Total Pageviews

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Canadian Railroad Trilogy, written by Gordon Lightfoot with art by Ian Wallace. Groundwood, 2010. $24.95 all ages

"And when the young man's fancy had turned him to the spring,
The railroad men grew restless for to hear their hammers ring.
Their minds were overflowing with the visions of their day,
With many a fortune won and lost and many a debt to pay.
For they looked to the future and what did they see,
They saw an iron road runnin' from the sea to the sea."

This Gordon Lightfoot song was commissioned by the CBC for a special broadcast on January 1, 1967. It was written to commemorate Canada's Centennial year and to recount the building of the Transcontinental railway. In writing the song, Lightfoot tells a powerful and poignant story, not veering away from the tragic events that were a part of its history. All was not beneficial to the hardworking men (mostly Chinese immigrants) who built it, or to the aboriginal people whose land was lost in the wake of its construction. Their way of life was forever changed as the government forged forward to lay a line of steel through all they had known.

It had all the makings of a remarkable be able to connect the people of Canada from one sea to the other, to carry goods to new settlers in a new land, and to provide another means of transportation for the many who were arriving in Canada. Loss of life and land added another less desirable dimension to the politicians' dream of a united country.

Ian Wallace chose a new medium for himself in creating the images that so richly bring the story to life. The illustrations are done on gray pastel papers, using homemade chalk pastels. They give depth and fluidity to the powerful words of the song. He misses nothing as he moves from sea to sea, showing the Niagara Falls mist, the majesty of the mountains, the wide expanse of prairie sky. They are often breathtaking. I really appreciate the notes he has included following the text, where he explains each image and offers up a quick history lesson for readers.

One of my favorites (only one of many) is the steam engine confronting the bison on the vast plains, sky alight with the drama of the sunset and steam puffing an image of the whole of Canada that is to be connected by the iron horse. Lovely and memorable!

Music and lyrics are also an integral part of the whole, as is the brief history of the CPR and suggestions for further reading.

Betsy Red Hoodie, written by Gail Carson Levine and illustrated by Scott Nash. Harper, 2010. $18.99 ages 5 and up

"Beyond the farm a ram strayed from the path. Zimmo herded him and came back with daisies. He gave Betsy the daisies and ran for more.
Betsy and the sheep picked daisies too.

The two shepherds led the sheep to Highanddry Slope.
A hunter stepped out of a thicket.
Betsy jumped in front of Zimmo. "We're the shepherds
of Bray Valley."

The hunter lowered his rifle."

Well, it might seem to take a page from Little Red Riding Hood, but only a few of the elements are similar. There is a young girl (nine now and old enough to run errands for her mother) who wears a red hoodie. There is a wolf, but he's a shepherd and the girl's best pal. There is a grandma who lives in a darkened house in the forested valley.

And, there are sheep. We know we're going to love them right from the start...literally. The endpapers offer an opportunity to get to know those sheep better, through speech bubbles and animated conversation:

"Every day is the same.
We never go anyplace new.
The shepherds won't take us.
My wool is itchy.
One of the shepherds may be a wolf.
I want to be a wolf someday."

They are wearing an assortment of hats, work boots, and one is strumming a guitar. Who can resist them?

Betsy is given the task of taking cupcakes to her Grandma. As she makes preparations, she becomes concerned for her sheep as she is one of the shepherds of Bray Valley. Her mother encourages her to take them for the exercise. At the moment that she releases them from their pen, Zimmo shows up. Zimmo is the wolf, and the second shepherd. Betsy recognizes that a wolf could be a threat to her grandma...she heard a story once. But, he begs and he pleads with her to let him go along. Zimmo has an upstanding record, and has never harmed anyone. So, she agrees. There are warnings but they seem unfounded. Off they go to Grandma's house, the sheep filling every spare moment with one comment after another.

When Zimmo rushes ahead of them off into the woods and does not respond to Betsy's 'wolf whistle', she becomes concerned for her grandmother's welfare. The sheep have questions:

"What do grandmas look like?
They have big eyes, the better to see you with.
They have long arms, the better to hug you with.
They are long in the tooth, the better to chew with."

And wolves? Well, 'they look a lot like grandmas!'

Zimmo is long gone and Betsy is frantic to get the sheep hurrying along. One disaster after another slows their progress. Finally, they see the house...all in darkness! Oh my, what has happened there?

No spoiler here from me! I can tell you that I will be sharing this book in many classrooms and loving every minute of will the audience.

Scott Nash does a masterful job of matching his characters to the tone of  the story and making them such an integral part of the fun to be had. The sheep are decked out for visiting, full of expression and consistently entertaining to their audience.  The ever changing design offers full page spreads, panels, insets and speech balloons that provide hilarity at every turn...even on the back cover!

Proud to be Inuvialuit, written by James Pokiak and Mindy Willett. Photographs by Tessa Macintosh. Fifth House, 2010. $16.95 ages 8 and up

"As the story goes, there were some caribou that were about to cross to a
point of land near where Tuk is today. A young woman was sick, so the people
told her, "Don't look out at the caribou, you're sick. Something might happen to
the caribou." She agreed., but when the caribou started swimming across to the point she peeked, and the caribou turned into rocks. To this day, you can see stone caribou when the water is low. That is how Tuktoyaktuk or 'something that looks like a caribou,' got its name."

I have reviewed this series previously. This is the fifth book published to help young readers learn about the people and their culture, the land and the beauty of the Northwest Territories. This edition takes us along with James Pokiak and his family as they participate in a traditional Beluga hunt.

The photographs are engaging and informative, showing village life as it is lived. They allow us access to family and home life, the people and places of the community and the traditions of the hunt itself. Information is shared throughout the text and and a glossary of terms and further facts are added in the back matter.

As the Pokiak family works to keep their traditions and make a better life for themselves, we are interested observers. It is a most welcome window for all. James is a fine teacher, sharing the many skills and values that he has learned growing up in Tuktoyuktuk. It is his wish to pass his traditional ways on to his family and friends. It has a personal feel and leaves the reader thinking of James as a friend, with a stake in helping further our knowledge of his people and their community. It is a worthy addition to any collection that encourages understanding of present and past Inuit culture.

Monday, December 20, 2010

TRUCE, written by Jim Murphy. Scholastic, 2009. $24,99 ages 9 and up

"The truth was that something deeper was
at work on the men. The more friendly contact
they had with the enemy, the less anger they
felt toward them. After describing in detail
how neighborly the enemy across from him
was, German captain Rudolf Binding concluded
his diary entry with, 'Truly, there is no longer
any sense in this business.'"

And now, another story of the Christmas Day Truce...this one a nonfiction account of it from an author who was clearly moved and amazed by the events that transpired that famous day. When the men in the trenches called their own truce, they took no orders and paid no attention to the differences that were inherent in their being in that place and time. They believed in a Christmas miracle and they made it happen. For a brief and shining moment, they chose peace over all else.
Jim Murphy is a veteran in the field of nonfiction....he writes with clarity and care and does his research impeccably. While the text is direct and very clear, with accompanying archival photos to give readers perspective, the war itself was complex and often too horrifying to imagine. War has no place of honor for reflects the abysmal losses that resulted as modern weapons were used in old world combat. The story is compelling and kept me reading well into the night. I didn't want to put it down....war? injury? hatred? Doesn't sound like a book I would read relentlessly. But, I did.

When war broke out in summer 1914, the world swelled with patriotic pride...and all were convinced that it would be short-lived and the men would soon be home. At Christmas time, there were no signs that the end was in sight. In fact, the battles raged on and on, with no clear advantage to either side. Thousands died while thousands more dealt with illness, insects, rain and the knowledge that the war had no real purpose for the people fighting it.

On Christmas Eve the soldiers were falling prey to despair and the futility of the battles. They were trying, as much as they could, to create a more humane, and happier place to be. They sang songs, put up trees, and shared gifts. Everyone was quietly trying to enjoy this one special day! In the midst of their willingness to find good in an evil, ugly circumstance, the true spirit of Christmas shone forth.

You know the rest of the story....but, you will not be sorry to read about it in this masterful, and honorable book. I will leave the final say to Major Murdoch McKenzie Wood:

"I...came to the conclusion that I have held firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired. For a fortnight that truce went on. We were on the most friendly terms, and it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again."

The best Christmas present in the world, written by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Michael Foreman. Egmont, Raincoast, 2004. $12.50 ages 8 and up

"I should like to be able to tell you that
we began it. But the truth, I'm ashamed
to say, is that Fritz began it. First someone
saw a white flag waving from the trenches
opposite. Then they were calling out to us
from across no-man's-land, 'Happy
Christmas, Tommy! Happy Christmas!
Wheh we got over the surprise some
of us shouted back, 'Same to you, Fritz!
Same to you!"

This quietly eloquent book is mostly told in letter form, written from the front during World War I. It was sent by Jim Macpherson to his beloved Connie in December 1914 and tells an amazing story. The letter itself is found in an old second-hand desk, bought in poor condition many years after the end of the war.

Jim tells Connie of the wonderful events that transpired on Christmas Day 1914 between the British and German forces. We know it as the Christmas Day Truce. As the troops spent the morning standing in the trenches, a white flag waved from across no-man's land, and a German soldier lead his troops up and over the side of their trench, inviting the British troops to do the same. It seemed they had schnapps and sausage and were willing to share. The British soldiers followed Private Morris toward their 'enemy':

"In the middle of a war we were making peace."

Once introductions were made, they shared their rations...rum and sausage, and stories of home and family. They even shared a cake Connie had sent. And then, they played football. Game done, food eaten and well wishes shared, the troops returned to their trenches and from across the way sang alternating carols throughout the night.

I get goosebumps reading this story and cannot imagine the joy and relief when the two sides realized that each wanted the war over as quickly as possible. They each longed for peace.

The ending offers up another Christmas present to a woman who has forgotten much about her past, but never the love she felt for her own true love, Jim Macpherson. It is poignant and oh, so memorable. Michael Morpurgo creates rich and believable characters, and sets their stories within the context of history. Here he creates a story of love and remembrance, based on a page from the world's story.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Chanukah Noel, written by Sharon Jennings and illustrated by Gillian Newland. Second Story Press, 2010. $15.95 ages 6 and up

"But it was hard to keep quiet.
It seemed that every house and shop
was decorated with boughs of evergreens
and holly and garlands of white lights.
All we had was one small menorah
for Chanukah."

Everything has changed for Charlotte and her family...with a move to a new home in France. There are many new experiences to endure. The French language poses an obstacle and means that Charlotte's placement is a difficult one at school. Village life means new food, locally grown and made. The cheese and milk are funny-smellling and that is also upsetting to the young miss. But, she does love the chocolate-stuffed baguette!

As December arrives the village takes on a new persona. The streets are filled with light and color. The shops are bulging with gifts to be bought and wrapped in anticipation of the coming holiday. And the smells...oh, the smells! 

Charlotte longs to enjoy the many Christmas traditions that her Jewish family does not observe. She is sure that there must be a way to honor both. When she hears that Colette and her family are too poor to enjoy much of the season's best, Charlotte asks her parents for advice and begins to hatch a plan. She proposes it to Colette's father, Mr. Levert:

"I have a favor to ask. We are Jewish and we do not celebrate Christmas. But I would give anything to have a tree and decorations and all the special food." I took a deep breath. "And so, Monsieur, I was hoping that you would let my family do all the shopping and cooking and then bring it to you. Please, Monsieur Levert?"

That is the true gift of Christmas, isn't it? Giving, rather than receiving, has a very profound effect on each one of us.

The charm of the French village is evident in the warm and evocative paintings created by Gillian Newland. They evoke a simpler time, with deep tones and detailed images.

It's Snowing! Written and illustrated by Olivier Dunrea. Square Fish, H B Fenn. 2002. $8.99 ages

"Mama scrunches into her coat.
She ties a long long scarf
around her neck.
She pulls on thick warm mittens.
Mama scoops up Baby
and trundles out the door."

Kids don't need to know what scrunches or trundles mean to understand exactly what is happening; but, what beautiful words to add to their listening. Just as Baby hears the snow while holding his breath and is delighted by its beauty, young listeners will hear this story and know the joy that Mama and Baby feel while they frolic in new snow.

The setting is perfect for the winter song shared as Mama partakes of the beauty of the first snowfall with her young one. The earth tone illustrations honor the northern environs and the snow-covered landscapes convey the true glory of the season. As they bundle up and head for the scenes that await them, Mama encourages her youngster to take in the smells, sounds, sights and other joys of the cold, cold night.

She builds a snow troll, sleds down a snow-covered hill and rides an ice bear. Following their adventure, Baby is filled with delight and sporting a very red nose, which encourages a return home, a much-needed nap and a hot drink by the fire for the heart-gladdened parent.

The goucahe paintings clearly evoke the transformative power of the season...covering every visible landform with the soft beauty of shimmering snowflakes. You can almost smell, feel, touch, and taste it yourself as you share this lovely story.

Suzy Goose and the Christmas Star, written and illustrated by Petr Horacek. Candlewick, Random House, 2009.$19.00 ages 3 and up

"She saw a fence.
She climbed to the top,
stretched up
very, very high,

But it was not quite
high enough.


Were it not for Suzy and her determination to get the job done, there would be no story here. As she and her friends admire their beautiful Christmas tree, Suzy recognizes that something very important is missing!  It needs a STAR!  Upon seeing such a star in the sky, Suzy has reason for hope.

She'll just get up there and bring it down for their tree. How is that possible? Suzy believes there are options. Each plan seems doomed to failure and ends with a SPLAT! Well, walking might be tedious, but it should work. On and on she goes, farther and farther away from home and hearth. Feeling hopelessly lost, she is heartened to hear familiar sounds. Following the sounds, she meets up with her friends and is awfully impressed to have her dream of a star topper come true!

You cannot help but be impressed with Suzy and her strength of character...I liked meeting her. And the artwork is so impressive. Each double spread invites exploration and discussion. The panelled spreads move the story along with spunk and humor. Suzy never gives up! Her tenacity pays off when she and her friends are faced with the magic of the Christmas season:

"It was almost like magic.
"Merry Christmas,"
honked Suzy Goose."

A Porcupine in a Pine Tree, written by Helaine Becker and illustrated by Werner Zimmermann. Scholastic, 2010. $16.99 ages 3 and up

"On the fifth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
Five Stanley Cups,
Four calling moose,
Three beaver tails,
Two caribou,
And a porcupine in a pine tree."

Dedicated to Canadian kids...the best in the world, Helaine Becker uses many of our iconic symbols to create a new song for Christmas this year. She begins with a pine tree, and a porcupine! With each new spread, Werner Zimmerman adds to the fun, creating watercolor images that shine with expressive characters and humorous detail. Each is rendered in bright color and served up on a background of white space. Red is predominant, a reminder of our national color.

The sports are, sledding, curling, canoeing. The people too...Toronto Maple Leafs, Mounties. Then, there are the animals....puffins, loons, moose, bears and beavers. As the numbers grow, chaos ensues. Finally, the porcupine remembers to water the pine tree, and peace prevails before the final foray into the branches of the spectacular evergreen!

Now, you have a new song to teach for the concert next case I'm too late for this year!

It's Christmas, David! Written and illustrated by David Shannon. Scholastic, 2010. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"At Christmastime,
everyone always said...
NO David!
No Peeking!
No Snitching!"

OH! NO! Not David again!!!

What a character, and one that many young readers can see in themselves. David hasn't changed much...he still likes mischief and mayhem. If you have read and loved his other stories, you will know that there is nothing sacred to David...and he is so much like the many who will read and enjoy this new adventure. His beleaguered parents haven't changed much either:

"No yawning at the dinner table.
That's the wrong fork!
Sit up straight!
Don't reach.
Put your napkin in your lap."

There is so much that tempts a young boy at Christmas....the presents may be placed out of sight, but there are stools and chairs. Together they afford a path to the tucked-away treasures.  While Mom is taking the next pan of cookies from the oven, a small boy with probing fingers might be able to get his hand on one of those cooling confections, or what about the many decorations that hang on the branches of the trimmed tree?  Unbelievably long lines make waiting to hand Santa a detailed Christmas list a chore that must be endured, and takes a lot of explaining when your turn comes at last.

David does have moments of uncertainty. He wonders if coal might be his gift this year...or no presents at all. It gives a guy pause. In the end, all's well and there is an understanding that David has done the best he can do to be worthy of the gifts given.

Kids will eagerly, and knowingly, await the nude romp, the garish smile, the broken window...all part of the appeal of David's previous stories. He is a force to be reckoned with, and David Shannon does his very best to entertain us with humor and shock at Christmas this year.

What's Coming for Christmas? Written by Kate Banks and illustrated by George Hallensleben. Farrar, Douglas & McIntyre. 2009. $18.95 ages 3 and up

"Something was coming.
You could see it in the way the snow
whirled and twirled, making hills and
In the way the children lay in snowbanks
making angels, their arms spread wide as
if to say, 'Welcome.'"

Is there anything more exciting than the joy that Christmas brings to little ones? Their eyes dance, along with their feet, and each day seems to drag by as they wonder 'how many more?'

As the days pass slowly, there is opportunity to revel in the preparations that have become traditions in family celebrations. They build their snowman (if they have snow like we do!), watch the sparkle and drip of the icicles, listen to the carolers and trim the tree. The children in this story are filled with anticipation for what is to come. They can feel it in the air.

But, while they are consumed with their own doings, they are oblivious to the happenings outside, near the barn:

"But no one heard the jingle of cowbells.
Or the shushing of the mother hen quieting
her chicks.
No one, no one, no one."

On Christmas morning, the children find that someone has left gifts under the tree and eaten the snacks provided. Outside, they make another very special discovery:

"But in the morning, everyone knew that something had come."

This new collaboration from two very talented artists provides a heartwarming and gentle reminder of the meaning of the season. The detailed illustrations give young listeners a sense of the many delights to be found and celebrated as they await 'what's coming'.

Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas, written by Julia Rawlinson and illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke. Greenwillow, Harper Canada. $18.99 ages 3 and up

"So Fletcher, Squirrel, the birds, and the mice
finished the trail to the rabbits' new home, which
was cozy and warm and sweet with the smell of
blackberry pie. They gathered around the crackling
fire, thawing out their icy noses, nibbling pieces of
pie, and singing Christmas songs."

In this story of love and friendship, Fletcher finds himself worrying that Santa will not discover the rabbits' new burrow. In an effort to make sure that his friends are not forgotten on this glorious Christmas Eve, Fletcher creates an arrowed path to the new home. As he makes his way toward the burrow, other forest friends come to his aid and soon they are all on the rabbits' doorstep. After an evening of song, food and fellowship, the animals head for home to snuggle in and provide welcome for Santa. It is as they emerge into a snow-covered wonderland that they realize the path has been covered in sparkling splendor. They each promise to stay awake and tell Santa about the move.

As luck would have it, none can keep that promise. When they waken in the morning to find Santa has made his visit they hurry to the burrow, only to see there was no need for worry. The presents are delivered, the new burrow provides warmth and welcome for all and the day is spent as it should be....with thankful appreciation for the good things in life.

Fletcher is a character that young listeners will have an affinity for...he delights in those same things that they do. In the previous two books, Fletcher makes discoveries about the changing seasons, with humor and candor. The pastel artwork created on textured papers add a three-dimensional feel to the action...soft and gentle as the story itself. There is much to see here...the hints that snow is on its way, the gentle depth of the first real snowfall and the embossed golden star and candles on the Christmas tree.

Sharing Christmas with Fletcher and Friends is quite the treat!