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Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Dancing Pancake, written by Eileen Spinelli. Knopf, Random House, 2010. $15.99 ages 8 and up


"I go on: "Did anyone ask me
if Dad should leave?"
Albert keeps tracking.
"Does anyone care that
I don't want to move?"
More tracking.
"Or that I don't want any part
of this stupid restaurant?"
Turns out Albert's bug
has wings. It flies away."

When her Dad leaves the family and moves to find a new job, Bindi knows that her life is in for some big changes. The loss of his job and inability to find another has made him question his life and the way he is leading it. Bindi is mad! Then Mom decides that she is going into the restaurant business with Aunt Darnell who has always harbored the dream of running her own restaurant. Not enough? How about that the decision to open the restaurant also means that Bindi and her mother will relocate to the apartment that is available above it. Now, that is change that takes time to assimilate...so much has happened in a very short time!

While so much is changing, there is much that remains constant in her life. She has some very close friends, especially Albert. Albert wants to be Bindi's brother but settles for being her good friend. She has her Mom, her aunt's family, her girlfriends and the 'family' that become regulars at The Dancing Pancake. Among those is Grace, a homeless woman who takes Bindi under her wing and provides a sounding board for Bindi's worries and concerns. She spends quality time with her young cousin, Jackson...he is something!

There are so many things to learn as Bindi embarks on this new course her life has taken. She is learning about love in its many forms, family, frustration and ultimately, forgiveness and hope.

Eileen Spinelli writes books with heart. This lovely and lively free verse novel will be read quickly and offers up an invitation to 'dance'!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Soccer Encyclopedia, written by Clive Gifford. Kingfisher, H B Fenn, 2010. $23.99 ages 10 and up


"Pele described soccer as the 'beautiful game' and the emotion and loyalty that soccer inspires in its fans mean that this simple sport has a lot to live up to. But soccer delivers it all - cramming dynamic action, breathtaking skills, and heart-stopping tension into 90 minutes of play."

12 days to South Africa and the FIFA World Cup action that will last for a full month! Soccer fans, prepare!

If you have, or are, a rabid soccer fan, you might want to check this book out. It begins with the game, its rapid growth and the fact that '50 million soccer players around the world play in official competitions'. That number does not include the hundreds of kids who sign up in Brandon each year to play and the millions of others who play on a regular basis. It is a sport for anyone willing to work hard to develop the skills needed to play.

This encyclopedia includes chapters that describe playing the game, the legends of soccer, tactics and coaching, great teams, playing in the pros and the competitions. Nothing is left out. In the final pages, it snapshots South Africa 2010...the first African nation to win the right to host soccer's greatest competition. It is an exciting time, indeed. As an added bonus, there is included a world cup wall chart that fans will use to track their team, the ongoing results and it's wall-size!

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Wager, written by Donna Jo Napoli. Henry Holt, H B Fenn. 2010. $19.99 ages 13 and up


"Don Giovanni blew out the lamp and took off all his clothes. He stood in the dim light and felt his arms and legs and chest and belly. He was almost back to his summer self in size. Yet right now he had the sensation of being reduced to something insignificant, vulnerable. Like a small animal who had wandered by mistake into a large cave."

What a great read for a rainy day! Don Giovanni is a young man leading the good life. His parents have died leaving him their fortune. He has a tutor and mentor who tires of his philandering, and his extravagance. Don Alfinu is mean, and even miserly. Don Giovanni's lifestyle is abhorrent to him when he no longer has control over Giovanni's life, or money. A catastrophe of nature changes all things for the people of Sicily, and Don Giovanni is left with nothing. What will he do?

After many days of tirelessly looking for work to sustain himself, the devil approaches with an offer of untold wealth. Don Giovanni makes the deal. He will have all the money he needs but he cannot wash, cut his hair or change his clothes for three years, three months, three days. It is a bargain not to be taken lightly; failure means the loss of his soul. The story that follows is fraught with difficulty, disease, dirt and determination.

His intelligence and tenacity auger well for his success; but, the losses are great. His body is riddled with infections, itching, boils, sores, parasites, and more. The filth that accumulates during the many days that he must avoid washing, and other hygienic care is palpable. It makes Don Giovanni's journey real and appalling to the reader. There are other problems he must face. Where does he sleep? Where does he find food and sustenance when all who meet him are repulsed by his appearance and smell. Can he maintain a sense of humanity?

It is his character, his generosity and his ability to appreciate the goodness that he finds in this new world of his own making that allows the reader to take the journey at Don Giovanni's side, despite misgivings and a sense of abject distaste for his physical being. He has a heart that grows immeasurably, while honoring the deal he has made with the devil. In the end he is a person to be admired and loved...and as in all good fairy tales, there is a happy ending. Bravo!

Of her latest retelling Donna Jo Napoli says:

"...usually all I want is for a reader to have a good ride. I tell stories, after all – just stories. But this story matters to me in other ways. I find myself lately looking at the huge disparity of wealth in our country (and lots of others) and wondering where it can lead. If you take a good look at the underbelly of poverty and if you’re honest, you have to realize that if you are not poor yourself it is largely due to luck. We can work hard; we can have good skills; and still, with lousy luck, we can wind up in the gutter. And once you’re there, it is very hard to get out. Don Giovanni was thrust there — and it gave him a perspective he probably never would have had otherwise. And that perspective made him decent. So you can guess what my hope is — quite lofty, indeed — I want to help my reader gain a perspective that leads to decent behavior."

It is a lofty hope indeed!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Patterson Puppies and the Midnight Monster Party, by Leslie Patricelli. Candlewick, Random House. 2010. $19.00 ages 4 and up


"Then they set the table. Everything was just right.
Almost.
When it was bedtime, the puppies were so excited
that none of them could sleep.
Then Papa had a quiet contest.
No one wanted to lose. And finally they nodded off."

Everyone else in the house sleeps. Not Petra! She has a deathly fear of the MONSTER. No amount of cajoling tames the fear. Her mother and father reassure, his siblings use magic and threats to keep him away. Petra can't relax, even when surrounded by sixteen stuffed animals.

Fear of being eaten by that monster is what fuels Petra's concern. Why not feed the monster something more delicious than a puppy? Cookies would be a great alternative. They get busy with Mama's help and even leave a note, inviting the monster to enjoy. When all is ready, the children head to bed and are encouraged to drift off with a quiet contest, organized by Papa.

In the middle of the night, Petra hears the monster and all the children determine to face the intruder with their sister. Sure enough, there's a monster! What happens next is endearing, and will give young readers a sense of empathy and quiet peace.

Be sure to check the endpapers as you share this lively story with your little ones. They tell a story of their own.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Waiting Out the Storm, written by Joann Early Macken and illustrated by Susan Gaber. Candlewick, Random House. 2010. $20.00 ages 4 and up


"They burst from the cloud,
skipping and leaping and laughing out loud.
They spin and they tumble. They bounce on the breeze.
They dance to the tune of the wind in the trees."

The past few days have brought their share of dreary, windy weather to what has been a sunny, warm spring in Manitoba. We have had our share of warnings about approaching storms but none have lived up to the forecast, so far!

The coming storm in this story is evident on the title page. A young girl and her mother gather meadow flowers while low gray clouds are seen in the distance. The wind picks up and the child is concerned with the noises she is hearing. The whistling wind tells of the storm's approach. Is it the wind that invites the rain? Once they are safely home the young one hears the rumble of thunder and her mother explains that it is a sound, not to be feared. While lightning flashes, there are other concerns. What will happen to the birds and animals as the storm wields its power? Mom explains that shelter will be found from the falling rain and howling winds. Just as they are tucked safely inside their house to wait out the storm, the animals will find a place of safety, too.

Tomorrow, they will all enjoy the sunshine that follows rain, the puddles created by the storm and the wonder of it all.

I love the questions and answers that Joann Macken uses to tell this reassuring tale of a summer storm and the fear it can inspire. The child's questions and comments are featured in a font that is bigger than the italicized font used for the mother's soft reassurances. It is this back and forth dialogue that brings calm and shows the reader (and listener) that a storm can be natural and beautiful. The softly muted acrylic illustrations provide a quiet tone to the book, while also showing the power in the resulting storm.

Princess Says Goodnight, written by Naomi Howland and illustrated by David Small. Harper, 2010. $18.99 ages 4 and up


"Does she look out from her tower
just to count the sheep?

Will she make a wish upon a star
before she goes to sleep?"

The family enjoys time together, reading and 'laptopping' as Princess yawns in preparation for bedtime. Even the dog and cat seem to know what's coming. Mom and Dad yawn as well as they follow their sweet, pink princess down the hallway. As each passes the mirror their persona changes. Princess dons petal-skirted finery while Mom and Dad are garbed in palace duds. Soon, all family members join the procession, as Princess treks daintily toward her tower bedroom.

She flounces to her bedtime snack, glances toward the evening stars and removes her glass slippers as Papa prepares the fire to warm her. Sister helps with the bath, providing a towel for each of her ten toes while Mama hangs her latest gown in a closet filled with princess-worthy apparel...every shade of pink imaginable. They check the mattress for peas, fluff the pillows and give aid with her toilette. Froggy Prince gets a kiss, a lullaby is sung and a bedtime story read...who wouldn't want her life?

As we peek in her bedroom window at the story's end, we see Mom and Dad kissing their princess goodnight. In the final spread, she wraps her arms around her frog and cat before saying Goodnight herself!

Everyone can live happily until tomorrow's repeat ritual.

David Small's wonderful watercolors provide the perfect accompaniment to this lively, rhyming tale. His use of white space to give prominence to the characters focuses our attention on the action at all times. His endearing characters (each one of them) adds the drama needed to carry the story of a young girl, much loved and indulged.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Hive Detectives, written by Loree G Burns with photos by Ellen Harasimowicz. Houghton, T Allen. 2010. $22.50 ages 9 and up


"In addition to California almond trees in February, Dave's bees pollinate Florida citrus trees in March, Pennsylvania apple trees in April and May, Maine blueberry bushes in June and Pennsylvania pumpkin plants in July.
"The biggest thing about bees is not honey," says Dave. "It's that your food supply depends on them.""

When twenty million bees disappeared from four hundred of Dave Hackenburg's beehives in the winter of 2006, people took notice. It became big news and Dave could not explain what had happened. It was as if the bees knew what he did not! Loree Griffin Burns, dedicated researcher and writer, was intrigued and determined to learn all she could about honeybees and the threat that researchers are calling Colony Collapse Disorder. She has written an amazing book about her many discoveries, the people she met while doing her research, and the honeybees who do so much in this world of ours.

She tells us about some of the discoveries being made:

"Among this 'stuff' were striking changes in the way the bees' internal organs looked under the microscope. Dennis found swollen, discolored, and scarred tissues and organs throughout the bodies of bees from CCD hives. The CCD bees also contained evidence of yeast, bacteria, and fungal infections, often all in the same bee. These abnormalities weren't seen in bees from healthy hives."

Many suspicions have surfaced as to what is causing the collapse but hive detectives have not been able to link any one particular thing to what is happening in the affected colonies. Pests have been ruled out, as have viruses. Even pesticides don't seem to effect an infected colony more than a healthy one, despite the high levels found in samples of both wax and pollen in many:

"The first surprise was how common chemicals were; Maryann found them in almost every sample she tested, whether it came from a CCD hive or a healthy hive. Of 208 pollen samples, only three were completely chemical-free. 'It was shocking to us to find, on average, five pesticides in each pollen sample,' said Maryann. 'In one sample we found seventeen different pesticides.' Perhaps even more shocking was that the chemicals found most frequently -- and at the highest levels -- were those that beekeepers themselves put in the hive to protect their bees from Varroa mites. Somehow these beekeeper-applied chemicals were finding their way into the pollen the bees stored in the hive."

Loree Griffin Burns does a remarkable job of making her story readable and informative. I could not put it down once I began reading. She writes clearly and with her audience in mind. Hers is a story that could easily be shared as a readaloud in elementary classrooms and would allow for interesting discussion and discovery. The photos by Ellen Harasimowicz are beautiful, clear and offer much additional visual meaning to the text shared. Their story is compelling and gives one pause to consider how this catastrophe will have a lasting effect on every one of us. In a world without honeybees, we will have no honey for our toast, no beeswax candles and no creams for our skin. More important than all of that is the question of what happens to our fruits, vegetables and nuts? Our food supply depends on honeybees and the remarkable work they do.

Throughout the text, Burns includes notes that introduce the dream team of bee scientists, explain what comprises a hive, who's who in there, what bee bodies are like and finally in her Appendix Bee she shares some of the amazing discoveries she made while doing her research. She writes them on mock notebook pages, with accompanying photos that add to our store of knowledge. She also includes a most helpful glossary, a materials to study list and selected references for anyone wanting to continue learning about this fascinating phenomenon.

This is a stunning addition to the SCIENTISTS IN THE FIELD series!! Let me repeat myself, please. You need these books in your libraries at school and at home. They are written to make even the most reluctant scientists (moi!) keen on what there is to be learned about the natural world and to reawaken and inform our concerns about it.

The Eraserheads, written by Kate Banks and illustrated by Boris Kulikov. Farrar, Douglas & McIntyre. 2010. $19.95 ages 5 and up


"One day the eraserheads were sitting on the edge of the boy's desk, watching a large picture take form. There was a beach with buckets and shovels and an umbrella.
Shells glittered in the sand."

What a great collaborative team! If you haven't seen or read Max's Words (Farrar, 2006) or Max's Dragon (Farrar, 2008) be sure to look for them at the library or your local bookstore. They will help prepare you for the wonder of the 'eraserheads', three pencil toppers who carefully erase the mistakes of the young boy who owns them.

The talent of the young artist is evident on the endpaper, at the front when we first meet him and then later, at the back as he leaves us behind. The owl, the crocodile and the pig are diligent in their attention to their master and they recognize the importance of their job. They eliminate mistakes as they are made, keeping track of homework..each with their own strengths and they follow their instincts, seeking perfection.

Then one day, they find themselves meandering along a road in one of the boy's drawings. When the road is erased, they find themselves stranded with nowhere to go and no way out, it seems. An errant wave scoops them up and deposits them on a deserted island, facing the spectre of wild animals and the abject fright felt by their presence. Some thoughtful planning assures their escape, until the bridge falls away and the boy decides he is not pleased with his drawing. Now, they really must get to work! An SOS message is discovered by the artist when he returns, and the tide is turned...all is well and everyone satisfied with the results.

There is so much attention to detail in this imaginative tale. You will find yourself poring over all Boris Kulikov brings to the telling. The expressive faces hold all the terror, tension and relief of such an adventure.

And there is a lesson to be learned: "Hooray for mistakes," for there would be nothing to be learned without them, and oh, yes..."hooray for erasers"!

Monday, May 24, 2010

That's Not Funny! Written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Adrian Reynolds. Random House, 2010. $24.95 ages 3 and up


"Giraffe slipped on it and skidded straight
into a tree -
KER-RANG!
'That's not funny!' said Giraffe.
But Hyena laughed and laughed, because when Giraffe
skidded into the tree, a coconut fell and hit Hippo right
on the head -
BINK!"

Kids will love this lively, cause and effect story of the animals of the jungle. It starts when Hyena wants to play a joke on Giraffe, leaving a banana skin on the road. Of course, Giraffe slips and Hyena has a riotous guffaw at Giraffe's expense. Giraffe sees no humor in it, but Hyena is beside himself with it; for, in tripping up Giraffe, Hyena watches Hippo get hit by a falling coconut. Har! Har! Hippo is indignant, but he steps on a snake because he is dizzy and Hyena has even more cause for hilarity. Snake is resentful and shocked and that has repercussions for Ostrich.

And so it goes...until Hyena gets his comeuppance, sending all of his jungle cronies into gales of laughter that seem endless.

I love the language chosen to tell this story. It's repetitive, anticipated and humorous, too. The verbs are great...skidded, catapulted, torpedoed, flopped, tripped, screeched and startled, to name some. The cartoon-like animals are expressive and entertaining. The surprise ending will have listeners laughing as loudly as the book's cast of characters. ENJOY!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Animal Dads, written by Sneed Collard III and illustrated by Steve Jenkins. Houghton, Thomas Allen, 1997. $8.95 ages 6 and up


"They feed us.

Beavers are famous for cutting
down trees to build dams and
lodges. Beaver dads also cut down
trees for another reason. When
beaver babies stop drinking
mother's milk, Dad chops down
trees so the babies can eat meals
of fresh, tender bark."

Sneed Collard has chosen the animal kingdom to find 'dads' who do many things. A single sentence introduces their fatherly dutues. Then, the author goes on to tell us about a particular creature, and how it works to provide for its young. The jobs are varied and endearing.

I am always intrigued to learn of animals that I know little about...the vole, for instance. What I know about them is that they like to tunnel under snowbanks in the winter and create pathways through my grass. One spring, I was surprised to find a 'vile vole village' right under my front window. It didn't take long for it to disappear, thank goodness...and they have never returned. I guess they didn't like the ire I showed when I saw those tunnels. Now, I discover that vole dads share all duties in raising their young. They dig nests and tunnels (I don't mind so much if they were caring for their babies), cuddle and keep the babies warm and clean them when they are dirty. Ahhh!

Steve Jenkins' paper-cut collages are always an inspiration. He fills the double-page spreads with brilliant color and detail. The handmade papers add texture and depth. I am so pleased to have this book reissued in time for celebrating fathers in June.

Finally, I will share Sneed Collard's informational paragraph about the Megapode:

"Megapodes don't incubate their eggs by sitting on them. Instead, many megapode dads build large mounds of leaves and soil for Mom to lay her eggs in. As the leaves in the mound rot they give off heat, which incubates the megapode's eggs. Mom leaves after she lays the eggs, but Dad sticks around. He turns the leaves over and moves them around to make sure the eggs remain at just the right temperature until they hatch." IMAGINE!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Me and You, written and illustrated by Anthony Browne. Random House, 2009. $24.95 ages 6 and up


"One morning Mummy made porridge for breakfast, but it was too hot to eat.
'Let's all go for a gentle stroll in the park while it cools down,' said Daddy.
So we did."

The dedication reads: "for all the underdogs".

A look at the title page shows two blocked illustrations; one is a small bear, dressed in jeans and sneakers with his head up and eyes closed to the warmth of the sun, and the other is a young child in drab pants and black hoodie, walking past a wrought-iron fence on a colorless day. The reader is immediately drawn to the differences in setting and mood.

As the story begins we meet a mother bear cleaning the windows of a bright yellow house while the father scans the neighborhood from a third floor window. Turn the page and four sharply drawn scenes show a mother and child leaving their house, heading along the street and gazing at the front window of a nearby butcher shop. They do not go in.

Ah, the bear family...Daddy, Mummy and the narrator, their young cub.

Once again, facing pages show the distinct differences between the young bespectacled blond girl and the laughing, lively bear cub and his family. She is chasing an errant balloon and distraught when she cannot capture it. The sepia tones for this series of actions impart a sad and lonely feel. The bears sit in sunshine at a table laden with breakfast porridge, which is too hot to eat.

Does it sound familiar? It should.

With each turn of the page, we come face to face with two stories. Goldilocks passes rundown, brick, colorless buildings on her journey through the neighborhood where she lives. As she passes the bright yellow house she notices that the front door is open, and accepts that as her invitation to enter. The bears stroll and enjoy the sunshine and conversation while Goldilocks goes about sating her appetite and testing the variety of chairs. As the bears return home, they note the open door and enter. You know what happens next.

Goldilocks is found in the young bear's bed and makes her escape back home in pouring rain while passing brick walls topped with barbed wire and buildings defaced with graffiti. We are left, with our narrator to wonder what happened to her.

Lucky we are to follow her toward the warmth of home and a mother's tight hug!

This is such a thought-provoking telling of a traditional fairy tale. Anthony Browne is a master artist who shares much while telling little more than the story we all know and love. So much comes to readers through his artwork. His use of color, space and detail is impressive and poignant. Even the endpaper colors are chosen with care and a message about mood. Wonderful!

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by Philip Stead and illustrated by Erin Stead. Roaring Brook, H B Fenn, 2010. $19.99 ages 4 and up


"Meanwhile at the zoo...
The animals waited for their friend.
The elephant arranged his pawns and polished his castles.
The tortoise stretched his legs and limbered up.
The penguin sat patiently, all by himself.
The rhinoceros worried that his allergies were worsening.
The owl perched atop a tall stack of storybooks,
scratching his head with concern."

Amos McGee's days are pretty mundane to those looking in; but, for Amos, they are filled with fun and fellowship. Amos is a zookeeper extraordinaire. His days at the zoo begin with a visit to his friends. He plays chess with the elephant, runs races with the tortoise, sits silently with the shy penguin, helps the rhino wipe his runny nose, and reads stories to the owl. All in a day's work, thinks Amos.

When the day comes that Amos is ill and must stay at home, the animals discover his true value and they let Amos know in the kindest of ways. They take their show on the road. Elephant prepares the chess board. When Amos is too tired to run races, he and the tortoise play hide-and-seek. Each animal returns the favor that Amos has so often provided them. To their credit, it is just what he needs and soon he is feeling much better.

This is a lovely story of friendship and caring for each other. The tone is quiet and supportive. The artwork matches the mood with its softly muted colors, gentle lines and quiet expressions. Young listeners will enjoy the companionable scenes, especially the final one where Amos sleeps peacefully surrounded by the zoo denizens.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

How to Clean A Hippopotamus, written by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton, T Allen, 2010. $19.95 ages 6 and up


"Sometimes animals for surprising partnerships...Why does a giraffe let an oxpecker climb into its ear? Why does a crab wave an anemone like a pom-pom? Why do a coyote and a badger team up?"

I am forever impressed and constantly intrigued by the subject matter that catches the fancy of this indomitable team. I think I have mentioned previously that my mind just doesn't go where their minds do. Their curiosity is insatiable and their research impeccable.

I guess we should also mention the artwork...stunning, as always. To have the patience to create the papers, to cut those bits into exactly what is needed to produce these amazing images is quite astounding, and way beyond my scope! I find myself going back again and again to just check 'how he did that'.

The subject is symbiosis; and the author discusses some of the unique relationships that animals establish for their mutual comfort and health. Many will be familiar. Others are quite enlightening. They are indeed 'unusual partnerships'.

Get ready to learn your 'new thing' for today:

"The sparse hair of the warthog does a poor job of protecting its skin from insect pests.

An itchy warthog spots a group of mongoose. It lies down...
signalling the small, catlike mammals.

They come running...
and clamber all over the warthog, which lies quietly while
its skin is picked clean."

So much to learn, and such interesting stuff. It is a great way to get young scientists thinking about the world of nature and looking to find other symbiotic relationships. As is common with Steve Jenkins and Robin Page with their wonderfully designed nonfiction, they provide additional findings following the text. An explanation about symbiosis, as well as blocked points of interest collected as they did their research are added for those wanting more. The size, habitat and diet of all animals introduced earlier is here for those who have an abiding curiosity in the natural world...they must take lessons from this prolific team!

And just to assure that these animals are not truly altrustic:

"Animals don't form mutualistic relationships out of friendship, or from any desire to help each other. They are completely selfish and remain in these relationships only because the partnership somehow helps them survive."

Peter Kent's CITY Across Time, written by Peter Kent. Kingfisher, T Allen, 2010. $19.99 ages 10 and up


"Archaeologists love rubbish - the more ancient, the better. The objects they find in the layers beneath the city give valuable clues about dates and important events. A layer of ash tells us that there was once a great fire in the city; skeletons with the markings of sword cuts and arrowheads show war and massacre."

The illustrations are full of detail and intrigue, the cross-sectioned art allows readers a concentrated look at the development of a city that grows through time and the text offers a fascinating look at history from the early Stone Age through the twenty-first century. It is a lively and most enlightening book!

As the Stone Age (where there were no cities) gives way to the new Stone Age, there is a sense of community beginning to grow and flourish. People work at their daily routines, an information box shows how to cook and another describes stone circles. Moving on through the ages, readers will find themselves poring over the many details of each cross-sectioned double page spread. The city becomes more structured, the work easier and the tasks more refined.

No matter how many times I go back to this book, I am always finding new information that I had not seen previously. It is so interesting to watch the layers build and to know more about the work that resulted in a developing cityscape. Worthwhile and educational!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Moon Bear, written by Brenda Guiberson and illustrated by Ed Young. Henry Holt, H B Fenn, 2010. $19.99 ages 4 and up


"Who searches for new shoots
of the fast-growing bamboo?

Bold moon bear,
munching near the red panda."

In a question and answer format, Brenda Guiberson offers up much information about the elusive and rare moon bear. In her inimitable way she gathers tidbits about the habits and behaviors and shares them in a gentle way, so that even your youngest listeners will sit to learn about these beautiful creatures.

Our first peek shows a sleepy bear rousing from hibernation. Food is her incentive to awaken, mark her territory and begin her search for sap, bamboo, ants, berries and even marmots, those foods that will sustain her as she prepares for another long winter fast.

She spends the summer foraging, travelling and preparing for the cold season to come; then, in the warmth and joy of spring, she presents a surprise for all to see.

Once again, this fine author has done her research and uses what she has learned to create a thoughtful and factual story that will inform her readers and capture their attention. In a note at the end of the book, she tells of her concern for the future of these bears, showing a number of pictures of bears that have been rescued and are being cared for in sanctuaries in Asia. She includes a website for further study.

Using patterned papers and photographs Ed Young has created lovely double page spreads that enclose the text, boast bold reds, golds and purples and give a feeling for the regal nature of these diligent foragers and endangered beauties.

This is a stunning readaloud for small groups of early learners.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Countdown, written by Deborah Wiles. Scholastic, 2010. $22.99 ages 12 and up


"I have a little sinking spell, right there behind the Ramseys' honeysuckle bush. What's worse: your best friend doesn't feel like your best friend anymore, or the whole neighborhood thinks your family is an embarassment?
Or maybe it's worse that you wouldn't acknowledge your uncle, Franny.
Maybe I'll just stay here, hidden behind this bush, forever."

I loved this documentary novel, set in 1962. Franny Chapman's story is filled with photographs, newspaper headlines, quotations from a myriad of powerful figures, song lyrics, notices, slogans and jingles. I was 14 and so much of what is shared here brought back memories long forgotten. It isn't just about that particular time and place...it also takes us back with Uncle Ott's war stories and forward to John Kennedy and the Civil Rights movement with Franny as she tries to balance home, school and world events. I didn't have to read a page before knowing I was hooked and ready to get to the informative and captivating text. I pored over the historical images with great interest before moving headlong into meeting Franny and her family and friends.

Franny is 11, concerned about the state of the world and what the future holds for her. Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, even the 'duck and cover' drills they must practice at school are cause for worry. Uncle Otts' weird behavior brings the effects of war and aging into her own realm of reality. Her anxiety causes insomnia and a wonder about the state of world peace. Her letter to Kruschev shows just how scared she really is about what is happening around her.

Life in fifth grade is tough...boys, parties, changing relationships and keeping up with everything at home and school. Her sister doesn't have time for her; she is busy with her own agenda. Where will it end? What can she do? How does she impact the world's happenings? Can she?

I love Franny.., her voice is strong and knowing. She does well, despite her many concerns and shows herself to be brave and strong.

Her sister's advice helps: “There are always scary things happening in the world. There are always wonderful things happening. And it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to approach the world . . . how you’re going to live in it, and what you’re going to do.”

We are in charge of our responses to what life offers up!

And Franny...she is a young woman I would love to meet again. I wonder if the second story in this planned trilogy about the sixties will continue her story? I can't wait to find out!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Storm in the Barn, written and illustrated by Matt Phelan. Candlewick, Random House, 2009. $29.00 ages


"Your daughter's condition - which, by the by, our colleagues at the Red Cross headquarters in Wichita are now calling dust pneumonia - ...has not improved, Mrs. Clark. In fact -

You might want to keep an eye on that one, Tom. I've begun to notice a new trend, a new condition. All this dust, it gets to some people on a different level.

'I'm thinking of calling it dust dementia.'"

There is foreshadowing in the opening graphic cells...a Kansas family loads the car and leaves their farm to the dust. As they travel along a nearby road, they are faced by an unsettling spectre. When they stop it has disappeared. Remember this!

During the Great Depression farm families did not just lose their farms and belongings, they lost all hope for the future. Jack's family is comprised of troubled, disheartened parents, two sisters and himself. There is not much for Jack to help his father with on the farm; so, he is given the task of looking our for his sisters. Dorothy is often overcome with coughing fits, loves the Wizard of Oz story and spends most days in bed. Jack reads to them both when Dorothy cannot read for herself. He is bullied at school, survives a race with a dust storm and worries that he cannot help around the farm. When he sees some kind of aura shining from an abandoned nearby barn, he is wonderstruck, but is concerned that he, too, might have dust dementia.

The community is having great difficulty dealing with the absence of rain, the superstitions that rear their ugly heads, the hopelessness of their situation. Jack listens to the conversation in the general store, and hears stories told of heroes of old. On his way home, he determines to investigate the strange happenings he thinks he has seen in the barn. His curiosity leads to an amazing discovery, help for everyone is at hand.

There is so much to peruse and ponder in this mostly wordless graphic novel. There are short periods of dialogue to help readers understand each aspect, but the illustrations provide the story in spare lines and mixed-media. They convey the feelings of helplessness and desperation felt by those living in the Dust Bowl.

In an author's note that follows his story Matt Phelan tells his readers that it was a book of photographs about the Dust Bowl that first drew him to the story of the people who survived and continued to fear a repitition of this colossal event in their lives. He saw desperation in those faces, but also determination and they stayed with him for many years as the story began to take shape for him.

This well deserved winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction is an amazing mix of fantasy, graphica, historical fiction and great storytelling. It is so worth the time you will spend poring over it!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Finn Throws a Fit, written by David Elliott and illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering. Candlewick, Random House, 2009. $20.00 ages 3 and up


"Finn likes peaches.
Usually.
But today, Finn doesn't like peaches.
Today, Finn doesn't like anything."

Check out the cover for a real feeling about Finn and his take on today. He is disgruntled, disturbed, and determined. Even his dog is wondering what is about to happen! What do you think Finn is thinking? What's up?

The quote at the beginning of this post are the opening lines of this great book. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what is going on here. Any parent who has lived with, or is living with, a two year old can guess what kind of day it's going to be!

An overturned plate of peaches greets readers on the title page, as well as smudged lettering and messy background colors. Move on to the heart of the story and we meet Finn, a smiling countenance, a hand-held peach...apparent satisfaction. Nothing is further from the truth and no matter what Mom and Dad do to encourage him to eat his snack, Finn is having none of it. It doesn't take much for it all to fall apart. He won't look at his parents, he boots a ball while walking under a fierce thundercloud. Even his security blanket is no help.

As the cloud expands and gains momentum, so does Finn. He slams the nursery door! Thunder in his bedroom is followed by 'lightning in the kitchen' and the fit is in full throttle. The house is flooded with tears. He screams, kicks, and carries on until everyone has had enough! Then, when it's done, it is over.

"The waters dry up.
The winds die down.
The snows melt."

All is well...until the next time!

David Elliott knows tantrums, and he seems to know that there is no known cause. He must have memories of his own, or first-hand recent experience. When text and art work together as they do in this book, you get what we are always looking for...a perfect picture book! The art is done in oils, charcoal and grease pencil and the artist uses every one admirably to create the chaos that is Finn's fit. It carries the reader along through the whirlwind of time it takes for the tantrum to be as suddenly over as when it began.

Let the talk begin. What might have caused Finn's fit? Do you remember ever having such a tantrum? What caused yours? What stopped it? Might it happen again?

Duck Tents, written by Lynne Berry and illustrated by Hiroe Nakata. Henry Holt, H B Fenn, 2009. $18.95 ages 3 and up


"Ducks dig worms. Ducks bait hooks.
Ducks flop down with snacks and books -
To wait and wait and wait and wait -
Is that a tug on one duck's bait?"

I have not met this charming quintet of ducks in their previous adventures. You might want to check out Duck Skates (2005) and Duck Dunks * (2008). I know I plan on doing just that.

In this book they are back to pitch their tents...in their own backyard and enjoy the benefits of warm weather and brand new equipment. They've got the chairs, the hats, the mats and the poles to catch themselves some fish. They've got the bait, the pond, and the determination to haul in their catch. The big one gets away, night closes in and dead-tired ducks determine that home is where they should be. A campfire, marshmallows, and night noises soon have them satisfied and tucked in for the night. Soon, zippers open, voices squeak fearfully, those same night noises descend and fully encourage teaming up for the long summer night...all five ducks in one small tent, totally satisfied with the and prepared to 'snuggle up tight and drift to sleep.'

Lessons in color and counting are subtly executed in bright, expressive watercolors.
The story begs its young readers to get out there and explore the world around them, and maybe make an overnight camp of it. A humorous, gentle handling of familiar worries will allow for conversation about the fears we all face, young and old.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

When I Wore My Sailor Suit, written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz. Farrar, Douglas & McIntyre. 2009. $19.95 ages 6 and up


"When morning comes, I put on my sailor suit, my sailor hat, and my sailor whistle.
'Where to, sailor?' Mother asks.
'Today I sail on a ship,' I announce.
'A journey requires provisions,' she says, and puts an apple and a cookie in my
little valise."

There has never been a Uri Shulevitz book that I didn't like! The last two, this one and How I Learned Geography (Farrar, 2008) come from his own childhood memories of when he and his family lived in Warsaw prior to World War II. In an author interview Uri Shulevitz explains that when he was a child the family had a friend named Mintz and they had a picture hung in their apartment that caused great concern for the very young Uri. His memory of that picture is surely evident in this story of imagination and fear.

Before embarking on his arduous ocean voyage the young sailor must climb mountains (the staircase) to get where he is going. On his perilous climb, he is met by the Mintzes and tells them he is off on a voyage. They wish him a good trip and he sets out, but a storm soon tests his bravery. He won't quit fighting, so the storm calms. An island paradise beckons; it is inhabited by a fearsome pirate, some distracted monkeys and an abandoned treasure map! Preparation for the treasure hunt is stalled by an eerie sense that someone is watching. Imagination wanes and the young sailor finds himself back at the Mintzes.

Trying to discover the source of his trepidation he sees the picture on the wall of a heavily mustached man with piercing eyes that seem to be always gazing intently at the sailor, no matter his position in the room. He tries to overcome his fear of the unrelenting stare. After valiant attempts he chooses to leave and then frets for days. Finally, he summons up all of his courage and leaves the menacing image behind as he embarks on yet another voyage.

The images that Uri Shulevitz creates take us along on this journey of the imagination. The bold images and strong colors are inviting and so real that we soon feel part of this imaginary trek. Every expression felt by the sailor is felt by the reader, and we revel in his determination to overcome his fear. Bravo!

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Quiet Book, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin, Thomas Allen, 2010. $15.95 ages 3 and up


"There are many kinds of quiet:
First one awake quiet
Jelly side down quiet
Don't scare the robin quiet"

It seems like a 'why didn't I think of that?' book; and then you take a closer look. It is the author's adept way with understated language that gives it the perfect feel as a thoughtful, assured and 'quietly tranquil' bedtime story. It is the illustrator's ability to take that gentle idea and create equally understated, but very expressive, images to accompany the choice words. Put them together and you have a book that is destined to be a classic.

It takes you through a day, filled with so many different aspects of calm and noiselessness. There are moments when the quiet is palpable and frightening, sad and sorry, anxious and satisfied, and even anticipatory. They seem so ordinary, yet meaningful. If you want an island of calm in the rush to get the kids to bed and sleeping, try this truly lovely book.

While Deborah Underwood loves 'cat sleeping on your stomach quiet' and 'smelling lilacs quiet' (I would be sneezing), Renata Liwska considers 'drawing a book quiet' as her favorite. Got me to thinking about quiet, too.

I have lots of quiet at my house because I am generally in control of the noise that happens here. These days I love 'Erin's at the hockey game quiet' or 'reading in the back porch quiet' or 'watching the sunset from the front step quiet'.

What kind of quiet do you like?

Kids Almanac 2011 (Canadian Edition) National Geographic, Random House, 2010. $16.95 ages 10 and up


"Created by National Geographic, Crittercams have been used on more than 50 species of land and marine animals. 'The cameras allow us to look at the world from an animal's point of view,' says Crittercam creator Greg Marchall. When the cameras fall off, they send out radio signals so the scientists can find them."

What is there to say about a kids almanac and the intrigue it holds, the knowledge it shares, the glorious photographs it houses and the fun and delight it brings its readers? Well, you can say it's amazing, awesome, astounding, absorbing, abundant, accurate, academic, ambitious, amusing, anticipated and appreciated. That is just the start...the a's!

Kids love books filled with information that they can read, share and then read again out loud to someone who is interested in knowing what they have just learned. National Geographic does a most commendable job of getting to the heart of the matter in accumulating so much interesting 'stuff'. The table of contents announces the categories explored...your world 2011, amazing animals, going green, super science, geography rocks, history happens, culture connection, awesome adventure, wonders of nature and future world.

"Surprise! Most scientists think that no one is truly ambidextrous, or able to use both hands equally. But if you have a dominant hand and can still write or throw accurately with the other, you're what scientists call mixed-handed. Studies show mixed handers tend to have better memories of everyday experiences, such as what they had for lunch a week ago. Mixed handers also may be more open-minded."

If you can't find something here to pique your interest or answer some of your questions, you won't find it anywhere. Enjoy!

The Floating Circus, written by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. Bloomsbury, Penguin Group (Canada), 2008. $17.50 ages 8 and up


"I shoulda listened to my brother. Right follows Zach like a shadow, but wrong wears me like a skin. That rotten-mouthed Simeon wagered me his bread for a week if I could touch the roof of the orphanage. The nag in my stomach could get me to do most anything, and the roof didn't seem but a stretch higher than my usual spot."

From the title you have every reason to believe this is a story about a circus and you would be right; but, it is so much more. It is a story of compassion, family, honor, love and misery. It is a great read for upper early and middle grades and would be conveniently appropriate as a classroom readaloud when the circus comes to town.

Owen and Zach are orphans. Their father has died and their mother, unable to provide for them, has placed them in an orphanage believing they will better off with food and a roof over their heads. Owen is older and angry with their mother and their circumstances, while Zach is optimistic and full of love for his big brother. An overheard conversation convinces Owen that Zach will be easier to place without an older brother; so, he sends him off alone on the orphan train. Then, 1t 13, he must fend for himself.

A floating circus provides the chance he needs. Befriended by Solomon, a freed slave, and given a job helping his new friend, Owen finds solace. As the boat travels from city to city Owen adjusts to the long hours, the hard work and the cruelties he must face. He begins to understand the degradation and horror of slavery as well as his place in his small part of the world. Solomon is a good friend, kind and generous with his praise. Owen is fed well, makes new friends and learns to love Little Bet, a baby elephant. When yellow fever strikes New Orleans, the circus troupe is not immune. As they travel by sea to a new destination they are engulfed by a severe storm and the ship is badly damaged. The circus disbands. In the confusion that results Solomon is sold back into slavery, and Owen receives a telegram telling him his brother is safe and missing him.

Deciding that he must fashion his own fate, Owen makes some huge decisions, each fueled by a desire for justice for Solomon, a better life for Owen himself and a yearly visit with his brother who is safe, loved and being care for in his new home.
The ending is sad, but hopeful.

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer did her homework before writing Owen's story. It is historical in its depiction of the American south in the 1850s and of the circus life of the times. Her story of the terror and resulting hysteria of the yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans is real and traumatic. Slavery, the lure of circus attractions and poverty play a role in all that happens to Owen and his brother, making it personal to the reader and leaving us with strong feelings about many of the tale's events.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Small Surprise, written and illustrated by Louise Yates. Random House, 2009. $18.99 ages 4 and up


"I am small.
I am too small to
wipe my own nose.
I am too small to
ties my own shoes."

Rabbit is pretty small, but he wants to work at the circus and he wants to work with those big, burly beasts who make the show. The sign suggests that small animals looking for work will not be considered. Rabbit may be little on the outside but his inside knows no bounds. He'll show them!

The posters intimate that the circus animals are a force to be reckoned with...ferocious, strong and violent. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their demeanor is about timidity, compassion and support. As they help Rabbit with all those things he is too small to do for himself, they show themselves to be kind and generous.

As we watch the expressions on the animals' faces, we know that they want to help him prepare for his audition. They unfold his hobo bag to find a fake nose, big shoes and an umbrella. As they sort through it, he requires assistance with blowing his nose, tying his shoes and plying his trade. When he makes a mess with the pie that Gorilla offers, he also makes disappearing and reappearing an art! They are befuddled and then, incredulous.

We were right...he's small but size isn't everything! Kids will love poring over the animal filled pages and watching the changing facial expressions, the little jokes and the final surprise. This is another '10'. Aren't we lucky?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Case of the Left Handed Lady, written by Nancy Springer. Penguin Group (Canada), 2007. $7.50 ages 8 and up


"I shivered with fear.
Of my brother Sherlock, whom I adored.
He was my hero. He was my nemesis. I very
nearly worshipped him. But if he tracked me down,
I would lose my freedom forever.
Yet - he was distraught on my account?"

Do I recall telling you that I am not a mystery buff? Now, I can tell you that writers such as Shane Peacock, Nancy Springer and Alan Bradley have certainly put paid to that mindset. What amazing writers!

I read the first Enola Holmes mystery (The Case of the Missing Marquess) a couple of years ago and was intrigued to get to know the young girl whose name is alone, spelled backwards, who has a wayward and seemingly unfit mother, and who is pestered by two older brothers (Sherlock and Mycroft) who want her to take her position in society as a young and cultured woman. Now, that is a heavy load for Enola, who brims with a sense of wonder at the world, a need to be all that she can be, and enough spunk to do it on her own at a time in history where women are mostly 'seen not heard'.

I am also going to tell you that I would much rather be living in 1960s England with Flavia than in late nineteenth century Victorian London with early Sherlock or then later with his sister, Enola. Both Shane Peacock and Nancy Springer create a setting that is stark, dangerous and aching with poverty, street grime and crime. The feeling is palpable.

Enola's story is fraught with worry...worry about their sister by her brothers, especially Sherlock, worry by Enola for the poor and downtrodden in the streets of London who have nothing but despair, worry for Lady Cecily who has disappeared without a trace and is found floudering under the influence of a mesmerizing maniac, worry for a long absent mother who is alive and rarely communicative, and worry that her brother Sherlock will find her and try to make her over in the image that he feels is important to a young woman of the time. So much is on her plate...yet, she remains determined to stay independent, is feisty and quite brilliant in her detective work, and dilgently solves the case that is plaguing her.

You will like Enola and admire her grit and determination at a time when young women were not expected, or even wanted, to possess such a thing! I'm on to the next case...

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hattie the Bad, written by Jane Devlin and illustrated by Joe Berger. Penguin Group (Canada), 2009. $10.99 ages 5 and up


"Hattie was BAD
When I say BAD, I don't mean forget-to-tidy-her-room, reading-comics-after-bedtime
kind of BAD. When I say BAD, I mean really, really BAD."

When she was young Hattie was good; then her mother dropped her on her head. Uh nope, she was bad before that happened...her brother knows! Well, okay when she was a tiny little girl she was 'quite good' but she didn't find much fun in it. So, she changed her attitude and her persona and began a life filled with dastardly deeds and escalating evildoing.

Her behavior makes parents frantic and they won't let their children have anything to do with Hattie. That, of course, leads to much loneliness and sadness for a young girl. Since she made the decision to be bad, she can surely turn the tide and be good at being good. Her demeanor is so changed that she turns her friends away once again, and ends up winning an award for good behavior. As she approaches the podium to accept her prize, a strange feeling comes over her. Not able to fight it anymore, and asked if there is anything she wants to say, Hattie has an instant and rebellious response. Parents gasp and faint, their children cheer and Hattie becomes Hattie the BAD once more.

Kids will love the humor and the allure of doing all the bad things that Hattie does. It is sure to be a popular readaloud in early years classrooms. Joe Berger creates a precocious and vulnerable young girl with a penchant for getting into trouble...from the orange paintbrush hidden behind her back to the frogs in the fridge, on the school playground and being painted orange. She has mischief on her mind and the illustrator makes us privy to all of it. What fun!

Born Yesterday, written by James Solheim and illustrated by Simon James. Penguin Group (Canada), 2010. $20.00 ages ages 4 and up


"July 7th

Talk about unexpected.
I was in the dark, thinking about my future career as
a writer, when suddenly I was in this cold pan and a lady was
rubbing me all over with a towel.

I wasn't wearing so much as a hair ribbon. And horror!
My mom and dad were there.
If I'd known I was going to be born in public, I'd at least
have put on a tank top."

I love to laugh out loud. I know it makes me feel better and it sure makes my day! Perhaps I will start every day with James Solheim's delightful book about a young journalist in the making. He starts 'write' in with an entry on the day of his birth. As the year passes, he continues to share his observations with his charmed audience. He is inspired by his sister and her abilities, admires the fact that the mayor has allowed her to attend kindergarten because she could make the best mud pies and is fascinated with the changes that are happening in his own body. He goes on family outings, to school and for walks with his mother and his dog, Foofy. He expresses his dreams for the future and his anxieties about some of the daily happenings in their home.

"Boys are similar to people,
except they make funny sounds.
When this boy item came
to visit, my sister ignored me
almost forever. So I banged
on my crib."

When his sister reads his diary he is mortified and thinks he had better find another place to live. But when she comes home in tears, it is into his crib she crawls and it is his comfort she seeks.

"She said, 'You always listen, and you only laugh with me, not at me. You are my best friend."

Now, there's comfort!

Wonderful...I can't wait to share it. I look forward to each of Simon James' new books, whether he is the writer, the illustrator or both. Here he creates dear, sweet characters who capture your heart with their delightful charm and humor. The expressions are a perfect match to the heartwarming, funny text. Now I will have to keep my eyes open for new fare from James Solheim, as well.

This book is a real winner, and certainly will add depth to my Keep It shelf!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Ash, written by Malinda Lo. Little, Brown. Hachette, 2009. $19.99 ages 14 and up


"When they were gone, she went back to the kitchen where she had taken out flour and starter to bake bread. She began to work, but her mind was elsewhere. She had not gone back into the Wood since the night of the hunt, though the huntress's invitation had been direct enough. She had stayed home partly because her stepmother and stepsisters had been home as well, and by the time they were asleep it was too late, she told herself, to go to the hunting camp. But she knew that in reality, she was simply nervous - at the idea of seeing the huntress again."

This is billed as a retelling of the Cinderella story but bears little resemblance to traditional lore. Aisling, who is called Ash, is the protagonist. She has a stepmother, two stepsisters and does all the house cleaning because, she is told, her father has left a great deal of debt. That ends any similarities to the original. As Ash mourns the loss of her parents, she loses her zest for life and only through a series of events does she find the love that will make her life bearable once more.

Ash lives in a world that is inhabited by fairies and she believes in them, as her mother did before her. She wants nothing more than for the fairies to come and take her from the dreariness of the life she is leading.

So much happens in the novel that will keep interested readers moving forward to discover Ash's future. She has two love interests. Sidhean is a fairy, and Ash wants to be part of his world. She thinks a reunion with her mother will result. As you might guess, joining Sidhean's world would mean Ash's departure from the mortal one. The appeal is evident...leaving the drudgery that has become her life to be with her parents in death. The endless tales she reads are meant to deter her from the fairy world; instead they further entice her. In Part 1 she is 12 and we learn about Sidhean, her obsession for the strangeness of his world and his invitation to help her escape from her life. In Part 2 we meet the huntress. Now Ash is 18 and slowly coming to terms with death and moving toward a clearer choice about life. At the hunting camp, she becomes familiar with new people, explores the wood that surrounds the camp and meets Kaisa, the huntress. It is her attraction to the huntress that has her considering her future. She does not want Prince Aidan. Sidhean plays the role of fairy godfather in getting her to the Ball. Her interest in Sidhean wanes as her friendship with Kaisa blossoms and grows. Ash feels vulnerable to this new life and love and to a perceived lack of interest on Kaisa's part.

I won't spoil the ending. I loved fairy tales as a kid, have loved them as an adult and am always interested in reading one that draws on elements of a familiar story. Malinda Lo's story is a tale of love and longing and deserves a wide audience. Bravo!

Letters from Rapunzel, written by Sara Lewis Holmes. Harper, 2007. $18.99 ages 12 and up


"You are the secret to my success as a poet and a human being. Writing these letters every day has helped me keep my heart open, to be willing to live, to keep the darkness..."

In a novel that is filled with letters from a young girl sent to P.O. Box #5667, we learn much about life...not a fairy tale as might be surmised from the title, but life that takes us on a journey of discovery. She knows about the box because she found a letter her father had been sending to it prior to his hospitalization for depression. His daughter calls it the 'evil spell' and she does her best to understand the alienation she feels from the father she loves. By sending the letters she hopes to find hope and help.

There is never a feeling that this is only about our letter writer. She has a voice that is full and just right for her age. She exhibits a sense of hopeful optimism, while trying to be realistic about her situation. And she is a bit of a cynic as well. As she writes she introduces the reader to her life, her parents and the way they are trying to cope with her father's hospitalization. Her mother is working longer hours since her father can't work, she feels trapped in the Homework Club seeking answers to her difficulties at school and she wants out. As she seeks answers she holds onto the hope that her penpal (#5667) will actually send her a reply.

Kids will often open up about issues that are bothering them when they have a chance to learn that others deal with much the same 'stuff'. This is a book that allows for that. Whether you are reading it at school with your students or at home with your own children, it can open lines of communication about school, demands, illness and journal keeping or letter writing to express bottled up feelings.

It is so worth every single award it has received!

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, written by Maryrose Wood. Harper, 2010. $20.99 ages 8 and up



This was such a fun book to read and Penelope Lumley is a lovely, generous character to get to know. She has just graduated from Swanburne, where she gained the intelligence and tenacity to serve her well. She loves to refer to the many wise teachings of the founder of the academy and uses them to help her through the ups and downs of daily life. We meet her as she makes the trip to a job at Ashton Place. The family is looking for a governess and Penny comes highly recommended. She has her fingers crossed that the family will like her.

Her meeting with Lady Constance causes some ripples of concern. She is asked few questions and given little information. What she does discover comes when she asks her own questions of her potential employer. Surprise results when she finally meets the children, who are living in the barn. They are filthy, wrapped in blankets and howl rather than talk. In fact, they have little language and their antics are more animal-like than human. Upon meeting Lord Ashton Penny discovers that he has found the children while on a hunt in the forest. They apparently have been raised by wolves. Rather than send them away, he has decided to keep them and find someone to care for them; hence, Penny's arrival.

Of course Penny is hired and she immediately sets about bringing order and new learning to the three unruly children. Using poetry, Latin and guidance in manners she is sure they will change for the better each day. They are left to their own devices until Lady Constance decides that they must be 'brought up to code' for the coming Christmas celebration. This will be their coming out and they will be expected to act with propriety, or Penny will be out of a job. Her tireless work to bring order and refinement is thwarted by someone who does not seem to want the children to improve. I wonder???

If this is the beginning of a new series, please put me on the list for the next installment. I found it to be engaging, humorous, fast-paced and intelligent. I loved the inclusion of Agatha Swanburne's wise sayings that so helped Penny to deal with this new life. We would do well to remember many of them ourselves.

While I often complain about the plethora of series starters that land in my mailbox, some books are meant to be the introduction to a surprising group of characters whose adventures will stretch beyond the pages of just one book. When they are as good as this one, they deserve another look...I'm waiting!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

My Dog is as Smelly as Dirty Socks, written and illustrated by Hanoch Piven. Schwartz & Wade, Random House. 2007. $21.99 ages 4 and up


"I am colorful as a FLOWER
and as lovely as PERFUME.
I am as strong as a STONE
and as good as an ANGEL.
(Hey, I'm not done yet.)"

I said I would put this book on my wish list, and voila...it's here. It has all the same qualities as My Best Friend Is As Sharp As A Pencil (April 29). In an author's note, Hanoch Piven tells his readers that he spent time in the oncology wing of a children's hospital where he conducted workshops with sick children and teenagers. They created self-portraits and family groupings using found materials, common in most households and also from the hospital. Their wonderful creations grace the endpapers of this book.

The author took what he was doing in that workshop and applied it to create a series of portraits of a little girl (the princess) and her family. We meet them all at the beginning, sketched on a torn-out notebook page and labelled so that we might know each one of them. But, our narrator knows much more than we do and determines that she will introduce reader to each of the family members. What fun!

As he has done before, the artist uses found materials to help determine the text and then proceeds to create an image that will have those who share this book make many discoveries. Of course, with encouragement, the story can be easily extended to move beyond the pages of the book to each listener's own creative imagining of pets, family, extended family and visitors. The possibilities seem endless.

A Voweller's Bestiary, by JonArno Lawson. The Porcupine's Quill, 2008. $14.95 ages 10 and up


"Ants and Aadvarks

An ant's bad karma
has blatant drawbacks:

An ant's bad karma
attracts aardvarks;

vandal aardvarks that ransack
ant farms.

Aardvarks grasp that ants
can't attack back -
that ants lack spark;

that ants can't scram fast,
and that ants can't bark.

And ants that aardvarks can't catch?

Ants that aardvarks can't catch
clasp and match,
plan fast-track ant-farms
and hatch hatch hatch."

What an amazing way to get writers interested in language! It's an alphabet book, a book about animals (surefire hit!) and a poetic form called the lipogram. In an afterword, JonArno Lawson explains it this way:

"The idea behind A Voweller's Bestiary is a simple one; an alphabet book based on vowel combinations, rather than on initial letters. I used the lipogrammatic rule of excluding certain vowels from each set."

The poems are so inventive, original and almost mind-blowing when you get to the full reading. I cannot fathom the time it took to write them! The enjoyment and awe I felt as I read them once, and then again, was jaw-dropping. Our language really is a full course meal to be savored and explored. There is nothing else to say!

Once he has ventured as far as G, he veers to a small section that deals with 'h' and the way its sound changes when it falls after certain letters. Brilliant!

"Whitehead

Whitehead's clawhandled wheelbarrow cartwheels.
Whitehead, overwhelmed, whimpers,
'Why, why?'
'What?' whispers Whykes.
'Why, why?' whimpers Whitehead,
while Whykes whistles whimsically."

Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, written by Jordan Sonnenblick. Scholastic, 2004. $7.99 ages 10 and up


"And I wanted to scream at every teacher, 'Why are you making me do this stupid busywork while my brother's white cell count is so low? Who cares about listing the first ten presidents when my brother has another spinal tap on Friday? What possible use is the FOIL method of muliplying binomials when my brother's gums are bleeding every time he tries to brush his teeth?'
And I wanted to punch every kid who told me they 'understood' my pain. Nobody understood my pain."

It's hard to imagine that I have included a humor label for this book when it is Steven's personal account of a school year that mostly deals with his little brother's battle with cancer. But, add it I did because this compelling novel includes much humor, along with the heartbreak.

Our first meeting with Steven is at school, where he is devising a list of annoying things as a pre-writing strategy:

- journal assignments
- dull pencils
- the pencil sharpener smell

When he realizes that his teacher is standing right behind him, he makes a lightning quick decision to write about his little brother...so annoying. Sarcasm is at play here and Steven drafts a humorous depiction of some of Jeffrey's behaviors. On first meeting, Steven seems a normal middle schooler...'rents that cause untold difficulties when trying to lead an adolescent lifestyle, a crush on the 'hot' girl in his class who doesn't know he's alive, a little brother that everyone else loves (but they don't have to live with him) and the daily school grind meant to irritate young teens.

Steven has an authentic, emotional voice and we are happy to be is his company as he shares his story with us. On a seemingly normal day, Steven offers to make breakfast for his little brother. A fall results in a nosebleed that won't quit and a heart-stopping diagnosis of leukemia for the five year old. The author creates a family whose love and concern are evident in every trip to the hospital, every treatment needed and every emotional turn this dramatic novel takes. He writes deftly about the emotional toll it takes when a loved one must face unbearable pain and the family must deal with the upheavals that result from expensive and critical care.

Steven shares his honest and heartbreaking responses to all that is happening around him; his parents are inconsolable at times, while trying to keep their spirits up, as Jeffrey endures painful treatment, endless setbacks and minor improvement. Steven is angry, frustrated and unwilling to share what he is going through with his friends. Drumming seems to be his one release and drum he does, in preparation for a very important concert. When his friends find out about Jeffrey, they offer their support and show their concern while trying to help him deal with the uncertainties and the sadness that consume him.

He has a real and remarkable voice, and is a totally believable character. The others who 'people' this story have their own strengths and they add depth to every scene. There is no formula here for how the story will play out; only open, honest conversations and responses to a terrible time in this family's life. It is uncomfortable and it is real...we go through the whole thing, caring about Steven, Jeffrey and the others who matter in their lives.

"I know that, in the middle of everything else that's gone swirling around us this year, I've been his play buddy, dropped everything for him, held his hand whenever he's asked." What more can a brother do?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hey Batta Batta SWING! by Sally Cook and James Charlton with illustrations by Ross MacDonald. Simon & Schuster, 2007. $21.99 ages 8 and up


"More than a hundred years ago baseball was just getting started, and the rules were nothing like they are today. Sure, baseball was played on a diamond with three bases and a home plate, but that's where the similarities end."

My friend Kurt is going to love this book...if he doesn't already have it. I read so much about the old game that I did not know. Any idea what soaking is? Well, it was 'a very early rule that allowed a runner who was off base to be put out by hitting him with a ball.' Did not know that...and not my idea of fun! I'm sure that even dedicated fans will learn some new facts about the old game.

The pages are filled with colorful, cartoon-like illustrations that add humor to the information being shared. Many definitions grace the outside margins, and there are entries about almost anything you can imagine...team colors, jersey numbers, naming the teams. Having the glossary in the margins is a real bonus to the readers' understanding of the text presented. They learn immediately about a meatball, a gopher ball and a lollipop without having to search elsewhere. Such an entertaining way to learn more about a national pastime. And oh! the nicknames. "Frank Baker became known as 'Home Run' Baker after he hit two homers in the 1911 World Series. He didn't even hit 100 in his entire career.'

There is much to compare between the game that is played today and the game described in this most enlightening book about baseball of yesteryear. Here's something to keep in mind:

"For a few decades of the nineteenth century, most teams used only one or two pitchers for a whole season. Their hoses(pitcher's arms) must have ached like crazy!"

And batters could even call the pitch they wanted!

If you want to extend the learning, there are many wonderful picture book biographies that tell the story of some of the stars....Henry Aaron, Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig. Kadir Nelson's We Are The Ship is the truly amazing and beautifull illustrated story of Negro League baseball. Paul Janeczko's That Sweet Diamond features poetry about all aspects of the grand game. The list goes on and on....

Put It On The List! Written and illustrated by Kristen Darbyshire. Dutton, Penguin Group (Canada), 2010.$18.50 ages 4 and up


"Who's ready for peanut butter and
pickled grub on macaroni casserole?"

Not me...thanks! With only one person in the house to add to the list of things needing to be replaced, I have only myself to blame when there's no milk for the cereal in the morning, or no mayo for the sandwich at lunch. In the chicken family of four, that is not the case!

Mom tries to get the family in the habit of 'putting it on the list'; they always forget! Have you heard that one? On Monday, there are pancakes but no syrup. The rest of the week is not much better. When Mom made a shopping trip and came back with milk, there was no cereal. What is a mother to do? When the lima beans are plentiful and there is no napkin to hide them in, the list becomes more crucial.

Mom flips out when they are missing all manner of things on Saturday and that's when she offers up the above-mentioned casserole . A Sunday family meeting is scheduled and a new kind of list is made. Now, there is help for shopping, list making, and ordering pizza 'in case of emergency'!

Full of fun, and a message delivered to boot! You'll like it!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What if? by Laura Vaccaro Singer. Roaring Brook, H B Fenn, 2010. $18.99 ages 3 and up


"What if...?
And what if...?
Then what if...?
But then...
Or..."

Laura Vaccaro Singer is an innovative, original voice in children's books. Each book begs to be read and read again...to be pored over for their outwardly simple messages. In her books nothing is quite as simple as she makes it feel. Readers and listeners come away from the sharing in a more thoughtful space.

In this lovely, lively new story we meet a young boy whose presence on the cover gets us to thinking that he might be playing a game with the beach ball that is so prominently displayed. Upon opening that cover we watch as he kicks the ball toward the water, then watch that same ball afloat on the water. The first question is asked, 'What if..?'

Well, what if two seals got to playing with the ball in the water and it came ashore? One seal follows it, and then the other. 'And what if...?' The two seals get to playing while another watches from the water. They don't invite the third to join them and we are faced with a full page image of the sadness the left out seal feels.

Or...

She presents two additional scenarios, each with the same questions, but with different solutions. It is so thought-provoking and discussion-encouraging for her young readers. There are only eleven words altogether...and then they are repeated. Children will soon be reading this wistful book to themselves, and thinking of other occasions when similar events might occur.

I often suggest a gift library of Laura Vaccaro Singer's books when children are beginning to be interested in reading on their own. It is a special way to set them on the journey that will last a lifetime! If you have a loved one that you would like to start on the road to lifelong reading pleasure, look for her books and get that bookshelf growing.

Pigs to the Rescue, written and illustrated by John Himmelman. Henry Holt, H B Fenn, 2010. $19.99 ages 4 and up


"On Wednesday, Jeffrey Greenstalk got his kite stuck in a tree.
Pigs to the rescue!
'Well, you did get it out of the tree,
I guess,' said Jeffrey."

Kids will think this is a laugh riot! Farmer Greenstalk's disabled tractor begins the week's chain of unlikely events. When it breaks down, it's 'pigs to the rescue'. And so it goes with Mrs. Greenstalk and her garden hose, Jeffrey Greenstalk and his kite, Caleb the rooster and his sore throat, Emily Greenstalk and her shoelace, and Ernie the duck and his great sadness. When the pigs come to the rescue, hilarity and chaos ensue. You cannot believe the string of mishaps that are the result of their genuine interest in providing aid.

On Sunday when Lulu the cat spills her saucer of milk and the family quietly deals without porcine help, they are in for a big surprise!

Surprise endings are so much fun! They help teach young writers about the variety of ways in which their own stories might end. In this hilarious book, no words need be spoken to bring it to a memorable conclusion.

As in all great books, the text and artwork are a perfect match. The serenity of each day and its minor problem are forgotten when the pigs offer unsolicited help. There is much to see as they dash to bring their own special brand of assistance, and it's such fun to read!

Anything But Typical, written by Nora Raleigh Baskin. Simon & Schuster, 2009. $8.99 ages 10 and up


"When I write, I can be heard. And known.
But nobody has to look at me. Nobody has to see me at all."

Jason is twelve and he has autism. His view of the world is decidedly different. He has trouble making friends, because they want him to be like them, to think like them and to express feelings in the same way they do. Jason cannot do that. He has trouble in school with people who do not understand his needs, and cannot accept his many peculiarities. He loves the computer, and writing and especially a site called Storyboard. Through this site he meets PhoenixBird, aka Rebecca, and he can be himself when their communication is online. He looks forward to her responses to his writing and he is willing to offer counsel for hers. It is the highlight of his day!

When he gets a chance to go to a Storyboard conference, he is ecstatic and terrified. He knows he will have a chance to learn more about his writing in workshops offered by authors, he knows there will be much for him to learn, and he knows that he might come face to face with PhoenixBird. He is terrified that it will change her opinion of him when she actually sees Jason. Maybe she, too, will only see his autism.

I have read some wonderful books in the past few years with autistic main characters. The most recent was Marcelo in Marcelo in the Real World (Tuesday, April 13). Another from a book that I read less recently, and which I have not posted is Ted, in The London Eye Mystery (Dowd,2007). I am sure there will more in our future.

In this book, we quickly become attuned to Jason's voice, to his love for family, his worries about the future, his reactions to those things that bother him. Jason knows he's different; yet, he is also a twelve year old boy with twelve year old boy senstivities. He is not a character you will soon forget. His voice will linger in your mind when you move on to other stories and other characters. We only have to listen:

"I knew I had these letters - ADOS, LD, HFA, PDD, NOS - that would
be linked to my name, that I was not going to outgrow. And even if
my mom didn't know it, I only had one choice. I could keep my name
with all its letters and sounds and all its meaning and all its
nonmeaning. Or I could disappear.
And that's when I started writing stories."

Bravo, Nora Raleigh Baskin!

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Secret Fiend, written by Shane Peacock. Tundra, 2010. $21.99 ages 12 and up


"Two gang members are posted as lookouts in the park at a distance from each other and eight more are gathered in a circle around someone. The one in the middle is not Malefactor. Sherlock can see the boss's tall top hat in the ring of boys looking on. There are eleven visible gang members in the eerie light. There should be twelve Irregulars plus Malefactor, for a total of thirteen. Where are the other two?"

I love it when books live up the expectations that I have of them! That might not be fair to this accomplished and award-winning author; it is the case! And cases are his speciality at the moment. Four books...four winners! I was so happy to open my mail recently and find Sherlock's 4th case awaiting my attention. I had to hold off for a few too many days, as I had other chores to get done. Reading was on the back burner...not usually true.

Then, I got started with Sherlock again...and found it very hard to make myself stop. I did not read in the evening because I knew that I would not sleep until I was done. Rats! That meant another slight delay. But, second sitting took me straight to the conclusion. I should have read it all in a go!

We are back in the streets of Victorian London and Benjamin Disraeli has taken his post at the helm of England, Prime Minister of the Empire. There is much unrest afoot. Sherlock's admirer, Beatrice the hatter's daughter, is walking home late at night with a friend when they are attacked by a fiend, known in earlier times as the Spring Heeled Jack. She is terrified, and Louise is missing! Sherlock is suspicious and not interested in pursuing another mystery. Beatrice persists, Louise is found and Sherlock finds himself in the midst of another mysterious set of circumstances.

The country is filled with fear and paranoia over the election of a Jewish leader. There is much poverty and people endure deplorable living conditions in many areas of England. Charismatic speakers are encouraging chaos in the streets and demands for better living and working conditions for all. As Sherlock plots his next move, his suspicions about friends and foes grow daily. He is not sure who to believe, who to follow or even who to trust as he seeks to find resolution to the fear that is being inflicted upon London as the Fiend's attacks become deadlier and the hysteria heightens.

It is endlessly intriguing to gain knowledge of those traits that will lead Sherlock Holmes to his adult destiny. Shane Peacock has created a character who shows early the man he will become. His powers of keen observation, his intense fire for justice and order, his ability to sort clues that lead to the eventual solution of unspeakable crimes, and his willingness to learn from his mistakes and accept guidance from those who have much to teach endear him as a fallible, while also worthwile, protangonist. Don't miss this wonderful series!

The Sandwich Swap, by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah, and Kelly DePucchio, illustrated by Tricia Tusa. Hyperion, H B Fenn, 2010. $19.99 4 +


"It all began with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich...
and it ended with a hummus sandwich."

The first book I read from Ian Wallace, a Canadian author and illustrator, was called The Sandwich. It was the story of a young Italian boy whose parents packed him a school lunch every day with a provolone and mortadella sandwich. You can imagine the smell and the catcalls that he endured whenever he opened his lunch bag. The book was published in 1998 and its message was cultural diversity.

Fast forward twelve years and we have another sandwich story, with a somewhat similar message of tolerance and understanding. Queen Rania wrote it with a personal incident in mind...a school friend who had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. It almost made Her Majesty gag! It certainly made her turn up her nose until she tried it....mmm! mmm! good!

And so it is for Lily and Salma in this lovely new book about friendship and the differences that make us so special. The two did everything together. They played, worked and ate lunch in tandem. They ate different things and, while both had strong feelings about the other's lunch, they never revealed them. Until Lily couldn't hold it in any longer...'your sandwich looks kind of yucky'. When Salma thought about what Lily had said and about the love her mother put into providing her lunch, Salma was hurt and then MAD! And the fight was on...

Back and forth it went until lunch was done and they returned to their classroom. It did not end there. It carried over to the next day, and the next...and it began to include their friends and choosing sides in the nasty battle about first food, and then many other rude things. It resulted in a FOOD FIGHT and shame for the trouble they had unleashed. A visit to the principal was the final straw.

The following day the two friends were, once again, sitting together for lunch when Lily asked Salma if she would like to taste her sandwich. Salma bravely, and happily, said she would. And reciprocated with the same offer. Soon they were sharing each other's sandwich. Guess what??? They had been wrong. A second trip to the principal had a much happier outcome.

When I saw Queen Rania on Good Morning America she talked about writing this book in hopes that it might inspire readers to acceptance of differences. She believes that the more you embrace diversity, the more enriched your life is. After all, we are more alike than we are different. If you want to hear Her Majesty read her book, check for it on YouTube.