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Monday, October 31, 2011

Bear with Me, written and illustrated by Max Kornell. G.P. Putnam's, Penguin. 2011. $20.00 ages 4 and up

"Then one day my mom and dad
brought home a surprise. I don't
like surprises. Surprises are never
as good as you hoped for.
They said they always wanted
a bear. They said now the family
was complete. I thought the
family was already complete.
The bear's name was Gary."

This is an inventive way to open the conversation about the arrival of a new sibling. Owen loves the life he leads with his parents. He is content and has all things needed, as far as he is concerned. Seems that his parents are not so happy with the way of things. So, they get a bear!

It strikes a blow at Owen. He did not ask for a bear, and he is not pleased with its presence. There is no room for conversation. Gary is here to stay...and to share a room, and to enjoy all of Owen's toys. There is no leeway and Owen is not enthused. When it comes to sharing his parents' attention, the same rules apply. Gary needs to go for a walk right when Owen wants help with his kite flying. You get the picture...

It is everything Gary at Owen's house. Owen is having a tough time adjusting. Gary doesn't know the rules of the house and chaos ensues. Dried up markers, and broken swings are the worst of it. Dejected and lonely Owen takes some time out. Gary joins him, then offers an olive branch. With cooperation the two learn important lessons.

It takes time but it appears to be worth it!

Max Kornell uses ink, watercolor and acrylics to create the artwork that accompanies his story. His use of bright colors and pretty simple lines seem to be just right. He is able to make Gary look overpowering without being so. Despite his very large size, Gary suffers the same insecurities that Owen does with their new arrangement. The artist is adept at showing those feelings. I love the wordless parts that let the reader and listener create their own small take in this story of sibling rivalry.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Deadly Voyage: RMS Titanic, written by Hugh Brewster. Scholastic, 2011. $14.99 ages 10 and up

"It was an iron staircase, so narrow that we had to brace ourselves to climb up it, since the ship was now listing toward the port side. When I looked down and saw water lapping up the steps only a few decks below us, I was shocked. The stairway lamps were shining through the water like lights in a swimming pool."

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I expect that a number of books will be released. I was interested to see that Hugh Brewster has written this one for the I Am Canada series from Scholastic. I have enjoyed the other books I have read in the series and was prepared to like this one, too.

I was not disappointed. Hugh Brewster tells the compelling story of Jamie Laidlaw, the young son of a family making the maiden voyage from England to New York. He is thrilled to be on board and to have the chance to meet others who are making the crossing, and to see the workings of such a large and luxurious ship. He's eager to see all areas of the ship, and even gets himself into some trouble with a friend while chasing a pet rat into places they were not supposed to be.

Jamie and his family are first class passengers, and he is eager to describe the opulence of the many places he discovers as he explores the ship. The dining rooms, the amazing and abundant food, the gym, and other facilities are all there to be enjoyed by the Titanic's passengers. Jamie is not delighted with their dining room companions but he is interested in knowing what he can about the many rich and famous people travelling with them.
When the iceberg is struck, it sends many into panic mode. That leads to unnecessary mistakes as the first lifeboats were only partly filled in the rush to get them off the sinking ship. There were only sixteen lifeboats for more than 2200 people...not nearly enough to prevent catastrophe and a huge loss of life.  Many of those people in third class did not even make it to the upper decks before it was too late:

"When the Carpathia finally arrived just before dawn, it took aboard only 712 people from the 2209 who had been on board the Titanic."

Hugh Brewster is a man who knows the history of this ship, and he shows that he has done much research before writing this story. The only fictional family members are the Laidlaws and their maid. All others actually made the trip and their stories are well documented in the hundred years since the tragedy. That fact gives his story an authenticity and immediacy that makes it even more compelling. It feels like nonfiction and is perfect for his target is a series of stories meant to attract a boy reader. The reality of Jamie's harrowing experience once he is in the water and perched atop an overturned lifeboat, needing to hold it in balance (along with many others) by placing his feet on either side of centre to keep it from capsizing is real and terrifying...and bone-chilling, as it was so cold. I could feel that cold, and the terror as I read the detailed descriptions.  

The historical note, glossary, archived photographs, body tags, diagrams and the final author's note add  interest and are sure to send some readers searching for more stories.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dead End in Norvelt, written by Jack Gantos. Farrar Straus Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2011. $17.95 ages 12 and up

"Yep, I was even thinking of starting a museum right here in Norvelt..." Mr. Fenton trailed off as he scratched a part of his body that made me look away.
If it was a museum of human freaks, I thought, he could be the first display. He looked like a human corn grub with crusty wire-rimmed glasses over his bugged-out snow-globe eyes."

Oh, this was such fun to read, and it took me no time at all! I just wanted to know more and more about Jack, his mother and father, the town of Norvelt (which is as much a character as anyone else) and Miss Volker.

It is the summer of 1962 and things have not started well for Jackie Gantos. Taking direction from his father, he plows up his mother's corn patch and finds himself grounded for the summer when she takes great exception to his actions. He finds himself completing numerous mother-suggested tasks, including acting as a scribe for MissVolker who writes obituaries for the town's newspaper, as well as a 'today in history' column. Miss Volker has severe arthritis and has great difficulty using her hands for anything, so she needs Jack's able assistance. They are kept very busy as so many of their town's elderly citizens are dying within quick succession of each other.

Spending time together puts Jack on Miss Volker's radar; it doesn't take her long to notice his constant nosebleeds. His nose bleeds when he is upset, name it, the nose will be bleeding. She is adamant that she can fix his problem, and cauterizes his nasal passages in her home. Kids who love to squirm will find reason to do so. Miss Volker has nothing if not opinions. She emphasizes the importance of the history lessons that she is sharing:

 "The reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you've done in the past is so you don't do it again."

She has so much to teach, and Jack is quite fascinated. He finds himself enjoying the time they spend together...and why not? She is one great character. They have more than a love of history in common. Their encounters add drama and humor at every turn:

"Yes, she said, "I'm human and I have fingers. They don't work well because of my arthritis so I have to heat them up in a pot of hot paraffin in order to get them working for about fifteen minutes."
"Hot what?"
"Hot wax," she repeated impatiently. "You saw me doing it when you came in. Did that smack on your head when you hit the floor give you amnesia?"
I sat up and rubbed the lump on the back of my head. "I thought you were melting your fingers into gold," I said. "I thought you had gone crazy."

And that's only a small part of one scene! I would have a tough time reading it to a class without giggling uncontrollably at times, and even crying tears and snorting at the impeccably written hilarity.Jack stands at the heart of this fine novel, and he learns much about the person he wants to become. As the summer comes to an end, he more readily understands some of the actions taken by those around him.

There is such great writing here that I will put it on my 'keeper' shelf in hopes of reading it again. I added many wonderful lines to my book quotes journal, and only hope I might remember them to share at opportune times. Bravo, Jack Gantos...and thank you!

The Vole Brothers, written and illustrated by Roslyn Schwartz. Owlkids, 2011. $16.95 ages 2 and up

"I'm so hungry I could eat
a cat!
He'll hear you.
Something smells good. 
Follow that cat!"

Roslyn Schwartz returns with a new band of brothers to delight and entertain her young readers. Following on the success of the Mole Sisters, she brings the same sense of fun and quiet humor to her famished, funny voles.

We know that they are in trouble. A reward is offered:


Two small, ravenous rodents recently arrived from the country.
Last seen chomping and chewing on daisies, tulips and roses."

So, we know they are hungry but we don't know much else about them. Luckily, the author is skilled at helping us discover their penchant for food to fill their bellies, and the lengths to which they will go to find that food. Plants and flowers just don't cut it!

Now, pepperoni pizza? That gives a vole pause. The cat finds the enticing smell coming from a dingy dumpster...soon the paws have it! Time for the voles to use their wily ways to get it for themselves. The cat is quick to nab the paper bag they have been travelling in, only to be surprised at its emptiness. In the meantime the voles have done what they do best...dig a tunnel leading straight to the smelly slice.

All does not go well! Ants and crows ensure the disappearance of their anticipated meal...some would call that poetic justice. Still hungry, they continue their hunt. The cat seems intent on payback and too soon it appears that the brothers will be supper, rather than finding it! How will they escape the cat's claws and what are they going to eat?

Their story is cleverly written, with elements of humor, surprise, and shock. The illustrations give readers another set of characters to love, with lots of action and excitement to boot. I certainly look forward to the next instalment!

War Horse, written by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Francois Place. Egmont, Publishers Group Canada. $19.95 ages 9 and up

"For just a few short moments we moved forward at a trot as we had done in training. In the eery silence of no-man's-land all that could be heard was the jingle of the harness and the snorting of the horses. We picked our way around the craters keeping to our line as best we could."

Are you looking for a powerful story to read to your children as thoughts turn to Remembrance Day, and the effects of war? This book was written in 1982 and concerns a young man and his horse. It is set in World War I and has much to say about both the human and the equine spirit.

It didn't have an strong impact at the time of publication, but it remains in print today (a testament to its brilliant writing) and has been made into a new Steven Spielberg movie, due before Christmas. The inspiration for the story came from conversations that Michael Morpurgo had with a WWI cavalry veteran:

“He told me with tears in his eyes that the only person he could talk to there — and he called this horse a person — was his horse.”

The author went on to discover much more about the one to two million British horses that were sent to the front lines during the war. Unbelievably, only about 65,000 returned. He thought it would be of interest to tell their story. He had some difficulty finding a way to do that. He found inspiration one day while watching a young boy with a debilitating stutter speak to a horse:

“And he was talking to the horse, and his voice was flowing. It was simply unlocked. And as I listened to this boy telling the horse everything he’d done on the farm that day, I suddenly had the idea that of course the horse didn’t understand every word, but that she knew it was important for her to stand there and be there for this child.”

Voila! Joey, the horse, became the voice that would tell this beautifully written tale. He tells his story from where his life began. After being bought at auction by Albert's father, Joey learns kindness and loyalty through the love shown by the young boy. Albert trains and cares for him; but war threatens and Joey is sold to the cavalry for use in battle. At that time, there was still some thought given to a cavalry charge being the best offence. Joey is on the front line.

He proves himself brave and resilient, managing to survive and help many soldiers stay safe, or carry them to safety. He displays his emotions as he feels them: caring for Topthorn, accepting all that happens to him, and playing a role for both sides. To a horse, there is injustice, brutality, love and kindness no matter which side is being served. He wants to be fed, cared for and to know that those around him are safe.

Albert is unable to forget the love he has for his horse and is desperate to find him, hoping to bring Joey home. Since he is too young to enlist, he must find his own way to the front.

Michael Morpurgo shows the universal suffering that war affords, and the horrors of the fighting. He portrays the scenes with powerful writing and honesty. Two millions horses and nineteen million people were the casualties of the first great is not a pretty picture. Morpurgo balances those scenes with the love and loyalty shown by soldiers, by their equine companions and through the unfailing love of a young man for his horse:

"And so I came home from the war that Christmas-time with my Albert riding me up into the village, and there to greet us was the silver band from Hatherleigh and the rapturous peeling of the church bells. Both of us were received like conquering heroes, but we both knew that the real heroes had not come home, that they were lying out in France alongside Captain Nicholls, Topthorn, Friedrich, David and little Emilie."

Friday, October 28, 2011

It's Snowing, written and illustrated by Gail Gibbons. Holiday House, Thomas Allen & Son. 2011. $21.95 ages 3 and up

"Ice crystals of all shapes and sizes float into one another and join together to create a snowflake. Soon more and more ice crystals attach themselves, making the snowflake larger. When snowflakes get large and heavy enough, they fall from the clouds. It's snowing!"

In keeping with the quiet, gentle feeling that Kate Messner evokes in her lovely new book from my previous blog post, I also want to share Gail Gibbons' very informative book about that sparkly, soft precipitation soon to make our world so lovely.

She starts off by telling us about the water cycle and how droplets form in the clouds that so often fill the winter sky. Watching the cold air change those ice crystals into the beauty of snowflakes makes the process so clear for young readers. Then seeing the family, red-cheeked and glowing, welcome snow with open arms may help to change our feelings about the approaching season.

Children in early years classrooms will learn a lot about snow in this fact-filled, well-illustrated piece of nonfiction. The author even includes geography by sharing with her audience the fact that snow falls on all seven continents. A map of the world plots exactly where, while a double page spread with panels for each of those continents provides a fact that might surprise.

She then talks about the ways that snow is not always gentle. It might be flurries; but it might also fall as sleet, or in a severe snowstorm. It could even be as a blizzard which adds a very real element of danger. Listening to weather watchers and meteorologists can help safely prepare people to wait it the roads and at home, if possible. The warnings vary in severity but each poses a risk to those living in the watch area.

Not much is left out of this detailed piece of nonfiction. The author fills the pages with captions and labels that make for clear understanding of the concepts being shared. She makes it a family story, with the same group experiencing much of the action. She finishes by explaining how much fun snow can really be, and by giving instructions for taking close-up looks at snowflakes. On the final page Gail Gibbons presents text boxes that offer more tidbits and two websites that might be used to get weather for the United States and one for Canada.  A worthy addition to any collection involving seasons, the water cycle and just plain fun in the snow!

Over and Under the Snow, written by Kate Messner with art by Christopher Silas Neal. Chronicle Books, 2011. $18.99 ages 4 and up

"Over the snow I glide.
A full moon lights my path
to supper.

Under the snow, a chipmunk
wakes for a meal. Bedroom,
kitchen, hallway - his house
under my feet."

How amazing for children who are out on the snow doing what kids do there to think about what is happening beneath their feet! Kate Messner has created a tale of winter enjoyment for a father and daughter, while also opting to add a nonfiction piece about the habits of a variety of animals caught in winter's snowy embrace.

A quick movement begins the conversation:

"Over the snow, a flash of fur - a red squirrel disappears down a crack.
"Where did he go?"
"Under the snow," Dad says."

Her father begins to tell her about 'a secret kingdom' that exists underneath the snow as it covers the forest floor, where they are skiing. There is a quiet magic to much of the telling, and that is due to the language used by this skilled writer. I like that she continually reminds us where we are...either over the snow or under it. As they go, there is so much to see and consider in the quiet serenity of their outing.

Since I had some vole tunnels on my lawn a couple of years ago, I like finding information about them:

"Over the snow I climb, digging in my edges so
I don't slide back down.

Under the snow, voles scratch through slippery
tunnels, searching for morsels from summer feasts."

I surely don't know what they were finding under there.

The author's elegant text is matched by the gentle feel of the illustrator's mixed media images of this white world. I love the cutaways created to show young readers what is happening for many familiar animals. Thus, they become the focus of our attention, leaving the humans at the top of the illustration and seeming far from the immediate action.

After a day of quiet adventure, the two join Mom for a bonfire meal. As darkness falls, so does a drowsy feeling grow. Now it's the young narrator's turn to find comfort under cover:

"Over the snow I glide home on tired legs.
Clouds whisper down feathery-soft flakes.

Under the covers, I snuggle deep and
drift into dreams..."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Hound Dog's Haiku, written by Michael J. Rosen and illustrated by Mary Azarian. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $20.00 ages 5 and up


above your fixed gaze
a Milky Way of cows move -
your constellations"

I chose border collie to start this post for Secia, my brother's dog. She is at his side constantly and very protective of both he and Kathy. I would have liked to share a haiku about a bulldog for my two granddogs, Percy and Eddie. Oh, well...maybe next book!

His last book of haiku concerned birds (The Cuckoo's Haiku, Candlewick, 2009) and I have used it in all of my poetry workshops since first reading it. Now, I have an equally enjoyable addition for my list. It will likely be more popular, given how children feel about dogs. You can imagine how carefully words must be chosen to create little gems like these for children to read. Only seventeen syllables to give us a image that respects the fundamental nature of the canine being considered.


staccato sniffing
fills your ribs' parentheses
you keep scent's secret

Ribs' parentheses...really? How does one even come up with such an image? How impeccably it describes the bloodhound. I am impressed!  Mary Azarian provides the perfect picture for that parenthetical concept in her woodcut art, as she does for every other entry. Each image adds life and movement, no matter the dog's mood or position. They may be dozing, welcoming, jumping, chasing, or keeping watch. She manages to find their own individual personality and bring it to the reader.   

To add to the allure of this brilliant book, Michael Rosen concludes it with a section called  “Notes for Dog Lovers and Fans of Haiku”. In it he says of the border collie:

"Border collies live to work: moving herds of cattle from barn to pasture, protecting and tracking each cow and calf. In this poem, the cows are the stars that the border collie gazes at through the powerful "telescope" of its instincts. And the fact that the cows give milk makes "Milky Way" a bit of a pun."

So much to learn here. It will have its readers poring over each page for long periods of time, and going from front to back to assimilate the information that is there for them.

Are you thinking of Christmas gifts yet? Do you have a dog-loving child in the family or among friends? I'm just saying....

Samantha on a Roll, written by Linda Ashman and illustrated by Christine Davenier. Farrar Strauss Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2011. $18.95 ages 3 and up

"But Samantha cannot wait.
Straps herself into a skate.
Straps herself into the other.
Tries them on despite her mother.
Sammy stands and rolls a bit.
Says, "I KNEW these skates
would fit!
I'll just try them in the hall.
Mama wouldn't care at all.""

Ah, Samantha is so wanting to try her out her roller skates. Her mother is immune to her pleas, and asks her to put the skates away for now, and wait until she has time to help. If you have children, you will know that their time to do things and your time to do those same things don't often match. It's their way in the world!

Sam just can't hold herself back. So, she begins in the hall. She continually sets new courses for herself, practicing hard to get from one place to another...always finding success. Mama is busy with her tasks: talking on the phone, giving the dog a bath, watching the baby. Sam is gaining confidence with every minute that passes. She's sure that Mama would be pleased with her progress and not mind a foray into the outdoors.

"(Mama, busy bathing Spot,
WOULD have minded quite a lot.)"

Stealthily, she makes her escape which turns into quite the escapade. There is SO much to see, but one thing she misses...the steepness of the slope in front of her. Oh, boy! Meanwhile, Mama is oblivious to the fact that Samantha is not in the house.

One catastrophe after another ensues as she makes her way down the hill, and around town. Finally, she arrives back home, her mother still in the dark about her doings. She plunks herself in a pile of pillows and sticks her nose in a book (where I would have been the whole time) and surprises her mother when she rejects an invitation to try those skates.

As I have previously mentioned, the most memorable and oft-requested picture books happen when the text and illustrations have equal impact. Linda Ashman creates a lively story in verse and leaves the frenetic energy created by those words to a artist who well knows the world of little girls. She uses her artistic skill and sense of fun to create the colored pencil and watercolor art that give this rhyming treasure expression and real action. The lines she uses to show quick movement, Samantha's expressions and flailing appendages add humor and delight to the reading.

BookSpeak! Written by Laura Purdie Salas and illustrated by Josee Bisaillon. Clarion, Thomas Allen & Son, 2011. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"He is the buyer
who orders the tale
to put on display
for loan or for sale.

And she is the reader
who browses the shelf
and looks for new worlds
but finds herself."

OK! You take a former teacher and teacher-librarian, and a forever book lover; then, give her a book about BOOKS, where the books are allowed to have a voice. What are the chances that she is going to tell you all about it? Pretty good, I would venture to guess!

Right from the first poem, I am intrigued. Laura Purdie Salas plays with words and ideas like the accomplished writer she is...each new poem gives the reader pause to think, and reread and be awed by the wonder of her words. Her first is an invitation to all readers:

"I'll tell you a story.

I'll spin you a rhyme.
I'll spill some ideas -
and we'll travel through time.

Put down the controller.
Switch off the TV.
Abandon the mouse and
just hang out with me."

And on she goes, writing about characters, conflict and cliffhangers. She gives voice to the poor perfect book that takes up space on a shelf rather than sharing the dust bunnies under the bed, jam smudges and other signs of having been read and loved. The index shows its brash, boastful side in trying to convince the reader to ONLY  look at all that it has to offer. Even the book plate has a say:

"I don't need your napkin.
I'm not your soup bowl's mate.
I don't want your peas or bread.

I'm not that kind of plate!"

More? Yep! The cover, the middle, the illustrations and the publishing process add their singular voices to the whole shebang. Mostly written in first person, readers will delight in the images created by careful word choice and thoughtful conversation.

I like Josée Bisaillon’s mixed media illustrations which add depth and understanding to the nature of the poetry included here. There are bold colors, varying perspectives, changing backgrounds and familiar bits and pieces added to the collages that create a sense of fun.

I will leave the final lovely sentiment to THE END:

"I am not so much
The End
as I am an
invitation back
to the beginning."


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dot, by Patricia Intriago. Farrar Strauss Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2011. $16.50 ages 2 and up

"Stop dot
Go dot

Slow dot
Fast dot

Up and down dots
bounce around"

Truthfully, how would you illustrate the preceding words? I am absolutely convinced that, not in a hundred years of waiting around for inspiration, would I ever devise a plan to display these dots as wittily as the artist has!

Perhaps I used a too familiar quote to begin this post. As the pages are turned the images definitely become more intriguing. Ever stop to consider what an expressive, malleable entity a dot can be?

There is a lot of white space to give young readers a focus for their thinking as they explore the many ways that dots have purpose. Mostly created in black and white, there are added bits of color to fully stimulate creative thinking.  It would be very interesting to see the results when young artists are given free rein to let their imaginations run wild, and to see what transpires while considering the lowly dot. As a concept book, it will introduce our youngest readers to words that are opposites and provide a visual understanding of their differences.

I think it would be a readaloud hoot to share this book at the same time that you share Herve Tullet's Press Here (Chronicle, 2011) and Craig Frazier's Lots of Dots (Chronicle, 2010).

Dear Hot Dog,written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein. Abrams, 2011. $18.95 ages 5 and up

"My cup gives
a shape to
shapeless milk
and orange juice -
a cup shape.
It puts a handle
on them,
so I can lift them
and pour them
into me.
Thanks, cup."

Well, who knew that Mordicai Gerstein is an accomplished poet? Writer? Yes, no question. Perhaps he has done this before, but I have not had the pleasure of reading any other of his poetry. I am definitely a fan!

He takes three kids, their daily lives and constructs a bed-to-bed compendium of verse about those things that are most familiar to them. We meet all three in the opening pages, sleeping, waking and rising to greet a new and sunny day. The first poem is a chat between a bespectacled young boy, one hand full of an oozing toothpaste tube, the other diligently brushing morning breath away. Not that he likely minds; it is just a part of his daily routine. As the next young man dons favored pants, we learn a little about their relationship:

"I hear your buttons
clicking in
the spinning dryer.
You emerge, limp
and lifeless,
till I slip my legs
inside you.
You're alive again!"

On they go, from toes to socks to shoes...each having interesting turns of phrases, well-chosen, descriptive language and a connection to the lives led. The outdoors fun includes kite flying and swimming, eating hot dogs and ice cream cones, the seasons and rain. Of course, there are books:

"Words can frighten.
Words can sing.
Words can tickle.
Words can sting.
Words show us
never seen before."


The artwork is a terrific match for the poems included. Using acrylics on paper, Mr. Gerstein paints a warm and gentle atmosphere for these children...full of movement, playful activity and everyday undertakings. He gives us characters with connections to each other and to their daily undertakings. Fun to share or to read alone in a quiet corner, these poems provide a sense of  'I can do that!' for young writers...take what you know and expand on it. Listen to their words and see what they do to create character, mood, and a sense of wonder in the everydayness of our lives.

The final poem gives a perfect description for the pillow that each night welcomes a sleepy head:

"My pillow sleeps
all day,
dreaming it's
a cloud,"

What an apt image before sleep!

There are no cats in this book, written and illustrated by Viviane Schwarz. Candlewick, Random House. 2010. $20.00 ages 3 and up

"Have you come to visit?

The thing is,
we're just about to go.

Yes, we're going to see
the world...."

I trust that you met these cats in their first cleverly interactive book (There are cats in this book, Candlewick, 2008). I bought many copies to give to children just discovering the joys of books and reading. It was the perfect story to cause giggles galore and a repeated reading response. Ah, there may be parents out there who want to throttle me, but I love the giggles. Just as I do with this second go with the adventurous felines. I have shared it in a number of classrooms and in literature workshops...the response is the same from children and adults.

In this book, there are NO cats!  Well, so they say! In fact, on first contact, Andre, Tiny and Moonpie are packing. They are readying themselves to see the world. They are sorry...but, they just can't stay! They try numerous ways of leaving...pushing their way out, jumping, even wishing with all their might. Maybe our readers can help. Close your eyes and WISH! Wahoo...we did it!

What do you think? Should we wait for them to come back for a visit? If we do, they might bring a surprise.

The art is such fun, and young readers are totally involved in every step taken, from the speech bubbles on the end papers, to the surprise at the end.  There are flaps and pop-ups, speech bubbles and requests for responses. Get your smile'll be using it!

The Fantastic 5&10 cent Store, written by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Valorie Fisher. Schwartz & Wade, Random House. 2010. $20.99 ages 5 and up

from the front flyleaf:

"What lurks inside that
store at the end of town?
Only Benny Penny is
adventurous enough to
find out..."

I'm sorry that I cannot include a real quote from this witty and captivating book of poetry. I just can't get the rebuses down and that would spoil your fun. If you know J Patrick Lewis' work, you will not be surprised that he writes this zany adventure with characteristic skill and charm.

A new shop has the townspeople first wondering at the treasure it might hold! Benny Penny knows it's a 5 and 10 cent store, and he's first to venture inside its doors. Once inside, he is privy to the craziness that is at its heart. A paintbrush dips itself in green, then paints the ceiling red. Huh?? A cup and saucer have a race, and so do the salt and pepper. The condiments dance, and the decks of cards walk in marching order. Finally the teapot and the pot race, and Benny is the referee.

No matter the fun, there are no customers. Mr. Nickel and Mrs. Dime are willing to offer prizes, if only people would make it 'the' place to shop.  Benny puts his thinking cap on, and comes up with an idea that just might work. He strings some brilliant stars above the store's entrance and adds the store's name to a marquee banner. Voila, paying customers!

Patrick Lewis did not write this book for little ones. It needs a more seasoned reader. But, I can guarantee that anyone who picks it up is not going to be content until they have solved each one of the rebuses. The illustrations that Valorie Fisher has created to help enhance the poetry are a delightful mix of the real, the vintage and the imagined. The endpapers are a hoot, giving readers a sense of the cost of items that might have been sold in the old nickel and dime stores, as well as the wide variety wares to be found there.

The puzzles can be tricky...context helps and so does the rhyme used. If you really can't decipher each one, the author has included a translation at the back of this entertaining book. Do your best before succumbing to getting help!

The Little Yellow Bottle, written by Angele Delaunois and illustrated by Christine Delezenne. Second Story Press, 2011. $15.95 ages 9 and up

"They were bombs,
someone said. We heard a
few explosions, then an
eerie silence fell. No birds
At first, we were terrified.
We held our breath.
And then, after a few days,
as all children do,
we forgot a little."

While it may be hard for children to learn about the plight of those in war-torn countries, I think it is also important for them to know what happens there. It builds understanding and empathy for events that are often beyond our borders and so easily ignored. Children are children no matter where they live. They have the same wishes and dreams, and deserve to live a life free of war and its aftermath.

Often, even in those countries where a war is ongoing, children may be unaware of its proximity to them and the effect it can have on their lives:

"We were mostly thinking of the harvest we had to help bring in, the fruit that was ripe enough to pick, the animals we had to tend - and soccer, soccer, soccer!"

Marwa and Ahmad are soccer enthusiasts and spend much of the time they have for play perfecting their game. Ahmad is a class goaler and much admired. Both notice the planes as they pass overhead, and know that bombs have been dropped on their land. Soon, those dangers are forgotten and they go back to their games.

At play one day, Ahmad notices and then picks up a small yellow bottle. It marks the beginning of a new reality for both children. The explosion leaves scars. Marwa's body is pierced by the exploding shrapnel and her recovery is long and painful. Covered from head to toe in bandages, she knows she will heal. For Ahmad, the results are even more devastating. He loses a hand and a leg, and almost his life. Ahmad's dreams of playing soccer are dashed. His will to live in this new reality is tested.  Ahmad's struggle to heal inside and out is long and painful. Then, he meets someone who helps him cope with the changes he must face.

A heartbreaking story to tell but so important to hear. War too often affects those who 'aren't at war with anyone', just as Marwa and Ahmad are not. The reality of the war is critically evident in the artwork created to accompany this very personal story. Collage and textured illustrations provide a grim look at the effects it can have on the children. They also offer a feeling of hopefulness for all who read it.

Ten Little Caterpillars, written by Bill Martin Jr and illustrated by Lois Ehlert. Beach Lane, Simon & Schuster. 2011. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"The ninth little caterpillar
fell into the sea.

The tenth little caterpillar
scaled an apple tree...."

This book was first published in 1967 and Lois Ehlert's gorgeous, boldly bright and beautiful collages did not then grace its pages. So here we are, in 2011, able to indulge ourselves in the lilting rhymes of a beloved author while feasting on Ms Ehlert's signature style and brilliant colors.

The caterpillars are moving, and chomping, as they are wont to do. Clearly, you can see all ten of them when you focus on the cover art. Each is different and represents what they will become by the end of the book! Some may seem familiar to young readers. If not, they are sure to learn about them by the time the sharing has ended. Science and art...a great celebration for all!

There is counting to be done, rhythmic language to enjoy and some new learning to digest.  Bill Martin Jr tells ten little stories here...each adventurous, and beautifully detailed in the artwork. Those illustrations are labelled with pertinent information, and provide an opportunity for early readers to acquire relevant sight words. Each caterpillar has its own distinct markings and favored food. It doesn't end with those stories...oh, no!
Lois Ehlert goes on to create an illustrated glossary of each of these critters, providing its known name, one of the foods it eats and the appearance it will have as an adult.  Astute and observant children will notice that only one achieves maturity in the texted pages, that one finds itself trapped in a jar (who hasn't tried that?) and that a few might even become lunch for a predator. It's not an easy life for a caterpillar! Which brings us to the question...who are a caterpillar's enemies? I love books that lead to wanting to know more.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dinosaur vs. The Library, written and illustrated by Bob Shea. Disney Hyperion, 2011. $17.50 ages 2 and up

"Dinosaur versus...

a cow!

moo. moo. moo.


I hope that you have met Dinosaur in one of his earlier lives...if you haven't, you have a treat in store and your kids will love him! He is full of spunk and energy, and a whole lot of confidence. Nothing seems to faze him....he just makes his merry way in life, roaring and entertaining.

In this third attempt to intimidate everything is his path, he's on his way to the's one of the best places to be! He wants his friends to join him. First, he must prove to a cow that he is louder, prouder and in charge. On he goes to convince his baby chick friends. Yes, they join his parade. They are roaring to their hearts' content!

On they go, chicks following suit and scaring a shy turtle right off his log and out of his safety zone. He adds to the parade of  'roarers'. Dinosaur is always in charge and a clear winner. Will the library defeat him? Will he roar where no dinosaur has roared before? Yes, he will.

He is convinced to use his inside roar...and all is well. And then, it's story time! How will he do it...can he contain his roar while the story is  read? I wonder. Who will win?

Bob Shea does! And so do the young listeners who help Dinosaur make his point. What fun!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, written and illustrated by Adam Rex. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2006. $9.99 ages 8 and up

"'Twas all his fault
he added salt,
instead of
crumbled skull.
The vial of bile
was pickle juice,
and dill
just made
it dull."

Don't think you can open this book and read only one of these wonderfully wacky won't happen. One leads to another, and then to another...pretty soon you are done and have completely enjoyed yourself reading about classic monsters and FOOD. You may even find yourself humming It's a Small World or Pop Goes the Weasel or perhaps The Girl from Ipanema...right along with the Phantom of the Opera. He can't get those tunes out of his head!  

Of his monsters, Adam Rex has this to say:

"Just because you might be a monster, that doesn’t mean life is going to be all terrified villagers and biting. There’s a down side—monsters have problems, too. Bigfoot and the Yeti are always being mistaken for one another. Frankenstein has trouble meeting new people. Witches, on the other hand, are constantly being scrutinized by hag enthusiasts. They have clubs for that sort of thing."

It is just too much fun....the rhythm of the language is pitch perfect and the rhymes will have you rocking with hilarity. The poor monsters are faced with problems and dilemmas that no one should face. Take the son of Dracula. He's just fine sucking the blood of warm-blooded creatures, but reptiles and lizards? They give him a toothache, and you know what that means:

""It needs to be mended. And so, if you're willing,
I'll patch it right up with a small silver filling."
A filling? With silver? Drac wanted to shout,
the werewolves will hate me! I've got to get out!"

I guarantee repeated readings, and offer this will take a while but it's worth your time to listen to the giggles and the 'ewww! gross!!!' You've heard of each of these monsters at some time or other. Their situations are a bit convoluted for these poems, but their characters retain their classic ways. The illustrations are forever changing and are awash with charm. Parents will get the jokes that little ones don't and that only adds the appeal. Since you're going to be called to read it again and again, you want to be entertained, too.

Adam Rex pulls out all stops and shares his considerable talent in illustrating each poem using a wide variety of styles. They will have you checking out each and every intricate detail.

I will leave you with ONE of my favorites:


I'm stumped as to why we all lump this poor chump
with the rest of the monsters, just 'cause of his hump.
It's not like he drains all the blood from your veins,
or sucks out your brains and then eats your remains.

I bet when he packs all those brown paper sacks
and he takes them for lunch, breakfast, dinner, or brunch,
that he'll munch, snack, and chew on the same food as you.

Just a hunch."

This Dark Endeavour, written by Kenneth Oppel. Harper, 2011. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"I became a keeper of secrets. I did not tell Konrad or Elizabeth of Father's alchemy. I did not tell them of my resolve to pursue our adventure. What good would it do? It wouldn't change their minds. They were too busy being in love. If Konrad did not have the sense to obtain the elixir, I would have to do it for him."

I have never read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and never really even considered doing so....until now. Just as Shane Peacock's The Boy Sherlock  Holmes led me to look more closely at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, Kenneth Oppel has inspired my interest in the man who was first the young man of this, his newest novel. It intrigues me to think about the rigorous research and vast amount of reading that must be done to know a character so well that a story about his earlier life can be realistically imagined.

It is a story told in first person, relating Victor's relationships with his twin brother Konrad, his cousin Elizabeth and their good friend Henry. The first person voice gives it immediacy and a very personal perspective on events as they happen. The Frankenstein brothers live a charmed life, wanting nothing and free to explore their magnificent home and its environs. When they unexpectedly find a hidden library, they are set on a course that will have readers eagerly anticipating each new twist and turn. It is the Dark Library and within its walls, they find books of alchemy written by a strange group of writers.

Mr. Frankenstein does not want them there. He fears they will be enticed into believing some of its spells and philosophy:

"This is not knowledge," he said. "It is a corruption of knowledge. And those books are not to be read."

When Victor asks why the books are still there, his father explains:

"I keep them, dear, arrogant Victor, because they are artifacts of an ignorant, wicked past - and it is a good thing not to forget our past mistakes. To keep us humble. To keep us vigilant. You see, my boy?"

You know what happens. When Konrad falls ill and cannot be healed, Victor takes it upon himself to find a cure. Elizabeth and Henry are willing conspirators. The Elixir of Life is written in a language they cannot decipher and they must seek help from an old alchemist, Julius Polidori. It leads them to a embark on three adventures in pursuit of the ingredients needed for the concoction. Victor realizes during these dangerous undertakings that Konrad and Elizabeth have strong feelings for each other...jealousy rears its ugly head and Victor tries trickery to break them up.

Victor's obsession with gathering the ingredients needed to concoct the mixture leads to a fight for survival, a good deal of deceit and some gruesome scenes. Each character is well-drawn, the pacing leaves you breathless at times, and the emotional roller coaster that ends the book does not allow even a brief digression. The tone is dark and tragic...would you not expect that to be so?

Victor will let nothing stand in the way of finding the answers he seeks. We sympathize with his intense need to help his brother...the other half of himself. Yet, he also has that dark, brooding nature. He is unlike his personable, accomplished 'older' brother. Their relationship can be unnerving. Elizabeth is like each of the brothers...sweet, kind and religious while also wild at times, and daring. Henry is a loyal friend, providing a bit of comic relief when a smile is needed.

I love this book and could not put it down once I started reading it! I understand that it is the first of a planned trilogy and has been optioned for a movie...hopefully, it won't be long until we hear from Victor again.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Haunted House, Haunted Mouse, written by Judy Cox and illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler. Holiday House, Thomas Allen & Son, 2011. $19.95 ages 4 and up

"The sack swayed like a
pirate ship in a gale.
Mouse's tummy roiled.
His head spun.
Poor seasick Mouse!
The next time the ghost
dropped her sack,
Mouse staggered out."

Children seem especially to love three days during their early years...their birthday, Christmas and often next in line, Halloween. There is so much excitement over dressing up, trick or treating and candy, candy, candy. I think we are all noticing over the past few years that the numbers are dwindling, and in the newspaper these days we read of cancelled parades and afternoon parties. But, it seems that each year brings one or two books that are a welcome addition to any collection of books to share at this time of year.

You may have met Mouse before...his first story concerned Thanksgiving (One is a Feast for Mouse, 2009). He's back for a second adventure in this magical book that is sure to please children looking for a Halloween tale. Mouse is hiding when the doorbell rings. He is intrigued by the apparitions at the door...and Dad is giving them candy! When one of the candy sacks falls and spills some of its treasure, Mouse is enticed into making a move. He finds himself in nibbler's nirvana. He makes good use of his time there, although he is concerned that he appears to be moving. A hole in the bag allows a look at the outside world, and he doesn't notice that the tote is leaking some of its goodies....luckily!

Mouse makes his escape only to be faced with a thunderstorm, an endless search for home and a stay in an old, empty house which creaks and groans and does its best to frighten Mouse. He's plenty brave until faced with finding his way home. Perhaps you can guess how he gets help.

The inspired illustrations that Jeffrey Ebbeler creates for this haunted tale will have its readers giggling with glee and anxious for their own Halloween escapades. That's what we want books to do! 

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, by Jerry Pinkney. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2011. $18.50 ages 2 and up

"Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark.
He could not see where to go
If you did  not twinkle so.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!"

Even the moon has its eye on the tiny star sparkling in the pre-dawn sky! As the forest awakens with robins gathering odds and ends for a nest and a chipmunk scurrying near a rock wall, the book opens. It begins with the familiar chorus, the chipmunk enraptured by the star itself. As the world is explored and delight taken in its abundant beauty, we follow the young mammal throughout its discovery-filled day. Ever curious and seemingly unconcerned about the height of the nest that becomes its resting place, the chipmunk is not deterred by the return of its robin owners.

Rather, the nest flies off, becoming a sailboat steered through the night sky by our fearless adventurer, now decked out in a sailor suit and bound for the star he has been watching. His travels take him past possums, and bats and the lamenting robins whose home has suddenly taken flight. The wind gives support. A sudden change in direction topples the boat captain onto a lily pad, and facing danger. Who will come to the rescue?

Jerry Pinkney uses the full lyrics of this popular lullaby, a chipmunk as its hero for the many he has had the pleasure of watching over the years, and all of his incredible artistic talent to create an often wordless 'story' for his young audience. He uses pencil, watercolor and colored pencils to bring this glorious woodland to life for us, all the while displaying his admiration for nature and its many splendors.

In an author's note he mentions his research process:

"I also investigated star shapes hidden in nature, inspiring me to illustrate these glittering wonders not just at nighttime but also from dawn (represented on the front endpaper) through morning, afternoon, twilight, and the dreamtime beyond."

Indeed...what a beautiful gift for a new baby!

The Great Race, written and illustrated by Kevin O'Malley. Bloomsbury Kids, Penguin. 2011. $21.00 ages 3 and up

"Nate went home and exercised. He did a sit-up while he watched TV. He chased after the ice-cream truck, and he ran to the pastry shop."

It's always fun to see an artist's new vision of a classic tale. In this familiar fable, tortoise and hare are setting up for a race and we know what the outcome will be. It does nothing to minimize our enjoyment. For those children who may not have read any other version, they will find fun and learning in the telling.

We know Kevin O'Malley to have a wicked sense of humor. Here, he puts it to good use once more. The hare seems certain of the outcome even as we peruse the cover. He's carrying a placard proclaiming his place in the race, while below that the tortoise plods past trees, popsicle in hand and umbrella protecting him from the sun.

The main characters are introduced on the first two pages. Lever Lapin is a dynamo in running circles, the winner of many important races and famous for it. Frankly, Nate Tortoise has had it with all the publicity and acclaim that Lever generates:

"Oh brother," Nate sighed. "Can't a tortoise just enjoy a meal in peace without hearing about Lever Lapin? I mean, really, he's just a runner. I could probably beat him in a race."

He didn't mean to say it out loud. Seems Lever and the rest of the restaurant patrons hear him and have a laugh. Once again, Nate is ticked: "Lapin, you're as sharp as a marble." He challenges Lever to a race, giving a week's notice and an ultimatum for the loser. The training begins in earnest...well, of a sort. Nate would rather have ice cream than sit-up and his training doesn't go so well. No matter, one week later the crowd gathers and the race is on!

Kevin O'Malley fills his pages with bold color, telling faces, and lots of action. There is so much to see in the details. His word choice adds to the fun...notably, the restaurant where the challenge is issued is named the La Gaganspew. As Nick marches on, Lever takes time to address his admiring fans and to sign a few autographs:

"Gentlemen, it's only five dollars for my autograph. And ladies, please, only one kiss for each of you. Then I really must be going. The tortoise will be here in two or three days."

Of course, fable fans already know the outcome and the lesson learned. You'll get a chuckle from the next day's newspaper headline. I promise!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

This Child, Every Child, written by David J Smith and illustrated by Shelagh Armstrong. Kids Can, 2011. $19.95 ages 9 and up

"Children are not equally spread out around the world. Some countries have a low percentage of children, while others have a high percentage. Of the 30 countries with the lowest percentage of children, 27 are in Europe. Of the 30 countries with the highest percentage of children, 25 are in Africa."

This book, another in the CitizenKid series from Kids Can, is inspired by the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child. Its premise is that all children have certain rights that must be protected.

It is evident early in the reading that most of the children who will be reading this book are vastly different from children in other parts of our world. We take much for granted.

The statistics shared will startle interested readers. There are 2.2 billion children in the world. They live in many countries, in many different types of homes, and have unique and widely varied family arrangements. Too many are homeless, many of those in Latin America and in India. Many don't get enough to eat, do not have clean drinking water and will not live to become adults.

The rights to education, personal choice, protection from child labor are also different. Often, boys are educated and freely choose a life partner. Girls are not afforded such rights. Many do not go to school and often have their husbands chosen for them. More than 200 million children work full-time, some as young as 5. Their work is often factories that make explosives, as child soldiers fighting wars they do not understand. Children live in houses, apartments, tents, boats and yurts. They live with families large and small. Some must move far from their home countries and their family to find a better life elsewhere.

While these differences are too often appalling, it is important to note that there are also some similarities. Children all over the world love water and swimming.  They play soccer, ride bicycles, and run! They love to play with toys. I was surprised to read that 500 million children 'use the Internet regularly'.

The topics are wide-ranging. Each one is paired with one of the rights listed in the UN Convention. They are repeated at the back of the book for children to revisit and discuss them. Finally, the author suggests ways for his readers to learn more about the children of the world.  You might use these suggestions in a classroom, or as a family activity. It is often our children whose strong voices inspire the changes that will make a better world. They can teach us all a lesson in acceptance and activism.

We may lead vastly different lives; but, we share the same love of laughter, the same dream of peace and the same hopes and aspirations for a better future.

No Ordinary Day, written by Deborah Ellis. Groundwood, 2011. $12.95 ages 10 and up

"We can't keep the sun, no matter how afraid we are of the dark. We borrow our food. What we eat becomes fertilizer that goes back into the earth and gets turned back into food. Everything is borrowed. Once I realized that, I stopped worrying about how I would survive. I didn't need to have anything. I just needed to borrow."

When I saw that No Ordinary Day was on the list of Governor-General's finalists for children's text, I thought I had better get to reading it. I am so happy to have met Valli. She is a delightful and fearsomely independent girl, despite the many obstacles she faces. She has a strong and authentic voice for the telling of her story, while being both determined and admirable.

When we first come upon her, she is carrying a coal bag and picking up coal that will make some money to provide for her family. It is a dreary and relentless life. When she makes the discovery that the family she lives with are not related to her, she hops on a coal truck hoping for a better life. The truckers do not realize she is there until they are ready to unload their cargo. They have no idea what to do with her. They cannot leave a young child to fend for herself, even though she seems quite content to do that. Rather than leave her, they take her to a brothel in hopes that the owner will care for her. While the other young women help her bathe, they discover that her feet are a mess of cuts and blisters. Valli feels nothing. The owner notices a white patch on her skin, and is frantic to get Valli out of  her house.

It is our first real inkling that Valli might dealing with the same disease as the monsters near the railroad tracks in Jharia, where she has been living. Valli lived in terror of them, with their nose less faces, and missing fingers and toes. She has no sympathy for their affliction, believing that they are paying for past sins.

Through perseverance and her quick mind, Valli makes a life for herself in Kolkata, learning life lessons from some of the people she meets, who live on the streets with her:

"You have a tongue," he said. "And it knows how to form words. You have two hands and two feet and two eyes to take in all the beauty of my pet goat. To someone who cannot speak, who cannot walk or touch or see..."
"I'm a millionaire," I finished for him. "But I don't know what to do. I ran away from the place I thought was my home. I have no place to stay, no one to look after me. I don't even know where I am."
"You are lucky," the old man said. "You are on an adventure."
"I'm scared."
"If you were not scared, you would be having just an ordinary day."

Her luck takes a turn when she meets Dr. Indra, who specializes in burns, and leprosy. It is a turning point for our young narrator. Though the road is not smooth, we leave her feeling that she will make something of her life. She has friends, she has intelligence and she has the where-with-all to do it.

Deborah Ellis does not back down from world issues that need addressing. She knows her audience, gives them stories that are often distressing and trusts them to come to care about the plight of others, to understand that their circumstances may be vastly different but they have the same hopes and dreams as those who are reading about them.

Dear Bully, edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones. Harper, 2011. $10.99 ages 10 and up

"I don't know. I hope so. Because being a bully is easy, and being a victim is all too common. But standing on your own safe middle ground and deciding to reach out where you can make a difference? That is a rare and difficult choice.
Make the choice. Do something. Never shut up. I wish I had."

I think that this is a book that should have a place on the desk of every middle years and high school teacher...and we need to be reading what these seventy thoughtful, capable, honored authors have to say about their experiences with bullying. It is eye-opening and needs to be shared!

Their stories begin with an introduction by Ellen Hopkins:

"Chubby or skinny; geek smart or challenged; gay or perceived that way; black, brown, yellow, or any color other than the person hurling insults. Any of these things can make someone a target."

In light of the stories of suicide recently in the news, we need to consider this appalling statistic:

"A child commits suicide as a direct result of being bullied once every half hour, with 19,000 bullied children attempting to commit suicide over the course of one year."

That's 36,00 children dying, or wanting to be dead, because of bullying! The authors who here share their stories have decided to take a stand, the editors have pledged a portion of the proceeds for the book to be donated to Stomp Out Bullying. Check out the website at A new story is added every week, and it offers ongoing news about the project itself.

And now to the essays....

They are organized in sections: Dear Bully, Just Kidding, Survival, Regret, Thank You, Friends, Insight, Speak, Write It and finally, It Gets Better. The stories are as varied as their categories. Some will break your heart, some will make you sing. Each and every one of them will make you think about bullying, its lasting effects, and perhaps some of the ways we can work to stop it. They show children that they are not alone. They don't promise it will stop. But, by reading some of the stories, they may provide strength and hope to someone who is feeling weak and hopeless. They may have bullied, been bullied or watched bullying behaviors. Whatever their earlier experience it has affected who they have come to be. They share their feelings with poignant and powerful insight.

There is no easy answer. If there were, we would have no need to publish, or to read, this book. It doesn't have the solutions we seek. It does have voices for those who need to hear those voices spoken. Bullying is not restricted to children, as many of you will well know. As we get older, we care less and prepare ourselves better to deal with such people. If we stand TOGETHER, we can make a difference. If we don't feel alone in dealing with such tactics, we find power and the determination to make a difference. These stories help us see that. In expanding our collective knowledge of the issues, we begin to take some responsibility for our own actions. What can be better than that for our children, and for our students?

Read these stories and savor them. Share them and keep sharing them. It's a huge undertaking and oh so, necessary.

"Picking on others is a learned behavior. The kid who manifests violence had learned violence somewhere. Too often, that somewhere is home. Parents should teach their children to respect diversity. But if they won't, others must step in. It does take a village to raise a child who embraces all people, regardless of their differences. Which means we must take action whenever we suspect bullying. Does that make you uncomfortable?"

Paintings from the Cave, written by Gary Paulsen. Random House, 2011. $17.99 ages 10 and up

"Every Saturday and Wednesday she'd pick out three books - novels, graphic novels, picture books, poetry, history, short stories, plays, mysteries, travel guides,  equipment repair manuals, stories of aliens or myths or true crime. It didn't matter what she read.
What did matter was that when she read, she could forget how ugly her life was."

Gary Paulsen writes hilarious tales that have me tearing up, and always wanting to share them with others. He writes heartbreaking stories that have me doing the same thing, for very different reasons. I have such respect for his writing, his ability to tell a story and the range of work that he has published. From the superbly crafted and very funny Harris and Me to the compelling nonfiction descriptions of his life with dogs and on boats to the overwhelming grief of Soldier's Heart, the story of a boy whose belief that fighting a war will make him a man only to discover that the man he has become is broken and longing for death, Gary Paulsen is always on my radar.

When I saw that he had written three short novellas about kids whose life experiences mirror his own, I knew it would be good. I did not know it would leave me spent, and uplifted. The writer has often talked about his own difficult childhood and the discovery that made life worth living:

"But then art and dogs saved me.
First reading, then writing. First friend-pets, then sled dogs.
They gave me hope that I wouldn't always be stuck in the horror
of my childhood, made me believe that there could be more
to my life."

What he has done in this incredible book is give voice to three children whose stories are terrifying, and inspirational. Jake is one of those innocent kids living in a neighborhood filled with crime, hate, poverty, and gangs. He forces himself to be constantly on the move:

"Sometimes you move right, sometimes left, in the dark, out of the light, always moving.
You stop moving, you're done."

He lives with his aunt, who never even truly sees him. He does his best to avoid any contact with the gang members always on the lookout for new recruits. He has a hiding place that allows him some peace of mind, and he spends time with Layla. Layla's lot in life parallels Jake's. Adding to her horror is that she is pregnant (at 15) and about ready to deliver her baby. A sculptor living across the street in a building that is a part of urban renewal befriends him, offering him a place to spend some time, food and a chance to try his hand at art. Jake cannot stop moving for long, always fearing the repercussions. The ending is heart stopping.

Jo-Jo is living a nightmare that includes alcoholism, sexual and emotional abuses, and constant fear. Her dogs are her lifeline, keeping her safe and offering trust in a life where they has been none.  As she sketches them, and is always cognizant of their love for her she is protected from the hurt that she faces daily at school. In Rose she recognizes a worthy companion, and so do the dogs:

"Rose is a good thing," she told the dogs, who were still staring into the woods after Rose. "But you already know that."

In the final story we learn about Erik and Jamie, brothers on their own despite their young ages. Erik has saved them from the terror of their life as it was...they never talk about 'what happened before'. Now, they live hand-hand-to-mouth and in a variety of places. Erik works hard to keep them fed and sheltered, and wants to save enough money so that they can find a permanent home. Gary Paulsen tells a remarkable story of love and strength, of survival in a world that is full of uncertainty. Jamie finds solace in his art, while his brother works long hours to provide for them:

"Because he knows I have to draw or I'll lose it. When I'm hungry, cold, dirty, or sick to death of wondering where we're going to sleep tonight, I can pull out one of my sketchbooks. A little while later, I'm okay again."

Their love knows no bounds. They have each other and a belief in their future:

"But for today, the sun is coming up and my fifteen finished drawings are in the drop box and Annie Oakley stands next to me, leaning into my leg, and we're going home to see Erik.
Erik's Rule # 11: Good enough is enough for us."

Enough NEED to have this book!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Sniffles for Bear, written by Bonny Becker and illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $19.00 ages 3 and up

"Mouse, small and gray and bright-eyed, bustled into Bear's living room. Bear huddled in his chair. Big and brown and sniffly-snouted. He had a terrible cold. "I am come," declared Mouse.
"You'll soon be as good as new!" Bear frowned."

Here's another on that 'can they keep it going?' list. Can they? You bet they CAN...and they do! Bonny Becker and Kady MacDonald Denton team up to delight and charm us, once again.

It warms my heart to meet up with these caring friends once more...this time, Bear has a 'man-cold'. (Craig, you will know exactly what I mean!):

"Bear was sick, very, very sick.
His eyes were red. His snout was red.
His throat was sore and gruffly.
In fact, Bear was quite sure no one
had ever been as sick as he."

The poor guy! As we have come to expect from Mouse, he arrives with verve, positive energy and a great deal of tenacity in light of Bear's 'full of whine' demeanor. While Bear languishes in his fireside chair, feet up, tissue at the ready and blanketed  from head to toe, Mouse does his level best to bring some levity and sunshine to the day. Bear is not to be sidetracked from his pity party.

Mouse tries reading; it is too bright and uplifting. Not acceptable for such a grave situation. A song? Not dirge-like enough, too frivolous in the wake of the severity of Bear's illness. Not one to give up easily, Mouse tries banjo picking. It seems the only thing for it is to take to his bed. In a wonderful double page center spread, Mouse helps the almost supine, bordering on comatose, Bear up the stairs.

I read the words first; a tough job, but someone has to do it! Bonny Becker continues to create these guys with unmistakable voices and characters to match. Their friendship is tried and true. Despite their differences, they care for each other and deal with the foibles that are part of any strong relationship.  After reading it twice, I went back to look carefully at the artwork.

Storybooks for the young are not up to snuff if the text AND illustrations don't have punch. It is only when both are incomparable that we can call it a best book. Of course, that determination is highly personal. For me, this is another of those books that needs to be on every child's personal library shelf.

Kady MacDonald Denton uses watercolor, gouache and ink with her characteristic aplomb. She is so skilled at creating treasured moments in her telling of this story. The fireplace, the thermometer in a glass, the hot water bottle, and the full-of-tissue waste basket have readers building story before they turn from the introductory page. Little children notice such things and bring their previous experience to their understanding of what is happening. The charm in the many details, the muted palette and the ever-changing expressive faces add humor and depth to that understanding. Do I have a favorite? Impossible. I love everything about this newest tale of friendship. 

What a delight!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Dragon Turn, written by Shane Peacock. Tundra, 2011. $21.99 ages 10 and up

"When he thinks of his father he thinks of something he was taught long ago. "I am going to teach you about a word, son," Wilberforce once said. "That word is integrity. It has to do with honesty, but it is much more than that. It is about never lying to yourself, never doing what you know is wrong, making sure that what you say you believe in is what you do. I was you to always be a man of integrity."

Each time that a new The Boy Sherlock Holmes case book arrives in my mail, I ask myself the question...can Shane Peacock maintain the quality and the intrigue? You would think after four equally inventive, and exceptional cases, I would KNOW. This time, I didn't ask it. I just got right to the reading...and then kept reading until I breathed a sigh of contentment that, indeed, he has done it again!

Irene Doyle and Sherlock are agog following a night at the theatre. Alistair Hemsworth, a noted magician, ends his show with the appearance of a dragon, a writhing beast with golden wings. When the cage, the dragon and the magician's assistant disappear from the stage, the crowd erupts. Never have they seen such wonder! Sherlock doesn't believe the illusion but he cannot explain how it was done.

Irene wants a singing part in the magician's show and she convinces Sherlock to go backstage with her to meet the famous man. While there, Lestrade and his son (of the Scotland Yard) arrive to arrest said magician and charge him with the murder of a rival. The Wizard of Nottingham is not only a theatrical rival. It seems he is a romantic one, as well. Nottingham has stolen his wife...she found him irresistible it seems. Irene wants Sherlock to become involved with the case. Sherlock, for his part, has been trying to pull back from sleuthing at such a young age, and is attending school. Irene is adamant.

If you have read Shane Peacock's other case books you will know Sherlock to be very astute, organized and successful. He knows he wants to be a detective but he is trying to keep away from crime scenes for a time. Instead, he is feeding information to the young Lestrade who is always trying to impress his father. They are both sympathetic and somewhat vulnerable characters.

Sherlock finds Irene's plea hard to resist, and he sets about using the clues, and the people he meets to make sense of the murder. The other characters are well drawn, and absolutely necessary to the solution. I especially love Scuttle, a young street urchin:

"It is not only short, not much more than four feet tall, but so slender as to be skeletal. The eyes are sunken, the brow and cheekbones stick out, and the complexion, marked with filth, is bluish-white, like bones underneath the skin. The hair growing long and unkempt under a hat made of nothing but a brim, is the color of dirt. But those eyes are large and blue, and full of expression, the lips thick and active."

Scuttle is a great help to Sherlock as he tries to solve this newest mystery. I LOVE him, his quaint ideas and his peculiar language:

"That does not surprise me, sir. Even the Prince of Whales was intrigued by Scuttle's talk, 'e who makes foreign affairs with beautiful ladies who are married to other fine gentlemen, which England accepts, understanding 'is importance, and loving to 'ear of his romantics, as they are time-consummating and of fascination."

I admit to liking Beatrice Leckie more each time I meet her. Sigerson Bell is an eccentric, caring man who provides the guidance and support that Sherlock needs...his other father as it were. Irene Doyle has an important revelation as the book ends, leaving Sherlock to wonder about their future. While he longs for the peace and contentment that comes to others, he knows he has a greater calling and he is more ready for it today than he was yesterday.
Bravo, Shane Peacock! What an adventure...thank you!

Monday, October 17, 2011

NEVILLE, written by Norton Juster and illustrated by G Brian Karas. Scwartz & Wade, Random House. 2011. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"Nobody had asked him about moving. They'd just told him.
"You'll love it, " they'd said. That's what they always said when they knew he wouldn't love something."

Being a new kid in a strange neighborhood may be something that many have experienced. I certainly remember moving to Sixth Street when I was in grade one. It was Halloween and we didn't get to go out trick or treating...we had more important things to think about!  I was certainly apprehensive about going to school in the morning. I likely cried every day for the first two weeks...I was a homebody and never happier than when I was there. It is amazing the images that a great story can unearth! I have rarely thought about being the 'new kid' but NEVILLE definitely made me think about that particular day. I find I have some very strong memories of that day.

Two boys give greetings from the front cover of the book. They are together, seemingly shouting for someone to pay attention. If you open the book fully, you will see that the back cover shows the backs of those same two boys, yelling out toward a big green patch of land. The title page provides a series of four illustrations, showing a road, dust to show movement, two days and two nights, and finally a moving van taking the exit ramp to 'somewhere'. A car, topped with luggage, follows it.

It's been a long trip. Upon arrival, there is a row of carbon copy houses that fade into the distance, belongings piled on the sidewalk and a young boy is watching the van pull away. And there are no friends...the worst part of all.

His mother suggests a walk...he might meet someone. He is not convinced, but there is not much else to do. Off he shuffles. She has rules...don't got too far, come back before dark, watch for cars. When he gets to the end of the block, he makes opens his mouth and shouts for NEVILLE! Imagine his surprise when he hears:

'He probably can't hear you.
You have to shout louder,"
came a voice from close by.
A boy just about his size was
standing right next to him.
A little startled, he shouted again,
even louder."

Now, they are both shouting for NEVILLE...not in unison. A small girl offers assistance and soon they are on the right track. She is pleased. It isn't long until a veritable cacophony of shouts comes from the crowd that is gathering. Dogs help, too. Soon, someone asks about Neville. 'Is he new?' 'Are you a friend of his?' They want to know more. The search continues. Neville remains elusive. As darkness falls, a promise is made. They'll all be back to help tomorrow. Home he goes to Mom and bed.

Perfect story, stunning illustrations and a brilliant ending!

Birdie's Big Girl Dress, written and illustrated by Sujean Rim. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2011. $18.99 ages 3 and up

"Birdie's mother handed her a fabulously frilly sundress. It was beautiful - but it was too big to play games in. Next Birdie tried on a lacy sheath. It was silky and smooth - but it was too snug to eat cake in. So Birdie reached for a gauzy gown."

You know those fashionista girls who are going to love this story. I am sure they whet their appetite with Sujean Rim's first tale of the bright and delightful Birdie in Birdie's Big Girl Shoes.

Her birthday is just around the corner. When Birdie tries on the dress she wants to wear to her party...horrors! It's too small! Her mother is soothing and suggests a shopping trip. Off they go to their favorite shop, where they meet Birdie's friends who are also shopping for party dresses. They each have found the perfect thing!

Birdie is not so lucky. She tries on many...none of them are just right. Too big, too tight, too long. Birdie is disillusioned. Home she goes, hand in hand with her mother. She is sure she will find something there. A trip to the attic just might hold the answer to her dilemma. It is a veritable treasure trove of delight. She knows that everything there once belonged to her grandparents. Will she be able to find something in time for her party?

The illustrations are perfect! Done in watercolor and collage on watercolor paper, they pack a powerful punch in telling Birdie's story. Right this minute, my favorite is the double page spread showing Birdie and Monster, resplendent in goggle-eyed sunglasses and fully attentive, surveying the long model's runway of finery being offered. There are photographers all along that line (hmmm...they look like stuffed toys with fashion cameras). Give me a minute...I might change my mind!

I Will Not Read This Book, written by Cece Meng and illustrated by Joy Ang. Clarion, Thomas Allen & Son, 2011. $19.99 ages 3 and up

I changed my mind.
I am not going to read
today. Reading is hard
and I don't read fast and
sometimes there are words
I don't know. I will not read
this book and ...."

The last thing we ever want to do is have our kids worry about their reading...especially worry enough that they don't want to do it. It's a tough job learning to read and they won't do it if they are feeling uncertain or are facing pressure to get everything right. Let's remember that whatever we ALL learn to do, we need time to practice. Kids need the same thing with their reading. They need time, supportive people in their reading lives and books, books, books. Sometimes they read, but more often we do the reading. We want them to know how story works, to learn book language and to feel comfortable with their initial forays into the world of books.

The little guy in this book is not feeling so great about the reading, but he has a wonderful imagination and the game he plays as he prepares for bed is adventurous. Plus, it's cumulative; it won't be long until attentive listeners are ready to 'have a go' at reading it themselves. That's what we want!

Our young man IS ready for bed. He's not so ready to read. So, he gives a long list of tortuous suffering that might happen...and he still won't read it:

"I will not read this book
even if you hang me upside down
by one toe
over a cliff
while tickling my feet
in a rainstorm
with lightning above..."

You KNOW what I mean!

The art is so much fun...from the series of spot pictures as he does all the 'prep' he needs to do before bedtime to the threat to climb under the bed where no one can reach him. Every page adds a new peril and hilarity. The monkey that tickles the feet, the sharks that circle the waters below, the bright beam of the speeding's all there!

The surprise ending is just right if you want kids begging to hear it one MORE time!

love, Mouserella. Written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein. Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin. 2011. $18.50 ages 4 and up

"On Monday,
I finished my HUGE
wall of blocks
so Ernie can't
come on my side
of the room.
But he wouldn't
let me borrow his
eraser unless I
knocked it down.
Ernie helped."

I so wish I had been able to attach the cover image in the way it is meant to be will just have to tilt your head sideways for that to happen. It has a very special magic when you open the book vertically, and read Mouserella's letter to her Grandmouse.

Grandmouse has been visiting, but she has returned home and Mouserella wants her to know how much she misses her. At her mom's suggestion, she decides that a letter might be the perfect way to keep in touch, and let her grandmother know what has been happening since her departure. She fills it with photos she has taken with the camera that her grandmother has given her. She also includes her 'daily doings' and personal illustrations that add to the allure of this book.

The letter is everything a letter might be when a young grandchild writes to a grandparent. At first she is not sure what to write, so she draws flowers while she is thinking. Then, she starts...and she shares it all with whimsy and charm. There is some self-editing, child-like crayon drawings with labels, humor and a few 'and that's all that happened' before she moves forward to her next bits of information.

It's newsy, and so much fun! At a time when few people opt for snail mail, this is a great incentive to give it a try. There is much that can be added to the 'real' letter that cannot be a part of email, including a ketchup packet which Grandmouse might not have in the country.

Mouserella, knowing her audience very well, adds the piece de resistance...."Write back. I mouse you." Then, she includes a photo of herself offering a 'smooch' to her beloved grandmother who seems so far away.

Isn't that the perfect way to spend a rainy day?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals and Other Fatal Circumstances. Written by Lenore Look and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Schwartz & Wade, Random House. 2011. $17.99 ages 8 and up

"the good news about making a Horrific Big Promise (HBP) and having everyone say how proud they are of you was that it made a greater disturbance than getting busted for walking into town by ourselves. And greater disturbances, as everyone knows, will blast away any memory of the lesser disturbance as though with dynamite!"

Oh boy, Alvin Ho is back and he made for a couple hours of hilarity again this week. He remains neurotic and lovable, and slightly askew. Most things scare Alvin but this time, he comes face to face with mortality.

When Gunggung's best friend Charlie dies, he is hurt and in shock. Gunggung and Charlie had been friends since the old days:

"Charlie and my gunggung liked telling stories of the old days when they were building the Great Wall of China together and fighting off barbarian invaders. After that, they stuck around for a bunch of inventions: ice cream, shadow puppets, paper, tea, kites, playing cards, dominoes, matches, the compass. Imagine that! Finally, when China got boring, they moved to Boston where the excitement was just heating up."

As Gunggung deals with the reality of his friend's sudden death, Alvin must come to grips with the fact that death is a part of life and happens to everyone. It suddenly becomes a major concern for the second grader. Sympathizing with his grandfather's sadness, Alvin offers to attend the funeral with him. YIKES! What was he thinking?

As is usual with Alvin, one misunderstanding leads to another. He dreams of his grandfather's death, worries about his father's daredevil decision to fix the roof and is very concerned that he has made a promise to his grandfather that he is finding very hard to keep. Because of his mutism at school, he is unable to quell the rumor that it is his grandfather who has died. After a day at school where everyone is planning a memorial for him...his mother asks Alvin about his day. Alvin cannot speak a word. This is his take on his mom's reaction:

"My mom moved from upward dog into watchdog, which is a special bonus feature not on the video."

There are so many of Alvin's observations that I earmarked for a return look. I want to share just a few of them:

"I think my dad was swearing at himself in Shakespeare, which is the kind of cursing they used to do in the old days when they had time to really use bad language instead of four-lettered words."


"But the good thing about getting busted with Calvin is that he's up against the flames while I only get a little warm. It's like my dad is a roaring fire and we're a couple of marshmallows on a stick, and I'm the one in the back that doesn't even turn brown, while Calvin's the one in the front getting blistered."

and in the glossary that tries to explain some of Alvin's most important 'stuff':

"Mumbo jumbo - Spelling, math, history, girls. Anything that looks confusing, sounds confusing and will never make any sense no matter how loud you scream."

Too funny and a perfect early years readaloud!