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Friday, December 30, 2011

The Watch That Ends the Night,written by Allan Wolf. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2011. $25.00 ages 12 annd up

"Of course I knew the precise number of people on board.
I had signed the paperwork myself. My responsibility.
Two thousand two hundred and eight souls.
Twenty boats.
The mathematical disparity stung my brain.
Regardless of how the rest of this story turned out,
I knew it must begin with filling the lifeboats with as many souls as possible."

I might say 'Impressive!' or 'Astounding!' or even 'Brilliant!'

I could fill this post with quotes from a series of voices that speak through the pages of this remarkable new book about the maiden voyage and the sinking of Titanic. But, I want you to read it for yourself and know the real pleasure of revisiting a time in history, and an event  that has been shared in a variety of books over the years. None that I have read approach the story as Allan Wolf has chosen to tell it...in poetry and honoring the voices of some of the ship's real passengers. Of course, it is fiction; but Allan Wolf has done his research and shares intimate knowledge of the tragedy in the voices of the people he has chosen to help him tell it.

We are less than four months from the 100th anniversary of the event, and there have been (and will be) new books published about it. This is a book that I could not just read and then move on to another. I read it, and reread passages and then stopped before I was done in order to prepare myself for its ending. Of course, we all know the ultimate result. Allan Wolf offers a guide at the back of the book to talk about the real story of the voices he has shared. I read the histories and then read them again. I was not ready to leave this book, and I know I will go back to read many parts again. 

To say he is adept at creating his characters in poetry is another one of those understatements. In fact, he has taken a familiar story and made it unique and sparkling. The verse is exemplary, the voices fully realized and powerful, the characters chosen from all walks of life and social strata (both for the passengers and the crew). The voices within these hierarchies parallel each other. Their reasons for boarding the ship are many, their experiences varied and there are 24 of them. I thought it might be difficult to keep track of so many, but each character is carefully drawn and the voice never wavers. The author even gave voice to an insatiable rat and the iceberg...disturbing and chilling, to say the least.

Of course, on the Titanic, even third class isn't too bad:

"Just two decks down, in ring number three:
watch as the third-class masses eat better aboard Titanic
than they ever have before or ever will again.
Ragout of beef, potatoes, pickles and apricots,
fresh bread and butter, currant buns and tea.
All of it on simple and durable earthenware, with no design,
as plain and blank as their unknown futures."

The tale is told in seven watches, each describing a part of the journey. At the end of each, the undertaker gives voice to the aftermath, the search for bodies, and the clinical data needed to identify those bodies found:

"Finally the dead have crossed the Atlantic.
Finally the dead have completed their journey. '
Finally the dead are allowed to disembark.
Thirty horse-drawn hearses, lined up at Purdy's Wharf,
patiently wait as the first-class bodies are brought off first.
Then second. Then third. Classified in death as in life.
Only the horses speak their solemn nickers
as they climb the steep ascent from the docks
up North Street to the Mayflower Curling Rink."

And I will leave you with Allan Wolf's reason for writing this wondrous book:

But my aim in writing The Watch That Ends the Night was not to present history. My aim was to present humanity. The people represented in this book lived and breathed and loved. They were as real as you and me. They could have been any one of us.
And that is why, after a century, the Titanic still fascinates."

Bravo, Mr. Wolf!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

solace of the road, written by Siobhan Dowd. David Fickling Books, Random House. 2009. $9.99 ages 12 and up

"The man had long grey hair tied in a ponytail and thick brown arms. He had blue jeans and a T-shirt on and was whistling to a tune he could hear on his earphones. He was what I call a mogit in denial - somebody who's over forty, and acts like they're seventeen. You want to cringe and hide when they act like your best buddy, like they think they're still your age."

She has a powerful voice that Holly Hogan...it becomes even more powerful when she takes on the persona of Solace. Holly is a fourteen year old and we meet her in the care home where she is presently living. Her influences there are not always good. She does have a favorite care worker; but, he is leaving for another job. He feels her best chance of making her life better is to take a foster spot with a concerned and willing couple.

Fiona and Ray are good to her. She has her own room, good food, attention from her foster parents. But, she doesn't have her mom and she believes that finding her will be the answer to an even better life. She must get to Ireland. To that end, she takes Fiona's blond wig knowing it will make her look older than she is, and she becomes Solace.  Off she goes, with what she can carry and a vision of a happy life with Mam.

In her quest to find the A40 and a direct route to her mother, she meets a group of characters who affect her present and will influence her future. Holly is smart enough to plot her course, and innocent enough to think that it will be easy. Walking to Ireland....really? As Solace, she has confidence and is able to take risks that Holly might not. She speaks with people more easily, recalls the advice of her mates in the care home and finds ways to move forward with her plan.

I have to admit that I read her story with trepidation, always imagining something evil around each corner. She takes rides with strangers, meets some interesting and caring people. Suffice it to say that she handles each new development as best she can. While it is all very dangerous, she uses all of her skills to find the way. Through the kindness of strangers and her own ingenuity, she makes it to Ireland, only to find that Mam is not there waiting for her:

"You can't think all you memories at once or your head will burst. So you put them in a drawer in the back of your brain and close them away. Denny and Mam, that day in the sky house, they'd been hidden away for years. And I'd forgotten how the pieces fitted together. I'd fooled myself how it was all Denny's fault and how Mam had to run away from him to Ireland and how she was waiting for me to find her there."

The ending holds surprise, and grace. It is a journey that has worth and value to Holly:

"Other times I tell her (the therapist) about everyone I met on my travels. I show her the map and describe the good people on it who were like guardian angels because they did something to help me and asked for nothing back."

I think that is the way it generally is, and it is lovely to read a teen novel that shows the goodness that is alive in the world. Rest in peace, Siobhan Dowd. Your legacy is rich.

The Polar Bear Scientists, by Peter Lourie. Houghton Mifflin, Thomas Allen & Son, 2012.. $22.50 ages 10 and up

"Steve loves these animals because they're the largest bears in the world and they live in the most mysterious environment. "Plus," he says, "polar bears are the apex predator. If polar bears are doing well, probably the Arctic ecosystem is doing well." Studying these bears is like looking through a window into the entire ecosystem in which they live."

They only have six weeks each summer but the scientists who have been part of a long-term study of these majestic giants make the most of that time. In helicopters, they chase, dart, and capture the polar bears they find bent on studying their habits. It is a most interesting and humane way of tracking the bears they have tagged and watching to see how the bears and their families are thriving (or not) in the far northern landscape near Barrow, Alaska.

We meet the scientists, the pilot, the mechanic who tracks the helicopter and former scientists who have worked on this far-reaching study. They have a carefully prepared plan and Peter Lourie shares two captures,sharing his photographs and a play-by-play description of the work as it is being carried out.  He takes his photos as they first search for the bears, then track and tranquilize them so that they can measure and mark them for the future.

The stunning captioned photographs are an integral part of each page of information, showing the bears, the scientists, their interactions and their actions throughout the entire process. A younger reader would learn a great deal about these scientists and their charges by reading those captions and carefully considering the remarkable photographs. I was intrigued with the comparative sizes of footprints and the clear, sunny images captured from the helicopter.

Dr. Steven Amstrup has spent thirty years working with polar bears and he is given a voice in this book, concerning the bears he loves and the state of their habitat. He reiterates a warning that we are hearing more and more:

"We became aware," Steve says, "of global warming and the threat it presents to polar bears - a far greater threat because of the extensive loss of  essential habitat. You can have a population that is overharvested, and by reducing the harvest you can allow the populations to rebound and grow again. But if a population of animals doesn't have appropriate habitat, then you're in trouble. Because the world is warming (and it's warming because of human influences), there's going to be less sea ice. Sea ice is the habitat of polar bears. The ice is where polar bears have access to their principal prey, which is ringed seals, bearded seals, and spotted and harp seals."

Many questions remain unanswered as the study goes forward; but the dedication of these scientists is admirable and their research  provides for interesting and informative reading. A final conversation with Steve, followed by a glossary, a polar bear field guide, suggested books and websites, and a useful index bring us to the end of this newest addition to the Scientists in the Field series and leaves its readers learning much about polar bears, through the eyes of those scientists whose love for these beautiful creatures brings them back to the sea ice each year. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Hyena in Petticoats, a graphic novel by Willow Dawson. Puffin, Penguin. 2011. $15.00 ages

"Nellie credited her rural upbringing on the plains of Manitoba as one of the main reasons for her success. She grew up on a farm in a pioneer village where women worked equally as hard as the men, resources were often scarce, and the entire town would pitch in to help with community projects or a neighbour in need. Nellie understood how difficult life was for most people."

Nellie McClung is a true Canadian hero, and Willow Dawson captures her spirit, her accomplishments and her determined journey in this new graphic novel. She left her mark on Canadian history with her writing (sixteen books), her political stance, and her never-give-up attitude as she sought to make the world a better place for everyone, but especially for women and young children. She did not lack courage, maintained a quick wit despite the struggles to make a difference and leaves a legacy that is quite remarkable:

"It is the writer's place to bring romance to people, to turn the commonplace into the adventurous and the amusing, to bring out the pathos in a situation...Words are our tools and must be kept bright...I refuse to be carried through the sewers of life just for the ride...I write if I have something to say that will amuse, entertain, instruct, inform, comfort or guide the reader."

On the first page we meet the feisty, independent young girl punching a fellow classmate for being better at reading than she is. Turning to the first of nine chapters, we are privy to the move that takes the Mooney family from Ontario to the wilds of the Canadian prairies. A house is built in the Tiger Hills and the family prepares for the long trek from Winnipeg. Nellie's path is determined in this new village when she is discouraged from racing (it's not for girls) and learns what alcohol does to men who imbibe.

An understanding and generous teacher helps her realize the power that comes from learning as much as you can...she turns to books and writing to have a voice and vows to initiate change when she is old enough to vote. Her sister offers a startling revelation:

"Nellie, politics is for men. Women are not allowed to vote . Not here in Canada. Not even in the United States or Europe."

Each new chapter provides a look at the path her life will take. She attends normal school and becomes a teacher, meets and marries a fine man, gives birth to five children and crusades throughout her life for better conditions for women and children, the right of women to vote and various other social reforms. She is indefatigable, and delights in the many victories that have meant a lot to others.

There is so much about Nellie McClung that is inspirational. Thank you to Willow Dawson for creating this marvellous graphic biography so that young people will come to know her life, her accomplishments and the mark she has left on Canadian history:

"I believe in a progressive Canada  with fair laws for women and immigrants! I was a key player in the referendum on Prohibition and on getting women enfranchised. These are terrific successes, but there is still much work to be done. Vote for me and I promise to continue to fight for your rights!"

The Really Awful Musicans, story and pictures by John Manders. Clarion, Thomas Allen & Son, 2011. $18.99 ages 5 and up

"All afternoon they played as they rode. They played fast, slow, loud, and soft - all at the same time. Finally, Charlemagne couldn't stand it anymore. "Enough! You guys sound terrible! Why don't you all play together?"

Kids will be hopping out of their seats to help with the onomatopoeic sounds that arise when these 'really awful' musicians run away from the king's court. It seems that playing together makes for dismal music and the king has asked his men to round up the culprits and feed them to the crocodiles:

"The king couldn't face another evening of it. "Enough! No more LOUD, soft, fast-fast-fast!, slo-o-o-o-o-o-ow, screechy, bellowy, terrible musicians! Hire me some mimes!" he thundered."

It's a dilemma; but, the musicians have no intention of hanging around and becoming croc fodder. The young Piffaro is found by the king's men in a nearby village and beats a hasty retreat upon the broad back of an old horse named Charlemagne. They travel through the night. Just as dawn is  breaking they come upon another musician. Espresso is the fastest musician in the kingdom, able to play 'a three-minute waltz in just under twelve seconds' on his mandolin. He is keen to escape with Piffaro and Charlemagne. It isn't long until they hear a tiny tune that is nearly impossible to discern. Serena the Silent does her best to be quiet. She is invited to join the fleeing troupe. As they go, the sounds of their music surrounds them and is sure to delight young readers!

Fortissimo is the next musician to join them, and finally Lugubrio. As they seek refuge from the hungry crocodiles, they play music to accompany their escape. It was near to driving Charlemagne bonkers! They did sound terrible and the horse was about to change all that:

"They looked at Charlemagne’s hoofprints and followed his stick. While they played, each musician listened to the others. When they all played together, the music sounded beautiful, for the first time ever."

As they practice under Charlemagnes's tutelage, they get better. A chance passing-by of the King himself gets them a new gig at the castle....and the mimes? Well, the crocodiles are still hungry. (My son will be delighted by this turn of events.)

In an Author’s Note, Manders suggests that 'some things in this story are almost true', and goes on to explain the development of a shared songbook and musical notation to assure that everyone is singing the same song. He follows that with an introduction to the five instruments whose music graces his pages in disharmony in the beginning, and total harmony once the new lessons are learned.

In his brightly colored gouache and colored pencil illustrations we meet each new and distinct member of this really awful orchestra. Each scene is humorous and expressive and will afford readers a great guffaw as they follow the exploits of this motley crew of performers. There is a lesson here, but it is most certainly camouflaged by the great sense of fun to be had by all who share this unique and hilarious adventure.

Tadeo's Search for Circles, written by Marion Brooker and illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2011. $18.95 ages 4 and up

"Tadeo travelled on and on,
fanning himself against the heat,
hugging himself against the cold
until...
...Tadeo spotted the perfect circle...
perhaps...
He circled lower to see
BUT"

A world map on the endpapers sets readers up for a trip that will take them to five numbered places in the world. A legend provides further information about the places we will visit, including the Canadian Arctic. Readers are then  asked to place themselves on the map, before moving on to read the story.

Tadeo is a small boy obsessed with circles. We meet him on the title page, drawing his favorite shape with a stick in the sand. Turns out he is always on the lookout for a perfect circle. He creates many of his own...bubblegum bubbles, windows in sand castles, mouth circles for yawning. None are  just right! So determined is he that he even dreams of circles. When he throws a rope hoping to create a circle with it, something exciting happens and Tadeo is off on a trip of discovery.

His journey lands him a snooze on the moon, a visit to the African Savannah, a stop at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, a ride on the London Eye, and a touchdown in the land of the polar bear. As he returns home to Central America, he discovers that the perfect circle has been there all along. As he lands in his mother's arms, he finds the 'most wonderful, perfect circle of all!'

Kyrsten Brooker's textured collage artwork adds drama and bold color to this young man's journey from his Central American home and back again, to the comfort of familial love and understanding. Young readers will make many surprising discoveries as they share its pages.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

At the Heart of It, written by Raymond Taniton and Mindy Willett with photographs by Tessa Macintosh. Fifth House Publisihers, Fizhenry & Whiteside. 2011. $16.95 ages 10 and up

"I tell people there are many reasons why we are a strong and healthy community. But one thing is for certain. We have never given up our responsibility to govern and look after ourselves. We are responsible for our healthy families and our connected community. We are responsible for ensuring that our youth know who they are as Dene people and for keeping our land and water clean."

I think that this series of books being published by Fifth House is a wonderful, and much needed, addition to the aboriginal literature we can share with all children. The Land is Our Storybook offers a clear look at contemporary First Nations in the Northwest Territories. This is the tenth book and each has provided a clear picture of the people, their culture and their day-to-day life in Canada's northland.

The format is familiar, using colour photographs, maps and personal stories. This one focuses on Raymond Taniton, a Dene drum maker and the community of Deline on the shore of Great Bear Lake where he lives a full and happy life with family and extended family. He is a leader in his community and a tough negotiator, which he proved while chief.

Raymond's family is large, his love of the land and his community is strong, and he is very proud of his heritage. He passes that love to other members of his community and to those of us who read this book. There is history here, as well as geography, spiritual teachings, instructions on drum making, stories and games.

Raymond is a gifted teacher and elder to his children and grandchildren. He wants them to know the struggles of those who came before them, and he wants them to know their land:

"The land is our storybook. It is our school, our library, our church. It is where we learn our stories and where we discover who we are as true Dene people."

An afterword contributes many interesting details, the meaning of the Dene Nation logo, and a timeline of events, as well as a map showing Canada's treaties and the years they were signed. This is a book worthy of your attention and of interest to many!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Hug Time, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell. Little Brown. Hachette. 2012. $7.99 ages 2 and up

"He hugged all the birds he could find in the park.
So many to hug before it got dark!"

Here's a little book that I will be ordering for new babies, or loved ones for Valentine's Day since Christmas has come and gone. Patrick McDonnell is so good with these adorable cartoon characters. I love seeing them!

Young ones will rock to the beat of  the rhythmic text and the accompanying love-infused artwork. What a great premise for changing our world for the better:

"There once was a kitten so filled with love
He wanted to give the whole world a hug."

Ah, I would take one of those anytime. The older I get the more important they become, and hugs mean a lot more to me now than gifts do. I have always been a hugger, to the great consternation of my kids when they were younger. They seem quite happy to accept them now. I love the close feeling you get when you give someone you care about a gentle reminder that they are loved.

As we say farewell to Christmas for another year and prepare to welcome a new year, the message of this little book has much to say about changing the world one hug at a time;

"There was no one this kitten wanted to miss,
So he made (and he checked twice) a Hug-To-Do List. "

I'm going to get at mine, and I hope you think about doing the same thing! The world is going to be a better place. Get yourself a couple of copies and be prepared the next time you think that someone might appreciate a hug....and a book!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Orani, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola. Farrar Straus Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2011. $18.95 ages 5 and up

"How long it took to get there! Hour after hour we drove under a scorching sun, until suddenly the curving road plunged down into the valley, and the houses, low and dark on either side,  held us close.
The car stopped abruptly and relatives appeared from all around."

And while we are speaking of memoirs, here is another lovely book that evolved from childhood memories. Often children know little about history. They live in the now, and have difficulty attaching meaning to what has happened in the past, especially past last week! We were often amazed to hear our parents' stories of their young lives, and the work that they were expected to do in order to help the family survive and thrive. In Manitoba, we have all heard the stories of walking to school (uphill for miles in blinding storms and barefoot)...yeah, right! But, we even passed those stories to our own kids and they swear that I was here BEFORE dirt....as in, 'you're older than dirt, Mom!' HA!
 
In this wondrous memoir, Claire Nivola invites her readers to take a step back in time and visit the town in Sardinia where her extended family made their home. It is a very different world than the New York neighborhood she now calls home, and she writes about it with humor and admiration:
 
"Above, on the rugged cliffs, tiny goats picked their way among the rocks and thistles and wild scented thyme. The fruit on the island tasted like the fruit of paradise, but wild boars roamed the mountains. There were nettles that stung, scorpions with poisonous tails, and bandits who stole sheep and sometimes kidnapped people."
 
A near yearly visit offered repeated experiences...from New York across the vast ocean, an overnight boat trip to the island, a long car ride into the mountains and finally, arrival in the small valley town where relatives descended to welcome the wanderers home. The cousins always had questions about life in America; the author assured life was better on the island.
 
As the days passed, new groups of cousins would align themselves to partake of the flurry of activity that was a constant in Orani:
 
"Old women everywhere offered us holiday biscuits and chocolates. The roadside trees bent to hand us their fruit. All the village, it seemed, was ours."
 
 I love the lilt of the text and the feeling you get while reading of the adventures so enjoyed by this young girl and her many cousins. It is the art that will transport every reader to her island home and the joy she found in being there. You will want to take a gentle peaceful time looking at each and every page to ensure that you know all you can learn about it, and to feel the love that brought the family back year after year, and even today:
 
``I continue to go back to Orani. My cousins and I are older, and the village too has grown up. That moment has passed - when I was a child; when Orani was shaking free of abject poverty, yet no one had too much; when new ways had not yet torn it away from what was rich in the past.``
 
 The village and people come alive in the carefully drawn artwork, with red clay rooftops and pebbled streets, buildings placed so close to each other, and the daily activities of all who live there. The emdpapers place Sardinia and Orani clearly on a map of the Mediterranean area at the front, then with a close-up labelled map of Sardinia at the back. To add to the fun take the time to find young Claire in each of the illustrations. What lessons were learned, what life-altering experiences shared!
 
Look for this book when the Caldecott winner and honor books are named.

Drawing From Memory, written and illustrated by Allen Say. Scholastic, 2011. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"Even though many of them looked like characters out of comic books, it was hard to capture them in our sketchbooks. I felt jealous of photographers who could sneak up on strangers and snap their pictures on the run. But that seemed like hunting and stealing."

While resting from the first visit of the day and awaiting my friends who are taking me to the next Christmas celebration, I thought I would thank Allen Say for his very special gift to his fans, both past and future. To read Allen Say's memoir of his life as an artist is, to say the least, a most informative and engrossing journey. For me, it begins with the title. The memories he shares are so clear and strong that he gives his audience an authentic glimpse of an artist at work from a very young age. Art is central to his ability to live his life to the fullest. That he shares many personal and intimate moments in his newest book is a testament to that creative life.

Life for Allen and his family held trials and tribulations. His father was not with the family for much of his early life. But, he appears to hold no grudges in his sharing of that time with a young audience. Always an artist, despite his parents' disapproval, he illustrates a remembered time when he could not help but draw what was in his heart and head....on the wall. We watch him walk away from his beguiling and childlike mural as his parents see it through their own anger and horror. His father will not approve of his desire to be an artist. His mother, once separated from his father, finds a way for him to pursue it.

Allen is on his own at twelve, living in a small apartment that will afford him the opportunity to hone his talents under the tutelage of Sensei Noro Shinpei, a famous and much honored cartoonist. The author provides a personal look at the master, his work and his support for his few students. He also provides further information about their relationship in a valuable afterword. There are vintage photographs, words of advice and examples of Noro Shinpei's work, including the cartoons he drew of his two students getting into all manner of mischief.

Allen Say gifts us with a clear picture of many of the important people in is life: his family, Sensei, his fellow student Tokida, some of his most important teachers, and himself as a young and gifted man willing to do anything to be the artist he is meant to be. Using pictures and words he tells his story with poignancy, determination and amazing skill.

He has lived in the United States since 1953 and, if you know his other fine works, his heart remains firmly planted in Japan as well. My introduction to Allen's work was the Caldecott Award winning
Grandfather's Journey and I have gone on to read and cherish every new book that he has written. Now, I feel I know so much more about his own journey from tiny, ever-drawing, Japanese boy to acclaimed Japanese American author and illustrator. Thank you for sharing your remarkable journey, Mr. Say! I am ever grateful.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Money We'll Save, written and illustrated by Brock Cole. Farrar Straus Girooux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2011. $18.95 ages 4 and up

"Now, Ma," said Pa. "It's not long until Christmas. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll make him a pen on the fire escape and then he'll be out of the way, and remember the money we're saving." So Pa built a pen on the fire escape, and for a time everything was peaceful in the flat."

Are you looking for a new family Christmas story to go under the tree this year? I might have just the thing. It comes from the deft hand and masterful mind of Brock Cole. I have admired his work since first reading The Goats (Douglas & McIntyre, 1987). I am always thrilled to see that he he is gracing us with something new and worth coveting.

All that leads me to tell you about his new book. The children are busy with their chores. Ma's hands are full. So, it's Pa who makes the trip to market with a list of needed items. Before he leaves she issues a warning:  "Christmas is not far off, and we must save every penny." Apparently Pa takes her warning to heart (or so he thinks) and rejects all offers of anything that is not specifically on Ma's short list. It is the chicken man who finally convinces him that he has a great deal for him, and Pa comes home with a live turkey poult to be fattened prior to Christmas. If they raise it themselves, they won't have to buy a turkey for the festive celebration.

And so begins this timely tale of a turkey who takes a long more care than Pa had in mind, when deciding to bring Alfred home. It is not an easy existence!  How do you keep a turkey in tow? The family tries a variety of ways to keep Alfred in check. None work well. Then Pa puts Alfred out on the fire escape; it seems the problem is solved.

Mrs. Schumacher is not so sure:

"Now where am I to get a breath of fresh air with that great bird doing his business all over the fire escape and gobbling night and day so no one can sleep?" she demanded."

Will hanging Alfred's pen on the clothesline work? Not for the neighbors who must walk below him each day.  What if the line were to break? How long can they continue? How will they be able to keep everyone safe until Christmas Eve? Can Christmas come soon enough?

The scenes created to tell this story are vintage Brock Cole: perfect setting, wonderful characters, full of joy and humorous attempts to solve the problems of raising your own turkey dinner. The family does so with creativity, humor and warmth. A lively and lovely read for the holiday season.

Chickens to the Rescue, written and illustrated by John Himmelman. Henry Holt & Company. 2006. $21.00 ages 3 and up

"On Wednesday, the dog ate Jeffrey Greenstalk's book report that was due the next morning.

Chickens to the rescue!

"Smart chickens," said Jeffrey Greenstalk."

Those little ones who are just learning to read are going to love this book! The pattern matches the delight in Pigs to the Rescue (Henry Holt, 2010) and is full of fun and wondrous illustrations. Days of the week, difficulties to deal with in the Greenstalk family...all are familiar and that is what makes this book one that children will want to try reading on their own.

The text is in a repetitive form, and is accompanied by pencil and watercolor illustrations that are hilarious and filled with spirit and vigorous activity. None of it will overwhelm the child reader, but will surely draw their attention to every remarkable detail. I pored over the pages always, finding something new to cause me to snicker.

Oh, those chickens! They arrive in a flurry, wings flapping and white feathered bodies tumbling. All they want to do is help, and help they do! Whether dressed in swimsuits for well diving, sporting aprons for dinner making, sign-equipped for truck stopping or collectively holding a trampoline to catch a wind-blown cow, their bodies express all of the lengths they are willing to go to make everything better. What true enjoyment they bring! They show such pride in their efforts....don't be fooled, they are very pleased with themselves.

Having met the chickens prior to the opening page of text, we know a lot about them before they begin their quest to be the saviors for all things Greenstalk. There is so much to look at, and such feelings to explore. One chicken is always on the lookout for the next catastrophe...and a new one crops up each day. The book ends with a surprise on Sunday, and offers a hint at what the future might hold.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dog Breath, written by Carolyn Beck and illustrated by Brooke Kerrigan. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2011. $18.95 ages 5 and up

"You escaped any chance you got. If the door opened a crack, if for one second we forgot how crafty you were, out you went - raiding garbage cans, finding stinks to roll in, following your nose for hours and hours while we called and called, thinking the worst."

Dog lovers and memoirists unite! Carolyn Beck is one of us...well, I like my granddogs but have no desire to have my own. I know all the arguments, and the comfort that the love of a dog has brought to so many, but I remain steadfast in my resolve to be able to enjoy my granddogs and then send them home, leaving me free to go to work, or for lunch, or to Victoria, or to Winnipeg without concerning myself over care for my four-legged companion!

I read this book this morning and now know the joy that dogs bring to Carolyn Beck's life. It says on the back flyleaf that she presently does not have a dog, but the memories of Brandy that this book evokes assures me that there is another dog in her future. She writes with such love.

"Sometimes
I woke
not knowing
what was real
till your nose
touched my face.

Dog breath."

Each turn of the page holds a new memory of time spent together and the love shared. It is full of laughs and little scenes that steal your heart. If you have ever owned a dog, I'm sure you share some of the same silly scenes.

Brooke Kerrigan uses her talents to great effect here, filling the pages with color and poignant images,  and using the text to help add the small details of a life shared. The drooling dog is a delight despite its mischievous ways, and has an open, almost gleeful face.

And when she dies, there is sadness...a gentle look at the bed table photo following a the mere mention of her passing:  

"Last week  you really did it:
you ate my birthday cake -
the whole thing,
candles, too -
and got yourself so stuffed
you threw it up.

I was so mad I yelled,
"I hate you!"
not knowing
you'd never steal
another birthday cake."

As with all who are loved and lost, there is much to keep their memory alive and this lovely, funny story helps readers see that. I will be sharing it over and over again. Thank you, Carolyn Beck!

Anna Hibiscus, written by Atinuke and illustrated by Lauren Tobia.. Walker Books, Penguin. 2007. $6.99 ages 8 and up

"She was wearing the biggest, longest, fullest, stiffest traditional dress that  Anna and her cousins had ever seen. It was a miracle that her head tie had fitted inside the car! Auntie Comfort looked like a queen. The Queen of Africa! Uncle Tunde winked at Anna."

I have read so much about Anna Hibiscus and her family stories that I just couldn't resist finding out for myself. After coming home from seeing Hugo (wonderful, amazing, gorgeous) I couldn't watch the Saturday night hockey game. I needed to remain in awe of writers (like Brian Selznick and now, Atinuke) who bring us stories to cheer our hearts and keep us 'pushing' new and brilliant books beyond our own homes and into the hands of children, their parents and their teachers. Can you feel the push?

This is the first in a series of stories about Anna, a biracial girl living in 'Africa. Amazing Africa.' Her city is not named, but we learn much about it and the family compound in reading the four stories included here. Anna's mother is a Canadian who met and fell in love with an African visitor. When the weather became too cold to bear, he brought his wife to his African home. Now, Anna has twin baby brothers and a loving, happy family that includes grandparents, aunties, uncles, big cousins, little cousins. They are loud and loving, and supportive of each other in every way.

In the first story, Anna and her family take a beach holiday. They are alone to enjoy the peace and quiet that being together as a family of five is sure to bring. Alas! It is not what they had hoped for, and the arrival of family members makes all the difference. Together, they cook, they care for the little cousins, they swim, they share stories and song. Ah, life as it is meant to be.

Each of the stories has to do with family...how each member affects the others, the lessons taught by the learned and understanding grandparents, and the joy that being together brings. Anna shares the concerns of children everywhere and that is what makes these stories so accessible to a wide audience. Great fun to share in a classroom, inviting discussions and family stories to be shared.

Anna lives in joy, and I am delighted to meet her and her remarkable family. They live their lives in the modern and the traditional ways of the African people:
“Anna’s mother and father and aunties and uncles drive to work in their cars. They send text messages and e-mails around the world, and call from the market on their mobile phones to see what shopping needs doing. But the clothes they wear are made from colorful African cloth, waxed and dyed and printed. The languages they speak are African as well as English.”

Lauren Tobia brings each character to glorious life and gives readers a feel for the life they lead within their family compound. She adds detail to each of her pen and ink illustrations that will make readers ache to share the large, rambunctious, friendly family that is so evident here.

Pearl, written by Jo Knowles. Henry Holt, 2011. $18.99 ages 12 and up

"He must have been lonely, you know? My mom was right. He didn't have any friends. I should have talked to him more. I should have tried harder. Every time I think of him all I can see is the sadness in his eyes. I can feel the loneliness of him. It's in his room. In his living room chair. In the boat. It's in here. I can feel it right now. Can't you?"

I just spent almost three hours living with Bean (well, Pearl) and Henry,  and a strong cast of family members. It is the second book by Jo Knowles that I have read this week and I will be looking for the next as soon as I am finished this post. She is a wondrous writer.

Her characters are vulnerable and aching to be loved....and love them I do! Yes, they are exasperating at times...each one of them. Isn't that real life in a nutshell? They grew on me with every turn of the page, and as I came to know their story, I just liked them more. They have a long way to go but I feel hopeful that each one is moving in the right direction to find some peace and joy for the rest of the journey...not without bumps.

Bean and Henry are best friends:

"Being close to Henry has always made me feel safe. Ever since I met him at the MiniMart on the corner of our street. I was there to buy my mom some ginger ale for her hangover and get myself a treat with the change. Henry was buying his mom Soap Opera Digest and some Suzy Qs. We were seven and it was July."

Bean lives with her grandfather Gus and her mother Lexie. It is not a happy household. Gus and Lexie fight all the time, but Gus loves Bean. They share happy times together, always in the shadow of the continuing feud between father and daughter.

Henry lives with his mother Sally who never leaves the house, filling her days with soap operas and sadness.

Neither has a father, or knows much about him:

"Up until then, Henry and I had been pretty satisfied with the stories we'd concocted about our dads. Mine was a pilot who disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle. Henry's had been kidnapped by terrorists. These scenarios were a lot more interesting that the unsatisfactory ones our moms fed us up to that point:"

When Gus dies suddenly, Pearl's heart aches; her mother, his daughter, seems to have found a new freedom that Pearl cannot understand. There is so much she doesn't know, and a lot she doesn't want to believe. She always turns to Henry with her worry and her growing knowledge of the events that have led to where she is now. Henry is always there for her.

Teen pregnancy, desertion, anger, doubt, homosexuality, love, longing and a promise of better times ahead....sounds like too much. Instead, in Jo Knowles' capable and comforting hands, these characters
will find a way into your heart, and a place in your memory.  Deservedly so!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

jumping off swings, written by Jo Knowles. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2009. $9.00 ages 14 and up


"I guess that's why I keep following Ellie around, sneaking glimpses of our growing baby. Because that's all I'll ever get.
I guess that's why I feel like I'm sinking underwater and I can't breathe and I can't call out for help because there's no one there to pull me out anyway.
I guess that's why I feel like I'll die if I don't see my baby before it's gone for good."

Jo Knowles felt that she 'wanted to explore how one pregnancy can affect many people in vastly different and profound ways'. She does exactly that with heartfelt sensitivity. In her second novel for young adults, the voices belong to four friends...Caleb, Corinne, Ellie and Josh. Each of the four is carefully drawn and worthy of our compassion and concern for their future.

Following a one-time sexual encounter with Josh, Ellie discovers that she is pregnant. Ellie is a 'good' girl who has never been in trouble, and who suddenly becomes the target for ridicule, rude remarks and ostracism. Corinne is her best friend and confidante. To her credit, Corinne hangs in there supporting and giving advice when warranted. Josh is ashamed of the way he treated Ellie following their time together, and heartsick about the baby. His best friend Caleb, likewise, listens to Josh's concerns and questions, and tries to help him face the profound changes they are experiencing.

Each of the four characters is complex and very real. Each is growing up much faster than they could have imagined. When Ellie decides not to go through with an abortion; to have the baby and give it up for adoption, they support each other in the best ways they can.

In alternating chapters they share their reactions with candor and maturity. They each face family challenges that are shared with the reader, and that results in a better understanding of the effect that the pregnancy has on each one. Caleb is the one character who has a stake in each of the others' lives. He is Josh's best friend, has loved Ellie for years and helps Corinne help Ellie through the difficulties she is facing. Caleb's mother Liz is pivotal, taking a strong, supportive and influential role in the events as they play out.

Heartbreaking, with no happy endings, this is a book that will pull at your heartstrings for the honesty and hurt in the voices of its very memorable characters:

"I study the scrunched face again, then lift him to my own face and press my lips to his soft little forehead. My tears dampen his warm cheek. My heart aches with the weight of him about to leave my chest.
It's not too late to say I've changed my mind. To keep him after all. And yet I know I won't.
"I'm sorry," I whisper. "I love you."
I close my eyes when the nurse takes him out of my arms. I can't open them again. I can't open them again and see him not here."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

LEVI STRAUSS gets a BRiGHT IDEA, written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Stacy Innerst. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son, 2011. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"Well, they didn't exactly lose them. The pants just disintegrated. They were that flimsy. Corduroy, wool, tweed, flannel, burlap, velvet, worsted, serge: they didn't last long in the gold fields. Right quick they got worked down to the size of a handkerchief."

Tony Johnston names this 'a fairly fabricated story of a pair of pants'. She spins a yarn that is full of fun, and a touch of truth. The rush to California created a dilemma that may not have been foreseen by those who headed west with the first cry of  'GOLD!' Life was tough for them as they prospected in the rivers and hills. Their pants didn't stand a chance of weathering all that hard work. Soon, they wore thin and were useless to the men. The artist shows them dressing in barrels, or nothing at all when those pants took their last breath.

Levi Strauss didn't make it to California in time to find gold, but he did see a golden opportunity for himself when he noted how quickly miners found themselves without pants. He pondered a solution with all the skills of a master inventor. Finally, using the durable and plentiful 'tent' material that he constructed shelters with for the men, he made his first pair of Levis. They were just what those hard-working miners needed and they liked them so much they didn't want to take them off.  To Levi's great delight, that called for a second pair...one to wear and one as a spare. His financial success was guaranteed.

It takes a skilled and imaginative writer to weave the few known facts about Levi Strauss' role in making the first blue jeans into a hilarious and homespun tall tale such as this one. Tony Johnston does it with panache. In her most capable hands inventive language and humor provide entertainment for readers young and old:

"Pretty soon, each miner had a spanking new pair of tent-pants. Then weren't they just beside themselves! In comfort, they sluiced and panned and rocked their cradles for the bright yellow stuff. They rushed, rushed, RUSHED. No harm came to those pants."

DANG! She's a good writer.

Ms. Johnston is not the only inventive one. Stacy Innerst painted each of his double-page spreads straight onto denim. The textures are perfectly scratchy and rugged to give readers a feeling for life in the Old West, when pants were hard to come by and needed to be long-wearing and almost indestructible. Every spread is worth a second look! So, take your time and enjoy this 'pur-dee fabrication'.

Timber Wolf, written by Caroline Pignat. Red Deer Press, Fitzhenry & Whiteside. 2011. $12.95 ages 12 and up

"I learned that everyone has a story...and that sometimes there's hurting before there's healing." I think of how I miss Da and Mam, of what I did to Benoit, to Mick, to Annie and Kit. My voice lowers as I finish. "...and I learned that the things I'd rather forget are the ones I must always remember. For the worst mistake is not learning from my mistakes."

I've been spending my sleepless nights with some amazing characters lately. I was immensely happy to catch up with Jack in this wilderness adventure. His is the third story of the Byrne family that began with Greener Grass (Red Deer Press, 2009) and continued with Wild Geese (Red Deer Press, 2010). Each stands as a riveting read; together, they are a wonderful saga.

Caroline Pignat began in Ireland, inspired by her Irish ancestors, to tell a story of the great famine and one family's plight. That story brought her to the family making the journey to a better life in Canada and now to the Ottawa region of Canada where Jack Byrne has been working with as a logger with his friend Mick.. When we first meet him, he is perplexed:

"The howl wakes me, calls me from one darkness to another. My right eye opens but my left is a throbbing slit. Bare branches. Twilight beyond. I'm on my back. Outside. Somewhere. I'm alive. Barely.
What happened?"

We learn that Jack has little memory of his life until now, and we watch as he struggles to remember.
The winter weather is life-threatening, the wilderness conditions are harsh and foreboding. His strong sense of family love has him believing that someone is looking for him; he holds out hope that they will soon find him. His injuries are worsening and he is unable to fend for himself much longer. Food is scarce, and the wolf draws nearer each night. He begins to lose hope.

Rescue comes in different forms. Jack learns the lessons he needs to learn in order to survive in the wilderness. As he heals and has contact with some amazing people, he begins to unearth scenes from his life up to now. The soft beat of Grandfather Wawatie's drum tells his tale of joy and loss and helps Jack to understand the need for his own:

"With stories said and sung, soon everyone is silent. I hear their breathing grow long as each one sinks deeper into dreaming. But I can't sleep. I need to know my stories. My ancestors. I need to know it all. For what good is a man with no story?"

His memories are heartbreaking and humbling. With help from a wise grandfather, he faces his future:

"Grandfather Wawatie turns to me and takes my head in his hands. He rests his wrinkled forehead on mine and I close my eyes. "I see you, Jack Byrne, I know you. You have learned the lessons of loyalty and truth from a great Teacher - the Wolf. You are kin to this animal who is forever faithful to his pack."

A birchbark canoe is gifted and Jack begins his journey 'home':

"The current carries me forward, faster and faster, as the trees whip past. I smile. After all this time, I'm finally going home. For if the Wawaties taught me anything, 'tis that home is neither log nor land, but the people that we love."

Monday, December 12, 2011

Blue Chicken, written and illustrated by Deborah Freedman. Viking, Penguin. 2011. $18.50 ages 2 and up

"A moo wakes the chickens.
They're peevish and blue. They
dump the red wheelbarrow,
dropping that chicken who just
wanted to..."

Talk about glorious color! Poring over the expressive faces of the two tiny animals on the cover and the brilliant blues that look ready to engulf them is the only invitation needed to get right to the heart of this story. But wait, flip it open to the endpapers at the front and rain-washed windows show a cloudy, gloomy day and a drab building in the background. The title page invites even more speculation about what is happening here. There is an almost completed farm painting lying on the table, accompanied by pots of paint, some brushes and a larger pot full of clear liquid.

Come on, let's step inside. A tiny white chicken is up to some mischief, escaping from its coop in the painting and creating quite a stir as its inquisitive nature draws it straight toward the blue paint pot!   A careful look inside, an overbalance, and OH DEAR! The blue spills and spreads, first bleeding up the chick's body and then threatening the flowers, and teensy yellow ducklings who are nearby.

They seem delighted. Not so, the cat and the cow...oh boy, things are getting out of hand. The chick is sincerely apologetic, and only wants to make things better! I wonder what she will do?

This is a remarkable lesson in perspective, color, composition, and watercolor artwork while never feeling anything but a lighthearted, humorous tale that will be enjoyed by all who share it.

A warning! You would be remiss if you did not take a very careful look at the final double-page spread and the endpapers at the back. Bravo!

Lone Hawk, a graphic novel by John Lang. Puffin, Penguin. 2011. $15.00 ages 10 and up

"Lone Hawk is a great historical account of an important Canadian, and that's great, but at its core it's also a really good story, told well by a cartoonist who is still only at the beginning of what will undooubtedly be a long and exciting career. A few more books like this and kids won't have to hide thier comic books inside their textbooks much longer; their comics will be their textbooks."

The above quote is from the FOREWORD written by Jeff Lemire for this new graphic novel, a story that will be appreciated by many. You know who they are!

I have to admit that graphica is not my chosen genre. Even when my kids were young, the one thing I refused to read to them were comics; and as a child myself I had only a brief relationship with Archie and the gang. So, I push myself to read graphica knowing how popular it is with so many. My friend Don is working hard to help me develop an appreciation of all that graphic novels have to offer.

I was pleased to receive two new graphic novels ( I will post the other soon) from Penguin last week, and especiallyhappy that they fit my newfound and growing interest in picture book biography. More importantly they are about Canadians to admire and know.

Billy Bishop proved himself an expert marksman as a young boy, when his father offered him money to help alleviate the headache of a burgeoning and destructive squirrel population. By the end of the first week, his father owed him $7.00...a veritable forturne in the early nineteenth century.

His love was not in education. When his chance came to sign up for service in World War I, he hastily withdrew from the Royal Military College where he was close to failing his year. It was in England that he discovered his love of flying. It took some time to learn his trade and he proved himself an apt student and a brave airman. He loved being in the air, where there were no mud-filled trenches,
or lingering mustard gases. There was great danger; pilots often flew their perilous missions without downing a single plane.

That was not Billy's intention. He worked hard to perfect his aerial and combat skills. He had an innate instinct for it. By the end of the war, he had seventy-two officially confirmed victories and was awarded every major medal, including the Victoria Cross. He was a valuable asset to the Canadian war effort and a true symbol of the patriotism and bravery of our Canadian troops in the first great war.

I learned and remembered all this from a carefully, crafted graphic novel that will find fans in those who love their stories told this way, and also in history buffs. It is a worthy addition to the nonfiction that concerns war and warfare, and Canadian history.

White Water, written by Michael S Bandy and Eric Stein, with illustrations by Shadra Strickland. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2011. $19.00 ages 5 and up

"Michael," my grandmother scolded, "don't you even think about doing anything like that." I stopped in my tracks. But it was too late. They ideas were already flowing."

This is memoir, at its most personal and poignant. It comes from Michael Bandy's childhood and provides a look at a young boy making a discovery about the world around him, and its injustices.

He must drink at the 'colored' fountain and he finds that water disgusting. It smells bad, has grit in it, and is all-in-all an unpleasant experience, doing nothing to quench his thirst. When he sees a boy drinking at the 'whites-only' fountain, he becomes obsessed with knowing how much more refreshing that water must be:

"After that, I couldn't concentrate anywhere, not even at school. One moment I would be in class, then suddenly, I'd be crawling on my hands and knees in the hot desert. Out of nowhere, there was a palm tree with a water fountain under it. Above the fountain was a whites only sign. I got up, opened my mouth, and was about to take a drink, when "Michael. Michael," the teacher said, "would you care to join us today?" I snapped out of it. All the kids were laughing at me."

He knows that the fountain is forbidden territory but his imagination and dreams give him much to ponder. He cannot let go of the idea that he needs to 'try the water' there. When he eventually is able to make the trip back to the fountain alone and sneak a drink from it, he is totally surprised to find that the water tastes exactly the same! While this is a story of the segregated South, it is also humorous to watch Micheal imagine the situations he might find himself in that demand a quenching of his thirst.

Shadra Strickland uses muted earthy tones and ink, gouache and watercolor illustrations to bring vivid life to Michael and his imagination. She pays such attention to detail that readers can almost feel the heat of a summer's day, enjoy the soothing splash of bathtub droplets, ache over fearful dreams, and empathize with his disappointment over discovering the water pipes below the fountains.

Michael learns a life lesson that he will remember for his lifetime...luckily, he wanted to share it with  us!  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Crooked Kind of Perfect, written by Linda Urban. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen, 2007. $8.99 ages 10 and up

"...You can sit with us until you find a new best friend if you want."
If I had my paper keyboard, I could unfold it now and start practicing. It really wouldn't make any difference. I have gone over to the dork side."

I ordered Linda Urban's first book with great anticipation, after last week reading Hound Dog True and meeting Mattie and her Uncle Potluck.  I thought I would make it my 'train book'... the book I keep in my car for times when I have to stop for a train, or wait at the doctor's office, or whenever I need a book to make better use of my wait time.  That was my intention and so, I took it into the restaurant and began reading while waiting to meet a friend for lunch yesterday. Then, I brought it straight inside when I got home. After making sure some of the Christmas jobs got done, I happily took it to bed with me and promptly fell asleep....must have been the day's hard work. So, when I woke up at 4 am, I was delighted to have Zoe there, waiting to tell me her story. Finish it I did...and I promise you will do the same. She gets into your heart, just as music gets into hers:

"When you play the piano, you have to get the heart right. Which is harder than getting the notes right.
Each note can only be right in one way. A B-flat is a B-flat is a B-flat. A robot can get a B-flat right.
But getting the heart right is something only a person can do. And the ways to do it are as many and as different as there are people in the world."

After meeting Zoe, hearing her voice and wanting to know more about her, I just kept reading. I feel blessed to have met her.  She is a 10 year old with a dream. She wants to be a piano protege, and she wants to play at Carnegie Hall, with all the perks that such a gig might offer. Her father is sent on a shopping trip and instead of a baby grand piano, he comes home with a Perfectone D-60 organ. It is theirs, and her parents are agreeable to paying for lessons with Mabelline Person, who encourages Zoe to play from the books provided with the organ...TV show themes, hits of all decades but the Eighties (when there were no hits).

I haven't yet mentioned her mother:

"My mother is a controller for the state of Michigan. She looks after all the money and makes sure she knows where every dime is spent and that nobody is cheating or stealing of buying stuff they're not supposed to."

or her father:

"I don't want to tell them about Bugs to Bucks. Because then they'll ask if my dad kills bugs for a living and I'll say no and they'll say what does he do and I'll have to tell them that he stays in our house all day earning degrees that he'll never use."

or her best friend Emma Dent:

"I was going to bare my soul to my dear best friend Emma Dent and, through tragedy, we would forge an unbreakable sisterly bond.
But Emma is not sitting at our regular lunch table. She is two tables away sharing a bag of  SnackyDoodles with Joella Tinstella."

or Wheeler Diggs:

"Usually, Wheeler Diggs is a mess.
Except his hair.
On anybody else, his curly hair might look goofy, but on Wheeler Diggs it looks just the right kind of wild."

Wheeler doesn't have a best friend, and Zoe Elias doesn' t have a best friend. It is not that surprising that Wheeler Diggs starts hanging out at the Elias house, making discoveries about Zoe and her dad. Zoe begins making some discoveries about Wheeler, while also learning more about herself.

Each character is unique and worthy of our admiration for their honest response to the events of the novel. They find solutions, accept help and move forward in their lives. Nobody's perfect; but, they work!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, written by Alan Bradley. Doubleday, Random House. 2011. $29.95 ages 12 and up

"I had half a mind to march upstairs to my laboratory, fetch down a jar of cyanide, seize this boob's nose, tilt his head back, pour the stuff down his throat, and hang the consequences. Fortunately, good breeding kept me from doing so."

I could honestly just fill this post with quote after quote from Flavia's latest case. She has such character and voice...I never want to finish reading her stories. I know that I have mentioned in other posts my trepidation when sitting down with the 'next' book in hand, and wondering if it can continue to provide the immense pleasure felt while reading the 'others'. Right now, Alan Bradley has me impatiently anticipating her fifth case! I hope the wait is not interminable.

The sheriff has threatened foreclosure if back taxes remain unpaid so Flavia's father has agreed to let a film company use the family estate as the setting for a new movie. Of course, Flavia's reclusive father is not pleased with this turn of events; the daughters, on the other hand, are quite interested to see what might arise with numerous guests at hand and a film to be made. No Christmas for the de Luces this year. The film company arrives, invites villagers to a free Christmas Eve performance by its two famous stars. When the house has filled to bursting with guests, a blizzard keeps them trapped there.

Following the performance one of the stars is found murdered (by Flavia, of course) and she does her best to solve the mystery that surrounds that death. As well as searching for clues that will help the local law enforcement with its investigation, she is making plans for a Christmas Eve trap for Santa and a light show that will be seen for miles:

"It was important to keep in mind the fact that winter fireworks required a different formula than those designed for summer. The basic idea was this: less sulfur and lots more gunpowder.
I had concocted the gunpowder myself from niter, sulfur, charcoal and a happy heart. When working with explosives, Ive found that attitude is everything."

With aplomb and great deductive reasoning (including almost being done in by the murderers) Flavia solves the case and is able to explain her findings:

"They were having an affair, of course," I added cautiously, and the Inspector's eyeballs gave an involuntary twitch. I didn't really understand all that was involved in such a relationship, and I didn't much care, actually. Once, when I had asked Dogger what was meant by the phrase, he had told me that it described two people who had become the very best of friends, and that was good enough for me."

The Inspector is suitably impressed by Flavia's work once again:

"Well done? I tried not to simper. This was high praise from a man who had, at our first meeting, sent me off to rustle up some tea.

"You're very kind," I said, anxious to make the moment last.
"I am, indeed," he said.  "I've found exasperation to be quite useless."

She has even managed to impress her father:
"My father is not a hugger, but I wanted to hug him. I wanted to run after him and throw my arms around him and hug him until the jam ran out.
But of course, I didn't. We de Luces do not gush."

Her sisters are not so complimentary and want to be sure she realizes just what a ridiculous chance she had taken in facing the murderers, almost losing her own life and ending up with frostbitten fingers:
"Oh, just you wait," Feely said. "Another twenty-four hours and they'll begin to turn black, after which they'll fall off. You'll need to have hooks fitted, won't she, Daff? Five little hooks on each hand. Dr. Darby says you're lucky. They've improved hooks by leaps and bounds in the past few years, and you might even be able to -"

His characters are exemplary and true to everything we already know about them. I could still wring both sisters' necks, Dogger is doggedly loyal and helpful to all family members while being especially empathetic to Flavia and her many dilemmas. Buckshaw is a perfect setting for this good old-fashioned murder mystery, with its many rooms, concealed spaces and stairways, and its magnificent rooftop.

If you have not yet met Flavia and the de Luce family, the people of Bishop's Lacey and the local constabulary, you are missing great entertainment! If you are looking for a wondrous family readaloud this Christmas, this is it!

King Hugo's Big Ego, written and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $19.00 ages 5 and up

"The next day when the king awoke,
he climbed down from his bed
and gazed into his looking glass
admiringly and  said,
"I do believe, dear Hugo,
you're more handsome than last night."
But when he put his crown back on,
it felt a little tight."

King Hugo is proof in the pudding that 'pride goeth before the fall'! He has little regard for anyone but himself...until one momentous day! He is in his opulent coach when a young hard-working Tessa blocks his path. Rather than go around her, he had his coachmen bump her into the muddy gutter. Little does he know that she has magic on her side! And that is his comeuppance:

"A pox on you, O cocky king
in robes of ruby red.
Let's see if all your arrogance
can fit inside your head."

You will laugh out loud, and so will your listeners as you regale them with this story of a king who is much too full of himself, and the results of his having little regard for the people around him. There is music in the rhythmic text, and the story moves quickly while Hugo takes quite a long time to realize just exactly what is happening to him, and why.

Young listeners may not know someone who resembles King Hugo, many of those adults sharing the story will recognize a friend, an acquaintance or a colleague in him. That just adds to the hilarity of the situation he finds himself in, and allows for the repeated readings that are sure to be requested.

Chris Van Dusen knows his full-of-himself king and he fills these brightly colored gouache illustrations with comic twists, expressive faces, a range of perspectives, heraldry, exaggerated movement and a plentiful dose of humor.

It is a joy to read aloud, and assures the audience that even a king can learn a badly needed lesson!

Lala Salama, written by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2011. $19.00 ages 3 and up

"I washed your face and hands
in the water warmed by the fire
and poured water over your feet.
I dressed you in white
and wrapped you in a long colorful kanga."

I have a been an ardent admirer of Patricia MacLachlan's work since our friend Susan brought us a signed copy of Sarah, Plain and Tall  in 1986 when Erin was 10 and the perfect age to read this incredible story that allowed her a window into the life of a strong, prairie, single woman who braved many changes and much uncertainty as she searched for a new life. Since then, I have read many of Patricia MacLachlan's picture books, poetry and novels. Each one seems to find itself a place on my 'keepers' shelf.

Just this year, I was thrilled to see two new books...Before You Came (Harper, 2011) and Your Moon, My Moon (Simon & Schuster, 2011). Now, I have a third, equally lovely, book to add to my 'books for babies' list. They will definitely find their way to the homes of new parents in  coming months.

Patricia MacLachlan has a grandchild living in faraway Tanzania. In each of these three stories, you can feel the love, longing and pride she feels for this grandchild. Lucky we are to share those feelings through the pages of her books!

The gentle rhythm of this evening lullaby tells of the family's day:

"LONG AGO, this morning,
the sun rose
above the hill
above the house,
spilling light over the hills of the Congo
and the lake with the beautiful name,
Tanganyika,
like a song.".

The baby is safe in Mama's arms as they watch Baba prepare for a day's work on the water. The rest of the day is given to a routine that is familiar, with a kanga-wrapped baby bound to the mother's back. They go for water, work in the fields, watch the wildlife and cook the food that they will take to Baba, when he comes to shore before he goes back to his night's work on the lake waters. He sings a gentle lullaby to his beloved child. Then, as his boat light sparkles over the dark night waters, the baby finds comfort and slumber on Mama's shoulder.

Lala salama is a Swahili phrase that invites a peaceful sleep, sweet dreams and offers an assurance that the child is loved. How beautiful!

The warmth in Elizabeth Zunon's oil paintings comes from the colors chosen, as well as from the tender attention given to mother and child as they go about their day, always together. The cover image is infused with soft moonlight and abiding love.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Beyond Bullets, written by Rafal Gerszak with Dawn Hunter. Annick Press, 2011. $19.95 ages 12 and up

"Panjshir is paradise, except for one thing. As soon as you drive into the area, you see decrepit Russian tanks and old Russian artillery littering the sides of the highways and the farmers' fields. Such images bring back the reality of living in Afghanistan:"

After spending a year of his life embedded with American forces covering the war in Afghanistan and taking pictures of the day-to-day events of a military operation, Rafal Gerszak returned to Canada,  restless and ready to go back to the people of that country:

"Even after being embedded for a year, I couldn't help but feel that I had still seen only one side of Afghanistan's story. Almost as soon as I got home, I decided to go back to cover the other side: civilian life."

And so, he fills this book with images of the people who work and live there. His notes accompany the photos, adding details of his journeys in the form of a diary. While it is not always easy to read about some of the events he shares, it tells a compelling story that is personal and heartfelt. Part One shows photographs that were taken while he was embedded with the troops. It includes maps, information boxes that deal with concepts that are not always clear to those not living there (Taliban, the Quran, NATO forces, Islam). Some photos are captioned to give context and all are related to being with the troops.

Part Two is a result of an internal conflict he felt once he got back to Canada, and his concern about what his images did not show:

"I still didn't have a good understanding of how Afghan civilians felt about the war and how it affected their daily lives. I felt a pull to go back that I couldn't ignore; there was still so much going on that needed to be documented."

Back he went to Kabul to continue his work. The pictures in the second part of his book show life for the people of the war zone. He wants his readers to hear their voices and to know their stories. His writing style, which helps them tell these stories, is conversational and provides a clear picture for his readers. He shares their pain and laughter, their despair and their joy. He is open and honest, and leaves little to the imagination. He shows an abiding respect for their history, discusses their everyday lives and shows that we have similarities:

"In North America, guys might get together to play golf or watch a fight in their spare time. In Kabul it's much the same, except the golf course is all sand and the fight is between dogs."

Not too much is said about the women. Much changed for them under Taliban rule and today they
'struggle to find an acceptable place in society - between modernity and tradition - in Afghanistan.'

Hospitals are not much better:

"The hospital was filled with young children who were ill, malnourished, dehydrated, waiting to be treated. Some had been left, abandoned by their parents; others were there with their mothers only."

Rafal Gerszak has not made his last trip to Afghanistan:

"In spite of everything, Afghans stay strong and hopeful. And as long as they have stories they want to tell, I'll keep going back."

Stars, written by Mary Lyn Ray and illustrated by Marla Frazee. Beach Lane Books, Simon & Schuster. 2011. $18.99 ages ages 3 and up

"But you can draw a star on shiny paper and cut around it. Then you can put it in your pocket. Having a star in your pocket is like having your best rock in your pocket, but different. Because a star is different from a rock."

This quietly reflective book shows its readers stars in their various roles.  If you've ever been out in the country on a clear cloudless night, you will  have been enamored of the beauty in the starry night sky and perhaps spent time discovering known constellations. You may have seen star shapes on a walk through the garden, or at the top of a wand. As a child you might have received a shiny colored star for something you did well, at home or at school. Stars come in many sizes and many guises.

"White stars in June grass become strawberries in July.
Yellow stars on pumpkin vines become October pumpkins.
Snowflakes are stars."

The peaceful meandering of the text is matched by the gentle reassurance that is evoked in the words of this gifted writer. Stars have the ability to lift our spirits and make us happy but, not always:

"Some days you feel shiny as a star.
If you've done something important,
people may call you a star.

But some days
you don't feel
shiny."

I love the look of the book....tall, with a basket gathering the stars from the night sky on the front cover. No words there but the title and the image of the tiny gatherer. The endpapers differ; beginning with a morning look at the sky through puffy clouds and ending with the deep darkness that is a perfect backdrop for their twinkling beauty. In between, Marla Frazee uses spot pictures and panels with plenty of white space on some pages and fills others with pastel beauty and wide horizons, all allowing her children to make exciting discoveries about the pleasures of the 'stars' themselves. I have a few favorite images, but the one of the sled speeding downhill through a veritable blizzard of snowflakes brings back delighted memories. Her children are charming and quite the characters, as we follow them through the text.

There is quiet comfort in knowing that the stars are always there, whether we can see them or not. If you have a star atop your Christmas tree, it might provide a chance to talk about stars in all of their forms. Then you could try drawing stars, cutting out stars, finding the star in an apple or a starfruit, using wands that have a star attached to bring drama and delight to holiday play, and then settling in with hot chocolate and warm pajamas to read this beautiful book. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Scar, written by Charlotte Moundlic and illustrated by Olivier Tallec. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $17.00 ages 5 and up

"And I cried a little because I didn't really know how to take care of a dad who's been abandoned like this. I could tell that he'd been crying, too - he looked like a washcloth, all crumpled and wet. I don't really like seeing Dad cry."

If we look at books as the means to an end, this would be a book to share with children who have lost a loved one. Rather, I think we should read and wonder at books that bring a small piece of the world to us...perhaps it is about an experience we share, or perhaps it is about helping us begin to have empathy and understanding for what happens in the lives of others. I may have mentioned before that Carol Jago calls them 'window' and 'mirror' books.
Window books allow us to see the world beyond ourselves and our borders while mirror books allow us to see ourselves in their pages. I love thinking about the books that I read in that way!

It begins in sadness:

"Mom died this morning.
It wasn't really this morning.
Dad said she died during the night,
but I was sleeping during the night.
For me, she died this morning."

There has been gentle, realistic talk about her impending death, and the boy is aware that she has died and will not be back. He reasons that he must care for his father now. The little boy's struggle is apparent:

"I'm trying not to forget what Mom smells like,
but it's fading, so I close all the windows so that
it won't get out."

 A fall in the garden results in a scraped knee and he hears his mother's voice encouraging him as she always did when he hurt himself. He keeps taking the scab off and letting it bleed, thinking that will keep his mom's voice in his head. It might keep the sadness at bay.

When his maternal grandmother arrives he has two adults and a scab needing care. His grandmother recognizes some of the fears that threaten to engulf him and offers a ray of hope. Knowing that his mom will always have a place in his heart helps him begin healing and brings the story to a poignant and satisfying conclusion.

The artist's use of red on every page helps readers to understand the frustration and anger that the young boy and his family feel, while also bringing warmth and love to its telling. This thoughtful, moving book will always have a special spot on my 'keepers' shelf.  It is a wonder!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Belle, The Last Mule at Gee's Bend, written by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud, with illustrations by John Holyfield. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2011. $18.00 ages 6 and up

"But we must have scared the white folks in Camden, because the next thing we knew, they shut down the ferry. The white sheriff was a big bully who wanted to keep us in our place. He told reporters, 'We didn't close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black."

My list of picture book biographies grows daily and I am pleased to be able to add this well-told of Belle to that growing collection. Children love animal stories, and are especially keen when they know that they are about real life characters.

My interest in Gee's Bend was piqued when a good friend took me to a showing of some of their quilt works at a gallery in Indianapolis a few years ago. Since then, my interest has stayed strong and I was most interested in seeing this new book about a little known moment in American history.

Alex is finding the time long as he waits for his mom to make her purchase of a Gee's Bend quilt. As he sits and waits, his attention is drawn to an old mule who has his chompers in the collard greens of a garden across the road. And old woman sits down beside him, and Alex is brave enough to ask about that mule. Miz Pettway is only too happy to share her story.

Seems that Belle plays an important role in the town's history. An inspiring visit from Dr. Martin Luther King set the wheels in motion for the people of Gee's Bend to take the ferry across the river to Camden. There, they could register to vote. The white folks in Camden did not want that to happen so they closed the ferry to all traffic. Not to be deterred after having their hopes boosted by Dr. King's remarkable rhetoric, the Benders found another way to get to Camden.

They loaded up their wagons and the mules took them the long way around. Belle was one of those mules; but that was not her most notable trek. When Dr. King was assassinated the people of Gee's Bend were asked to provide the mules that would pull his coffin through the streets of Atlanta:

"They wanted to use our mules, not fancy draft horses. Mules take their time, work hard, and they never back down. Mules aren't pretty, but they are somebody!"

Belle and Ada were loaded up for the trip to Atlanta and encountered some roadblocks along the way. When the path was finally cleared for their participation., they slowly and steadily made their way along the funeral route before delivering Dr. King's coffin to Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Now, Belle lives her life as heroes should...free to eat all the collard greens she can handle, and providing fodder for a worthwhile story between Alex and Miz Pettway.  The dialogue is free and easy, making the it great for reading aloud to a young audience.

In a note follwoing the text, the author shares the real facts of this story, with details about Dr. King's request 'for mules to pull the farm wagon that would hold his burial casket.' And on April 9, 1968 Belle and Ada did just that...an archival photo is included showing the mules and the many mourners who made the final trip with Dr. King.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A New Year's Reunion, written by Yu Li-Qiong and illustrated by Zhu Cheng-Liang. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $18.00 ages 4 and up

"On the second day of New Year's, the sky is gloomy, and it looks as if it's going to snow. Papa gets busy fixing the windows, painting the door, and changing the lightbulbs - and the whole house brightens up."

As we begin the preparations that lead to an annual family celebration for many, it is imperative to remind ourselves just how blessed we are. At the end of this glorious book the author adds a note that helps us realize it is so:

"The family in this book is a fictional one, but there are in reality over 100 million migrant workers in China., many of whom work hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles away from home, returning only once each year, for just a few days, at New Year's."

Maomao is part of one such family. When her Papa returns home for his yearly visit, she barely recognizes the bearded man who has been away from her for so long. As Papa settles in (a trip to the barber helps), life becomes happy once again. He brings gifts for both Mama and Maomao. More importantly, he helps with preparations for the celebration. It is in these little things each day...lights and decorations for the house, making sticky rice balls together (one with a coin that is sure to bring good luck), sharing the comfort of a family bed, visiting friends and family, catching up on household chores and watching the dragon dance...that the family finds contentment and comfort.

When Maomao discovers that she has lost the fortune coin (which she earlier found in her sticky rice ball). she is heartbroken. Nothing soothes her until the coin falls out of her pocket and lands beside her bed. Upon awakening the following morning, she helps Papa pack once more, offering her coin to the gentle man she loves so. They will use it again next time Papa is home.

To say that the exceptional artwork plays a role in the telling is a colossal understatement. Zhu Cheng-Liang's illustrations bring light and life to the family's loving bond. Children will pore over the details that are included on every page, all the while knowing the love shared as Mama, Papa and Maomao celebrate being together while welcoming a new year.

January 23, 2012.....Xin Nian Kuai Le! and Gong Hey Fat Choy!

Harness Horses, Bucking Broncos & Pit Ponies, written and illustrated by Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson. Tundra, 2011. $21.99 ages 6 and up

"But because the focus of this book is the history of horse breeds, the forty-three breeds you will read about here are organized by original purpose, beginning with the horse's oldest job and progressing to the most modern. You will see how each breed's history has influenced the way it looks and behaves today."

For anyone who has a passion for horses, you may have found the perfect Christmas gift! In well-researched text and carefully designed illustrations this husband and wife team share their love of these stately creatures and their journey through history to create a book that is sure to have wide ranging appeal for anyone interested in either or both.

The introduction begins with a quick look at the role that horses have played since as early as 10,000 BC and moves forward to this century when more than two hundred breeds are recognized. Often they are grouped by size but, in this book, the authors have chosen to divide the text into five chapters which allow young enthusiasts to glean information about the purposeful lives many of these horses have lead...rapid transit, military advantage, horsepower, equine entertainment, and feral horses.

Finally, the conclusion offers this tidbit:

"There are over fifty-eight million horses in the world today. They show great variety in shape, color, size and specialized features. From tiny miniature horses to massive draft breeds, humans have shaped the way horses look, act, and live."

Add to that a bibliography that sites book titles, a variety of articles and a host of  websites for further learning and you may be able to stroke one more name off your gift list.