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Friday, August 31, 2012

Some Cat! Written by Mary Casanova and illustrated by Ard Hoyt. Farrar Straus Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre, 2012. $18.95 ages 4 and up

"Violet knew she was meant for more. She was meant to rule a kingdom, with sharp claws and velvet paws. When anyone stopped by, she arched her royal fur. "Meowwww! Hisssss! Spat!" "That's some cat," people would say."

Violet is like many of the cats one might find at a shelter. Her life until now has not been perfect, and she finds herself left behind while other cats and kittens are chosen to be pets...often the young, good-natured ones. Violet is not that kind of cat.

We can only assume from the tone of the story and Violet's temperament that there are reasons for her behavior. It is hinted at when we first set eyes on her:

"She'd once had a home - with too little food and too much shouting - but she no longer cared to remember it."

Her reaction to anyone who comes near is to hiss and spit, and to offer no encouragement for them to choose her. When a caring couple comes in and decide to take a chance on her, she cannot hide her delight. Off they go! All is well until she meets the two dogs that occupy her new home. Does the fur fly? You bet it does.

Zippity and George are terrified of her belligerent ways, and avoid her as much as possible. She steals their toys, eats first, yowls and growls at them on a daily basis. She loves being alone...until one day.
George and Zippity are out with their owners fishing and Violet is alone in the yard when three strays show up. Violet knows how to protect herself but doesn't have much luck in a three against one showdown. The return of the fishing boat is timely; George and Zippity are fearless in their pursuit of the intruders.

Life suddenly takes on new meaning. Peace and quiet reigns!

You can tell from the front cover pictured above just how adept Ard Hoyt is at creating character. Violet's expressive face is anguished when we first meet her. As the story progresses, he fills the pages with the many faces of Violet...sad, proud, angry, deliriously happy, frightened, antagonistic, contented, and terrified. The action is ongoing and doesn't settle until she is safe in the knowledge that she has found a 'home' and family. Purr, purr, purr.

Cock-a-dddle-doo, Creak, Pop-Pop, Moo, written by Jim Aylesworth and illustrated by Brad Sneed. Holiday House, Thomas Allen & Son. 2012. $19.95 ages 2 and up

"Sparrows sing,
Chirp, chip, chip, chip.

Mill wheel turns,
Drip, drip, drop, drip.

Tap, tap, tap,
Papa shoes the mare.

Peep, peep. Chicks
Running here and there."

It's always such fun to share books that are filled with sound with little kids. They are soon chanting along and wanting to take the book and try it on their own. That is what inspires them to be lifelong readers...finding books that make reading fun!

In this celebration of a farming life, those young kids will find much to attract their attention and invite participation. It feels like music when you are reading along and the sound effects make that reading great fun! It must begins, as all days do,  with the rooster! He crows an early alarm and wakes the family to the business of the day. Smells of ham frying and fresh cinnamon rolls have them tripping over each other to get to the breakfast table. Once fed, they are off to help with chores and delight in the songs and sounds of nature.

This idyllic look at farm life from an earlier time shows the many aspects of the daily work that sustained a family. The rhythmic language had my toes tapping and me reading it aloud to myself while imagining sharing it in a classroom filled with eager listeners. Hopefully, no one was walking past wondering what I was doing. As we join the family in their day's work, we share their joy and wonder.

The watercolor illustrations hearken back to a time when the whole family played a role in keeping the farm viable and productive. Each page is detailed and alive with the daily doings of  an industrious family. They evoked memories for me of summer visits to my Saskatchewan relatives. The work was never done, but fun was always on the horizon. No carpets on the floors, dishwashers, clothes dryers, iPads, computers or television sets to distract family members from finding pleasure in being together, and expressing satisfaction in a job well done at the end of the day.

If you, like me, spent time on a farm in the 1950s you will recognize much of what it was to live and take joy from being self-sufficient and happy with your lot in life. Kids will love it, but are sure to wonder how children back then could possibly lead such a media-deprived life.

Zorro Gets An Oufit, written and illustrated by Carter Goodrich. Simon & Schuster, 2012. $18.99 ages 4 and up

"Zorro was embarrassed.
He didn't want to go for a walk.

"Zorro...come on."
"Slow down, Mister Bud!
Wait!"

Eddie and the boys all laughed
at Zorro."


I did enjoy my first meeting with this exuberant pug, and now he's back...dealing with what any human thinking dog must feel. I mean, really, who wants to be dressed in some silly little outfit to go for walk? Who knows who might be sharing the street with you? How embarrassing!

Mister Bud and Zorro have put their differences aside and seem pleased to be going for a walk together. Up until Zorro is presented with a surprise...a new outfit. It makes him feel like ZORRO, the masked outlaw! He is reticent about venturing out looking as he does; but there appears to be no choice for him. The jeers are quick to erupt. The laughter from neighborhood dogs and alley cat Slim only makes him feel worse. 

Mister Bud does his level best to make cheer him up.  A shared stick makes no impression, and is ignored.. A sudden streak of black-eyed wonder darts across their path and Zorro is intrigued. The new visitor to their park manages to bring Zorro out of the doldrums. Guess what? Dart is also wearing an outfit, and he resembles Zorro. He is quick to note how cool Zorro looks. Confidence restored, the three spend the afternoon in racing games.

There is limited text to tell this story and that is just perfect for early readers. It won't be long until they are reading it on their own and very much enjoying that independence. It is in the illustrations that they will discover total entertainment. Carter Goodrich brings vibrant life to his canine protagonist through cleverly drawn emotions that range from abject embarrassment to renewed confidence, and everything in between. It is evident on every page just exactly how Zorro is feeling.
We are sympathetic to his every expression and delight in the joy that the day finally brings.

Hopefully we won't wait too long to have another visit!

Counting on Fall, written by Lizann Flatt and illustrated by Ashley Barron. Owlkids Books, 2012. $14.95 ages 5 and up

"If honk-honking geese
kept to groups ten apiece,
what a sight they would
make at the lake.

Can you see several ways
to make up to ten?
Can you think of other ways
to make ten?"

This is the first book in a planned four book series. Math in Nature  will be concerned with each of the four seasons and numbers in nature. The author begins with a question for our consideration:

"Do you think that math matters to the animals and plants?
What if nature knew numbers like you?"

She then takes her young audience on fall walk that encourages them to see numbers in nature and to consider how the animals might feel if they knew what we know about math concepts:

"What number of nuts would the squirrels stash away?
Would they keep count? Would they keep score?
Imagine them comparing the size of their stores.
Can you count each squirrel's acorns?" 

As autumn bears down on us, despite the late August heat, the author will have readers looking at the signs that signal winter's approach. Leaves are falling, squirrels storing winter food, bears are packing on pounds in preparation for a long sleep, whales are migrating to warmer waters, geese are gathering for their long flight, and on it goes.

Children will not only be exposed to concepts in math, such as estimation, counting by fives and tens, counting backwards, comparison, and other math concepts, they are made aware of animals as they use autumn's bounty to help them prepare for the change that is to come.

The collage illustrations are detailed and attractive. They are sure to catch the attention of the reader and encourage exploration. Warm colors, charming images of numerous birds and animals (some familiar, some not so) make this an appealing read. The "Nature's Notes" section is beneficial, adding descriptions for animals and plants included.

Mud Puddle, written by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Dusan Petricic. Annick Press, 2012. $9.95 ages 3 and up


"As soon as she took off her coat, out from behind the doghouse there came the mud puddle. It ran across the grass and jumped right on Jule Ann's head. She got completely all over muddy."

Erin was three when this book was published, and I remember her squealing with delight (perhaps disgust...she was not the child who dreamed of an encounter with a mud puddle) as the Mud Puddle  jumped on Jule Ann and made her 'completely all over muddy'. It remained a favorite for ages, and was shared with Bret when he was born into our family of readers.

I did not realize, or remember if I did know at the time, that this was the first of Bob Munsch's oral stories to be published. It made us laugh out  loud and beg for repeated readings. I shared it in at home and in my classroom and soon needed a new copy. It's wonderful to welcome it back for another generation of readers, with the signature illustration style of Dusan Petricic.

That mud puddle has it in for Jule Ann. Whenever she goes outside, it is waiting. Ready to pounce and do its best work, the mud puddle is a constant surprise to her. Once covered in mud, she runs to her mother again and again with a repetitive complaint:

"Mommy! Mommy! A mud puddle jumped on me!"

Mom's reaction is also repetitve:

"Jule Ann's mother picked her up, took off all
her clothes, and dropped her into a tub of water.
She scrubbed Jule Ann till she was red all over.
She washed out her ears.
She washed out her eyes.
She washed out her mouth.
She even washed out her nose."

The words came back, without even looking at them. In the end, it is Jule Ann's ingenuity that stops the culprit in its tracks. Bravo!

I have great admiration for Dusan Petricic and the energy he brings to his art. It is a perfect match to the tone and telling of this story. It gives it a fresh look for young readers and will delight a new audience. Jule Ann is a calm and contented child as she ventures outdoors to enjoy the beauty of nature in her backyard. She is a gloppy, running mess following her first encounter with the demon puddle. The expressive faces of child and parent, the frenetic movements and the well-aimed bars of soap give new life to an old favorite. 

Boss of the Plains, written by Laurie Carlson and illustrated by Holly Meade. DK Publisihing, 1998. $16.95 ages 6 and up

"Then he sliced a strip of hide off the rabbit skin and tied each end of the strip to the hickory stick. It looked like an Indian's bow. Next he flicked the bow, blowing puffs of fur up in the air to settle back down on the blanket until they made an even layer. As everyone watched John took a swig from the canteen and gently sprayed water through his teeth onto the fur until it matted."

You know I am intrigued by the amazing collection of picture book biographies that we can offer our children and students to help them learn about the people who have made a difference in our world. Over the years I have heard about this book and had never seen a copy. Now that I have, I want to share it with you.

Laurie Carlson tells the story of John Stetson, from his beginnings in the family's hatmaking business through the illness that led him to seek his fortune in the west, fulfilling a dream he had as that young boy working alongside his siblings to create headwear for the masses:

"Everyone wore some kind of hat, though, because the weather was likely to be either burning sunshine, drenching rain, whipping wind, or swirling snow. A hat was important protection."

His first stop was St. Joseph, Missouri. John wanted to make a difference. When asked to join an expedition to Pikes Peak and the fortunes it might hold, he jumped at the chance. The trip was long and arduous; yet, John's health improved. Nights were cold, and John used his hatmaking skills to fashion a warm felt tent to keep he and his fellow travelers warm.

Upon arrival at Pikes Peak, the the sun and wind took a toll on John. He found that the derby hat he wore, though fashionable, offered little protection. He set to work to create something more substantial. Despite its strange shape, it did the trick. He sold that first one, and when the search for gold proved fruitless, John moved to Philadelphia to do what he did best. Patience proved he had stumbled onto a good thing, and the rest is history!

The Stetson had so many uses that soon everyone wanted one! I would compare it to a recent email I read about the real purpose for aprons in an earlier time. Now, who is going to write that story?

This is a fun and informative book to read, not only for the lively telling but for the rich and detailed illustrations that Holly Meade creates to give readers a clear understanding of the process of felting and hatmaking. Her artwork shows us what life was like for those who lived in the 19th century, and why the 'Boss of the Plains' became the hat to have, no matter who you were. Her ever-changing perspectives and beautifully constructed collages add interest and appeal for all who share this book.

We are left with a cowboy's homage to his hat on the back cover. Lovely!

Body Actions, written by Shelley Rotner and David A. White. Holiday House, Thomas Allen & Son. 2012. $19.95 ages 5 and up

"The human body is like an amazing machine with many parts that work together. Each part has a special job to do. Your bones protect and support your body. You have 206 bones in your body, and more than 50 in your hands. Your skull is made up of 22 bones that protect your brain and fit together like the pieces of a puzzle."

Children do so much in a day without even thinking about it. This book helps them consider the amazing things that happen in their bodies to allow such perpetual motion.

Almost immediately the authors create a double page spread that includes six overlapping images of the same boy, same position. Each new photo closes in on one of the six body systems...skeletal, muscular, circulatory, nervous, digestive and respiratory. The authors then go on to describe how each of the systems allow children to run, skip, jump, eat, read and any number of other actions that are part of a child's day.

The photos are filled with color and movement, with drawings overlaid to show that each system is at work, no matter what they do in their day. The text is uncomplicated, while explanatory. Readers will not be overwhelmed with information and will come away from the reading with better understanding of how these systems work together to create an exuberant, busy, intrigued-by-the-world wonder!

The five senses are touched on, as are skin and hair. At the end, the learning is summed up in short recaps of the points made earlier, and a glossary provides short definitions for fourteen key words. This is an excellent explanation for young readers of the body and its many wonders. It is accessible for their understanding and they will very much enjoy clear, bright photos of children doing just what they do every day!

Georgia in Hawaii, written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Harcourt Children's Books, Thomas Allen & Son. 2012. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"In a borrowed banana wagon, she drove the tightly winding mountain roads. Georgia went where she wanted, when she wanted. And Georgia painted! Georgia painted waterfalls and green pleated mountains, lava hardened into fantastic shapes, and delicate, feathered fishhooks that she collected like seashells."

I will admit I know little about Georgia O'Keeffe. It is books like this one that send my on a search to know more. We can only hope that it does the same for our children, and for some of our students. An author's note is useful in helping readers understand the impetus for writing this part of her life's story. Two additional titles for further reading are added for those who find their interest piqued, and wanting to know more about this fine artist.

It was 1939 when the Hawaiian Pineapple Company asked Miss O'Keeffe for two paintings. Initially, she was not keen to travel so far from home. As she spent time researching Hawaii and perusing pictures from the islands, she became excited at the prospect, packed her bags and made the journey. She  was suitably impressed:

"Georgia visited the pineapple fields soon after her arrival on the island of Oahu. She found the sharp and silvery fruit quite strange and beautiful. She wanted to live nearby so she could study it up close."

The company would not allow it...only workers were allowed to live there. They gave her a picked pineapple to use as a model. The artist was disgusted and none too pleased that they would try to tell her what she would paint! She was able to spend time on each of the islands, admiring what they had to offer...each one being quite different from the others. The beauty of the islands inspired her and she created twenty paintings during her stay.

Not one pineapple in the bunch! The Pineapple Company was not impressed. Georgia O'Keeffe was none too pleased. She wanted to paint what she wanted to paint...and she would. Now, what? Was there a resolution to the impasse?

Readers will enjoy this brief look at the artist's journey to Hawaii, and be impressed with its impact on her work at the time. She draws inspiration from everything she sees on the beautiful islands and goes home with lifelong memories of the images invoked by island life. Yuyi Morales has done an incredible job of bringing the artist and her art to a young audience. She uses rich color and glowing scenes from the Hawaiian trip to show the immediate affinity the artist felt for this unfamiliar setting. The endpapers boast labeled images of nine of Hawaii's beautiful blossoms. In her illustrator's note, she says that she carefully studied O'Keeffe's artwork:

"How wonderful to imagine her fascination at looking deep into a flower, her delight in finding a rare piece of coral, and her surprise at discovering magic in a fishhook!"

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

1-2-3 peas, written and illustrated by Keith Baker. Beach Lane, Simon & Schuster. 2012. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"SEVEN
peas jumping -
splash, splash, splash!
EIGHT
peas racing - dash, dash, dash.
NINE
peas dancing - round, round, round,
TEN
peas building -
pound, pound, pound."

I know that Erin is going to love this book, while also gagging since it's about her least favorite vegetable - peas! She felt the same about LMNO Peas, 2010. I think it's good to have the little green guys back and I have great admiration for Keith Baker's work.

They are no longer interested in the alphabet; now, they are set to count, count, count. And they do...first by ones, then by tens. Readers will be counting alongside them, at every turn of the page.
Each cleverly designed illustration is fraught with little green men and their many activities. Keith Baker gives them character and imaginative clothing to help young readers find and count them. The numerals themselves provide a giant backdrop for the action, and often the focus for what it being carried out.

The peas are painters and pilots, divers and dancers. I love the ten carpenters with a pile of lumber and more nails than most would know what to do with, all pounding to their hearts' content. When we get to 11, the author moves us right over to twenty...with a skip, skip, skip! . The counting continues, now by tens. Each new ten takes up a double page spread and invites careful attention to the peas and their new work.

There is so much to see and count, that every new visit will turn up something not yet seen. From driving to drumming, they are busy with life. Don't miss the Peatles or Peayonce as you pore over the seventy peas singing page. Can you just imagine the fun that you are going to have when you share this with someone you love?

I know Erin is going to enjoy this book, as long as peas are not on any other menu!

When Dads Don't Grow Up, written by Marjorie Blain Parker and illustrated by R. W. Alley. Dial, Penguin. 2012. $18.00 ages 3 and up

"They know that milk tastes
better through a straw...

that bubble wrap
is for popping....

and that rocks are for throwing
(if there's water around)."

The images are priceless...dads being kids, and kids loving every minute of it! One of the illustrations that accompanies the title page shows a little girl bundled up in coat, ear muffs and mittens handing a hot dog bun to a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops wearing dad who is roasting hot dogs in the middle of a winter snowstorm. It speaks to the fun you are sure to have when you share this story with a group of preschoolers, your kids at home, or anyone wanting to celebrate a dad, grandad, uncle, or any other man friend who loves living life without growing up.

These dads have no interest in showing the world their sturdy, serious, in-control side. These dads play with the toys from a full meal deal, while straddling a construction girder high above the construction site, or feeding pigeons while waiting for the commuter train to take them to work. They don't wear accepted attire either. They prefer bright colors, and offbeat activities. They stand out from the crowd!

They fill their days with fun and excitement, much to the delight of their children and themselves.
Sometimes they are downright embarrassing, but they don't seem to mind. Their stories at bedtime can be a mishmash of  words, both known and new, that entertain children who are supposed to be settling in for the night.

The four dads pictured have important roles outside the home...doctor, businessman, construction worker and florist. But, what happens with their children is what matters most...and those kids are LUCKY!

The combination of well-chosen language that encourages laughter and the artist's depiction of men who have not yet given up their childhood will give listeners an opportunity to share their own family stories of happy, crazy times spent with Dad.

"You know who they are."

Potatoes on Rooftops, written by Hadley Dyer. Annick Press, 2012. $14.95 ages 10 and up

"Sometimes the answer to a big problem comes in a tiny package. Micro-gardens are small gardens for people (maybe like you!) who don't have enough space for a full-size plot. They're also less physically demanding, which makes them easier for kids, senior citizens, and people with physical disabilities."  
 
This is another of those nonfiction books that I thought I could skim through and enjoy without reading every word written. WRONG! I should have known that anything Hadley Dyer writes is thoughtful, helpful and packs a punch. So, here I am a bit smarter and a having spent a good deal of time learning about new ways to grow what we eat! How important is that personally, and also for the planet?
 
The first part of the book takes a look at how living in a city makes a difference to where our food comes from, and how far we are from the source of much of what we eat. Often for people who have little income, they spend most of it on food; too often, this food is more expensive, pre-packaged and lacks nutrients needed for good health:
 
"What's so terrible about your meal collecting miles? Transporting foods long distances requires a lot of fuel. All those trucks and planes also belch a lot of pollution and greenhouse gases into the air, contributing to global warming. As well, spending lots of time in storage causes fruits and vegetables to lose nutrients. Some research has shown a loss of 30 to 50 percent over a 5- to 10-day- period." 
 
Not so appealing once you know that! This first part sets the reader up with the information needed to understand why there has been such growth in sustainability.
 
In the second part, Ms. Dyer helps us understand and recognize the many different benefits that come from learning how to grow some of our own food. There are so many innovative ways to use the space available to grow healthy, hearty food for your family and to share with others. We need to change our thinking about use of space, and the satisfaction that comes from feeding ourselves with food grown nearby. There are many ways to be successful:
 
"Community gardens are places in the city where people can get together to grow food and other plants. They add green space to neighborhoods and can make a world of difference in a food desert, where fresh produce is hard to come by."

So many ideas are offered, you will be sorry that the end of this growing season is near. But, it will give you a chance to consider over the cold months ahead how you might change what you are doing now, and find new ways to grow a garden next spring and summer.

Part three helps readers understand the value of growing food and the benefits it brings to the environment as well. Preserving produce, building cold frames, even keeping small animals in the city to supplement a family's food supply are discussed. It's quite informative to see how people around the world do the same things:
 
"Like some people, pigs will eat just about anything. In Mexico City, many people keep pigs in their backyards, feeding them leftover food, such as stale tortillas from restaurants, stores, bakeries, and their own kitchens. More than 3,629 t (4,000 tons) of kitchen waste goes into pigs instead of landfills."
 
Now, that is recycling, isn't it?
 
In part four we are asked to consider the world we live in as we plan to make a difference in our own neighborhoods. It's an easy thing to do, and so worth your while. It begins at home and can reach out to school, to the area you live in, and finally to your wider community. Many hands make light work, and small steps make big changes. If you grow it, you might even be able to sell it to someone who wants fresh produce, and doesn't have the means to do it alone. Groups around the world are establishing themselves and helping others learn about sustainable living. It's of huge importance!
 
"As you've seen, you can accomplish so much when you have an appetite for change. And the more you do, the more you can do! Use your positive experiences to inspire other people, whether they're your classmates, neighbors, or city council."
 
Looking for an idea for real research in social studies and science. Hadley Dyer provides much needed information to get you started. The more knowledge the children in your classrooms have, the bigger the impact they can have on the community. A map of an 'edible city' is a fascinating one, and would provide a model for research and planned action. It is followed by a glossary, websites, a list of further resources and an index. You would do well to get your hands on this book if you have an interest in growing your own, or teaching others why it is important to consider. Now, get growing!  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Waiting, written by Carol Lynch Williams. Simon & Schuster, 2012. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"Sometimes I feel like I'm still stuck in those last few days.
That I can't get past anything that happened.
That the last real moment for me was hearing my
brother Zach, alive.
I keep trying to remember him that way."

Waiting...that is what I was doing when I closed the cover on the last page of this remarkable book. Waiting for the tears to subside, waiting to let everything that had happened wash over me. Waiting for the smile that was sure to come...the satisfaction at having read yet another amazing story from this skilled and gifted writer!

It broke my heart, and then warmed it. Teary I was, but hopeful.

Poor London, lost, alone and aching to feel anything. It's been nine months since her best friend, her brother Zach, died and her family fell apart. She has closed herself off to those around her, going to school but keeping to herself. Knowing that everyone is looking at her, knowing her story and not wanting anyone to even say Zach's name:

"They say time heals.
When?

It's been months now and I see my brother in
everything."

The hurt is unbearable and what is going on at home makes it worse. Her mother has not spoken to her since the day Zach died. She moves like a zombie around their darkened house, leaving it for hours and doing nothing to make it seem like a 'home' anymore.She hates her daughter and blames her for their loss.  Her father is much the same, immersing himself in his work and unable to help himself or the two women who live there with him. It is devastating to a young girl who cannot share her grief or receive any comfort from her parents.

Lili is a new student at school, moving from Utah to Florida mid-year, knowing nothing about London, but drawn to her and wanting to be her friend. Lili, with her effervescent personality and her constant chatter, makes London feel somewhat normal. Lili's brother Jesse awakens something in London as well. She finds him attractive and a distraction from the old...from Taylor who was London's boyfriend, then wasn't, and wants to be again, and from reminders of Zach and the life they lived Before.

They are characters who will live long in my memory. They do not judge, they want to share London's pain and they support her at every turn. As she begins to emerge from the fog, she knows they are there for her and she begins to lean on them for the comfort she needs:

"I don't tell him any of that. I just weep, his arms around
me until Lili and Lauren and Taylor arrive, walking into
the house without even waiting for me to say, "Come in.""

Carol Lynch Williams uses lyric prose to tell this hauntingly beautiful story of loss and recovery. She gives us characters who are vulnerable, sensitive and engaged in being there for London, even when she thinks she needs no one. She knows she needs her parents, but she cannot seem to break through the sadness and guilt that engulfs them.

It is no pat ending, but it is lovely and will resonate with those who have traveled this very poignant and bumpy road with a young woman who is learning that there is a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that has been her path since Zach's death.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Holding On to Zoe, written by George Ella Lyon. Margaret Ferguson, Farrar Straus Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2012. $19.99 ages 14 and up

"She is concentrating the energy that signals my heart. She holds me in this light. After a little bit Emma asks about my family, about school. It's easier to talk now. When I get to the part about Dad leaving, my voice gets husky and my throat hurts. "Tears are good," Emma says. "Just let them come." I shake my head. Mom hates tears. They aren't worth it."

I barreled through this short, and powerful, novel about Jules and her family, her friends and her struggle with past events. George Ella Lyon is a strong writer and she kept me turning pages, wanting to know if Jules would get the help she needed and giving voice to a sympathetic and memorable young woman.

It begins in the Toyota factory where Jules is working to earn money to enable her to care for her baby daughter, Zoe. It isn't long until the reader begins to understand that Jules' reality is skewed. Then, we step back in time to help us see how Jules got to this point.

When she tells her boyfriend that she is pregnant, he is quick to abandon her for his dream of making music and travelling the world. When she tells her mother, she refuses to believe her. When she tells her best friend, she encourages an abortion. Jules will not hear of it. A trip to her family doctor reveals a problem, and the rest of the story follows Jules' inability to accept the news he relays. Following surgery, she has a breakdown and imagines a life with her baby; caring for her, keeping her safe and ensuring that she is always there for her. It is heartbreaking as the reader realizes that nothing is as it seems.

Luckily, Jules comes under the care of a mental health care professional who has the skills to help her find the root cause of her dependence on this imaginary baby. She is able to get to the pain that Jules has never let surface. She helps her accept that Zoe is not real, and begin healing from a very early trauma. Her defences have been strong and protective, but her precarious hold on  life's events finally crashes, and Jules must deal with the aftermath. We know that she has wonderful support from her best friend Reba and her family, her now sorrowful mother and her understanding and skilled new doctor.

In a longer book, the characters may have been fleshed out further. But, let's remember the audience and the impact this story will have on them. There may be a future story for Jules, her family and friends. I hope so. Jules has a long road to travel before she can deal with all of the issues here portrayed; hopefully, she is on the right track.

May B, written by Caroline Starr Rose. schwartz & wade, Harper. 2012. $17.99 ages 10 and up

"Pa deserves the mess he's made,
sending me here.
His only daughter
abandoned
by strangers,
forgotten
by family,
left behind
by classmates,
ignored
by Teacher."

 
It was fascinating to read a second book, in as many days, about dyslexia. It is a compelling issue in this story from Kansas in the late 1800s. Mavis Betterly, known as May B, is a second mouth to feed in a family where money is scarce and solutions are few. In an attempt to help the family circumstance, Ma and Pa decide to hire May out to neighbors who are newly arrived. Mr.Oblinger works hard to create a new home for he and his wife and is gone long hours each day. His wife is homesick, and ill with wanting to be somewhere else. He thinks that a helper/companion might help to ease her misery.

The choice between sending Hiram, May's older brother, or herself hinges on the need for a son's usefulness. He is deemed more necessary to the running of their farm. May is furious, and resents that decision. She is experiencing difficulty at school and can't see how being away for four months will help her get ahead. Pa promises he will get her home before Christmas; but, it's only August. Off they go...fifteen miles west! It's a long, lonely, boring journey and May has little to say.

The Oblinger's soddy is uninviting, Mrs. Oblinger is miserable and demanding; but, Pa takes the money offered and is soon on his way back home, leaving May to live in close quarters with strangers. When Mrs. O can take it no longer, she runs away, leaving May to show her 'leaving note' to Mr. O. He is frantic and goes after her, thus leaving May alone in a new place.

Not sad enough? Days pass and there is no word from either. There are no neighbors, no visitors and May must find a way to take care of herself as the seasons turn to fall, and then to winter. A harsh prairie blizzard leaves her trapped in the house, with a dwindling store of food and heat. She has spent months with no company, hearing no voices and not even really using her own. She uses all of the skills learned at home to create meals, practice lessons and keep her spirits up. Finally, she decides she must take the bull by the horns and make her way toward home. She sets out with little food, scarce protection from the elements and a broom to ward off wolves and other animals.

A debut novel, written in verse, is read quickly and packs a lot of emotion into the long, lonely days. May struggles physically to take care of her everyday needs, while also concerned about the effects of isolation and loneliness. She works hard to do her lessons, always with the hope of being a teacher one day. She will not let her unsympathetic teacher at school discourage her. She will learn in her own way, and she will do it successfully. May is a powerful voice and a most admirable young woman:

"I slip into my coat,
pack my pillowcase,
then straighten the soddy before I go.
If Mr. Oblinger does return someday,
I want him to find things in their proper
places:
the bench tucked under the table,
the rocker angled properly.
There is nothing I can do with the dirty
bean pot
except fill it with fresh snow.
I leave one quilt folded
over the back of the rocker.
The other will offer some protection outside."

Truly wonderful!

The Wild Book, written by Margarita Engle. Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2012. $18.50 ages 10 and up


"I don't understand
the whole thrilling verse,
but I love the way poetry
turns ordinary words
into winged things
that rise up
and soar!"

Another favorite author of mine...I read each of her books with renewed energy for the beautifully chosen words and the cultural stories Margarita Engle so proudly shares. This newest one is about her grandmother....Josefa de la Caridad Uria Pena, called Fefa. It is the early 1900s and not much is known about personal struggles with reading. Few children have accurately diagnosed learning difficulties.

Fefa lives with her parents and a large number of siblings...there are eleven children in all. Fefa has been diagnosed inaccurately by a doctor who calls her disability 'word-blindness'. Today, we call it dyslexia. She lives in a family of readers, who love words and often share poetry. The doctor advises that she will 'never' be a  good student:

"Word-blindness.
The doctor hisses it
like a curse.
Word-blindness
he repeats - some children
can see everything
except words.
They are only blind
on paper.
Fefa will never be able
to read, or write,
or be happy
at school."

That is some life sentence for a young girl, isn't it?

Mama won't accept that diagnosis, and she offers Fefa a gift - a small blank book for writing.  It doesn't end the frustrations, or the failure to learn quickly; but it does provide a vehicle for hope. When she learns that wandering bandits are threatening families with kidnapping their children in hopes of getting ransom money, Fefa shows great concern over being unable to read the note that might be left on her family's doorstep.

This wondrous author is able to create a Cuban setting that puts the reader right in the countryside with Fefa and her family. It sparkles with life and provides a backdrop for this tale of dogged determination and love. Fefa, at 11, is an intelligent and strong narrator, and a most patient learner. Her struggles at school are heartbreaking, but she is not a giving-in kind of girl.

When her brother is accidently shot, and comes home to recuperate, it is Fefa's job to keep him company and to read to him:

"I would rather tell riddles
or sing funny liars' songs,
like the one about the spider
who sews clothes for a cricket,
or the one about silly fleas
who wear fancy trousers,
even though they do not
own any underwear at all.

Instead I have to SOUND OUT
all the difficult syllables
of tiny pieces of long poems
un - til
I am
hope - less - ly
fu -ri - ous - ly
wea - ry."

She works hard and it pays off when the family is threatened. She is astute and unafraid then, and she shows just how much she does know about the written word:

"Our family is safe.
Papa calls me a heroine.
Mama calls me an angel.
Jose tells me that I am
the slowest, most careful,
observant reader
he has ever known."

Fefa beams with well-earned pride.

An author's note explains the impetus for writing this very special homage to her maternal grandmother, her perseverance and resilience.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Boxcar Children Beginning, written by Patricia MacLachlan. Albert Whitman & Company, Thomas Allen & Son. 2012. $18.99 ages 5 and up

"They walked past the sign that said Fair Meadow Farm and down the road, Henry and Jessie in front, Violet and Benny behind them. Four lambs. They walked quietly until soon the Alden farm was out of sight. After a while they passed houses and meadows and streams they had never seen before. When Jessie looked back she saw that Violet and Benny were holding hands."

I have such wonderful memories of sharing Gertrude Chandler Warner's The Boxcar Children with my kindergarten classes in the early 1970s and then to my grade twos and threes in the 1980s. Many have talked with me about it since, and one former student actually asked to borrow it from me so that she could read it to her own children! That's a pretty cool thing, isn't it?

They loved it! They loved the wonderful Alden children, they loved their independence and love for each other, and they loved the very happy ending. That is as it should be for 5 year olds. Now, seventy years after it was first published, another of my favorite, all-time-ever authors has written a prequel...an earlier story that gives light to what led the Alden children to seek a life on their own despite their young years and its many challenges.

Patricia MacLachlan is a master at the craft of writing, and I am  eager to read every new thing that she writes.  So, I started this book last night with great anticipation. As I KNEW would happen, I was totally captivated by her warm and charming family story. Through her we meet the Aldens living on the farm that belonged to their mother's family, and the cause of the rift between their father and Grandfather Alden.

The author was chosen to write the prequel by the publisher for obvious reasons:

"She writes so beautifully about families and about families coming together in unusual ways. She had great insight into the young characters.”

Luckily for those who love the series, Ms. MacLachlan agreed to take the project under her wing and imagine the life that the Alden children must have had before their story began with Ms.Warner. It must have been a bit unnerving, given that they are so beloved by children around the world who have often had questions about their parents and earlier life. Of those parents, she says:

“I did invent the parents, but in a sense I knew what kind of parents they had been, because of who their children are. The siblings are thoughtful and kind, and they take care of each other.”
 
She has done a remarkable (and very satisfying) job of taking us back in time,  from our first meeting with those children as they stare into a bakery window, hungry and alone but for each other. The family was generous to those in need, worked together to make life comfortable and meaningful, loved and honored each other for their strengths, and lived a life that taught the children to be self-reliant, supportive and loving when the unthinkable happened and they needed to make a new life for themselves.
 
Though I would have thought it impossible, I have even more admiration for the formidable talent of Patricia MacLachlan and her ability to pen beautiful, tender family stories. Thank you!

The Magician's Apprentice, written by Kate Banks and illustrated by Peter Sis. Frances Foster, Farrar Straus Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2012. $18.95 ages 12 and up

"He smiled, his gold tooth capturing the sun's rays, sending them back to their source. The master took the sword from the man and caressed it, moving his palm up the blade to the very tip. Then he turned the treasure in his hand, pivoting the blade earthward. A small door in the handle slid open to reveal an empty compartment."

This is a beautifully told, almost mystic story of a young boy named Baz who leaves his family home, as his brothers have done before him. He is apprenticed to a weaver, who is a mean and sadistic man that treats his young charges abominably. Each of the young boys who weave for him are ill-fed, badly treated and do not even have basic needs met. They are a sorry lot!

When the weaver sells him to Tadis for a sword, Baz has no idea how his life will change. The magician is a fine man, who encourages Baz to accompany him on a journey. He lets him know that he has a choice...he is not bound to his new master as he was to the weaver. Tadis quietly takes the young boy under his tutelage and helps him learn much about life in general. The story is told with lovely language, and a gentle feeling of simplicity. Peter Sis has created artwork that matches the tone with perfection. Together these artists offer a story that is memorable and uplifting, while also being a bit 'magical'.

A peaceful, happy family life in his home village does not satisfy Baz's urge to know more about the world. So, he is happy to move forward. His new life brings heartbreak, and some life-changing events for the young man. He faces cruelty for the first time and becomes quite resentful, a new and unflattering emotion.

The magician is a kind and philosophical mentor to Baz and helps him see the world in a new and different light:

"Baz had begun to listen without realizing it. It was not the kind of listening that happened when he forced himself, when he made an effort. It was a more passive form of being, in which the noises sounded different. The trees seemed to sigh or some times laugh, depending on the wind. Well, he reasoned, if the mountains had souls, then the trees must have them, too. There were grass snakes that slithered to the movements of the trees, and there were birds that sang ragged notes. Somewhere in back of all these noises was a quiet that came not from around him but from within him. It was a silence, which Baz had grown to know, to desire even. With it came an indescribable feeling of peace."

Tadis teaches Baz about illusions...the magic he practices to ensure they have food and lodging. Baz is quick to learn. While their journey together is often difficult, he realizes that there is much he does not know. As they travel and learn together, Baz becomes patient and kind with others, based on the experiences he has and the changes they make in the way he will live his life.

The Second Life of Abigail Walker, written by Frances O'Roark Dowell. Atheneum, Simon & Schuster. 2012. $19.99 ages 10 and up

"Her dad turned back to Abby. "Calories in, calories out. That's the formula, Ab. You have to burn more calories that you take in. That's all there is to it." Abby looked at her pizza. One-third of her slice was left. She knew it was getting cold and she should hurry up and eat it since she didn't like cold pizza, but suddenly there was a lump in her throat..."

Abby is a sixth grade student meant to be suitably admired, as you get to know her in this story of personal discovery. Kristen has been her friend; now, with Abby gaining weight and not being a 'medium' girl anymore, she and Georgia have taken to targeting Abby. Abby is not like them; sixth grade girls don't like that. As well, Abby has decided that she's not going to take it anymore. She is done with them, and walks away. As far as Kristen and her pals are concerned, that is not acceptable and they set out to make Abby's life even more miserable than it already is.

Abby is concerned but adamant. She knows that she is the only one who can control her own destiny and she sets out to do that. She makes new friends at school, and in the neighborhood. She's going to have a second life and that is all there is to it:

"Her mom called from downstairs that dinner was almost ready. Abby wondered if she would tell her about Kristen, how they weren't friends anymore. She wanted to, but she knew she probably wouldn't. Still, to be able to say, I am not friends with Kristen Gorzca, to make that declaration, it would have been like opening a door. Please come in, Abby would say to her mom. Meet the original Abigail Walker, a girl who does and says what she wants when she wants to."
      
Now that she has broken away from the 'medium' girls, and not too happy with the way her parents are treating her about her weight, Abby seeks comfort in others. She spends time in a vacant lot across the street from her house and exploring nearby. Near the creek she meets Anders, a young boy with some issues of his own. He lives with his grandmother on her horse farm, and with his father, a war veteran with untreated trauma from his experience in Iraq. His dad is focused on writing a poem about the animals from the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Until he can complete the poem he is sure he will not heal. He needs help with research and Abby is eager to be his research assistant.

She enlists the help of her new friends, Anoop, Jafar and Marlys. They are supportive when Abby needs them and they give her the confidence needed to be who she wants to be. Together they gather the information that is sure to help Anders' father get better. As this is happening, a fox is watching over Abby and seems to be providing needed guidance. The fox also played a role in Iraq with Anders' dad. She is a bit of fantasy in the midst of an all too real existence for this lovely and brave young girl.  

Mean girls are not unusual in middle grades; I was more appalled by Abby's father and his response to his daughter's weight problem. My heart broke when Abby discovered that he had no pictures of her in his office, stemming from the time that she began to gain weight. What kind of father would do that?

Frances O'Roark Dowell proves once more that she has her finger on the pulse of her characters, giving them life and allowing Abby to be who she wants to be without resorting to any of the antics that we see from Kristen and Georgia. She is a force to be reckoned with, and  funny, poignant and moving toward a new reality. Bravo, Abby!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Crazy About Soccer! Written by Loris Lesynski and illustrated by Gerry Rasmussen. Annick Press, 2012. $12.95 ages 5 and up

"muscles deflated
legs like spaghetti
cleats full of mud
exhausted and sweaty
sometimes a good game
sometimes the worst
we're tired and grimy
and dying of thirst
but back here tomorrow?"

If you know an avid soccer player, you know the answer! Loris Lesynski seems to know what it is about soccer that makes its fans 'wax poetic'. She fills her newest book with countless descriptive poems about the game, the players, the physiology of it, and even its future. Each of the poems is great fun to read and will conjure up memories of one game or another, one play or another.

As our immigrant population grows in western Manitoba, the number of soccer teams, pitches and games is also on the rise. In the playground across the street from me, players spend two nights and one afternoon each week in competition; evident in the cars arriving, players practicing and then the welcome noise of the game being played. It is wonderful to hear so many out enjoying summer evenings...players and audience alike.

The first poem allows a glimpse at one of the reasons for the game's worldwide popularity...you don't need much to play:

"Take away the uniforms,
take away the cleats.
Take away the cheering crowd,
take away the seats.

Take away the referee,
take away the net.
Take it all away today -
right away - and yet -

We'll always have the game to play,
positions for us all.
It isn't in the extras.
The game is in the ball."

Gerry Rasmussen's detailed cartoon drawings add the right touch to the book's text. Backgrounds and perspectives change often, and provide humorous interest for all who share the poetry. I love the poor black and white spotted cat who angrily gets booted from a young soccer player's bed as she dreams all things soccer! And, the young and anxious boy who wants to learn all he can about the sport; he's reading a borrowed book while he runs the field:

"But learning how to play like this
is cutting down my speed.

I have to find a better way
to run and also read!"

I would love to share others. There are many that I know you will enjoy when you share them at home, or in class. As September approaches and fall is in the air, I like to remind readers to be thinking about the perfect Christmas gift. If you have a soccer aficionado in your family, or on your list, here's a terrific book to put under the tree!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Lulu Walks the Dogs, written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Lane Smith. Atheneum, Simon & Schuster. 2012. $17.99 ages 6 and up

"Danny, Donnie, Dustin, Dave.
How much money will I save?

Ava, Amy, Ann, Annette.
How much money will I get?

Money! Money! Money!
      Money! Money!

I don't know how I missed Lulu and the Brontosaurus (Simon & Schuster, 2010); but, I did and now I can't wait for my next box from Amazon! To say that we spent hours, when Erin and Bret were young, reading the uproarious and oh, so true! books of Judith Viorst is truly an understatement. It was the same in my classrooms at the time. We read about Alexander, Anthony, and Nicholas...their funny family escapades, their irreverent take on life with siblings and their most interesting relatives. We read the poetry in If I Were in Charge of the World over and over, and then over again! We spent many happy times with those books. Now, she is writing a new series about a feisty, frenetic female who has big demands of and even bigger expectations from those around her.

In her second starring role, Lulu wants something that her parents are not willing to purchase. The only way she is going to get it is to earn the money on her own. Give her a challenge and she is up to it! She decides that a dog walking business is just the ticket...and sets out to find dogs in the neighborhood that could do with exercise and attentive care. Given the fact that she knows virtually nothing about dogs and their habits, the business seems doomed from the outset.

Fleischman knows all about dogs! Fleischman, in fact, knows a great deal about many things. He is neat, always willing to help, loved by everyone because of his exemplary character; Lulu finds him wildly annoying. She wants nothing to do with him. In order to make a success of her business and earn the money that she needs, will she be able to work without him? It's hard to tell.

Short chapters, humorous adventure, strong characters and always enjoyable, hilarious illustrations will appeal to all who read it, and then read it again. Quirky and totally engaging, readers will be singing Lulu's money songs at the tops of their lungs, itching to move on to each new song as the story progresses. Lane Smith has the perfect touch in creating these wonderful characters, human and animal.

I'll leave you with just another short quote from this entertaining read:

"You want a happy ending. Read Cinderella. This story has only sort of a happy ending. Because Fleischman is still too annoying for Lulu to love. And Lulu is still too fierce for Fleischman to love. They respect each other. They count on each other. They're partners and dog-walking buddies. If one of them got tied up, the other would help. But unless they turn into totally different people, I'm pretty sure they won't be New Best Friends."

Oh, PLEASE! Let their be more such wondrous books in our future!

Lulu and the Duck in the Park, written by Hilary McKay and illustrated by Priscilla Lamont. Albert Whitman & Company, Thomas Allen & Son. 2012. $15.99 ages 6 and up

"This Tuesday - the day after Lulu's dog Sam trailed Lulu to school and Mellie lost her sweater and Class Three learned the very real danger of their guinea pig being swapped for a box of stick insects - the day after all that happened, things were very different and terrible in the park."

Well, I knew that I loved Hilary McKay's writing but I had not seen anything she had written for early readers. So, I began the reading of this recent book with delight and anticipation. I was not disappointed in the least.

Lulu is a 'lulu'. She's a lovely, friendly, young miss with a mind of her own and a passionate love for animals of all types. She is extremely fortunate to have the parents that she has:

"It was lucky for Lulu that her father was famous for peering at the latest arrival and saying, "Hmmm. Well. Ask your Mom." And it was lucky for Lulu that her mother was famous for saying, "The more, the merrier." That was Lulu's mother's law on pets."

On a weekly class visit to the park, chaos arrives with two large and loud dogs who run rampant, tearing up plants, destroying nests, and scaring the ducks that Lulu loves so much. It is her good fortune that she is there when a duck's egg topples from the nest and makes a beeline from the top of the rise to the bottom, threatening sure destruction to its fragile shell. She scoops it up and hides it from her teacher, who has no love for animals of any kind. All is well until the egg cracks and hatches out a beautiful baby duckling while school is still in session.

This is a perfect first chapter book for early readers. The characters are likable and admirable. The action is quick-paced. It's fun and funny, with highly effective and very charming illustrations and will have wide appeal. The reading is a delight and will beg to be revisited by eager fans.

This is what reading should be about for young children wanting more than picture books. You can be sure I will be looking to get copies of other 'Lulu' books to share in workshops and with children this fall.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Toppling, written by Sally Murphy and illustrated by Rhian Nest James. Candlewick, Random House. 2010. $19.00 ages 8 and up

"I want to ask a million questions,
but when I open my mouth,
nothing comes out.
Maybe this is what they mean in books
when they say someone is at a loss for words.
I've never been at a loss for words before.
But what can I say about my friend
who has cancer?

This elegant, short novel in verse doesn't take long to read; it does, however, pack an emotional wallop for readers. It begins with school friendships, and John. John collects dominoes and has thousands. Each of his school friends has special interests. Dom is the best, and John describes him thus:

"Dominic Fraser likes rugby
and soccer
and cricket.
He likes reading funny books
and motorcycle magazines.
He likes art,
but not math;
library,
but not science.
He has a dog named Butch
and five goldfish
and two parents,
but no brothers or sisters.
He has a computer of his own
and a Game Boy
and a remote-control helicopter.
He's fun
and funny
and honest
and pretty cool."

Don't you feel that you know Dom now? He is John's best friend, and John knows him well, too.

When Dom throws up in class on his first day back to school, everyone is aghast. Some tease, some gag, and John wonders what is wrong.  When they hear the reason and learn that Dom is in hospital, they are left with many questions and obvious concern.

 This beautifully written and illustrated novel in verse is sure to capture the hearts of those who read it, and likely to bring a tear to the eye. Once you know the story, you will totally understand the title's reference. There are times in life that almost knock us to the ground, and it is up to us to get back up.

John's voice is clear and sure when the book begins; it changes as events play themselves out. John shows his uncertainty and insecurity in gentle, unassuming ways...always focused on Dom and what is happening to him. As the details of Dom's illness are finally shared, it leaves all of his classmates changed. We are privy to John's questions and uncertainty about Dom's future...no one can answer all of the questions that he has. The adults are helpful, and provide comfort and support when needed.

The feelings are felt, the uncertainties expressed and visits permitted when Dom is up to having his friends with him. Sally Murphy focuses her readers on the values of friendship and hope as she explores the topic of serious illness in one so young. The poignant ending will warm your heart and put you on a path to reading whatever this accomplished author next sets before us.

The Name of the Star, written by Maureen Johnson. G.P. Putnam's Sons, Penguin. 2011. $19.50 ages 12 and up

"She was short, maybe just five feet tall, but broad. Her face was a deep, flushed red, and she had big hands, hands you'd imagine could make really big meatballs or squeeze the air out of tires. She had a bob haircut that was almost completely square, and was wearing a dress made of hearty wool. Something about her suggested that her leisure activities included wrestling large woodland animals and banging bricks together."

Thus, Rory meets Claudia, the 'housemistress of Hawthorne'. Quite the introduction to her new school and the girls' dorm. Aurora and her parents have moved to England from Louisiana for her parents' sabbatical year. She is enrolled in a residential school in London while her parents take up residence in Bristol.

Her school is located in Wexford (easy to find thanks to a very helpful and detailed map provided, pre-story) which is located right in the same vicinity as the notorious Jack the Ripper murders from the late 1880s. While in the school van on the way to her new digs, Rory hears the first report of a murder done 'in a manner emulating the first Jack the Ripper murder of 1888'. It is not an auspicious beginning at all. It hints at some of the events to come.

The first part of the book concerns Rory's adjustment to England's ways and her attendance at Wexford. She is quite an ordinary girl who is friendly, smart and funny. She shares tales of her family in Louisiana and adds a good dose of humor to the telling. She meets new people, works to create relationships with them, and to adjust to her school work. As we meet the various characters and listen in on conversations about the panic that grips all of London, we become aware of rising danger; that is most evident when we realize that Rory is able to see a man on campus that no one else can see. It is a startling and very unsettling discovery to make about herself.

The second part deals with tracking the man she sees, and meeting three other young people who are like her. They also see ghosts; in fact, they are team members of an elite police force whose job is to find these ghosts and get rid of them...new age ghost busters. The tension builds palpably and will keep avid readers on the edge of their seats as Rory and her new friends work to stop the killings, putting all of them in grave danger.

The writing retains my membership in Maureen Johnson's fan club. She pens a great story! She gives us warm and likable characters, many incidental details that add to the depth of her storytelling, humor in the midst of panic, and great descriptions (as is evidenced at the beginning of this post). She takes a little shot at the prevalence of the CCTV surveillance cameras that track every move but can't pick up the ghost killer, and the sensationalism of media in this day and age. She does it all without making it an issue, while bringing awareness to her readers and giving them something to think about as they read.  

This was a most engaging read, and I eagerly anticipate the release of  Book Two of this new Shades of London series. The wonderful ending that will have readers begging for more...isn't that just perfect?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bon Appetit, written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland. Schwartz & Wade, Random House. 2012. $19.99 all ages

"Julia and Paul marry in 1946. (Julia is 34. Paul is 44.) In the evenings she tries to cook. Julia works as a file clerk. Paul works for a branch of the State Department, a federal agency. He plans and mounts exhibitions that aim to show the world what American art and culture look like."

When Bret and I were shopping at Costco yesterday, we made our usual stop at the books section and I found a copy of Dearie (Bob Spitz, Knopf, 2012); then, we stopped at McNally Robinson and I snagged a copy of As Always (Reardon, Thomas Allen reprint, 2011). In coming weeks, I will learn more about the woman whose 100th birthday was celebrated without her this past week, and whose 'artful' cooking lessons were fashioned to inform our practice and entertain at the same time. 

Earlier I told you about a picture book biography that focused on the Paris years of Julia's story. In this new book by Jessie Hartland, we are given a more comprehensive look at Julia's life, from her birth in Pasadena in 1912 to her death in 2004. It sparkles with Julia's on-air presence, her exuberance for living; and I'm sure it would have found a fan in Julia herself:

"She bubbled over with effervescence, spoke as if she had marbles in her mouth, and gleefully hammed it up in front of the camera...How did a gangly girl from Pasadena do it?"

And so, the story begins. Julia was the oldest of three siblings, afraid of little and always on the go. She grew tall with large feet; a plus if you wanted to play basketball, not so much if you wanted to dance with a high school boy. Every single page is filled with scenes from Julia's life. The pages are awash with cartoon-like images, using a muted palette of greens, golds, grays and blue. The hand-lettered text makes the telling personal and filled with charm.

There are brilliant bits of information that will grab attention and offer insights into the woman who was Julia Child. Each vignette adds to the appeal. From adventurous child to a job with the OSS during WWII, from marriage to fellow foodie Paul Child to Paris and lessons at the Cordon Bleu, and finally, from learning to cook to sharing what she learned and loved with so many through her cookbooks and her very popular television show; it's all here for young readers to ponder and enjoy.

The endpapers front and back are jammed with images from Julia's life: the front ones have English captions while the back provide French translation for each. When needed, she uses the bottom of the pages of text to show her readers the many moves from place to place made during her lifetime. An albeit brief epilogue, a useful bibliography, web links and a recipe for the author's own crepes end the book, bringing readers another lively and inspiring picture book biography of an iconic American woman. Brava!

This is wonderful storytelling that is sure to appeal to readers of all ages who are intrigued by this
amazing woman who had this to say about herself:

"I don't think about whether people will remember me or not. I've been an okay person. I've learned a lot. I've taught people a thing or two. That's what's important. Sooner or later the public will forget you, the memory of you will fade. What's important are the individuals you've influenced along the way."

Friday, August 17, 2012

Charles Dickens, written by Catherine Wells-Cole. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2011. $23.00 ages 10 and up

"Dickens wrote very directly about family life, with detailed observations of the comedy and tragedy of the home, often featuring a warmth and tenderness that was missing from his own experiences. His well-drawn portrayals of family life made his work extremely popular in its own age and have also helped it stand the test of time."

This is another of those books that will captivate and intrigue readers as they pore over its pages. As with all nonfiction, it can be read in any way chosen...front to back, hop around, most interesting parts first. That is what makes it fun and so interesting to those who want to know more about Charles Dickens.

As I have mentioned many times before in this blog, we are blessed to be able to share an amazing number of picture book biographies with children of all ages. I am not afraid to date myself when I tell you that biography reading for me was a long and often boring chore. More than likely I was reading about someone I didn't even have a passing interest in, and the biography didn't help to engage me further. Today, however, there is a plethora of books written to engage our children and to heighten their interest in people who made a difference in our world.

When the design of such books is as enjoyable as this one, Charles Dickens is sure to gain new fans for his works. The many flaps, envelopes and fold-out pages attract attention and provide charming information to all who read it. It reads like a tableau of scenes and memories of the writer's life. In reading about Dickens, they will also learn much about Victorian times. The author ensures expert knowledge about London, the industry that encouraged growth and development, the conditions under which the Dickens family lived, even Christmas of the time.

There are maps, book covers, an occasional letter. Readers will be delighted to spend time opening those flaps, poring over maps and plans, reading what is included in this well-researched and exquisitely designed biography. Once begun, anyone who reads this book will find it difficult to leave.  There is much to smile about as it captures the very heart of the man we have come to know for his often harsh and uniquely familiar stories of his life and times.        

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Plant Hunters, written by Anita Silvey. Farrar Straus Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2012. $21.95 ages 12 and up

"Who were these adventurers? They were not soldiers or pirates; they followed a profession with zeal, but were not missionaries, doctors, or spies. They had a different purpose, a very dangerous mission. They risked their lives to find something seemingly ordinary: plants."

After having watched much of the coverage of London 2012 and the Olympics, I find myself, once again, in awe of the men and women who have such passion for the work that they do. They train daily for four years to take part in their sport, and to represent their country. I am in awe of their love of sport, the sense of purpose they have to train endlessly, and the chance they take that their day of competition will proceed without incident.

This book is about that same kind of dogged determination. The men and women described in these pages by noted author and children's literature expert, Anita Silvey, will do what it takes to find a plant. They face unbelievable conditions of weather and danger to further the research for medicine and science. They let nothing stop them!

You will know people like them. She begins with a most compelling and gruesome introductory paragraph:

"One got eaten by tigers in the Philippines; one died of fever in Ecuador; one drowned in the Oronoco River; one fell to his death in Sierra Leone. Another survived rheumatism, pleurisy, and dysentery while sailing the Yangtze River in China; only to be murdered later. A few ended their days in lunatic asylums; many simple vanished into thin air."

Now there's a beginning! 

Ms. Silvey goes on to describe the men (and a few women) who have put their lives on the line for money; but, also to improve life for the people of the world. The text is accompanied by lovely, detailed lithographs, oil paintings, watercolors, maps, and archival photographs; all add to the appeal and the general knowledge of the reader.

The stories are adventurous and terrifying. The plant hunters faced unexpected dangers, as did the plants they were carrying. They were often far from civilization and needed to be sure they carried what they would need for their day's search. They kept careful, detailed accounts of their work, their specimens, their surroundings. In spite of everything they did to ensure safe transport, many of the collected specimens did not survive, or failed to germinate once they were planted.

Each story will hold fascination for budding botanists, and those interested in adventure and history.
These scientists made invaluable contributions to scientific research.  It moves from the long-ago past to the present, ending with Richard Ree, a modern-day plant hunter preparing specimens in Tibet. I found it consistently fascinating to read these well-researched tales of travel, passion for nature, and danger.
      
The back matter includes an extensive time line, an author's note, chapter notes, a bibliography and an index...all are most useful and informative. What fun it would be to share in any class work concerning plants and gardening, or even for Earth Day.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Minette's Feast, written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Amy Bates. Abrams, Canadian Manda Group. 2012. $18.95 ages 5 and up

"Julia and Paul were charmed by Minette's delicate whiskers, her superior nose, and her quick little paws. Here was a cat who thoroughly enjoyed life's many pleasures - long naps, soft laps, and , of course, lunch. But for Minette, no ordinary meal would do."

One day to go before those whose lives Julia Child made better celebrate her once more, on what would have been her 100th birthday! It provides a great chance for me to share this new book from Abrams about one small part of her life...her love of cats.

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed it when I read it for the first time, and I have read it numerous times since then. It is a charming look at the life that the Childs lived while in Paris. Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child knew how she truly lucky she was that Paul and Julia had allowed her to adopt them:

"And day and night she could smell the delicious smells of mayonnaise, hollandaise, cassoulets, cheese soufflees, and duck pates walking from the pots and pans of her owner, Julia Child."

Indeed she was blessed; but so, too, were the Childs. When they arrived in Paris they had explored its streets, shops and cafes. They had an apartment that seemed empty without a cat. They immediately fell in love with Minette who had been 'stalking' them for days (if we are to believe the glorious illustrations that follow them from place to place).

What a lovely collaboration of text and art this is! I pore over the pictures again and again, enjoying the Paris streets, Julia's cooking lessons and her kitchen, with Minette at her feet and keeping a concentrated watch on the mousehole. Minette much preferred her own fresh catches to the foods that Julia was so meticulously cooking. I particularly love the full page spread that shows Julia in four positions, moving about the kitchen from cookbook to bowl, from pan to stove...busy, busy, busy!
Oh, and then I should tell you about....well, Minette on Julia's shoulder as she prepares a feast for Paul and friends. Then, there's the series of feline antics across two pages that show how she truly felt when she discovered the culinary joy of Julia's cooking. Want me to go on?

Together Susanna Reich and Amy Bates have created a perfect picture book biography that will enchant and delight all readers.

An Afterword is included about Julia's life, followed by notes and sources, a glossary to help with French pronunciation, and finally an author's note about her endless fascination with the woman she watched on television as a child.

In a recent interview Susanna Reich discussed Julia and the reasons for honoring her with this fine book:

"Julia was serious about cooking and held herself to the highest standards. Her devotion to her art—the art of French cooking—was inspiring. She also took great pleasure in sharing her enthusiasm and had a wonderful sense of humor. I admired her confidence, her knowledge, her spontaneity, and her commitment to teaching. When she demonstrated a dish, she made you believe that you could cook it, too.
But the key thing about Julia goes beyond cooking. She knew that putting people at ease and fostering convivial conversation around the table was more important that the success of any particular dish. In her memoir she wrote, "Remember, 'No one's more important than people'! In other words, friendship is the most important thing—not career or housework, or one's fatigue—and it needs to be tended and nurtured.
By focusing my picture book on Julia's years in Paris and her relationship with Minette, I was able to share with kids the things I admire most about Julia—her warmth, her humor, her work ethic, and the joy she found in cooking."

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Lowdown on Denim, written by Tanya Lloyd Kyi and illustrated by Clayton Hanmer. Annick Press, 2011. $12.95 ages 9 and up

"People are still doing crazy blue-jean stunts. Scientists from Cornell University and the Science Center of Ithaca once used seven pairs of jeans to lift a station wagon into the air. When the jeans survived that, the scientists lowered the car, removed one pair and hoisted everything up again. The jeans still held."

What great fun this book was to read! As someone who never wears blue jeans, I found myself intrigued by the many fine qualities of said article of clothing. I would pair this book with Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). It's filled with funny stories, and is written to be read and appreciated by upper elementary and middle school readers. 

It begins with an impressive question:

"The American denim industry makes about $13 billion each year selling all kinds of jeans - from affordable pairs to high-fashion versions that only the super-rich can buy. Why do shoppers spend all this money on an ordinary item of clothing?"

Good question...and so the author uses jeans as the focus for a historical journey that tells the story of denim over the years since it was first made in the 1860s. It is quite the amazing trek, and begins with Levi Strauss who was looking for a material that would hold up for the men who were working in the gold rush. He joined forces with Jacob Davis and the rest as they say...is history!

Tanya Lloyd Kyi fills the pages with a huge amount of researched information concerning the appeal, the changes in style, the economic realities of wearing denim at various times in history, and the need to follow trends established by those with star power:

"By the 1990s there were hundreds of jeans variations: tight, baggy, dark, faded, boot-cut, bell-bottomed, and beaded. There was a different pair for everyone's taste and budget - especially if that budget happened to be huge. A Roberto Cavalli design with a beaded waistband went for a whopping $1,840. Gucci jeans with torn knees showcased on fashion runways in 1999, and they sold out instantly. They were $3,715 a pair." PUL-eeze!!!

Not only will middle graders be attracted to the content, they will be equally fascinated by the design. Cartoon drawings begin each chapter. They are backgrounded with blue jean pockets, and followed within the chapter by blue graphica, information boxes (also set on pieces of denim) and illustrations that help with further understanding. Here's a little Canadian content:

"In 1951, superstar singer Bing Crosby arrived at a Canadian hotel in Levi's jeans and a denim jacket. The hotel refused to allow him inside. When Levi Strauss & Co. learned of the incident, it produced a tuxedo jacket tailored specifically for Crosby - and made entirely of denim."

The author mentions that today's consumers are showing concern for the companies making jeans, and where their work is being done. They are encouraged to ask questions about a company's practices concerning contracts, labor, safety standards being met, and the processes for making the many varied types of jeans. They are told that they can make a difference by asking those questions:

"You won't get the answers to your questions on every company website. If you can't find the information you're looking for, try emailing and writing to the company's public relations department. When enough people write letters about their concerns, companies listen. After all, teens are these companies' biggest market. Indirectly, we control the blue jeans world!" 

Martin de Porres, written by Gary D. Schmidt and illustrated by David Diaz. Clarion, Thomas Alllen & Son. 2012. $19.99 ages 6 and up

"Every day after Prime, Martin washed the floors of the brothers' cells. After Terce, he cut their tonsured hair. For the prayers at Nones, he opened the monastery doors so that the brothers might walk inside in silence. After Vespers, he swept the holy chapel. And whenever the brothers called, he came."

There has not yet been a book written by Gary Schmidt that I haven't loved...he keeps my admiration intact with the lovely picture book biography about a compassionate and noble man whose story I had never heard.

Martin de Porres was born to a beautiful woman in the barrios of Lima, Peru. His mother took him immediately to the cathedral; the priest was disturbed by the conditions of his birth:

"The baby's father was a royal conqueror. His mother was a slave."

His mother Anna loved him and wanted him baptized. The priest only frowned as he baptized him
'the son of an unknown father.' Anna would call him Martin. Their home in the barrios was impoverished:

"On rainy days, the River Rimac flooded its banks, so that cold water - and sometimes rats - poured into their house. Hunger lived in their home. Illness was their companion."

By now, your interest will be piqued, I am sure. It is a lovely story about a man whose concern and continuous care for others is evident in his every action. At 15, after many almost miraculous experiences, Martin presented himself at the monastery. Knowing that the circumstances of his birth were a detriment to his being accepted into the priesthood. Martin had no lofty ambitions:

" I will wash the dishes and tunics," he said. " I will clean the halls and baths. I will tend the gardens and mules."

He was a 'strange boy' to many; but he found his new life of servitude to the priests fulfilling and he brought his healing power to the animals, to the people of the barrios, to the priests themselves and eventually, to the Spanish royals. It took a while but soon everyone in Lima knew of Martin and they called him 'a rose in the desert', just as his mother had predicted so many years ago.
Gary Schmidt provides the story and David Diaz, as he has done so many times before, brings Martin and his world to those who read this truly inspirational book. His images are filled with bold color, calm and peaceful expressions, and a luminescent light that exemplifies the life he lived so well. Martin was the first black saint of the Americas and Pope John XXIII named him 'the patron saint of universal brotherhood.'

In a recent interview, Gary Schmidt said this about writing picture books:

"Picture books are very hard for me; that's why I've only done a handful. They are so lean, so tight, so sparing in their language and singular in their focus. This is wicked hard for me, since I love the novel form for its expansiveness, for the room to develop and consider. There is also the issue of illustration, since with the picture book the writer must leave room for the illustrator's investigations. I've worked with some terrific illustrators--most recently the amazing David Diaz--and it's been wonderful to see what they have done to bring two visions into a single artistic experience--even though it's hard for a guy with a lot of New England blood to release this much control. I think in the end, though, I'm more comfortable with the novel form."

I hope for Mr. Schmidt that seeing this exquisite book find an audience will give him pause to consider trying his hand at another illustrated book in the future. I would love to see it!