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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

It's a Dog's Life, written by Susan E. Goodman and illustrated by David Slonim. Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan. Raincoast. 2012. $18.99 ages 7 and up

"Okay, we don't have the greatest eyesight in the world; we're not the best at seeing details. But if there's a hint of movement, we're on it! Sheepdogs pick up their shepherd's hand signals a half-mile away. As for all those fancy colors, who cares? In the old days - before our meals came in a bowl - we hunted at dawn and dusk. We didn't need to see reds..."

The subtitle for Susan Goodman's entertaining and enlightening book is How Man's Best Friend Sees, Hears, and Smells the World. Most appropriate and definitely not a misnomer. Even the most inquisitive child with unlimited questions may not have considered all that she includes in this book that those kids will find hard to put down.

Readers will go back to the text again and again to assure they remember all that they learn while sharing it. And share it, they will! Joe, a scruffy and endearing narrator leads the way from his opening Pssst! He knows he has a lot to share and he gets right down to it. He wants to have a conversation, and he wants us to join him.

He begins at the beginning...a very fine place to start:

"Luckily, early humans made it easy for us. They'd toss aside tasty bones and guts left over from their dinner."

It didn't take dogs long to realize they might have a good thing going here, and that humans suited them. He talks about helper dogs, and best buds. He tells about purebreds and mixed breeds, and about the many different kinds of work that dogs do for their people. The thing they do best is:

"Mostly, we hang out with you. Okay, I admit it; we take this best friend business very seriously."

There are a host of things that people may not know about their 'best' friends. Joe is keen to let us in on some of their secrets...acute hearing is one. This leads me to think on another reason why having a dog when our kids were young was not a good idea. There was a time when Erin tried her hand at the violin. I thought we were suffering:
"And when you practice the violin, you only hear the part of each sound that falls within your range of hearing. We suffer through all the really high parts. Trust me, you would howl, too!"

There's talk about taste buds, sense of smell, eyesight, and specific dog language. Joe is not a squealer though...he is not willing to give up all secrets. He just wants readers to know a bit more than they already might about 'man's best friend'. In the end, Susan Goodman shares a 'human point of view' and includes a bibliography for those who want even more.

This book was great fun to read, while also being informative. The cartoon images and humor will capture a reader's attention from the get-go and leave them chuckling and even, at times, sighing at the wonder that is a dog!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Manfish, written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Eric Puybaret. Chronicle Books, Raincoast. 2008. $18.99 ages 8 and up

"Jacques spent his days playing, experimenting, and creating. He wrote little books that he illustrated with his own drawings. And he was fascinated by machines. He studied blueprints and built a model of a crane that was as tall as he was, and actually worked."

Last week I wrote a post about Barnum Brown, called Barnum's Bones. I was intrigued while reading it that he had been singularly devoted to bones and fossils as a toddler. Such was the case with Jacques Cousteau who loved water from a very young age. He loved its feel and how it made him think about the workings of nature.

He was a scientific minded boy, who dreamed big dreams:

"He dreamed that someday he would be able to breathe
underwater for real.

At night he dreamed he could fly. With the birds,
among the clouds, with his arms stretched out like wings."

His fascination with the workings of the world included movies; he had many questions about the process of film making. It led him to save enough money to buy himself a 'home-movie camera'. His career in making movies of his own was underway. It led him to different parts of the world, and to many other questions.

When a friend offered swimming goggles to wear into the ocean, it changed his life:

"Once again he went below into the magical underwater world. At that moment Jacques knew his life was changed forever. His eyes had been opened to the wonders of the sea."

He wanted others to know the joy that he was experiencing in this beautiful underwater world. He was able to design a case for his camera that kept it dry and allowed him to make his beloved movies about a world that few had experienced. He worked as well to develop a breathing apparatus that would allow people to stay underwater for long periods of time...the aqualung. With it, he had freedom to explore:

"Below the surface, Jacques swam and glided and dove. He
did flips and somersaults.

He stood upside down on one finger, and laughed
bubbles into the sea."

Imagine how he must have felt! But, his many years in the water later taught his something he would have preferred not to know:

"He saw that people, without realizing it, were slowly
killing the sea and its creatures, by dumping garbage and
poisonous chemicals into the ocean he loved so much."

Now, he made movies for a different reason. After showing the people of the world the ethereal beauty of the ocean, he now wanted them to see what was happening to that beauty and encourage change.

Eric Puybaret creates Jacques' world and fills it with shimmering light and detail-filled vistas that are sure to encourage a need to protect the ocean's stunning beauty. He uses cross-sections, panels, and a changing color palette to help us see why Jacques so loved this world. He makes me want to get out there and see it for myself!

In an author's note, Jennifer Berne encourages her audience to learn more about this remarkable man.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Birthday for Bear, written by Bonny Becker and illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2009. $20.00 ages 4 and up

"I do not like parties.
I do not like birthdays.
And I especially do not
like birthday parties for
me at my house." Bear
announced, and he swept
Mouse out the door.
Slop! Slop! Slop!
Bear mopped the hallway."

Oh, I am delighted that Candlewick published this wonderful book again; this time in an illustrated format that matches the other three in the series. Those others include: A Visitor for Bear (Candlewick, 2008), A Bedtime for Bear (Candlewick, 2010) and The Sniffles for Bear (Candlewick, 2011). If you are looking for a great gift at any time for beloved little ones, this package would be perfect...each presents a great friendship with wonderful characters involved in everyday events and the warm, charming and very witty watercolor, ink and gouache illustrations of the remarkable Kady MacDonald Denton.

Bear is too busy to acknowledge that is is his birthday...that's just the way he wants it to be. He is averse to any celebration. Mouse is determined to party with his friend. With each new attempt to make it special, Mouse comes face to face with a furious and fretful Bear who wants no part of  such shenanigans.  As is wont to happen, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Bear finally succumbs to the deliberate and lovely attempts to make his day better. A cake on the step is the piece de resistance, and Bear, with careful consideration of his surroundings, takes the cake inside:

"Bear glanced around, then lifted out the cake. He swiped a pawful of creamy icing and was just about to plop it in his mouth, when -

Out of the cake popped Mouse! Small and gray and bright-eyed!"

He wants to complain, but Bear does not. Rather, he accepts his friend's clear delight and his gifts with aplomb. Party on, dudes!

There are no chapters here (as there were in the original version) and that allows the story to flow and the full page artwork to enhance the characters, their setting and their friendship. There is delight in the details, and warmth in the oft-changing expressions. Don't miss Bear pulling himself up 'to his full height' or his furtive sleuth work to be sure there is no one around to see him bring the cake inside...too funny!

Here's to loving.and persistent friendship!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Barnum's Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World. Written by Tracey Fern and illustrated by Boris Kulikov. Farrar Strauss Giroux, Raincoast. 2012. $19.95 ages 7 and up

"One day Barnum spotted some boulders that had tumbled down a steep cliff. He scrambled off his horse and up the cliff. He found a bone the color of milky coffee sticking out of the hillside. Barnum swooshed away loose sand with a soft brush."

It's always quite fascinating to read a story of a child completely enamored of one single thing. For Barnum Brown, his great love for fossils begins when he is a toddler. As he follows his father's tractor through fields nearby, he gathers anything of interest and takes it home. He certainly has a nose for fossils.

That interest never wanes. He studies his collection constantly, trying to picture the world as it once had been. As a teen, he takes a course in paleontology...and the rest shall we say, is history. He proves to be an exceptional student, and is asked to spend summers on fossil hunts. The work is difficult. He doesn't notice:

"Barnum set out at sunrise. He hiked over mountains, across creek beds, down precipices, through streams, and around rattlesnake nests. Most folks would think this was torture. Barnum thought it was wonderful."

His reputation grows as his collections do. Without a dinosaur on display, the American Museum of Natural  History hires him to dig for them. He finds many fossils, but no new species. That all changes in 1902 in the Montana badlands:

"Finally, Barnum began to see the outline of a massive curving bone - a dinosaur's pelvis. Then he uncovered a few of the creature's backbones, a thighbone, an arm bone, and other fragments. Barnum had never seen anything like these bones before."

It takes years. Finally, Barnum makes the find of his lifetime...'a perfect, four-foot-long T. Rex skull, studded with serrated six-inch-long teeth.' It makes him giddy:

"Barnum, who was an unusually good dancer, celebrated his find at a nearby ranch by doing the tango and two-step until midnight."

This is a book that makes scientific discovery engaging and worth pursuing. Barnum Bones gives his life to research and hard work. His interest never wavers, and his persistence is admirable.

Boris Kulikov creates playful scenarios at every turn, beginning with endpapers that show a dinosaur skeleton holding a journal filled with field notes, while dated letters between Barnum and his 'Dear Professor' flutter across the pages. He adds comedy with his muted, dusty illustrations. I have a few favorites...the lizard carefully perusing a newspaper report of dinosaur discovery, Barnum trekking trainward with numerous skeletons in hand following a wagonload of fragile bones, and the sunburnt and mosquito-plagued scientist with nothing to show for all of his hard work. It is such fun to pore over each page, looking for new delights.

An author's note and bibliography add further information and a useful guide for budding paleontologists. His is a remarkable career and I, for one, am indebted to Tracey Fern and Boris Kulikov for the roles they played in teaching me something new...yet, again!

Where Do You Look? By Marthe Jocelyn & Nell Jocelyn. Tundra Books, Random House. 2013. $17.99 ages 3 and up



 

"Where do you look
for a button?

On a shirt?

Or on a telephone?

Where do you look
for a tongue?

Kids seem to love books that make them think. Those books appear  to be trying to trick them. That's the real bonus when you look at this new book by Marthe Jocelyn and her daughter Nell.

The concept is simple; and the book will surely help them come to grips with the concept we call homonyms. In this case, they are all words that are spelled the same, but mean something different. You can see that from the opening quote.

The endpapers are great fun at a time when glasses are very much an accessory to the outfit being worn. Fashionistas will pore over the varied collection looking for something that they would like to wear. The add color, and context for what's ahead.

As the questions are asked, the authors share ideas to consider before moving on to the next word. Are there other words that might suit? It's worth thinking about and discussing. What can you add to the conversation?

The collage artwork is colorful, detailed and familiar for young readers. I like the cutout letters that are used to ask each new question, and the fact that the homonym is created in bold red letters. This gives emergent readers a clear look at the word, and helps them sort through visual information. The words chosen boost understanding for little language learners. The collages will encourage them to look carefully and talk about what they see on each page.

Books such as this make learning to read fun; that's just as it should be!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Fifty Cents and a Dream, written by Jabari Asim and illustrated by Bryan Collier. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2012. $18.50 ages 8 and up

"The strange marks marched and danced across the page, making him smile and laugh with joy. But slaves like him were not allowed to read. A black boy caught with a book could be whipped - or worse. When he walked his master's daughter to school, he carried her books, and his fingers would linger..."

As you will know if you have been reading this blog, I have a great love for picture book biography and I tout these books as a way to introduce our children and students to people they might otherwise never know. I have often said that if, in school, we took one half hour each week to read a truly great pbb, our students would come to know the story of forty new and relevant people from past and present history. Not much pain for great gain!

This story of Booker T. Washington allows us into the life of a boy with a dream...to read and write. Once emancipated, he follows that dream along a long road...a five hundred mile journey toward the magic of school.

"Most of all, he longed to learn.
Booker dreamed
of making friends with words,
setting free the secrets
that lived in books."

We, who live in Canada, have little knowledge of the man; but, we can be inspired by his rise from illiterate slave to learned leader. This inspiring book allows a clear look at his unquenchable need for learning. When his mother gave him a spelling book his course was set:

"Each morning at dawn,
Booker rose and hurried to work.
He shoveled, hauled and packed,
then raced to a school for Negroes.
In a tiny, crowded room,
Booker studied his lessons."

It was not enough. He longed for more. When he heard about the Hampton Institute, he knew what he wanted. Working long hours and saving as much as he could from his meager pay, Booker kept his dream alive. His five hundred mile walk to Hampton was arduous; determination was his constant companion. Nothing killed that dream:

"When he reached Hampton at last,
the sight of the large brick building
filled his insides with light.
With fifty cents in his pocket
and a dream in his soul,
Booker felt the magic welcome him in."

As he was inspired, so he inspires anyone who reads his extraordinary story.

Bryan Collier pays quiet homage to this incredible man. His brilliant collages are filled with perspectives that change constantly to let us feel the emotions that Booker is feeling. The many fine details hold our attention and inspire deep discussion. Every image is purposeful and adds depth to the telling.



Following the text Jabari Asim includes additional information about Mr. Washington, a timeline, a lengthy author's note, a valuable illustrator's note and a bibliography. Bravo! 

A Rock is Lively, written by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Sylvia Long. Chroicle Books, Raincoast. 2012. $18.99 ages 8 and up

"A rock is inventive.
...Flaky flint and obsidian rocks were chipped into arrowheads, spear points, axes, and hammers. Rough granite, sandstone and lava rocks were shaped into mortars and pestles for grinding seeds, rice, nuts, chiles and garlic into food. Today, humans use rocks to make cement and bricks, paper and pencils, glass, and toothpaste."

As they have done in previous collaborations, An Egg is Quiet, A Seed is Sleepy and A Butterfly is Patient, this team creates a beautiful book that guides readers to a better understanding and knowledge of their subject.
Rocks....really?

Rocks is right! In this stunning addition to the set, the format remains familiar. The watercolor artwork is vibrant and detailed.  The double page spreads offer clear descriptions of the rocks that lie beneath the earth's crust, how they melt, how the minerals mix, and even rocks found in outer space (interesting in terms of recent news from Russia).

It is a great guide, meant to inform with clear text and brilliantly colored visuals. We learn that rocks are old, huge and tiny, helpful, surprising, inventive, creative and lively.  Helpful?, you ask.

"Some birds swallow stones to help them digest food. As the muscles in the gizzards of their stomachs move, food is "chewed" -crushed by rocks in the same way humans use teeth to break down food."



This is a great mentor text, allowing children to see how they can use their interest in a topic to make it come alive for others, through use of lovely language, impeccable design and detailed, labelled
illustrations. Each spread stands alone, offering a few paragraphs of relevant information. In the end it circles back to the beginning, restating the theme...a rock is lively. 

Lincoln/s Grave Robbers, written by Steve Sheinkin. Scholastic, 2013. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"The wagon continued to the station. Tyrell walked into the shadows near the door of the rear car, and waited. He checked his watch: a few minutes before nine. He eyed the platform. Five minutes passed. Steel wheels groaned and clanked against the tracks as the train slowly started rolling. Tyrell must have felt a flash of panic - had Swegles been wrong?"

As with Bomb, this book captured my attention from page one and hauled me through it in no time. Steve Sheinkin is one fantastic writer. He took me back in history and taught me a great deal about money, both real and counterfeit. Just as I didn't know that I wanted to know more about the physics that allowed for the development of the atomic bomb, I had no idea that I would get caught up in a story of "coney men", of "shovers" and of a "roper", never mind body-snatching. What a ghoulish idea!

I was totally intrigued by Mr. Sheinkin's storytelling prowess: how he made this informative book about an attempt to steal Abraham Lincoln's body for ransom such a page-turner! Each of his characters comes alive as we learn the parts that they played in the foiled plot. Two that stand out for me are John Carroll Power, the custodian of the Lincoln grave and monument in Springfield, for his upstanding loyalty to the site and its contents, and Lewis C. Swegles, a roper, for his 'snitching' which allowed the Secret Service to stop the perpetrators in their tracks. 

If you have ever wondered about counterfeit money, you get a little history lesson on it right here. You will meet real people from the past and be witness to the events that led them to consider such a dastardly deed, and how the lawmen who tracked them brought them to justice. Fascinating, to say the least!

Why counterfeit money? Why Lincoln's corpse? These are questions that children and adults who begin the book will be asking themselves. Steve Sheinkin is more than capable of gathering the pieces together and creating an adventure story that begins in Chicago with a group of 'coney' men who want to get their leader out of jail. Why not hold Lincoln's body for ransom? It's also a bit gruesome to know that grave robbing was not all that unusual at the time.

Archival photographs, a table of contents, a cast of characters, a useful glossary of phrases and a list of source notes reminds us that this is nonfiction storytelling and keeps us clearly in touch with the quick paced action of a moment in history. It certainly piques my interest to know more about counterfeiting, about grave robbing and encourages an interest in well-written detective stories. Isn't that what the best books do for their readers?

Big Mean Mike, written by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Scott Magoon. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2012. $19.00 ages 3 and up

"On Wednesday, Mike got in his car to drive to the gym. He opened up the glove compartment to get out his gym pass. But when he reached inside for the shiny plastic card, he felt something else instead.  Something...soft.  Something...cuddly.  He leaned over to peer inside."

Mike is a macho guy. Well, he's a macho dog who sports a spiked collar, bushy eyebrows, combat boots and crossed bones emblems on his jacket and keychain. He's rough. He's tough. He drives a car that proves it! It sports sharp teeth on its grille and red flames on its sides. Everyone recognizes them both.

Then one day, he opens his trunk to find a teensy weensy bundle of fluff. It's white and quiet and much too precious for a big, mean varmint like Mike. The two have nothing in common, and Mike wants nothing to do with the charmer. It keeps happening, and soon there are more bunnies. They are going to ruin his reputation. The bunnies are saddened by his rush to ignore them. But, he has a good reason:

"Big, tough dogs do not hang around with tiny, fuzzy bunnies, okay?
So beat it. Scram. And don't come back!
Mike found excuses not to use his car for a few days."

Checking his car before hopping in to head out to the Monster Truck Show, all seems fine. No bunnies. Once there, he's in for a real surprise. Four bunnies emerge from under the seat, and they don't heed his warming to get out of the car.  It is then that Mike notices how sweet they are...oh my gosh, what is he thinking?

He has a change of heart and can't let them wait in the car while he attends the show. They might be in danger! So, he hides them in his gym bag and takes them in with him. As little, cute, fuzzy bunnies are wont to do, they worm their way into his heart and it doesn't take long for Mike to jump to their defence:

"Slowly, he smiled a big, mean smile. They he looked back at the other dogs. "You know what?" Mike told them. "I don't care what you think. I'm Big Mean Mike! I can hang out with whoever I want! I like these bunnies. They know how to have a good time. And they're adorable."

I rest my case!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ocean Sunlight, by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm. Scholastic, 2012. $20.99 ages 5 and up

"Animals - yes, animals like YOU! - eat the plants, or you eat other animals that have eaten plants. You are links in food chains - the chains of life. And as you eat, you break apart the sugar from the plants - KRAK! -and use its energy - MY energy! - to live. You breathe out carbon dioxide, and the plants pull it back in."

This is the second collaboration for Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, and I remain in awe of the way they make this dense scientific information accessible for young readers - and for old ones! I think it requires real talent to take something scientific that you are so knowledgeable about, and make it live for your readers. That is exactly what this talented duo does!

The idea of light filtering through water to grow tiny plants that mark the beginning of a very grand and complicated food chain is complicated for most of us; yet, this book makes it fairly easy to comprehend. Light does affect everything that happens in the ocean, even the deepest deeps!

The fact that Molly Bang can create artwork (albeit beautiful and blue) that helps to make sense of the text for young readers is testament to the skill of both writer and artist. Ms. Bang creates visual images that help us understand the scientific principles, using brilliant shiny yellow to represent the sun that sustains all life. She employs a yellow outline to show every plant or animal that absorbs sunlight. As well as that, she uses other colors to boost our understanding:

"The illustrations in this book show oxygen atoms as white dots, carbon atoms as black dots, and hydrogen atoms as blue dots."

That really helps to process what is happening during photosynthesis. There are many details included, and the book is impeccably designed to lessen any confusion. Once the sun's light can no longer penetrate the thin top layer of the water, the gorgeous blues and greens give way to the deep grays and blacks of the depths. The explanation of how phytoplankton moves from the top of the ocean to the deeps and back again is clear and shown beautifully in the swirling artwork.

The sun does the speaking here; that ensures that the telling is more personal. Solar energy is a complex scientific study. I walk away from reading this book with a better understanding of how the sun impacts our oceans and all life. It is a book that I will read again; and I suspect I will be even more knowledgeable the second time around.

In Notes About the Book, the authors include additional information for all readers:

"When one living thing eats another, it becomes a link in a food chain. Plants are the first links in (almost!) every food chain because they do not rely on other organisms for food. They make their own food, sugar, through photosynthesis. Plants turn some of the sugar into proteins, fats, and other molecules that become food for the animals that eat the plants."

As has been done in their previous books about the sun, Living Sunlight and My Light, our comprehension of the role it plays in all life on earth is heightened. Ocean Sunlight keeps the celebration going!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Rainbow Crow, written by David Bouchard with art from David Jean and music by Manantial. Red Deer Press, Fitzhenry & Whiteside. 2012. $24.95 ages 7 and up

"Owl rose and addressed the council. "Much of the journey through Father Sky will be made in darkness. You all know that I can see in the dark. Perhaps I should be the one to go." As the council muttered approval, Bear spoke. "Owl, you are courageous and you are a great hunter...but your song...
your HOOT will not capture the attention of Creator."

As have many of David's recent books, Rainbow Crow is presented in more than one language. With a flute playing in the background, the book is introduced by David himself in which he explains the protocol of telling this story:

"Listen to me. With your hands open on Mother Earth, you hear, feel and sense that there is nothing between us. Mother Earth gives us everything we need - water, food, and shelter. All things are born of her. All things return to her. Crawlers, flyers, swimmers, two- and four- leggeds...we are all her children. We are all related."

David then tells his story through the voices of the animals and birds gathered at council. It is Lenape legend and tells the story of Crow bringing fire to the Earth. That fire is needed to save us from the dark cold of long winter months. After much discussion, and with varying reasons for one or another of the flyers being incapable of travelling to the Creator for help, Crow is chosen.

Crow makes her way to Creator and offers her melodic song.  Creator is suitably impressed and wants to thank Crow for the most beautiful song yet heard. He tells her that he cannot take back what he has given, but he can give a new gift in thanks. He returns with fire; he knows it will help to warm and sustain all.

On her way back with the firestick, Crow realizes that she does not have enough fire to make it home. She flies too close to Grandfather Sun, and her feathers catch fire and her skin burns. When she arrives back on Earth, her feathers have lost all of their beautiful colors and her lovely song is nothing but a loud 'CAW!' She has given up much to help others.

Her black feathers and raucous voice will be forever a reminder of her heroic journey. Because Creator recognizes the sacrifice she has made, he makes her a promise:

""Little Crow, you have sacrificed too much. For the sacrifice you made of your beautiful colors, I promise that you shall always have a shine and sheen in your feathers like no other. For the sacrifice you made of your beautiful song, I promise that your family will always be strong. And for having had to smell your own flesh burn, your meat will forevermore taste burned. No one will want to hunt you."
David Jean's lovely realistic artwork is created on drum skins in the colors of the forest. The circle of the drum skin is in keeping with the circle of life...the journey that we all take from birth to death. The council sits in a circle, paying close attention to Bear as they await Crow's return. The art adds calm beauty to a lovely story told well.


The CD that accompanies the book allows listeners to hear the story first in David's voice, then to hear Jason Jones read the story in Ojibwe. I followed the text and was amazed at the difficulty of the language, also the real enjoyment of listening to it. Then, sit back again and enjoy the music of Manantial, an Ecuadoran group who sing in Kichwa, the indigenous language of the Salasaca people. It is quite wonderful.

As an added bonus, David then reads the story in French. I closed my eyes and listened to the music  of the language, the flute and Manantial. Quite an extraordinary experience!

I have always been intrigued with pourquoi tales. This is one I had not heard. I can no longer say that!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bear Despair, by Gaetan Doremus. Enchanted Lion Books, 2012. $14.95 ages 4 and up

This is the sixth book in a series that Enchanted Lion Books calls Story Without Words, and it is just as much fun as all the others have been. I have loved wordless books since I 'read' my first ones. I think they were the Mercer Mayer A Boy, A Dog and a Frog books and Deep in the Forest by Brinton Turkle. Such books as this and the others that are in my collection show how powerful art is in telling stories that resonate with all  readers.

In Brandon, where I live, and in Manitoba, we are welcoming immigrants from many world communities. We are blessed to have them here; and we recognize that immigration brings with it issues of language and culture. For children entering a school system with little command of the English language, we need to find books that matter. We want them to be readers; with patience, strong guidance and worthy illustrated books we can help them learn a new book language along with gaining confidence to speak it.  Wordless books can provide a bridge. In reading books with no words, children are developing story sense and improving comprehension in any language. The story is virtually the same for everyone.

When a peacefully sleeping big bear awakens to find that his cuddly teddy has been stolen right out of his arms by a wily wolf, he is desperate to get it back. As he approaches the wolf, the wolf sends the teddy flying over a grove of nearby trees. Anger rages and the wolf soon finds himself swallowed whole and aboard as the bear continues the search.

Just as he finds the teddy, a lion grabs it up, teases the bear for needing a stuffed toy at all and quickly becomes the object of a chase. The bear forces the lion to the edge of a cliff. Terrified, the lion tosses the teddy over the edge. Bad decision...Lion becomes Bear's second breakfast!

And so it goes...Bear doing his best to get his favorite sleep companion back while the odds of that happening seem stacked against him. He takes revenge at every opportunity. He is in despair when he cannot get teddy back. However, there are good Samaritans in the animal world, too. The bears are eventually reunited and all's right in their world!

Gaetan Doremus uses great variety in his artwork. Single panels give rise to single and double page spreads. All are action-filled and move the story to a satisfactory conclusion for each of the animals involved. Muted colors and cross-hatching offer a setting that draws the reader's attention to this fast paced tale. I like the way he circles the scenes to keep us focused on each new new occurrence, and it's great fun to watch Bear's stomach grow as his appetite for revenge means dire consequences for those who cross him. I wonder if any of those animals learned a lesson. No matter, Bear is content to have his purple pal back!

Monday, February 18, 2013

If You Spent a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond, written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor. Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2012. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"If you spent a day with Henry David Thoreau, you would sit on the soft pine needles behind the house and drink cold, fresh Walden water. "Living a simple life is the best way to be happy," says Henry. You would row out onto the pond, gaze down deep, and glimpse a beautiful gold and emerald fish. Swish! It's gone!"

While the child in this story is a child of the 21st century, he visits with Thoreau in his own time and environment. That is the charm of this unique visit with the man who lives a life of simplicity and wonder. He built his cabin at Walden Pond for $28.12 and he has everything he needs right there.

In the environment that surrounds and includes Walden Pond, Mr. Thoreau is able to grow his own food, pick nutritious and delicious berries, drink pure, clean water, and bask in the beauty of bright, warm sunshine. Walden Pond affords him the quiet solitude for he loves; he spent two happy years there.

Robert Burleigh has his readers observe the daily doings through the eyes of the young boy who is our guide. The language is clear, and informative while sounding like a told tale:

"If you spent a day with
Henry, you would share a
loaf of his homemade bread.
After lunch, you would feed
bits of cheese to a tiny mouse
and laugh as its whiskers
tickled your hand."

It is a lovely tribute to a man who lived so simply, and so happily; a reminder to all of us that 'stuff' doesn't have nearly as much meaning as a life well lived. The author includes a two page entry of 'more things' to know about Thoreau, with information concerning The Thoreau Society which 'celebrates and circulates' his writing and his ideas about life and how it can be lived. Then, he adds a page filled with some of his observations.  My favorite is this one:

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears."

Sounds a bit like live and let live...an adage that I TRY to live by!

Wendell Minor creates quiet atmospheric artwork that hums with the life of Walden Pond...sprinkled with sunshine and peace. He uses gouache watercolor in the soft browns and greens of the surrounding woodland, and the bright yellows, blues and greens of the land by the pond. He also uses the endpapers to show us where Henry David Thoreau's house was placed in terms of the pond itself, and includes many of the creatures who share their space. Lovely!

All the Awake Animals are almost asleep, written by Crescent Dragonwagon and illustrated by David McPhail. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2012. $18.50 ages 3 and up

"Kangaroo and
Koala are kin:
each curls up in his
mother's king-sized,
kid-sized pouch.
As the light laps
the leaves,
Lion lies down,
lounging low with
Lioness and the little ones."

Now here's a pairing of powerful people in the children's literature field. And, they prove to us why they are considered so!

It's bedtime and the story is the same...a child who is convinced he is not sleepy enough, and a mother who is equally sure that the time has come to succumb to slumber. Who do you think ends up on top in this contest of wills?

The mother is consoling:

"The answer, darling little child,
is every creature, tame and wild,
has night and day, has still and leap,
has wide awake and sound asleep."

She encourages her son to look to all the animals crowded around looking decidedly drowsy, and ready for bed. Thus, begins a warm and sleep inducing description of animals from A to Z. And it is alliterative, too:

"Baby bison has bedded
down beside her brother,
by the barn."
David McPhail’s watercolor-and-ink illustrations are as comfy and cozy as the quest to get the young child to sleep...warm colors, soft edges, all familiar to his many fans. His landscapes are equally conducive to nighttime slumber, offering soft moonlight and familiar surroundings for the animals depicted.

Young listeners are sure to find favorites in these pages; and with good luck and a touch of sand from the sandman, may barely remember this gentle rhythmic ending:

"And you, my little human one?
Since night is here and day is done,
and since you have a cozy bed,
a pillow for your dozy head,
with no more why and not one how
might you, like them, start sleeping now?"

Shhh.....

Nix Minus One, written by Jill Maclean. Pajama Press, 2013. $14.95 ages 12 and up


Safe and silent,
that's your gig. Let's play with nails,
let's avoid all sports, let's fall for a girl
who belongs to someone else - remember
the box you made for my birthday?
That's how you live your life, inside
a box you've made of yourself."

I'm sorry that the text above does not look as it does in this wonderfully written novel-in-verse. It's a small glitch in posting. But, I want to share this passage with you, as I want to share so many more. I honestly could go on and on.  I found myself going back again and again to reread page after page:

"I drop my tray.

Impressive
what a crash
one tray
makes on a tiled floor
and how far
Wednesday's special
- beef stew -
can splash."

In an interview Jill Maclean she said she writes character driven books. She hit the nail on the head with that statement, given the memorable characters she creates here...Nix, Roxy, Bryan, Twig, Chase, Loren and Blue, and Nix's parents. Set in Newfoundland, this is his story about family, conflict, friendship, death, secrets, a dog and a budding romance. The characters who people the pages are expertly drawn: flawed, remarkable, and redemptive for the most part.

I love them for many reasons...their vulnerability, their strength, their unparalleled concern for others. Well, not Bryan...not at all, but there has to be a villain; or the men who own Twig and treat her so abominably. Sorrow, and an inability to deal with it, tears at the Humboldt family which is stoic, secretive, and who all have reasons for doing what they do.

Nix, the narrator, is an introvert, happy to be on the outside and mostly alone. He finds solace in woodworking and creates beautiful tables and boxes. He worries about his older sister Roxy, his emotional opposite and a girl who is headed for big trouble. Nix can do nothing to keep her safe. He also has grave concern for Swiff Dunphy's dog Twig. His fears about neglect and abuse lead him up the path to Swiff's yard and a heartwarming connection to Twig, a bit of an outcast himself. Both grow and become stronger as they spend time together. Nix finds in that strength the power to show his concern for both Twig and Roxy, and determines to do something about those he loves.

The cost is high:

"             Dad drives into the school yard,
climbs out of the truck. I try to loosen my muscles
enough to stand upright. Through the only eye
that seems to be open, I see terror on his face.
His boots anchor themselves to the pavement.

"It's okay," I say. "I was in a fight.
The other guy looks worse."

but eventually things turn hopeful for Nix's family:

"She looks from me to Dad
and back again. Tears spout
from her eyes. She seizes Dad's hand,
bringing it to her wet cheek,
and clutches my shoulder.
"I've missed both of you...I've felt so far away and lonely."
The love in her voice,
                    it hurts my ears.
Dad's smile would light a whole hospital.

I rest the good side
of my face on Mom's arm."   

So worthy of your attention. Please look for a copy!

The Man from the Land of Fandango, written by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Polly Dunbar. Clarion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thomas Allen & Son, 2012. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"Oh, whenever they dance
in Fandango,
The bears and the bison
join in.
And baboons on bassoons
make a musical sound,
And the kangaroos come
with a hop and a bound,
And the dinosaurs join
in the din."

And dance is what I wanted to do as I read this book out loud to myself. Such a loss with the death of Margaret Mahy...for so many reasons. Not the least of which is her way with words and their rhythms, whether for those who love her novels, short story collections or the many wonderful picture books that are sure to entertain  new generations.

The man from Fandango is a 'somersault star' whose vocation is to make children happy. The boy and girl who welcome him say nothing; they simply enjoy his visit. Their job is done with painting him so realistically that he jumps off the page, and 'bingles and bangles and bounces' from here to there and all around.

The pace of the story is madcap, and moves with great energy from one spread to the next. Polly Dunbar uses watercolor and collage to create her brightly colored and joyful art. As the words wind their through ups and downs on each page, her wonderful illustrations do the same giving a sense of joy and abandonment. Check out the bison, sporting red pumps on her hind hooves, a red bow on her tail and gorgeous red smiling lips as she cavorts with the children. The music that spouts from the baboon's bassoon is equally delightful!

This is a perfect blend of text and art...full of whimsy and charm with only slight remorse:

"And he only appears every five hundred years -
So you'd better be home when he calls!"

Lucky we are that the man from Fandango can visit us anytime we choose to open this book again and again!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

three little words, written by Sarah N. Harvey. Orca Book Publishers, 2012. $12.95 ages 12 and up

"Sid climbs the steps to the front porch and pauses with his hand on the worn brass doorknob. After a day in the sun with Chloe, all he wants is quiet and solitude, but if there's a guest in the house or a new kid, he's going to have to suck it up. Megan raised him to be polite. You don't have to say much, she told him over and over when he was growing up. But you do have to be polite."

Sid has been living in a warm and loving foster home since he was a little boy. He likes his life, and he doesn't yearn to be with his birth mother. When his mother disappears, Elizabeth, his maternal grandmother, asks for his help in finding his stepbrother. Sid feels the need to help. He knows it won't be easy, and he's right!

Elizabeth is a surprise to him. She is educated, a television icon, and smart. She welcomes Sid with open arms and helps him come to know more about his mother. She is a talented artist with mental health problems that are difficult for her to control; she often goes off the medication that makes her more stable. Wain is a young boy on a path to big trouble, acting out and often running away from those who care about him. He is hurt. He is angry. He is bent on being his own person and balks at control of any kind. Sid uses his smarts to find his brother.

His birth mother is still AWOL, so Sid invites Elizabeth and Wain to come home with him, knowing that Megan and Caleb will welcome those in need, just as they welcomed Sid so long ago. Elizabeth settles in quickly, while Wain continues on track to being a big 'jerk'. Megan recognizes the lonlieness that Wain is feeling and knows that he can be a good person though it rarely shines through in his actions.  The opportunity comes for Sid to finally meet his birth mother. Everyone recognizes that she needs time to get her life under control, in hopes that Wain will come back to live with her. In the meantime, Wain will continue to live with Sid, his foster family and their newest charge, Fariza. She is a little girl who does not speak due to the family trauma that sent her to foster care.

Though the issues are heartbreaking...neglect, abuse, abandonment, mental illness and the fight to find a better path for a young, struggling adolescent, it is a hopeful story that will give readers many opportunities to think about the issues presented, the characters portrayed and the paths to be taken to a better life. I admire the way Sarah Harvey uses the title's 'three little words' to preface each new chapter.

The characters are wonderful and well-drawn, giving readers a clear picture of both households and how each one is affected by the events that are part of their daily lives. Sid uses his creative skills to draw daily happenings while he searches for his half-brother, and helps Fariza find a voice through story. Megan and Caleb nurture their charges with compassion and understanding. Chloe's exuberance is a perfect foil to Sid's need for peace and quiet daily. She provides a bit of needed humor along the way. Each has a unique voice and plays an important role in the unfolding drama. Again, the setting itself seems like a character that soothes with a peaceful calm that envelops those living there.

Families come in all shapes, and this book is testament to that. Sid is a good kid whose upbringing with loving, confident foster parents is evident in the way he handles the situations he faces. He is strong, reliable and makes a difference to those he meets. Ultimately, his story gives us hope.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Get Outside, written by Jane Drake and Ann Love with illustrations by Heather Collins. Kids Can Press, 2012. $17.95 ages

"Wari is an Egyptian board game that's more than a thousand years old. The game spread to Africa and then traveled with African slaves to America, and the West Indies. Wari boards have been dug in the soil or made from wood, stone or pottery. To have your own instant wari board..."
Even easier than a sandy beach for some children, an egg carton works as a permanent board for playing this ages-old counting game. On page 71 of this new nonfiction activity book by sisters Jane Drake and Ann Love, you can find all the information you need to get started at learning how to play it.

In their newest book, the authors have taken ideas from their earlier books to focus on the things you can do 'outside' throughout the seasons. It is arranged chronologically from spring through winter, with four identical sections for each season...nature lover, outdoor fun and games, snug inside and look to the sky. In each short section concerning games for inside when weather prevents outdoor exploration and fun, they suggest card games, crafts and other activities that may be familiar to parents. All encourage time away from electronic toys and such distractions. All other sections concern themselves with great variety in ways to entertain children and to enjoy what is right at hand.

Heather Collins has created detailed, useful illustrations to accompany many of the suggested activities. The captions help with understanding, the labels are clear and concise, and they add fun and learning to the many activities presented. I love the looks of wonder and joy on the children's faces as they work and play together.

Anyone who spends time with children at home, in day care,  at the beach, in the snow will find much to use to encourage creative and active play. It's so much fun for everyone involved. Now, get outside and have a blast!

Just as an aside, I was sitting at my dining room table having lunch when I looked out the front window to see a young man (early 20s) strolling slowly down the sidewalk, eyes on the sky and thoroughly enjoying the beautiful, big, feathery snowflakes falling all around him. It was pure delight to be an observer of his joy in the wonder of nature and his ability to take the time needed to bask in it!

How To Raise Monarch Butterflies, written by Carol Pasternak. Firefly Books, 2012. $8.95 ages 8 and up

"You'll have to look carefully, though! A monarch egg is smaller than a sesame seed. It's creamy white and the shape of a football. Monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweed, usually on the underside of the leaf. If you see a monarch laying an egg..."

I was surprised this past summer to see many more monarch butterflies than I am accustomed to seeing. I wonder why, and I don't have the answer. They are so beautiful and bring a calm to the backyard that encourages quiet reflection!

So, when I received this book from Firefly, I was intrigued to know more about these beautiful creatures. In the introduction I learned that some people consider them a symbol of good luck, of transformation and hope. Many are in awe of their migration:

"The idea that this tiny wonder, weighing less than a dime, can take off and fly more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kms) to a place it's never been is simply fascinating. No wonder we are still searching for clues as to what guides this remarkable journey."

This is just the beginning of a book that deals with the wonder of raising these lovely, delicate butterflies, which are found in 'North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and other South Pacific Islands'. Kids who love wildlife will find much to learn in this informative and beautifully photographed book.

In a step-by-step guide Carol Pasternak shows us how to care for a monarch butterfly, from egg to adult. In doing so, we see the miracle that is the metamorphosis. The anatomy of a caterpillar and butterfly is shown in a two-page spread that is carefully captioned to help young readers recognize the four stages of the transformation. Then, the excitement ramps up!

A list of materials is provided, with accompanying clear photos to help the project get started. The tough work is at hand when the search begins for caterpillars. Remember that first there must be milkweed. As the search proceeds, children are sure to get up close and personal with other creatures of nature. Monarch caterpillars are easy to recognize due to their very distinctive coloring. In careful chronological steps the author helps budding scientists learn to take care of any caterpillars found. She even helps impatient 'lookers' by showing them how to find the eggs, if they can't wait for the caterpillar stage.

Once the life cycle is at its end, she helps with the how-to on releasing the adults into the world, and explains the dangers they will face as they begin their migration. It's pretty daunting! Once they are gone, she moves on to helping design a garden meant to attract butterflies, and to informing readers of ways we might make the world a better, and safer, place going forward. Websites, discussion questions, a glossary and an index add to the appeal and usefulness of this awesome nonfiction book.

The photographs add depth and understanding. They are visually appealing and perfectly match the text as it is presented. Now, you have everything you need to help make this a class project in the spring, or a family project when the children are home on vacation this summer. Exciting and informative!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Boy 21, written by Matthew Quick. Little Brown & Company, Hachette. 2012. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"It's over. That's it. My season's ruined. My basketball career is over. No chance for a college scholarship now. Whey they hit me, they knew it. They saw my face. I flew up onto the hood of their car. I was thrown onto the street - and they just left me there like I was a dead animal. It seemed like they even sped up when - But that can't be true, right?"

Finley lives, eats and sleeps basketball. The only player better is Erin. They practice their skills all day long, every day. He is the only white player on his high school team, and works hard every single day to improve his game. He wants to be chosen point guard again this season. When the coach he admires and obeys asks him to be sure that Russ Washington is made welcome, Finley reluctantly agrees. The coach explains that Russ is experiencing a great deal of stress following the murder of both parents and has come to Bellmont to live with his grandparents. Only Finley is privy to this information and he is asked to keep quiet about it. The other tidbit of information is that Russ is a highly talented and much admired high school basketball player. Finley knows he is going to have tough competition for that coveted spot on the team.

There are occasional hints that the coach has reason to ask Finley to take on this assignment. Finley will not discuss it with his coach, his guidance counsellor or with his audience. His first person narrative voice offers a very personal take on this story of friendship, romance and growing awareness. Finley, his girlfriend Erin and Russ become friends; always together and supporting each other. Russ calls himself Boy21 and says that his time on Earth will be short as he is expecting his parents to pick him in a space ship at any time. He uses alien speech and refuses to consider playing basketball.

Coach is on Finley's case to convince Russ to commit to the team, and come to practice. Russ finally agrees but plays with no heart, and no drive. Finley refuses to push him. He wants Russ to make his own decision.

Family dynamics are so well drawn, with characters to admire and a setting that takes on a character of its own. Bellmont is an old, worn town where the Irish mob has power, where race, violence and drugs are real issues, and from which there is nowhere to go but up. The foreshadowing concerning relationships and past events is there, but not 'out there', and never overwhelming. So, it comes as a surprise when events finally come full circle and readers make some heartbreaking discoveries.  Basketball, once so important, has little to do with the events as they play themselves out.

This is a story of true friendship, real tragedy and painful triumph. I felt all along that I was right there with each of the characters as their story unfolded, and will not soon forget any one of them. 

Temple Grandin, written by Sy Montgomery. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2012. $20.99 ages 12 and up

"Temple's most important innovations in design were accomplished not in spite of but because of her autism. And she thinks that many great achievements of modern civilization were attained thanks to people who may have been on the autistic spectrum, too." 
 
 I had not heard of Temple Grandin until I saw the beautiful HBO movie that chronicled her life. I became very interested in what she was doing, and found much to admire in this remarkable woman.

Now, another accomplished and respected woman researcher takes on the task of bringing Temple Grandin to a younger audience. Sy Montgomery does what she does best in this lively and informed look at the woman who has written, consulted, advocated and made a name for herself in the world of animals. She walked with and talked with Temple as she worked to tell her amazing story.

The research is strong and clear. Not many middle grade children have any knowledge of Temple Grandin. This book changes that, and will provide some jaw dropping moments for them. It took doctors some time to realize that she was autistic, as not much was known about the spectrum when Temple was a young child. Her father wanted her institutionalized. Her mother would not agree. It was through persistence that she enrolled her daughter in a small private school that accommodated her way of learning and encouraged her strengths. Temple had those, in spades.

In her early school years she was accepted by her classmates with gentle encouragement from caring and informed teachers. While odd, she made new friends and caused a stir at times:

"Temple had no idea that her mind worked differently from everyone else's. She believed everyone thought in pictures - in fact, she believed this until she was in her forties. She also thought that surely the sound of the school bell hurt everyone's ears and that all kids suffered from scratchy clothes. And she didn't realize she was unusually brave about ordinary pain."

A new girls' middle school brought teasing, bullying and a great deal of pain for Temple. When she was expelled, her mother found the Hampshire Country School and Temple found a home where it was believed that she wasn't 'bad or stupid.'

"Instead they considered kids like her gifted - in ways that the rest of the world couldn't yet see."

Her innate understanding of animals and her innate engineering ability led her to create many of the systems that continue to be used in the humane treatment of animals today.
 
I admire the design of the book. It is chronological, and has occasional notebook type pages that inform readers about autism. This helps readers begin to understand what the autism spectrum truly is. Family photographs add interest and allow us to watch as Temple grows to be the strong and independent woman of today. I also love the design sketches she made that continue to impact the way in which animals are processed. Her work in feed lots and slaughterhouses was often difficult because of the way women were treated there. She did not give up!

This fascinating book opens windows for children; a window into the life of a remarkable woman, a window into the world of one autistic child and hopefully, a window to understanding that being different is a good thing and can lead to extraordinary accomplishments.  Bravo!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Building Our House, written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean. Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan. Raincoast Books, 2013. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"On a clear, cold night
Dad sets the corners of the
 foundation by the North Star.
One wall will face north to
ward off the wind, one east to
welcome the morning, one south
to soak in the sun, and one west to
see out the day. When the weather
warms, the ground softens and
Grandpa visits with his backhoe."

Oh, I LOVE this book! My admiration for Jonathan Bean's work is endless. At Night (FSG, 2007) will forever have a place on my 'keepers' shelf. And now this one...what a wonderful look at a very special time in his life. This is nonfiction at its best!

In an author's note, he says:

"This book is dedicated to my family and is based on my parents' experiences of buying an old field and living in a small house-on-wheels while they worked on building a house for their family. Instead of a year and a half, as in this story, it took every scrap of spare time and five years to complete."

Just as that venture together was an act of love, so too, is this beautifully rendered illustrated book. He has so much to share with his audience. In fact, much of what happens in the story is never stated in the clear and telling text that accompanies the process of building. Every single image plays a role in the telling. There is much to see and admire. Then, go back and read it all over again!

The old field is pictured on the opening endpapers. It provides a pastoral quiet for the work to be undertaken. The title page shows the family (all four of them) loading up their truck, all hands on deck and working together. It's off to the country for them.

It looks beautiful, even to a city slicker like me. The trees are majestic, a cat prowls the perimeter, the  family seem prepared for the work ahead. Tools, plans, a truck willing to haul all needed equipment and they are ready to get to work. Planning is the key. It isn't long until temporary housing is in place by the old oak tree. All that's needed now is water and electricity...the next part of the plan.

Some of the work gets underway before winter sets in. Rocks are cleared, materials brought on site and then it's wait for the warmth of spring when real excitement builds and we watch their every new achievement. With help when needed the summer work brings them close to being able to move from their tiny house-on-wheels to their brand new home. With the arrival of a wood stove, the family is ready to brave the stormy blast of winter in their new home.

While the text gives the audience a up close and personal look at the many aspects of house building, Jonathan Bean's incredible illustrations tell a variety of other stories as well. Young readers will take note of the cat that keeps turning up, and might even remember that it has been there since the very first day. We watch the two small children (our narrator included) as they learn much about helping out and the many nuances of house building. Taking careful note, they might even see the mom's middle getting bigger as the days go by. When they are ready to move in, they have an addition to their family and much to celebrate.

I've read it numerous times and each time I see something new! It is a perfect book to share with a loved little one, to take the time to pore over and talk about all the little delights that this creative and accomplished artist adds for our enjoyment.  Don't miss the author's note and the family photos that he includes to show his own family hard at work building the home where he and his three sisters grew up.

Then, move on to the endpapers. Charming!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Gift Day, written by Kari-Lynn Winters and illustrated by Stephen Taylor. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012. $18.95 ages 5 and up

"Kojja told her, "Prepare the breakfast, fetch the water, and take care of your sisters. After that, you can be the scholar." Jjajj told her, as she wove
raffio baskets with the other grandmothers, "Prepare the lunch, fetch the firewood, and pull the weeds in the cassava field. After that, you can be the scholar."
 
It is all that Nassali really wants...to be able to attend school with her older brother and the other boys of the village. She listens to their talk, and admires their learning. Sometimes, she even pretends that she is at university in one of Uganda's top schools.
 
Her job since the death of her mother is to be in charge. Every day, the same old chores. One night, when she knows that her brother is finally asleep, she takes his school book and tries to teach herself to read its message. Tired from a full day's work, she is soon fast asleep.
 
Baabawe takes his book back, while also recognizing his sister's dream of an education. The next day she takes her sisters with her while she follows her brother to school and listens outside the school window. It is a long trek in the hot, hot sun. But, she is excited about what she hears.
 
That night she cries to her grandmother and her uncle that she wants to go to school, too. They will not hear of it.  A surprise is in store the following morning...all her chores are done for her. She has time to practice letters in the dirt. She remembers them from reading her brother's book.
 
There are even more surprises in store for Nassali. And then, she surprises everyone else!
 
Despite a United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child,
 
"You have the right to a good quality education. You should be provided with an education and encouraged to go to school to the highest level you can",
 
there are many children around the world who are not afforded that right, especially young girls. There are numerous reasons for this lack of education. A note at the back of the book explains why, and what is happening in Uganda in particular. Naasali's experience of no school is shared by far too many.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Peace, written and illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster, 2013. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"For there to be peace
in the world...there must
be peace in nations. For
there to be peace in nations,
there must be peace in cities.
For there to be peace in cities,
there must be peace in
neighborhoods. For there to
peace in neighborhoods, there
must be peace in schools... "

If you have seen other work by this acclaimed artist, you will not be surprised by the depth of detail she creates for each of the double-page spreads in her newest book. They remind me of stained glass windows, and invite readers into a world of peace that comes from within each of our hearts:

"When there is peace in our hearts, there will be peace in our homes".

She uses watercolor and colored pencils in warm and gentle tones, then divides her illustrations into small panels that welcome the children and animals of the world to share this tribute to peace for all. 
Accompanying the poem that moves the reader from page to page are quotes from world leaders throughout history, beginning with:

"What you do not want done to you, do not do to others." -Confucius

Every page encourages concentrated attention to the world, its inhabitants and the role we play in making it peaceful and harmonious. It is a difficult concept to each with words only. The artist uses her unquestioned talent to bring us scenes of living with respect for the land, the animals, the peoples of all nations and our own families.

To help us recognize what must be done to make peace a reality, Ms. Halperin begins by showing people who are living in disharmony. A lack of kindness to others is evident, as is solitude, bullying, environmental concerns, vast differences in education and upset in family homes. She gives readers reason for hope as we move backwards once we have 'peace in our hearts'. I love that the shift comes in the middle, where children's art takes center stage and two of my favorite quotes are placed:

"In serving the best interests of children, we will serve the best interests of all humanity." - Carol Bellamy.

"Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and  still be calm in your heart." - Unknown.

As we then move backwards, all who share this book will see evidence of what happens when we decide to make our own differences...caring about the world, music, art, reading, growing our own food, helping with chores and schoolwork, being a part of communities, and acceptance of others. Each tiny vignette from the beginning finds an accompanying solution through peace in our hearts. It is a lovely message!

"May the Sun bring you new energy by day, may the moon softly restore you by night, may the rain wash away your worries, may the breeze blow new strength into your being, may you walk gently through the world and know its beauty all the days of your life." -Apache blessing

It's Our Garden, written and photographed by George Ancona. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2013. $20.00 ages 5 and up

"A lot of water is needed to keep the garden healthy. When it rains, water flows off the roof, down a drainpipe, and into an underground tank called a cistern. A solar panel on the roof of the outdoor classroom creates electricity..."

The sub-title reads 'From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden'; it is an inspirational and thoughtful story for schools everywhere. George Ancona's curiosity leads him to visit school gardens in his home town of Sante Fe, New Mexico. As luck would have it, one of those visits is to Acequia Madre Elementary School where all children spend part of their school day in the garden. You don't have to imagine the joy he found in spending his days with them. You can read all about it right here!

It started with a dream...envisioned by Mrs. McCarthy, the third grade teacher. A small seed of an idea  spread to other teachers, to the administration, to parents. The enthusiasm was passed on to Miss Sue, her husband Will and a small group of college students who would design the space and help children learn to care for it.

It begins in spring, as gardens do.

"Depending on the weather, some classes are held in the open classroom, the garden, or the greenhouse."

They all have much to learn and inspired guidance for doing so. The children comb seed catalogues looking for what they want to grow. Lunch scraps are delivered to an ever-expanding compost pile. Soon, it is time to plant. They have everything they need to make the project a success...seeds, planting beds, the sun, rainwater, and wonder.

Working in the garden leads to learning about the insects and animals who thrive in it:

"In the early spring, a teacher orders butterfly cocoons by mail. When they arrive, the students put the cocoons in a new cage to raise them in the classroom. When the butterflies emerge, they are taken to the garden and released so that they can pollinate the plants."

Always busy, their garden becomes a gathering spot for the students and their families. They work together on weekends, evenings, holidays. They celebrate the abundance with music and eager conversation. When it comes time to harvest, they learn to cook and eat what the garden has produced. As a new school year then begins in the fall, there is much work left to do and reason to rejoice:

"To celebrate the end of the harvest, a series of lunches is prepared with many of the garden's vegetables. These become festivals  of good food and fun."

And then, there's the clean-up...worth it, as they happily anticipate next year's garden!

George Ancona's wonderful photography and his straightforward description of the development of the school garden will help anyone wanting to try some version of their own project with school children. The book's design is appealing and the inclusion of children's artwork just adds to the richness of the presentation.

Bravo to all who set out to create school and community gardens where children and their families grow food for their own tables, and more to share with others! Pair this book with Paul Fleischman's wonderful novel Seedfolks for a classroom or family read. You will be inspired!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Matilda's Cat, written and illustrated by Emily Gravett. Macmillan Children''s Books, Harper. 2012. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"Matilda's cat likes
playing with wool,
playing with wool,
boxes,
playing with wool,
boxes,
and riding bikes!
Matilda's cat likes
tea parties,
tea parties,
funky hats..."

You don't have to look very far for fun when one of Emily Gravett's books is at hand. In this newest one that I had in my TBR pile, I found just what I was looking for when thinking about wonderful books to help little ones see the joy that comes from reading on their own!

Her artistic flair is easily recognized for its charming characters and this is no exception, as you can see from the cover. Matilda is delighted to be manhandling her cat; the cat does not seem so enamored of the treatment. Matilda is nothing if not persistent and she tries to involve the cat in any number of pursuits. The front endpapers show the cat 'makaing tracks' for the inside of the book, and then a bit cautious while watching Matilda, who is dressed in a remarkably similar cat suit to the actual one sported by her pet.

On the title page we watch as Matilda draws a reasonable facsimile of the cat she so loves. Moving inside, Matilda is delightedly entangled in a mass of wool while the cat cowers behind the wool basket, and tries to avoid being hit in the head by a flying ball of red yarn. Turn the page and the cat who doesn't like to play with wool now likes playing with boxes. Or does he? Is that Matilda hiding in a decorated tower of them?

The cat doesn't seem too keen on wool, boxes or riding bicycles; mighty Matilda tends to take each of those favorite activities for her own. What about a tea party? How does one open a banana if one is a cat? Matilda tries to keep him busy; the cat is decidedly disinterested. No hats, no sword fights, no drawing...not even bedtime stories!

This is my favorite spread from the book:


If you know Emily Gravett's work, you will recognize the reading material...and check out that shadow. In the end, it seems the cat likes nothing that Emily likes. It isn't until the final page that we discover what he really does like! Perfect, and oh, so sweet.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My First Day, by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mfflin Harcourt. Thomas Allen & Son. 2013. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"On my first
day, it was cold!
I climbed out
of my egg,
stood on my
father's feet,
and snuggled
into his
feathers to
stay warm."

Who doesn't like babies? And the young readers who are meant to be the audience for this new book are sure to find much to 'ooh' and 'aah' about as they share it. The premise is to show us how 22 babies of the animal variety spend their first day. Most are much more accomplished than their human counterparts who will be listening to their stories:

"What did  you do on your first day - the day you were born?
Probably not much.
If you were like most
newborn babies, you
opened your eyes, cried,
slept, and drank some
milk. And that's about all
you could do."

Each of the animals tells about its first day in short text that will soon be mastered by the young readers! They have some unusual and very informative stories to tell. Readers will recognize some of them, but they will be introduced to others that are rare and unusual. There is diversity in their introduction to the world; from the wood duck who jumps from a nest high in the tree into nearby water to the capybara who can swim and dive within hours; from the sea lion who calls back and forth with his mother until they will recognize each other among many others to the Darwin's frog (!!!) who hops out of her father's mouth.  With each turn of the page, we are made aware of the time spent with a parent before the baby strikes out on its own.

A short description of that first day adventure is accompanied by a small label, and Steve Jenkins' signature cut-and-torn paper collage illustrations. Each focuses on the baby animal, and places it on a single color background, allowing the animal and its parent visibility, and attention.  In the backmatter the authors offer a return visit to the animals portrayed, adding new information for avid readers:

"The Malayan tapir lives in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. It averages seven feet (2 meters) in length and weighs around 650 pounds (295 kilograms). Tapirs can't see very well, but they have a keen sense of smell. They eat plant roots, stems and leaves. A newborn tapir weighs about 15 pounds (7 kilograms). Since it isn't strong enough to push its way through the dense jungle undergrowth, it must remain behind while its mother searches for food. As it waits, the calf holds very still, and the stripes and spots on its coat help it hide in the dappled light of the forest."

And now you know the whole story!

Frog Song, written by Brenda Z. Guiberson and illustrated by Gennady Spirin. Henry Holt, Macmillian. Raincoast, 2013. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"In Canada, the wood frog bursts out with a song in a mossy bog. BRACKBRACK! The female attaches a mass of eggs to underwater plants. Many eggs and tadpoles will be eaten by fish and birds, but some will become frogs that can freeze in the winter and thaw in spring."

I was rubbing my hands in anticipation of opening this new book to see what was inside. First, I had to pore over the beauty of the cover itself! The illustration of the strawberry poison dart frog (I didn't know that until I ventured further) sitting atop a textured leaf is bathed in light and shadow and sports such beautiful color and markings. It gave me pause. Then, I was ready to move on...

Stalled again...on the endpapers! Resplendent in the greens and browns of frog life, I was dazzled by the abundance pictured here. The title page is an invitation to pass through the gate created and enter the world of some of the world's amazing creatures. Each of the 11 frog species shown have a song and they are sung in a variety of places...a tree, a bog, a burrow and even in logs. Each turn of the page shows us a different place in the world, a new species and offers a most interesting look at the way they bear and protect their offspring.

I cannot choose a favorite from the diversity presented, but one that I found especially intriguing is the Darwin's frog  in Chile:

"The male guards 30 eggs in the damp leaves for three weeks. When the tadpoles wiggle, he scoops them into his mouth. SLURP! They slither into his vocal sacs, where he keeps them safe and moist for seven weeks. Then he gives a big yawn, and little froglets pop out."

That is patience, don't you think?

Gennady Spirin's detailed paintings are done using tempera, watercolor and pencil and are so realistic, you almost expect them to hop right off the page. His artwork enhances the unique and fascinating beauty of the species included. Budding biologists will find much to love here. Even if you are not, and never have been, a frog fan, you will come away from the reading with a renewed respect for the diversity of ways that frogs have evolved to have and care for their young.

There is lots of noise here, too. I know I will have to practice my 'frog songs' before ever attempting to share it with a group of young listeners. I'm sure they will be happy to help!

The backmatter includes some information concerning their needs to survive, a bibliography and a list of online websites where more information can be found. As well, Ms. Guiberson returns to each of the featured frogs and offers up a further bit of information:

"WOOD FROG
Range: From northern Georgia and northeastern Canada to Alaska and British Columbia.
Length: Averages about 2 inches.
Quick fact: This frog can live north of the Arctic Circle and survives being frozen all winter. It comes out of hibernation before all the ice has melted along streams and is the first frog to deposit eggs."

The author's last entry on a double page spread featuring huge dinosaurs in a lush, green expanse and a tiny frog watching them with concentration and interest offers this thought:

"A frog song is a celebration of clean water, plants and insects to eat. CHIROOP, PRIBBLE! Thousands of frog species have been singing and zapping since the time of the dinosaurs. Every day, in so many places, they add their ribbits and bellows to the  music of the earth."

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Kneebone Boy, written by Ellen Potter. Feiwel and Friends, Macmillian. Raincoast. 2010. $19.50 ages 12 and up

"As she walked she called out and listened, until she gradually began thinking about that thing that none of them had wanted to think about. It's one thing to not think certain thoughts when you are with other people; it's a whole other thing to not think about them when you are by yourself and the wind is picking up."
 
Each of the three Hardscrabble children are clearly identifiable, having unique personalities which make them believable and real. The cover art makes them look slightly macabre; and there is a sense of mystery to their story. I like them all and a lot. While not likely to make you scream, there are some eerie and odd moments.

The narrator's voice sets the tone for the story, and keeps the reader aware of everything that is happening with the children as they venture forth and learn a family secret. We are told that Otto is the oldest of the three...a mute who communicates using an invented sign system and always clad in a neck scarf. Lucia, the middle child, lives life to the fullest and is totally aware of everything that Otto signs. Max is brilliant, the youngest and always certain that things will come out right. They live with their father in small town England, the victims of gossip and notoriety ever since their mother disappeared.

The three children have differing opinions about their mother. Lucia is sure that she is dead, while Max feels that she is missing and will one day reappear. Otto has nothing to say, or sign, about it. Perhaps he is keeping a secret! One of the three is the narrator, but we are not privy to who is telling their story. I was constantly making new guesses of my own as I read. I might know, but maybe not.

When their father goes on one of his many long trips, and their caregiver in London is not there when they get there, the children decide that adventure is the name of the game, and go off on their own. Castle Folly holds secrets and a grand dose of the adventure they (well, Lucia) have been seeking. While this part of the story holds excitement and trepidation, it also brings the siblings closer together. The bonds are tighter, the secret uncovered and readers have a memorable story full of great writing, compelling characters and a deep and lasting love.

I read this book because I had so enjoyed The Humming Room, and I am glad that I did.