutrition."

The author then goes on to give us 8 simple rules that give our kids a chance to expand their palette and improve their present and future health:

1. Never skip breakfast. Ever.
2. Snack with purpose.
3. Beware of portion distortion.
4. Drink responsibly.
5 Eat more whole foods and fewer science experiments.
6. Set the table.
7. Kick the sugar habit.
8. Eat the rainbow.

Pretty easy, but it takes some relearning. This book is filled with powerful information and scary, too. Yes, it is written by an American with American statistics; but we cannot poopoo the advice given as we are not doing so well ourselves in Canada. Note the rise in childhood obesity in the past twenty didn't just happen. There are many reasons and David Zinczenko discusses them. Then, he goes on to look at the foods that we order and consume in restaurants and from grocery stores. His suggestions are based on nutrition and calorie counts and he shares some astounding facts about those comparisons. ('The Baskin Robbins Heath Shake has 73 ingredients - and, by the way, a whopping 3,210 calories and more than three days' worth of saturated fat!')

Once he looks at restaurants (many we have in Canada), and helps us make healthier choices when we are eating out, he continues with a menu decoder that helps each of choose more healthy options. When he's done with that, he leads us to the grocery store and provides tips on all those foods that so entice us. Three of the best pieces of advice for me were to stick to the edge where most of the 'real' food is, buy fruits frozen if they are not in season, and snack BEFORE shopping. You know what happens when you stop to pick up something on your way home from are tired, hungry and not inclined to spend the time needed to make the best choices.

Finally, he gives his readers ideas for family and holiday meals, a candy scorecard, suggestions for nutrition filled smoothies, and encouragement to make fitness a part of your child's life. There is much to think about, and many changes that are pretty easy to make!

Monday, January 18, 2010

That Book Woman, written by Heather Henson and illustrated by David Small. Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, 2008. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"And I can bring the cow home too
come evening-time,
which is right handy,
seeing as how
my sister Lark
would keep her nose
a-twixt the pages of a book
daybreak to dusky dark
if Mama would allow.
The readenest child
you ever did see -
that's what Pap says."

Cal and Lark live far from civilization, way up in the hills. Cal helps with chores and has no interest in what his book-learned sister wants to teach him. He wasn't born to sit still and fill his head with the nonsense that books provide. Lark's head is in a book when the woman rides up on the sorrel mare. When they have finished their tea, the woman opens her saddle bags and out spill books to make Lark's eyes sparkle. Cal gets no pleasure from the visit, and scoffs at the thought that the woman has travelled so far to sell books to folks who have no money. He is aghast when his father offers to trade berries that Cal has picked for a book for Lark. They are in for quite the surprise. The woman will not take the berries...and she leaves books just the same. They are free and she will be back in two weeks to swap for more! She comes back again and again...braving much bad weather. Cal is impressed with the bravery of horse...and rider. He wonders what drives a person to do what she does. With those thoughts in mind, Cal seeks help from his younger sister and she is pleased to provide it. By the time spring arrives there are TWO readers in the house. Cal would like to offer a gift...and he does. It is gift enough!

In the 1930s in the hills of Kentucky book women made biweekly treks to the remote regions to make sure that the children of Appalachia, who had few schools and no libraries, knew the joy to be had in the written word. They took great pride in the work they did and were paid little to do it.

I have often read picture books to children and adults without sharing the illustrations that accompany the story. This book has colloquial language that endears Cal to its readers and the story stands on its own merit for being well-told. But, you would miss much if you did not get a chance to see the wonderful watercolors done by David Small. He brings the Appalachian region to full life, makes us shiver in the deep cold of the winter, and gives us a family of warm, loving people who appreciate and welcome the visits of the 'book woman'. I absolutely love the final double page spread that ends this inspiring book, and would love to hang it on one of my walls!

My Librarian Is a Camel, written by Margriet Ruurs. Boyds Mills, Publishers Group Canada, 2005. $22.00 ages 8 and up

"I was thrilled to learn how far people would go to put books into the hands of young readers. I began to contact librarians in faraway places. They responded by sharing information, personal stories and photos of their mobile libraries and of the young people who use them. Over time, I assembled a scrapbook of mobile libraries from all over the world."

Margriet Ruurs begins in Australia and ends in Zimbabwe in her world tour of libraries and the many forms they take. She gives us uplifting short peeks at the ways people find to get books into the hands of kids. In Australia, there are seventy-two mobile libraries that cover the whole continent to make sure that children who can't get to a city library still have access to books. One such truck sports a high tech facility which uses solar power to run six computers and a printer. It also has air conditioning, surround sound, spotlights, a wheelchair ramp, and other amenities for those who use it. In Nunavut a Borrower-by-Mail system is used by the government's public library system to send books to those requesting them. Children pay nothing to get the books, or to return them. In Finland a book boat brings six hundred books to the rocky islands of the south coast. It makes ten stops each time from May through October.

Fascinating photos accompany the author's text and she includes a map to show the country of interest, their flag and information about the nation and its people and languages. The photos show clearly the many ways that people have devised to ensure that children get books and the learning that comes with them. Camels, sleds, wheelbarrows, bicycles, wagons, double decker buses...if it moves it might find use as a deliverer of books to children who love them. Readers will be surprised to learn what this book has to tell us about libraries, and the many forms they take.

A world map, at the beginning, places each country mentioned, and is useful.

Library Mouse, written and illustrated by Daniel Kirk. Scholastic, 2007. $20.95 ages 5 and up

"Every day, when the library was full of people walking up and down the aisles, studying, checking out books, and working on the computers, Sam was curled up in his little hole, sound asleep. Every night, when the people went home and the room was dark and quiet, the library belonged to Sam."

And so it is that we meet Sam, the mouse who is a bonafide library afficianado. Sam loves to read, and read, and read. What better place for a wee mouse to live and discover others times, people and places! Once he has filled his head with the words of fine writers, he thinks he might try writing his own story. Books filled with advice, and good models for writing and illustrating that story have nourished him through long quiet evenings and nights. With the idea established and the story written, he stands in front of a mirror and uses himself as the model for the illustrations in a story about Sam...who knows him better? Once his first book is completed he finds a place for it in the biography/autobiography section of 'his' library. A little girl discovers it and shows it to a librarian who shares it with the others. Sam is delighted and on his way to penning a picture book, next on his list. It, too, is found and brought to the attention of the librarians. No one knows this author, and they are intrigued.

With nonfiction and a picture book under his belt, Sam considers mystery as his next genre. A similar discovery of this third tale leads to a note from the library staff asking Sam to be a guest author, to share some of his writing secrets. Sam is shy, as mice are. He finds a solution to his dilemma and young readers will be delighted to see what it is. If you are looking to get children interested in writing their own stories, this is a great book to use. They will find a mentor mouse who has confidence that he can tell stories others want to hear, with wide ranging interests and ways to share them.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Boo Hoo Bird, written and illustrated by Jeremy Tankard. Scholastic, 2009. $16.99 ages 3 and up

"Bird and Raccoon were enjoying a game of catch, when Bird got bonked on the head."

And what a commotion results! Bird is hurt and he starts to cry. Raccoon is distraught that he has hurt his friend and does what he can to help. But, it's not enough. Together, they search out Rabbit, who offers hugs and sympathy but that doesn't do the trick. Off to find Beaver. Beaver is picnicking and offers a cookie. No help and by now, Bird is getting dizzy. Sheep tries to distract Bird from his hurt and is maligned for doing so by Bird who can now HARDLY WALK. Fox is wily; perhaps he's got the solution. The suggestion is made by Fox that a bandaid might be just the ticket and he's off to find one. But, Bird is still upset and crying!

When all his friends start to cry because they have not be able to appease his hurt, Bird is astonished. He is worried about his friends and searches for the bonk, which he can no longer feel. When he reassures them that he is OK, they can't hear him for all the caterwauling. Finally getting his point across, he does a headstand to prove his good health. Of course, everyone follows his lead; and then Bird suggests that they play CATCH! Oh, oh!!!

I'm Your Bus! Written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Evan Polenghi. Scholastic, 2009. $21.99 ages 5 and up

"Howdy, you can count on us.
Morning, evening, I'm your bus.
Sweepers sweeping, bakers baking.
Dawn is barely even breaking.
Time for buses to be waking!"

If you have ever found yourself wondering about the day in the life of a school bus, wonder no more! Marilyn Singer has written a wonderful account of just that. Each bus seems dewy-eyed to be charged with picking up, and transporting its children to the safety of their schools. As the buses make their way along the streets they stick to the rules of the road and arrive at their destination with a smile and a sign that encourages their charges to have a nice day. Once the children have disembarked, it is up to the buses to keep everything left behind safe until the return trip. Generally, they spend quiet hours anxiously anticipating that end of the day trip. They love that the kids depend on them for friendly, safe service, day in and day out. When the day is done the buses return to the compound to get the sleep needed for the next day's work.

What fun this book is...for those who ride the bus and those who don't! It's a great readaloud and a perfect book for young readers wanting to hear rhyming language, repetitive text and look at fun-filled illustrations.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Keesha's House, written by Helen Frost. Farrar, Douglas & McIntyre, 2003. $9.50 ages 14 and up

"I sleep in my sleeping bag in a room
with a lock in the basement of the place
on Jackson Street. And I feel safe.
If Keesha wants to talk to me, she knocks
first, and if I want to let her in, I do.
If I don't, I don't. It's my choice."

Keesha is just one of the seven troubled teens who find safety and solace in Keesha's house. Actually the house belongs to Joe, an older man whose own troubled past was assuaged by a loving relative. With her death Joe inherited the house and has given it over to Keesha, who provides a place for those who need it. She is a teen herself, but holding her life together after leaving a home filled with drinking, death, physical abuse and hopelessness. She is mature, forthright and 'never going to live like that'. Keesha provides friendship, support and does not judge. Visitors can stay for a night or a extended time, whatever they need. Other teens find their way to her house, in an attempt to deal with the problems plaguing them.

Jen is pregnant, afraid to tell her parents and wondering if her boyfriend will support her and their baby. Jason, the father, is an up and coming sports star with his sights set on college, not teen parenthood. Harris discloses that he is gay, and has been kicked out of the house by his father. Dontay's parents are in jail and he has been moved from one foster home to another. Katie fears the sexual advances of her stepfather, and Carmen is struggling with alcoholism.

Are you thinking teen soap opera? too many issues?

That is not the case. Helen Frost, in her first novel, explores in poetic forms (sestina, sonnet) the anguished lives of these teens; yet, she gives them clear,
and poignant life through her so skillfully chosen words. They are young people worthy of our admiration and hope for their futures. We also hear from the adults in their lives...teachers, parents, grandparents, foster parents, and Joe. The voices are so authentic.

I love that there are more writers using the 'novel in verse' as a way to tell their tales. They make exceptional stories more accessible to those readers reluctant to read longer novels, and they show us that the power for telling them comes from the heart, no matter the form. Every new book I read from Helen Frost leads me to find another. We are blessed to have such amazing people telling powerful stories for a young adult audience, and for everyone else who wants to read a heartfelt, hopeful book.

"There's light ahead of me as I walk on
into my senior year. I wasn't sure
about going back, but Katie said, If you're
about to quit, The Jerks will think they won.

She calls them that -The Jerks- like Dontay calls me son
when he gives me fake advice: Stay pure,
son, in thought word and deed. We'll find a cure
for you someday.
I laugh. It's all in fun.
If people we're supposed to count on can't
(or don't) support us, it's up to us to find
the friends who can and do."

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, written by Jacqueline Kelly. Henry Holt, HB Fenn, 2009. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"We resumed our walk to the riverbank and found shade under a hospitable tree in the pecan bottom. Then he told me some stupefying things. He told me about the ways in which you get to the truth of any matter, not merely sitting around thinking about it like Aristotle (a smart but confused Grecian gentleman) but going out and looking with your own eyes; about making your Hypothesis and devising your Experiment, and testing by Observation, and coming to a Conclusion. And then testing the strength of your Conclusion, over and over. "

And the list of things that Grandfather teaches Callie Vee goes on and on.

Calpurnia Virginia Tate is 11 years old and the only girl among seven siblings. She is right in the middle and there are many expectations of a young girl in Texas in 1899 that don't include scientific inquiry. Her mother has much higher hopes for her only daughter than to have her spending endless hours with her somewhat eccentric grandfather searching for specimens and testing hypotheses. She wants her to cook, and sew, and do all those things that genteel young women should be doing.

This is a wonderfully written book of historical fiction for all ages, but particularly for those in early adolescence. Callie is an incredibly capable and intelligent young girl who longs to do more with her life that is expected of her. She has a steadfast curiosity about the natural world and a grandfather who shares her enthusiasm and is willing to help her learn.

Every chapter starts with an epigraph from Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species, a forbidden book of the time and one which Grandfather has concealed but which he shares with his beloved granddaughter. They pore over it together and that study helps Calpurnia realize that life could be different for her...there is much that she can accomplish on her own. As we catch glimpses of life in late nineteenth century Texas and enjoy the relationships and antics of family members, we root for Callie and her future.

Knowing that this is a debut novel only makes it more impressive. The writing is taut and charming. The characters are convincing and memorable. Grandfather is aloof, yet so supportive of Callie and her abilities. He is a mentor we all would love to have in our lives. As I remind people often, this is a book written with a young audience in mind; but it is not only for children. Many adults will find the story appealing, the writing admirable and the characters unforgettable. You don't have to be a historical fiction buff to find this book worth a few hours of your time. You will not regret picking it up and you might have a really tough time putting it down until you have read every fine word.

"I continued to hover over the Plant with Granddaddy. To my great relief, it thrived under our tender care, first stretching for the light and then trailing along the windowsill. Granddaddy called it the Proband. He told me that's what you called the first of a kind. Every day I took it outside for a few minutes to expose it to the bees for pollination. I was vigilant in my duties and shooed away all grasshoppers and other plant eaters that dared to venture too close."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Trick of the Tale, written by John and Caitlin Matthews and illustrated by Tomislav Tomic. Candlewick, Random House, 2008. $22.50 ages 8 and up

"The appeal of the trickster is simple - whether hungry wolf or helpless frog, the trickster finds a way to win out when all seems hopeless. Whatever its size, each trickster animal draws upon its own intelligence, abilities, and cunning resilience to bluff, cheat, dodge, or decoy - and so to escape from present danger and gain its freedom. Whether you are a clever fox or an underdog, these tales show you how to value life's gifts to the fullest."

I love trickster tales! What fun it would be to talk about the tricksters who 'people' this beautiful book with children who might recognize some of the characters inherent in these pages. They come from the world community; many are familiar to us, and some are not. They practice their craft with skill and cunning and they leave us wishing there were more than twenty to read and share. They provide great fodder for the storytellers in your classroom. Let them read them enough that they can take the story and make it their own, for telling to friends and family. Each begins with a note about the country of origin and the trickster involved. The language is uncomplicated and allows the intended audience access to the tales, which beg to be read aloud.

The art demands attention and admiration for this incredibly talented young Croatian artist. I noticed his detailed pen and ink drawings first in Wizardology (Candlewick, 2005)and am even more impressed this time. They look like the finest engravings and feature so many details that children and adults will pore over them for hours, thus ensuring they miss nothing. It is not simply the animals that benefit from his masterful touch; his textures, backdrops, and facial expressions are evidence that he is someone we should be watching in the future.

"And so Nyankopon gave Ananse all his stories. Now it is Ananse, Snatcher of Legends, Lord of all Liars, Spinner of Stories, to whom all beings pay respect when stories are told. Everyone, that is, except Aso, who said to her husband when he came home, 'Only you could sell your own mother for a bunch of stories!'"

A Pot O' Gold, selected and adapted by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by David McPhail. Hyperion, HB Fenn, 2004. $11.99 ages 8 and up

"Ireland's past and present bubble over with myths, legends, poetry, ballads, and wordplay of all kinds. The challenge in bringing such a treasure trove to young readers was to not create a book too heavy to lift. Searching through lots of dusty volumes to find the very best - some things perhaps familiar, some things a bit of a stretch - that was the fun part."

Her heritage is Irish and Kathleen Krull worked with love and great patience to fill her book with wonderful examples of the love of the Irish for words. She begins with stories of the sea; no matter where you are in Ireland you are only an hour away from it. There are stories, poems and even a lullaby that find their inspiration from the sea. She moves on to the food, inspired by the fact that food was often scarce and was thus celebrated for its goodness. There is milk and cheese, onions and herring and of course, potatoes. And recipes for Irish stew, and Irish soda makes my mouth water. The other sections of the book are about music, pride, scholars, the land, enchantments and blarney. It is a great collection, full to overflowing with the familiar and the new, including St. Patrick and Finn McCool. If you need blessings or curses, cures or lullabies, you will find them here.

Readers will love the limericks and the riddles that make them think and celebrate language. David McPhail's signature style adds to the enjoyment as the audience will appreciate the images he creates to help them see green and beauteous Ireland as it is, and as it was. They are colorful, expressive and appealing. This book is an excellent introduction to Ireland and its culture, and might just inspire a young reader to further a search into Irish history. Her introduction sets our course for this visit to Ireland and Kathleen Krull regales us with oaths and curses, ancient folk cures, and a set of philosophies for her young audience. Add to that detailed source notes and you have a very fine 'pot o' gold'!

"There once were two cats of Kilkenny;
Each thought there was one cat too many.
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till instead of two cats there weren't any."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Eggs, written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Emma Stevenson. Holiday House, Thomas Allen, 2008. $21.50 ages 8 and up

It's a bobbing boat.
It's a private pond.
It's a room with no view.
It's walls to break through.
It's breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
It's an egg."

Lest you think that all posts today are about birds, here's one that MIGHT be about birds! Well, birds do play a role in a book about eggs; after all, they lay them. But, as you know, they are not the only creatures of the world that do. So, here we have a packed with information book about the 'special world' of the egg. Some eggs are hard, some soft. Some feel soapy, slick or powdery. They come in many sizes and shapes, from the egg of a wasp that is too small to see to the ostrich egg which could hold nineteen chicken eggs. Some are shaped like ping pong balls, others have a conical shape. They come in all colors, from distinct to nondescript. When species produce their eggs, the numbers vary greatly. The albatross lays one egg every other year, while a termite queen over a period of fifty to one hundred years might lay as many as a billion eggs!

Eggs are vulnerable to predators and are protected in numerous and very creative ways. It is mind-boggling to think about the adaptations species have made to ensure their future generations. Some of the details shared here will be familiar; but, there is so much more to be learned in savoring this well-researched book. The illustrations provide visual clues to add to the narrative written. Fascinating and surprising, such is the world in which we live. Those creatures who lay eggs make it more so!

The back matter includes suggestions for protecting eggs, a glossary to help readers understand some terminology that might be unfamiliar, source notes and a bibliography, as well as a list of organizations that help to protect wildlife and an index. Reading this book might just encourage further study, or inspire a renewed wish to help where we can.

Even an Ostrich Needs a Nest, written and illustrated by Irene Kelly. Holiday House, Thomas Allen, 2009. $

"Murres are seabirds that lay their eggs on the edges of cliffs...but they don't worry about them rolling off. The eggs are so pointy that they roll in a tight circle if they are nudged. Each egg has its own special pattern, so the parents can always find it."

And that is not the only thing to learn about birds and their nests, as Irene Kelly so deftly assures us in this lovely, detailed account. The birds range from gigantic to teeny, the nests are wonders of nature and the illustrations invite hours of browsing to process the abundance of information shared. There are forty different birds from all corners of the world. Their ability to construct nests that range from sloppy (bald eagle) to architecturally sound mating huts (bowerbird) will astonish readers.

Before beginning, the artist shares an array of materials that birds use: twigs, grass, spider silk, yarn, moss, newspaper, bark...that seems normal. What about paper clips, drinking straws, bottle caps, towels, clothespins, rubber bands? The list goes on. As each page unfolds we are introduced to the chosen bird and their nest building skills are described simply and with accompanying artwork to help us see the results. From building a two storey nest which sports an empty top floor to trick predators into thinking it is abandoned (the yellow-rumped thornbill)to using six thousand sticks to build a nest that can measure six feet square (the hammerkop) the author intrigues her readers and informs us. There is so much to know about the natural world...this adds one more piece to the puzzle and wonder that is nature. In a world map following the text, Irene Kelly places each one of the birds discussed, and then asks us to help birds with their nesting by gathering together materials they might use and leaving them where they can be found.

Aspiring young ornithologists will love it!

Honk, Honk, Goose! Written by April Pulley Sayre and illustrated by Huy Voun Lee. Henry Holt, HB Fenn, 2009. $18.95 ages 4 and up

"All the eggs were laid, so she sat on them to warm them. Now and then, she stood and turned the eggs. The male goose floated nearby."

April Pulley Sayre calls this book narrative nonfiction and tells us that it comes from direct experience dealing with Canada geese on her property over many years. She watched the geese carefully and then drafted a story that began at the beginning with the male goose and his protective ways. He starts by chasing anything in his path, but for one female goose. He had chosen her for his mate. They spend their time together doing what all spooning couples do...paddling, eating, dancing, mating and bathing. As the eggs begin to develop the pair make a nest. All the while the male continues chasing any creature that comes near.

The eggs are laid and the male remains protective. One egg is broken when a raccoon gets hold of it. Six eggs are safe. It takes twenty-eight days and suddenly there are sounds of hatching. All chicks are hearty and healthy. The parents set about teaching them what they need to know to survive and survive they do!

At the end of the book the author offers up an informative and accessible package of further information about Canada geese and encourages young scientists to use bird watching as a way to improve their observation skills and to conduct a scientific study of bird behaviors.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Peaceful Heroes, written by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Sean Addy. Scholastic, 2009. $22.99 ages 8 and up

"They would die for their cause, but they would not kill for their cause. They are the modern heroes. There are the peaceful heroes. This book contains just one list of such heroes. There are dozens of lists that could be written. And they are many peaceful heroes among us - parents, friends, and others who have risked their own lives to help other people. Perhaps you could come up with your own list of peaceful heroes..."

Now, there is another one of those invitations that are hard to refuse.

Jonah Winter begins with Jesus of Nazareth, the 'world's original peaceful hero'. His story is one of helping all people, and of living his life for love and peace. His story provides a model for the peaceful heroes to follow.

Each four page entry provides the time in which the hero lived, information about their life, a mixed media collage illustration of the person being portrayed and some of the events that describe their peaceful ways. They are men and women to be immortalized and honored for the differences that they made in the their time and for our time.

Some are known to many, while others are not. Mahatma Gandhi is here, as are Martin Luther King and Clara Barton. Oscar Romero is honored, along with Meena Keshwar Kamal and William Feehan. Each is a 'peaceful hero' and a citizen of the world worth honoring for their spirit, their bravery and their work to make life better for all.
Bravo to Jonah Winter for bringing them honor in this wonderful book!

Who is your peaceful hero?

One Peace, written and illustrated by Janet Wilson. Orca Books, 2008. $19.95 ages

"When David Shepherd and Travis Price heard that a new boy was bullied for wearing pink, they bought seventy-five pink tank tops for guys in the school to wear. As the word spread, more students wore pink. This pink protest soon drew international attention, inspiring other schools to stage pink days, with the majority of students showing up in something pink - from feather boas to pink bicycles. The Nova Scotia government has proclaimed the second Thursday in every new school year Stand Up Against Bullying Day."

In reading this elegantly designed and inspiring book, you cannot help but feel filled with hope, and with sadness...hope for the future of our world when such amazing children live here and lend their voices to important issues(they will be our leaders, our teachers, our ambassadors for peaceful solutions) and sadness that so many have to learn at a young age what it is to be involved in war, to struggle for basic daily necessities and to live in fear for their lives.

Janet Wilson has compiled an abundance of information about young activists who have made, and are making, a difference where they live and around the world. She includes photographs, quotes, poetry, stories and drawings made by children in hopes of making adults listen. In the past ten years, two million children have been killed in armed conflict, ten million are traumatized, and more than two million have been displaced within or outside their own countries. Children are the losers in all wars. Their lives are forever changed, their hearts and minds immeasurably scarred by what they see, hear and must accept. They do not have choices. But, they prove time and time again that they do have a voice. We can all make a difference...and they make us proud (and very humble) that they stand up and do just that.

This is a book that should be shared with our children and in classrooms. Rather than talking about war, let's talk about peace!

"September 21 is the International Day of Peace. To join the worldwide movement to create a culture of peace and to find out what you can do to support peace and nonviolence, go to"

"Be the change that you wish to see in the world." Mahatma Gandhi

"My religion is simple. My religion is kindness." Dalai Lama