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Thursday, June 30, 2011

the secret box, illustrated by Barbara Lehman. Houghton Mifflin, Thomas Allen & Son. 2011. $18.99 ages 5 and up


“Times change. Cities may grow large. Summers may come and go. And people might grow old, but the one thing that always remains the same is the desire for adventure.”


These are the only words that describe this amazing new wordless book by the master illustrator/storyteller Barbara Lehman. When she was given an old candy box that had once belonged to an elderly neighbor, it made her wonder how that treasure might connect to 'other people, times and places'. Thus, the premise for a new picture book to delight its audience.

Little is known about the young boy who places a treasure box in the floorboards in the attic of an old building. Obviously, from the first double page spread, it happens in the past. The land surrounding the building has little taking up space. A horse pulls a wagon, there is a train station and train, children do exercises beside the fenced building (which may be an orphanage or a school) and one other house with an outside well is all else that is visible.

As we turn the pages, a town begins to grow. Sidewalks and lampposts are added, as are streetcar tracks, a factory and many houses. As the years pass, the schoolyard is paved and marked with a basketball court, a diner appears, an elevated train and parking meters become part of the landscape.

Then, one day, three boys are seen in that same room...and they find the treasure left there so many years before their arrival. They look carefully at all the artifacts included and find clues to lead them out of the school and on to an adventure that eventually takes them to the Seashore Pier, an amusement park. They eagerly make their way to the entrance, only to find the original boy there to welcome them. He leads them up a ladder to a room filled with many other boys from earlier times. Perhaps, they have all found their way to the pier because of the secret box. Push forward to the future, and we note that two more young children have found what the box holds and they are off on an adventure of their own. What a ride!

Books without text offer a clean slate for young readers to devise their own stories for what is happening in the artwork. They are perfect fare for immigrant students who don't have a working knowledge of a second language to help them read. Books such as this lovely one teach them about 'story' and using your imagination and language to make it your own.

You won't be able to stop at just one reading! It will draw you back again and again. Enjoy!

The Luck of the Buttons, written by Anne Ylvisaker. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $18.00 ages 10 and up

"They made an awkward pair, Ned and Tugs, he short, she tall, and being from nearly the same gene pool, neither one was blessed with coordination. She'd try to take shorter strides, he'd try to take longer strides, and they usually ended up in a lump about five feet from the startline. Buttons were not, as a rule, graceful."

Oh, I love Tugs Button! I love her spirit, her independence, her interest in the world and the people in it. She is a wonderfully spunky young girl, who often finds herself in unexpected  trouble. It's summertime in 1929 and Tugs' life in Goodhue, Iowa is about to get fuller and more complicated. 

She means well but doesn't have a reputation for always doing the right thing. The Buttons don't live a charmed life. But, she manages to change the bad luck that seems to follow all family members into some semblance of 'good'. She makes friends with Aggie, daughter of the rich and powerful Millhouse family. They run the three-legged race together at the Fourth of July picnic, and win. She is encouraged by her local librarian, Miss Lucy, to enter an essay writing contest and wins it! For helping Mr. Pepper with a new shipment of cameras, she enters a raffle and wins a Brownie camera. No one in the family has ever had such good luck, and  it is not encouraged:

"What if there was a chance of winning? What if she did run with Aggie? She felt a wave of guilt for even thinking it. Buttons considered victory, even  for one's affiliated party in national politics, showing off."
Her life is filled with many distractions, not the least of which is the new man in town who is drumming up monetary support to start a local newsapaper. Tugs is leery of him, and wonders what he is really doing in town. Something is not right. That feeling leads to some pretty inspired detective work, and the chance to stop the con man before he hurts many in her small community. He has done so elsewhere.

This very accomplished author drops us into a totally different time and place, creating characters who will live long in our memories (including a cat named Leopold who gets into his fair share of mischief and mayhem) and a fast-paced, utterly charming tale to boot.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Liar, Liar, written by Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb, Random House. 2011. $14.99 ages 12 and up


"It's not that I thought highly of myself, it's that I really am a great guy. I'd never thought about it before, but once I looked at the evidence, it was obvious.
And if by some small chance all of that didn't work, I'd fall back on what I do best - I would lie."

We are constantly looking for those books that will hook adolescents who are not sure that reading is what they want to do. If you can get them caught up in the humor and trouble created by a character like Kevin, you are on the right track.

I have always admired Gary Paulsen's writing. He seems to have his finger on the pulse of those readers, especially boys, who are looking for fun while exploring deeper issues of friendship, family and relationships. Kevin is a character who has learned to lie for many reasons... to make others feel good and to make sure that his life stays sweet and uncomplicated for himself. In this story, the lies take on a life of their own and it takes some hard work to sort them out.

You can't help but like him. He doesn't set out to hurt anyone. He is very bright and too often uses that intelligence to have things go his way. This time he wants a girl to notice him; he goes to great lengths to make that happen. He's funny and oozes charm. Paulsen convincingly creates a character with a great voice:

"Truth be told, as much as I liked looking at Tina and devoting all my time and energy during all my free hours to thinking about making her crazy about me, it was already Wednesday and I still hadn't come up with any brainstorms to get her to like me."

Kevin is clever, charming and clearly in big trouble by the time he has worked his magic. It takes some talking and apologies to get him out of the mess that he makes for himself. He learns a valuable lesson, and seems genuinely pleased with that.

Gary Paulsen leaves the door open for us to meet up with Kevin at some future time:

"The only thing is - I still haven't gotten the chance to make Tina see that I could be the world's greatest boyfriend. But I'm working on that...."

I look forward to it!

Fuddles, written adn illustrated by Frans Vischer. Aladdin, Simon & Schuster. 2011. $18.99 ages 4 and up


"The lure of adventure had taken
hold of him. He dreamed of scaling
soaring mountains and fighting
ferocious foes. He was determined
to go out.
Nothing was going to stop him."




Kids love stories about pets. Any kid who has a cat might recognize Fuddles' disdain for the everydayness of his life. He is rotund, indulged and it isn't enough! He longs for adventure and is determined to find it.

Mom refuses to let him venture outside, fearing trouble. That isn't going to stop him. He practices all those skills he thinks he will need for a life outside the confines of the house and, at his first opportunity, makes a break for it. Of course, once outdoors, he encounters problems of all sorts.

He would love a 'go' at the birds in the birdhouse on the porch. Seems his penchant for rich foods is weighing him down when it comes to pouncing with any height. Flustered and filthy, he sets about cleaning himself  up only to attract the attention of nearby squirrels who find his dilemma hilarious. He can't get up the tree after them, and now he's worn out!

The 'catnap' lasts seconds. A rough and rugged dog next door scares him enough to put him in the tree. Who's going to get him down? No worry...his weight does that! A harrowing and hilarious ride on the back of the alarmed dog convinces him that all he wants is home. Luckily, someone has noticed he is missing.


Cuddles is a clown whose adventures are over the top and sure to have him thinking twice about making his escape at any other time. I love his expressive face and comic reactions to the many unexpected situations that happen during his foray outdoors. The petrified leap from the flower bed will have little ones laughing out loud. My favorite illustrations are the ones that find him searching the neighborhood looking for the comfort of home. The aerial view is full of wonder as we follow his trek in light and in darkness. The beam of warm light that leads him to safety is perfect! His final thought is just what you might expect from Fuddles:

"And all great adventurers deserve to be pampered."

Pair this with Nini Lost and Found and you have double delight!

Three by the Sea, written and illustrated by Mini Grey. Knopf, Random House. 2010. $20.99 ages 5 and up


"The dog tended to the garden.
The cat took care of the house-
work.
The mouse looked after the
cooking.
And they lived happily.
Or so they thought."


Ah, life is good for three friends in their little house by the sea. Each takes care of one aspect of domesticity....not very well, but nevertheless! It may seem humdrum to others as they each attend to their own sphere of excellence but they don't mind. Dog can dig as must as he wants to dig in an old dusty yard where nothing grows. Cat prefers napping to cleaning. Mouse's 'go to' dish is cheese fondue and it is a daily meal. Despite all this, they live companionably until a stranger shows up.

The Stranger (a wily and manipulative Fox) blows ashore and finds his way to their little hut. He comes with the news that they are winners...of a  visit from the WINDS OF CHANGE Trading Company.  Everything is free. He needs a bed as he is extremely tired and takes the only bed  in the house. As his visit continues he has much to say about their lifestyle. He wonders at Dog only planting bones, and gives Mouse some relevant material to read about food and homegrown herbs. He has opinions and gifts for each of the householders, and some suggestions.

With all of the fault-finding by the Stranger comes conflict. Soon, accusations and complaints are flying and the peace and tranquility of the little house vanish. Mouse has had enough of the bickering...and he decides to leave. Cat has a premonition of danger and wanders along the seashore, only to find a package of Mouse's belongings and to hear a plaintive sound from the sea that resembles a mouse squeak. Cat is desperate to save her friend, despite the fact she can't swim. In the nick of time, it's Dog to the rescue! Upon arrival back home, they find the Stranger gone and some seed packets left behind him.

These are great characters, who will hold their audience's attention with their charm and sweet concern for each other. The artwork perfectly matches the story's tone and creates a dramatic setting. Stunning and fresh, the book will be read repeatedly. It gets better with each visit. Friendship can be wrought with small conflicts and is definitely about compromise. Mini Grey makes that very clear, while not hitting us over the head with it.

What do you think? Did the Stranger's visit help the three friends or cause distress?
 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Cardturner, written by Louis Sachar. Doubleday, Random House. 2010. $21.95 ages 12 and up

"Okay, I realize you didn't come all the way to Chicago to watch Toni and me play in a side game. That would be like a sports reporter who's supposed to be covering the Super Bowl going on and on about the pregame charity touch-football match between the players' wives. It was bad enough I made you sit through Syd Fox's lecture."

 
Things aren't going well for Alton Richards. When his mother forces him to keep company with an elderly great uncle in hopes of being remembered in his will, he is not happy. But, whatever his mother says he is expected to do for the good of family.

Uncle Lester is a bit of a curmudgeon. He is rich, he is aloof,  he is blind and he's a topnotch bridge player. Alton becomes his 'card turner' , telling his uncle the cards in his hand and playing them when he is told to do so. Another young relative offers competition. Toni Castenada is beautiful, charming and a great bridge player in her own right.

There are some mysteries surrounding family in this book about love of all kinds. Alton is looking for adventure and an escape from boredom. He finds Uncle Lester irritating at times. He is also quite in awe of his bridge playing ability and the name he has made for himself at tournaments. Alton learns a lot from the old man, who has a desire for his life to be over. He has lived long enough, and he doesn't like the 'cards he has been dealt' in terms of health and aging. The other cards, however, have been good to him, and he has much to teach others.

The long passages that help to explain the game of bridge are marked so that readers can skip them, if they choose to do so. This is Sachar's nod to Herman Melville and Moby Dick which also includes long, descriptive passages. A whale marks the long descriptions for a bridge game. Alton learns a lot about bridge, family history, friendship and romance.

I wasn't sure I would like to read a book about playing bridge...it is not on my 'bucket list', but I loved this book. Louis Sachar is such an accomplished writer, creating wonderful characters who take hold of your heart and keep you wondering through the tale's ups and downs.  He uses a first person narrative to give the reader a sense of being at that card table with Alton and Uncle Lester. He mixes mystery with romance, humor and naivete to hold the reader's attention from start to finish....and he does it surreptitiously. 

Some readers will be drawn to the game and that's an added bonus, isn't it? Bravo, Louis Sachar. Who knew bridge could be so fascinating?

Strings Attached, written by Judy Blundell. Scholastic, 2011. $20.99 ages 12 and up


"There was even a pair of
fawn-colored slacks and a
matching cardigan. New York
style, all spread out on my couch.
As I stared at the white tailored
blouse I realized I didn't just want
these clothes, I hungered for them.
It was like eating honey from a spoon."

I read What I Saw and How I Lied  with a strong dose of admiration for Judy Blundell and her writing...and a healthy interest in the mystery that surrounded that story. So, I was eager in my anticipation for her newest book. It is an equally compelling read.

In this tale of love and danger, the setting is New York during the Korean War.  Kit is 17 when the book opens, and has just completed her first role in a Broadway play. The pay is not good, her future is uncertain and she is desperate to stay and find fame in any new job in the theater. She is there on her own, having fled her hometown after a fight with her father and a nasty break-up with her boyfriend. She wants to make it on her own.

Imagine her surprise when her ex-boyfriend's father makes contact with her, and offers an audition and rent on a new apartment. It's a generous offer, and somewhat disconcerting. Kit is not sure what strings will be attached to her acceptance. Had she only known, she might have thought twice about it. He is a powerful man who makes Kit an instrument in his relationship with his estranged son.

The story builds slowly, with the author adding layers of information to help the reader with the many mysterious events. We learn about Kit's past; her relationship with her family and her uneasy relationship with Billy. Nate Benedict, Billy's father is a powerful lawyer with ties to the mob and he wants to be fed information about his son who has enlisted in the army, and perhaps enlist a few favors. 
It is a tale of two generations; with secrets, lies and family connections. In telling it Judy Blundell takes us to an earlier time and provides a clear taste of what it was like to try and make it in show business in the 1950s, how war affected families and the country, and even of blacklisting. In those terms, it is a very informative read about a particular period of history.
Once you begin reading you will find it hard to stop! As Judy Blundell peels away the layers and offers up a clear look at the two families and their history, I became caught up in the mystery of it all and kept 'reading just one more chapter'. She is a great writer and I have a high regard for her ability to tell a strong story and make me feel that I am in one of those nightclubs, on one of those New York streets and risking the same dangers that face Kit. As she moves back and forth from past to present, secrets are revealed and some kept. There are many strong characters, twists and turns that surprise, and a tragic end. Is that enticing enough for you?

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Best Birthday Party Ever, written by Jennifer LaRue Huget and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Schwartz & Wade, Random House. 2011. $18.99 ages 4 and up



"I am inviting all of my friends
- 57 of them, counting some
kids I just met at the grocery
store. Plus my grandmas. And
the mailman. And the lady at
the bank who gives me lollipops."

Oh boy! It's gonna be OVER THE TOP!

Kids are going to love this book, and not just the little ones! After all, they are not the only ones who celebrate birthdays. To call this little girl's birthday an occasion is understating it. She starts the planning early:

"My birthday is 5 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, and 8 hours away. Today I started to plan my party. It's going to be the best birthday party ever."

If she has everything to do with it,  it will be just that. She's got a box of party planning stuff, how-to books for baking cakes and throwing parties, crayons, paper and a wondrous imagination. What more does she need? As time passes and she keeps readers apprised of it; she settles on balloons, streamers, invitations, the color scheme and all the other little details that will assure its success. The plans include tiaras, clown hats and even, real hamsters as party favors. (If you have been to see the movie Bridesmaids, you know what  I mean...remember the shower and the puppies?)

Her imagination runs riot and the days pass quickly...perhaps not quite quickly enough to satisfy her growing need to celebrate, but certainly with enough time to keep coming up with new ideas. She's having so much fun anticipating a card from the President and the Queen. It doesn't take long for readers to get caught up in the 'over the top' expectations. Perhaps it is also an expression of their finest and most unlikely-to-happen wishes and dreams.

The illustrations are remarkable, matching the story's tone with brilliantly colored, detail filled pages. There is so much to see that children will go back to it again and again, always exclaiming over what they missed the last time they looked. As the ideas become grander so does the artwork, always accommodating the ingenuity of the narrator. I love the changing perspectives...my favorite is where the book is turned vertically to accommodate the ever-growing birthday cake, with enough candles to have fire fighters on the ladder at its top and at the ready to put out any fire that might occur. Kids will love the countdown as the day approaches, updates that continue to the night before the big day.

When the party ends up being a perfectly normal event,she is unperturbed. The guests are welcomed, the cake is eaten and much fun is had by all. Once her friends have departed, it seems the perfect time to begin making plans for next year.

The Fortune of Carmen Navarro, written by Jen Bryant. Knopf, Random House. 2010. $19.99 ages 12 and up


"In return for my good fortune,
in return for my blessings, in
return for the good show we
did tonight, I must be honest
with this boy, I must not let
him think that he owns my
heart. No. No one can own
Carmen's heart."

I don't know how many middle school and high school students will know Carmen's story from the famed opera, or from the classic novella of the same name. I am sure that reading this superb retelling of her story may find many drawn to what inspired Jen Bryant to write it.

Carmen is a high school dropout with a passion for music. She writes songs for her band, plays guitar and wants more than anything to get a recording contract and a tour. She lives with her grandparents, wanting a better life for them. Her best friend Maggie works at the same convenience store. Carmen is a beauty, oozing charm and a zest for life. Maggie always has her back, honoring her dreams and supporting Carmen in her music. They are two sides of a coin.

Carmen has a transcendent beauty and charm that attracts many suitors. Young men are immediately attracted to her and that leads to short romances that mean little, as she seeks fame and fortune through her music. Ryan Sweeney is no exception. He is a young cadet from the nearby naval academy; shy, studious and reserved. His meeting with Carmen is providential for him. He immediately falls under her spell. His obsession brings much change to his previously perfect student record. He begins to fail courses, turns away from his friend Will and exhibits indifference to anything but Carmen.

Carmen is very much her own person. When Ryan begins interfering with the way she lives her life, and even offers a ring, she decides to end the budding relationship. Ryan is devastated. His reaction is worrisome to Will, and to Maggie.  His irrational preoccupation with 'the girl of his dreams' leads him to take dramatic action, with heartbreaking and, in time, hopeful results.

Told from four viewpoints - Carmen, Maggie, Will and Ryan - Jen Bryant tells a powerful story of love and obsession. Carmen is obsessed with her love of music and her need to make it her life. Maggie is studious, loves her friend and wants her to have that life. Ryan can only see Carmen in his future. Will wants to be a good friend, support Ryan and make his year at the academy. Their voices are clear, authentic and eloquent. It's tough not to love each one of them...for obviously different reasons.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Mitchell's License, written by Hallie Durand and illustrated by Tony Fucile. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $18.00 ages 3 and up


"Mitchell never ever EVER
wanted to go to bed. Until
his dad finally said he could
drive there.

Mitchell was three years, nine
months, and five days old when
he got his license."


This should have been a post last week for Father's Day! I missed the boat. It hearkens me back to the games my kids played with their Dad. He is missed every day.

Mitchell is not keen on bedtime...what three year old loves it? Rather than make it an issue, Dad comes up with a witty and hilarious solution. He gives Mitchell a 'remote-control dad' license to drive.

It offers up so much fun for the nightly complaints that are bedtime rituals for many young children. Dad's shoulders provide the seat, his glasses the windshield, which is competently cleaned before embarking on the first lesson. All does not go well. We do know 'practice makes perfect' and let's remember, this is the first stab at navigating the many hazards of driving. They make the bedroom in good time and Mitchell is tucked in without incident.

On the second night, Mitchell has learned more about the task at hand. He looks both ways, uses the horn (Dad's nose) when needed, makes left and right turns and knows how to use the brakes. He's a wonder! On the third night, he adds oil for maintenance, slows down for speed bumps, makes even more turns and notes that gas is needed. (The gas comes in the form of chocolate chip cookies, and it's too late for the car to be fuelled up!) Emergency flares do not help. A promise is made for tomorrow's trip, Mitchell settles in to dream of a solo career that allows as many 'gas fill-ups' as are deemed necessary.

What an inspired choice it was to have Tony Fucile create the artwork for this delightful story!  His characters are enthusiastic and energetic, the exaggerated action perfect for bringing this nightly game to the audience. I laughed out loud at some of the antics and will continue to do so as I share it in classrooms and workshops.

You won't be able to stop at one reading! I guarantee that. It's just too much fun...and could be paired with
The Daddy Mountain by Jules Feiffer.

The Monsterologist, written by Bobbi Katz and illustrated by Adam McCauley. Sterling, $23.50 ages 8 and up


"Ping-Pong with King Kong

When King Kong plays Ping-Pong,
he squashes the ball.
He whacks it so hard
you can't hit it at all.
But if by some chance
you just happen to score,
he tears down the net
and won't play anymore!"
I have had this wonderful book in my TBR Poetry pile for ages, and kept thinking I would hold on to it until Halloween when monsterologists are likely to be roaming our streets in search of even more monsters than they have already discovered. I can't do it! It's been too long now and it's too good to keep it from you for another four months.

There are many ologists in this world and we have access to books about them, no matter our interest. The monsterologist is exceedingly smart and travels the world getting to know monsters of any and every kind. In this amusing and impeccably well-designed book, we meet some of them through a series of letters, conversations, and notebooks. All have been collected by our guide and there is much to discover here.
Here comes a sample:

"Nowadays we don't hear much
of ghastly trolls with beards and such.
Yet we're still stopped and we pay tolls
but just to ordinary souls.

Or are they "ordinary souls"?
Could it be that some are...trolls?"

There is a letter from Dracula, personal ads, a recipe, a yeti capture; the fun never stops! Bobbi Katz has created a very entertaining and enlightening book that will bring gasps of horror and bursts of joy to anyone interested in a career in 'monsterology'. The formats are forever changing, the fun is endless and the artwork inspired. I love Adam McCauley's description:

"The illustrations for this book were created using: lots of paper, spaghetti, twigs, tape, Adam's great grandmother's stamp collection, paint, file folders, rubber stamps, a scanner, old sketchbooks, new sketchbooks, a printer, a ballpoint pen, a Xerox machine, scraperbard, computer programs, clip art, things found on the street, and some string. Oh yeah, and a few brains and hands."

And Bobbi Katz adds her vision:

"From the very beginning, I saw this as a memoir: a scrapbook of memorabilia. I thought it would be interesting to reflect the work of an academic scientist. I wanted the poems to take various forms from note cards, queries, and descriptions to letters."


Do NOT miss the fun!

Here's your invitation from the Count:

"My Dear Friend,

I'm the Count whom you can count on for hospitality.
When you come to Transylvania, be sure to stay with me.
My ancient castle's gloomy, but you'll have a lovely room,
Conveniently located…close to the family tomb.
Just buy a one-way ticket. There's no need to splurge.
I'd really love to see you. It's an overwhelming urge.
You'll find that I'm a genial host,
but at times I think I'll burst,
unless I drink a bit of blood to satisfy my thirst.
A friendly nip, a little sip is harmless you'll agree.
It's natural and organic, and my castle is smoke free.
Please hurry, hurry, hurry! No need to R.S.V.P.
I can hardly wait to see you. Please come and visit me.
Yours, truly, most cordially,
The Count"

Banjo of Destiny, written by Cary Fagan. Groundwood, 2011. $9.95 ages 8 and up

"It was strange how playing
the banjo made Jeremiah feel
different. He was no longer just
a kid who didn't have many
friends. He was the kid who
could build a musical instrument
and learn to play it.

He was a musician."


Jeremiah has what we all think we want and need...money! His newly rich parents insist that their son, who is a bit of a nerd, be schooled in etiquette, dancing and piano. They are sure it will make him a well-rounded member of society. Of all the things he must do, Jeremiah hates piano lessons the most.

One day, while on a cross country run with Luella and the rest of the students from The Fernwood Academy, the two take a shortcut past a seemingly abandoned farmhouse. In passing it they hear:

"Music. It seemed to be coming from the front of the farmhouse.
It wasn't like anything Jeremiah had ever heard before, a captivating rhythm of plucked notes and sudden strums, melody and rhythm."

It is a banjo and he falls in love with its sound, deciding then and there that he wants to know how to play it. His parents will not hear of it. That leaves Jeremiah to figure out how to make one himself. He prints off plans from the internet and sets about finding the materials needed...a cookie tin and a broken wooden chair. A DVD is all he needs to learn the rudimentary rules of banjo pickin'.

As happens when you are doing something you truly love, Jeremiah works extremely hard to become an accomplished player. With the encouragement of Louella he starts playing for others, and then finally for a recital at school. He learns much about himself along the way and helps his parents learn what can happen when they allow their children to follow personal paths. 
Jeremiah is a great character, willing to work hard to accomplish his goals, while also able to laugh at himself. Louella is a staunch and supportive friend who encourages him to follow those dreams and let the chips fall where they may. His tale is warm and cheerful and would be welcomed by anyone with a musical bent, a love of the banjo or a willingness to step out on a limb to achieve personal success.

Now, if this post has piqued your interest in the banjo...and you think you would like to know more, Cary Fagan adds a 'note from the author' that should answer all your questions and point you in just the right direction. Go on, give it a try!

The Unforgettable Season, written by Phil Bildner and illustrated by S. D. Schindler. Penguin, 2011. $21.00 ages 8 and up

"Yes, baseball fans know their
numbers. And they also know
that all records  - even the
unbreakable ones - will one
day fall. But two of the biggest
still have not."

We are within three weeks of the All-Star break for this baseball season and I am pinning all of my hopes on Jose Bautista to win the home run derby! I have always been a baseball fan, and would beg my parents to let me stay home from school to listen to World Series games on the radio. Funny, the begging never produced the result I wanted!

My friend Kurt has an incredible store of baseball lore and knowledge about the game, and I know he is going to love this book about the Summer of '41! He will already know all the facts but he always enjoys a good book about baseball.

At  the beginning of that record-setting season no one was pinning hopes on New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio or Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. But that season, DiMaggio hit in an amazing 56 straight games and Williams maintained a batting average that in the last game of the season went over .400. They faced challenges in setting those records, just as the many who have followed them through the years do. To date, neither record has been broken! 'Joltin' Joe' and 'The Splendid Splinter' maintain their place in baseball history.

Phil Bildner makes this book accessible to fans, young and old. He packs it with all those statistics that avid baseball fans want to know and love to quote. Grandparents and parents who follow the game will be happy to share this lively and memorable recounting of that still famous season. It has great appeal, made more so with the detailed artwork of S. D. Schindler who captures the mood of the fans and effectively takes us back to that time and place.

I like the way Bildner chooses to tell his story in alternating glimpses. He gets to the real excitement of the season and makes sure that his readers feel some of the drama as it unfolds. In the end I felt that I knew the two players featured, as well as the hopes and dreams of a baseball nation as they cheered them in everyday play. He highlights their sportsmanship with admiration for their handling of the pressures that they faced. I like its conversational style while also giving us 'the dope' on all that led to the records being set. 
 In an author’s note, Bildner describes other records set and and surpassed and those who have come close, and observes: “you never know when a player just might start a quest to bat .400 or begin a record-breaking hitting streak.” . So, keep your eyes open and your hopes high!

Poindexter Makes a Friend, written and illustrated by Mike Twohy. Simon & Schuster, 2011. $18.99 ages 4 and up


"Then he would do what he
enjoyed  most. He would put
his stuffed animals in a big
circle around him and read
them a story.
Poindexter's favorite place
to go was the public library."

What worthy librarian, teacher-librarian, classroom teacher or literacy specialist who works with early years students can help but love Poindexter? He is a pig so shy he cannot look his friends in the eyes. He huddles under carpets when extended family members come for a visit. He is totally at ease with his host of quiet, unassuming stuffed animals; they don't talk, just listen to his many stories.

He loves and finds comfort in the library where the librarian allows him to sit and read for long periods of time, but also encourages his assistance with library tasks like shelving books and helping those with specific requests. When Shelby, an equally shy and reticent young turtle, arrives at the library looking for a book on making friends, Mrs. Polen looks to her assistant. Poindexter finds the requested book and discovers that Shelby cannot read it on his own. WE know the pig is an expert reader...he has had much practice. He reads the four steps to 'making a friend' to the turtle, and in doing so, finds himself on the receiving end of just that!
Those children among us who are so shy that they find it hard to take the first step toward making and being a friend will find solace in this warm, engaging story. Being reassured is often the first step in learning to overcome debilitating shyness. In Mike Twohy's gentle watercolor and ink artwork we watch Poindexter blossom in the library where he finds that comfort. Then, he learns to share it!

Richard Was A Picker, written by Carolyn Beck and illustrated by Ben Hodson. Orca Book Publishers, 2010. $19.95 ages 5 and up



"He'd stick his finger
up his snout
and prod and pry
and scoop things out.
He stretched the gooey
slimy strings into loops
and swingy things."


EWWW! GROSS! You can just hear it from all those kids who love any book that makes adults cringe. Take Richard, for instance....please! How can kids love a guy who picks his nose and creates 'castles, farms and zoos' from his ooze? Well, if you know kids, you know that is exactly what will happen. In the hilarious words from Carolyn Beck's pen and the grossly exaggerated images from Ben Hodson's acrylic paints and colored pencils, you will find yourself reading a funny, mucilaginous story to overattentive young listeners. Everything that you, as an adult, find abhorrent, they will find hilarious and heartwarming.

Richard has a passion for picking which most people find disgusting. When his finger actually becomes stuck up his nose he is concerned, and then:

"Shoulders, chest, knees and toes -
the rest of Richard slid up his nose."

Once he turns into a ball of 'gook' and starts rolling, Richard picks up most things in his path.:

"He picked up six cats, five crows, one mouse,
an unsuspecting dog sleeping in his house,
a wagon, a frog, two babies in a pool
and old Mrs. Rappertaffy knitting on her stool.
Neighbors yelled. Neighbors ran.
Richard kept on rolling.
He had a plan!"

The story moves quickly and rhythmically from start to finish. Even adults will giggle at some of the antics; kids will find them grossly delightful! The artwork is a perfect accompaniment to the text, showing green boogers in all their glory as they vandalize the town and its people. With the final denouement, listeners will see that Richard has learned a lesson, while everyone else must deal with the aftermath of that learning. .

Lexie, written by Audrey Couloumbis and illustrated by Julia Denos. Random House, 2011. $17.99 ages 8 and up

"Here's a horrible thing about
boys. They leave toilet seats
up and a person can fall in if
she's not careful, especially in
the middle of the night.
Here's a horrible thing about
Ben. He walks around while
he's brushing his teeth in the
morning, sort of foaming at the
mouth."

Here's the amazing thing about Audrey Couloumbis. She tells stories that grab at your heartstrings and bind you to her wondrous characters from the first page to the last. You are often so enamored of them that you don't want to put your book down until the story is told. That is exactly how I feel about Lexie. Her story is poignant, heartbreaking and hopeful...all in one book.

Lexie is a young girl with much on her mind. Her mom and dad are recently divorced, and this summer vacation at the Jersey Shore is the first she will spend alone with her father. Well, at least, that is what she thinks. In this quiet exploration of the aftermath of divorce and a pending remarriage, Audrey Couloumbis gently explores how children are affected.

She is not keen to leave her mother behind but realizes this is her new reality. She assumes that this year will be the same as all other such vacations...without her mother's presence. She doesn't know that her father has invited his new 'friend' and her sons to join them. Lexie knows about new friends. Her mother is dating George and Lexie likes him. He treats her mother well, and her mom seems happier now. When Vicky, Ben and Harris arrive, Lexie is not sure what to expect. Ben and Harris are a challenge, each in their own way. As the week passes she comes to enjoy their company for many reasons.

That doesn't alter the fact that her father knew no way to approach the subject with Lexie, and she is in limbo about the mixed feelings she is having. Lexie's voice is so strong in this first person narrative. We are aware of the gamut of emotions that she feels as she tries to deal with anger, sadness, apprehension, love and uncertainty. But, as she spends time every day with this 'new' family she begins to accept their place in her life. She is surrounded with supportive adults and two other children who are trying to find ways to cope with their changing circumstances, too. Realistic and sensitive, this book might help readers who are dealing with similar situations.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

How Did That Get in My Lunchbox, written by Chris Butterworth and illustrated by Lucia Gaggiotti. Candlewick, Random House, 2011. $15.00 ages 5 and up


"One of the best parts of
the day is when you lift
the lid of your lunchbox
to see what's inside. Your
parents have packed it with
lots of tasty things to eat.
They probably got all the
food from a grocery store
- but food doesn't grow in
stores!"

Having said that, Chris Butterworth goes on to explain exactly where that food originates. As classmates eagerly anticipate what they are likely to find in their lunchbox, we prepare ourselves for some very informed answers in this 'story of food'.
He starts with the bread that holds the assorted fillings that children might find when they open their lunchbox at noon. He presents us with a chain of events that leads from the farmer planting the grain that will be harvested, ground, baked and bought for a hearty lunch. He doesn't stop there....he goes on to do the same for cheese, tomatoes, apple juice, carrots, and even the chocolate chip cookie and clementine that are the perfect finish to a nourishing meal away from home.

The steps are numbered for ease of reading. The text is uncomplicated while providing for a clear understanding. The illustrations are brightly colored and detailed, giving young readers context for new information. When the lunchbox is empty, munchers are assured that everything they put in their body will help them grow stronger, taller and more energetic. That's what good food does for us!

Never faltering in providing encouragement,  Chris Butterworth finishes with a two page spread that shows all those foods that should be included in our daily diet and how much space they should take on our plate. Each is important to good health and optimal growth. Following that, he adds some 'food facts':

"It's good to eat five different fruits and vegetables every day. Why not try a new one this week?"

An index takes the reader back to check facts provided, and lunch is over! 

mother number zero, written by Marjolijn Hof and translated by Johanna H. Prins and Johanna W. Prins. Groundwood, 2011. $12.95 ages 9 and up


""Who was my mother?" I asked.
My father put down his knife. "Your
biological mother?"
"Biological" was such a dumb word.
It made me think of organic rice and
other stuff from the health food store
on Main Street. Not a word for a
particular kind of mother.
"Yes," I said. "That's the one I mean.""

Fay has never really worried much about his birth mother. He thinks he knows what he needs to know about her. His parents have been open in discussing the circumstances of his birth and the subsequent adoption. As he is leaving elementary school and readying himself for middle school in the fall, he meets Maud. Maud is new to the neighborhood and has an inquisitive nature. She is impressed with Fay's artistic abilities, as Fay loves to sit and sketch from his natural surroundings.

She begins asking questions about his 'mother number zero' and they set Fay to wondering about her, too. He knows that she was a pregnant refugee from Bosnia who gave her baby up to a better life. But, Fay wonders if she will ever play a role in  his future. The decision to search her out is made quickly. When he expresses these feelings to his family, he has no idea the kind of effect it will have on them, or himself. It is particularly difficult for his Chinese sister, an abandoned baby who has no way of finding her own birth family. As we read we know that Fay will have all he needs from loving, supportive parents in his quest for identity.  The ending is reaffirming and completely suits this brilliantly crafted tale.
Marjolijn Hof tells her story with honesty, and subtlety. The characters are direct in their responses, and deal with issues of family and belonging with candor and honesty. Told with heart, and sensitivity to the issues that still surround adoption she has created a story that will resonate with many and would be a wonderful book to share in families and classrooms.

if rocks could sing, rock styiling and props by Leslie McGuirk. Tricycle Press, Random House. 2011. $17.99 ages 4 and up

"It became a real passion
of mine to complete the
entire alphabet. For many
years I waited for the letter
K to appear. There was
nothing I could do to make
it show up."

Only those who stroll sandy beaches around the world know the treasures that abound there. This book happily pays tribute to every child (or the child in us) who takes the time to fill pockets and pails with rocks, shells, sea glass and anything else the waters cough up for our inspection and delight.


I have never seen another book like it. It is imaginative and charming, while making me gasp in wonder at the sheer determination shown by Leslie McGuirk over the past ten years to wander Florida beaches in search of 'alphabet' rocks and then, a representation for each of the letters found. Only one rock was not found in Florida; the letter X showed up on Maine shores. 

The wonders abound as pages are turned and new delights discovered. The rocks are 'fossiliferous sandstone' and the author describes the process that helped form them:

"Thousands -maybe millions - of years ago, the sand and shell fragments were deposited on the sea floor, just beyond where the waves break. Over many years, they were 'glued' together by a chemical in the seawater, turning it from loose sediment into sedimentary rock. This sandstone was sculpted by being tumbled, broken, shaped and smoothed by the waves."

Careful observation is the heart of this book, and the wonders that nature offers is the catalyst for its creation.
It is, luckily for her readers, 'a discovered alphabet'. One that will help us make discoveries of our own if we follow Leslie's lead.
Use this with Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor and If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Junonia, written by Kevin Henkes. Harper, 2011. $17.99 ages 8 and up


"Her imagined birthday, the perfect one she'd wished for, had  stayed just out of reach. She'd experienced true happiness and its abrupt reversal. And then things had taken a turn for the better and ended up happy again. What a day!"



I have been a fan of Kevin Henkes since first reading Bailey Goes Camping to my grade two class in 1985. As happens so often, one book led to the next, and then the next and his name was always on my radar for anything new, up to and including Junonia. He never disappoints.

In this lovely, gentle story of growing up he introduces his audience to Alice Rice, a nine-year-old on the brink of celebrating another birthday. This one is sure to be different from all the rest...Alice is moving to double digit adolescence and she has many expectations for the changes that are sure to come.

Her family is on their way back to Sanibel Island, their annual winter vacation home. As they cross the bridge to the island Alice feels a bit unsettled and hopes that the feeling has nothing to do with her much anticipated  reunion with old friends. The fact that she will celebrate her birthday with them adds appeal for this particular year. The family arrives and are met with the news that changes are inevitable. One family is not coming as the children are older and facing more demands at school, her beloved artist friend is stranded in a snowstorm and her aunt, who usually stays with the Rice family, is soon to arrive with a new boyfriend and his daughter Mallory in tow. 
Alice is a collector of sea shells and has been ever thwarted in her quest to find a junonia, a rare and beautiful specimen. She is always on the lookout for one. Alice has many concerns this vacation, and Kevin Henkes gives voice to them in graceful prose. She thinks about God as a compassionate woman who lives in the ocean and would offer guidance and support in many needed ways. Her name would be Junonia.

This vacation is definitely a watershed for Alice. Much has changed, not to mention herself. It is tough to accept all the changes that it brings. Kevin Henkes captures all of the emotions felt by Alice and gives us a clear picture of a girl growing up and learning some things she would rather not learn. In the end, as they are leaving the island, she experiences the same unsettled feeling she felt upon arrival. This time it's also different:

"But as soon as the feeling rose up, it stopped. Suddenly she felt as if she were the center of everything, like the sun. She was thinking: Here I am. I have my parents. We're alone together. I will never be old. I will never die. It's right now. I'm ten."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Big Swim, written by Cary Fagan. Groundwood, 2010. $9.95 ages 9 and up


"I argued that going to camp
might be a psychologically
crippling experience, especially
if I turned out to be the only kid
who didn't know how to steer a
canoe down a waterfall, or start
a fire in a downpour, or wrestle a
Mississauga rattlesnake into
submission."


I like Cary Fagan's writing and I like the stories that he tells. In this short novel, we meet Ethan whose parents have made the decision to go to Europe for the summer...on their own! Ethan is being sent to a summer camp and he is not keen to go. It is for Jewish children, it is in rural Ontario and it holds no appeal for an  adolescent boy who is a bit of a social recluse. Since he has no choice in the matter, he sets goals for survival. He doesn't want to be hated by everyone there and he hopes not to be the worst at anything.

As is likely to happen at summer camp, Ethan meets Leonard (nicknamed Legs) almost immediately. They have much in common and become fast friends. Legs has much previous camp experience and seems unfazed by the notoriety of being 'the worst'. Ethan is pleasantly surprised to find that his cabin mates are friendly. They give him the nickname Pinky and suddenly, he feels part of the group.

Things are progressing smoothly and then Zachary arrives. He comes with a history and it isn't long until  trouble is brewing. Pinky and Zach seem to be striking up a bit of a friendship; that makes for tension between Pinky and Legs. Zach is not a 'joiner' and doesn't care much for any of the planned activities; so, it surprises Pinky when Zach really wants to compete in the Big Swim.

The Big Swim is traditional at Camp White Birch. A swim across the lake and back is undertaken by older campers and camp counsellors, and is considered a bit of a legend maker for those who have been attending for a number of years. They are accompanied by lifeguards in boats. The  younger campers never take part.
 Because of his many refusals to follow the rules Zach cannot even watch.

Ever the maverick, Zach sneaks out to make the swim on his own. Pinky and Amber will witness it.

This is a book about friendship, and some of the issues that make it tenuous and yet, worth the work.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Migrant, written by Maxine Trottier and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. Groundwood, 2011. $18.95 ages 9 and up

"What would it be like
to stay in one place - to
have your own bed, to
ride your own bicycle?
Anna wonders.

Now that would be
something."

Anna is the daughter of migrant workers. With her Mennonite family she travels from Mexico to Canada, year after year. In this book she tells what it is like to share those travels and to watch her family work before always returning home at the end of the season.

She feels like the geese that fly south and then return as the weather warms, or a jackrabbit who finds a  new home in abandoned burrows. She feels like a bee as she watches her busy family at their work, and even a kitten when she finally snuggles into bed with her sisters after their  long day's work. Anna dreams of putting down roots and finding comfort in things being familiar:

"What would it be like to be a tree with roots sunk deeply into the earth - to watch the seasons passing around you the same way the wind passes through your branches?"

Anna shares her feelings about life through a series of vignettes, using descriptive, image-filled language to help those who read about her understand the life that she lives. The illustrations that accompany the text are as lyrical, showing what Anna describes in bold, detailed collage artwork that will grab the attention of those sharing this book.

In an end note, Maxine Trottier includes nonfiction information about migrant workers that will give her readers insight into the plight of many workers, who have few rights when they travel to another country to find seasonal work. Their lives can be very difficult and rife with problems. In particular she writes about Mexican Mennonites:

"But one special group of migrants - Mennonites from Mexico - kept their Canadian citizenship when they moved to Mexico in the 1920s. There they hoped to farm, withdraw from the modern world and find religious freedom. But times in Mexico became difficult. Meanwhile, Canadian farmers needed field workers, and so children like Anna began to make the long journey north with their families."
There will be much to discuss after sharing this fine book.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Casey Back At Bat, written by Dan Gutman with paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Harper, 2007. $7.50 ages 4 and up


"The pitcher hurled his fastball
- a perfect strike, and then
a fan yelled out, "Hey Casey!
Are you gonna whiff again?"
The runners took their places.
Once more the pitcher threw.
He nipped the outside corner.
The ump cried out, "Strike two!""

Well, I have finally ended the hockey one night and basketball the next dance I've been doing. Now, I can concentrate on baseball and tennis...it is summer, right? As a kid, I loved hearing Casey at the Bat and then I loved reading it to my classrooms to get us in the mood for the 'summer pastime'. Poor Casey...no matter how many times you read about hm, you can't help but sympathize with his K.

In this retelling of the classic, Dan Gutman offers up a Casey who doesn't whiff on every pitch! Instead he hits a fly ball to end all fly balls. It soars out of the park and keeps right on going. Where it goes provides the fun!

"It soared by hills and valleys, ever higher in the sky,
past houses, farms, and villages, so swiftly did it fly.
It crossed the great Atlantic, where it almost struck a bird,
but Casey didn't have a clue, for he was roundin' third."

Visiting the the Tower of Pisa (not an auspicious event) and bouncing off the Sphinx, it continues its journey through time, passing dinosaurs and astronauts on its trajectory.  Kids will love the ride! Casey is smug as he speaks with reporters about the hit, telling reporters 'it's all in the wrists'. Smug that is, until the ball returns to earth and straight into the glove of an unsuspecting and defensive shortstop. Poor ol' Casey!

The renewed text is a tribute to the classic poem. Dan Gutman creates the feel, the tension, the comedy of poor Casey's repeated attempt to bring his team the championship. His rhyme is perfect and most entertaining to share alongside that original.  The paintings that accompany this readaloud wonder offer a nostalgic look at teams of old, out of respect for the late nineteenth century classic. The colors are subdued, the papers textured and newsprint is the material that creates the team uniforms....brilliant!

There is a great deal of fun to be had, and a bit of dejection:

'Oh, somewhere in this crazy world, some kids are having fun.
Some are telling knock knock jokes. Some skateboard in the sun.
And somewhere kids eat hot dogs piled up high with sauerkraut,
but there's still no joy in Mudville - hard-luck Casey has....flied OUT."

Add this to your list of baseball books to be read for the season opener and again as the teams advance toward the All Star Break,  and then the World Series. Go, Jays, go!

Lark, written by Tracey Porter. Harper, 2011. $17.99 ages 12 and up

"Kate Battle demonstrates how
to rake someone's face with her
own car keys. But I only have one
key since I don't drive yet. Not
much of a weapon. Besides, how
can you really tell if a guy is all right
or a sex offender? And aren't girls
supposed to be nice?

Here is the story of three girls...and how the death of one has a profound effect on the others. Lark is the girl who died, Nyetta and Eve survive her. While her friends and family grieve her loss, the two girls who help to tell her story have a special connection to her. Nyetta is the girl Lark used to babysit while Eve was at one time her best friend. Both have not seen much of her lately as Lark is an aspiring gymnast and spends much of her time at the gym, She and Eve have not spoken since a falling out in middle school.

Lark is 16 when she is abducted while waiting for a ride home, following a school gym practice. In her voice, we hear the grim details of the kidnapping, the abuse and ultimately, her death. Lark is visiting Nyetta every night, begging her to save Lark from turning into a tree. Nyetta believes that Lark's soul can only be saved if she helps. When her mother hears her speaking to Lark, she has her see a therapist.  Is she crazy? No, she kmows that it is real. Eve is unable to deal with the tangible loss of her friend, after losing her friendship in an earlier spat. She cannot cry, while everyone around her does. And, she is dealing with some issues of her own concerning sexual harassment.

This book haunts the reader with its brilliant and beautiful writing. It will leave its mark on your reading life. While the telling is short, the impact will live long in your memory. My attention was riveted from start to finish, and there was no stopping once I met the three girls whose story is told here. Each of their voices is strong and haunting. It is very tightly written.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pig Kahuna, written and illustrated by Jennifer Sattler. Bloomsbury, Penguin. 2011. $18.50 ages 3 and up



"Of course surfing on it
was out of the question
because of the lurking,
murky ickiness factor
of the water."


Dink is definitely the baby of this brother duo; you can tell by the diaper he wears to the beach. The brothers are keen beachcombers, so long as they don't have to go near the water. They are happy to wait for the water to spill its treasure ashore. Their days are filled with delight as they gather what the 'lurking, murky ickiness' has to offer.

They collect seaweed, pebbles, shells. Then, one day, they discover untold wealth:

"They waited fifteen whole minutes, but nobody came to claim the surfboard. So they decided to make it the star of their collection."

They couldn't possibly surf given the 'lurking, murky ickiness' but they could certainly find other wonderful uses for it. They called it Dave. After some time together, Dink becomes convinced that Dave is missing the ocean; so, he sets him free. As Fergus returns from ice-cream cone buying, he is aghast to see what his brother has done. Instinctively he dives into the water to save Dave, forgetting his fear. Lo and behold, he surfs! Wow! What will he do now?

Did you know you were looking for a perfect book to take to the beach for your kids this summer? Well, this would be a great start. The playful illustrations have a unique charm, offering up two very expressive and endearing pigs with much on their minds. It's a hoot to watch as they haul Dave ashore and then use him for imaginative adventure! The  textured backgrounds invite close investigation and an invitation to 'touch'.  The warmth of the colors and the completely guileless characters will have readers returning to experience the fun time and again.

While the message is clearly about overcoming fear, it does nothing to overwhelm the strength of these two lovable and expressive characters. They remain the focus throughout this timely tale, and should be invited along as vacations begin and a trip to the beach is a distinct possibility.

Monkey, written and illustrated by Gerald McDermott. Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2011. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"Monkey jumped so high
and so fast through the
treetops, no one could
catch him. But catching
Monkey was exactly what
Crocodile wanted to do."


Of trickster tales, Gerald McDermott has this to say:

"The trickster has special appeal for children because of his ability to triumph over larger foes not by physical strength but by wit and cunning. In addition, tales of the trickster still speak to us in a gentle, humorous way about the strengths and weaknesses of humankind."

The is the last in a series of trickster tales that Gerald McDermott has been telling since he wrote Papagayo, a Brazilain folktale in 1980. Through the years he has published books about Zomo (West Africa), Raven (Pacific Northwest), Coyote (American Southwest) and Jabuti (Amazon).

Monkey's tale is from India, and gives us a spunky monkey with attitude to burn. Crocodile can't imagine anything tastier than a monkey's heart, and he does his best job of convincing Monkey to trust him in his quest to get mangoes from the island in the middle of the river. As the river water creeps closer to Monkey riding on Crocodile's back and threatens to drown him, Crocodile sees his chance. To his surprise Monkey advises that he has left his heart in the tree on the riverbank. Back they go! Once there, Monkey tells the truth and Crocodile leaves in a huff.

Now that he has a yearning for the mangoes, Monkey must find another way to get to them. He finds some rocks downriver that will allow him access to the island, and off he goes. Crocodile is busy watching and makes himself still and silent as a stone, hoping that Monkey will use him on the return path. Of course you know that Monkey is just a bit too smart for that trickery, too. He finds a most satisfying way to bamboozle Crocodile once more and lands safely on the riverbank.

Crocodile is not about to give up, but Monkey has proved his prowess and is always careful to step on a 'real' rock whenever he returns home.
In keeping to the illustrative elements used in the first five tales, the artist uses cut and torn paper collage to help him tell his droll story. He incorporates cultural elements from India that includes a unique and familiar paisley design on the cover and then again on the dedication page. The colors are brilliant and the hand-colored papers add texture and depth to the telling.  He adds a note about his design work:
 
"My gratitude, as well, goes to book artist Tania Baban-Natal for sharing the technique of teasing apart moistened handmade paper to create a furry edge." 
 
Once you read and appreciate this sparkling tale, you will want to see if you can find the others. You won't be sorry!

Spinning Through the Universe, written by Helen Frost. Frances Foster, Farrar. Douglas & McIntyre, 2004. $17.95 ages 8 and up

" I sit
here wishing I
was smart enough to learn
to read. When it's my turn
she'll say, Just try, 
but it

don't make
no sense to me."

In Mrs.Williams' fifth grade class children grow and prosper, enveloped in an environment of love and understanding. Their voices are heard, their individuality honored. These characters, including their teacher and other adults in their school, speak through a series of poems in a book divided by the author into two halves. Traditional poetic forms are used in the first half. In the second, each character's poem 'spins off' from the first one. A line is taken from the first to create an acrostic for the second. This classroom works together through the school year to create a living, thriving community of learners.

Their hopes, dreams and fears are shared in the first section's thirty-two poems, which each take a different form.  As she has done in her other wonderful books, Helen Frost makes the reader care about these young people and their teacher, providing authentic and powerful voices while letting her readers discover each unique personality. Their issues are shared by many in the world we live in...child abuse, death, homelessness, poverty, self-esteem, friendship, first love, grades and home life. They are so real!

As always, in reading her 'notes on form' I found myself going back and forth to check each out, allowing for an immediate second reading and added pleasure.  Helen Frost teaches beautiful lessons through her wondrous words and I am thankful to be one of her many students!

About her expected twins, Mrs. Williams writes:

"I found out yesterday that I'm expecting twins!

Who will my babies be like? Alert, like
Rosa, quick to react to any
Injustice? Or calm and dreamy, like Naomi? Will
They have to work hard in school, like
Eddie does, or will everything be easy, like it is for Andrew?

Manuel's inventions, or Jaquanna's songs -
You never know what gifts a child will bring. I know, my
        babies

Probably won't grow up to be
Like any of these kids. Every child is like
A little world with ever-changing weather,
Nights and mornings. And somehow, here we are,
Spinning through the universe together."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Braid, written by Helen Frost. Frances Foster, Farrar. Douglas & McIntyre, 2006, $17.95 ages 13 and up



"A table absorbs written thoughts
(slight indentations in its wood),
and holds within its sturdiness
echoes of the conversations
that go on around it: laughter,
mealtime chatter, words of comfort.
It's part of all the stories, like
the constant kettle on the stove."


Helen Frost is deserving of every amazing review she receives for her work. She is a highly skilled and accomplished storyteller; the fact that she tells her tales in tautly written verse is fascinating to me. I read her remarkable works before checking her notes on form, and am captivated by the characters she creates and the stories she shares with delighted fans.  When I get to finally looking at how she so carefully writes that verse, I am in awe!

Of this story about two sisters, separated by circumstance in Scotland in the 1850s, she says:

"I invented a formal structure for this book, derived in part from my admiration of Celtic knots. The structure has three elements:
  •  Narrative poems, in two alternating voices. 
  • Praise poems, each of which praises something named in the narrative poems. 
  • Line lengths based on syllabic counts."
Isn't it hard enough 'just to write'?

All are braided to each other. When you go back to look, you can see that she did exactly what she said she would!   You have to read the explanation to believe it, and then read it again.       

And I have not even really mentioned the power of the story! In her introduction, Helen Frost tells her readers about the many people who were forced to leave the lands they had rented in the Western Isles of Scotland. In the family depicted, the parents and four children went to Cape Breton to make a new life. Sarah is the oldest, independent and determined. She stays behind to live with her beloved grandmother on the island of Mingulay. Before the family leaves Jeannie and Sarah braid their hair together, cut it and each keep half of the braid. They are convinced this act will keep their bond strong. 

Helen Frost weaves her tale between the two voices, in alternating narratives. In between, she adds the praise poems. The syllabic count for the narrative poems correspond to the age of the two girls, increasing the count as the girls grow older over the two years during which the story takes place.

It is heartbreaking and hopeful, keeping the reader fully engaged throughout the telling. And, as a reader, we want only what is best for each of them. The themes will resonant with a young adult audience...poverty, family, teen pregnancy, first love, death, hardship and hope.
How she did all that she set out to do concerning form, and still tell a convincing and powerful story is testament to talent and dedication to her work. Bravo!

What Are You Doing? Written by Elisa Amado and illustrated by Manuel Monroy. Groundwood, 2011. $16.95 ages 3 and up


""Did you learn how to read
on your first day of school?"
asked his mother.
"No, but I can tell by the
pictures," said Chepito.
"Shall I read you the story,
Rosita?" he asked."

It's the first day of school for Chepito and he's not too keen on making the trip there with his mother and little sister. Mom reminds him that they will be going after lunch. In the meantime, Chepito is out the door and off to learn about his neighborhood.

He meets a big man first. The man is reading the newspaper and when Chepito asks why, he tells the boy that he wants to read the game scores. Hmm! A bit further away, Chepito meets a girl reading a comic. Why, he wonders. It's funny, she says.

As he makes his rounds he sees many people reading a variety of things...a guidebook, a manual, a magazine, and even hieroglyphics. There is so much to learn in the world, and Chepito's awareness of that is growing. Upon entering his new classroom, Chepito is delighted to see a book shelf. What an invitation!

During the afternoon, his teacher reads a book to the class and Chepito is able to take it home with him. Now, he has new learning to pass on to his little sister, Rosita. And she is a most willing listener!

The soft and gentle collage illustrations offer a charm that matches the inspiring text...a testament to the importance of reading role models for children just discovering the wonder of books. There are many reasons for reading and the author cleverly instills that lesson in a book that should find a place of importance in school classrooms, home libraries and on your gift list for little ones.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

My Name is Mina, written by David Almond. Hodder, Hachette. 2010. $20.99 ages 12 and up

""Maybe writing's like walking
as well," I say. "You set off writing
like you set off walking and you don't
really need to know where you're
going till you get there, and you don't
know what you'll pass along the way.
She smiles.
"So writing's like taking some words
for a walk, " she says. "


When my friend Linda offered to loan me her copy of My Name is Mina, I hesitated. I didn't want to keep it too long and my pile of TBRs is very tall and daunting. Then, I thought I'd just read the first few pages and all was lost; but the need to know more...and then more...about Mina. Some books demand your attention and love. This is David Almond, after all! And it's a prequel to Skellig! What wonder lies in its pages!

It is a book of stories, of Mina's thinking and of her hopes going forward. It will come as no surprise to anyone knowing David Almond's brilliant writing that all of these are written beautifully. There is great sadness, emerging self-worth, and courage in a world that doesn't always appreciate those who are different.
Mina is open and honest in sharing her deepest thoughts and concerns, and is a truly remarkable and unforgettable character.

She has plans for her journal...well, at least some sense of what she wants it to be:

"I keep on saying that I'll write a journal. So, I'll start right here, right now. I open the book and write the very first words: MY NAME IS MINA AND I LOVE THE NIGHT. Then what shall I write? I can't just write that this happened then this happened then this happened to boring infinitum. I’ll let my journal grow just like the mind does, just like a tree or a beast does, just like life does.”

Does she ever! I was totally captivated by Mina's sharing of her thoughts, her dreams, her stories and the lessons learned and taught. The journal becomes a living thing in her hands. All of this happens before she meets Michael, or Skelllig.
It is a book that positively proves David Almond to be an accomplished and imaginative writer, creating a flawed yet amazing young girl who demands our attention, and our admiration. She is comical, smart and full of ambition. When her mother asks what she's been up to, Mina tells her:

"Talking to an old lady with bad bones, dancing for Persephone, being in somebody else's dream, thinking about pee and sweat and spit, reading Where the Wild Things Are, and writing a thousand words of joy."

We could all take a lesson from Mina. There is not one page in the book that doesn't have some wondrous words to share with you. Since I can't do that, I suggest you get out there and beg, borrow or buy a copy for yourself. Your reading life will be better and your own life richer at knowing this achingly lovely young woman.

As she struggles to move forward to meet the new boy on the street (Michael), she uses her journal to give herself courage:

"Chicken! I'm frightened. Don't be frightened!

I try not to feel silly and forlorn. I write an extraordinary activity for myself, the most important of all extraordinary activities. I pin it up above my bed.

EXTRAORDINARY ACTIVITY
BE BRAVE!"

That about says it all!

Name That Dog, written by Peggy Archer and illustrated by Stephanie Buscema. Penguin, 2010. $21.00 ages 3 and up













"Jingles

Tags for his house number.       
Tags for his phone.
Shot tags.
Name tags
shaped like a bone.
Tags for his dog license,
one every year.
Jingle! Jangle!
Dog tags
tell you when he's near."   
                      
The poem featured above is about a bulldog and you know I have a special love for that breed, as my granddog Percy is one! It's a most interesting premise for an alphabet book and sure to find fans among dog lovers. The author presents us with a gallery of  'perky puppies/peppy puppies -/none of them the same'.

She offers up a host of names that new owners might find fitting for their new family member. Beginning with Aspen and venturing all the way through Zipper, she matches personality with breed in making that choice. Each is unique, as are the poems that introduce the breed and its chosen name. The energetic, brightly colored illustrations match the tone of the poems, offering humor and attention to detail and expression.

An opening poem gives an overall feeling for the many types of puppies to be found out there; while the closing one gives credence to whatever inspired the name choice, suggesting that the name chosen is sure to be 'just right'. In between you may meet your perfect puppy...then, you'll need a name. Check back here for help in making that choice! This one is my favorite:

"Rex

My dog is just a puppy
But he's grown quite big so far.
He's bigger than his doghouse
And he won't fit in the car!

His teeth are big and pointy.
He has humongous feet.
His tongue is long and sloppy.
His tail can sweep the street.

Beef stew and juicy soup bones
Are foods he likes the best.
I have the perfect name for him -
Tyrannosaurus REX."

Unlikely Friendships, written by Jennifer S. Holland. Workman, Thomas Allen & Son. 2011. $16.95 ages 8 and up



"The monkey chattered;
the dove cooed.
And at night they slept
in the cage together, each
the other's pillow and
blanket."



There so many small stories here that I want to share with you....47 in fact. Some of them are likely known to you. Koko and All Ball have been featured elsewhere; as have Owen and Mzee. But, there are many others and each is as captivating and it will warm your heart as you read about these pairings of animals not meant to be friendly to one another. I mean, a cat and a bird?

"After his adoption, Lucky found himself cohabiting with Coco, a brash and outspoken cockatoo that took to the feline with a gentle claw."

How lucky we are to be privy to these engaging stories collected by Jennifer Holland, a writer for National Geographic!  She tells us of animals with nothing in common but friendship...unlikely indeed! Predator befriends prey as in the story of the rat and the cat:

"Nowadays, Peanut loves to snuggle with Ranj and will crawl fully under the cat's haunches when he's seated. The rat appears soothed by the cat's presence, and will close her eyes as she snuggles up to his furry warmth."

What the what?

In each story Jennifer Holland gives details of the friendship and offers her perspective on why these animals gravitate toward each other. She also includes the date, the world community and small information boxes that give readers the scientific scoop on the animals presented. The full-color photographs add interest and inspire awe.

Here's my favorite for today:

"The Golden Retriever and the Koi...The main draw for Chino was Falstaff, the koi - a large, multi-colored goldfish related to carp, a species that has been selectively bred in Asia for centuries to bring out both beauty and personality. Now popular in Westerners' backyard ponds, koi are as gregarious a fish as you'll find. And Chino was no slouch when it came to social graces."

RAH, RAH, RADISHES! Written and illustrated by April Pulley Sayre. Beach Lane, Simon & Schuster. 2011. $17.99 ages 3 and up



"Stash some squash.
Fill your cupboard!
Butternut, buttercup,
acorn, Hubbard!"

Come on, admit it! You don't eat enough vegetables and you are not even sure what some of them are. Most of us need to eat more of them! Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food) urges us to live by seven words. They are 'eat food, not too much, mostly plants.' Pretty simple, and oh, so sensible for all!  Now, April Pulley Sayre helps in that quest.

After poring over the lip-smacking display of munchy, crunchy vegetables in her boldly colored photographs,
you cannot help but salivate at the bounty. Then, read and reread her chant. It is a feast for stomach and voice!

The strong rhythm of the text just begs to be repeated...read it with your class, your children, your friends' children but read it and then keep reading it. It would be great fun for shared reading in a classroom, or try it for a performance assembly this spring. It might start out as a readaloud; but it will quickly become one of those rhymes that stays with you as you go through your day and that kids will love to read on their own or with a friend. Soon you'll hear your kids repeating the couplets...they could be even become new verses for outdoor skipping games.

Along with that, we all learn about those foods that supply us with so much of what we need for healthy bodies. The author could not possibly include all vegetables but she offers a suggestion in her ' A Few More Bites' section at the back of the book:

"Fans of rhubarb, taro, collard greens and other vegetables missing from this book, please don't get steamed. You can find these and other vegetables, vegetable facts, and yummy photos at AprilSayre.com."  Do a search, you won't be sorry. She also offers up advice for learning more about these wonderful natural foods in her 'Be the Baron of Broccoli! The Colonel of Corn! The Cauliflower Queen!' segment.

I have tripped my tongue over her other chant books: Ant, Ant, Ant, or Bird, Bird, Bird and Trout, Trout, Trout and will happily go about sharing Rah, Rah Radishes in classrooms and workshops. Luckily, we will soon have another treat in store. Here's the word from April herself:

"Right now I am putting finishing details on Go, Go, Grapes: a Fruit Chant, which will be out next year."
Rah, Rah, April Pulley Sayre!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Meow said the cow, written and illustrated by Emma Dodd. Scholastic, 2009. $19.99 ages 2 and up

"By now the animals
all could tell
that Cat was behind
this beastly spell!
They were all feeling
a little bit cross.
"it's time to show that
cat who's boss!""

Who doesn't love a trickster tale? Kids will laugh out loud when they read, or listen to, this amusing story about a spell-casting Cat who's had it with all the early morning noise on the farm. Thanks to Cat's grasp of magic the Rooster gets a rude awakening himself the next morning.

It seems that Rooster is not the only recipient of the spell's magic. As the farmyard awakens, with no help from the squeaking that comes from the rooster's beak, all the animals find themselves speaking an unfamiliar language. The pigs are clucking, the chickens oinking, the sheep are barking and the only sound that will come out of the Sheepdog's mouth is a loud 'BAA'.  Kids will love the muddle and eagerly join in with farmyard sounds of their own. You can just imagine the fun!

The artwork is as chaotic as the barnyard racket, with strong textures, bright colors, varied perspectives and expressive digitally rendered animals, all confused by their situation. The text is boldly shown encouraging much noise from the listening audience. When it all becomes too much to bear, Cat knows he's in BIG trouble. As he is chased from the farm and treed by the angry and embarrassed animals, he knows it's time for a change. The spell is undone!

No one is more surprised than Cat when sunrise brings warmth and light to the farmyard the following morning. It is poetic justice!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mother Goose Picture Puzzles, written and illustrated by Will Hillenbrand. Marshall Cavendish, 2011. $20.95 ages 2 and up




"Old Mother Goose,
when she wanted to wander,
would ride through the air
on a very fine gander."

So many children today have not heard and therefore, cannot repeat or chant the poetry of my childhood and my childrens' childhood. They are missing so much! Will Hillenbrand sets out to change all that and I am delighted that he has. Bravo!

I love his newest book and am very happy that I stopped by my favorite children's book shop, wallet in hand,. Whenever I go to THE STORY GARDEN here in Brandon, I tell myself to leave my money in the car...never happens! What a great gift this new discovery will be for new arrivals, and for those just figuring out what reading is. I also had a lovely visit with Jan and Emily while there...

It's a picture puzzle book (rebus style) of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Will Hillenbrand uses inspired artwork in place of some of the words and makes reading a great deal of fun. Isn't that what it is meant to be?

What a great way to get our littlest ones joining in. They can 'read' the pictures which is a most useful skill when one wants to learn how to read. Illustrations help our children figure out what the words are saying. In this case. the pictures replace the words. This author takes it a step further and adds captioned spot illustrations that match the pictures in the text of the rhyme and thus allows children to see the words accompanied by a visual representation of them. Intelligent and imaginative...I love rebus books!



The illustrations for the twenty rhymes are warm, and often humorous. The expressive faces display happiness, surprise, delight and even consternation. They are pastoral in nature and offer up double page spreads that flow seamlessly from one verse to the next, often providing a clue about the nursery rhyme to follow. It is great fun!

As I have mentioned previously, children who know rhymes are a step ahead of those who don't when it comes to reading. The ability to hear and see similarities in words and sounds stand them in good stead for being successful readers down the road. Isn't that worth it?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Little White Rabbit, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, Harper. 2011. $18.99 ages 2 and up



"When he hopped
through the high grass,
he wondered what it
would be like to be
green."


In a simple and elegant book, Kevin Henkes introduces his young audience to an imaginative and lively bunny who very much enjoys his adventures close to home.

As he hops along, he has many wonderings....what would it be like to be green, to be tall, to fly and even to be as still as a stone. What do you wonder? I think this book is a perfect introduction to that kind of thinking for the youngest listeners and will act as a mentor book for young writers who have some wonders of their own. His wandering and wondering are cut short when he comes a bit too close to a cat, and he quickly finds his way back to the safety and love of home.

The illustrations are a wonderful match to the sweet text. He uses bold outlines and pastel colors to show his audience very clearly the fun to be had in a neighborhood journey. Each new question is followed by a lovely, detailed double page spread, allowing Little White Rabbit to try his hand at the many adventures that intrigue him.

The text has a repetitive rhythm that will be very much enjoyed and aped by the children who share the delight found in its pages. Perfect to share and full of fun for all!