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Friday, February 28, 2014

Grandfather Gandhi, written by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus and illustrated by Evan Turk. Atheneum Books, Simon & Schuster, 2014. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"Grandfather wasn't one for riddles, Father had often told me, but he was one for stories. One was coming, I was sure of it. I held the thin cotton thread between my thumb and forefinger, not moving, as Grandfather's fingers went to work. "Have I not told you how anger is like electricity?" I shook my head."

This is a very special account of a slice of life spent with a beloved grandfather, written from the perspective of his grandson. Arun is only twelve when he and his family arrive at Sevagram, the ashram where his Grandfather Gandhi lived in later life.

Arun's voice is clear, and sometimes confused. He loves his grandfather dearly, and wants to spend time with him. So, too, do many others. In fact, there are more than three hundred people living in the ashram. The lifestyle is simple and communal. It consists of morning prayer, chores that are shared by all who live there, and even the dreaded pumpkin mush that everyone eats for dinner.

The family's move from South Africa to spend two years with his grandfather proves to be trying for the young boy. He misses much about his old way of life, including movies, meals, electricity and choice in activities. Here, he has to take lessons in Gujarati, work with a tutor, and share his grandfather with many others. In the first week he spends time hovering nearby trying to speak with him. Arun is soon sent away, to find work that needs to be done.

In the second week, his grandfather walks and talks with him, sharing his wisdom and asking Arun questions about his family and this new way of life. Arun is honest:

"The other kids tease me, and my tutor thinks
I am useless," I blurted out as the path before us
turned. "I try hard, but it is not enough."
I stopped short of saying that I didn't feel like a
Gandhi, that peace and stillness did not come easily
to me. Even Gujarati did not come easily to me!"

His grandfather gives Arun full attention, and offers the advice that he give himself time to adjust. But when Arun's reaction to a bad day, made worse when he is knocked to the ground in soccer, is one of extreme anger, he runs in fear to his grandfather again for counsel. The wisdom that Grandfather Gandhi imparts is a lesson that changes the course of Arun's life.

Debut artist Evan Turk uses complex collage images to give emotion to this powerful story. Using watercolor, gouache and cut papers, he creates scenes that help young readers understand the relative peace of the ashram and the strength of the anger and frustration that the young boy feels.

This is a remarkable story, told with passion and grace. Its message is made clear without ceremony. Rather, it is the tale of a man who speaks from his heart to his confused and much loved grandson, offering a gentle and uplifting message about each person's role in making the world a better place.

A note from the authors provides context and hope for each one of us:

"It is our hope, Arun's and mine, that we each look inside to see where our anger, shame, and fear hides. And when we do so, that we lovingly channel those feelings into positive action. Each time we choose to act rather than react, to sit instead of strike, to listen instead of shout, we work to create peace. We help our world heal.
                   Let us learn to live our lives as light."

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Aphrodite: Goddess of Love, by Geroge O'Connor. First Second, A Neal Porter Book. Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan, Raincoast. 2014. $10.99 ages 10 and up

"Worry not, son!
One the slopes of Mount
Ida, there is a shepherd.
His name is Paris. Find him,
for it will fall to him to
decide which of these three
is the most beautiful.
A mortal shepherd?
To judge three goddesses?
I'm the god of liars for a
reason, Pop."

Had George O'Connor's Olympians series been required reading for me as an introduction to Greek mythology, I would have paid more attention....and I don't really like graphic novels! I have now read the six published books in this great series. I have a much clearer understanding of Zeus, Athena, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and now, Aphrodite. Each is a great pleasure to read. So, I happily anticipated the arrival of the newest one.

Even Zeus is a tad intimidated when he first meets Aphrodite. She is ethereal, yet powerful, and oh, so beautiful! She need do nothing to capture the attention of every living thing that comes within the sphere of that power. He is aware of the danger that she poses to his leadership. What can he do to stem it? He cannot destroy her, nor can he control her.

The graphic novel format is sure to attract adolescent readers to these stories of the Olympians. The writing gives them a human quality that allows a connection to their world and to their relationships. The conversations are often humorous, and prove that the gods themselves are fallible, subject to the same insecurities that often plague humans. The art is appealing and detailed and is sure to stand up to repeated readings.

Aphrodite's beauty and generosity of spirit are the focus as the Charites share her story. Her arrival is cause for strife that plays out wonderfully as she treats the other goddesses with disdain and often shows her mean streak. Though married, she is full of wanderlust and sure to create chaos wherever she goes. Paris, chosen to make a judgement as to the most beautiful of goddesses is not immune to her power or her bribes. Who wouldn't be interested in Helen of Troy?

This story certainly promises more. We will just have to wait until Mr. O'Connor graces us with his next adventure.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Little Poems for Tiny Ears, written by Lin Oliver and illustrated by Tomie dePaola. Nancy Paulsen Books, Perguin. 2014. $18.00 6 months to 2 years

"My Tongue

My tongue is pink
And wet, I think.
In and out it goes.

It's in my mouth
A little south
Of where you'll find
my nose."

For twenty years, since it was first published, I have been adding A Child's Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (Kingfisher, 2004) to each basket of books I buy for parents to welcome their new baby. I love it because of my belief that all children should have the benefit of hearing rhyme and rhythm from the time of birth (and even before), because not enough children hear these nursery rhymes that have stood the test of time, and because the illustrations are so lovely and lyrical. Now, I can add another book of rhymes to that basket!

They are original, and lively, and written in the first person. This gives those who hear them such a strong connection to the many babies so beautifully drawn by Tomie dePaola. There are twenty-three lovely original rhymes that shed light on the many common events and objects that are each an important part of a small child's day:

"When I snooze
I don't wear shoes
Or visit zoos
Or kangaroos.
I close my eyes
and see blue skies
And dream sweet dreams
Until I rise."

Delightful! They are tiny treasures to share with sweet kisses and tender touches. The rhymes are varied in form and are a real joy to share. It won't be long until parents are amusing themselves and their little ones with the lilting sounds of language so beautifully crafted.

In his own inimitable way, the artist complements the verses with round faced cherubs drawn with soft transparent acrylics. Full of cozy warmth and set in square or rectangular frames, they convey a sense of happy contentment with the many discoveries being made.

I know that I am going to order multiple copies now so that I will have them on hand when I need them!


Monday, February 24, 2014

Weeds Find A Way. Words by Cindy Jenson-Elliott and pictures by Carolyn Fisher. Beach Lane Books, Simon & Schuster. 2014. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"Weeds send their seeds
into the world in wondrous
fluffing up like feathers
and floating away on the wind;
swirled into prickly burrs
that stick to socks and fur;
poking into pants and paws
like tiny needles;
or shot out of tight, dry pods
like confetti from a popped

I don't even mind thinking about weeds right now...they would be a welcome relief to ice, snow and bone-chilling winds! You know about weeds; they grow in the strangest of places and survive despite constant efforts to eliminate them. They are too often maddening in their resilience.

The little girl and her dog, in this beautifully illustrated book, lead the way for us through an informative look at the bothersome plants we call weeds. The author shows us clearly that they can grow in many strange and wonderful places, that they manage to exist despite the long winter wait for sunshine and warm earth and, when the sun powers up to make a frying pan of summer sidewalks, that they manage to find life there, too. There are so many places for them to survive and thrive.

A weed's ability to spread its seeds and grow is the premise for this author who educates children and others about nature and the beauty found there. That natural 'beauty' includes 24 common weeds, described in a four page "Meet the Weeds" section found at the back of the book. Some will be familiar to you, others may not be. A simple illustration accompanies each descriptive paragraph, which might help children (and adults) with identification.

"Good or bad, weeds offer endless opportunities to study one of nature's most wonderful tools: adaptation. Adaptations are the physical qualities or behaviors, created by natural selection, that enable a living thing to survive in a particular environment. A weed's adaptations may include physical structures that help the plant avoid being picked, such as stem that breaks when it is pulled out so the roots are left in the ground to grow, or defences to prevent the plant from being eaten, such as thorns or poison."

No wonder the little beasts never go away! But, I guess I have to admit they are quite amazing.

This is a great nonfiction readaloud, with lovely descriptive language that will resonate with young readers and those who share the book.

And I love the close-up images created by Carolyn Fisher in mixed-media paintings and digital collage. Each scene stands on its own, offering a colorful background for the ever-changing perspectives and placement of text. It is a very appealing look at an unappealing (for the most part) group of hardy, unmanageable plants.

Miss Maple's Seeds, story and pictures by Eliza Wheeler. Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin. 2013. $18.00 ages 3 and up

"Miss Maple takes them on a field trip to learn about being a seed. Some will be carried by the river and land in soft, muddy soils. Friends of the river will help them bloom in safe places. They tour the grassy fields and thick forests. Many seeds will be blown here..."

What would we do without people like Miss Maple? They love to spend their time making the world a more beautiful place, and they teach us lessons that will help us to do the same.

She is very tiny, as you can see from the front cover, and she does spend her summer looking for seeds that have missed spring planting. They find warmth and comfort within her home as she gives them all the care they will need to be productive in the next planting season. She knows each and every one of them, and loves them all. (The illustrated page that shows and names each of them is a welcome addition.) She teaches them about the world that surrounds them. She reads them stories as they snuggle in each evening (oh, I love that!), and she whispers them a warning:

"Take care, my little children, for the world is big and you are small."

They spend the winter snuggled deep in the warmth of the maple tree, and look forward to spring when Miss Maple teaches them to dance in the rain. Then, they must take what she has taught them and find their own way in the world.

"Miss Maple has given them guidance and love, and now her part in their story has come to an end. They say their good-byes with sweet memories and bright futures ahead."

All that is left for Miss Maple to do now is to start all over again, finding other seeds who have missed the planting and who will need nurturing until it's time for them to find their wings and fly!

It's a celebration, and would be perfect read alongside Mrs. Spitzer's Garden (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001).

Eliza Wheeler's delicate artwork was created using dip pens, India ink, and watercolors. The images are filled with the many small details that make each moment spent with Miss Maple a real treasure.
Young readers will wonder at the cozy warmth of her home, the frog's log home, the tiny delicate beds designed especially for their occupants, and the elegant lanterns that carry them down the stream. It's a lovely little world.

Right now, in the blistering cold of a very long and bitter Manitoba winter, any book that offers warmth and a belief that spring will come again is welcome.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Duck to the Rescue, written and illustrated by John Himmelman. Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2014. $18.99 ages 4 and up

"On Wednesday,
the chickens needed
a break from watching
their chicks.

Duck to the rescue!

"Cluck, cluck, cluck,"
said the chickens."

First, it was the pigs! Then, the chickens and cows! Now, it's the goat! The Greenstalks who own this farm must be some kind and loving family. Otherwise, why would their many animals involve themselves in solving every problem that arises? While help is always needed, the animals' ways of dealing with the difficulties are not always popular and sensible.

Fans of John Himmelman's other farm books will have a real sense of what's coming in this addition to the funny and engaging series of escapades. Each day of the week brings some new concern to  members of the Greenstalk family, both human and animal. Since the duck has not yet taken his turn in helping out, the solutions now fall to him.

It's slapstick comedy that will have little ones eager to see what Ernie has up his sleeve. If, like each of the other books, the sight gags make them chortle, they are sure to want to hear it again. No matter what crops up, Ernie wants to help. His manner of helping most assuredly adds delight and even more difficulties to an otherwise peaceful farm life.

In taking the harvested pumpkins to market, he crashes the truck. In trying to rescue a calf from a very high perch, Ernie succumbs to vertigo and must be rescued himself. He is a neverending trial to those who need his help. When Sunday rolls around, he is finally able to solve a bogus problem, which boosts his wilted self-esteem, and perhaps manages to give us a clue to the 'helper' for the next book!

John Himmelman's watercolor images give the fairly straightforward text vivid and frenetic life. Readers will pore over the wry humor of the situations that Ernie creates for himself and others.  It will be no time until young readers are reading it to themselves and to anyone who might listen. Great books to the rescue!

Chaotic and full of fun, this is a book that would make a lively addition to any story time.

Monday, February 17, 2014

50 Body Questions: A Book That Spills Its Guts. Written by Tanya Lloyd Kyi and illustrated by Ross Kinnaird. Annick Press, 2014. $14.95 ages 10 and up

"Humans remember smells for a long, long time...In one study in Sweden, researchers asked 93 seniors to think of their childhood as they saw pictures, heard sounds, or smelled odors. The strongest memories were all triggered by the sense of smell, and most of those memories were from early childhood - before the test subjects turned 10 years old."

The box of books that comes from Brigette at Annick Press every publishing season is most welcome, and always a distraction. It happened again this past week. I shouldn't have opened it!

At the moment, my task is to be reading more than 20 juvenile/young adult crime books for a Canadian literary award. I love the books that I am reading, but I was distracted! I can't help it. I have become accustomed to learning so much whenever that box arrives. The nonfiction that Annick Press publishes is exemplary, and so informative.

So, the first book I read cover to cover was this one. I have written posts for some of the other books in this brilliant series...50 Questions about poisons, climate, underwear, fire. I wonder how Tanya Lloyd Kyi knows the questions that will most intrigue her readers. Put Guts on the front cover and you've got a great start. The table of contents shows that we will be welcomed to the 'body shop' before moving on to a set of 7 chapters, each dealing with one of the body's systems. She begins with digestion.

My reading just happened to come up when I was having dinner with Val last night. Why not? So, I was telling her that I had abandoned the books I was supposed to be reading for a short time, and did she want to know what I had learned about the small intestine. Being the sweet and ever-supportive friend that she is, she agreed to hear what I had to say. Not in so many words, I told her this:

"For the rest of that pizza, it's on to the small intestine...
If you took your small intestine and stretched it straight up from the ground, it would be the height of a two-story building. It's only called "small" because of its width - about the diameter of a gumball. Resting in coils beneath your ribcage, it sucks the nutrients from your food and sends them to your bloodstream."

C'mon! A two-story building? I can assure you that it is true because I know Tanya does her research. I have read her other books. After that fascinating tidbit,  I was on a roll. I won't go into it here because you should read this book on your own. I will tell you that the questions for this first chapter are: Can you turn pepperoni into poo? Are there ducks in your mouth? Um...excuse you? Is there snot in your stomach? Are there aliens inside you? Can your bowels affect your brain? Do you know the food dance? I mean, who wouldn't be interested in knowing more?!?

As well as answers to those totally en'grossing' questions, BODY BYTES (laid atop a blood spatter) are included to provide further explanatory information, as well as additional intriguing historical bits and each chapter ends with a BODY BUILDERS page. In the first chapter it teaches readers how to make "mucus" and asks questions that help them understand exactly how it works in the body. Fun, fun, fun!

As he has done before, illustrator Ross Kinnaird (who explains that he comes up with ideas while sitting in a bath of warm lemonade with a frozen chicken on his head) provides much appreciated humor and attention grabbing artwork that is sure to have the intended audience always moving forward. Rounding out the text are a glossary, suggestions for further reading, a selected sources list for each chapter, and an index.   

If you are a person who wants to know more about your body, or you have children and students who do, this is a perfect book for you!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Disney MUPPETS Character Encyclopedia. Written by Craig Shemin. DK Publishing, Tournaline Editions Inc. 2014. $17.00 ages 5 and up

"The Electric Mayhem band's passionate percussionist is known for his love of music, the ladies, and his hunger for everything else. No one knows exactly where Animal came from (or where he goes at night), and it's probably better that way...Animal may be unpredictable and short-tempered, but he does have a softer side."

Let's get things started!

Our family loved the Muppet Show; each week we waited in eager anticipation for the next episode! Had we had a PVR back then, we would have taped them and watched them time and time again. Luckily, we now have our own copies of each of the three seasons available on DVD. Watching brings back many happy memories, and provides a return to the laughter that each revue show provided. So many wonderful characters and quick sketches!

In this new character encyclopedia we meet these memorable friends once more. The front cover tells us that there are 'more than 150 Muppets from Animal to Zoot'. Filled with facts and many surprises, it takes us from The Muppet Show pilot and provides single page entries for the many wonderful characters who graced its stage, and loges. A full color image of each Muppet is accompanied by a descriptive paragraph, further information, a file giving their debut show, their species and their special talents. Captioned photos from the archives add a strong measure of fun!

I have pored over its many entries, meeting old friends and enjoying the beautiful photographs.
What a grand compilation this is! The time and love given to the project is evident on all of its 199 pages. If you are a Muppet fan, want to be a fan, or have never really considered these amazing characters s part of your life, it makes no difference. There is something here for everyone and wonder on all of its pages.

Another amazing book from DK Publishing, with a big huzzah to Craig Shemin for the dedication and outstanding research that gets it into our hands! You don't want to miss it.


Not My Girl, written by Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, with illustrations by Gabrielle Grimard. Annick Press, 2014. $9.95

"When I left for Aklavik, I was just eight. Now I was ten. In that time I had learned how to add numbers and how to read books. I had perfect table manners and knew when to say my prayers. I could speak English and French. But I no longer knew the words in my own language to tell my mother that I was her girl."

As they did for their first novel about attending a residential school (Fatty Legs, Annick, 2010), Christy Jordan-Fenton and her mother-in-law, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, have written a companion picture book to make access to the second of her stories (A Stranger at Home, Annick, 2011) easier for a younger audience. I only recently recommended When I Was Eight (Annick, 2013). This is its sequel.

It is equally compelling, and beautiful. Margaret tells her story of returning home after two years at the 'outsiders' school to find that her mother does not even recognize her. Imagine the heartache she feels.  She has forgotten most of the language of her childhood, cannot complete tasks that were once second-nature to her, and her father's dog team no longer recognizes her smell. No one can know the loss felt by children who went away to residential schools except those who experienced it. Margaret and Christy together help us understand what it was like to return to a life forgotten, and to learn to live all over again with family, friends and the community.

The story is told simply, and with clarity. It allows a younger audience to learn the longer story of her second novel. It is written with honor, and with tremendous feeling for the loss she shares with so many other children. I think it makes it clear to each of us that there is a need for us to tell our stories, no matter what they might be. They give a glimpse into the past, and will certainly impact the present and future, we hope.

Gabrielle Grimard illustrates this story with expressive, often sorrowful, images. The wide horizons and glorious northern lights give readers such a sense of place. The warmth of family and community are also there for us to enjoy. The empathy created for Margaret's story comes from Ms. Grimard's skill in sharing the always changing expressions of her characters. Bravo!

The inclusion of a photo of Margaret and her parents (circa 1937) and the heartwarming ending are the icing on the cake and will surely leave listeners content.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Memory Tree, written and illustrated by Britta Teckentrup. Orchard UK, Hachette. 2013. $16.99 ages 4 and up

"Owl was the first to speak.

He smiled warmly and said,
"I remember when Fox and I
were very young. Every
autumn, we raced to see who
could catch more falling
The other animals remembered
and smiled."

Whenever I send a sympathy card I try to include this Thomas Campbell quote: To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die. I fervently believe in his assertion about the importance of memories. Our family has lived without David (husband, father, friend, teacher, champion) for more than eleven years now, and we keep him alive in our hearts through our stories. It is those memories that connect us still to our life together, and remind us every day how much we were (and are) loved.

When Fox grows tired and dies in a forest glade, his friends are stunned. They are sad. They cannot imagine their lives without his presence. But, they understand that it was his time to leave. As they gather in reverence, they are silent. Owl breaks the ice, allowing Fox's friends to begin to add their memories for the gathering of friends. Though sad at his passing, their memories are happy ones. It is so important to share them.

As they sit and share, a small orange plant pokes out of the snow. With each story, the plant grows taller until it becomes a small tree...a constant reminder of their beloved friend. As the days pass and the tree grows with each new story shared, his friends feel comforted:

"Fox's tree was big and strong enough to shelter all the animals. It was always buzzing with life. The birds built their nests among the leaves and Owl raised his grandchicks on the branches. Squirrel found a cozy home in the trunk and Bear, Deer and Rabbit slept in its shade. They tree gave strength to everyone who had loved Fox."

It is a beautiful story, simply told. Ms. Teckentrup's graphic, textured art has a snowy softness that reflects the quiet passing of Fox, and his friends' sadness as they adjust to life without him. The colors are subdued at the beginning, but grow in vibrancy as various happy memories are shared. Each turn of the page offers new delight for those sharing it. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Never Too Little To Love, written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Jan Fearnley. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2005. $14.50 ages 3 and up


"This is
Tiny Too-Little.

He loves somebody.


And that's a long,
long way..."

Tiny Too-Little really wants a kiss, and it appears that he will go to any lengths to get one. Even if it seems impossible. Even if it appears dangerous. Even when all of his planning fails!

I was reading this book with young children as I visited schools this week. I had Valentine's Day in mind, and it seemed a perfect choice. Those children were in complete agreement. The best thing happened each time I read it....someone (in tiny voice, or not) asked to hear it again. It is the best compliment a reader can get, isn't it?

It is really perfect fare for those who are just becoming interested in figuring out how print works. It has just enough words; those words are repetitive; the illustrations serve as a wonderful support for assuring success; and, would-be readers feel proud and capable when they read it themselves, or even help with the words.

Tiny has a problem, that is a sure thing! The love of his life is too tall for him to reach, and he really wants that kiss. So, he stands on tiptoes on a thimble, but it doesn't come close to solving the problem. Nor does a matchbox on the thimble on tiptoes, or a watermelon on a matchbox on a thimble on tiptoes.

You know where this is going, and so do kids! The pile gets higher, the text keeps adding one more element to the growing tower. Nothing helps. Just when he reaches the highest point on the book's page, the tower wobbles...and then CRASHES!  Oh, dear!

This is Valentine's Day...and love is in the air. No worries for Tiny Too-Little. His love has the solution to what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle. Love conquers all, am I right?

Don't miss is a true delight...and worthy of reading any day of the year!

The Bathing Costume, written by Charlotte Moundlic and illustrated by Olivier Tallec. Enchanted Lions, 2013. $17.50 ages 5 and up

"If I were to be completely honest, I'd tell Mama that I was the one who suggested to the cousins that we hold a competition to see who can wash the least over the vacation. I came up with this plan  because the bathroom is really, really old and the shower is full of spiders."

Myron knows it's going to be the worst vacation of his life...he just knows it! His parents are preparing for an upcoming family move and his grandparents have agreed to help out. Myron has never been there on his own. Mama has always been with him on vacation.

Grandma has some plans for him:

"Grandma also told me that at my parents' request she's going to have me do a little work every day. After summer vacation, I'll be going into third grade. I'm the shortest in my class and I haven't lost a single tooth. To top it all off, my teacher noticed that I've been having some difficulties with writing. On my report card , in the comments section, she wrote: "A dreamy, distracted student who is very nice to all of his classmates.""

Turns out that young Ronnie (aka Myron) is not the only relative sent to live with the grandparents. His obnoxious older cousins are going to be there with him. As he writes his weekly letter to his mother, he skips much of what is happening each day. He has enough smarts to know what needs to be left out for a doting parent. He doesn't tell her about throwing up in the car, of biking without helmets, or about the ramps!

Doesn't seem like such a bad time, does it? He does have one consuming worry.

"This summer I'm eight. And in the family,
the summer when you're eight is the summer when
you have to jump off the 10-foot diving board."

Ronnie will try the lower board first...even that terrifies him a bit. He'll leave the high board until the last day. His 'bathing costume' presents some problems as well. First, it is Martin's. Second, it is too big for Ronnie. Third, the cousins think it's very funny to try and tug it down. Fourth, the suit does fall down when he jumps off the diving board. Grandma promises a fix before they come again.

By the end of the week, Ronnie has to admit that it hasn't been too bad so far; but, the pool and its high board beckon:

"Grandma has sewn a terrible elastic thing into my
bathing suit to hold it up. But since she's not good
at sewing, my suit looks more like a diaper.
And I look like a sissy. Everyone in the
locker room snickers at me."

What happens as he prepares for and makes his high his dive will be a real surprise to all!

What a great story this is! It is full of emotion and new discovery. Readers will empathize with Ronnie as much as they will rejoice at his growing confidence. I warm watercolors, Herve Tallec takes us right along with Ronnie and his cousins as they enjoy the warmth and beauty of summer in the country. I love it!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Tea Rex, written and illustrated by Molly Idle. Viking, Penguin. 2013. $18.00 ages 4 and up

"Dear Mr. Rex,

It has been so long
since I have seen you.

Do drop by on Friday
afternoon for a cup
of tea.

Your friend,

We recently spent time with Mary Wrightly and her mannerly ways. Now, I would like to introduce you to Cordelia and her little brother. Cordelia knows what it is to be polite and inviting. In fact, her invitation to a dinosaur to come to tea is the premise for this delightful new book by Molly Idle.

Cordelia is well aware of the nuances of good manners. Her opening note to Mr. Rex and the thank you note she sends once he has visited would do Emily Post proud. In between, the author makes clear the advice that should be taken when an afternoon tea is the social occasion. Any idea what might happen when a T. Rex arrives for tea? Of course, he does his very best to be the perfect guest!

Ms. Idle provides a clear vision for her many delighted readers of the hilarity that ensues when a very large dinosaur accepts an invitation to tea. He's exceptionally polite; he just doesn't fit the specifications of human house, tea paraphernalia, and proper manners. It begins with promise, and  takes no time to dissolve into chaos.

The illustrations are a riot and answer many questions that might be considered before the next invite is sent. How do you get him in the door? What little brother is going to sit politely and sip tea when a dinosaur is in the vicinity? How does a T. Rex drink from a tiny teacup? What will hold enough to satisfy his thirst? Once he's eaten, how do you get him out the door? Will he return your gracious invitation with a tea party of his own?

All questions are answered with humor and charm in the bold and detailed Prismacolor pencil crayon artwork. Young readers will be delighted to spend glorious moments exploring the many wonderful details that each page presents. Be sure to study them carefully, and take the time to enjoy the delighted laughter of the child who shares it with you.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Seven Wild Sisters, written by Charles De Lint and illustrated by Charles Vess. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2013. $20.00 ages 8 and up

"I guess I could have been concerned about any number of things right then, from the danger we were in to what Mama was going to say when and if I ever got myself home, but the last thing I thought about as we passed out of this world and into some other was that we'd left Root in the barn. Who was going to look after him and Henny? Who was going to feed Aunt Lillian's chickens?"

Ah, seven sisters! We meet Sarah Jane first...she is the middle one and this is her story. Following her father's death, her mother and siblings moved to her grandparents' old farm, hoping for a life that would provide a living and a happy home. As she wanders about the woods she so loves, Sarah Jane meets Aunt Lillian, an older woman living on a nearby farm.

They spend many days together. Sarah Jane learns about living on the land, while caring for nature's creatures and she also listens to Aunt Lillian's engrossing stories of fairies and magical creatures who live nearby. The stories are pure fantasy to Sarah Jane, who enjoys them as children enjoy fairy tales. It is only when she saves the life of an injured magic man that Sarah Jane becomes privy to the feud that rages between two groups of mystical creatures...the 'sang men and the bee fairies.

Her six sisters are captured by the warring groups in order to make Sarah Jane acquiesce to their demands for retribution and a return to the true order of the forest fairy world. She will need help. She first turns to Aunt Lillian, a bit of a magical creature herself. Then, the Apple Tree Man who certainly has a long time connection with the old woman. They are not the only ones involved. It takes a lot of planning and a great deal of negotiation (and some bold trickery)  to return things to what was normal.

Luckily, this is a fairy tale and all's well that ends well. It is a second story of the Tanglewood Forest, and will certainly appeal to fans of that fine book (The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, 2013). They will recognize a few characters and meet many new ones. They are companion stories; one need not be read before the other. But, young readers are often intrigued to find familiar characters in more than one tale.

Charles De Lint is adept at letting his readers know enough about each of seven sisters to keep each of them clear in our minds. He writes with energy and humor. I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, although  I did truly enjoy the camaraderie he created between Sarah Jane and Aunt Lillian.

The book itself is quite lovely...engaging and accomplished text, an inviting cover and interior artwork, and a brand new fairy tale, to boot. Sarah Jane tells her story in first person, while those sections that describe her sisters and their action are told  in the third person, making for some appealing transitions. The sisters and their various unique skills help bring the story to a fitting end.

If I am reading the clues given, I suspect that we are likely to meet these young women at some time in the future. I will not be disappointed. A love interest for Sarah Jane is sure to add to our anticipation of her next adventure. 

This is wonderful and worthwhile introduction to fantasy, for those just beginning an exploration of a brand new genre.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mary Wrightly, So Politely, written by Shirin Yim Bridges and illustrated by Maria Monescillo. Harcourt Children's Books, Thomas Allen & Son. 2013. $20.99 ages 4 and up

"She didn't complain when a boy stepped on her toe. In fact, Mary Wrightly, so  politely, said, "I'm sorry." When Mary and her mother reached the toy store, it was very crowded. They had to squeeze themselves in the door - and who did they find inside but their neighbor, Mrs. Giles"

Too often the quiet and mannerly kids in our classrooms and families are almost invisible. They demand little from those around them, and accept things they feel they cannot change. It often takes something very important to encourage them to have a say.

That is exactly what happens for Mary Wrightly. She makes her way softly through life, offering up 'please' and 'thank you' at all of those times when they are needed and noticed. Rarely can people hear what she has to say the first time. She speaks so quietly, and needs encouragement to project her voice so that others know what she is saying. This means that what she thinks is rarely even noticed.

Mary has a brother whose birthday approaches. She wants to get him something special to celebrate this first important milestone. She and her mother hop on the bus for a trip to the toy store. Along the way, Mary reacts to every situation with quiet acceptance and good manners. Always unerringly polite, Mary is unable to state her case when a few appropriate gifts are taken by others. When it looks as if someone might take the one gift she REALLY wants for him, it does take courage but Mary has her say! Proof that there are times when you must speak up for what you want...

"At home, Mary ran straight to her brother's room
and dangled the blue elephant over his crib.
The elephant smiled down at her baby brother.
Her baby brother smiled up at the elephant."

The gorgeous depth of the bright pastel colors glow with light, and with love. Textural and attention-getting, they add much enjoyment to this tale of a little girl with a little (and very polite) voice finally making herself heard.

You go, Mary Wrightly!   

Bo at Ballard Creek, written by Kirkpatrick Hill and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan. Raincoast Books, 2013. $18.50 ages 8 and up

"The days grew warmer and warmer. Pools and puddles were everywhere as the winter snow disappeared. When Bo went to visit Oscar, all the snow on the roof of Oscar's cabin was dripping into the soft tired snow around the house. The snow was grainy and didn't glitter in the sun. Soon it would be all melted away. Oscar's mother was Clara, and she was always glad to see Bo. "Onee, onee," she cried happily - come in."

It's the 1920s in Alaska. Bo lives with her papas, in an old gold rush town that is slowly losing its inhabitants. The mine has little gold left to give. As a baby, Bo was given to her papa Arvid, just as her young and adventurous mother left on a boat going downriver. Some mothers don't stick around to care for their young. What a stroke of  luck for Bo!

Arvid and Jack took to caring for Bo in the best way possible, and Bo, at 5, has grown to be a  much-loved and very welcome community member. She loves her life with her papas, her many friends, and the events that take place around her. We are privy to these goings-on in Bo's life for the best part of a year. We watch as the many small vignettes mold themselves into a well-told and engaging story for readers and listeners in third through sixth grades.

There are lots of characters to get to know, and each one has a special role to play in Bo's daily life.
There are miners, Eskimos, visitors and even another orphan. They rush to welcome an airplane and the CAT that brings groceries; they celebrate July 4 and an important birthday; and they worry together when a grizzly comes to close and when Bo becomes very ill with pneumonia. Through it all the community supports all members and the book gives readers a homey look at life in the early 1900s.

The illustrations add interest and allow us a personal look at the many events shared. Bo is an exuberant child with a big heart, who works her way into the families and hearts of all who live at Ballard Creek. She has much to learn and does it with great gusto. She speaks two languages and learns to communicate in an entirely different way when Grafton doesn't appear to understand either. She is always positive, inquisitive. I most certainly want to know more about her, her papas and their  life in a new mining town when they must leave Ballard Creek to make a living elsewhere.

Read it aloud with your family, or to your class. It will be time well spent!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Bugs in My Hair! Written and illustrated by David Shannon. Blue Sky Press, Scholastic. 2013. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"My HEAD really ITCHED!
What in the heck were
they doing up there?


they were
feasting on my 

Leave it to the incomparable David Shannon to write a book that will have us scratching, and laughing, and learning every time we share it. It is surely an essential read for every school classroom. It will make you laugh, and it is sure to make you itch! That is its intention.

David Shannon has done his research. You will come away from the reading with a better knowledge of those tiny bugs that strike terror in the hearts of parents and teachers alike...and that often cause great embarrassment to the children whose heads they like to infest.

There is so much here to enjoy. Bringing some cheer to a subject that can take on mammoth proportions might be just the ticket. The year I lost one of my students (grade two) to cancer was the year I decided that 'lice' were a concern that were given too much attention in the real world. They are bugs, there are many ways to control them, and they are pretty harmless. I grant that they are a nuisance.

David Shannon invites all of us to look at the silly side of the problem, with his witty text and his very funny images. I have read his new book a number of times. Did I scratch my head? Yes, I did. Did I even think 'ick'? Yes, I did. But, that's about the extent of it.

The young man whose story this is has numerous fears once his mother finds lice In his hair. Will he ever have friends again? Who was the culprit who passed them on to him? Turns out a number of people had 'em. Perhaps it was the adult reaction that caused more concern than was needed to deal with the problem.

Turns out that there are numerous 'cures'. Some are as nasty as they sound. The real solution...a comb, one of a variety of oils that lice do not like, and a bit of elbow grease.  Gone, but not always forever!

"So we went through the whole thing again and now at last, those awful, disgusting lice are completely gone."

The bright color palette, the energy filled spreads, the expressive bug faces and antics will entertain and enlighten as Mr. Shannon adds tidbits of real information throughout the text. Funny, irreverent, and right up a kid's alley....and vintage David Shannon.

But, be prepared:


One Gorilla, created by Anthony Browne. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2012. $20.00 ages 2 and up

"All primates.

All one family.

All my family...

and yours!"

There are no words of mine that could possibly do justice to this absolutely gorgeous book from the renowned British artist Anthony Browne!

It is a work of true beauty, not unexpected if you know his work. Its subject is not even a surprise...he has an affinity for primates, as he has proved time and again. It is the intensity of color and expression that makes it so very memorable.

There is little to say about the is a counting book. That is what it does. It is in the subject matter that readers will be inspired to pause and take a very personal look at each of the large portraits included here. In discussing it with children and talking about illustrator strategies, I would be asking them to notice the close-up views, the expressive faces, the textures, the white space that ensures that the subject matter is front and center, and the eyes...oh, those eyes!

 As the numbers grow, the attention no longer remains constant between reader and primate. They have more to distract them, and expressions change. All the while we, as readers, are aware of the dignity given to each and to the intelligence that shines in their eyes. We wonder what they are thinking, and if they have questions as we do. Finally we meet Anthony Browne in a self-portrait, drawn to help us note just how closely we (and the people of the world) are linked to these amazing animals.

If you have ever wondered, wonder no more!


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fox and Squirrel, written and illustrated by Ruth Ohi. North Winds Press, Scholastic. 2013. $14.99 ages 3 and up

"I like to climb,"
said Squirrel.

"You can't."

"You climb well,"
said Fox.

"I live in a nest,"
said Squirrel.

And so goes the conversation between two friends, as they play together in their woodland home. Squirrel seems only to notice that he and his friend are very different from each other. On the other hand, Fox is not limited by the same outlook. Fox sees their world from a happy and encouraging perspective.

Their interaction is joyful, despite the differences that Squirrel continuously points out. Fox is ever hopeful that those differences are what makes them special and that what they have in common is also important. It takes Rat's disdain to encourage both to look even more closely at their very unique and similar traits:

"We both have pointy ears,"
said Squirrel. "And bushy tails!"
"Well, bushy sometimes,"
said Fox.
"We both like to run and play..."

I have great admiration for Ruth Ohi's ability to portray simple concepts so eloquently and team them with colorful, inviting illustrations that are sure to capture attention and warrant discussion. She fills her pages with action and gentle humor, and makes books that are just right for beginning readers.

Sweet, simple and an absolute delight to share. 


Lunchtime, written and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb. Macmillan, Raincoast. 2013. $9.99 ages 3 and up

It's lunchtime. A parent's agenda can often get in the way of a child's imagination and learning. In this sweet book, the little girl is very busy with artistic endeavors. Her mum is not to be trifled with; the child makes her way to the table. Does that mean she has to eat what is placed before her? No, it does not.
The lunch looks absolutely palatable...tomato soup, a sandwich and an apple. I'm not sure that her determination not to eat necessarily stems from her aversion to what is on her plate; rather, it is the interruption to the unchecked joy of her imagination. After all, she has been fully engaged  in drawing a gloriously colorful alligator.
After much time spent sitting at the table, she is surprised when her alligator, accompanied by a bear and a wolf, happily help her consume her uneaten lunch:
"I said, "But I thought you liked
eating small children."
"Oh, no!"  said the crocodile.
"Children taste disgusting."
"Horrible!" said the wolf.
"Revolting!" said the bear."
The lunch is consumed with gusto, mum is pleased and the table is cleared, allowing a return to the work of the day. Playing happily doesn't allay the hunger pangs throughout the afternoon.
I wonder how she will feel about supper?
Rebecca Cobb is a deft kid-watcher. She proves it by creating realistic and warm mixed media artwork in this lively readaloud that will resonate with anyone who has had to deal with a young child's grit and determination when it comes to mealtime.                                                                       

You Are A Lion!. Written and illustrated by Taeeun Yoo. Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin. 2012. $18.00 ages 3 and up

with feet flat
Bend and touch ground
Bottom up!

You are a...

Stretch in the sun
Bark at your friend
Ready for fun

What a great way to get little ones interested in the practice of yoga! What child do you know who doesn't love to imitate animals, with roars, ribbits, leaps and lunges? Here they can wend their way through a group of seven poses, from a wild lion to a domesticated cat. They are also encouraged to employ the dignity of the mountain pose, and the total bliss of final relaxation:

"Lie down and be still
Slowly breathe in the garden
Relax in the silence
Namaste to each other"

I can almost feel the peace wash over me. Anyone who has ever practices yoga will understand the joy that young children might take from learning the poses included in this invitation to movement.

The illustrations are created using linoleum block prints, pencil drawings and Photoshop, and are sure to encourage young listeners to follow the simple instructions that will allow them to try this series of child-friendly poses. Reading it to a group of youngsters may take some time as they will want to see how they do at emulating a butterfly, a dog, a cobra and even a frog. It's a lovely way to get our kids up and active.

It is both invitation and celebration!                                                                                   

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Hidden Agenda of Sigrid Sugden, written by Jill MacLean. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013. $ 11.95 ages 10 and up

"I come level with Abe Murphy's. His truck's not in the yard, nor is his dog. On impulse, I leave my bike leaning against his fence and walk up the path to the barn. The cow in the field eyes me, chewing thoughtful-like, flicking flies with her tail. Her coat is light brown, clean, and shiny. I better not get hooked on that word clean. The barn door creaks open. I catch a flash of white and see a cat..."

I knew nothing of the Newfoundland towns of Ratchet and Fiddlers Cove. I should have. The Nine Lives of Travis Keating (Fitzhenry &Whiteside, 2009) and The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010) have been patiently waiting on my TBR pile for far too long. I read Nix Minus One (Pajama Press, 2013) last year and was blown away by the beautiful verse story.  I cannot explain to you why I did not get right at the other books on my shelf written by this accomplished and articulate author. I know better now.

Jill MacLean has created a very realistic cast of intense and complex characters for this third novel about the young people who live in coastal Newfoundland. Each has a  fair share of pluck; yet, there is a vulnerability that made my heart ache for them. Nothing is as it seems for these complicated young people.

Sigrid is a Shrike, one third of a group of girls who make life miserable for so many other students at their school and on the school bus. She is only 12, and she is beginning to come to the realization that the other two, Tate Cody and Mel Corkum, are pushing her to do things that she does not want to do any longer. The final straw for Sigrid comes when their actions could have cost Prinny Murphy her life. Quick thinking on Sigrid's part prevents the tragedy; it also sets her up as a new pawn in the game for Tate and Mel. They know what she did...

What Sigrid discovers is heartbreaking for the reader who understands her motivations, and watches as she is thwarted in her attempts to make amends. Memories run deep, and perhaps Sigrid has been a Shrike for too long. At the same time, the bullying by her former 'friends' escalates. She is often terrified of what they might do to her, and to others.

Alone and lonely, she can't even turn to family for help. Her mother is busy with a new business that means much more to her than her children. Lorne, her brother, has a new girlfriend and likes to spend all his time with her when he is not working. Her stepfather is working long hours, and also spending more and more time away from home. Sigrid is on her own to deal with her insecurities, her determination to do better, and her vulnerability where Tate and Mel are concerned. It seems hopeless, doesn't it? It is only through honesty and the intervention of some very special individuals that things begin to change.

Sigrid's first person narrative is raw, and enlightening. She has treated so many of her fellow students badly, and she is having great difficulty finding a way to make to change her ways. I have admiration for her struggle and for the fact that, although she comes close to taking the easier way out, she perseveres through many misjudgements in her quest to be a better person. She does find support from Hud, an older, unrelenting bully whose reign of terror is legendary. (You will know this if you have read Travis Keating's story!)  The way back to acceptance is not easy in any sense of the word.
Bravo, Ms. MacLean! You have created another story told with reverence and understanding, giving us characters to love and admire despite the flaws that make them who they are. I am in awe of your storytelling. Travis Keating and Prinny Murphy have moved to the very top of my TBR pile. Thank you! 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Better Nate Than Ever, written by Tim Federle. Simon & Schuster, 2013. $19.99 ages 11 and up

"The doors part, and suddenly the relative quiet of a small enclosed box is broken by what sounds like a circus, an actual three-ring circus with popcorn sellers and scar-faced boys and women who ride elephants without seat belts, such is the tremendous noise. It's like no place I've ever seen in Pittsburgh. It's the kind of place I'd actually pay money to come and just people watch, back home."

Darn you, Tim Federle...I didn't get enough sleep last night! I thought I would be OK to start reading Better Nate Than Ever, despite the glowing reviews and my long held wish to read it. I didn't know that I would not want to put it down, and that I would be laughing out loud at 3 am. It was so worth it! Just a warning...I am on high alert for the arrival of the second book about Nate...Five, Six, Seven, Nate, available now from Simon & Schuster.

It's a first novel. It's too funny. It's an absolute charmer.

Nate loves musical theatre. He has big dreams about someday being on Broadway. He and his best friend Libby share those aspirations. It is Libby who tells Nate about the open audition for E.T: The Broadway Musical. It is Libby who puts the plan in place for Nate to take a chance and get to that audition. The plan seems to be perfect. His parents are going out of town, his brother is left in charge, and he has an important meet the next day and suggests that Nate should sleep at Libby's. I tell you, it's going to work. It's OK to be a little scared, right?

""Nate, just stop." She snaps her fingers. In my face. "You're going to sleep on the bus and arrive at nine in the morning. You're going to ask any adult who doesn't look like a murderer which way it is to Ripley-Grier studios, and you're going to find a bathroom and splash down your face and try to run the hot water long enough that it steams any wrinkles out from your shirt, and you're going to be fine.""

It's a long way from Jankburg, Pennsylvania to New York City. What can go wrong? I think you know that all the best books do not have things go exactly right. It's amazing, really, how many things can go wrong. Nate is about to make that discovery.

Tim  Federle is also a musical theatre aficionado. In fact, he is a Broadway veteran. He creates a wonderfully unique story about a young boy with a dream, about the world of Broadway, about child actors and their parents, about scary auditions and the pitfalls for a young boy going alone to an audition that requires adult permission to be there.

He creates a remarkable character in Nate, and the secondary characters who people his life. Nate's first person narrative is funny, dramatic, emotional and eye-opening. While lighthearted, it also explores some deeper issues of sexuality, bullying, being different, following your dreams, and dealing with difficult family dynamics. Nate is adept at the backstory and at expressing his feelings:

 "My sexuality, by the way , is off-topic and unrelated. I am undecided. I am a freshman at the College of Sexuality and I have undecided my major, and frankly don’t want to declare anything other than “Hey, jerks, I’m thirteen, leave me alone. Macaroni and cheese is still my favorite food— how would I know who I want to hook up with?"

Tim Federle handles every bit of text, with the aplomb of an experienced writer. If you know a middle grader who is interested in theatre, or just loves to read great books, here's one for you to pass along. It would be a lively and most engaging read in any middle grade classroom. I cannot wait to meet up with Nate again...and soon! Don't you miss it...

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, written by Jesse Andrews. Amulet, Abrams. 2012. $8.95 ages 14 and up

"Rachel and Earl were clearly not hitting it off. I had to do something. Unfortunately, I had no idea what that thing would be. The silence grew. Rachel continued staring at the ground. Earl started sighing. It was the opposite of a party. It was about the least fun social situation imaginable. If terrorists had burst into the room and tried to suffocate us in hummus, it would have been an improvement."

In this humorous and very inventive novel for young adults, we first meet Greg Gaines:

"I do actually want to say one other thing before we get started with this horrifyingly inane book. You may have already figured out that it's about a girl who had cancer. So there's a chance you're thinking, "Awesome, this is going to be a wise and insightful story about love and death and growing up. It is probably going to make me cry literally the entire time. I am so fired up right now." If that is an accurate representation of your thoughts, you should probably try to smush this book into a garbage disposal and then run away. Because here's the thing: I learned absolutely nothing from Rachel's leukemia. In fact I probably became stupider about life because of the whole thing."

It is easy to see that he is a self-deprecating teen; that only works in his favor, for me as a reader. While he constantly reminds us that he is not worth the space he takes up on this earth in his quest to be a writer, he proves time and again that he is worthy of our admiration and sympathy. I think he's great.

That being said, it is his final year of high school and he is shamed (by his mother) into spending time with Rachel, as she has been diagnosed with cancer and Greg's mother feels that she needs a friend. It is not what Greg wants to do, but he reluctantly agrees. In between the visits that we are witness to between the two of them, we learn much about Greg and his best friend Earl. They have been making movies since fifth grade, and are none too pleased with the results. They won't allow anyone to see them, and are happy with that decision. It is an unwritten law that they will not be shared.

Greg is a confessor, always alerting his audience to the way he deals with high school, and the hateful place he has found it to be:

"But here's the thing. There's a solution to that problem: Get access to all of them. I know. I know. That sounds insane. But it's exactly what I did. I didn't join any group outright, you understand. But I got access to all of them. The smart kids, the rich kids, the jocks, the stoners. The band kids, the theater kids, the church kids, the gothy dorks. I could walk into any group of kids, and not one of them would bat an eye. Everyone used to look at me and think, "Greg! He's one of us."

His best friend is Earl, and it is a most unusual friendship. Earl is a filmmaker, too. That is where any similarity ends. He is African American, he smokes continually, he is part of a very dysfunctional and non-supportive family, he is short, and he is crude (but, that crudeness will get some of the heartiest laughs in the book), and he is a good friend. I have great admiration for Earl.

When things don't seem to be going well for Rachel, despite her chemo treatments, Earl lets her watch their films (without Greg's permission) which is a definite blip in their relationship. Rachel loves the films. This leads to attempts to make a film that might be meaningful to her, as her cancer progresses and things don't look good. Greg and Earl are tasked to make that movie, and have great difficulty coming up with a workable idea. After they have made a number of tries, they try something new. Here is what Earl has to say to her in the film:

"I admire a lot of things about you. I admire how smart you are, how perceptive and observant. But, uh. What I'm really in awe of, is your, uh, I don't know how to put this. I guess, your patience. If it was me, I would be angry, and miserable, and, and hurtful, and just terrible to be around. And you've been so strong throughout, and so patient, even when things aren't going right, and I'm in awe of that. And you've make me feel, uh, blessed."

When you get to know Earl and his capacity to care, you will not be surprised at that speech. For Greg, it is an impossible act to follow, especially given his lack of feelings for Rachel which is a great embarrassment to him.

Did I tell you it had heart? It does, and it has so much more than that. I think you should read it!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Great American Dust Bowl, written and illustrated by Don Brown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son, 2013. $21.99 ages

"Bugs that should have died in colder, wetter weather or been eaten by birds and bats killed by the drought now turned up everywhere. Centipedes crawled across ceilings and walls, tarantulas marched across kitchens, and black widow spiders lurked in corncribs and woodsheds. The ants were so thick and so bad that you could swipe handfuls of them off the table and still have more ants on the table."

I have read other books about the dust bowl that plagued the plains over a ten year period in the 1930s. It was a bleak and devastating time. Don Brown makes that clear in his new book about this natural phenomenon that destroyed lives, families and the land they loved. He has done his homework, and he presents his audience with exemplary art and text to help them understand why those who lived through that time remember every real and terrible detail of life as they lived it then. The Dirty 30s impacted each and every one of them for the rest of their natural life.

He begins by showing the terror of a dust storm, for all those in its path. The wild animals are frantic to get out of its way, the farmer is quick to realize how dangerous it can be, and a text box provides context for that day in April 1935 when a 'savage storm' roared its way across the plains:

"Panicked birds and rabbits fled. The temperature plummeted fifty degrees. Electricity coursed through the air. Frightened people raced to the nearest shelter."

This story had its beginnings in an earlier time. The author helps readers learn about the land itself, and how it was formed, how buffalo roamed the plains in untold numbers, how the bison sustained the Indian population, how settlers forced the tribes onto reservations and then killed so many bison that they soon had to be replaced:

"Ranchers and cattle replaced the Indians and buffalo."

Those ranchers did not know that cattle would have great trouble existing through the blazing heat of prairie summers and the brutal cold of winter. When they failed in their attempts to make a life for themselves they convinced farmers that they could make a go of it, if they just worked hard...from early morning until late at night. That provided a very scant livelihood for too many.

The war in Europe led many to believe that riches would come with wheat. The people of the world needed food, and who better to provide it than these hardworking farmers?  With the end to the war, the demand for their wheat dropped off. The Depression made things worse. To add more misery to an already miserable existence, the rains stopped. For the next ten years, those who lived on the plains endured more than can be imagined by those of us who did not live through it:

"The worst storms, black blizzards, brought dust-filled darkness. People lost their way in the storm's gloom, and sometimes suffocated to death. Storms could blow for days and be immediately followed by another and another, making for unrelenting blows for weeks on end. Raging grit-filled winds shattered windows and scoured the paint off houses and cars. Trains derailed. Telephones were knocked to the ground."

The art that Mr. Brown creates to accompany his 'gritty' text does nothing to sensationalize the telling. It matches the matter-of-fact-tone chosen to give readers the goods on a terrible time in American history. With the ever-growing interest in graphica, this book is sure to interest a wide range of readers. Its story is sombre, as is the art. It is also carefully told, and worthy of your attention.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

When I Was Eight, written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, with illustrations by Gabrielle Grimard. Annick Press, 2013. $9.95 ages 8 and up

"Every day for weeks,  we woke early for chores. Instead of sitting in desks, we scrubbed the floor beneath them. We washed walls and dishes and laundry, and then we went to church and  kneeled on our already aching knees to clean our souls. I worked hard, but it brought me no closer to being able to read."

Olemaun pesters her father for days, and weeks, and months to let her go to the outsider's school. Her dearest wish is to learn to read as her sister did. Finally, against his better judgement, he says yes. She is elated, and eager to learn.

Olemaun does not know what her father knows; she has no idea what life will be like away from her family, her Arctic home and all of her friends. When she arrives at the residential school, her life changes. She no longer has her own clothes, her given name, her language or even her braids. She is treated abominably by one of the nuns and made to wear red stockings, rather than the grey ones that the other girls wear. All that she has that is hers is a copy of Alice in Wonderland. Luckily, the plucky Alice is just the kind of person Olemaun wants to be. She takes her cues from her storybook hero, proving herself to be strong and stubborn in the face of horrid treatment. She learns to read, despite the many obstacles.

This excellent picture book, written as a companion to the longer version of it called Fatty Legs (Annick, 2010), is a powerful way to introduce the residential school experience to younger readers. It is moving, scary, and necessary if we are to understand the loss of identity and culture that so many First Nations children and their families experienced.  Olemaun is a worthy narrator whose fear, sadness, strength and joy shine through in the watercolor images created by Gabrielle Grimard.

Her love of stories, and her need to read sustain her in very trying times:

"I ran to my bed and opened my book. I stared at the letters, holding back my tears, until those letters became words, which grew into a familiar story. I could almost hear my sister's voice reading about the cruel queen, and I let the story carry me far away from the laughter."

If you are a reader, you know exactly how Olemaun is able to take herself away from the hurt of her very real world, and find comfort within the pages of a book:

"I felt a great happiness inside that I dared not show. I quietly took my seat. I was Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books. I was a girl who traveled to a strange and faraway land to stand against a tyrant, like Alice. And like Alice, I was brave, clever and as unyielding as the strong stone that sharpens an ulu."