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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My Friend Henry, written and illustrated by Philippe Beha. Scholastic Canada, 2012. $16.99 ages 3 and up

"Hello, squirrel. Have you
seen my friend Henry?
He's small, with curly hair."
"Yes!" says the squirrel.
"I saw him at the grocery store
with a friend this morning."

With a friend?
But, I'm his friend!"

I also like the uncertain tone of this story about two friends and a surprise. Our narrator and Henry have always been friends, right from the time they were toddlers together. As the book opens, our narrator is concerned that his friend is late for a play date at the park. As time presses on, his worry deepens. He begins to ask if others have seen Henry.

As he asks he describes Henry to help with identifying him. Each animal answers his question about Henry with a resounding response that they have seen him, and he is always with friends. Now, our young man has another more pressing worry. Might Henry want other friends? Would he rather be with them?

When the pigeon's response includes 'surrounded by many friends', gloom makes its way into the boy's heart. Imagine his surprise when he sees what Henry has been planning!

"There's my friend Henry,
small, with curly hair, big dark eyes,
freckles on his nose and a  huge smile!
And there are all my
other friends too!"

Philippe Beha has a long history in the book industry. He outlines his illustrations using black and creates a story in pictures with variety in facial expression, lined movement, a familiar setting and bold color. Children will enjoy this story of friendship and surprise.

Lovabye Dragon, written by Barbara Joosse and illustrated by Randy Cecil. Candlewick Press, Random House.2012. $19.00 ages 4 and up

"Oh, she cried silver tears
many, many tears
so wishing for a dragon
so lonely for a dragon
and they trickled down the stairs
past a teeny-tiny mouse
in his teeny-tiny house
past a boat in the moat
past a frog in the bog
round a bend in the glen"

The longing for a friend takes a new twist in this poignant tale about a little girl who dreams of meeting a dragon, and a dragon who wants to meet a little girl. And why not?

Barbara Joosse is a word spinner and she does credit to her craft when she introduces her female protagonist:

"Once there was a girl
an all-alone girl
in her own little bed
in her own little room
in her own little castle
who didn't have
     a dragon
         for a friend."

The loneliness is unmistakable. When we meet the dragon we learn that he, too, wants a friend. Luckily the fates are generous; the little girl cries tears of grief that find their way to the mouth of the dragon's cave. When they roll up to and over his nose (do you call it a nose or a snout?) he awakens with a start and a GLUK!

As luck would have it, he takes a chance and follows those tears (in a back-the-way-they-came route) to the little girl's bedroom. Oh, what joy! Despite their differences, they are each thrilled to meet the other, and immediately become fast friends. They spend their days playing, chatting and occasionally hiding out together. They welcome the fact that they also have some things in common:

"On the outside, Girl is little.
On the outside, Dragon's biggle.
But they're just the same size
     exactly the same size
in the middle."

Randy Cecil's rich oils in blues and greys perfectly match the lovely language of this dreamy tale of affection and harmony. The yellow of the little girl's dress is the only brightness in its pages, and that is just perfect! Both charming and winsome, this is sure to be a hit at story time. I love it!      

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Stained, by Cheryl Rainfield. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son, 2013.



This is a heads-up to be watching for Cheryl's new book, due to be released in November, 2013. Be sure to check it out!!!
 
Book Description:

In this heart-wrenching and suspenseful teen thriller, sixteen-year-old Sarah Meadows longs for "normal." Born with a port-wine stain covering half her face, all her life she’s been plagued by stares, giggles, bullying, and disgust. But when she’s abducted on the way home from school, Sarah is forced to uncover the courage she never knew she had, become a hero rather than a victim, and learn to look beyond her face to find the beauty and strength she has inside. It’s that—or succumb to a killer.

 Tag Line:

Sometimes you have to be your own hero.

 Release Date:

Nov 19, 2013

 Publisher: 

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

From the author:

As I did with SCARS and HUNTED, I drew on some of my own experiences of bullying, abuse, and trauma to write STAINED and to give it greater emotional depth. Like Sarah in STAINED, I experienced abduction, imprisonment, periods of forced starvation, mind control, and having my life threatened. And like Sarah, I tried hard to fight against my abuser, keep my own sense of self, and escape. I hope readers will see Sarah's strength and courage, and appreciate her emotional growth as she reclaims herself.

 Available For Pre-Order on:







 And here's the book trailer done by the author to pique your interest, and to give you something to savor until it is released in November:
 

Monday, January 28, 2013

It''s A Tiger, written by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Jeremy Tankard. Chrnicle Books, Raincoast. 2012. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"Ah, sunshine!
Doesn't that feel good?
Uh-oh.
Snakes.
Hundreds of them!
If we're very quiet (shhh!)
we can tiptoe past.
Blue snakes.
Green snakes."

If Indiana Jones were with us, he would not be tiptoeing past any kind of snakes...not blue or green ones. He would be running the other way.

By the time our young narrator comes upon the snakes, he has already had a jungle meeting with some monkeys....and a TIGER! He encourages readers to RUN! Picking a cave to hide in, he encounters the dark shadows of a host of bats, and another shadow that looks like a TIGER! Luckily there's a ladder leading out of the cave and that is where he discovers this  jumbled mass of snakes, of all colors. Look, there's even one that is fuzzy and striped. Can it be? Yes, it is....a TIGER!

The tiger doesn't seem so fierce, or intent on harm. Is he giving chase, or is the boy just imagining it? With the tiger in apparent pursuit, he swings out on a rope and across the canyon....wait! What's that orange-and-black pillow?


Still fearing the tiger, he is off to sea and finally safe. Nope, no such luck! When the tiger pops up and out of a treasure chest with a fearsome roar, the boy....wait, is that a yawn rather than a roar? How about a story to help him go to sleep?

It starts in a jungle with some monkeys. And is that a crocodile's tail hanging from a nearby tree? You bet it is! RUN!

They will be yelling 'circle story' before you utter the final word of text. Little ones love those stories that come back to where they started, and they are sure to feel the same about this lively tiger tale.

Jeremy Tankard's energetic and spirited spreads add the perfect touch of excitement that will have the audience falling right into the fun.  He uses ink and digital media to create the brilliant artwork, filled with bold colors and constant action. What a wonderful pairing this is...making for a picture book that is as close to perfect as you might get.

It's funny, with surprises. It demands that listeners take part in the reading because of that fun, and the opportunity to yell over and over again. It's a blast and you won't get away with just reading it one time. Can there be anything better for a reader to hear than....'read it again! PLEASE!'?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

On The Day I Died, written by Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade, Random House. 2012. $19.99 ages 11 and up

"The seat belt held, pulled me up short, my head dangling between the car's headlights. Somehow I managed to right myself, brace my feet against the front grille and grasp the white-hot hood ornament. Steam rose from my hands, and the burned-meat stench of charred flesh - my flesh - savaged my nose."

Rarely would you catch me reading ghost stories, or talking about them. But, I am a huge fan of Candace Fleming and knowing that she wrote this book was all I needed to convince me to give it a go. Again, WOW!

In a note from the author following the stories told, she says:

"You can blame my fondness for ghost stories on my mother. She was forever telling tales of strange events that took place in our town...And Mom would spin hair-raising tales about a corpse that wouldn't decay, or a phantom-filled trolley car, or a seaweed-covered ghost pilot whose plane went down in Lake Michigan during World War II."

Only years later did the author recognize that her mother's stories were 'inspired by truth - by nearby places, real-life people, actual events.' She sets out to tell her own in this book filled with tragic  stories from nine teenage ghosts, and set in Chicago...the spookiest place the author knows!

It begins with Mike, a young man heading home late and concerned about the flak he is going to get for not meeting curfew with his mother. As he drives, he comes upon a young girl in saddle shoes who is soaking wet and in need of a ride home. He drops her off, discovers that she has left her shoes behind and drives back to her house with them. It is then her mother tells him that she is a ghost and that Carol Anne has been dead for fifty-six years, and is buried in White Cemetery. He can take her shoes there. What the heck? He's late anyway.

Only upon arrival does he realize that she is buried in a 'cemetery for teenagers'. Each plot is the gravesite for children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. And, they are calling to him:

"He could see them. They were all around him. Flickering shadows as insubstantial as drawings on air - a girl wearing a long, old-fashioned skirt, a boy with a camera looped around his neck. And others. A ring of wan shapes hovering on the fringes of the shifting shadows."

Are you intrigued? Middle graders and high schoolers will be. This would be a great book of short stories to share as a classroom readaloud at any time. Each ghost lived at a different time in history, each has a unique and very distinct voice, in keeping with their life and times. They need an audience, they need to tell their stories that each end in their own death and Mike is it!

Surprising and macabre, while also drawing readers in without terrifying them, this is a book that will find fans of all ages. As I read the ghost stories, and then the notes included for each about Chicago, its people and history, I knew that my friend Helen would also be intrigued. It's definitely worth the read for a sly look at Chicago history, as well as the variety in the horror genre.

BOMB, written by Steve Sheinkin. Roaring Book Press, Macmillan. Raincoast Books, 2012. $22.99 ages 10 and up

"As the plane headed home, the crew felt a mix of emotions, including relief that the job was done and hope that the war would now end. But something else entered the mix, a thought Paul Tibbets would never forget. "We were sobered by the knowledge that the world would never be the same," he said."

I started this book because it was getting so much press...and I wanted to know what all the hoopla was. It had won a National Book Award in the United States and had made it onto many starred lists.  I had no sense that I would be vaguely interested in "The Race to Build - and Steal - The World's Most Dangerous Weapon." I was wrong; I was hooked from page 1, the prologue. There was no way I was stopping!

Wow! What a story, and what an incredible telling!

It is absolutely the best kind of nonfiction that we can offer our kids. Steve Sheinkin tells it from beginning to end like an action thriller, despite the fact that it has much to do with physics (and I thought I abhorred all things physics!). It is truly intriguing, like the best spy novels. That, says Mr. Sheinkin, was a goal:

"I love spy thrillers, and was definitely going for that feel. Kept a lot of John Le CarrĂ© novels on the night table during the writing process, just as inspiration. Thrillers are driven by scenes, with one bit of action racing downhill into the next. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which parts of the story would work as scenes, and finding out as much as I could about each one. The challenge was to organize them, until they fit together. I didn’t start writing until all this other stuff was done."

It may have proved a challenge to this fine writer; but, he makes it seem so seamless and cinematic. He creates scenes with unforgettable characters and fits them together in a taut and dramatic tale of espionage, science and a race to be first to assemble this weapon of mass destruction. I cannot fathom the research he must have done to know his characters so well, to establish the tension felt by both Ally and Axis nations, and to weave all parts into his story. His list of source materials is stellar, and lengthy. Of his reading he says:

"My work weaves together three basic story lines: the Americans try to build a bomb, the Soviets try to steal it, and the Allies try to sabotage the German bomb project. Each of the sources below focus on some part of one or more of these stories. The bible on the whole subject, by the way, is Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb."

He then separates the sources into Bomb Race Sources, Character Sources and Primary Sources. Following that, he lists quotation notes (and there are many that add greatly to the telling), his acknowledgements, photo credits and an  index.  

While setting the many scenes, he also talks about the weather, the surroundings, the way people looked, the courage to complete such a dangerous and secret project. His people are so real, no matter how complicated their personalities.  Each one has a singular voice that adds to the story being told. He takes us back and forth, from government offices, clandestine meetings, codes and code breaking, to secret missions and sabotage in Norway meant to thwart the German race to construct their own bomb. I was on the edge of my seat while Knut Haukelid and his men faced the dangers of their frigid surroundings as much as the German threat to their well-being should they be caught. It is riveting. There is  no doubt of that.

He sticks to the facts...only the facts. Even as he closes, he offers this observation:

"In the end, this is a difficult story to sum up. The making of the atomic bomb is one of history's most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it's also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It's a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you're in it."

Sobering? YES!  Bravo, Mr. Sheinkin!

Welcome, Baby, written and illustrated by Barbara Reid. Scholastic Canada, 2013. $9.99 ages 0 and up

"Welcome, baby, welcome!
All the world is new,
And all the world is waiting
To be introduced to you.

You will be our sunshine,
We'll be your biggest fans,

We'll tell you all our stories,
You're part of all our plans."

With soothing, rhythmic, heartfelt verse, a new baby is welcomed to the family, the home and the world. And, I have a new board book to go on my list called 'perfect presents for a baby's first library'. Barbara Reid's newest book is like icing on the most scrumpdiddillyumptious cake you have ever imagined. Her artwork, done in Plasticine, only seems to get better. I have been a huge fan since Day 1, and have a complete collection of all her books on my 'keeper shelf'. She works wonders with her fingers and thumbs.

If you want to see her at work, check out the following link:

"http://www.youtube.com/embed/JYWqT7bRa1I"

The text is full of the many wondrous doings in store for babies...imaginative, loving, always learning about the world around them. Because of its rhythmic text, it won't be long until much of it becomes familiar...like a nursery rhyme shared again and again.

And the art? Well, it is glorious! Looking carefully at each spread leaves me in awe. The textures, the colors, the overlapping details, the changing perspectives, the loving warmth of each singular scene give such a feeling of joy and acceptance. What a year, what a celebration! I'm off to order a bunch to add to my baby gift shelf!

And if you haven't heard enough to inspire you to do the same, check out Barbara's interactive website at :  www.barbarareid.ca

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Chu's Day, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Adam Rex. Harper, 2013. $19.99 ages 3 and up


"At lunchtime, Chu went
with his father to the diner.

There was a lot of pepper
in the air...

"Are you going to sneeze?"
asked his father."

There is grave concern over the effects of Chu's sneezes. Apparently, he can cause a good deal of chaos. Authors are inspired to write stories for many reasons. This one began for Neil Gaiman with a visit to China and the chance to cuddle a tiny panda cub while there. I'm not sure about the sneeze; but, in imagining a panda with a powerful AH-CHOO! he has created a charming and sure-to-be-loved tale for tots.

He is very proud of Chu, and should be.Chu is a winning character! Adam Rex brings him to glorious life and purposefully sets out to entertain young readers with his handsomely goggled bear who wears a winsome smile and an aura of vulnerability.

He awakens early with a yawn to the sound of birdsong; looking a trifle apprehensive at the author's description of him:

"When Chu sneezed, bad things happened."

Oh boy, that is some foreshadowing for young readers. Chu and his mother make an morning trip to the library, where reading is rife and the room is abuzz with activity. Book dust in the air causes concern. Mother wonders if he is going to sneeze. It seems so; nope, disaster averted!

He and his father have no difficulty at the diner, despite the abundance of pepper. Once again, the goggles and aviator helmet seem to have a calming effect. A trip to the circus warrants careful concern, but his parents are so busy watching all the action that Chu's warning goes unheeded. Big
T-R-O-U-B-L-E! The repercussions are widespread.

Oh yes! That was some sneeze!

So much to see when you share this with little ones...and such delightful enjoyment for all. Be ready for much sneezing as you make your way through the day that follows.

Starry River of the Sky, written by Grace Lin. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2012. $19.99 ages 9 and up

"While he waited for everyone else to finish dinner, he tried to look unconcerned and relaxed, even though he felt unexpectedly eager. He was pleased with himself... Tomorrow he would leave. But today he would do as he said he would and tell a story. It was better, anyway, Rendi thought. He wouldn't want to walk at night with the wind crying and moaning above him."

An angry runaway, a moaning night sky, the disappearance of the moon, a desolate flat plain, magic toads, a peculiar old man, an elegant and well-versed woman of mystery...all conspire to captivate and enthrall readers. It's mystery, mixed with some mayhem and a chance for a young angry boy to come to grips with his past and look to the future with a clearer vision. This is a perfect book for reading aloud in any intermediate classroom!

When Rendi arrives in the Village of Clear Sky, he is hiding out in a wine merchant's cart, hoping to remain concealed until they come to a big city where he can find a new life. It is not to be. Once discovered, he is dumped out and then hired to be a chore boy by Master Chao, an inn owner in the small and very isolated village. His days are filled with drudgery and with being constantly bothered by the innkeeper's daughter, Peiyi. As the days pass, he becomes mystified by some of the events that seem not to bother anyone else. What is the constant wailing at night? Is he the only one who hears it? Where has Peiyi's brother gone? Why can't Mr. Shan tell the difference between toads and rabbits? There are endless questions, and no obvious answers.

His life begins to change with the arrival of the mysterious Madame Chang, a gifted storyteller, whose tales begin to make sense of Rendi's life. She encourages him to tell his own stories. In doing so, he reveals much about the life that led him to where he is now. He also recognizes that there is a connection with the stories that Madame Chang is sharing with her audience. As he becomes more and more attached to the villagers, his concern for them grows and much of his anger dissipates.

Thinking that he has a solution to the puzzle of the disappearing mountain and the moonless sky, he sets out to find answers to his many questions. I love that this heroic fantasy has adapted Chinese folktales within it, and that they offer clues to its central mysteries. If you want to share fine writing, wonderfully drawn characters and adventure, this is the book for you!

While Grace Lin calls this a companion story to her earlier, much lauded  Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little, Brown and Company, 2009), I liked that she made some real connections between the two and I think that attentive readers will also be intrigued. If you have read it with your family, or have students who have read this first book, it will take no convincing to get them reading another book by a truly accomplished storyteller and artist.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Liar & Spy, written by Rebecca Stead. Wndy Lamb Books, Random House. 2012. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"And then I think about all those thousands of dots Seurat used to paint the picture. I think about how if you stand back from the painting you can see the people, the green grass and that cute monkey on a leash, but if you get closer, the monkey kind of dissolves right in front of your eyes. Like Mom says, life is a million dots making one gigantic picture."

I read this much discussed book front to back, without a break. I was totally captivated by the characters, unaware of the mysteries and in awe of Rebecca Stead's extraordinary storytelling. She had me from the start:

"While the rest of the class is hanging on every syllable that comes out of Mr. Landau's mouth, I'm looking at the false tongue poster and I'm kind of wishing it wasn't wrong. There's something nice about those thick black arrows: sour here, salty there, like there's a right place for everything. Instead of the total confusion the human tongue actually turns out to be."

It has such heart, while also being funny, sad and sometimes downright scary. Georges (named for Georges Seurat) is moving, from the house that he loves to a new apartment. The move does not mean a new school, or neighborhood. It is a result of his father's job loss and the need to downsize. While his father starts his own business (a lifelong dream), his mother is working double shifts in the intensive-care ward to earn extra money as they struggle with their new reality.

In a bid to make his father happy, Georges finds himself attending a 'spy club' meeting in their new building, where he meets Candy and her older brother Safer. They are unusual, to say the least. Georges soon finds himself embroiled in some spying within the building. He and Safer keep watch for Mr. X through the lobby camera that is available to all tenants. Safer tells him that the man dresses only in black and can always be seen lugging big suitcases to and from his apartment. Safer worries that he is up to no good, and he convinces Georges to help him spy; ultimately, he suggests that they should go into the apartment and see if they can find any evidence. Georges becomes quite fearful and refuses to help Safer...he doesn't want to break any laws.

I really like the characters who helped to make Georges' story resound with me. Safer, Candy and their family are most interesting, and I love the way the author develops Bob English as friend and confidante. He is intelligent, accepting and supportive of Georges. Bob is very interested in spelling reform and uses the notes he passes to Georges to champion it. Candy has a special sparkle and some of the best lines in the book...she is a true free spirit, and a welcome voice.

Games play a defining role in this book...from Scrabble and the tiles Georges and his mother use to leave each other notes morning and night, to the spying games that Safer and Georges play in trying to determine what exactly Mr. Xi is doing, to the blue team and the games they play in gym class, and even the game that Georges plays with his gym teacher concerning their mutual love for Fridays and the joy of the coming weekends.

There are big issues here; they never overwhelm the story by being about them. The interactions between all characters are wonderful and kept me thoroughly entertained and involved in the action. The twists are unexpected and eye-opening and make for a very satisfying read. Bravo once again, Ms. Stead!

Peanut, written by Ayun Halliday aand illustrated by Paul Hoppe. schwartz & wade, Random House. 2013. $17.99 ages 12 and up

"I mean, I've only got one pen...and they're kind of expensive."
"If theft is a concern, I can assure you that such a device is safer in Miss Anderson's locked cabinet than in some untended backpack."
"Yeah, but I'm pretty careful..."
"Oh yes, we're all pretty careful...
And the two minutes in which our backpack is unsupervised, someone reaches in and steals the brand-new digital camera we so unwisely brought to school with us.
True story, by the way."

I think I'm turning a corner. I have begun to relish reading some of the expert graphic novels that are being published for our kids...well, and for adults who love to read them, too. So, I am reading the journals, and some of my favorite blogs, to find those that are compelling, entertaining and informative. The newest one concerns Sadie and a decision she makes in her anticipation of moving to yet another new school.

Being the new kid in high school is a topic that has been explored over and over again. Given a choice, would any of us want to be the one who walks in that first day? The experience can be harrowing, and demoralizing, and make you want to run and hide. Sadie has made a few moves with her mom, and she is not looking forward to her arrival at Plainfield Community High School. So, she decides that she will make herself more interesting.

She invents a peanut allergy, and you can probably suspect that things will not go smoothly when they begin with a lie. Some of her classmates are sympathetic; many are not. When Zoo Suzuki shows an interest in her, she is saved from total social disaster. As their relationship grows, so do Sadie's misgivings. She knows she should tell him and try to explain why she made the choice she did. She just can't seem to work up the courage. From the outside, it seems easy....just tell the truth.  From her place in time, it is much more difficult.

Sadie wears a medic alert bracelet to school each day, and takes it off before she gets home. She talks about close calls, and even has a few. She needs medical forms, must report to the school nurse and gives the impression that she carries an Epi-pen with her at all times. An over-anxious teacher is the final straw in tumbling her precarious house of cards. He panics when he tastes a nut in food the two are sharing, and the truth becomes her only option.
     
In Paul Hoppe's black-and-white graphic panels, Sadie is the only one who sports color. Her shirts are coral. We know where she is at all times. I appreciate seeing her thoughts as she imagines what her friends will say when they learn her secret. Her emotions are clear. The characters who people her story are appealing and real. Her mother loves her, wants to hear what she has to say and their relationship is tender. Zoo is a great boyfriend...loyal, thoughtful and unique. The encounters between students are often funny, yet poignant.

Great characters, an uncomfortable situation, trying to find a place in the world while your world is in a state of confusion and flux make for a book that will find fans in middle and high school classrooms.   

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Stella! A Treasury. Written and illustrated by Marie-Lousie Gay. Groundwood, 2012. $24.95 ages 3 and up

"Listen!" cried Sam. "Was that a wolf?' "Wolves don't croak, Sam. That was a tree frog." "Is a tree frog as big as a wolf?" asked Sam. "It's so tiny you can put it in your pocket." "There's no room in my pocket," said Sam. "It's full of cookies." "Tree frogs love cookies," said Stella."

The definition of treasury is: A collection of literary or artistic treasures. The definition of treasure is:  One considered especially precious or valuable.

That being said, STELLA! is a treasury of treasures. Oh, yes! I definitely think it is!

It's been a while since I shared these incredible stories. There was a time when I read one or all, every single day, and we were mesmerized by the relationship between Stella and her younger brother Sam. Stella, the older and certain-that-she-was-wiser sibling who was determined to school Sam in the ways of the world. Sam, the naive-yet-articulate-and-perceptive younger sibling who asked exasperating questions that his older sister could not always fathom, or answer. Oh, I love them both. Now, some of their stories have been anthologized, along with Stella's own story of being very, very small, into one amazing storybook!

We begin at the beginning with When Stella Was Very, Very Small (Groundwood, 2009) and learn much that we had not previously known about the girl wonder:

"Every night before going to bed, Stella listened
to the trees talking.
They told stories about holding up the sky with their
branches and tickling the bellies of the smallest clouds."

It is Stella's imagination that I love so much, and Marie-Louise Gay's carefully chosen language that brings her to such glorious life. Having not read these books often in the past few years, I found myself laughing out loud and delighting in reading them all over again. Stella never ceases to amaze me with her endless energy, her exuberant lease on life in all its various forms and her innate ability to find the best in every experience.

As I read through this treasure, I found myself remembering some of my favorite conversations of all time. Sam is a perfect foil for Stella's know-it-all personality and despite his obvious adoration for his big sister, he is not just going to sit back and follow her lead without checking out a few things first or expressing his disquiet. 

On his first visit to the sea, Sam is apprehensive. Stella, who has been there once before and thinks she knows its many wonders, does her best to convince him to let go of his concerns and ENJOY it!

"Is the water cold?" asked Sam. "Is it deep?
Are there any sea monsters?"
"The water is lovely," said Stella.
"And not a sea monster in sight.
Come on in, Sam!"
"Not right now, " said Sam."

He has many other questions to be answered before he is ready to take the plunge.

It's the same with the sky, the forest and his first snowstorm. He is never prepared just to take Stella's word for it. She has to do some formidable convincing. Each time she does what she needs to do, Sam is cajoled, and together they enjoy their shared experiences.

Satisfying, endearing and charming...every page, every piece of artwork and each encounter between siblings.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Oliver, written and illustrated by Birgitta Sif. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2012. $20.00 ages 4 and up

"So Oliver set off on an adventure, through the wild jungle, over the river, up and up the mountain, until he found a narrow gate to somewhere new. It was the beginning of the best adventure he'd ever had."

This is a story for every child, or adult, who doesn't fit the mold created by the rest of their world. It is a delightful, charming book that deserves the full attention of every one of us.

Oliver is not like most children. He enjoys his own company, and the company of his many toy and puppet friends. They share adventures and companionship in a series of imaginary journeys. From a bus ride with his dragon to reading stories in the big chair, from ladders in the library to desert treks on cardboard camels, Oliver seems content. When he must venture into the world on his own, he is less happy and looking for outs. His imagination is what saves him. As Oliver moves beyond being always with his imaginary friends and toys, we note that he is still alone. He swims while 'most' children his age play together on the other side of the pool. He makes a place for himself under the food table while others at the family gathering chatter and enjoy time together. Mostly, he is OK with that. Not everyone is meant to be the life of the party.

When his world changes and Oliver acknowledges that he is different, he follows a lost ball that leads him to a new world of friendship and understanding. "Olivia was a bit different, too."

Birgitta Sif  uses pencil and digital coloring to create a world for Oliver and his friends that is muted and without much color. As he begins to understand that the life he lives in his imagination makes him unlike others, he moves out of his box to the brighter color of the outside world. It is a new beginning for both Oliver and Olivia...and a most welcome one for all who read their story. Finding a kindred spirit is not always easy.

Being an introvert is not readily understood by others; but, an introvert's need for introspection and solitude should be honored as we honor the extrovert's exuberance. When you finally meet Olivia, do you recognize her? I'll bet you do.

Just as an aside, I want to send you looking for a wonderful read for adults...and for introverts. It is called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. I gave it to my son Bret because I knew he would recognize himself in its pages, and now he has returned it to me so that I might discover its incredible stories for myself.

Find a Cow NOW! by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel. Holiday House, Thomas Allen & Son, 2012. $19.95 ages 3 and up

""You're driving me crazy, silly cattle dog. You're supposed to herd cows. Not chairs, not rugs. You need a cow."
"What's a cow?" asked Dog.
"I don't know," replied Bird. "But a cow is not in the city. A cow must be out there in the country. Go! Find a cow NOW!"

The endearing Australian cattle dog who is the main character in this new tale has had it with napping. He is restless: needing to chase, and move, and herd. Bird can't stand it!

Bird knows exactly what Dog needs...and he's not going to find it in the house, or even in the city. So, Bird sends him off to do what he is meant to do...find a cow to herd. Dog takes Bird's advice. As he makes his way out of the city, nobody seems to notice. Soon, he is in the country, right where Bird advised. It takes no time at all for readers to realize that Dog has no idea what a Cow is. His adventures in herding provide lots of laughs for those sharing his story.

His first victim is a chicken, who indignantly lets him know how silly he is. She sends him off to find a COW! A pig won't do either. After a bit of a muddy meeting, he sets his sights on a donkey who gives him the boots...literally! When a lumbering brown and white sympathetic animal offers aid, Dog is only too happy to take advantage of its hospitality. Climbing aboard the broad back, both are soon in the city where no one seems to notice them. Suddenly, it becomes appallingly apparent that this vision is not seen often and mayhem erupts forcing the two out of the city environs, and  back to the quiet of the country. Once there and safe, Dog makes a lovely discovery.

Back at home, Bird is full of questions about Dog's adventure. Dog, however, needs a nap!

Children will be in on the joke and delight in the images that the Stevens sisters create using acrylic paints, pencil and collage. They fill their pages with expressive characters, considerable movement, sepia washed city scenes and the sunny serenity of the country.

Let's Sing a Lullaby with the Brave Cowboy, written and illustrated by Jan Thomas. Beach Lane, Simon & Schuster, 2012. 14.99 ages 2 and up

"It's time
for little cows
to rest their heads.

It's time
for little cows
to go to bed.

It's time
for little cows
to sleep so tight."

I love Jan Thomas as much as I love Mo Willems...and I don't even know them! I love what they do for young children in their bid to be literate. They write stories that matter...and that little ones love to hear and learn to read themselves, and that make them realize that reading is important and lively and life-altering. It isn't just because the books are silly; it's because they entertain, and they make young children believe in themselves as readers. Thank you Jan and Mo for doing that each and every time you sit down to write your next book!

Silliness is definitely the name of the game, where a not-so-reassuring cowboy is determined to lull his charges to sleep for a night in the desert. The song begins with rhyming refrains, making it easy for little ones to 'read' it themselves pretty quickly. Of course, humor abounds as the timid cowboy does his best to make his cattle (two of them) feel safe and sleepy. Yet, with each new shadow and a resounding 'Eeeeeek!', they are nowhere near prepared to close their eyes. Each time he is discombobulated by an unknown silhouette, his charges reassure him and he settles in to lullaby them once more.




When real danger appears, the cowboy is no longer worried, thinking that it must be a fluffy rabbit. He could not be more wrong! The cows seem apprehensive about this new threat...but not to worry, wolves also love lullabies. What good luck for everyone!

Jan Thomas gives us characters whose fear and delight shine in wonderfully expressive faces, outlined in thick black lines and backgrounded by the deep blues and purples of a desert sky. Don't wait until bedtime to share this book with your little ones, and make sure you put it on your 'keeper' shelf!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Because Amelia Smiled, written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein. Candlewick, Random House. 2012. $20.00 ages 3 and up

"She thought of her grandson,
Lionel, in Mexico and baked
some cookies to send him.
Because Mrs. Higgins baked
cookies...
Lionel ate one of the cookies.
He decided to share the rest
with his class...
and teach them an English
song about cookies."

If we are joyful, can we make a difference in the world? You bet, we can!

Even a little girl as young as Amelia can do it...and she does, in spades. In David Ezra Stein's newest picture book we are delighted observers of all that happens when one person's joy goes out into the world. It is a perfect mentor text for cause and effect...when one thing happens, it can, and often does, affect what happens next.

I think that it belongs on EVERY book shelf...and it should be read more than once a week!  The words are few but the joy of paying it forward is fully evident on every image-laden page. The artist dedicates the book 'To you: Pass it on!' We would all be wise to do just that!

Amelia and her family are beaming as they dance through street puddles and Mrs. Higgins, watching from her window, takes note. That makes her want to do something for her grandson Lionel...and so on! With each new smile and good feeling, something wonderful happens, until the tale comes full circle.

I love that the author uses perfect language to move us from one good deed to the next, with not one unnecessary word. We need know nothing more that what he shares with us...all because an exuberant and lively little girl smiled. The details are just right for the youngest readers and will appeal to the grandmothers sharing the story with their grandchildren. It is universal.

What about the artwork, you ask? AMAZING! Each spread is filled with color, exuberance and great joy. He uses pencil, crayon and watercolor to create detailed pictures sure to inspire conversation, memories, and much speculation. As we visit with the recipients of the good deeds, we travel from New York to Mexico, England, Israel, Paris, Italy and right back home to New York. Every turn of the page holds a new vista, and many wonderful little surprises. I could not move on until I had perused every corner, not wanting to miss a thing.

It makes me smile - every single time that I read it...and that's the truth! What a great way to start the day...Amelia, you are a dear, sweet girl and I am happy to have met you!

I think it is very fitting today to include a quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which is found on the back flyleaf:

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

And from David Ezra Stein:

"The story of Amelia is bigger than anything that can fit in a book. It's the story of how we are connected. To people we love. To people we don't even know. Whether you know it or not, you are part of the story, too."

Now, we can all get out there and pay it forward...



Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Forgiveness Garden, written by Lauren Thompson with pictures by Christy Hale. Feiwel and Friends, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2012. $18.99 ages 5 and up

"One day, Sama walked along the stream, yearning for something to ease her aching, angry heart. She reached a calm pond and bent to drink. What she saw reflected there stopped her. She saw the ugly scar, but most of all, she saw her own dark, brooding scowl.
"Who have I become?" she cried."

"Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a different past..."
That, I think, is a thought to live by. This story takes as its focus a real garden planted following the civil war in Lebanon:

"The Garden of Forgiveness is in Beirut, Lebanon, and is the vision of Alexandra Asseily, humanitarian, activist, and psychotherapist, who has decided that 'every act of revenge is a time bomb thrown into the future'. It was created in the aftermath of a civil war that claimed 300, 000 lives (1985-2000).

In her story, Lauren Thompson envisions two villages, each harboring resentment of the other and their conflict is ever present. When Karune, a village boy from Gamte, hurls a rock that hits Sama, a village girl from Vayam, more violence is the result. Everyone is angry and bent on revenge. Karune has an inkling of concern over his action. However, the long and always evident hatred of the Vayams is uppermost in his mind. Sama wants more than the sad and aching heart that beats within her body.

On the day she sees her reflection in the pond, it gives her pause to think about her destiny. While looking across the pool at some Gamte children, she comes to the realization that they are the same as she is. At that very moment avengers from her village capture Karune and urge her to seek vengeance against him.

When she looks up into their angry, bitter faces, she realizes that retribution is no solution:

"Let us build a garden instead, " she said.
Now, all of the people grumbled. Someone shouted, "What kind of garden?"
Sama knew. "A forgiveness garden."

Out of the mouths of the children....

Is wondering how others feel in the same situation a step toward kindness to all? Is forgiveness one path to peace? There are no real answers., but it certainly sparks conversation, doesn't it? Building a community garden together must surely make a difference.

In this book we asked to remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu's statement: “There is no future without forgiveness.”

 Christy Hale’s beautiful collage images create a place in time for this thoughtful story and encourage readers to think about their actions and the ripple effect of what they do. The colors change as the tone of the tale changes, beginning with greys, browns and blacks and ending in cool blues, greens and violet. The bravery of two young people point the way toward healing in the beauty of this  serene space.

.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Max and Milo Go to Sleep, by Heather & Ethan Long. Aladdin, Simon & Schuster, 2013. $17.99 ages 3 and up

"You do this EVERY NIGHT!
You never really try to go to sleep.
You can never find your books.
YAWN!
You're always thirsty.
Do you need to build a silly
contraption for EVERYTHING?!?
And Milo, take those goofy
pajamas off your head!!!"

No two brothers are more different than Max and Milo when it comes to bedtime. Max is tucked neatly into bed, reading material bookmarked and resting atop his bedside table, lights out and eyes closed. Milo, on the other hand, is constructing and flying paper airplanes, bedspread littered with colored papers, books stuffed on the floor under that bed, night table drawer open and lava lamp bubbling, wide awake and talking.

For Milo, who appears to be trying to go to sleep, sheep counting just doesn't cut it. Soon, he's calling to his brother concerning his dilemma. Max tries a helpful suggestion. Milo likes the advice. But, reading a book is an ordeal as well. Each of the books is  hurled aside with quick rejections...'read that one...too long...too scary'. You see what I mean? His favorite turns up, and he is content. But, the lamp is broken. Each new problem is met with helpful concern from Max. And each solution leads to another dilemma. What's a brother beaver to do?

When he can't stand the noise, the mess, the constant carping, Max has had it! Suggesting that Milo be still for a change, he lets loose a rant about every other night that is exactly the same. By the end of it, Milo is fast asleep and Max is in dire straits. 

The cartoon telling of this too-familiar tale will entertain young listeners as they stretch to see each and every detail and read all short speech bubbles. The colors are bright, the outlines black and the backgrounds conducive to slumber.  Ah, to have a sibling to laugh with, and to lean on for helpful advice. Who doesn't want that?

This is Heather Long's first book and just one of many for her talented husband Ethan. Their sons Milo and Max may have been the impetus for their storytelling. Has anything like this happened in your house? I trust that we will hear more about these two...do the adventures with siblings ever end?

No Crystal Stair, written by Yaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Carolrhoda lab, 2012. $22.50 ages 12 and up




 

"Sometimes  a man gets pushed,
pushed too hard. Too far.

Until the neglected and the rejected
are accepted and respected, there's
gonna be no damn peace...nowhere!

Only a tree will stand still while
it's being chopped down."

I think that I would have loved to visit Lewis Michaux's book store in Harlem and to learn from the man who gained admiration from so many. He did not seem destined to be a bookseller; but, when someone said no, Lewis found a way to battle the odds:

"Michaux's dumber than he looks if the thinks one little bookstore is going to change the Negro condition. The man has no experience in the book business. I suspect he hasn't had much education. A store like that that won't last six months in Harlem. Michaux would lose his shirt and our five hundred dollars. I must admit, he had a good line - even had me laughing a couple of times, but I still sent him packing for his own good - and the bank's.
Now if he wanted to open a place to sell fried chicken or chitterlings, we could do business. Negroes eat up that kind of stuff."

From all accounts, Lewis Michaux was a learned man who had charm and charisma, while also being smart and aware of social and political issues. To tell his story, his great-niece Vaunda Michaux Nelson did her research over a period of fifteen years in order to do justice to his legacy and the bookstore that provided a place for African Americans to learn about themselves and those who came before them. It started as a family history, no thought of a book-to-be. Then, she decided that she would write a biography, but that changed into what Vaunda Nelson's husband called 'documentary fiction'. And, that is just what you will have in your hands when you buy or borrow it.

 It is an amazing collection of voices that invite a close look at the man who began life in Virginia and whose path led him to Harlem, where he opened his bookstore in hopes of spreading his love of reading to other African Americans. Each of the voices is strong and unique, none stronger than Lewis himself:

"I listen to everybody
but I dont' hear
everybody. It's all right
to listen, but you don't hear
everybody because if you do,
you cease to be yourself
and become the
fellow you hear.
It's an intelligent thing to
do, to entertain the man
who's trying to tell you
something, but never
lose your individuality."

He is a brilliant character...and one I have come to love. R. Gregory Christie's thoughtful and telling images, the archival primary source photos, posters, and announcements, and the winning design hold our attention and push us to always want to know more. The back matter is filled with the impeccable research done to create this award winning book.

His son Edward Jr., who bas born when his father was sixty is most eloquent in speaking to his legacy:

"You used to talk to me about the smell of books. I remember I didn't get it at first. But you taught me...helped me to smell the trees in the paper, the words in the ink, the history in the words...helped me to smell the knowing. Now, the smell of knowing overwhelms me. And there's something else beneath it. Another smell. Your aftershave. Old Spice.

Rescuing the Children, written by Deborah Hodge. Tundra, Random House. 2012. $19.99 ages 10 and up

"Saying goodbye was a heartbreaking experience for the families. Parents hugged and kissed their children. They asked them to write letters and stay in touch. Everyone, including the children, tried to be brave, for no one knew what the future would hold. Many of the trains left the station at night and parents were not allowed onto the platform."

I think that Deborah Hodge's choice to write her story of the Kindertransport without a lot of emotion, yet wanting to inform her readers of the upheaval for so many at the onset of World War II, is just right for her intended audience. It was a horrific decision for parents to make...to let their children go into the unknown on the chance that their lives might be saved from the terror that was encompassing Europe. None of us can imagine it unless we have lived through something so horrific.

I cannot fathom making that choice. Yet, parents and those who wanted to protect the children did what they felt necessary to save their lives and protect them from the horrors of war. There were 10,000 children from Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany transported to Great Britain by rail and ship. Their journeys were often arduous, and they were homesick. Some realized that they might never see their families again, others felt they were being sent on a holiday. They were three months to sixteen years of age.

The voices of eight survivors are heard throughout the telling, in numerous comment boxes. We meet them first as children, and later as they are today, seventy years after leaving all that was familiar to find a new life:

"As well as forming loving families, the Kinder worked and studied hard and made important contributions to society. They became teachers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, professors, journalists, scientists, musicians, authors, filmmakers, politicians, artists and athletes. Many were also successful businesspeople, and a few of the Kinder have even won the Nobel Prize."

The visual look of her book is appealing and informative. There are many archival and personal photos, along with squares from memory quilts and the powerful artwork of Hans Jackson, whose images showed life as it was lived through the eyes and art of a Jewish teenager living in Berlin in the 1930s. Deborah Hodge also includes a map, timeline, resource lists, a glossary, and a  note about reunions that have been held for the Kinder since they were transported.

A small quibble for me would be that the glossary mostly reiterates what has already been included in parentheses throughout the text. I found those explanations somewhat distracting, and would have preferred to read them once in the 'words to know' that is included in backmatter.

Bravo to those heroic and compassionate people willing to risk their lives to save the children, and to those who opened their hearts and homes to those displaced by war. For the parents and families who made the unbearable decision to let their children leave, I cannot imagine the heartbreak.

In a note to parents and teachers, Deborah Hodge makes it clear that too many children died. This story is a hopeful and bright spot for a significant number of others. And she cautions:

"There is no easy way to tell a young person about the Holocaust. It is a topic that requires the discretion of parents and teachers who will know the best time and approach for discussing this sensitive subject."

I think she has told her story with sensitivity and honor to the Kinder.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Open This Little Book, written by Jesse Klausmeier and illustrated by Suzy Lee. Chronicle, Raincoast. 2012. $18.99 ages 2 and up




"and read a story about...
a ladybug, who reads a story about 
a FROG, who reads a story about
a rabbit, who reads a story about
a BEAR, who reads a story about
a giant, whose friends read her
          a story about...."  

This is a first picture book for Jesse Klausmeier and I hope it won't be the last! I absolutely think that Chronicle Books should be commended for doing the design and publication work that brings it to an appreciative audience. It must be a labor intensive process. I know the children who will love it, and want to read it repeatedly. It is just the kind of book that will find its way into eager little hands!

Here's how it looks when it is fully opened:



So much fun! Because of the repetitive and predictable language and design, little ones will be begging to read it on their own, to their teddy, to their grandmother, to anyone who wants to listen. It is about color, friendship and sharing,  and opening with delight a brand new book.

Each new book is nestled inside the previous one, and they get smaller and smaller as the reading progresses. In the red book, we read about a ladybug who is opening a little green book to read about a frog. You get where I am going with this one, right?  Observant little ones will note that as the books get smaller, the readers get bigger, the colors keep changing and the fun never ends.

We are only halfway through the book when we get to the smallest rainbow book that must be read by the giant's friends because her hands are just too big to turn the pages! Back we go, closing the book as the reading is completed...until we are ready to choose another!

I am a huge fan of Suzy Lee's work...and this final image  has me wanting even more!




Monday, January 14, 2013

Mousterpiece, written and illustrated by Jane Breskin Zalben. Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2012. $18.99 ages 3 and up

"Each night after the museum
closed she loved to explore in
the dark, until, one night, she
came to a place she had never
seen before...
and her little world opened.
She began to draw pictures
like the ones she saw on the
walls."

OOOH! I love books that are meant for little ones to enjoy; and yet, they teach those adults who share them something they may not have known. Janson, who is named for noted art historian H.W. Janson, lives conentedly in a secluded space in the museum. She uses the evenings, when everyone else has gone home, to explore and make many happy discoveries. That is exactly what happens when she finds herself in the 'modern' art wing of the building.

There, she discovers a whole new world. As she studies the artists' works, she uses them as models for experimenting with her own talent:

"Janson painted in dots,
squares, circles, triangles,
squiggles and wiggles
and stripes."

And she has truly incredible experiences. As with many talented and dedicated artists, she soon has enough paintings for a show, following her personal path to being an artist in her own right.

This is a lovely book that provides a bit of art history for those who share it. The illustrations are meant to extend the meaning of the simple story of a mouse with aspirations...and talent. Her world expands with each new discovery. I am no art expect, or even mildly aware of many modern artists; but, I surprised myself in recognizing a number of the works. I like the way Janson becomes part of many of her own attempts at mimicking the style of one artist after another. I appreciate that after trying to emulate other styles, she is able to find her own. It is something that inspires pride...an original 'Mouseterpiece'!

Thankfully, the author must have known there would be people like me sharing this delightful little book. Knowing that, she has added a section as backmatter entitled, Janson's Favorite Artists. By doing so, she assures that we know more when we are finished than we might have at the beginning. Each piece of art is accompanied by a short blurb about the artist, the painting, and their signature style. A blessing for someone like me...thanks to Jane Breskin Zalben for the lovely lesson!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Last Laughs, written by J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen, with illustrations by Jeffrey Stewart Timmins. Charlesbridge, 2012. $19.95 ages 9 and up

"For a Bear, Barely There

He crawled inside
to hibernate
and reach his goal
of losing weight.
He missed the spring,
the summer, fall...
having eaten
not at all."

Poor bear...he slept until the second winter and couldn't then go outside or risk having everyone know he was not asleep when bears should be.  His fate was to sleep through another winter....well, not all the way through!  Poor bear!

You will know exactly the kids who are going to love these tombstone epithets of thirty animals, written tongue in cheek by a celebrated pair of poets. There is great variety in the mood that matches their exit from this life.

They range from funny (and punny):

"Ciao, Cow
This grave is peaceful,
the tombstone shaded,
but I'm not here -
I've been cream-ated."

to gentle:

"For a Frog: Not A Hoppy Ending
In his pond,
he peacefully soaked,
then, ever go quietly,
croaked."

to somewhat grisly:

"Chicken Crosses Over
She never found the answer
to the age-old question,
Why did the chicken cross the ro --?"

to grim:

"Double-Crossed Newt
Little newt,
so small,
so fine,
so squashed
beneath the crossing
sign."

The illustration shows a roadside sign with a picture of a newt and a warning that this part of the highway is used by newts to cross the road. Too bad the driver of the farm truck didn't notice. Framed in black, with the upper body flattened by a truck tire, poor newt!

The creatures are as varied as the tone, and some will have you laughing out loud. Others may have you averting your eyes, or feeling great sympathy for the demise of a beloved critter. But, you do know those readers who will love them, and want to share them again and again.

The art is rendered using Adobe Photoshop, ink and gouache and relies on a dark, almost monochromatic palette. There are touches of other deep color when appropriate to the image being described. Darkly humorous to match the tone of the poetry, they are sure to attract an audience. Let them share the poems with each other, create a performance for the class, or just savor and enjoy!
Check each illustration carefully...there is more humor to discover...

Friday, January 11, 2013

Bigger Than A Breadbox, written by Laurel Snyder. Yearling Fantasy, Random House. 20121. $7.99 ages 10 and up

"I locked myself in the bathroom. I got dressed very, very carefully. I pulled on my skinny jeans and slipped into new red ballet shoes. I picked out my favorite black shirt. Then I did my hair in the swoopy new way. When everything looked perfect, I went to my bedroom and put the jacket on. It all felt just right. I picked up my backpack, ran down the hallway..."

This is a book that starts with a bang...and just keeps going. To Rebecca, things at home seem fine until:

"That was how we left him, through an open car door. My mom stepped on the gas. The car began to move. My dad jumped back to the sidewalk, off balance. When I turned around, I could see him standing in the street. He was calling after us. My dad was yelling in the street for everyone to hear; then he was running behind the car. He was calling, "Come back! Come back!"

Heartbreaking? Yes! For Rebecca, for her little brother Lew and for her parents. Her mom had packed the car, loaded the kids in and was on her way to Atlanta, and Gran. If you have children in your class, or your home, who have come face to face with divorce and survived, this is very real. Gran is happy to have them, and the family begins to settle to some kind of new normal.

While searching the attic, Rebecca finds a magic breadbox that grants her every wish. In doing so, it helps her adjust to being the new kid in a middle school where the year has already begun and allegiances are established. Gran is an ally and a thoughtful listener for Rebecca who is struggling with this new reality. The breadbox grants every wish...money, birthday presents, gift cards, iPod, even an expensive one-of-a-kind leather jacket. What it can't do is bring her parents back together.

It takes some time; but, Rebecca is soon to discover the price to be paid for all the magic. Her wishes come true by stealing from others. She soon finds herself in a bunch of trouble. Will she fashion a way to atone for her mistakes? When she realizes that the breadbox's magic is not the antidote for her pain and anger, her life begins to change.

Winning characters, a loving family despite their differences, an extremely strong and vivid first person narrative make Laurel Snyder's story memorable, and a thoughtful and poignant classroom read. It made my heart ache for each of those involved...and doesn't that make for the best shared stories?           

Marly's Ghost, written by David Levithan and illustrated by Brian Selznick. Speak, Penguin. 2006. $8.99 ages 14 and up

"Her absence was all that mattered to me now. just as her presence had been all that mattered to me then. The people around me measured their days in hours or class periods or meals. I used to measure the days in glimpses of her face, touches from her hand, words sent back and forth through the air, all the things I'd tell her. I had never before experienced a love so elemental. And I never would again."

I found it very interesting to read David Levithan's story about Ben and his reaction to the loss of his girlfriend Marly. He fashions it as a retelling of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, with some differences.

First, it happens on Valentine's Day. Ben has not been able to come to grips with Marly's death. As he mourns her absence he feels alone in missing her. And, he is bitter. He wants everyone to feel the way he is feeling, and sets about making Valentine's Day as miserable for them as it is for him:

"I'm sick and tired of all this useless energy spent on love. All the drama. All the expectation. All these couples pretending to fit together because that's what they think they're supposed to do. I am sick of celebrating that. I am sick of glorifying the vulnerability and codependency of dimwitted lonely people who spend thirty dollars on a dozen roses and think that means something more than a waste of money."

 His friends wish he would lighten up and  join them as he used to do. Then, Marly's ghost visits him to warn him about where his life is headed. As happened in the original story, Marly then sends the ghosts of love past, present and future to help him realize what his life has been and what it will become if he doesn't forge a different path. There is so much for him to value in his friends and their support.

I like the characters. I admire David Levithan's ability to stick so closely to Dickens classic tale. Anyone who likes the works of Mr. Dickens is sure to find this an enjoyable read. The addition of Brian Selznick's pen and ink illustrations give it a realism that hearkens back to the original drawings.
This book is sure to find an audience. And, Valentine's Day is soon upon us!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Insomniacs, written by Karina Wolf and illustrated by The Brothers Hilts. G.P. Putnam's Sons, Penguin. 2012. $18.00 ages 4 and up

"Mother dragged herself to
work and then nodded at her
desk.
Father took pictures at his
studio and then took forty
winks.
Mika listened to her lessons
but sleepwalked through the
science lab.
The headmistress sent her home..."


In her first book, Karina Wolf introduces a memorable and offbeat family who have moved to a new home that is 12 time zones away from everything familiar to them. It is quite the adjustment. Of course, they have trouble falling asleep at the new time once they are settled. They are awake through the night and just as the sun is set to rise in the east, they begin to fade. The yawns grow wider, the stretches elongate and the eyes begin to droop. It is time to rest for Mother, Father and Mika. Working at their regular jobs becomes impossible. At her school, the headmistress wonders if Mika has sleeping sickness. Each night, they try all the usual remedies for insomnia. Nothing makes a difference.

Not knowing how to make things better, they look to their neighbors. Not their daytime neighbors, to be clear. They will take their questions at night to their natural neighbor, the bear who seems able to sleep for long periods without difficulty. Instead of finding bears:

"...they saw a horde of mice
hanging upside down.
The cloud of animals roused and rushed
into the night.
They weren't mice at all.
They dipped and dived and surfed the air.
They squealed with delight."

These discoveries about the night life in their new environs are 'womder'ful! The nighttime world is abuzz with delight and grand adventure. Instead of fighting the difficulty to change, they embrace it and learn to live a new kind of life that is fulfilling, and laden with new experiences:

"Mika wrangled her nighttime pets - an aardvark, an angel shark, a bandicoot and a small-eared zorro frisked in Mika's room. A fennec fox lived under her bed, and she fed him night beetles."

If that doesn't send you on a hunt for further information, color me surprised!

The Brothers Hilts offer up quirky characters, an amazing backdrop and enough moonlight to entice the most tentative among us outside to experience it all personally. Their use of blue and black brings the true dark beauty of the night alive for anyone sharing this ode to family and the calm elegance to be found outside our comfort zone. The design is ever-changing, drawing our attention to the incredible scenes created. This is a bedtime book that will be requested repeatedly for so many brilliant reasons, not the least of which is this:

"The Insomniacs didn't need the sun:
they had stars and fireflies and northern lights."

I can get behind that procession.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Snow Day! Written by Lester L. Laminack and illustrated by Adam Gustavson. Peachtree, 2010. $8.95 ages 3 and up

"I know, I know.
We should go to bed.
Tomorrow's a big snow day.

Goodnight, everyone.
Sleep tight, everyone.
We're building a snowman
tomorrow...."

There was a time when the weather report predicting snow would fill me with the same kind of joy and anticipation felt in this story. Now, I think about it for a totally different reason. It means staying home, curled up with a book by the fire...with a hot cup of tea and a warm and cozy blanket.  Good excuse for not going outside...that's me!

No one can wait! They're saying there is going to be a lot of it. Wahoo!  Look to the sky, feel the cold that promises snow, imagine what the world will look like in the morning.  There is such joy to be had:

"Yes! A snow day.
You know what that means?
No alarm clock ringing.
No one saying, "Time to get up."
No one shouting, "Hurry or you'll be late!"
No school!"

Tomorrow, it's hot cocoa in snowman mugs, pajamas and the old blue blanket. It's going to be deep and delicious. They'll have to climb out the windows if they want to be outside. We all need a snow day:

"I need a snow day -
a day to play outside,
a day to read my new book,
a day to watch TV."

What could be better?

Lester Laminack knows exactly how the anticipation of a snow day feels. Adam Gustavson brings all of those anticipatory feelings to life in his illustrations. He uses oils to give his characters depth, expression and active joy as they plan a 'snow day'. I love the way he uses the light to make his scenes glow and his changing perspectives to give readers a sense of all of the feelings and energy being mustered. The surprise ending is just perfect!

Snow Day for Mouse, written by Judy Cox and illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler. Holiday House, Thomas Allen & Son. 2012. $19.95 ages 3 and up

"THUMP! Mouse landed in a snowdrift. When he climbed out, what a sight met his eyes: Heaps of snow like mounds of mashed potatoes! Flakes of snow like powdered sugar! The chilly birds fluffed up their feathers and chirped."

Can this really be Mouse's fourth venture?  He's been in a haunted house, shared a Thanksgiving meal, and enjoyed a Mexican festival. So, I guess it is the fourth time we have come in contact with the winsome little charmer. On a chilly winter morning he peeks outside to see a land covered in snow and some of his pals shivering and shaking with cold. Not to worry, Mouse. You are safe inside.

The weather results in a 'snow day' for the children of the house, and a great deal of activity:

"They mixed and baked and frosted and decorated. Then the kids bundled up in their snowsuits and raced outside."

Mouse seizes on a chance for a treat when a gumdrop rolls across the floor. In his excitement, he forgets to scour the environs for his enemy, the Cat! Just as he is about to pounce, Dad stomps snow off his boots to Mom's consternation. In a fit of pique, she sweeps the cat, the gumdrop and Mouse out into the snow!

His sense of adventure has his looking for every opportunity to partake of the joys of the wintry blast: ice sliding, leaf sledding and a narrow escape from his nemesis...thanks to some helpful birds. Then, it's time to take the ritual of snowballs and snowmen to a higher level. The cold is ignored until the tummy rumbles and the children are called inside. Now, warm, cozy and filled with dropped crumbs, Mouse has time to think about his friends. He takes care of them, as they have taken care of him.

Once again, Jeffrey Ebbeler has created a comedic world for readers. You can't get past the title page without a laugh...take my word for it! He fills spreads with bright acrylic illustrations that are filled with humorous detail, wonderful characters and plenty of action. The cookies are cool, the rooftop snow sculptures invite storytelling and tiny bespectacled mouse is worthy of our compassion and awe when he creates a menagerie of snow sculptures on a nearby pond. His avian friends are enthralled, and so are we!

Perfect for a family read on your next 'snow day'.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Skippyjon Jones: Cirque de Ole, written and illustrated by Judy Schachner. Dial, Penguin. 2012. $19.00 ages 4 and up

"Up Up Up
they climbed until they
formed a perfecto tower
of tiny, trembling
Chihuahuas.
And beneath
the tower stood
the power, tough
and shaky as five-
day-old Jell-0."

Ardent Skippyjon Jones fans are sure to be delighted with this thrilling escapade. He remains the same stalwart pretender that he has always been...believing himself to be a chihuahua rather than a little kitty when embarking on each new adventure.

Is it a dream of most children to be part of a circus? Well, Skippyjon certainly dreams of being a high-wire walker and his Mama is concerned. In six previous tales, he has always managed to do what others think is ridiculous, or dangerous, or impossible. He gets a lot of practice on the telephone wire above them; his sisters are in awe of his talent. Mama is not so enamored of his recklessness. She thinks he needs the talk:

"What did you think you were doing up there?
You and those squirrels
on a wire in midair?
What if you tripped
and fell on your head?
You'd have to spend months
in a hospital bed!"

She fears her son believes the nonsense that cats have nine lives. She shuts him in his room...you will know what that means if you are a fan! Into his closet he goes, dons a new disguise and is off to perform with los chimichangos. Muscles pumped up with a bike pump and set to be the base for a Chihuahua tower, the chihuahuas are ready. The dog whose costume they borrowed takes umbrage. Biting Skippyjon on his ballooned backside, Putzi sets off a string of events that has Skippyjon sailing up to the rafters, catching hold of el trapecio, doing a twist onto the tightrope, falling straight into the cannon which catapults him right back to his closet, and out into his room. Luckily, Mama is there to provide a soft landing, a yummy dessert and a flea collar, thanks to his latest caper.

The illustrations are as full of life and spirit as Skippyjon himself. The pages are filled with action, expression, imagination and great fun that allows young readers a chance to experience vicariously what they might otherwise miss. Skippyjon fears nothing. He remains an appealing 'kitty boy' whose stories are filled with the Spanish language of his alter ego, Skippito Friskito. Giving full attention to each turn of the page, while listening to the witty wordplay makes this a great readaloud. I love that the author reads the story on the accompanying CD and allows me a chance to practice my muy malo Spanish.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What's for Lunch? written by Andrea Curtis, with photography by Yvonne Duivenvoorden. .Red Deer Press, 2012. $12.95 ages 10 and up

"...but toasted grasshoppers are also considered a treat in the state of Oaxaca. Called chapulines (chap-oh-lean-ays), they're cooked with lemon juice, salt, and garlic or hot chilies. According to a United Nations food report, eating insects is good for your health..."

What a wonderful idea for a nonfiction book for young readers, and done in such an inventive way. I was hooked when it first arrived in my mail. And, I pored over it! It was neat to connect to previous knowledge about food from a variety of countries, but it is so much more than that.

In her introduction Andrea Curtis begins to share a picture of what lunch might be like for children of the world and assures us that we all need good food:

"Whether their school is under the vast umbrella of a banyan tree, in a dusty tent held up by poles, or in a sturdy brick structure in the heart of a bustling city, all children need a healthy lunch to be able to learn and grow. Good food nourishes both our bodies and our brains. It's one of the basic building blocks of life."

She reminds her audience that what children have for lunch tells us about their culture and their history, and that sharing a meal is one of our most pleasant social activities. Then, she leads us on a journey around the world that will allow us a peek into 'lunch boxes, bowls, trays, and mugs'.

Starting in Tokyo, Japan, she provides a short four paragraph introduction to the schools, the food prepared, and the rituals that are familiar to Japanese children. Everyone in the school partakes of the school lunch; no one is exempt. The students clean up after the meal before they head outdoors to play as there are rarely caretakers in their schools. A globe shows Japan's place in the world. That first page of information is faced with a photograph of a traditional Japanese lunch, and four explanatory passages concerning the food that is part of it.

With each turn of the page, readers will find the same format. Most school lunch programs are funded by government and provided for school age children. Canada is the exception for the countries included. For some children, it is the only food they will eat that day. The lunches are not always healthy; however, there is a move afoot to make every nation conscious of the food they are willing to fund. For each country we learn what the children eat, how the meal is prepared and served, and what part the children play in their lunch time activities.

I was intrigued by the photographs showing how each lunch is served and with the informative bits of additional information included. I loved the variety in foods eaten by children everywhere. There is so much here to encourage discussion, and to give readers a chance to see what is happening elsewhere and to provide an awareness of good eating habits and the role that children can play in making change happen. Thirteen countries are included...that in itself makes for an intriguing and very enlightening read.

The author adds a message for kids, their parents and teachers which encourages talk about fast foods, traditional diets, and the many changes that have happened in consumption with the quest for prepared foods that make meal planning effortless. She also talks about environmental impact and how kids can change the way we look at food and what we consume in an effort to make it better for those eating it and to lessen the impact of bad choices on the environment. We can play a big role, but first we must inform ourselves.

Some of the meals really appealed to me, and that's not because I am hungry. In fact, I just finished dinner before I sat down to write this post. I think the whole idea of the way the French look at lunch as a celebration of good food and equally good company is something to work toward. Only water is served with a meal that consists of salad, roast meat with vegetables, cheese and fruit. They are encouraged to savor the experience with time, heated plates and real cutlery. Ah, calm in the midst of a busy day! I would also love to try the Brazilian lunch which consists of rice and beans, grilled meat with greens and vegetables, a banana and a glass of passion fruit juice. So colorful and inviting!

  This is a great resource worth sharing in classrooms, with parents and with the school community.