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Monday, April 30, 2012

Outside Your Window, written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Mark Hearld. Candlewick, Random House. 2012. $23.00 ages 5 and up

"The birds are busy nest building,
dashing back and forth -
first with twigs and grasses to make the nest cup,
then with wisps of tiny feathers
to make a soft, cozy lining
that will keep their eggs safe and warm."

This is a beautifully illustrated book of poetry that will take the reader on a visit to the natural world through each distinct and lovely season.  We know Nicola Davies as a gifted nonfiction writer who shares her impeccable research in such books as Talk, Talk, Squawk!, Bat Loves the Night, Just Ducks, Extreme Animals and Dolphin Baby. Now, we can appreciate her talents as a poet who looks closely at her world and lets us in on what she sees. Both author and illustrator share a love of the outdoors and that is evident on every page in this over-sized, lush collection.

Children will recognize the stars of the show on page after page...familiar animals and birds, typical settings, favorite outdoor activities. Mark Hearld uses a multimedia approach to create the gorgeous and numerous spreads. He combines collage with watercolor, ink and crayon to give colorful life to each of the beautifully worded verses. The range in tone and style adds great enjoyment and inspires repeated returns to the poems shared. The scenes are clear and often written with a minimum of text:

The garden has been busy,
Growing squash, beans and eggplants,
tomatoes, carrots, peas.
The tiny seeds planted in the spring
have used the sun and rain and soil to make all this!
And now it's time for harvest -
picking and pulling,
washing and chopping,
cooking, bottling, and freezing,
so that deep in winter there'll be
summer food to eat!"

Readers and listeners are encouraged to get out into nature and do some exploring:

"Things to Do in Your Den

1. Sit and think.
2. Notice things, like the smell of the earth and what beetles are doing.
3. Get very close to birds and animals. You can see them, but they can't see you.
4. Have adventures - your den can be anything you want it to be.

There are over 50 poems here, fabulous artwork, even some recipes and advice for anyone interested in taking the learning further that this lovely book already allows. So much to ponder, and to admire and to draw you back for another look.

I will leave you with my favorite...at least for today!

"In the treetops, in the bushes,
there are new songs and colors.
The little birds are back!

They've flown so far!
Over forests, mountains, deserts, seas -
such a long, long way to get back to us.

Yet here they are,
bright and alive, fluttering, singing,
ready for spring."

Saturday, April 28, 2012

100 Cupboards, written by N. D. Wilson. Random House, 2007. $7.99 ages 12 and up

"Henry got down on his hands and knees and crawled into the clock. There was a back to it. Henry's head pushed against it and Henry went nowhere. He sat back up and took a deep breath to prevent panic. Richard watched as Henry closed his eyes, reached into the clock, gripped the rope with his left hand and felt his way along it."

I am literally just finished this first book in the series.  I have the next two sitting on my desk and when I am finished a What's New? workshop this afternoon, I will be moving on to Book Two, Dandelion Fire. N. D. Wilson and his exemplary writing and wondrous characters ensure that!

The cover grabs you by the hand and hauls you in...the cupboards are dark, and eerie. The cat's golden eyes have a hypnotizing quality. Move forward past the map of the cupboards, the tree, the key, the compasses and a facing page key to each door and you step into Henry, Kansas:

"Henry, Kansas is a hot town. And a cold town. It is a town so still there are times when you can hear a fly trying to get through the window of the locked-up antique store on Main Street. Nobody remembers who owns the antique store, but if you press your face against the glass, like the fly, you'll see that whoever they are, they don't have much beyond a wide variety of wagon wheels. Yes, Henry is a still town. But, there have been tornadoes on Main Street. If the wind blows, it's like it won't ever stop. Once it's stopped, there seems to be no hope of getting it started again."

100 Cupboards is fun, it's fast and it's fantasy. It begins with Henry and his arrival in Henry, Kansas where his aunt and uncle live with their three daughters. Henry has come to stay with Aunt Dotty and Uncle Frank because his parents have been kidnapped while on a bike trip in Colombia. It takes no time at all for Henry to feel happy in his new home, and eager to know his new family, which also means he feels guilty about feeling that way. He has been taught to fear everything up until now. As he slowly begins to try some of the things that he wants to do...like playing baseball, meeting Zeke and other kids his age, he becomes more assertive and braver. These are characteristics that will stand him in good stead as he adapts to his new life.

When he discovers the cupboards that have been hidden on an attic wall in the bedroom that has become his, Henry has no idea what adventure, mystery and danger awaits. There are 99 cupboards there, and one door that will lead him through to what is hidden behind the other much smaller doors. The compasses will help determine one world from another.

But, where is the 100th door? In trying to find the door that will lead him back to where he truly came from, Henry will receive letters that threaten him, meet a witch with evil and powerful magic, risk his life to find one cousin, Henrietta, who has passed through a cupboard door and into another place and time, visit scary and ominous other worlds where evil lurks and countless thrilling adventures await.

He moves with alarming speed from one place to another, finding new friends and also foes. And this is the FIRST cupboard. Imagine what's in store for his future! I love the magic, the anticipation, the originality of the writing and all (well, almost) of the people I met while reading this fine book. Now, if you'll excuse me, I am off to Cupboard Two!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Horton Halfpott, written and illustrated by Tom Angleberger. Amulet Books, Abrams. 2011. $7.95 ages 9 and up

"In Which We Learn What Luther Did Not See...
Reader, do not panic. Do not throw the book down in anger. Do not wonder how Horton could have failed, because, of course, he did not. What Luther saw was not all there was to see. If we are to see it, we must turn back the clock a little. We must revisit the recent past, just a half hour before the kidnapping."

What fun this was to read! Now, I am going to recommend it to a friend to read to her grade three class as she finishes her student teaching before beginning the job hunt. This one is for you, Diane!

Smugwick Manor is a great place to meet people....oh, they are quite the crew! M'Lady Luggertuck sets the action in motion when she decides that she will not have her corset laced as tightly as usual. Everything changes with that one split second decision. The Loosening is upon everyone in the manor and it affects how each of them attends to their duties, except for Horton (until much later in the story when his help is needed by a friend).

Horton Halfpott is one of the kitchen boys and his job all day, every day, is to wash dishes. Horton never complains, never breaks any rules and always runs home to his family with the one penny he earns each week, hoping that it will soon be enough to get his father the medical attention that he needs. If it ever appears that his work is done, he polishes the forks, or other silver...his work is never done!

Horton is a great friend and so, he has many. Bump is his best one, and they look out for each other. Bump is a stable boy who works with Blemish and Blight. When the Loosening is set in motion, it's hard to stop the train. M'Lady decides to host a ball and the delivery of the furthest invitation becomes Horton's newest task. In doing so, he meets the lovely Lady Celia whose attention and betrothal is the secret dream of M'Lady's useless and evil son, Luther Luggertuck. Celia has an instant connection to Horton and you know that is going to cause some issues.

Mysterious robberies lead the lady of the house to hire an inept and expensive detective, accusations are thrown about willy-nilly, strange meetings are afoot, and Horton and his friends take it into their own hands to expose the thief and thwart a kidnapping.

Both hilarious and quirky, this is a great read for a classroom, or for an intermediate to middle grade reader. Do you recognize a bit of a connection to Roald Dahl? Of course, you do. Boggis, Bunce and Bean? The young outwitting the older members of the household? Good people making the world a better place? In this year when we celebrate Charles Dickens' two hundredth birthday you will also note a shout-out to him and his writing in the characters and setting created. Those characters are worthy, the chapters short, the plot fast-paced, the story engaging. The mix of good and evil gives us people to love and to hate.
I love that the author keeps us always in the loop with comments like the one that begins this post. Tom Angleberger tells his second tale (the first is The Strange Case of Origami Yoda) with wit, lively language and an almost-promise that this is not the last we will hear of Horton Halfpott. At the least, we can live in hopes of that.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Inside Out and Back Again, written by Thanhha Lai. Harper, 2011. $17.99 ages 10 and up

"Everyone knows the ship
could sink,
unable to hold
the piles of bodies
that keep crawling on
like raging ants
from a disrupted nest."

This is only one of the many passages from this beautiful book that I would like to share with you. There are such lovely, poignant, humorous and heartbreaking verses that I had to keep going back to read them again.

The immediate follow-up to the one above comes from the section named At Sea and tears at my heart:

"But no one
is heartless enough
to say
stop
because what if
they had been
stopped
before their turn?"

It is a story based on her own experiences and Thanhha Lai gives life and voice to each of her characters, while also sharing a moving escape from Vietnam and a new life in America. She lives with her mother, and her three older brothers. Their father has been gone for nine years, since Ha was just one year old. Her mother never gives up the dream that her husband will return. As the war moves closer, her mother makes the decision to take her children and flee Saigon by boat. Luckily, they find a family sponsor in Alabama, and life changes dramatically for each one of them.

Ha is the narrator. Her voice is strong; even strident. Once in America, she is homesick, she is angry with all the changes made without her opinion, she is facing struggles with learning English and not being as school-smart as she was in Vietnam, she is bullied by new classmates. But, she is much more than all that. She loves and protects her brother Khoi, she learns self-defence from her brother Vu and her oldest brother Quang may be the real catalyst for change as Tet is celebrated for the first time in their new home. It has taken time but Ha is growing and learning:

"I pray for
Father to find warmth in his new home,
Mother to keep smiling more,
Brother Quang to enjoy his studies,
Vu Lee to drive me from and to school,
Brother Khoi to hatch an American chick.

I open my eyes.
The others are still praying.

What could they be asking for?

I think and think
then close my eyes again.
This year I hope

I truly learn
to fly-kick,
not to kick anyone
so much as
to fly."

A powerful novel in verse, with never-to-be-forgotten characters, four separate and intense sections, beautifully told.

The Journey That Saved Curious George, written by Louise Borden and illustrated by Allan Drummond. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen. 2005. $10.99 ages 8 and up

"The Reys sketched and photographed the fishermen along the banks of the Seine...
the captains and their families who lived on the local barges...
the booksellers on the quays who, each morning, unlocked their wooden boxes and sold secondhand books to those who passed by...
and of course, the animals in the zoo."

Since reading and admiring her research for His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg, I have been watching for other books that might add to the admiration that I already feel for this accomplished author and historian. My interest in picture book biography has led me to find some truly wonderful books and I have just added this one to my list, although it was published seven years ago. What drew me to the story of Mr. Wallenberg is exactly what led me to learn more about the Reys and their time in Europe during WWII. The common denominator is the fine writing of Louise Borden.

Curious George stories were not favorites in our house, but we read them and then I shared them with some of my classrooms through the years. They have been with us for seventy years and that is some accomplishment, isn't it?

In this well-written and detailed book I learned so much more about the creators than I have ever known, and I admired their need to tell their stories and to protect their work as they struggled to find their way out of Europe at the height of the Nazi domination. They were living in occupied France at the time, and sorrowfully made the decision that they would have to leave their home and their many belongings, trusting that someone might get it to safety once they did the same.

Imagine two German-born Jews being able to escape, first to France and then on a long journey that eventually led to life in New York City. Louise Borden was as persistent in collecting information about the Reys as Hans was in recording notes about their books, their journey and their lives. She allows us to journey with them through harrowing times on bicycle, train and ship to make their way to safety and success.

The author includes a large quantity of archival material, including photographs, passports, diary pages, manuscript notes, illustrations, and their means of travel. Allan Drummond adds style and color in his accompanying artwork. There is much to know about the Reys, and it is carefully packaged so as not to overwhelm the intended audience. Their love of animals and each other is evident in the many personal entries included, and the stories shared. Readers will come away from the reading having enjoyed the adventure and having learned about war-torn Europe, the exacting and exciting life of two accomplished artists, and even something about the world of book publishing.

The Brookyn Nine, written by Alan Gratz. Dial, Penguin. 2010. $10.99 ages 10 and up

"Kieran searched the high blue sky for an explanation. "It's like - it's like reading a book to review it. Somehow having to break a book down into its parts to critique it sucks all the joy out for me. I greatly prefer to write my story in advance, and then sit back and enjoy the sum total of the afternoon. Besides, the truth is subjective.""

Baseball season is upon us and I am watching the Blue Jays with interest, eager to see how this young team will fare in the 2012 season. It gave me just the impetus needed to get to a book that I have had on my TBR pile for too long, and I am so glad that I took the time this week to read it.

It is a family story that begins in Berlin and reaches across the ocean, and through generations,
with baseball at its core. In a series of short stories, told in nine 'innings', Alan Gratz introduces his readers to family members, different eras and the power of connections.

It's begins in 1845 in Manhattan:

"Nine months ago, Felix Schneider was the fastest boy in Bremen, Germany. Now he was the fastest boy in Manhattan, New York. He was so fast, in fact, the ship that brought him to America was a day early."

Now, there's the way to get a reader wanting to know more. As each inning begins and ends we learn about the game of baseball, and how it has changed over the past century and a half. It is a clear and insightful picture of America in its different eras: Civil War, Vaudeville, the 1920s gangsters, racism and the Negro League, the All-American Girls Baseball League and the Cold War. It's a great way to look at history, at sport and at a variety of worthy characters...all connected through baseball memorabilia. While it is sure to appeal to those who love to read sports stories, there is much more to it. Those who love history will be captivated as will those who like to read generational family stories.

Each inning depicts one family member, one period of time, and some aspect of baseball. As I read each story I went to the Author Notes following the text to learn more about the time being considered. The first inning note recalls Alexander Cartwright who is considered the father of modern baseball, and the changes made when he founded the Knickerbockers. One of the most appealing must have been the change in rules that no longer allowed players to throw the ball at runners to get them out! Thank goodness for small mercies for those playing the game in years to follow.

In the eighth inning when Michael is pitching toward a perfect game, he comes to grips with the day and the game he is pitching:

"It was a day like Michael had never known and knew he would never see again. Like Sandy Koufax and his perfect game, it was a special gift in a special time and a special place, one that he shouldn't examine too closely, one he could never duplicate. No matter how much he worked, no matter how hard he tried, it was the kind of perfect day that would come only when it wanted to, when the sun smiled and the grass laughed and wind sang hm-batter-hm-batter-hm-batter-swing."

Alan Gratz has other wonderful observations to make in his author's note, not the least of which is this one:

 “Baseball, more than any other sport, has a magical way of connecting fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, and ancestors back down the line.”

The characters are worth knowing, the writing is outstanding, and it will be enjoyed by many! If you are interested in knowing more, go to the following link: alangratz.blogspot.com/2010/01/brooklyn-nine-history.html

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Easter Bunny's Assistant, written and illustrated by Jan Thomas. Harper, 2012. $14.99 ages 2 and up

"Today we will show you
how to make BEAUTIFUL
Easter eggs!

STEP 1:

HARD-BOIL THE EGGS

I'm so EXCITED!"

I do my best to keep up with new books from Jan Thomas. Somehow, I missed this one. Thanks to Vikki at Harper Canada, I received a copy...too late for Easter but never too late for great enjoyment and perhaps early for next year?

If you have preschoolers and you want to ensure that they are readers who love to read when they are older, this is just the type of book you want them to be reading now. Jan Thomas has a way with words that children love to hear, with stories children love to share and characters we all can love. If this is the first book of hers that you read, please don't make it your last. Every one is a little treasure and will bring such joy to reading them together.

Only two characters here...the Easter Bunny and a Skunk who will provide much needed assistance. Well, maybe not! The job is to dye eggs but to do it without Skunk getting too excited. Perhaps you can guess what happens every time he gets that way. Of course, you can.

What is the skunk's single most unique characteristic? Easter Bunny learns quickly and is anxious to be as accommodating as possible to her assistant. However, there is a limit. A new step in the egg dying process must be added....remove Skunk from the room! It doesn't mean that the problem is solved; but the Easter Bunny is willing to give Skunk a further shot at assisting in the outdoors.  Well done, EB!!

If this is not your first Jan Thomas experience you will have some idea about the interactive nature of her books...her readers are always part of the storytelling. The art is bold, with thick lines and bright colors, distinctive characters and fun, fun, fun. In this one, a new craft is taught and you will have lots to keep you busy following the book share. Get out those eggs!

Warriors and Wailers, written by Sarah Tsiang with art by Martha Newbigging. Annick Press, 2012. $16.95 ages 8 and up

"You have a commodity that's easy to sell. It's light to carry, and just about everyone wants some. Leaves are plucked from the tea tree (Camellia sinensis) in spring. Workers then steam, pound, pat, and oven-roast them. They pack the final product in paper bags, which are wrapped in bamboo leaves or tree bark for shipping. You sell tea to customers at the market and to tea houses."

It's always interesting to learn about other cultures, and China was one of the most advanced societies in the ancient world. That makes this sixth book in the Jobs in History series a welcome addition to the literature for intermediate and middle grade students who often study ancient civilizations.

Most people in China at that time had little, and they worked at menial jobs. All people had a place in society, and the hierarchy went from emperor, to nobles, to scholars and civil servants, to peasant farmers, to artisans and craftspeople and finally, merchants. Everyone knew their place:

"Rank and the rules that went with it were extremely important. As a peasant, you could get into huge trouble for even looking at the emperor. By becoming a high-ranking civil servant, you could bring great honor to your family. Merchants were forbidden to dress in certain clothing or to serve more dishes at their table than the government directed."

There is lots to learn as readers pore over the pages of this informative book. They will learn the pleasures and pitfalls of many jobs from ancient culture. The text is accessible for its target audience, the illustrations add some fun, and the design makes it easy for readers to find those jobs that are most intriguing. A detailed table of contents, a time-line, text that goes from the most venerable emperor to the disparaged robber/beggar/vagabond keeps position clear, and an index that offers a return to favorite spots add to its appeal for research.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Forget-Me-Nots, selected by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Michael Emberley. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2012. $21.99 ages 7 and up

"You'll pick out your favorites
From those that you've read
And invite them to live in
The house in your head.
This house is called Memory,
Everyone knows,
And the more you put in it,
The larger it grows."

I tout poetry as a great way to get kids reading. Nursery rhymes are perfect when they are young so that they will hear the rhythm of language and come to know rhyme which is the basis of much of their early reading. I don't want them to feel about poetry as I did in school. We are blessed to have so many wonderful poets writing for children today, and to have Mary Ann Hoberman, an intrepid poet in her own right to remind us of its power and beauty.

For this book she has chosen more than 100 poems, each meant to show young readers how much fun it is to discover poems to love and to commit to memory for a lifetime of pure enjoyment. In her  introduction she mentions that there are poems here for everyone, and that some will become favorites while others will not:

"Memorable has two meanings: "easy to remember" and "worth remembering." While some poems will take longer to memorize than others, all of them have been chosen with ease of memorization in mind. And more important, all of them are worth remembering."

Not all of the poems included will be for all readers. Some will make you laugh, some will make you think, and others will not speak to you in the same way that they do to others. That is the way when reading anything. Ms. Hoberman's suggestions run the gamut from light, short verse to tongue twisters, to characterization, to longer verses that will challenge those who look for just such a poem.

She has selected from a wide range of poets, many favorites of mine and some who are unknown to me. That leads me to look for more, and I like that! I was not one of those kids who memorized much poetry when I was young; at least, beyond all the nursery rhymes that our Mom shared when we were growing up. I did, however, share poetry with the children in my class every day and I am often surprised at how many I know 'by heart' without ever intentionally learning them. They were favorites of ours and I read them so often, and said them so often, that I still have them etched in 'the house called Memory.'

An index of first lines following the various sections, aptly named The Short of It, One and All, Beautiful Beasts, Delicious Dishes, It's About Time, Happiness Is, Weather and Seasons, Sad and Sorrowful, Strange and Mysterious, Poems from Storybooks, and The Long of It, will take readers quickly back to their favorites. I have already highlighted mine, and I know exactly the section I would suggest to certain students. You just know who's going to love which ones, don't you?

As well, there are suggestions from the author concerning the best way to learn a poem by heart:

"The more you look at and listen to the lines, the more you see and hear in them. And the more you see and hear in them, the better you remember them. Couplet by couplet you continue, repeating the words aloud and listening to how they sound., visualizing the pictures they call up in your mind..."

At this point, I want to tell you about Michael Emberley's art. It adds so much to the poetry chosen for this collection. I love the expressions and the watercolor images so full of the spirit of each poem. He fills the space with memorable scenes and perfect characters. A slumbering cat, seemingly oblivious to the two tiny mice trying to skitter past, is tucked up on a green mat. A joyful family enclosed in a hug that assures security and love. An endless train track that twists and curves to the sing-song lyrics of the chosen poem. There is so much there to see, and it improves understanding and boosts enjoyment.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Going Ape! written by Eduardo Bustos and illustrated by Lucho Rodriguez. Tundra, 2012. $11.99 ages 3 and up


"The chimpanzee is very clever.
He can make tools and use them
for gathering food.
He can even build nests in trees!"

Happy Earth Day everyone!

What better way to celebrate than with books? If you have young children you know that they have great empathy for animals, and want to know as much as they can about them. If you are a teacher in an early years classroom you know that it is often difficult to find books for young children that  have just enough information to satisfy their curiosity. It is an added bonus when they are written in text that they can access on their own.

This new book by Mexican author Eduardo Bustos is perfect for children interested in the primates of the world. We are told on the front flyleaf that 'there are more than two hundred species of primates in the world.' The ones chosen for this book are likely the most familiar, and therefore the most interesting, for the target audience.

Two facing pages...one with text and a spot picture of the featured primate in its habitat while the opposite page is a clear, detailed graphic of said primate's head. Each descriptive paragraph provides just enough information for a young child to understand and remember. The graphic illustrations are colorful, and will capture attention.

Finally, an author's note provides additional information of interest to all who share this book:

"There are apes of every size. The tiniest is the Pygmy Marmoset, which fits into the palm of your hand, and the largest, the gorilla, weighs about two hundred kilograms."

This is a great mentor text for young children wanting to share what they have learned about a personal interest in a way that would attract and inform others. 

Listen to My Trumpet, written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, Hachette. 2012. $9.99 ages 3 and up

"Your trumpet is LOUD.
And...?

Your trumpet is shiny.
And...?

You, uh, hold your trumpet
very well.
AND...!?"

What are you going to say to a friend about their musicianship? Our family tried very hard to be positive about Erin's violin dream. We still hold our ears when we talk about it, but we never discouraged her until her Dad finally wondered aloud if she was enjoying it at all. She didn't think it was the instrument for her. And she was right! It wasn't for us either.

Gerald is a wonderful friend and does not want to discourage Piggie from anything that she loves to do. She is so excited and pleased with herself about the trumpet and the sounds that she can make with it. Sitting on a stool so that he might enjoy her first concerto, Gerald is is astounded and 'blown away' by her attempts at mastering the instrument. He does his best to encourage her with as many compliments as he can comfortably give.

Her performance is so enthusiastic, and her music is so not musical. He can't tell the truth, and he can't make himself lie to her either. Finally, he tells her that the sound she is making is not really to be considered music, in his opinion. Imagine his surprise when he discovers that Piggie isn't trying to make music. She has another motive for the sounds she is making!

The story is hilarious, the message about friendship is heartfelt and in keeping with each of the other books about Gerald and Piggie, and Mo Willems continues to astound with his ability to create perfect texts for beginning readers. What joy there is in learning to read a story like this, and to then share it with everyone who will listen. Each of the seventeen books should have pride of place in the home libraries of every child three and up.

There are no surprises for kids when learning that Gerald is worried about hurting his friend's feelings, or that Piggie will be oblivious to the difficulty Gerald faces in telling her, or that the new book will be as hilarious as every other one. That is Mo Willems' great talent. Add to that what he can do with facial expression and body movement in seemingly simple cartoon-like artwork.

Another winner! Thank you, Mo Willems!

The Fault in Our Stars, written by John Green. Dutton, Penguin. 2012. $19.00 ages 14 and up

"One might marvel at the insanity of the situation. A mother sends her sixteen-year-old daughter along with a seventeen-year-old boy out into a foreign city famous for its permissiveness. But this, too, was a side effect of dying: I could not run or dance or eat foods rich in nitrogen, but in the city of freedom, I was among the most liberated of its residents."

I wish Indianapolis, Indiana were two doors down the street from me. Then, I would walk right over and give John Green my best hug! To say that I have always admired his writing is an understatement when talking about The Fault in Our Stars. I finished reading it in the middle of the night last night; I woke this morning with Hazel Grace and Augustus in my heart and on my mind. I suspect they will be there for many days to come and I know they will live in my book memory always. They are two amazing and admirable teenagers who live their days as 'cancer kids'. Not a pretty place to be.

In John Green's deft hand, they find a path into our collective consciousness and our hearts within minutes of meeting each other at 'The Support Group'. It took only the first paragraph to hook me, despite my misgivings about reading a book narrated by a girl who feels this way:

"Late in the summer of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of time to thinking about death."

Hazel Grace is sixteen and has terminal cancer. She lives on due to a new medication; but the future does not look much better because of it. Her cancer is only being held at bay for now. At group she meets Augustus, a handsome, outgoing young man who has lost a leg to cancer but is now living cancer-free because of that surgery. They have an instant connection. It is only due to Augustus' persistence that their relationship grows. Hazel has a strong opinion about what she wants:

"I wanted to know that he would be okay if I died. I wanted to not be a grenade, to not be a malevolent force in the lives of the people I loved."

They learn to share the ups and downs of being teenagers which can be pretty normal and awfully funny at times, despite their circumstances. Augustus manages to make Hazel's days adventurous, despite her constant companion...the oxygen tank Phillip she needs to keep her breathing. They live with joy and for each other. Despite their many differences they care deeply and try to live “forever within the numbered days.” They are as independent as they can be and remain strong, distinct characters from beginning to end of story.

I have read it twice and will read it again. Hazel's voice throughout is strong, personal, compelling, funny and unforgettable as she tells their story. Augustus' love for the person that she is needs to be shared:

"She is so beautiful. You don't get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she is smarter than you: You know she is. She is funny without ever being mean. I love her. I am so lucky to love her, Van Houten. You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers."
 
You will not forget them, and you won't want to do that. I have my pick for Newbery Medal this year...and it's only April! I can't imagine a book that will impact my spirit more than this one did, and does.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Life in the Ocean, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola. Farrar Straus Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2012. $19.95 ages 7 and up

"Little Sylvia would sit by herself - very still and for a very long time - waiting and watching to see what was going on in the pond, or under a fallen tree in the woods. Her mother called those outings "investigations." Sylvia described what she saw. The windowsills of the house were lined with her collection jars..."

If you have read this blog before, you might know that I have been collecting and talking about the many wonderful picture book biographies there are to entice young readers into learning more about people who make a difference in our world, and whose work is admired enough for someone to write about them. It often takes a lot of work and research to produce such a book.

In this picture book biography we  meet Sylvia Earle, who was a biologist and botanist before she realized what either word meant. She was born to be concerned about the world she lived in, and eventually about the ocean that was close to her Florida home. It was the move to Florida from New Jersey that changed Sylvia's life and gave her a new direction for her always active and inquisitive mind.

She began with swims near the surface of the Gulf of Mexico; as her need to know more grew, so did her bravery and her abiding interest in the life within the ocean:

"From the age of sixteen, when she swam thirty feet to the bottom of a river using diving gear for the first time - to scuba diving while researching algae for her university degree, to joining an expedition where she was the only woman among seventy men on a research ship in the Indian Ocean, to leading a team of divers stationed for two weeks in the deep-sea laboratory off the U. S.Virgin Islands, to walking on the ocean floor in an aqua suit that looked like a space suit, to descending 3,000 feet in the Pacific Ocean in a one-person spherical bubble she helped to design, to plunging 13,000 feet underwater in a Japanese submersible - Sylvia never stopped trying to dive deeper and see more."

Only 5% of the vast expanse that is ocean has been explored, and what Sylvia wants more than anything to come from her work is for people to make some of their own amazing discoveries by visiting the ocean ourselves. She believes that only in knowing its beauty will we care about what is happening to it.

This is a lovely and enlightening read aloud for all of us. I like the way that Claire Nivola presents what she has learned about this very special oceanographer in clear language, with details that help to understand her journey from farm girl to world renowned marine biologist. The illustrations are filled with the beauty that Sylvia describes in the ocean depths. The book's creator gives readers a sense of the vast expanse of blue that first attracted this dedicated woman to discover its many secrets.

An author's note following the text speaks clearly to the damage being done to the ocean daily and voices deep concern for its ability to sustain itself while being so neglected:

"Into our ocean, all around the world, we have dumped lethal nuclear waste, industrial waste, pollutants from underwater mining, and just plain garbage. We abandon sunken ships and allow our highways, farms, fields, and yards to leach fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals into freshwater systems leading to coastal waters and on to the sea at large. Are we thinking that the sea is vast and deep enough to take all this and more?"

Through knowing more and caring about such issues, we can learn to value what we take for granted. Will we be part of the problem, or part of the solution?

"You can't care if you don't know." - Sylvia Earle.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Zero the Hero, written by Joan Holub and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Henry Holt, 2012. $18.99 ages 6 and up

"HEY! Aren't you a Froot Loop? I love those!"
"No, I'm Zero the Hero!"
"Um, yeah, I don't think so. Are you a donut?"
"NO!"
"I've got it! You are the letter 'O'!"
"No! How many times do I have to tell you?"
"Six."

It is the number six asking the questions, and Zero is pretty exasperated! None of the numbers seem to find him the least bit useful. They have some learning to do about the hero that he truly is and the important role he plays when it comes to numbers.

Zero loves who he is and flaunts it by wearing a red cape and a black mask. Who wouldn't be impressed? The numbers one to nine, it seems. They feel that he has no place among them and they tease him unmercifully. Despite that, he keeps his head up and remains secure that he has a real place in the math world. He admits he's not much good at addition or subtraction, and has no role whatsoever in division. And multiplication? Why...there he threatens extinction. The counting numbers flee, as Zero makes an unpleasant discovery about himself:

"A real superhero wouldn't multiply his friends into nothingness. That's the kind of stuff only an evil villain would do. Could it be that he wasn't a hero after all?"

And so he rolled away, downhearted and of no use to any of his friends.

It isn't long until the counting numbers realize that Zero does make a difference for them in the work they do. If you are trying to figure out how much food you have and you have have five apples, two bananas, and three oranges, what is one to do for an correct answer? Hmmm!!

They can't play round-off, they feel odd without the caped crusader and when they realize they are being stalked by Roman numeral soldiers, they are in big trouble! Zero will not let his friends down and so he does what any super hero worth his salt would do. His solution is downright frightening and sends the Romans off at a run, trembling at his awesome power.

The asides are a riot. They will hold the attention of all readers through numerous visits. Tom Lichtenheld uses his trademark cartoon characters to entertain and enlighten...all the while engaging his audience in the tale being told.

Perfect...and funny, and educational, and worthy of your attention! 

These Bees Count! Written by Alison Formento and illustrated by Sarah Snow. Albert Whitman & Company, Thomas Allen. 2012. $18.99 ages 4 and up

"Juice inside a bee's stomach changes the nectar into honey," said Farmer Ellen. "Bees spit the honey into a honeycomb made from beeswax. Then worker bees dry the new honey by flapping their wings faster than we can blink.."

Following up on their 2010 book This Tree Counts, Alison Formento and Sarah Snow bring bees to life for their young audience. It's another field trip and the destination is Busy Bee Farm. Mr. Tate is keen, his class is excited and they all have much to learn.

The kids suit up for protection from stings and they follow Farmer Ellen out to the hives where they learn about the bees themselves, about pollination and about making honey. There's counting here, too. As the class learns, so does the reader. There's a lot to know about these industrious, tiny creatures who do the wonderful work that benefits each and every one of us!

As the children listen they can hear the bees buzz, and they can even hear what they are saying:

"We stop for a drink where SIX farmhands water a crop of raspberries."

In a note at the end, Alison Formento adds details about the important role that bees play in terms of the agriculture industry, and includes intriguing and little known facts about the life of bees. She describes their dances, the way the hive works and their various tasks within it. She mentions colony collapse which remains a mystery to many scientist and apiarists.

The digital images created by Sarah Snow allow young readers a chance to count, to take note of the work done by bees, and to see the natural beauty of a bee's habitat.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Jake and Lily, written by Jerry Spinelli. Balzer & Bray, Harper. 2012. $17.99 ages 8 and up

"Our knees buckled. Burke let out one quick snort bomb, but the rest of us did a pretty good job of swallowing the laughs. For a good reason. When a goober says something totally hilarious, you naturally want to bust out laughing. But if you're smart, you make sure to hold it in and keep paying attention, because while you're busy laughing you might miss the next gem that comes along."


When I started reading Jerry Spinelli's new novel about twins Jake and Lily I wasn't sure that I was going to like it as much as I had come to expect with his writing. I was so wrong!


Jake and Lily have what they call 'goombla'. My guess is that most twins know about this special sense that they seem to have...to know when the other is in trouble, or sick, orwhat they are thinking. Now, at age 11, the 'goombla' seems to be unravelling. Jake, the calm and logical one, is striking out and making new friendships. He likes being with those boys from his school who ride bikes, stalk 'goobers' and make themselves a bit of a nuisance. Lily misses her brother's constant company and is quick to complain about it. She is the more boisterous and opinionated of the two and she does not mind complaining about these new changes to their relationship. She is feeling abandoned and brings her problems to recently returned grandfather, Poppy.


As Jake fills his days with adventure, Lily seeks new interests with the wise and patient advice of Poppy. Nothing seems to be what she needs. For Jake, his meeting and subsequent unsettled relationship with a true 'goober' Soop leads him to new discoveries about himself and those he now considers his friends. He learns an enlightening lesson about himself and about Soop, a new and admirable friend.


Jerry Spinelli is a masterful storyteller and here he proves it again! I am so glad that I read this book and became acquainted with Jake, Lily and their story told in both voices. It is emotional, and causes the twins and the reader to think introspectively about the ways in which people treat each other as they mature. It is evident in so many ways and will offer much opportunity for discussion.

Poppy helps Lily come to terms with the changes in the life she has shared with her brother; Soop helps Jake comes to terms with the type of person he really wants to be. Over the course of the story, readers see both perspectives through the two voices shared. It is a wonderful way to explore the development of middle grade characters, their foibles, their strengths, and the uncertainties of growing up. It does not move too quickly; that allows readers to take in every aspect of their story and enjoy the humor and honesty that the twins experience as they move toward their twelfth birthday.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Plant A Kiss, written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Peter H Reynolds. Harper, 2012. $16.99 ages 3 and up

"Planted a kiss?
Planted a kiss.
Sunshine.
Water.
Greet.
Repeat.
Wait and wait."

Readers won't be able to keep their hands off the embossed, sunshine-sprinkled cover, or the inside pages of this lovely new book from accomplished and deservedly successful collaborators Rosenthal and Reynolds.

As with most youngsters, this little girl wonders. One of those wonders is about kisses and what might happen if you planted one. So, off she goes to experiment. As with all things worth having,  a lot of patience and hard work seem to be key. Her perseverance pays off when the kiss finally sprouts and she calls her friends together to witness the beauty. She wants to share. Despite her friends'
misgivings, off she goes to spread the joy!

A singular idea, choice spare wording and a sensitive artist...what a concept! It is not one word too long and Peter Reynolds uses the space provided to add visual magic to the little girl's patient belief in her newest project. The palette is soft yellows, pinks and greys, leaving room for the sparkling beauty of the much anticipated result.

I love the rhythmic language, the clean lines, the expressive faces and the willingness to wait for what is important. Who knew there could be such joy in simple gestures? A lasting impression for all who share it.   

Monday, April 16, 2012

More, written by I.C. Springman and illustrated by Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen. 2012. ages 3 and up


"Nothing.
Something.
A few, several,
more, and more,
and more.

A question I often ask myself in these days of abudance for many and little for others is just this....when is enough enough? In this fine book, I. C. Springman perhaps helps us discover the answer.  Her magpie does not seem content with what he has. Well, it's tough to dispute that when he has nothing. That soon changes and as it does, so do his wants change.

You know that magpies have a penchant for collectibles, and  this one is no different. It is with the help of friend Mouse that Magpie begins an  accumulation of found items that threaten to engulf him. In fact, it isn't long until one nest cannot hold all the 'wealth' and so he fills another. This has devastating results for with a mighty crash, his world literally falls apart. When the bough breaks, it is of great concern to the mouse. You see, Magpie is buried beneath all that has tumbled from the nests.  He needs help and Mouse is happy to oblige.

As the mice remove piece after piece from the hoarded items, they have cause to worry and  significant questions to ask about real need. Magpie senses that it may have been too much, and eventually agrees that 'less is more' and not much at all might just be enough. A valuable lesson in our age of abject consumerism, driven by media and public opinion about what is to be valued for each one of us.

There are only forty-four words but they are powerful. Accompanied by the incredible artwork that Brian Lies creates, this book is to be savored and shared lots...plenty...almost never 'enough'! The details create feelings of abundance and fear as the stash grows until it is finally too much...that crash is scary! There is so much to see in each of the illustrations created to bring life to this thoughtful and meaningful tale...you will be astounded by the message packed into this lively picture book.

Breaking Stalin's Nose, written by Eugene Yelchen. Henry Holt & Company, 2011. $18.50 ages 10 and up

"Dear Comrade Stalin,
I want to thank you personally for my happy childhood. I am fortunate to live in the Soviet Union, the most democratic and progressive country in the world. I have read about how hard the lives of children are in the capitalist countries and I feel pity for all those who do not live in the USSR."

So begins this thought-provoking, historical novel about Sacha Zaichik and his family. He is a ten year old boy who has been dedicated to Comrade Stalin and his government for four years...learning the laws of the Pioneers and wanting nothing more than to be one, so that he might prove his allegiance to the 'great man'.

His father is a member of the secret police, his mother has died under mysterious circumstances and Sasha is dedicated to his life in Russia, and the promises made by Joseph Stalin.. When his father is imprisoned for no known reason and Sasha is forced out of the room that the two shared, he cannot find refuge anywhere. His uncle will not let his aunt help for fear of reprisal. When he arrives at school the following day, he acts as if nothing untoward has happened. As the day passes, he learns much that he does not want to learn.

Sasha's character is a boy who truly believes the propaganda that has been his life. But, his loyalty begins to fade as he deals with the tyranny of a number of groups...the people who share the communal apartment with he and his father, the men who remove his father in the middle of the night, his teacher at school, the children on the playground.  He is told nothing and left to learn much on his own. He believes that Stalin will discover the mistake that has led to his father's arrest and all will be well. But as the action unfolds, he becomes aware that there is little to be done about anything that is happening to him and finally, he agrees to attend the Young Pioneers ceremony. 

Told in Sasha's voice and from his own particular point of view, Yelchin's story has immediate and chilling impact for readers. He has been shielded by his father about many daily events, and has little real knowledge of what life is like for the Russian people due to the extremist propaganda of the regime. It is a short tale, tautly told and worthy of sharing in a classroom or family setting. There is sure to be much discussion that is pertinent to the world we live in today. The memorable graphite illustrations that accompany the text speak to the uncertainty and the drab existence of the people.

Eugene Yelchin grew up in Russia in the 1960s when few people knew much about Joseph Stalin and his reign of terror. Stalin's legacy lingered and the author wants readers to know the fear that so many felt. There came a time when he had to make a decision about his future. The final paragraph of his author's note has this to say about persecution:

 "I set this story in the past, but the main issue in it transcends time and place. To this day, there are places in the world where innocent people face persecution and death for making a choice about what they believe to be right."

Winner of a Newbery Honor and deservedly so!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Kindred Souls, written by Patricia MacLachlan. Harper, 2012. $16.99 ages 8 and up

"I look up and she is gone.
And I know. I know that I'm not
really angry. I am afraid. Afraid that I
can't build the sod house that Billy
wants so much.
I turn out my bedside light.
Then I turn it on again, and put
the sod house book under my
pillow and turn off the light again.
Kindred souls."

Patricia MacLachlan has an uncanny ability to tell a perfect story, with not one unnecessary word. In her new book about family, the reader becomes immediately in tune with Billy and his grandson, Jake. They live on the farm where Billy has spent his whole life. Behind the trees on a nearby hill is the sod house where he began that long life. As he and Jake take daily walks around the farm, Billy tells his grandson stories.

The original sod house has fallen in and is covered with verdant greenery that always manages to find life in unusual spots. As Jake listens to his grandfather's stories, he sees the farm as his grandfather sees it. They are 'kindred souls'.  They have a very special relationship and it is that bonding that makes this a perfect book for child to read to beloved grandparent, or the other way around...grandparent to child.

There are signs of Billy's failing health; Jake knows he need not worry. Billy will always be there. When Billy must be hospitalized, Jake voices Billy's fervent wish that they build another sod house...the original holds love and wonderful memories for him. Jake is the driving force that leads he and his siblings to build a new sod house. Each brings their own expertise to the construction. As Billy spends his time recovering, they take on a most ambitious project and time is short.

Will they surprise Billy?

Everything about this small book is bigger than it looks...the love of family, the power of the connections from one generation to another, the beauty of a story well-told and the joy to be had from dreams fulfilled and a life well-lived.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

This Is Just to Say, written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski. Houghton Mifflin, Thomas Allen & Son. 2007. $21.95 ages 10 and up

"I'm sorry I bit your mom's finger
and hung on to it like that.
Hamsters are not normally
bloodthirsty,
but I'd had a lot of adventures by then
and I was tired.
Her hand was a huge scary claw
coming at me.
The blood tasted like rust."

This thoughtful and captivating book offers poems of apology and forgiveness. It is perfect to pair with Gail Carson Levine's new book, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It (Harper, 2012). When I was posting that one yesterday, it reminded me how much I enjoyed this book when I first read it. It was very appealing in those classrooms where I shared it at the time. It can be the jumping off point for discussion of oft-neglected memories, and then finding a way to write about them.

It happens in a fictional sixth grade class under the tutelage of Mrs. Merz. Students are asked to pen
a poem of apology, loosley fashioned after William Carlos Williams' much quoted poem of apology. The first half of those included were written as just that, while the second half of the book moves on to a response to said apology. Here is the opener from Thomas to Mrs. Garcia in the office:

"I have stolen
the jelly doughnuts
that were in
the teachers' lounge

and which
you were probably
saving
for teachers

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so gloppy

too bad
the powdered sugar
spilled all over my shirt
and gave me
away

Mrs. Garcia was kind (?) enough to forgive him:

"Dear Thomas

Thank you for your poem.
You have a way with you, Thomas.
Smiling, asking me how I'm doing today,
talking a mile a minute.
Slipping in and out (yes, I see you)
stealing our hearts, and our doughnuts, too.
A nice boy like you can really
get on in the world
if he doesn't let his fingers run away with him.

Of course, I forgive you.
But I still have to call your mother."

Aha! As you read, you come to know the writers through their words. The letters back and forth can be funny; but, they are also admissions of guilt over transgressions that happened long ago, the death of a beloved family pet, mean-spirited comments made. The range is quite remarkable, very readable and will hold the interest of the reader. I like the way in which each apology gets a response, with varying takes on the form of the original poem.

Worthy of your attention, this is a set of poems that will encourage those students inclined to try their hand at their own aplogies. I would love to read them.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It, written by Gail Carson Levine and illustrated by Matthew Cordell. Harper, 2012. $17.99 ages 6 and up

"You fell
and cracked
your skull
on the hill

where
I had carefully
placed
a banana peel

Forgive me
Jill
is now
my girlfriend

And it goes on and on....what fun it was to read this book aloud in the quiet of a Sunday afternoon at my house. The Table of Contents clued me in for the fun and enjoyment to come. Two full pages of 'This Is Just to Say' followed by a page number...all fonts, all sizes. As I read I kept marking new pages with post-its and laughing uproariously. I mean, the introduction isn't included until page 18 and then, it is also an apology:

"Instead of at the beginning
I slipped
this introduction
in here

where
my editor excruciatingly loudly
screeched
it does not belong

Forgive me
I also shredded
her red pencil and stirred
the splinters into her tea

Others have used William Carlos Williams famous poem as a jumping off point for personal tongue-in-cheek apologies of their own. You might share Joyce Sidman's This Is Just to Say (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) as a pairing partner. Then, follow Ms. Levine's advice for trying your own, or for your students to do the same:

"You don't need a title, because William Carlos Williams has given you one, which can be repeated endlessly until your reader is completely sick of it. You also don't need a new ninth line, because that's always the same too: Forgive me. Notice that there are three stanzas, which you may agree are quite enough, and each stanza is four lines long, which you may think are four too many. The first stanza states the horrible offense. The second stanza describes the effect of the offense. The last stanza begins with "Forgive me" and continues with the false apology, because the writer is not sorry at all."

Teachers looking for a mentor book will be delighted with this one. It affords budding writers a chance to take a shot at false apologies. It is irreverant, mischievous, funny, and even poignant at times. Mostly, it is a book of poetry that will reach all readers and fill them with an enthusiasm for the poetic form. Not an easy task, I might add.

Using fairy tales, nursery rhymes and oft-read children's stories as the motivation for her apologetic demeanor, Ms. Levine moves from one page to the next with wit and charm. It helps if listeners (and readers) have some knowledge of them. Who hasn't heard The Little Engine That Could?; but, not like this:

"Ahead of you
you should see
a track
switch

which
will certainly
startle
and confuse you

Forgive me
you think
you can
but you can't

Oh boy!   Now, add Matthew Cordell's equally wicked images and you have a poetry enthusiast's dream book for sharing throughout National Poetry Month and in the months that follow it. His artwork is a perfect match for the silly and ironic verses, addling his own bits of humor along the way. Check out the gravestones, Jill's new amour, and the wolf's grumbling tummy as Grandma hits the trail.

I couldn't resist reading them aloud to anyone who dared phone as I was enjoying each one of them. Too good to miss...and a great way to start celebrating a month dedicated to getting more people reading poetry. Bravo!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? Written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, Hachette. 2012. $17.50 ages 2 and up

"Ohhh...there's more! Sometimes I ask for a hug. Or I'll ask for one more story. I can't count the times I've asked for my own personal iceberg. I ask to stay up late. Oh, yeah, I'm the asking-est pigeon in town! But do I get what I ask for?"

I have missed Pigeon! In his first book in four years, he remains true to the beloved and manic character we met in his previous stories. The Duckling, that endlessly polite and gentle foil to Pigeon's gregarious and caustic ways, is back as well. And he would like a cookie.

What does he do? Why, he asks for it and he does so politely. That he gets the cookie he asked for is a source of delightful surprise. It is just what he wanted, with an added smattering of nuts. Pigeon is not impressed. Of course, it sets him off on a familiar tirade, screeching loudly about the unfairness of it all. Emotion is everything with him.

It is that emotion that makes these books such fun to share with readers of all ages, adults included. I can hardly wait to take it on the road with me in coming weeks. The artwork seems so simple; yet it expresses everything that both Pigeon and Duckling are feeling with slight adjustments to the eyes, the body positions, the aura of movement.

Just as the dam is about to break, Duckling leaves Pigeon virtually speechless. All the pigeon is able to sputter is:

"Hubba - Whaaa?!?"

It doesn't even seem cheesy. It is just right for this particular character.Thank goodness it is Duckling who has the last word...and I laughed out LOUD! Note Duckling's look of total disdain!

Bring on the cookies!

The Cheshire Cheese Cat, written by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright with drawings by Barry Moser. Peachtree, 2011. $19.95 ages 8 and up

"Maldwyn had told the story before, most often to young ravens in need of their history lessons. He had never expected to be called upon to tell it to a cat. His eyes fell first on Pip, then washed over Skilley in a perfunctory fashion."

A skittish alley cat with a secret, an educated mouse with a penchant for language, a pub being overrun by 'ten thousand mice', a wise and royal raven, various and sundry pub staff, visiting writers and the Queen (Victoria, that is) herself bring this Victorian adventure to remarkable life.

While dodging a fishmonger's broom and trying to avoid Pinch, an alley cat with a bad reputation, Skilley learns that Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub is in need of a mouser. The home of Britain's 'grandest cheese' is being overrun by the vermin and Skilley envisions a perfect plan for his future:

"He was already engrossed in the audacity of a scheme so bold, so cunning, it would surely set him up for the rest of his nine lives."

There is a slight problem...his bothersome secret. Skilley doesn't like the taste of mice and since 10.000 of the vermin are said to live in the pub, his first problem is obvious. How will he convince the innkeeper to give him a home? As luck would have it, he quickly meets up with Pip, an educated and articulate mouse who also lives in the pub. That first meeting is terrifying for both. When Skilley nabs Pip in an attempt to prove himself worthy of the title 'mouser', the mouse accepts his fate. He is astounded at the end result:

"His tormentor carried him - where? Down the stairs? And then, just as suddenly as he had been captured, he was rudely spat out onto the stone floor."

Pip is quick to discover Skilley's secret...he is a cat who loves cheese. Pip can smell it on his breath! They make a deal that Skilley will pretend to be skilled at his new job, Pip will make sure that he gets the cheese he so desires. It's a great plan. You know, of course, it will not always be work as it should. When Pinch also finds a home in the inn, mayhem is sure to follow.

The writing is so captivating, the characters have such presence, the plot is so tight and entertaining; readers will find themselves intrigued by an animal tale that insists on being historical, too.  Charles Dickens plays a role and there are many references to his work. These make it a most intriguing story for adults while these asides do not need to be known or understood by a young reader to keep them interested and reading.

Skilley and Pip are strong allies and meet all obstacles together, with some slight bumps along the way as would be expected when a cat and a mouse try to share the same sensibilities. There is place where Skilley treats Pip with great disdain and Pip calls him on it, teaching a lesson in common courtesy and friendship at the same time:

 “It is not enough to say you are sorry. You must utterly own the terrible thing you have done. You must cast no blame on the one you’ve injured. Rather, accept every molecule of the responsibility, even if reason and self-preservation scream against it. Then, and only then, will the words ‘I am sorry’ have meaning.” 

A right fine lesson to be taught by the educated and thoughtful mouse. Secrets are divulged, action is taken and the audience totally engaged in this book filled with beautiful language, memorable characters and unquestionable loyalty.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Willie and Unlce Bill, written and illustrated by Amy Schwartz. Holiday House, Thomas Allen & Son. 2012. $19.95 ages 5 and up

"Pierre put a dark green apron on Willie. Then he snipped here, and he snipped there. He snipped there, and he snipped here.
"Voila," Pierre said. Willie looked in the mirror. His hair was short. It was very, very short."

Uncle Bill is full of charm and wit, and not a little adventure in his soul. His visits are always a joy for Willie (guess who he's named for). When the doorbell rings three times, Willie knows that great things are sure to happen!

You have to understand that the adventure is not always attributable to Uncle Bill; he just seems to be at the center of it in each of the three short stories presented for our enjoyment and discussion. Uncle Bill and Willie love and admire each other. They may even a similar genetic makeup!

The first story has to do with foreshadowing and an untimely haircut. When Willie's mother suggests: 'Make sure you keep a good eye on Willie today.', she means it. That it is not taken to heart has to do with lunch preparation, and a passion for music and dance that leaves Willie alone, and locked in the bathroom. Do you remember the first time your child took scissors in hand and attempted a haircut, or the first time you thought you had it in you to trim their hair on your own? Imagine Willie's Mom's surprise upon her return at the end of the day!

But she loves Uncle Bill, too. So, it is not the last time that he is invited to spend time with his nephew. There are two more stories. One is called 'Icky Stew' and the other 'The Outing'. Seems foreshadowing is part and parcel of all. In the second, it's 'please, just don't do anything I wouldn't do.' and in the third, it's 'It would be good, Bill, if you two could have a peaceful evening.' Come on!

Mom may have her suspicions. The full story is never divulged, except to a rapt and highly entertained audience. These small adventures are the stuff of great storybooks and Amy Schwartz clearly knows that! The author's brightly colored and detailed cartoon artwork adds much to the appeal. This is a book that will be enjoyed and is sure to encourage storytelling from the listener's own personal life. My kids have many suchn stories to tell about their Uncle Jack!

Sliter Slide, What's Outside? By Nora HIlb & Simon and Sheryl Shapiro. Annick Press, 2012. $8.95 ages 3 and up


"Stars are like magic,
shining at night.
Glistening, glittering,
like fairy light.

GLOW!"

Oh, to be young again! I love the wonder that little kids show at every new discovery in nature and the magic that it holds for them. Our family walks were often delayed by Bret's need to stop and watch the water carry leaves to the storm drain, or to fill his pockets with the many rocks, bottle caps, and other collectibles he managed to discover as we ambled along the sidewalk.

This book, as I read it once and then again, took me right back to those days in the early 80s when we spent as much time outside as we could. Thinking back on them, those walks seemed interminable when there was laundry to do, lessons to prepare, and lunches to make. Thank goodness we didn't succumb to those menial tasks that seemed endless when spring invited us outside and the playground called our names.

All seasons are presented here, using clear and captivating photographs that inspire young children to emulate what they are seeing in nature. In Nora Hilb's playful artwork, we are observers of their actions when they pretend to be what they see. A picture of a hazy and colorful rainbow encourages two young siblings to try their hand at creating their own, using bright crayons. Surrounding them are their drawings, a rainbow-hued xylophone (you know the one!) and a building toy that has rings ranging through the colors found in a rainbow. And the crayons used, and the skirt that the little girl is wearing...the highlighted word is WOW! In another a little girl holds a paper windmill and tries to stay on her feet while the wind whirls around her. It faces a photo showing a line of wind turbines along a white wintry road. Here the highlighted word is WHIRR! The grass is blowing, the dog's ears are flapping, she has boots and a coat, colorful leggings and wind-mussed hair. Many of these details go unnoticed with the first reading; a return visit turns up something new each and every time. It is sure to find a spot on your 'new favorites' pile.

The language chosen will add to a toddler's repertoire, the photos spark imagination and the very specific highlighted endings to each rhyming couplet will encourage movement and further discovery. Could we possibly ask more of a 32 page picture book? Nope, it is perfect just as it is!

Tallulah's Solo, written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Clarion, Thomas Allen & Son. 2012. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"She was sure her little brother, Beckett, would become an excellent ballet dancer, too. She was glad he wanted to learn ballet. She could picture him, back straight, arms graceful, dancing behind her with the other kids while she did her perfect solo."

It is such a pleasure to meet up with Tallulah and her brother Beckett once again. They are a delightful duo and I am happy to catch up with them as they work hard to become a new generation of ballet sensations.

Tallulah knows it is in the stars for her. As she watches her little brother become distracted on multiple occasions, she is not so sure that he has appreciated her ardent attempts at mentoring him into her artistic circle:

"Throughout his class, he paid attention only some of the time He held first position for just a few seconds before kicking his feet from side to side. He giggled when the teacher said, "Show me beautiful arms." He picked his nose."

Tallulah remains firm in her belief that she will be 'the one' selected for a solo performance in the upcoming recital. When Mr. Fontaine, a choreographer, announces a new ballet called The Frog Prince, Tallulah pictures herself kissing the frog. She harbors a hope that Beckett might be chosen to play a lily pad in that frog's pond.

Imagine her surprise when parts are announced and her hopes are dashed!  Her anger is directed at her little brother:

"She did not talk to him when her class began.
During rehearsals she did not look at him while he learned his duet with the princess. Mr. Fontaine and her teacher were paying ENOUGH attention to him."

But Beckett needs help and who can he turn to...only his big sister whose encouragement led to his interest in ballet in the first place. It is up to Tallulah to decide what she will do.

The whimsical watercolor artwork is a real delight. I love all the little details that Alexandra Boiger adds to the pages, giving us a clear and welcome look at Tallulah, her family and her aspirations. The light that infuses each double page spread, the spots that add humor, and the fully realized expressions on every face invited me back for a much closer look, time and time again.

Birthday coming up for a young ballerina? Christmas? You can't go wrong by wrapping both of Tallulah's stories in one big bow!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Chopsitcks, written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Scott Magoon. Hyperion, Hachette. 2012. $18.50 ages 4 and up

"Having  mastered
all the basic Chopstick moves...
...they were now learning
some fancy new culinary tricks.
This required lots of practice.
And that's how it happened.
Just like that."

I love this companion book to Spoon (Disney-Hyperion, 2009). What is it with eating utensils? It is filled with fun, not the least of which is the very telling cover quote from Spoon itself: 'Not exactly a sequel to Spoon. More like a change in place setting.' Yes, indeed!

These chopsticks do everything together! And it is priceless to check them out as they go about their daily business. Then, one gets hurt and all things change. Not right away, but after watching over the ailing chopstick for close to a week, the other is encouraged to get out there and try life on its own. Many discoveries are made, and a lesson is learned.

Seems simple, doesn't it? Nothing could be further from the truth and I cannot do the book justice by just telling you about it. You need to get it into your hands and make the many discoveries that the lone chopstick makes. I guarantee you will be charmed and you will laugh out loud to see what this inventive duo have in store for you.

 It is a tale filled with visual and verbal puns, and you will recognize the secondary characters who add to the action. While alone, the healthy member of the dynamic duo discovers it has many uses on its own...pea shooting, kabob stick, playing the part of a pick-up stick, giving spoon the edge in a pole vault competition, even testing cupcakes for doneness. There is much to discover!

Once health is restored, the lone traveler has much to teach its hospitalized partner. There is a sense that they are now stronger together, for all the new learning that has taken place. Doctor Glue gives a clean bill of health and they are off to play the drums, paint portraits (as artist and easel)...it's worthy of a 'toast'. To celebrate in true partner style, they manage a rendition of 'Chopsticks' to bring their story to an end. Bravo! Encore!

You won't be disappointed when this one arrives in the mail, or at your local bookstore.

How to Be Friends with a Dragon, written and illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev. Albert Whitman & Company, Thomas Allen & Son, 2012. $18.99 ages 3 and up

"After lunch, when the dragon takes a nap, you really shouldn't try to wake him up by putting a stick into his nose," said Emma. "Why not?" asked Simon. "Don't you think he's like a little joke?"

Not long ago I told you about a book that was perfect for a new big brother. It is called Shhh! (Penguin 2011) and was published just when I needed it most. Rowan was awaiting the arrival of his baby brother, Tate. I now have a few copies on hand for when it is needed once again.

In this new and pleasing tale, we meet a young boy enamored of all things dragon...and longing to make friends with one. As my little brother would tell you; if you have an older sister, she is going to have the final say in everything! Of course, that should be the way of things and it happens here for Simon.

Simon wants more than anything to have a dragon consider him a friend. His sister has the rules down pat, and doesn't mind sharing them at every opportunity:

""If you ever meet a dragon, don't show that you are scared of him. "
"OK," said Simon. "But I won't be scared."

Not to be deterred, Emma moves from one rule to the next. The two siblings togehther offer up a gentle lesson in manners, all having to do with how Simon behaves in the presence of a dragon and assuming that dragons have all the accoutrements of any normal household....an appreciation of good manners, a gallery of ancestral pictures, a proffered lunch, an afternoon rest which should not be disturbed by jokes, and nighttime adventures with friends aboard. If Simon followed all the rules, he wouldn't likely have the fun there is to be had. But, he knows enough to agree with his sister and follow her suggestions...mostly!

There is nothing scary about Simon's story and it would make a wonderful bedtime book. I'm sure that the first share won't be the last. In fact, it might become a favorite over the next month or two. The artwork is done with soft lines, a subdued palette and a host of most enjoyable images of Simon enthralled in the company of his new friend. Emma is always the rule giver and Simon has his own quick retorts. Sure to be a winner for young listeners.

and then it's spring, written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Erin E. Stead. Roaring Brook Press, 2012. $18.99 ages 3 and up


"or maybe it was the bears
and all that stomping,
because bears can't read signs
that say things like
'please do not stomp here -
there are seeds
and they are trying'

There is so much to the story of a garden! It is why I don't grow one and count on my friend Stephanie for all of the beautiful and supremely delicious vegetables that I eat all summer. She has the touch, and I am ever so thankful that she does. There are many concerns when you set out to plant a garden of your own.

Julie Fogliano knows that and she presents those concerns in this lovely new book for spring. It is just the book that I would have wanted to share with my kindergartners when we were talking about the beauty of a new season.

The snow is gone, but the biting chill has not yet disappeared. When we first meet the bespectacled boy and his dog, we are only too aware of that. He is still bundled in mittens, a scarf and a knit cap. The ground is a muddy brown, the bullrushes bedraggled and chimney smoke billows in the background. But, there are seeds and a need to plant them. As the sun shines and the rain falls, we share the boy's wish for growth in his garden.

Now, the brown seems less drear, the puddles attract birds and turtles and the smoke plume has diminished. There is no green yet. A week passes and there is a worry about those tiny seeds and what might happen to them. There is hope:

"and the brown,
still brown,
has a greenish hum
that you can only hear
if you put your ear to the ground
and close your eyes"

With patience and the passing weeks a new day dawns, alive with the greens of a warm world and its many joys.

Quietly conceived for young readers, this is a book that will invite numerous visits and a fresh look at the arrival of spring for those who know it's worth the wait. Erin Stead's talent is evident on every page (down to each tiny detail) and should ensure her a place on this year's list for Caldecott consideration. It will be well deserved for this very talented young artist.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Virginia Wolf, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault.. Kids Can Press, 2012. $18.95 ages 5 and up

"I did my best to cheer her up.
I gave her treats.
She wolfed them down.
But it made no difference.
Nothing pleased her.
Not the cat. Not my violin.
Not even making faces at our
brother Thoby.
She pulled up her covers and said,
"LEAVE ME ALONE!"

This is a warm and inviting story about sisters, with inspiration taken from the relationship between Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell. I love the artwork that Isabelle Arsenault has created to complete this thoughtful and energeticfamily tale by Kyo Maclear.  The silhouettes are an inspired representation of Virginia as she deals with the dark place that she inhabits on this particular day. She is mean, and makes her feelings known without concern for what others think...or for their hearing!

She does not want any visitors, complains to her sister about her painting and wants to be left alone. Virginia is wolfish about her treatment of everyone, despite her sister's many attempts to make her happy and brighten her day. Eventually they find solace in being together and doing nothing. Not wanting to give up on her attempts to make Virginia happy, her sister tries again. 

Virginia's response is arrogant and ornery:

"IF I WERE FLYING RIGHT NOW I MIGHT FEEL BETTER."

She also feels that there might just be a perfect place; but, it would need 'FROSTED CAKES AND BEAUTIFUL FLOWERS AND EXCELLENT TREES TO CLIMB AND ABSOLUTELY NO DOLDRUMS'. She thinks of it as her 'Bloomsberry' and describes it for her sister.

It is the perfect opening for a lovely response. She quietly leaves Virginia on her own, and creates this magical, idyllic land with artistic delight. Lush greenery covers the walls. Virginia notices and things within change:

"The whole house lifted.
Down became up.
Dim became bright.
Gloom became glad."

The story is told with love and a great deal of warmth. The world in which Virginia lives moves from dark shadow to vivid color, all due to the kindness and caring of one sister for the other. The walls are resplendent with colorful flowers, brilliantly feathered birds and a luscious group of iced desserts. The best part is that it works. Virginia emerges a happier young girl with new admiration for her much-loved sister.

Friday, April 6, 2012

never tease a weasel, written by Jean Conder Soule and illustrated by George Booth. Random House, 2007. $7.99 ages 5 and up

"You could make a riding habit
For a rabbit if you choose;
Or make a turkey perky
With a pair of high-heeled shoes.
You could make a collie jolly
With a red crocheted cravat;
Or make a possum blossom
In an Easter Sunday hat."

Seems just right for this weekend, doesn't it? Actually this is a book that was first published in 1964 and it is testament to its appeal that it has recently come back into print, with a new illustrator to bring it to full life once more.

It is great fun to share with a young audience and feels like the kind of book that would soon be memorized because of its lilting rhythms, its tongue-twisting language and its humorous appeal.
I had to read it out loud to myself, and then read it again to keep its catchy sense of wordplay going. It begs toe-tapping and hand-clapping.

Weasel teasing is the main message in the book, and the poet repeats her admonition on a number of occasions and with varying text. The message remains the same no matter how often she states it:

"But never tease a weasel,
Not even once or twice.
A weasel will not like it -
And teasing isn't nice!"

There you have it! There are many things that you might do to make members of the animal kingdom happy but teasing is not what you should do to the weasel. It cannot be stated enough times! The refrain is repeated following each set of four rhyming couplets and it isn't until the final page that we are encouraged with what we might do:

"But never tease a weasel.
Now remember what I've said!
It's more fun to please a weasel,
And be friends with him instead."

George Booth plies his artistic trade with humor and entertaining expression. The view from behind as the turkey waddles away in six inch heels is priceless. The Easter Bonnet that literally engulfs the poor possum recipient begs a place in the Easter parade...where it would be hard pressed to make it more than a few wobbly steps. The raucous children are bent on wreaking havoc on the weasel who so obviously does not appreciate the fun they seem to be enjoying at his expense. The artist fills each page with detail and delight. The final image is touching. It is one of those books where text and artwork make for a book that will keep the reader's attention and beg repeated readings.

It's a wonderful addition to my poetry shelves and the perfect way to celebrate National Poetry Month!

Edgar Allan Poe's Pie, written by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Michael Slack. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen. 2012. $19.99 ages 8 and up

"The fifteen-inch square pizza
with the three-by-three inch slices
was so inviting

I couldn't resist
eating nineteen and a half of them

Forgive me, Flossie
you were hungry, too
I put the box back
in the refrigerator

Who says that kids who love math don't love poetry? If they don't, you can change that in one look at this funny and inventive new book by Children's Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis. He takes classic poems as his starting point and makes them whimsical and mathematical with twists on the text. What fun it is!

The above shared poem ends with this final stanza:

"beside the white chickens
how many pieces
of pizza were left?"

The problem posed is not too difficult, and it won't take much encouragement for readers to do the figuring out. Do you have a guess?

Each of the math puzzlers is presented in a poem that is classic. It may, or may not, be familiar to those who choose to share this book. Hopefully, it will lead them to find the original poem, to check out what the poet has done to change it to suit his purpose, and to do the math required to solve the problem posed.

Fourteen poets are highlighted and some of their most familiar work used to our poet's purpose. Each has a problem to solve, and that solution ranges from fairly simple to more complex. Some require a series of steps on the way to the solution. Luckily, for those of us not mathematically inclined, the answers are upside-down at the bottom of each page. It takes some number acuity to find a number of them, and math whiz kids will appreciate that.

As well, the author includes in backmatter a short summary of each poet's life and work. This definitely ups the appeal and the range of interest for those sharing this much appreciated addition to the brilliant depth of J. Patrick Lewis' body of work.

Some of my favorite poets are here. Here is what John Ciardi's poem 'About the Teeth of Sharks' inspired for the prolific and wonderful author:

"The thing about a shark is - teeth,
Said shark expert my brother Keith.

To study sharks, he happily
Set sail to greet them out at sea.

Keith counted the first pointed row -
Eight hundred twelve! Four rows to go.

If each one of those had half as many.
How many teeth would equal plenty?

Before Keith finished adding, he
Was swallowed by shark dentistry."

Add to such delight the digital artwork created by Michael Slack and you have a funny, poetic source of math problems to tease and tantalize your children, or your students in the days to come.

And just before I go, did you solve the two problems posed?