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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Brothers, written by Michael Mazo and illustrated by Michael Soloviov. Tundra, 2009. $18.99 ages 6 and up

"I am Julius the Elder. Top Dog the First. I must
work tirelessly to maintain my status, now that
William the Upstart is here. William is my little
brother. He has much to learn.
So has the sitter."

Brothers are a special this case, they are bull terriers. They got their own story when Michael Mazo took care of his mother's two 'bullies' while she was away from home. Michael was intrigued to watch them interact and thought they saw themselves as human characters in a daily drama to prove superiority. Following that tenure as dog watcher, he wrote this wonderfully funny and most appealing readaloud.

When mother leaves, the 'boys' are distraught and promise to be 'good lambies'. That lasts no time at all. Julius is quick to stake a claim on being the one to teach William and the sitter their place. William, the Younger is a yoga devotee and is looking for inner peace. Julius the Elder finds great hilarity in the fact that William has much to learn about the real world...including the time each day when William, in his naivete, tries to run out through the glass patio doors. William sees the toilet bowl as the Fountain of Youth. Julius assures that if that were so, he would certainly not look the way he does. Julius dines, William inhales.

You get the picture...what a corker this book is, and what fun the two Michaels must have had creating this wonderful story! I will read it again and again with as many kids as I can, and watch for more by this zany team.

In an interview Michael Mazo lets us in on his wacky sense of humor with this advice to those wanting to get a book published:

"•Sleep outside the publisher’s house.
•Find out what the publisher’s favorite perfume/cologne/food/flower is and buy it in bulk.
•Praise the publisher’s lineage and ancestry.
•Memorize the publisher’s schedule and “accidentally” be jogging at the same time they are, only without an iPod, reading your book.
•Deflate the publisher’s tire and offer to change it when they emerge from the building, stunned.
•If both you and the publisher are single, propose."

Need I say more?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Farm, written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper. Orchard, Scholastic, 2010. $22.99 ages 4 and up

"Fields lie underneath the farm. The fields are flat,
stretching as far as the eye can see. There are no hills.
Clouds race overhead, almost touching the fields below.
Early in the spring, the fields are bare dirt. A tractor rumbles back and forth."

I have always loved the books that Elisha Cooper creates for us. In an interview, he told readers that he grew up on a small farm in New England, with an apple orchard and goats that needed milking each day...a pastoral, idyllic place where a farm family lived its life at one with the seasons. In writing this book for children he wanted to give them access to that kind of farm.

He introduces us first to the family and then adds those things that make up the small farming enterprise that he wants us to know. In a double page spread he shows us the farm I know that is familiar to me...a prairie landscape with buildings, flat fields and another similar farm in the distance. As spring arrives, the farmer begins his work and Cooper draws those varied elements in a series of watercolor spot pictures that take us from tilling, to break down, to a rain storm...all part of the job that is family farming at the beginning of another year. He moves us through the seasons, describing the work, play, weather, animals, events and pleasures that come with a job well done.

Joyful in its rendering of a 'year in the life', Elisha Cooper has gentled me into memories of summer vacations spent in Saskatchewan with those who worked to make a living on a 'family farm'. I trust that was his intention, and so much more. Kids will enjoy poring over the illustrations that include so much, with added touches of humor, grace and warmth.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Piece by Piece, edited by Teresa Toten. Penguin Group (Canada). 2010. $20.00 ages 13 and up

"Who hasn't felt alien, isolated, or awkward, often all at the same time? Now stir in the added burden of knowing what was left behind - the aunties, the grandmas, the colours, the aromas...the familiar. No matter how the exit took place, under dire threat or with a sense of adventure, the immigrant always wrestles with memories of some irreplaceable treasures, forever lost."

Teresa Toten begins with 'My Piece' and tells an memorable story of the fear, isolation and hopelessness her mother felt when she found herself alone in a new country, with a small baby, and incomprehensible loss.

Most of the work included in this thought-provoking and fascinating book are essays. Two are not, and they add depth and strength to the collection on their own merit. Svetlana Chmakova uses a comic strip to share her humorous, heartfelt account of adjusting to a new country, while keeping her love for Russia strong and memorable. Boonaa Mohammed, a slam poet, shares his heartbreaking story of bullying in powerful free verse. As we read each of these pieces we are privy to the alienation, racism, hopelessness and even anger they often felt, while also sensing that all of these feelings have helped to make them successful on their chosen paths. It is our collective experiences that lead us to who we are...and these stories help us see that.

I could go on to tell you something about each of the entries but I want you to read them for yourselves, for your middle years and high school students, and for your own family. It is a collection that should be shared! Each helps put in perspective what it is like to be new to a country and culture, to try to find a comfortable place in that community, to take what life has been and use it to create a different one. They are each worthy of our attention and thoughtful reflection so that we see Canada, its cultural diversity and ourselves in a new way.

"Some of our writers came here for love, some for adventure. Others came to escape horror or deprivation, and still others were the unwitting hostages of determined parents. All had a longing to belong, and all have been enriched by and continue to enrich this country immeasureably."

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs, written by Ron Koertge. Candlewick, Random House. 2010. $20.00 ages 12 and up

"When somebody in the back row asks him, 'What does
this poem mean?', he says, 'Don't worry so much
about what it means. Pretend poetry is chili
and you're starving. Would you ask what chili means?
Just eat it up."

So, what do think about baseball and poetry? Do they go together? They do if you are Kevin Boland. You may have met Kevin at an earlier time (Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, Candlewick 2003). You are sure to remember him. He is a memorable, thougthful and capable young man who likes both baseball and writing.

In this absorbing sequel, Kevin continues his writing at his Dad's prompting. Again, he finds himself dealing with the many issues that are a middle schooler's life...friendship, romance, school, sports, family. Writing helps him sort through some of his concerns with humor, great spirit, originality and deep thought. He is observant of the events that are happening around him, trying to sort through a barrage of feelings in terms of his relationships with Mira and then with Amy and, all the while, writing poetry in free verse and other forms to help himself verbalize it. You can be an athlete and a poet, and Kevin shows us how.

Ron Koertge slyly gets this poetry into our hearts and minds through characters that we care about deeply. While the issues are many, they are handled with a light touch and we never feel overwhelmed by them. His ability to create images, use wonderful language and write a well-paced story draws us in from the first page and never lets us go. It is a brilliant look at an amazing character and should be read in all middle years classrooms to encourage talk, careful thought and an appreciation of the power of poetry to tell a unique story.

I can't wait to meet Kevin again!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Place for Wonder, written by Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough. Stenhouse, 2009. $26.95

"I hoped that school would nurture his sense of wonder, make him smile and laugh each day, fuel his desire to explore the world, and spark his imagination just as our walks and exploration time had done at home."

Do we train that wonder out of them? Do we teach to tests, evalutate when we should be helping them make discoveries? Do we provide classrooms where opportunities for curiosity, creativity and exploration are rare? What do we value? These are some of the questions that led Georgia Heard, teacher leader and writer, and Jen McDonough, a primary teacher working with a staff that shared some of those same concerns, to write this powerful book about helping young children read and write nonfiction.

Using activities and personal stories from the classromm, they describe a 'landscape of wonder' that can be developed through patience and peristence. Although they are discussing what happens in a grade one classroom, there are many circumstances where their ideas and suggestions can be adapted for all ages. All students need to be infused with the enthusiasm and love of learning demonstrated in these pages. If kids love what they are doing, they do it with concentration and energy and their reading and writing reflects it. Such work leads to our goal for them...lifetime learning.

The authors provide many practical and stress-free ways of creating 'wonder centres' and using them to look to the world with our senses intact, with questions on our minds and with meaningful research that makes learning dynamic and energetic. They guide teachers step-by-step through planning a unit with nonfiction as its focus, and include creating a table of contents, writing with a point of view in mind, word choice and chapter development. It all begins with the children...and the results are amazing!

I really liked that Jen reflected on the learning as it happened with the students in her classroom. It made the process real for me as a reader; and it made me think deeply about the children there...the real 'wonders' in that 'wonderfull' place.

"Matthew Fox writes that we are in need of 'wonder schools,' as opposed to 'knowledge factories.'

"A wonder school would honor the heart and body, the right brain of awe and wonder...We must educate about awe - awe of our universe, awe of our planet and its eighteen-billion-year story, awe of the creatures with whom we share this planet"
(1995, 170, 173).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Cyclist BikeList, written by Laura Robinson and illustrated by Ramon K Perez. Tundra Books, 2010. $19.99 ages 10 and up

"If you cycle in the city, you've jumped pot-holes and sewer grates and swerved around shards of glass, gutter garbage, skate-boarders, roller-bladers, dog-walkers, dog poop, and pedestrians who don't watch for traffic."

As spring nears and the snow melts, it won't be long until we see more and more cyclists on our streets and pathways. The bicycle is a harbringer of good weather, fresh air and for many, road rash! The subtitle for this informative and interesting book is 'The Book for Every Rider'. There is not much missed that riders need to know, that is certain.

Laura Robinson was a member of our national cycling team and is a coach of a mountain bike team called the Anishinaabe Racers in Ontario. She brings her love of the sport to the writing of this book and provides an historical perspective on it, while adding fun and informative text that makes suggestions for dress, nutrition and choosing and using your 'best' bike.

A bike enthusiast since childhood, the author uses a timeline to begin and shows the development of the sport from the early 1800s. She includes labelled illustrations, charts, information boxes, detailed description, speech balloons, safety precautions and checklists to provide what the title promises...a book for 'every' rider. Amateur or professional, beginner or seasoned, there is information here for everyone. If you're into cycling, this is a great book for you!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fairy Tales in the Classroom, written by Veronika Martenova Charles. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2009. $34.95

"I was astonished to witness how easily and quickly children can invent their own stories and how much writing they can do if they get involved in the stories personally."

Questions that I often ask about kids in schools we ask them to connect the stories they hear to the lives they live? Do we make time for stories? Do we listen to their observations and the connections they make to the books that we read to them daily? Do we read to them daily? The question that Veronika Charles asked was about children and stories, too. She wondered if twenty-first century children, accustomed to the visual culture that bombards them and demands fast reaction, have the patience to read and to listen to the 'old' stories that gave her so much comfort in times of stress. It became the subject of her thesis and this book is the result of the many discoveries she made.

Written for the early years classroom as inspiration to get students reading and writing using the fairy tale as guide, Veronika Charles has created a useful, informative book. Fairy tales have been with us forever...well, I know for a long time as my Mom read and told them as stories to my brother and I when we were young! And, I am often reminded that I am as old as dirt! So, their long life is a given and whether they might inspire writing, art and other areas of the curriculum was the premise for her work in classrooms.

In an accessible exploration of the genre and with many ideas and inspirations shared, the author provides valuable lessons to teachers that will encourage them to use fairy tales as a starting point for student writing and illustrating retellings of the old stories. Inspired by one classroom after another, she gathered her research findings. She lists factors that show their importance and explains that an interactive approach using graphic symbols can impact all students, no matter their learning prowess or difficulty. As in all good nonfiction you do not need to read from front to back, or even the whole book. If you are interested in getting started, she encourages you to jump straight to the 10th chapter where she gives step-by-step instructions for her methods and process. She shares titles to be read in preparation for choosing a story to emulate, and is clear in her ideas for proceeding. You can do it that way, but I think you will find yourself going back to earlier chapters to see what you have missed. If you don't read the whole book, you miss a lot, and it's empowering and insightful stuff.

Using her approach to build a classroom story, the students drive the writing, inspiring inventive, spontaneous stories that will give them a scaffold for future writing. Students are encouraged to respond through illustration, which allows for differences in culture, home, family and experience. Finding stories can prove cumbersome and time-consuming so she provides an initial list to get classrooms going. She encourages this method in grade two and three classrooms as she found it worked less well with older students, whose view of the world tends toward realism.

Of course there are more reasons for using fairy tales in the early years classroom; but this author is intrigued by their use in helping children write well using traditional lore as a stepping stone. She has provided us with unique and worthwhile ideas to help meet that end.

"Thus, when I read the manuscript for Fairy Tales in the Classroom and found Charles applying these landmark ideas to an impressive study involving more than 700 students in 23 classrooms in 15 schools of diverse racial and socioecoomic backgrounds, I was struck by what a uniquely valuable body of evidence she has provided for all of us who explore the relationship of children and story."
(Betsy Hearne, Foreword)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spiked Scorpions & Walking Whales, written by Claire Eamer. Annick Press, 2009. $9.95 ages 10 and up

"It seems odd that an animal as large as the blue whale would survive on such tiny creatures, but it makes sense. Swimming through a cloud of krill and straining them out of the water uses far less energy than hunting large animals, and almost everything in krill is food for a whale. You just have to be big enough to gulp huge amounts of water - and the blue whale is certainly big."

That's just one small bit of the accessible information shared with her attentive readers in this second informative and intriguing book, which follows on the success of Super Crocs and Monster Wings (Annick, 2008). It's a great read!

When water appeared on the earth it changed the development of many species. Its impact on Earth is far-reaching and quite astounding; all known life depends on water for existence. Beginning at the beginning, Claire Eamer describes earliest life on our planet. In succeeding chapters (seven in all) she shows how the species evolved. At the end of each chapter are two short adds information relating to the chapter's main idea, and the other is filled with 'fun fact' boxes that will astonish young readers...well, older ones, too!

Here's one: "Male humpback whales sing long, complicated songs that change every year. The songs sung by Australian whales are completely different from those sung by North Atlantic humpbacks."

I value her conversational style which made my understanding of the science easier and more enjoyable. She uses questions to encourage her readers to think about the world and then offers up so many fantastic facts that they will be in awe of what she has discovered during her research. The layout guides them to find new and interesting things on every page, while offering wide appeal. Background colors change with each chapter which helps for organization and a quick return to previously read text. Fun facts are printed on fuschia colored notebook paper, while additional information is backed by royal blue papers and covers the double page. Just a little touch that shows forethought and interest in design.

As with all good nonfiction for young readers, there is a table of contents, an index, additional reading suggestions and a list of web sites to check for further study.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

and to name but just a few: Red, Yellow, Green, Blue. Written and illustrated by Laurie Rosenwald. Blue Apple, Raincoast. 2007. $22.50 ages 3 and up

"Ketchup on your fries
cherries in your pies
planet Mars in space
lipstick on your face"

I'm ever on the lookout for new and inventive books to share with you, and I love it when others recommend books that they, too, love! While presenting a workshop on books for early readers, I asked attendees to share, and one of the books mentioned was Laurie Rosenwald's color book. I had not seen it, but came home to do a search and ordered it. Am I glad that I did! I have shared it often since then, and it always finds a new fan. Now, that is the kind of book we want to have in our homes and classrooms.

The mixed media artwork is what sets this book apart from many others. The pages are filled with color, fun, and wordplay. Kids who pore over those same pages will find much to emulate in their own artwork and have so much fun working with color and ideas that share their thoughts on colors, where you find them and how they are so much part of our daily lives.

It's not just about colors! It is about graphic design, word choice and fun, fun, fun! Much discussion will follow, fraught with stories that may or may not involve color, but will be about the kids who are listening to the humor and feeling the joy it evokes.

The Harmonica, written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Ron Mazellan. Charlesbridge, 2004. $18.95 ages 10 and up

"I cannot remember
my father's face,
or my mother's,
but I remember their love,
warm and enfolding
as a song."

My Aunt Grace is our family storyteller, and she often has us writhing with laughter as she explains early family events and her thoughts on the world. When celebrating a birthday not too long ago, she had a request. She thought she might like to learn how to play the harmonica. She's 82 and it seemed an appropriate wish for someone who so delights in life and laughter. To that end, I determined to find her a book that would go along with her birthday gift...not a how-to book, just a book about harmonicas.

In my search I stumbled upon this remarkable, and heartbreaking, book about the Holocaust. You cannot read it without being moved by the young boy's story. You will hold it forever in your heart.

It begins with three people who have great love for each other, music and dance, and especially Schubert. They often listen to his music on their gramophone and dance with joy to the sound of his beautiful notes. Father tells of Schubert's he lived without heat, with aching fingers but still he wrote what filled his heart. The boy dreams of being a musician, playing a piano and being forever happy. A piano is not possible for a poor family in Poland; but Father is able to find the money to buy his son a harmonica. Somewhere in the sound of that very special gift, the boy 'found Schubert'.

It is that glorious music that leads the Nazi soldiers to find the family, roust them from their home, separate them and send them to the death camps. The boy works, suffers and thinks constantly of his parents. His longing leads him back to music and he often plays before falling asleep. His playing is heard by the commandant who is surprisingly capable of loving beauty in the midst of the terror and tyranny that he inflicts upon the prisoners. Each evening the boy is directed to play, and is then given bread for his performance. He can barely live with himself for having more than the many who share his barracks. Then, one evening when he returns to his bed, another prisoner thanks him. Incredulous, he wants to know why. 'Schubert' is the answer. From then on, he draws strength from knowing that others are also hearing the beauty in the notes that he plays.

The artwork adds quiet depth, with the changing tones that follow the boy from the warmth and love of home to the depths of despair he feels in the camp. The double page spreads are textured and compelling. One shows the commandant with his hand over his heart while listening. In his other hand, a whip and at his feet, three menacing black dogs.

I have not yet found a book for Aunt Grace, but I did find this very special gift to my listeners and have shared it reverently with them. I hope that you will, too!

African Acrostics, written by Avis Harley with photographs by Deborah Noyes. Candlewick, Random House. 2009. $20.00 ages 12 and up

"ACROSTIC (uh-Kros-tik)

Welcome, all poets--both new
Or well versed. Non-rhymers or
Rhymers! Come,
Dive in headfirst!

Inviting all writers--
Now you're just the right age.

Explore the acrostic that rides
Down the page.
Get a word you
Enjoy and would like to define.
Write it down vertically
And fill in each line.
Your name is a very good way to begin.
Surprise yourself. Find that poem within!"

What an invitation! Avis Harley subtitles her book about African animals,'a word in edgeways', and she immediately sets out to share her incredible talent with poetic form and word choice. I think that I have mentioned to you before that the acrostic is an accessible form of poetry to use when doing a unit with your students. What this wise author shows us is the range of form we call acrostics...and she amazes me with the strength of the collection.

She is right when she says that the single acrostic is easy for most of us to write. Choose a word, think a lot about the subject and then start writing. But then...she also includes two double acrostics where the first and last letters in each line contain vertical messages. OK, I might try that. But, a cross acrostic?? The message is written in a step pattern...first letter in the first word and second letter on the second row of the poem and then the third letter of the third row. Her poem is seven lines long...I might have tried two lines, maybe four. Seven???

She is not satisfied with that! There is even a multiple acrostic!? It contains five vertical arrangements, perfectly written to convey an image of the impala and its vulnerability while also creating a message across the five lines, ending with the last word being the end of that message. I know, you can hardly believe it when you read it!

After sharing her wonderful poems, she adds information for aspiring poets about the form. Following that, she includes 'nature notes' about each one of the animals whose photographs grace these pages. Finally, the photographer adds a note that tells readers of her journey to find the images included here. Her note finishes with this: 'But I spent much of my time (hours at a time, really) alone in a fiberglass termite mound - or swaddled in camouflage in a make-shift photographer's blind in the V of a tree - sweaty and stooped (and, in one case, tick-bitten) to spy on kudu, jackals, and warthogs near small water holes. I loved every minute of it.' What artists will do to make books for us to love!

If you have a desire to be a writer and to follow in Avis Harley's footsteps, she has some advice for you:

"I am never without a pen and a scrap of paper. An image or line can pop into my head and pop out just as quickly. Ideas need to be recorded quickly, for fear they might disappear."

The Girl Who Could Fly, written by Victoria Forester. Square Fish, H B Fenn. 2010. $8.50 ages 10 and up

"She didn't make plans in the event that she did fall, because if you jump off of the roof of your house and land on your head, you really don't need any plans from that point on. Even Piper knew that.

So that's what she did. She jumped clean off of her roof."

As I began reading this book I wondered if it might be one that I didn't finish...but it grabbed me and hauled me along on a ride that I really enjoyed. I love Piper. She is a very special character who tends to bring out the best in almost everyone she meets and she has a secret...she can fly. So, Piper is homeschooled by older parents who want to protect her from prying eyes and those frightened of what they don't understand. When her small rural community discovers her secret ability, she becomes fodder for the paparazzi, the target of gossips and an oddity to the world.

Her parents are concerned for her welfare. So, when Agent A Agent shows up in an impressive convoy and deploys all inquisitve and intrusive visitors to the farm to unknown destinations, Joe and Betty McCloud are suitably impressed and easily duped into believing that Dr. Hellion and her so-called government minions want to do what is best for their beloved Piper. Only when Piper is transported to and arrives at the facility where she is to be schooled and protected does she discover that something fishy is afoot. There are other children there with amazing abilities. Subtle changes take place that make Piper amenable and complacent in this new world. It is not until she becomes aware of certain other strange happenings that she decides to work for a change in their circumstances.

The action is fast-paced, the characters are well-developed and the futuristic setting a stark and brutal change for Piper after her serene rural upbringing. It doesn't take long to discover Dr. Hellion's motive for 'helping' Piper. You are never sure what might happen next but it's fun and memorable. It was a most enjoyable read!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Peter Spit a Seed at Sue, written by Jackie French Koller and illustrated by John Manders. Penguin Group (Canada). 2008. $17.50 ages 3 and up

"Four bored kids on a boring porch,
Watching a bug crawl across the floor.
Just then we heard a fella yellin' - he was sellin' watermelon!"

That fella would not have caught my attention...but to turn up my nose and retch. I hate watermelon! No matter how hard my Mom tried, she could not get me to like it! 'It's so cool on a hot day!' 'It's mostly water, how can you not like water?' 'You can spit the seeds out!' Nope, nothing made me want to eat it!

The fact that this book is about watermelon does not deter me from liking it and imagining the fun to be had when sharing it this spring with a group of kids at school. Perfect for the picnic and celebration we are planning for New Era in June!

It starts innocently enough...four bored kids finally finding something to distract them. When the watermelon man comes by, they are thrilled to have something to do. As they chomp and slurp, the spitting of seeds begins! Pete is first and then the war is on! The four chase each other through the neighborhood, seeds flying everywhere. Just when they run out of slices, they chance to meet the watermelon man again and the comedy continues. Now, it involves those who find themselves on the village square...OOPS! Soon everyone is involved.

When the mayor's limo pulls up and she climbs out, she is yelling! Mad at everyone involved for making such a mess. All 'spitters' take a moment to see what they have done and to feel contrite. That feeling only lasts as long as it takes the mayor to snatch a pie from a passing baker's rack and launch it toward Pete. No more seeds but whipped cream is everywhere you look...and who wouldn't join in?

Great storytelling technique, fun-filled illustrations on double page spreads and a satisfying ending make this a story that begs to be read aloud! Enjoy!

Keepers, written by John Frank and illustrated by Ken Robbins. Roaring Brook Press, Ftizhenry & Whiteside. 2008. $19.95 ages 10 and up

"Old Coin

I found a dime
a century old
while digging deep below.

Imagine what
it might have bought
a hundred years ago."

I wonder how this book came to being? Was it the photos that inspired the poet to write his contemplative poems about treasures found at the beach, in the attic, in the mountains and desert, at the flea market and beneath the ground? Or were the treasures imagined and described before finding the photos that so perfectly match them? I wonder.

As you know, I love poetry and I am always on the lookout for books that will inspire young poets to think about everyday things and then try writing about them. In this collection, John Frank suggests that the search for treasure is the thrill: 'Finding a scarce penny while sorting through a jar of change, happening upon an exquisite seashell while combing the shore, stumbling across a famous artist's painting while poking through the clutter in a junk shop - these are the moments that make our heart race and take our breath away.'

Middle years and high school students would have some experiences that they might mine for words and impressions to include in a poem about treasures. What is that quote? "One man's trash is another man's treasure" It is always a revelation to learn what other people value, and it would be interesting to have your students make such a discovery about their classmates. This book might just push them to try their hand at treasure poems. Try it yourself!

Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat? Written and illustrated by Nancy Patz. Dutton, Penguin Group (Canada), 2003. $22.50 ages 10 and up

"Who was the woman
who wore the hat
I saw in the Jewish Museum?
What was she like?"

I have long looked for this book and finally found a copy. When I took it to a workshop last week, it created quite a stir. It is a moving story of the Holocaust and one woman...unknown to the author, but for the hat.

In an author's note she tells her readers that she saw the hat when she visited the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. There it was in a glass case, no story, no explanation. She sat down and sketched it, amazed that it might be all that remained of the woman's life. It stirred such feelings in Nancy Patz that she began to write short poems about the woman who might have owned it and to draw pictures of Europeans of that era. She goes on to describe the process that led to this book's publication. It is a wondrous story.

As are the poems that fill its pages. There are so many wonderings about the woman who wore the hat and her life. Did she and the author have things in common? Did she wear it when she was dragged from her home and put on the train for one of the concentration camps? With a mix of pencil drawings, watercolors and old photographs, the author weaves a poetic homage to an unknown woman, her life and the horrible sadness of that time in history. The most heartbreaking sketch for me is a double page spread of the belongings that were taken from Jewish prisoners and then thrown in a pile on a bare wooden floor...the hat sits hidden amidst them. She ends with a poignant observation:

"It might have been my mother's hat.
It could have been my hat.
Or yours.
Who was the woman?
Whom did she love?
And did she put cream
in her coffee?"

The Best Story, written by Eileen Spinelli and illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf. Dial, Penguin Group (Canada), 2008. $18.50 ages 5 and up

"She gave me a hug. 'I think the best story is the one that comes from the heart. Your own heart.'"

People who know me know that I am not a 'contest' fan and might be surprised that I am telling you about this book that has its beginning in the announcement of a story-writing contest. Just as I think reading should be its own reward, I think writing needs to happen when our students have something compelling to share on paper. All that aside, what I like about this book is its message about finding your own voice.

Upon reading the contest poster our young narrator runs straight home to get her story on paper. She's pencils, a quiet room, a notebook, and time to think. When no words come to mind, she shares her worry with her brother. Tim suggests action. Well, she can do that! But the story doesn't seem to say what she is wanting to say. Dad suggests humor. The story is changed, but still not right. As she solicits help from Aunt Jane (tears) and cousin Anika (romance) and makes the suggested changes, she finishes and is ready to share. There are still problems.

Mom has quietly watched and listened, not offering an opinion. When she is asked, she has one thing to comes from 'your' heart. You must make a story your own to give it your best. The story that results is about her family...what she knows best. Whether it wins or not is not really the issue. The truth is that a story that comes from the heart is the best you can do. Now, that's a message I like to share!

Kids often struggle with topics for their writing. Teachers can help them discover the stories they have to tell when they allow time for the oral discussions that result after great books are shared. Often one story evokes memories of an event or time in a child's life where something similar happened, or triggers a memory with just one word. If we don't take the time to listen, those stories are often lost.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Healthy Cooking for kids! Edited by Julia March. DK, Tournaline Editions Inc., 2008. $17.99 ages 4 and up

"Healthy eating can be fun! In these recipes you will discover lots of ideas for balanced breakfasts, luscious light meals, and mouthwatering main meals, all designed to suit even the pickiest eaters. And don't worry: There are plenty of recipes for desserts, cakes, and cookies - but with a healthy twist!

I have loved this recipe box since I first set eyes on it, and have shared it in many workshops to date. I find that the most interest results at workshops done after school or before lunch. Such mouthwatering treats have those in attendance salivating as they think about their own upcoming meals.

There is a table of contents card and the recipe cards have colored index separators and colored tops for each meal...yellow for breakfast, red for light and main meals, and purple for desserts and baking. Easy to organize and also to find the one you want at any given time...a real plus when you are looking to make something good with your kids or grandkids. Each card is laminated for easy care, has bright and helpful photographs to help with preparation. There is an ingredient box, clear method photos, healthy hints and a quick descriptive paragraph with additional hints. What have they forgotten? Not a thing!

And here's the best part: while I haven't tried nearly all of the almost fifty recipes, I have tried a number and they are as easy and as healthy as they profess to be! As we see the statistics about growing levels of childhood obesity and diabetes in our children, this set of recipes makes it easier to be sure that we are teaching our children about better health, while also sharing good times and good food with them. Yes, banana pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast, corn chowder with a carrot salad for lunch, rainbow beef on brown rice for dinner and the piece de resistance...a fruit sticks with chocolate orange dip for dessert. Zowie!!

50 fun recipe cards is right! Check them out!

Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion, wirtten by Jane Barclay and illustrated by Renee Benoit. Tundra, 2009. $20.99 ages 4 and up

"My poppa was a soldier.
When he was seventeen years old, he lied about his age so he could join the army and fight for our country in the war. I'm on his bed studying a picture of him in his uniform. His hair is too short and his pants are too long."

As Poppa prepares for attendance at the Remembrance Day service, his grandson peruses an old family photo album which garners many questions. Poppa answers with pride. He wore his uniform proudly, worked hard on the ship that transported him across the ocean and was brave when caught up in armed encounters with the enemy. Prior to the service, Poppa marches in the parade and observes a moment of silence with everyone in attendance. When he places the wreath in honor of his friend, it is a heartfelt and tearful remember never to forget.

This is a lovely way to help young children understand the idea of Remembrance Day. They are able to observe the aging soldier, the service of remembrance, the solemn and touching tributes to those who served. The illustrations transport us to the war years, and back. The warmth of the colors used as the two get ready is replaced by more sombre tones as the service commences and listeners will notice that change.

It is often difficult to help children understand the honor that the services planned are meant to convey. This quiet, lovely book will help us with that, and encourage them to ask queations that need to be answered.

The Chinese Thought of It, written by Ting-xing Ye. Annick Press, 2009. $9.95 ages 9 and up

"I thought I knew a lot about China's past and present. It wasn't until I sat down to write this book that I realized I had much more to learn. As I got deeper into my research, reading books and checking Internet resources, I grew more and more excited about my findings. I am glad I have the chance to share with you what I have learned. I hope this book will be the beginning of your journey of discovery."

This is the third in a very fine series published by Annick Press about innovations and technologies that have been developed for the world's use. The author explains that her research led her to memories of personal experiences with some of the inventions she shares with her readers. Many were developed in ancient China and are still used today.

She begins with a map of modern China, its place on the Asian continent and its geographical makeup. She introduces a timeline that begins with the Shang Dynasty and follows through to the Republic of China, that is today. As she explores a variety of topics, she lists those inventions which were used to make life easier and more productive for China's population. She includes farming, metal work, transportation, canals and bridges, weapons, paper and printing, silk, everyday innovations, food, health, games and sports. It is quite a list and equally impressive to learn of the many inventions attributed to the Chinese.

I like the design, which uses single text boxes to highlight each invention. These text boxes share space with additional information, numerous photographs and detailed illustrations. The dominant colors are red, gold and yellow...all colors we associate with Chinese culture. It informs readers who might know little of China, while entertaining them as well. More than sixty ideas are presented and they show us the cultural, scientific and historical impact of China on the world.

Some will be familiar (gunpowder and silk) while others will surprise. Stirrups made getting on a horse much easier, and also staying on. What would we do without toilet paper, first introduced in China in the 6th century? Porcelain, matches, the folding umbrella and the toothbrush are all thanks to Chinese innovators. I thank them each day for green tea and noodles, but not so much for tofu and chopsticks (I'm told I just need more practice with both).

Reading this book will certainly increase your knowledge about the contributions that China has made. I hope it also encourages you to continue your study of this amazing country, its people and history. Again, the author provides a list for further reading, an index and a table of contents...all most useful as you read this engaging and informative addition to the 'Thought of It' series.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

One, written and illustrated by Kathryn Otoshi. KO Kids, Publishers Group West. 2008. $

"Blue was a quiet color.
He enjoyed looking up at the sky,
floating on the waves,
and on days he felt daring...
splashing in rain puddles."

At times, Blue's wish is to be like his friends...yellow, green, purple and orange. Mostly he likes being Blue, but for Red. Red bullies and belittles Blue, and it hurts. Blue is afraid and so are his friends. Because of that fear, no one does anything to stop Red. As bullies do, Red gains strength and size. Soon, he is picking on everyone. Then along comes 1, who refuses to be intimidated by Red. When Red rolls away in disgust, 1 explains his position and the others are strengthened by that. They stand together and give hope to Blue who stands tall and becomes one of them! Red is hot, but Blue remains cool. Red sees what is happening and loses power, and rolls away. It is Blue who gives Red a chance to be part of the 'group'. 1calmly makes the comment that 'everyone counts'.

"Sometimes it just takes One."

The story could be pedantic and preachy, but there is never a hint of that. Kathryn Otoshi starts with splotches of color and builds her story from there. I love how powerful the message is while being so original and simplistically told. Our youngest children will surely empathize with the feelings of the characters; the message is equally clear to much older students as well. This is a book that deserves attention from kindergarten through middle school. It carries a deliberate message...that we all count and everyone has a place in our world. Red is not left out, despite his previous actions. That is an important consideration for those who listen to this fine story.

If you are interested in learning more...go to You will be so grateful that you took the time to see what is posted there. The messages are clear and uplifting to all of us!

As if the lovely story were not enough, Kathryn Otoshi finishes with a dedication that makes my heart glad : "To indy booksellers, my librarian friends, and loyal readers. You keep my spirit alive." Ditto!

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Secret World of Walter Anderson, written by Hester Bass and illustrated by E. B. Lewis. Candlewick, Random House. 2009. $21.00 ages 12 and up

"There was once a man whose love of nature was as wide as the world.
There once was an artist who needed to paint as much as he needed to breathe.
There once was an islander who lived in a cottage at the edge of Mississippi, where the sea meets the earth and the sky.
His name was Walter Anderson."

When Walter Anderson's story arrived at my door, I did not know that I was in for such a reading treat. I knew nothing of the man and was in awe of his love for the natural world, his patience and fortitude and his unerring determination to bring his observations to the greater world. Recently I read that this lovely and inspiring book has been named the 2010 NCTE Orbis Pictus Outstanding Nonfiction Book. It was also named a notable Social Studies trade book in the United States, while winning numerous accolades from a varitey of children's literature sites. Bravo!

In the most simplistic terms it is the story of an artist who spends weeks alone on an uninhabited island, with no water or electricity, while sketching and painting the world he finds there. But, it is so much more. I love reading about people, places and events that are new to me, and so inspiring. I did not know Walter Anderson's art or his story. As with all new learning, I used this book to begin my education about a man whose life was given to his art, who wanted the bigger world to appreciate the many faces of art and who spent many of his days in solitude because of his need to paint. Art dominated his life and, although he struggled with life's many obstacles, he made a powerful and lasting contribution to American art.

"Walter Anderson painted to realize his secret world, to bring himself and nature into one thing called art."

The author's note provides a poignant picture of a man considered eccentric by his neighbors. She shares with compassion the events and milestones in his life. While he loved his family, he could not live with them. So, he lived in a cottage on the family's compound. It was not until after his death that his wife entered a locked 'secret' room in his cottage. There she discovered his love for the island that he had visited so often, and the legacy of the art he left behind. This powerful story is rich in detail, suffused with the elegance of E. B White's watercolor illustrations and will intrigue its many readers. After learning what I have learned about Walter Anderson, I would love to visit Ocean Springs, Mississippi and his museum there. I would not be alone, I am sure. Now, that's a recommendation for an amazing picture book.

"He may be the most famous American artist you've never heard of."

Henry in Love, written and illustrated by Peter McCarty. Balzer + Bray, Harper. 2010. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"Henry awoke to the smell of blueberry muffins.
He got ready for the day
and headed downstairs to the kitchen."

This simple story has much to offer its readers. Henry is a quiet dreamer who spends his days at ordinary things. He gets up in the morning, has breakfast, goes to school with his brother and his best friend, and he spends his day doing school things. It is there that he finds himself enamored of Chloe. She is bright, assertive and can do a spectacular cartwheel. Henry is suitably impressed, and he is in love.

Chloe is the lovliest girl and Henry wants to talk to her; his shyness is a barrier. So, he does a somersault, plays tag with her and sees only Chloe when she is near, despite the presence of his friends and classmates. When the teacher moves everyone around at the end of the day, it is Henry's great good luck to find Chloe at the next desk. As snack time ends the day, he is willing to give up the blueberry muffin he has been savoring since his mother packed it in the early morning in exchange for a carrot. Chloe is duly impressed. Henry proves that last conquers all!

The minimalist artwork boasts soft sepia tones, bright watercolor details and plenty of uncluttered white space. It is a perfect match for the text.

Very Hairy Bear, written by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Matt Phelan. Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2007. $17.95 ages 2 and up

"Each summer,
he's a sticky, licky honey hunter,
with his bare nose deep
in the hollow of
a bee tree."

We could call it a bear book. We could even call it a book about the seasons. Or, we could say that it is a beautifully illustrated picture book, written by an brilliant wordsmith. Each would be entirely true! Alice Schertle is a master writer and poet...I look forward to every single thing she writes. She never disappoints.

This warm, shaggy bear begs to be hugged from the moment of meeting. He ambles along the spring-green path, on the lookout for the river and the salmon it promises. Once his tummy is full of fish and the summer sun shines its light, our friend is off in search of honey and blueberries to add girth and contentment. A bear is always hungry and fall is fraught with goodies to help him prepare for his winter rest. As snowflakes dot the sky, he contemplates the whereabouts of the fish, the bees and the squirrels who fed his need for food; then, he hunkers down in his shaggy beasrskin coat, covers his nose and settles to sleep for the long, cold winter.

On our journey through the seasons we are privy to exquisite language, the warmth and comfort of Matt Phelan's charming pastel and pencil drawings and a begs-to-be-read-aloud story. I want to read it again and again...and I can't get enough of the sun-filled, colorful images that explode off the page with wonder and wit.

When Erin left to live a full and happy life in Victoria she asked me to make her a promise about the books that were going to take up space on our bookshelves. She asked me to be sure they were only kept if they were 'tens'! This lovely book has found a permanent space on those shelves and will always be a 'ten' for me!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

There Is a Bird on Your Head! Written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, H B Fenn. 2007. $9.99 ages 3 and up

"Is something on my head?
There is a bird on your head.
There is a bird on my head?"

When Elephant is reassured by Piggie that there is no longer a bird on his head, he seems content...until Piggie announces that he has TWO birds on his head! They are there because they are in love! Piggie knows that because they are building a nest and it's on Gerald's head, too! Why, he wonders? Well, why do birds build nests? You know, don't you? It isn't long until the eggs are laid...three of them, in fact! Oh, and then they hatch, and now Gerald has three chicks, two birds and a nest on his head! The solution to getting rid of them is so simple...and uniquely hilarious!

It's no wonder kids love them!

The King's Taster, written by Kenneth Oppel and illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Harper, 2009. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"I'm the king's taster. I taste all his food before he eats it, to make sure it's not poisoned. I also get his leftovers, plus whatever anyone drops under the table. I'm the king's taster, but I'm the cook's dog. We've been together since I was a pup."

Poor Cook! No matter what he prepares the young king is unimpressed. There is nothing that he likes to eat. Max, on the other hand, is the cook's dog and he eats like a king every night. He is first to taste everything that might go in the king's mouth. And he loves his life!

The cook works like a dog, and gets no thanks for it. The king pushes away the coronation dinner and Max eats it. The cook is tearing out his hair trying to find something that will appeal to his charge. A new recipe is they go to France. After much tasting they discover French fries. The king is not impressed. The cook is determined and off they go to Italy in seach of something new. After tasting experiences with fabulous breads, herbs, sausages and cheeses, the taste tempatation they bring with them is pizza! Deliciosa! Not so for the king...he will not eat it and throws it against the wall to show his disdain. A final journey to Mexico results in chili tacos. Nope, not good enough! The crocodiles have a feast.

The cook's concern now is for his life...the king has no patience with those who do not please him. Max is awake worrying about his friend and owner when he hears an unusual noise. Playing detective, he follows a trail of crumbs straight to the king's bedroom door. He rushes to alert his friend to his discovery. The cook follows and is astonished to find the king stuffing his face with candy! The king is furious at being caught and threatens his servant. Not one to be browbeaten, the cook pulls out all stops to assure the king knows who is the ultimate boss in the castle....and the problem is solved! The surprise ending brings a satisfying conclusion.

I would be remiss if I didn't encourage you to take a very long look at the artwork that accompanies this clever, winning story. It is done in mixed media collage, using mostly watercolors (and lots of purple) with smatterings of fabric, recipes and repeated typed words to add depth and interest. It is a great collaboration and provides a most enjoyable readaloud!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Epossumondas Plays Possum, written by Coleen Salley and illustrated by Janet Stevens. Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son, 2009. $21.95 ages 5 up

"One summer morning as butterflies flitted between the zinnias, Epossumondas and his mama were sipping sweet tea and chitchatting about this and that."

The main theme of their chat on this particular day is Mama's dire warning that her sweet sugar pie should know the swamp as a 'scary and dangerous' place. She doesn't want her baby getting lost in the swamp and so she warns him about the loup-garou who lives there...he loves to snatch up baby possums!

As Mama prepares lunch, Epossumondas is distracted by a beautiful butterfly. Without being aware of it, he follows the flashy flutterer into the swamp, never once thinking about his mama's warning. It is not long until he is lost, and soon he is hearing unusual sounds that terrify him and cause him to 'play possum' in order to protect himself. Each new swamp creature is repulsed by dead meat, until a vulture swoops out of the air looking for a meal. He, of course, doesn't want live meat! When Mama finds him and assures his safety Epossumondas is thankful, but not at all concerned about the 'varmints' he met while in the swamp. He reminds his mama that he has 'the sense that he was born with' and did just what good possums do. Isn't he clever???

Kids love her four Epossumondas books, and repeatedly ask for them to be shared. Their author, Coleen Salley, was a renowned storyteller who travelled the world sharing her stories. The stories told were stories she had heard while growing up, and she loved to carry on the oral tradition that had been so important in her life. Her first Epossumondas (noodlehead) story was written when she was 72 years old. It was an immediate hit with children everywhere. In 2008, Coleen Salley died from complications of a brain disorder. This book was published posthumously through her estate. Thankfully, she left us her legacy in the books that she wrote.

Although I never heard her speak, I share one sentiment with this revered and much missed champion of children and their literature..."I don't want children to read just to perfect their reading. I want them to love books for the joy of it." Amen!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Pete the Cat, written by Eric Litwin and illustrtated by James Dean. Harper, 2008. $18.99 ages 2 and up

"Pete the Cat was walking down the street in his brand-new white shoes. Pete loved his white shoes so much, he sang this song:"

That song has been in my head all day, and was there last week when I got home from my holiday to an email from Harper Canada, with a link that allowed me to hear the author's young daughters reading this most enjoyable book. I immediately emailed it to friends; I knew they would enjoy every minute of the fun! Pete is a cool, groovy cat who loves life. He has a special affinity for his shoes, even as they change color from page to page. When the story begins the new shoes are white and then he steps in a pile of strawberries. What color do you think his shoes are now? Then, blueberries, mud and finally water. Kids will quickly pick up the rhythm of the story, and the text as they listen to it the first time. It will not be the last time you read it to them, I promise you. But, it also won't be long until they will be doing just what those little girls are doing so happily in the YouTube video. Be sure to check it out. Just type in Pete the Cat and it should come right up!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Finn McCool and the Great Fish, written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Zachary Pullen. Sleeping Bear Press, H B Fenn. 2010. $18.95 ages 6 and up

"With all that you have, why do you need wisdom?"

"A man's nothing without it," Finn said. "With wisdom I'll know better how to help my friends. I'll be able to answer their questions where now I can only shake my head. If I was wise, I could speak for Ireland when the need arose."

Finn McCool is a fine man in his community, willing to help where help is needed and much appreciated by his friends and neighbors. However, there are those who think that he is not too smart. When he hears the people talking about his lack of intelligence, he considers a visit to a nearby town and an old wise man said to have the secret of knowledge. The old man knows much about Finn and wonders why he needs wisdom when he already has so much. Finn recognizes the value of wisdom and the old man makes the suggestion that he should find a great salmon in the River Boyne. Once found, he should catch it, cook and eat it. Off Finn goes!

Once the fish is caught, Finn is not so sure that eating it is the right thing for him to do; then, he decides against it. When Finn removes the salmon, his thumb becomes caught in the hook and his blood mixes with the fish's blood that is there. The fish speaks thankfully to Finn about his decision and reveals that he had been expecting him. He seems to know that Finn will use wisdom well, in the service of others. So, a promise is made and kept. He may be smarter; but Finn is still loved for his goodness, as he was prior to those fateful meetings with man and fish.

The artwork gives readers a close look at Finn's size, his generoous and giving nature and the land where he lives. With changing perspectives, that include some detailed close-ups, Zachary Pullen adds interest and authenticity to this well-told folk tale.

A story from a proud Irish writer, just in time for St. Patirck's Day. You might want to add it to the list you like to share with children at this time of year.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pigs Make Me Sneeze, written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, H B Fenn. 2009. $11.50 ages 3 and up

"Waht do you want to do today?
I want -- a a a
a a a a
A what?
a a a a a!!
A ball?
A swim?
A hat?"

Poor Gerald! He's having a visit with Piggie, but he cannot stop sneezing. Because of his propensity for worry, he becomes very concerned that the reason for the sneezing might be an allergy to pigs. And Piggie, his best friend, is a PIG! What will he do now? How will he live without his best friend? Will he have to say goodbye and not see her again? He is so disheartened by this assumption that he goes away with despair in his heart and sadness written all over his face.

When he meets Doctor Cat and shares his concern, he continues sneezing and becomes convinced that he also has an allergy to cats. The doctor does not feel the same about his condition and suggests that his sneezing is not due to allergies; rather than that, Gerald is sick. He has a cold. A cold!?! What good luck that is! Gerald is thrilled. He is immediately off to tell Piggie his good news, only to find her surrounded by tissues and blowing her runny nose. I think she knew the diagnosis before Elephant did!

I have not yet suggested that you should keep your eye on the endpapers as you share these stories. I think you might recognize a familiar face if you do! Be sure to check it out. Your listeners will be intrigued.

My Friend is Sad, written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, H B Fenn. 2007. $9.99 ages 3 and up

"My friend is sad.
I will make him happy!
A cowboy!"

Sadness is an emotion that each of us feels at some time or the other. What we need when it washes over us is a friend like Piggie, who is honor bound to do all that she can do to improve the situation. She will be a cowboy, a clown, a robot, or whatever else she needs to be to cheer her sad friend Gerald. She knows Gerald and knows what he loves, but nothing seems to make him smile.

When Piggie shows up uncostumed and looking like herself, Gerald is delighted. Piggie is sad because she could do nothing to make him happy. He is on longer sad; he is thrilled to see his friend. He tells her that he saw a cowboy, but he was sad that Piggie was not there to share the sighting and excitement. And, there was more!

As he regales her with all she missed and how sad he was not to share it with her, she cannot believe what she is hearing. She recognizes what is happening, but contains her frustration with his inept reasoning and his inability to make the connection with her attempts to please him. When he decides that he needs his friends, she is quick to recognize that he might actually need new glasses.

Once again, the text is expressive and so much fun to share. The art is the same, and says so much without saying a word. A great way to introduce students to character study, using information they garner as they watch and listen.

A Nest for Celeste, written and illustrated by Henry Cole. Harper Canada, 2010. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"Below the crackled and faded painting of a horse, beneath a heavy sideboard, under the worn carpet and dusty floorboards of the dining room sat Celeste, hunched over her worktable."

And so begins this lovely story that combines historical fiction, the beauty of art and lasting friendships. Its setting is the eastern part of North America, the time is the early 1800s and the historical figures depicted are John James Audubon and Joseph Mason. When we meet Celeste, an industrious and observant mouse, we are made privy to the challenges that she faces in the farmhouse where she lives...adequate food, mean and threatening rats and an always vigilant cat in search of its next meal.

When Mr. Audubon and his assistant arrive at the farmhouse, Celeste is intrigued and then captivated by the gentle and artistic Joseph. He is quick to respond to her needs and to keep her safely tucked in his shirt pocket. They become fast friends and Celeste is always delighted when Joseph is nearby. Celeste is an expert basket weaver and uses her talents to design containers that are helpful to herself and others. She uses them to carry her own food, to move from place to place in the house and even to create a form of transporation for herself when she is lost far from home.

Always at the heart of the story is Celeste's search for the perfect home...somewhere safe and comfortable where she can live her life in peace and contentment. During that search she meets friends who sustain and protect her, and comes in contact with others who continue to cause her concern and loss. When Joseph leaves to accompany Mr. Audubon on his journey to find more birds to sketch, Celeste misses him and yearns for his company, while learning to spend time with new friends.

This is a lovely tale to share in early years classrooms. Its many beautiful double page and spot illustrations are detailed, dramatic and meant to be shared with eager listeners. The story is adventurous, with just the right amount of alarm and humor, and reminds me of such books as the Poppy series by Avi and Charlotte's Web.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie, written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Chris Raschka. Scholastic, 2008. $18.95 ages 4 and up

"Sometimes I'm Sourpuss. I don't want to be here. I want to go home and I'm not coming back, ever.
And sometimes I'm Sweetie Pie. Can I stay all day, Poppy? We can play checkers and you don't even have to let me win."

I remember loving the first book about Nanna, Poppy and their beloved granddaughter (The Hello, Goodbye Window, which won the Caldecott Medal in 2006). If you can borrow it from the library, I think you will love it, too.

As she approaches the back door, Poppy is at the 'hello, goodbye' window, wondering who is coming for a visit. Is it Sweetie Pie, or is it Sourpuss this time? He is not sure he wants to open the door to Sourpuss. While they love their dear darling, they are not so enamored of her alter ego.

Most of the time she is a sweet one, bringing homemade gifts, asking for stories, and enchanting her grandparents. When Sourpuss emerges, no one is particularly happy and life becomes challenging for a time. As with many young children, she is struggling to assure her place and identity in this world. From page to page and minute to minute, changes take place and there is nothing to explain them. They just seem to happen, without provocation.

In the time it takes to snap your finger, she goes from giant hugs to even bigger tantrums, endearing conversations to food fits, soft reassurances to self-centered demands and refusals. As her mood changes, so does Chris Raschka's artwork. The gentle warmth of Sweetie Pie is earnestly contrasted with the dark and tumultuous moods of Sourpuss in both color and movement. At times, she can be both girls at once. First, it's 'I'm a little tired, Poppy. Can I have my bath and go to bed? and then, 'I don't have to go to bed until I want to and I'm not dirty so I'm not going to take a bath.' When sleep finally comes for all three, there is uncertainty about who might awaken in the morning. Here's hoping it's Sweetie Pie!

If you live with toddlers, or teenagers, this book might give you a lift and a laugh as it helps you realize that you are not alone. It is a great readaloud and offers listeners a chance to think about and discuss life with all of its pitfalls and joys.

Friday, March 12, 2010

I Will Surprise My Friend! Written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, H B Fenn. $9.99 ages 3 and up

"We could surprise each other!
We could surprise each other by the big rock!

The idea comes to them when they are witnesses to a trick that the squirrels play on each other. The big 'BOO!', the fear and the laughter are all the incentive needed for Piggie and Gerald to give it a try themselves. And so the plan is made and set in motion. They are all giggly as they move toward the big rock and the scene of the 'big scare'. When nothing happens, they become concerned about the other, and cannot seem to figure out what has happened.

They look around the rock and neither sees the other. That is when the imagination runs riot and Elephant begins to consider what scary scenario might have befallen his friend. Piggie, on the other hand, considers that Gerald might be hungry for lunch and that reminds her that she is hungry, too. As she determines to go for lunch and Elephant decides to play superhero and rescue his best friend, they set their plans in motion, each scaring the other out of their wits with loud and determined voices.

Whew, now that was a surprise! Perhaps at another time another game might be less stressful. Next time they will try tag.

I have read these books to teachers, student teachers and children from kindergarten to grade eight. The enjoyment is always the same, and the request for another assures that I always have a few in my book bag.

I Love My New Toy! Written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, H B Fenn. $9.99 ages 3 and up

"Hi, Piggie! What are you doing?
I love my new toy."

She doesn't know what it does, but Piggie knows she loves it! Gerald is inquisitive and wonders what is so special about it. Piggie offers it to him for a quick see how it works. Gerald is quick to release it into the air. When it returns to earth, it BREAKS! The friends are aghast! Elephant accepts responsibility but Piggie is MAD! She is mad and she is sad. Gerald is sorry, so sorry. He can't be sorry enough, and Piggie is not appeased. They cry together (in each other's arms) until a squirrel happens by with an astute observation....Piggie has a 'break-and-snap' toy!

Imagine their embarrassment when they discover that Squirrel is right and the toy can be taken apart and put together with a quick snap! Their faces tell the tale again and again. When Piggie offers the toy to Elephant once more, Elephant refuses to touch it. He doesn't want to play with that new toy, he would rather play with his friend. Off they go at a run, toy left behind and delight in their voices.

What fun you can have with these books when you invite two children (or three, in this case) to read them to the class, or in assembly, or for a parent night. It will take some practice, give them great joy to share the fun, and they will be using their reading skills at the same time. Now, that's what we are looking for in early years classrooms.

I Am Invited to a Party, written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, H B Fenn. $9.99 ages 3 and up

"Will you go with me?
I have never been to a party.
I will go with you.
I know parties."

Piggie is so pleased when Elephant agrees to accompany her to the party. They are ecstatic to share the experience. Then, when Elephant thinks more seriously about the upcoming fete, he becomes quite apprehensive. He wonders about the type of party it will be. He assures her that they will be ready, no matter what! Elephant knows a party and he knows what they must do. Piggie is satisfied and trusts her friend.

They try fancy, then fancy pool, then fancy pool costume....they will be READY!
Imagine their surprise when Elephant proves that he does indeed knows parties! Their attendance is welcome and in keeping with the rest of the guests. Life is just as it should be for our partygoers.

Kids will love the zipping and zapping as Piggie and Elephant move in and out of our vision in preparation, adding elements to the clothing they plan to wear. They will join in the celebration as the excitement grows and laugh at the antics of the two invitees. And, they will want to read it themselves and then read it again.

I Am Going, written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, H B Fenn. $10.99 ages 3 and up

"Well, I am going.
You are going!
You are going away?!

When Elephant hears that Piggie is going, he panics. He shivers, he shakes, he begs her to stay. Piggie cannot be deterred. Her plans must go ahead, despite Elephant's abject resistance. He is frightened about life without her...and the lack of activity that her absence will foster. Piggie is apologetic, but determined.

Elephant accepts her decision with derision and decides that he, too, will go. When Piggie accepts that decision and waits for his departure, Elephant hedges. He offers other alternatives. Nope, she's going and that's that! He begs and cries. Finally she gives him her reason for's lunchtime and she is hungry.

Will the lunch be BIG, Elephant wonders. What do you think? How will this day be for the two friends? I'll bet you can guess.

Elephants Cannot Dance, written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, H B Fenn. $11.50 ages 3 and up

"I would love to learn how to dance.
But elephants cannot dance."

Did I mention that Piggie is determined? That nothing can deter her? That she won't take 'no' for an answer...or have I missed that part? Gerald encourages her to check out his inability to partake in dance in the manual called "What Elephants Can Do'. He may not be able to dance, but she sees nothing to suggest that he cannot try.

Did I tell you that Gerald is amenable? And, that he is willing to accommodate his friend's needs, no matter what it costs him? Piggie is entranced. She is ready with the instructions and he is ready to follow them. Try as he might, Elephant just cannot seem to get the hang of it all. Exasperated and exhausted, he finally succumbs to defeat...just in time for two enchanted squirrels to request dance lessons themselves...from Gerald! They want to learn how to do The Elephant. Off they go!

Again the expressions and the conversation will have readers hooting and hollering and begging for more. What a great way to get talk started about dance, varied interests and differing abilities!

Are You Ready to Play Outside, written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, H B Fenn. $9.99 ages 3 and up

"We are going to do everything today!
We are going to run!
We are going to skip!
We are going to jump!"

There are so many things that friends can do together and Piggie is ready to do them all with her best friend, Gerald. Preparation is the key! But, how do you prepare for a downpour and what do you when rain threatens to spoil all of your best-laid plans?

As the skies open and the rain pours down, Piggie becomes disgruntled, angry and finally frantic. She wants the situation to right itself. Gerald to the rescue! When two tiny worms show their great delight in the joy that the rain brings, Piggie rethinks her position. Maybe rain can be fun. After all, they can still run, skip and jump. Of course, just when all seems right in their world, and as luck would have it, the clouds dry up and the rain abruptly ends. Once again, Piggie is distraught and once again, it is Gerald to her rescue!

Gerald is just the type of friend that everyone should have. He is patient, loving and endlessly helpful. Piggie is demanding, feisty, dramatic and appreciative of Gerald's thoughtfulness. Together they provide wonderful opportunities for untold enjoyment and laughter. They also are the main characters in a growing set of wonderful storybooks that will inspire young emergent readers to pick up the next one, and then the next one and finally, when they are finished reading all of them (eleven and counting), they will want to read them all over again! And you will want to read them with them. With at least two voices in each tale, they are perfect for that!

I love reading these books aloud...they are so much fun and provide wonderful opportunities for drama, shared reading and the most coveted reaction for anyone who reads with children and their parents and teachers...'can you please read it again?'

The next dozen posts are going to tell you about each of them, and a couple more. Mo Willems is inspiring young readers with books that matter. His ability to show so much emotion with small differences in the cartoon-like illustrations and to invite talk about his memorable and lovable characters and their 'messes' is inspiring and I highly recommend them as another of those gifts that will last a lifetime!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Knuffle Bunny Too, written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, HB Fennn. $21.99 ages 4 and up

"By now, Trixie really knew how to talk. And talk, and talk."

And talk she does...all the way to school, with Knuffle Bunny in tow all over again. Despite the passing of a few years, the enchantment has not changed a tiny bit. She is so excited to share her one-of-a-kind friend with her Pre-K classmates! As she scans the classroom, she is distressed to see that Sonja is toting an exact copy of Knuffle Bunny. It is immediate chaos. The day does not begin well...there is an argument about pronunciation and a teacher's quick and chilling reaction to it. The bunnies are removed from care and kept out of sight until school is later dismissed.

Trixie heads for home with Mom, happily reunited with her beloved companion. Their evening passes with the usual events, and soon Trixie and Knuffle Bunny are tucked in for the night. It is not until the middle of that night that she realizes there is something amiss. It is a problem that must be righted NOW! Turns out that Sonja has made the same discovery. Arrangements are made, and a meeting takes place. The bunnies are exchanged and all is well in the world once more.

Again, the digital photos add depth and dimension to the tale's telling. There is so much to see and to discuss as you pore over the pictures with your favorite listeners. The expressive characters are familiar and appreciated as the new dilemma unfolds and is effectively resolved, despite the timing.

I am sometimes apprehensive about sequels when the first book is so good, but Mo Willems does not disappoint. This second book about Knuffle and Trixie stands on its own, and will garner new fans without any doubt. Willems even adds an epilogue to give us a hint that there might be room for another in the future. I can't wait, and I will be sure to share news if I should hear anything.

If you want to keep up with this talented, humorous, prolific author take the time to check out his website and blog at You won't be sorry!

Knuffle Bunny, written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion, H B Fenn. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"Not so long ago, before she could even speak words, Trixie went on an errand with her daddy..."

If you love to laugh out loud, this book will meet those expectations! Trixie and her Dad are off to the laundromat, laundry and Knuffle Bunny in tow. The stuffed bunny is her constant companion. If readers are watching carefully, they will be quick to react to the dilemma that is about to rear its ugly head. For, as the laundry basket is unloaded, Knuffle Bunny is inadvertantly placed in the washer alongside the rest of the basket's contents. Trixie and her Dad are then off on a leisurely stroll home when Trixie becomes aware that all is not right in her world anymore. She tries to tell her Dad (in toddler babble) and Dad reassures her that all is well, while not understanding a thing she is saying. Within minutes she is frantic and inconsolable. Neighbors and passers-by are horrified by Daddy's inability to assuage her tears. Once home, it takes Mom two seconds to figure out what's wrong. She wonders aloud where he is and the whole family is off to the rescue!

If you have spent any time with a toddler and such a loss, you will know what's next. Knuffle Bunny is found, after a fairly frenetic search and all is right in Trixie's world!

I love the humor that Mo Willems brings to the stories he tells. In this book, he uses mixed media (digital photography and hand-drawn ink sketches) to help him regale his readers with a memorable and quirky tale. In the front matter, we see a series of framed photos that give us the back story that leads up to today's events...marriage, a baby, life as a family and Trixie's obvious devotion to her stuffed pet. No wonder the loss is so dramatically felt!

As the expressions change page by page, we are privy to every emotion felt by Trixie and her Dad. So much fun! The surprise ending is just right...and will lead you to eagerly await Knuffle Bunny, Too.
As you saw from my last post, I couldn't stand not telling you about the books I bought when I was travelling. I am home now and ready to start telling you about some of my favorite reads and books that I love to read, and then read again! I am going to go on a run about Mo Willems and his wonderful books for early readers. It is my contention that if we want kids to love to read, we need to make sure that they get the right book at the right time. The books need to do for children what we want books to do for us...inform, entertain, take us to new places and introduce us to amazing characters who make a lasting impression on us. If kids are going to be readers for life, they need to know that reading is worth the work, the time and the love! Off we go to see what Mo Willems has in store for all of us...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Chester's Masterpiece, written and illustrated by Melanie Watt. Kids Can Press, 2010. $18.95 ages 5 and up

"Dear Readers,
I am thrilled to announce that Melanie Watt will NO longer be writing or illustrating children's books because of a toothache and some technical difficulties. So, I will now gladly replace her! P.S. I hid Melanie's art
supplies and computer mouse. C."

It's hard to remember that there is no Chester...that while he and Melanie Watt are having their war of words, and chastising each other for their failures and foibles, there really aren't two of them involved. He is such a strong and loveable (despite his disagreeable and condescending manner) character that he has life! It is Melanie Watt's strength to have us suspend our belief and use our imaginations to embark on this story of storying.

Chester does his best to convince his readers that Melanie no longer has control and this story is all his! Being not so accomplished at his trade as she is, it is Chester who runs into difficulty and needs some guidance on the way to completing his story independently. He's quick to tell us it's original, but the story seems remarkably familiar. When encouraged to strike out on his own and write something original, he needs persistent prompts to get to the meat of the tale he wants to tell. He finally settles for telling a mouse story which doesn't end well. Encouragement is needed once again to ensure a happier ending for the mouse, and Chester is adamant that he will write the story he wants to write...until he encounters an insurmountable and story stopping problem. However, he does manage the final 'raspberry'! Then again, you might just want to check that back cover. It has a strongly stated proviso.

So much to read and see! You will not be disappointed in this third tale of Chester the Cat. Kids will love it and will pore over the words, the admonitions, the artwork with keen eyes and equally keen interest in the art of storytelling.

Blue Chameleon, written and illustrated by Emily Gravett. Macmillan, H B Fenn. 2010. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"Blue chameleon
Yellow banana
Pink cockatoo"

What a book cover is designed to do is to provide the impetus for a reader to want to explore its pages, to open the cover and delve deeper. Look at the sad and dejected demeanor of the blue chameleon who graces this cover. Don't you yearn to know his story?

It seems the blue is due to the lonlieness he is feeling over being friendless, and he is willing to go that extra mile to find a compatible one. He just wants company. He's more than willing to change color (which is his speciality) but he goes further. He even changes shape to make himself more amenable to his perceived pals. He is polite, interested, and even content with a variety of inanimate objects, adding peculiar and humorous 'bits' to attract their attention. When he finally admits defeat and actually disappears from sight, he chances to hear a friendly voice and learns that good things come to those who wait.

Emily Gravett continues to amaze with her wit, her sparse text that says so much, her textured, gentle illustrations and her incredible talent for finding stories to tell that encourage a love of the written word and the 'need to read'. The humor and the 'dips and dives' that accompany this search for a soulmate will enthrall our youngest readers and have them reading it themselves in no time...but, the conversations might last a lifetime. This is a book to savor and to share forever!

An Emily Gravett library might be one of the greatest gifts you could give to parents and their new addition! They will never outgrow such a gift.

My Elephant, written and illustrated by Petr Horacek. Candlewick, Random House. 2010. $19.00 ages 3 and up

"I asked Grandpa to play ball with me, but he was too busy.
I went to see Grandma, but she was busy, too.
So I asked my ELEPHANT if he wanted to play with me."

Now, what imaginary elephant in his right mind would ignore such a gleeful invitation? None! And so begins a day of discovery between boy and elephant. They play kickball and somehow that elephant messes up the flower bed. Grandpa is not convinced, so the boy takes the elephant inside. Grandma has concerns about the mess in the hallway and the puddles in the bathroom. Oh, and the spilled orange juice, and the disappearing cupcakes. Grandma is also hard to convince and her young grandson experiences sadness at her disbelief. He seeks solitude, but his elephant is quick to cheer him up when he relays his misgivings about his granparent's skepticism. They spend the day in his room, fishing and tiger watching. Upon awakening in the morning to his grandfather's spirited invitation to play ball, he wonders how he got to bed. It seems the elephant helped!

A relatively simple story told with fun and a fresh spirit. The mixed media collages are full of details and the warmth of friendship and love. Great for reading aloud as there is much emphasis on the language chosen to tell this family story.
Hi everyone!

I've been on holiday for a few weeks now, and my heart is ready to be back reading great books for kids. While away, I have been 'adult' reading and seeing some wonderful sights with great friends and family, and loving all that!

I swore that I wouldn't do it...but, my resolve faltered and I bought a 'few' new in the car for the rest of the trip is at a premium and I will stop now...but, they are such great reads and I will tell you all about them when I get home. Remember to keep a book by your bed and a story in your heart!