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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Animal Crackers Fly the Coop, written and illustrated by Kevin O'Malley. Bloomsbury, Penguin. 2010. $21.00 ages 5 and up

"Dog and Hen were walking down the dusty road when they passed an old shed. A fat cat was lying on a wall. Mice were jumping all around him. "You don't see that every day," said Hen. "Clearly that cat isn't any good at claw enforcement."

There are kids out there who will love and know every joke in this book before you finish reading it. Then, if you are very LUCKY(?) you will hear the humor over and over again, ad infinitum. I warn you that you might want to be out of their sphere of influence in coming days. It speaks to the fun and hilarity that Kevin O'Malley injects on every page.

The endpapers set the reader up for the fun to be had. Once inside, we meet Hen, standing on a make-shift stage and regaling the other hens with her humor:

"How do comedians like their eggs?
Funny-side up!"

When she chooses the life of a comedian over producing eggs for the farmer, he gives her an ultimatum. Not wanting to be Friday's dinner, off she goes. Along the road to fame and fortune, she meets Dog. He, too, wants to be an entertainer. While wowing the sheep one night, a wolf stole a side of beef and now his farmer has a 'beef' with him. It seemed time to leave.

Familiar to you yet? As the two companions in misery move further along the road to fame and fortune, they come upon a cat whose musical repertoire contains songs meant to be sung in a comedy club. Last on the list is Cow:

"See, I completely forgot about making milk. All I do is think about jokes. I guess you'd say I have Milk of Amnesia."

Hungry and tired, they come upon a farmhouse and the three robbers who find shelter there. The four friends wait patiently, all the while perfecting their routines. When the robbers leave, the animals move inside to partake of the food left on the table. The robbers return offers an audience for their comedy revue:

"Dog said, "My master asked me why I go into a corner when I hear a bell...I said,' 'Cause I'm a boxer.'" But the robbers saw only sharp teeth and heard: Growl, woof! Growl, woof!"

Corny? Sometimes. Hysterical? That, too. Kids are going to love it, and you will be reading it least until they can read it themselves.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Scrawny Cat, written by Phyllis Root and illustrated by Alison Friend. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $19.00 ages 4 and up

"At last the sun came up,
golden across the waves.
Up ahead, just where the
boat was headed,
the scrawny cat saw a rock
and a tree
and a house on the sand."

Phyllis Root is a master of the written word, and here she does it again. She creates a warm and charming story about a lonely cat finding his way to an equally lonely woman who has ostensibly been longing for a companion to share her life.

When we first meet him, the friendless feline is in a pickle. Alone and remembering better times he wanders the streets looking for something he once knew...a feeling of warmth and love. He finds it nowhere and is more likely to be met with a loud and menacing 'get out of here!' than any kind of welcome. He's cold,  he's frightened and looking for a place of safety when he ends up under the rain cover of small red dinghy.

While he sleeps safely on the rolling waves a storm blows up and tears the dinghy from its moorings, and out to sea. This water adventure doesn't appear to have given him any chance at a better life:

" Poor shivery scrawny cat!
He lapped the rainwater in the bottom of the dinghy
and wished his stomach didn't chew so on his ribs."

The storm abates and the warm sun illuminates the day and the tabby's heart with promise. As the boat moves toward a sandy shore, listeners will find themselves wishing for a happy ending. To our great delight it is in the cards for this day, at this time, for two mutually needy characters. The woman takes him in, feeds him well, and offers the gentle comfort of  a rocking chair. The cat, now named Skipper, returns deep contentment, company and throaty purrs.

 Alison Friend uses gouache to help create this action-filled search for a more fulfilling life. Her impressive talent bring the story to the book's audience in a series of moody spreads...some are single page while others are double. There are telling spot pictures and expression-filled images that keep readers connected to the plight of this tiny tawny cat. As he moves toward the woman and her island the mood lightens through use of warm tones and growing sunlight. 

Shhh! Written and illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev. Philomel, Penguin. 2011. $19.50 ages 3 and up

"When my baby brother sleeps,
it is so quiet in my house.
I can even hear a fly!"

This is just the right book for Rowan and his new brother, Tate. I had been looking for a while, and certainly found others. This one seems perfect for a big boy (well, two and a half) whose life has been indubitably changed with the arrival of a baby. He will have much to learn, and to teach!

The narrator is the older brother. He is most considerate and loving of the new arrival. While the baby sleeps, his brother quietly goes about suggesting that his toys enjoy the peaceful atmosphere while being very quiet themselves. The clown stops laughing, the tiger stops growling, the conductor stops his train...even the pirates cease firing their cannons.

Once the baby awakens, all bets are off and play begins in earnest. The clown becomes his companion on a tricycle trip, the knights are allowed to battle and the tiger can roar once more. The older brother is happy:
"And I am jumping and
shouting and singing again!
And I am playing my
trumpet and my drum
and riding my horse
around the house!"

When the baby falls asleep the next time, the young boy is content to be quiet again, contentedly awaiting his next chance at riotous action. Being quiet is his way of showing his new sibling his love
for him.

Valeri Gorbachev has obviously watched young boys at play, as their toys become real and offer adventure at every turn. As the quiet of the afternoon nap descends, the older brother makes a visit to each of the toys (who appear as living replicas of those that are his constant companions) and assures their cooperation. Once allowed to return to play, they take on their original form. These scenes remind me of the sudden suspension of movement when Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger.
Gentle love for and obvious delight in that new baby are evident in Mr. Gorbachev's charming and tender illustrations.

The book is on its way, Rowan and Tate!

Happy Birthday, Hamster. Written by Cynthia Lord and illustrated by Derek Anderson. Scholastic, 2011. $19.99 ages 2 and up

"Spin toys, glow toys,
wind it up and go toys.
Soft toys, hard toys,
ride it through the yard toys.

Which would you choose?"

Whenever I share Hot Rod Hamster I know I am going to be asked to read it's such fun! Listeners love the rollicking rhyme and the invitation to make their own choices about a multitude of things.

I think that a child's birthday might be the most important day of their year. There is so much excitement attached, and the chance to share it with friends and family. So when Hamster wakes up on his birthday morn, he is thrilled and cannot wait to share the news with his friend Dog. Dog is oblivious to Hamster's joy and seems focused only on his own shopping trip.

First up is the bakery and while the cakes look delectable, Dog is set on getting dog biscuits. That choice is Hamster's first disappointment of the day. On they go to the toy store, the card shop, and finally for a haircut. It's late now and Hamster is more than a bit down in the mouth:

"Long day, late day, all I did was wait day.
Frown day,  fret day, how could they forget day."

If you are sitting with a group of young children while reading this rhythmic tale, you will have been listening to their growing excitement as they watch all of Hamster's other friends following from store to store with clipboard in hand and money in their pockets. When the two best friends finally make it back to Hamster's house, Hamster will finally be 'in' on the surprise, too.

The brightly colored acrylic paintings fill the pages with fun and grab attention from Hamster's early morning excitement about his special day to the warm thanks he extends while surrounded by the spoils of his friends'  attention at the end of it.

Add this one to your 'birthday books' box and you have another winner on your hands!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Dreamer, written by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrated by Peter Sis. Scholastic, 2010. $22.99 ages 10 and up

"Neftali hesitated. His hands felt trapped inside mittens. They prevented him from picking up small treasures. He glanced up. Father could see them from where he still sat at the table. Reluctantly, Neftali held out his hands while Rodolfo shoved the wool over his fingers."

Neftali Reyes is a lover of small delights...shells, pine cones, pebbles, words. He fills his days with books and with writing poetry. His father does not approve; but, Neftali cannot help himself. No matter how angry it makes his father, he must collect words and use those words to describe the world he sees, the troubles he encounters and to try to persuade others to care.

He captures the words he loves on small pieces of paper, putting them in a drawer and using them to power his imagination. He is only 8 years old when this story begins but he already has a strong sense of the direction his life should take. His autocratic, overbearing father has other ideas. No son of his will spend his days following creative pursuits. He will build his weak body through physical activity and become a doctor. Neftali loves words and books, he loves beautiful natural things and as he grows, he is nutured by a friendly librarian, a proud but frigtened stepmother and a loving younger sister. He must keep it all a secret from his father. The fact that he chose to write under a psuedonym is a direct result of these intense feelings:

"He picked up his pen again. At the end of his poem, instead of signing Neftali Reyes, he wrote Pablo Neruda. He would use this name to save Father the humiliation of having a son who was a poet. Maybe he would use the name only until he became lost enough to find himself."

There is no need to even know Pablo Neruda's name to find this book fascinating and worthy of your attention. Pam Munoz Ryan gets right to the heart of her character, as if she spent long hours watching him grow and speaking with him about those ideas he felt important enough to share. She ensures that some of her readers will not be able to stop with this introduction...they will need to know more about this remarkable and much-honored Nobel Prize winner.

Adding a powerful author's note gives a glimpse at the way in which authors come to stories they feel compelled to tell. To experience a selected group of Neruda's poetry immediately following this elegant, powerful rendering of his early life is the perfect way to end this glorious book.

When I first read this book, it was an ARC with no finished illustrations. I loved it then. There is, however, no comparison to the power that the artist's 'small delights' bring to the finished book. I have admired Peter Sis' work since I first laid eyes on it and this only ups my admiration in spades. Each chapter is prefaced on the facing page with three small inked images. Each of those tiny treasures have a connection to the coming text. They are as beautiful and telling as Neftali's collections. Peter Sis brings such beauty to Ms. Ryan's words. There are larger drawings, too. They accompany the 'questions' asked by the author in the distinct style of Neruda's The Book of Questions. They are full of fantasy and feeling, in complete understanding of the world that is Pablo Neruda.

Bog Child, written by Siobhan Dowd. Random House, 2008. $19.99 ages 14 and up

"Mam and Dad, he thought. Why didn't you move down south when the Troubles started? Why?
He came back up over the top and the answer came with the view. Because of this. All this. It's home. He reached out a hand as if he could touch the round, brown shrubs that crawled up the far hillsides like giant hedgehogs."

Siobhan Dowd wrote with such clarity and purpose. She created strong and memorable characters whose  compelling stories pull you from page to page, always wondering at her ability to make them matter to the reader. I read The London Eye Mystery when it was first published. I did so because the reviews were strong and glowing...I am not a mystery reader. Meeting Ted, a young boy with Asperger's Syndrome, who sees the world in a very special way and uses his love of meteorology to find his lost cousin was remarkable. She gave him a voice that I have not forgotten. That book has led me to Solace, to Shell, to Conor and in this book, to Fergus.

It is 1981 and Fergus and his Uncle Tally have crossed the border from Northern Ireland. They are there to take peat from the cuts left open when the cutters stopped work the previous day. Peat is a valued commodity and will bring needed money and heat to both uncle and nephew. It is as they are digging in that peat bog that Fergus spots a dead body. How did it get there? Who is it?

As the story moves forward and authorities are called, the discovery is made that the body is 2000 years old, is not a child and has a story to tell, if only in Fergus' dreams. The discovery and resulting
scientific interest is only one direction that the plot takes.

Fergus is a runner. When he runs back to the place where the body was found, he meets Owain. He is a young Irish border guard who becomes a friend of sorts to Fergus. They meet whenever Fergus crosses the border on his morning runs. Owain does not know that Fergus has been forced to carry packages from one drop to another by his brother Joe's friend. Fergus is fearful that he is carrying bomb making materials for the IRA and carries a great deal of guilt as well. Wanting to be a doctor, he is not sure that their methods will get the desired resulst. Fergus is carrying those packages only because he thinks it might save his brother Joe, a prisoner on a hunger strike in Maze prison. Joe believes in a free Northern Ireland and is following the lead of Bobby Sands and other strikers to bring attention to their cause, and government action.

There are two love stories as well. Fergus is enamored of Cora, the daughter of one of the scientists studying the bog child. The bog child Mel is loved by Rur...her story is told as dream sequences. Both are poignant and deal with parallel political strife, sacrifice and sad farewells.

It is a book of big issues...politics, being a hero, love, death and a strong belief in doing the right thing. Siobhan Dowd's ability to tell this heartbreaking yet hopeful story is her strength. She does so with a quick pace, unforgettable characters, purpose and love...always love!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nursery Rhyme Comics, edited by Chris Duffy with an introduction by Leonard S.Marcus.First Second, 2011. $21.99 ages 9 and up

"It's no accident that so many of these (mostly anonymous) rhymes have lasted for centuries, passed down by word of mouth and a forest of illustrated books, though none illustrated quite like the book you have before you. Everything about the rhymes lines up to make them memorable: their pulsing, beat-the-drum rhythms, close-knit rhyme schemes and nutshell narratives..."

Nursery rhymes as comics....who thought of that? Doesn't matter...what does matter is that this book is filled with each comics artist's new and oh, so entertaining vision of a particular rhyme.

These classic rhymes have always been such fun to share with children and in this book, editor Chris Duffy has asked a plethora of artists to grace his collection with detail filled, personal visions for each one. Weird and wonderful, they will draw you back repeatedly to see what you missed the first, second, third time.

Fifty artists were given the task to illustrate one poem, with predictable flair, humor and originality.
What a dream collection it is! You will find some of your favorite artists here and you will wonder why others were not included on the list. How long do you want the book to be? And, what about a second edition?

It's a splendid addition to any child's library. They will make new discoveries, and covet old favorites. You know how kids love comics. Here they will find rhyme, rhythm, silliness and even a shock or two.  I loved having a close look at the interpretation that each artist brought to the rhyme assigned. I have my favorites and you will have yours. Your children will do the same, and I guarantee they will change from time to time. Mine have.

In the back matter, Chris Duffy adds an editor's note and a descriptive and alphabetic list of the book's contributors.

Little Dog Lost, written and illustrated by Monica Carnesi. Penguin, 2012. $18.50 ages 5 and up

"But the river flows too fast. The little dog floats away with the current, past the people and past the buildings. Dog leaves everyone behind."

Where was I when this story was all over the airwaves? I must have been sleeping under a rock, or something. I am very happy that Monica Carnesi has used her considerable talents at both writing and illustrating to share it, in case others missed it as well as me. 

For Little Dog (now named Baltic) it is a terrifying ordeal. Somehow he finds himself on a chunk of ice in the middle of the Vistula River heading who knows where. The frantic children on shore seek help; no one can rescue him, the river is too swift. For two days, the dog is trapped on the ice as the river takes him 75 miles downriver. He is cold, he is hungry and he must be scared. But, he stays the course.

The crew of a passing research ship notice him on the ice and attempt to bring him in. Instead, he slips into the water and they havea  grave concern that he is lost to them. But, the dog is resolute and finds his way back to the ice. With great difficulty and obvious danger, one crew member is launched in a small boat to try and save him. That done, the crew gives the tender, loving care needed to assure his recovery. Baltic remains on the 'Baltica', a crew member loved by all who know him. He is most especially loved by Officer Adam Buczynski, who plucked him from the ice when all seemed lost for the courageous canine.

The drama is captured in a story told simply for young children, but with enough adventure for older readers as well. The illustrations evoke the cold of winter, with grey clouds, freezing waters, windswept outdoor scenes. When the action moves inside, the warmth and contentment is evident.

It's a great book for a winter day, and to share with children who love an adventure with a happy ending. The fact that is tells a true story only adds icing to the cake!

The One and Only Ivan, written by Katherine Applegate. Harper, 2012. $10.99 ages 8 and up

"A good zoo," Stella says, "is s large domain. A wild cage. A safe place to be. It has room to roam and humans who don't hurt." She pauses, considering her words. "A good zoo is how humans make amends."

Stella is a captive elephant whose life consists of a 'domain' in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, and three shows a day for the people who visit the mall:

"They hunt frantically, stalking, pushing, grumbling. Then they leave, clutching bags filled with things - bright things, soft things, big things - but no matter how full the bags, they always come back for more."

Sometimes the shoppers stop to see the show and to visit the animals housed there. Ivan, a complacent and artistic gorilla has adapted to being watched through the glass walls of his 'domain':

"I strut across my domain for them. I dangle from my tire
swing. I eat three banana peels in a row.

The boy spits at my window. The girl throws a handful
of pebbles.

Sometimes I'm glad the glass is there."

Ivan is the first person narrator of this glorious tale. He doesn't miss his old life much because he has trained himself not to think about it. His best friend Stella is a storyteller who tries to encourage Ivan to remember and tell his own stories. The days roll by, endlessly similar and with little to tell one from the other. Then Ruby arrives, frightened and lonely. She is a baby! She is a tiny elephant who misses her mother, her sisters, her aunts and seeks solace under the tutelage of Stella.
Ivan thinks mostly about art and is encouraged in that pursuit by the young girl whose father cleans the mall. Julia, too, is an artist and she brings Ivan paper, pencils and crayons. Ivan never gets tired of his art:

"Humans don't always seem to recognize what I've drawn. They squint, cock their heads, murmur. I'll draw a banana, a perfectly lovely banana, and they'll say: "It's a yellow airplane!" or "It's a duck without wings!"
That's all right. I'm not drawing for them. I'm drawing for me."

Ruby's arrival changes everything. Ivan does not want her to be abused and he decides that he must keep her safe in whatever way possible. He uses art to make his message known, and in doing so forces himself to remember what he would rather forget. It is a tribute to his courage and longing for a better life for the tiny, lonely elephant. I will not reveal the ending but it will break your heart while mending it again.

There are so many parts I want to share with you. I have read some of the short, unbelievably articulate sentences again and again. Ivan made me laugh, made me think about the world and he made me cry. Katherine Applegate felt compelled to tell this story of love and longing, of pain and sadness, and of family after learning about the 'real' Ivan. She includes his story in her author's note. That she could do it with such compassion and concern (and in a gorilla's voice, no less) for his welfare and that of the other animals housed with him is testament to her writing talent.

Please buy this book and share it with someone you love!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Into the Outdoors, written and illustrated by Susan Gal. Knopf, Random House. 2011. $18.99 ages 2 and up

"We pitch our tent
among the trees
and set off along
the hiking trail."

It could be a book written to teach young listeners about prepositions; a grammar lesson, if you will. No, it is so much more than that!

It is, in truth, a family celebration of being in the outdoors. We are watchers as the family prepares for their adventure. Dad straps the camping essentials to the top of the station wagon while Mom and the kids haul everything else they might need. It is packed into the car in readiness for departure. It's easy to see from the start that the little one has a passion for bears. We watch as he unpacks the suitcase that holds his favorite teddy. Anyone familiar with camping will recognize the many necessities...a canteen, campstove, cooler and more.

The trip takes them up into the hills and under the trees where they find a perfect spot to set up their tent. It isn't long until they are off exploring and basking in the beauty that nature affords; pinecones, fallen logs, a pristene lake, a lovely waterfall, and animals and birds everywhere.

It's fun to see the boy lead the family along the path that runs beside a lake, with inquisitive animals following at a distance. They are very interested in these visitors to their habitat. The day is a delight, the campfire warm and inviting, and the night under the stars cozy and comforting.

There is so much to see and appreciate about the charcoal on paper artwork, with the artist's addition of collage elements. My eyes darted from one delightful image to the next. I know that young readers will do the same. Her use of light is inspiring and nowhere better than in the gentle glow of the night lantern that radiates from the tent in the forest's darkness.

Lovely...a perfect reminder of a shared family outing.

The Last Little Blue Envelope, written by Maureen Johnson. Harper, 2011. $18.99 ages 12 and up

"It took a lot of women like that, a lot of women who said, "I'm not going to do what you expect me to do, because you have no idea what I am capable of. I'm going to get dirty and use tools and live the way I want" to move the world forward. And this woman? She made her sister into a goddess and gave her a seat on the hilltop where she could dance in the wind."

I can't believe it took me so long to read Maureen Johnson's exceptional follow-up to 13 Little Blue Envelopes! To tell you the truth, it took me no time at all to finish it....just to get started. Once I opened it to the first page, I was hooked and did not finish reading until 1:29 this morning. If I am a bit foggy in this post, I have good reason to be. I need that rejuvenating 'beauty' sleep!

Having said that, I am delighted that I put it at the top of my pile and now I can tell you all about the read. It was so good to be with Ginny and Keith again! Some things have changed since Ginny went home to America after her great European adventure. When her backpack was stolen, and Aunt Peg's final blue envelope with it, I thought it was over as Ginny did.

An email from a young man named Oliver telling her that he has found the last envelope in a backpack he purchased while travelling in Greece makes the decision to return to England and finish the journey that Aunt Peg instigated an easy one. In no time, she is packed and on her way. While she has changed since her last visit, so has Keith. He has a girlfriend and that is very upsetting to Ginny who fancies herself in love with him...and he with her. At least, she thought they had 'something'.

Meeting Oliver and knowing that he holds the key to the next part of Aunt Peg's voyage of discovery, Ginny has no choice but to travel with Oliver and share the monetary windfall it is sure to generate. It is a trip fraught with difficulties and a certain air of uncertainty. We learned much about Ginny's aunt in the first book and we know that she would approve of the learning that Ginny does while searching for the parts to the final piece of art created by the irrepressible and eccentric Peg.

In this book we learn more about Ginny, and watch her grow and change. Maureen Johnson gives us characters to admire, and gives her readers a book that meets and surpasses any expectations they might have had for a sequel. She keeps us on the edge of our seats as we encounter the people, places and the difficulties that Ginny and her friends face. She provides excitement, some anxious moments, new connections, wit, charm and a vicarious yet vivid trip to London, Amsterdam and Ireland. And, she entertains with a story to remember and a hope that this is not the last we will see of Ginny Blackstone. Bravo!

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Princess and the Pig, written by Jonathan Emmett and illustrated by Poly Bernatene. Macmillan, Harper Canada. 2011. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"As Pigmella grew older,
she grew clever,
and beautiful,
and was admired
by everyone she met.
As Priscilla grew older,
she grew not so clever,
and not so beautiful,
and was avoided by
everyone she met."

Although it has many years since I first read The Paper Bag Princess (Munsch, 1980), I would guess I had somewhat the same reaction to it as I did following reading this fabulous fairy tale. I laughed out loud...and thought 'now, there's a comeuppance that is well deserved!' Don't you be fooled by the fact that there is a princess in this book. It is so much more that!

When the farmer takes pity on an unsold piglet and takes it home with him, he has cannot possibly know how that decision will change his life. He stops to rest in the shade of the castle at the same moment the queen inadvertently drops her new baby girl out the window, while searching for one of the seven nannies to change a nasty nappy. As the baby bounces down, the piglet bounces up and there you have the premise for this inventive and entirely entertaining fractured fairy tale.

The author makes reference to some of the classic tales...the fairy not invited to the baby's christening who gets revenge with a curse, another kind of fairy who sees in barren parents the goodness that will benefit a newborn child,  the providential mishap that placed a pig where a princess should be and even the hope that a proper prince might break the piggish spell that has been cast on the royal daughter. Each tale helps to rationalize every one of  the events in this entertaining book..

As in all the best picture books, the illustrator is able to convey the humor and the spirit of the story through his visual representations. The pages are filled with the fun that might occur if a pig were raised in a palace and a princess raised on a farm. The quiet backgrounds allow the characters pride of place for the telling. The perspectives change, as does the way in which the illustrations are placed on the page. Some are double page spreads, some are panelled horizontally and others vertically to show action and to offer parallel stories. His light-infused artwork is sure to attract attention to the action, and keep readers returning for another peek.

Being the good people that they are, when the farmer and his wife discover what has really happened (without magic or menace), they want to do what's right. They take Pigmella back to the castle and are rejected by royal silliness and snobbery:

"It's a trick," she declared. "This girl
is just a farmer's daughter pretending
to be a princess in the hope that
she might marry a prince. It's the
sort of thing that happens all the
while in books."

Thus, they all live happily ever after...except perhaps for the prince!

The Runaway Hug, written by Nick Bland and illustrated by Freya Blackwood. Scholastic, 2012. $14.99 ages 2 and up

"It was long and soft,
and Lucy thought it was
very nice.
"Thank you," said Lucy.
"I'll bring it back as soon
as I'm finished with it."

It's too late for bedtime tonight, but you don't want to miss sharing this gentle delight with your children tomorrow night...or for many nights after that!

When Lucy asks Mom for a hug, she is told that Mom is more than willing to share. However, it is her 'last' hug and she will need it back. Lucy promises!

The first hug is very long and soft and she wants to share it with Daddy. She does so, to his great delight. When she asks for it back, she gets a bit more than she bargained on but she wants to share it with her older twin brothers...perhaps it needs that extra strength. Off she goes!

A bedtime trip is made to every member of the family, ending with Annie whose canine mischief is noted as Lucy approaches the bathroom door. Annie is ready for a romp, it seems. Once Lucy has shared a soft, strong, big, peanut buttery hug with her rascal of a dog, the hug is not returned. Despite a full house chase, Lucy cannot catch the matter how diligent and determined she is to do so.

Annie can't stay away from Lucy for too long. I am certain you can guess what happens. Ultimately,
Lucy heads toward her bedroom and her warm, comfy bed, where she meets Mom just in time to return her hug and accept a good night kiss.

Delightful...and heartwarming. Freya Blackwood adds her formidable talent to the telling of this warm and lively bedtime story. Her soft-edged pastel illustrations give readers a close-up look at a loving family, their home and the chase that takes place between child and pet. It is a gently reassuring tale and perfect for any bedtime. It is sure to become a favorite!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dinosaur vs. The Potty, written and illustrated by Bob Shea. Hyperion Books, $17.99 ages 2 and up

"Dinosaur versus...
making lemonade!
roar! roar!
mix! squeeze!
roar! ROAR!
And he doesn't need to
use the potty!"

Oh boy, Dinosaur has all of the personality of the little people he is portraying! He knows when he needs to go to the bathroom, thank you very much. It is not at this moment.

So, he takes on other contests with the potty and wins them all. He makes lemonade and wins. Nope, no potty! Next he faces the sprinkler. Guess what? He wins again. No potty yet! On he goes...what about a three juice box lunch? Surely that will lead him to the bathroom. Wrong! He has no need.

As we have come to know in his previous tales, Dinosaur is a spirited one, and has little use for the conventions that would make life with a toddler easier. In this one, a swimming pool and puddles don't even unnerve him. A spouting whale? Certainly not!

By now, even my subconscious is thinking about a visit. What is Dinosaur doing? Is that a victory dance? Maybe not. Will he make it? I wonder.

Kids love the roaring, the bravado and the humor that Bob Shea infuses into his tales of a small dinosaur with a big ego, and a huge voice. Cheering for him as he fights the need to go to the bathroom is something his audience is sure to understand...and maybe their parents as well. It makes for a fun readaloud. It is perfect for those children just learning the joys of reading on their own. It won't be long until you hear them sharing it with anyone who will listen.

The artwork has strong lines and color, with repetitive text displayed all around the pages. Backgrounds add context for young readers, who will use it to help them figure out the text. What could be better than that?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I'm here, written and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. Atheneum, Simon & Schuster. 2011. $17.99 ages 3 and up

"Yes, I'm here.
I know I am.
I am here.
With the breeze.
Gentle wind.
I like the soft wind
patting my head."

Just as I was loaning Peter Reynolds' exquisite ish and the dot to a friend, I came upon this equally eloquent book in my TBR bookcase. I'm sorry it has taken me a while to tell you about it. His work is so deserving of our attention.

The playground is filled with the language and laughter of many children. They are playing ball, skipping, swinging, playing hand games...all those things that children do at recess in warm weather.  A young boy sits alone, hearing the children and their activities as 'one big noise'... it seems loud to him. He is on the playground but he is not with the other children.

He is in his own space, full of attention to the world but not to the children. Leaves flutter close by, and a sheet of paper lands near his knee. He is not sure paper should be on the ground where he is. So, he makes an airplane with it. Together, they fly off to be above the clouds and see the stars. It is an exhilarating trip and when it looks like they might land, the children set them sailing again. Well, only the paper plane really.

As it makes its own soft landing, a little girl picks it up and returns it to the boy. All are now 'here'. Is this the beginning of a new friendship?

Peter Reynolds' trademark art is filled with white space and focuses our attention on the boy, his plane, his imagination and the possibility of friendship. He wrote this book to encourage a better understanding of children with autism, and those who are 'different'. He encourages his readers to know that reaching out to someone may be the greatest gift we can give.

He continues to inspire with his thoughtful, gentle stories. Thank you Peter, for another 'keeper'.

The Statistical Probability of LOVE at First Sight, written by Jennifer E Smith. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2012. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"This house is about two dictionaries away from caving in," she'd say, "and you're buying duplicates?' But Hadley understood. It wasn't that she was meant to read them all. Maybe someday she would, but for now, it was more the gesture itself. He was giving her the most important thing he could, the only way he knew how. He was a professor, a lover of stories, and he was building her a library in the same way other men might build their daughters houses."

I read a review of  this book recently and it piqued my interest. Lo and behold, it was in my mailbox on Friday (thanks to Melanie at Hachette Book Group Canada). My plan for the weekend was to finish three books I was already reading and now I had another. The fireplace, a pot of tea, a warm quilt and a short pile of books to be finished...hmmm, does it get better than that?

Did I finish the other three? I did not. I started and finished this one. What a lovely way to begin a long, lazy weekend! It has everything a young adult reader might want in a book about  love at first sight. The characters are people you want to know. The circumstances of that 'first sight' familiar. The twenty-four hours that follow the meeting are filled with uncertainty and assurance, sadness and joy, love and hate and a feeling that love does make the world a much better place for everyone involved.

IF you believe in fate, you will not be surprised by the rash of circumstances that get Hadley Sullivan to the airport four minutes too late to catch a flight to London. She thinks it might be divine intervention as she would rather not be present at her father's wedding to Charlotte, that British woman who has stolen his heart. You will also not then be surprised when a young man comes to her aid while she awaits the next available flight.

While it may seem predictably a teen romance at the outset, and the circumstances is fraught with underlying issues that partially surface as the two share the trans-Atlantic flight. Hadley is 17, still hurting from her parents' divorce and angry with her father for moving on with no backward look at the chaos he has created. Oliver is an 18 year old Brit, attending Yale and going home to be with family. Because he is carrying formal wear Hadley assumes that he, too, is going to a wedding.

They have a connection from the outset and the seven hour flight allows for conversation, little sleep and a growing sense of attraction. They share their likes and dislikes, things they have in common and those they don't. In the rush to get through customs at Heathrow and go their separate ways, they lose sight of each other. Of course, it leaves us wondering if they will see each other again...and how?

It could be just too sweet. It is not. Instead of that, Jennifer Smith creates a lovely, tender story of falling in love, of dealing with familial heartbreak, and of beginning to look at the world with a new sense of maturity and wonder:

"And there on the street corner, it strikes her as something of a miracle that she met him at all. Imagine if she'd been on time for her flight. Or if she'd spent all those hours beside someone else, a complete stranger who, even after so many miles, remained that way. The idea that their paths might have just as easily not crossed leaves her breathless..."

Jennifer Smith loves her characters and helps us love them, too. As Hadley's heart opens to new possibilities, she is able to look back at times when she and her father found much happiness together:

"It wasn't even the story itself that she loved; she didn't understand half the words and often felt lost in the winding sentences. It was the gruff sound of her father's voice, the funny accents he did for each character, the way he let her turn the pages. Every night after dinner they would read together in the darkness of the study."

I don't think you will be surprised that Hadley and Oliver do find each other again. You will be cheering for them, too!

Now, to the other books in that pile....


Friday, January 20, 2012

Glory Be, written by Augusta Scattergood. Scholalstic, 2012. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"I moved Jesslyn's pep squad jacket, sat down on the bed, and touched my quilt. One tiny piece of the baby blanket I dragged all over the house when I was crawling. One piece from my black cat Halloween costume. One from my green shorts, from Lake Whippoorwill Girl Scout Day Camp last summer. One scrap from my very first doll baby's dress. The quilt was filled up with my life."

Again awake in the middle of the night, I started reading this book to keep me company and to keep mind my off my inability to get that beauty sleep. I can tell you that I found it quite engaging and I finished it in quick time. I had read The Help by Kathryn Sprockett this summer before seeing the movie. This book reminded me of that story but for the middle grade reader.  On the back cover, Katheryn Erskine (author of mockingbird and the absolute value of mike ) said almost the same thing:

"Glory Be is a lovely debut novel for younger readers, akin to Kathryn Sprockett's The Help - an important read that raises powerful racial issues of the 1960s American South."

It is an unbearably hot summer in Mississippi and Glory is inconsolable when she learns that the swimming pool is to be closed. The town council says it is in need of repairs, but Glory knows better. She knows that many of the fearful and bigoted people in her small town do not want things to change. Change is inevitable and Glory is caught up in those changes. As the story moves forward,  she finds her voice as an activist for the rights of all people, despite her young age.

Glory gives a feisty, first-person account of that summer when things began to change. She has been waiting for her 4th of July twelfth birthday, a day always celebrated at the pool with her friends. This year it is not going to happen. What does happen in a few short days make for a story that will keep readers turning the pages.

There are a number of characters who play an important role for Glory. Her older Jesslyn is becoming more interested in her friends and boys than she is in her younger sister. It is a change that has a profound effect on Glory and has her wondering about the new boy in town and Jess' interest in him. Glory meets a new girl at the library who is in town for the summer while her mother nurses at a free clinic. She and Laura work together in the library with Miss B, a free-thinking librarian who encourages everyone to come and borrow books.

Emma is the family's African-American maid whose warmth and guidance is a beacon to the Hemphill family. She encourages the girls not to worry about things they can't fix, but is proud of Glory when she writes a letter to the editor expressing her concerns about the pool and the real reason for closing it. Joe Hemphill, the girls' father, is a preacher and an upstanding citizen of Hanging Moss, Mississippi. His pride in his daughters is evident and he offers support for their actions and opinions despite the growing concern of some of his parishoners. Frankie is a young boy caught in the middle, between loyalty to his racist father and brother and to his best friend Glory.

It's a summer of discovery for many.

I've Lost My Hippopotamus, written by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Jackie Urbanovic. Harper, 2012. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"My chicken seems to think an egg
Exists for her to hatch it.
My puppy seems to think a bug
Exists for him to catch it.
My kitten seems to think her fur
Exists for her to lick it.
My brother seems to think his nose
Exists for him to pick it."

Oh, yes! You know you will be going back to read that one again. I recently told you about Shel Silverstein's newest book, Every Thing On It (Harper, 2011). Along comes Jack Prelutsky to add another book of lively poetry to his long list of publications. He shared the spotlight with Mr. Silverstein in each of my early years classrooms as another of our favorite poets.

Mr. Prelutsky has a remarkable way of fitting words together and of choosing unusual words that would rarely come up in conversation. He appears to do it effortlessly...the words just flow over the tongue. I am sure it is not the case. He cannot possibly have all those perfectly chosen words and faultless rhymes on the tip of his tongue. His hard work certainly makes for a fun read!

"An antelope was feeling ill,
But to her great elation,
The doctor quickly healed her
With an anteloperation."

And here's one that works perfectly for fun in the math class:

"My snake can do arithmetic,
My snake is far from dumb,
My snake can take two numbers
And come up with a sum.

She can't subtract, which makes her sad,
And two things make her sadder..
She can't divide or multiply -
My snake is just an adder."

That is not going to have the same impact for little ones as it will have for older readers. This collection is wide-ranging with appeal for many readers. With characteristic humor and skill, the poet conjures a  collection of imaginary creatures within its pages. He includes the thopp, the fiff, and a menagerie of new animals named  the flamingoat, the asparagoose, and the kangarulers, to name but a few of them. Such fun...listeners and readers will soon have favorites.

Because I know about children and the bathroom humor that constantly has them in stitches, I want to include:

"A centipede was thirsty,
But to satisfy its need,
It drank too much for it to hold -
And so the centipede." 

And, because I have a warm spot in my heart for libraries and librarians, I will end with this one about the bookworm:

"I love books. Yes, I love books.
Oh books, it's hard to beat you.
I give you long and loving looks,
And then I slowly eat you."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Extra Yarn, written and illustrated by Mac Barnett. Harper, 2012. $18.99 ages 4 and up

"She made sweaters for everyone, except Mr. Crabtree, who never wore sweaters or even long pants, and who would stand in his shorts with snow up to his knees."

I have become such a fan of these talented and perceptive artists. Mac Barnett still has me guffawing along with everyone who gets a chance to listen to, or read, Guess Again? I have read OH, NO! again and again and pored over the illustrations with delight! With each new season of science fairs, I think it should be showcased as a story of projects gone wrong for the scientist, and right for the reader. Add to that the brilliant I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen and you have the beginning of a pile of 'best books' to share for years to come!

Now, we can add this gentle, seemingly simple tale that blends the talents of both Mac and Jon. How lucky are we?

In the dreary town where Annabelle lives, there seems little to celebrate. Falling snow and sooty drabness are the order of the day. Annabelle makes a discovery that will soon change all that. In the small dark box she finds there are yarns of all colors. She sets about using the yarn to make a sweater for herself and then, her dog.

Lo and behold, the yarn box holds even more. She can make sweaters for her friends, family, neighbors, classmates and even her crotchety teacher. Not yet depleted, the box continues to supply the yarn she needs to clothe the birdhouses, buildings and various and sundry animals who live in her hometown.

As with many things that attract unsolicited attention, Annabelle is soon approached by a materialistic and self-centered archduke, whose greed outdoes his need. He offers Annabelle a boatload of money for the yarn box...she refuses, having no need for his riches. Not to be dissuaded from his demands, the archduke sends hired henchmen to do his dirty work and steal the box. They do!

I will leave you to discover what happens next. It is quite a comeuppance and fairly dances with magic!

Jon Klassen's illustrations have the same understated brilliance that he used in I Want My Hat Back, never distracting the reader from the story's main character and action. The colors used to produce the many sweaters are muted, and unobtrusive. That being said, listeners are blissfully aware of the power they have for telling the story visually and for the feelings evoked as the generous and determined young girl goes about her daily work.

Mr. Crabtree is not forgotten by Annabelle.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

After the Death of Anna Gonzales, written by Terri Fields. Henry Holt and Company, 2002. $19.95 ages 12 and up

" spite of the pills and the pain,
In spite of the surgeries and suffering,
He chose life.

And you, Anna, who had health,
Chose death.

How could you?"

Kathleen Hays is only one voice. She had a nine-year-old brother who battled cancer for two years, taking treatments and enduring surgeries before succumbing to his second, harder fight. Tough for her to understand, yes; but, did she know Anna?

There are 5 adults and 42 students whose responses are shared in this free verse novel about teen suicide. Many of them did not know Anna, and their reactions to her death provide a glimpse at their thinking when they hear the news. Often harsh and unfeeling, and perhaps even stereotypical, they seem honest to me.  

Regular daily announcements are made prior to the principal breaking the news:

"Words caught in unwilling voice.

'I am sorry to tell you of the death
of one of our students.'

Must continue.
Rumors always worse than truth,

'Anna Gonzales took her life last night.
Our sympathies to her family and friends.
Grief counselors will be available all day.'

Robotlike move off camera."

Without Anna, life in her high school goes on. Sports are played and classes continue. Some students  haven't heard the news, and their personal concerns are voiced ahead of any reaction to the principal's announcement. Some weren't listening and react to the quiet that has suddenly fallen. Some have memories of Anna in their classes, working together; and some are not even sure they know who she was:

"Anna seemed normal enough,
But how much can one know
When working together to conjugate
The present tense of hablar?"

A girl whose father committed suicide has a question for Anna:

"So, Anna,  did you know
That when you kill yourself
Those you say you love,
They die too?"

Free verse glimpses of  diversity in a high school setting and finally, the note from Anna that explains the choice she made:

"Never pretty or popular enough to matter.
Never outrageous or outstanding enough
to get attention.
Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to make certain
that I am even real."

I think this would make a powerful and enlightening reader's theatre, or performance piece for a drama class.

Lunch Box Mail, written and illustrated by Jenny Whitehead. Henry Holt, 2001. $9.95 ages 5 and up

"Turtles and snails.
Turtles and snails.
What could be slower
than turtles and snails?
Waiting for birthdays,
and popcorn to pop.
Afternoons wishing
the raindrops would stop."

As I was reading this verse I found myself thinking what a great mentor poem it would be for classroom thinking. What does move slowly for young children? How hard it is to wait for something very special to arrive, or for something discouraging to end. It might take some time to gather their ideas, and their ideas may not rhyme; but, it is the beginning of the process...and it helps young writers to understand that ideas come from many places. It also gives them a starting point for their thinking and pondering.

Jenny Whitehead takes us through the year with a young child. As with all young children, some days offer new experiences, much delight and adventure. Others are not so self-assured and memorable. Each experience is stored in our personal vault and helps us be who we are meant to be.

There are four wheels, in full swing, appeteasers and winding down. The first day of school is up first, and is contrasted (on a facing page) with the '179th day'. Apt brief descriptions of the differences are bordered by cartoon drawings of school friends, personnel, and shared events.
We move on to see other moments that are universal in the lives of anxiety-inducing visit to the doctor, the first foray into the cold of a swimming pool (even on a warm day), no-bite fishing, the long drive to Grandma's, jumping in puddles, collecting 'stuff'', favorite foods and even lunch box mail:

"Last night after dinner, son,
I thought you had your homework done.
But now the dog is acting funny.
Did he eat your homework, honey?
Love, Dad"


I baked you cookies -
chocolate chip! -
a dozen just for you.
Eat as many as you can,
then give away a few!
Love, Nana"

The illustrations that fill the white spaces are the small details of a child's life and will be enjoyed by anyone who shares this collection. Clear voice is given to a host of characters, young and old. Short additional poems add humor and the cover art provides a hint at what's to come.

Yes, there's stress but there is also satisfaction. Isn't that the way life is?

The Unforgotten Coat, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $18.00 ages 9 and up

"Obviously I knew they'd only asked me to swap clothes to confuse their demon. Did I care about being used as demon bait? No, because by then I didn't believe in demons. Plus, wearing that fur coat made me one of a pair with Chingis, once of a pair of swaggering nomads with eagle-calming skills and strings of horses somewhere in the desert."

I am very keen on Frank Cottrell Boyce's writing. I was lucky to read Millions in its year of publication and I have followed his work since then. He has never disappointed me with his thoughtful and inspiring stories.

This new book has some surprises, and it certainly left me thinking about all that had happened when I turned from the last page. In the beginning, it is a school story. Two brothers from Mongolia arrive suddenly, and surrounded in mystery. They just appear, they refuse to be separated and they are wearing fur-lined coats and fur hats. The older one is Chingis, and the younger is Nergui.

Try to imagine yourself sitting in that classroom when they just drop in. They don't remove their coats or hats. Chingis refuses to allow Nergui to be taken to another, more appropriate classroom and they come from MONGOLIA!  Julie cannot contain her delight in their arrival. She is soon selected by the boys as their 'Good Guide' and they become fast friends. She is intrigued by them, but can discover little beyond what they are willing to share. They will not take her home with them, or tell her where they live.

Chingis is quite happy to share photographs that he has taken of his homeland. His classmates begin to learn more about his home country. It is only Julie's persistence that leads her to the truth about the boys, their home and family, and the problems they face. By the time she has discovered those truths, it is too late.

The tale is told quickly and by Julie, now grown and visiting her old school before they tear it down. When she sees Chingis' coat in the lost property box, she thinks back on her memories that remain clear and strong, even after all this time. There was not much to capture the imagination of those who lived in Bootle when the boys arrived. Two exotic visitors from a far-off, little known land led to much discovery...about Mongolia and about the school students themselves.

I love the design...a notebook with lined pages and photographs strewn throughout the story. The photos add interest to the almost magical qualities of the tale, which encourages discussion and flights of imagination. It is humorous, while also poignant. It is powerful and complex. It will leave some readers wondering and others lost in wonder at the delight it brings.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Off to Class, written by Susan Hughes, Owl Kids, 2011. $13.95 ages 8 and up

"But students at a few schools in New Orleans, including the Arthur Ashe Charter School, are reconnecting with the land by getting their hands dirty in the Edible Schoolyard. They have the chance to plant, grow, and harvest organic fruits and vegetables; compost waste; and care for wetland area and butterfly garden."

Did you know that more than 100 million children around the world have no access to education? There are a multitude of reasons why this is so. I wonder how often we even think about those children.

This is a wonderful book to share in intermediate and middle years classrooms for many reasons. First, it is extremely well-written and very entertaining. Second, it will open our children's eyes to the world beyond our own borders. Third, the children whose voices are heard in the pages of this book have much to share and they offer hope and confidence that their world can change and that children the world over can have access to learning. It takes ingenuity, hard work and trust.

It's hard to see some of the kids pictured here. They live tough lives with little or no hope for improvement. More than 18 million children live on the streets of India and they have no access to education at all. But, there are people who are working for change. They work in isolation, and within groups, to make conditions better for children. They live all over the world and they are determined to make a difference, one step at a time. Children are so resilient; they learn despite the most tenuous conditions.

Every school or system described will hold your attention and prove that change can be made. On each double-page spread we see the results that come from hope and inspiration. The writing is accessible for the target audience; the photographs are quite remarkable; and the stories told do the heart good.  I especially like the interviews with the children. Their voices had the most impact on my reading and learning. Add to that, fact boxes and useful captions and you have a book that your children and students will find quite fascinating.
There are so many reasons that schooling is not a given...natural disasters, weather, poverty, homelessness, environment, rampant illness, inequality between genders. They are included sensitively and with compassion for the children facing such issues.
This is a book that begs to be read aloud, and shared at home and at school. The design is positive and bright. It offers another opportunity for readers to see that children around the world have the same needs and wants as we do. It begs the question: do we take too much for granted?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Speechless, written by Valerie Sherrard. Boardwalk Book, Dundurn. 2007.$12.99 ages

"For an opening line, you definitely want to start with a tear-jerker. Okay, here it is: Picture yourself sitting with your family, sharing a meal, talking about everyday things, when suddenly your door is kicked open and men with guns rush in."

This is a fact of life for families of child soldiers and Griffin learns much about them and the fate that awaits these children in countries at war. He didn not know that his not wanting to deliver a speech would result in this learning, but his actions lead him there.

Griffin is the first person narrator of his own school and family story. It's junior high and one of his assignments  is to prepare and deliver a speech to his classmates. Griffin is one of the quiet ones in his middle grade class and the thought of making that speech fills with with terror. He wracks his brain trying to find a way to avoid such personal exposure. In the end, he decides to become 'speechless' in support of a cause. The problem is, he doesn't really know what that cause is.

It soon becomes clear that there needs to be a 'real' reason for whatever choice he does make. When he and his friend Bryan are surfing the web, Bryan hits upon an idea:

"I think we've got it, " he said. "Here, in the Amnesty International site, there's a story about kids in the army."

It seems a good reason for a protest. He has no real appreciation for the plight of the child soldiers until he starts to do research for an essay that has been assigned in lieu of the speech. As he learns more and more about these children, he begins to feel a strong social responsibility to make a real difference. Where that leads makes for an absorbing and fast paced story.

So much changes for Griffin and his family as the protest plays itself out. As readers we come to know Griffin, his family, friends and fears. He learns about the world, some of its injustices and he learns a lot about himself as his protest becomes a powerful agent for change...starting with just one

Is Everyone Ready for Fun? Written and illustrated by Jan Thomas. Beach Lane, Simon & Schuster. 2011. $14.99 ages 2 and up


up and down,
up and down.

Let's all
up and down!"

I love Jan Thomas' delightful sense of fun! Her interactive books are some of my most successful readalouds for the very young. They invite silliness and prove to our youngest listeners that fun can be had in books, and they are worth reading. As I have said before, we want to introduce them to the joy of independent reading. With  repetitive language and humorous tales Jan Thomas is a bright light in the world of stories for the very young. Be sure to check her website at

When the cows notice that chicken has a sofa, they cannot help but use it for mischief! And, they invite us along. They 'plop' down and set the stage for action for themselves and exasperation for poor chicken. First, we jump up and down. Chicken is quick to overrule that idea.

Well if you can't jump, why not think of 'more fun'. Are you ready....?

Dancing seems like a good idea, and it isn't jumping. Chicken is so not thrilled.

And on it goes...I can't wait to get reading this one...and watching the little ones take part in a lesson on movement and mayhem. Then, when they have had all the exercise they could possibly need, they can  take to the sofa for its real lot in life...a nap!!!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Juba This, Juba That, written by Helaine Becker and illustrated Ron Lightburn. Tundra, 2011. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"Juba up, Juba down,
Juba running all around.
Juba here, Juba there,
Juba going to the fair."

In front matter we are told that 'traditional juba hand clapping games originated in Nigeria.' They were passed from one generation to the next as a reminder of home and to provide comfort while away from family and village. Slaves use the lilt of these traditional games to set a work rhythm in North America. And so, we know this game form.

Juba This, Juba That is a popular example of these chants. Helaine Becker and Ron Lightburn team up to create a nighttime adventure for a young boy and his feline visitor. The boy awakens to follow the spunky cat to a carnival, where they experience the magic of the mirror house and more. It is not until they have enjoyed the many pleasures of the fair that they are ready to return to slumber and a gentle slowing of this lively clapping song.

The author chooses word opposites to set the tone for her interpretation of this traditional rhyming game. Children will soon be reading along and wanting to add their own two line verses. Your toes will be tapping and your head nodding as you share it with little ones.

Ron Lightburn uses a palette of primary colors to bring light and life to the lively verses. His cool blues and gentle moonlight create a dreamy mood as the two make their way to the much brighter lights of the carnival itself. Using diagonal lines for his backgrounds he evokes motion as the boy and his companion explore their new environs.

Swirl by Swirl, written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beth Krommes. Houghton Mifflin, Thomas Allen & Son. 2011. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"A spiral is a growing shape.
It starts small
and gets bigger,

swirl by swirl."

Joyce Sidman is adept at invitations. Her beautiful poetry continually invites her readers to take a deep breath and look closely at the wonders of the natural world. Here, she does it all over again. In sharing this wondrous book adults are also allowed the time to sit and savor.

If you can't get out in that world right now (we are in the midst of a small winter storm) and take a personal look at it, come along with Joyce and Beth Krommes to wander in wonder at the spirals and swirls that are to be found everywhere.   As you turn each creatively brilliant page, you will see animals coiled in sleep, shells and ferns that furl and unfurl to show us their shape with pride, and weather phenomena that stun our senses.

The poetic verse is strong and the choices made for its descriptive language are clear and memorable.
The author crafts each sentence with skill and careful thought. The woodcut artwork fills the page with the tiniest details in light-infused tones of green, gold, orange and red. They swirl and wind across each page reminding us of the beauty to be seen in everyday life.

They begin in a small space...a chipmunk's nest. Then, the words move outward to grow and expand, to gain strength and reach beyond the forest floor to the ocean and prairie and finally into the universe where we can see starry shapes 'spinning and sparkling'. By the end the spiral has returned to its tiny, curled-up self, snuggling safe and warm.

It is a lovely tribute to the beauty we so often miss as we move through life too quickly, not stopping to appreciate what is right there for us to experience. In the final double page spread a spiral is defined and clarificaation is given to the swirlds shown in the pages of the book. For example:

"A clever. Butterflies need a long, flexible proboscis (like a sucking tongue) to reach deep into flowers and sip nectar. When the 'tongue' is not in use, the butterfly cleverly rolls it up into a tight spiral bundle beneath its head."  Brilliant!

I Must Have Bobo! Written by Eileen Rosenthal and illustrated by Marc Rosethal. Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, 2011. $17.99 ages 2 and up

"When Willy woke up,
there was trouble.
Oh no!
Where's Bobo?"

It doesn't take long for a little one to notice that a favored toy, or stuffed animal, is nowhere in sight. So, when Willy wakes up and cannot immediately spy his much-loved sock monkey Bobo, he turns into a seasoned detective and follows all clues to track him down.

Bobo has always been his rock when in need of comfort, and Willy remembers their many soothing times together. It doesn't take long before Willy discovers the culprit. Earl, the house cat, seems particularly enamored with the soft, lanky monkey. Taking Bobo back is not the end of the story.

Both are persistent in their quest to keep company with the amenable stuffed toy. Back and forth he goes as first Willy, then Earl take possession. Young children will totally get this delightful story...even my newest granddog would understand. Isn't it amazing that the only desperately needed toy is the one that is in the hands (well, paws) of the other?

Marc Rosenthal does a masterful job of keeping us firmly in the world of the young child. The struggle for ownership is the most relevant one and young listeners will be totally focused on that. He uses cream colored backgrounds, a soft palette, and fully recognizable facial expressions to complement the telling. Creased forehead frowns, anxious open-mouthed horror, and inquisitive wonder fill the pages as Willy and Earl vie for possession. Bobo, on the other hand, could care less.

If you've been in the company of preschoolers you will recognize the true-to-life struggle that fills this book's pages. The search will not end until the lost is found! Where Bobo is found is pure genius, and Willy is content to be reunited.

Earl does not share that sentiment!

Winterberries and Apple Blossoms, written by Nan Forler with paintings by Peter Etril Snyder. Tundra, 2011. $24.99 ages 6 and up

"That night, I crawl into bed beneath another quilt -
from another winter, other chatter -
wondering what stories this quilt has heard,
and who will be warmed by the one we're making."

The year begins for Naomi, an Old Order Mennonite girl, with a quilting bee. There are four quilters, and Naomi makes five. It is her first time working alongside the others. Together, they sew and chat.

 As each month passes we learn more about the life that Naomi leads. The poems share her story and are accompanied by a detailed and fascinating glimpse of the described event in Peter Snyder's gentle acrylic artwork.

The seasons change, the daily work goes on and Naomi proves herself to be like most other girls her age...helping the family with their work, playing ball with her schoolmates, even taking her brother's bike when he isn't looking and getting her comeuppance when her skirt becomes entangled in the chain. Poetic justice, some might say. Her days pass quickly, as most days for children do.

Both the author and illustrator live in Waterloo, Ontario and have first-hand knowledge of the Mennonite community there. They capture the essence of the 'plain' life led by Naomi's family and friends in their twelve poems and paintings.

For those of us who want more, the author has added a section filled with recipes that come from the Mennonite tradition of using 'fresh, seasonal ingredients' in their baking. Foodies will be delighted. All can be made with the help of the children in your life, just as Naomi helps in her community.

They make my mouth water!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Tiffin, written by Mahtab Narsimhan. Dancing Cat Books, 2011. $12.95 ages 12 and up

"As Vinayak had explained to Kunal, they would change hands many times before reaching their owners, sharp at noon. Two hundred thousand boxes would be delivered in this precise way, each and every day of the week. In three hours the dabbawallas would cover an area of almost forty miles, then make the reverse journey to bring the boxes back."

I take great enjoyment from reading stories of other cultures. In the capable hands of Mahtab Narsimhan I have become acquainted with the remarkable world of the dabbawalla. They are the men whose responsibility it is to pick up tiffins (the small round tin from the front cover) and take them to their customer's workplace. While we often carry our own lunches, businesspeople in India get their noon meals fresh and often warm, from restaurants or from home, delivered directly to their office. The dabbawalla returns for the empty tiffin once the lunch is done. It is a profession of great pride to those who deliver the meals; the system works so well that they can boast only one in six million fails to arrive at its proper place.

But what about that one? The author creates a tale that reads like folklore by introducing us to Kunal, whose young, pregnant unwed mother tries sending a message to the child's father. The note does not arrive, as hers is the only tiffin not delivered. 

Twelve years later, we meet Kunal. At his birth, he was given into the care of a friend of his mother's and her husband. Kunal's life in their home and restaurant is filled with fear and hatred. He is teased, mistreated, and finally brutally beaten by his stepfather when he tries to take what he feels is owed for his years of unpaid and gruelling labor. Honest and fleeting, the reader gets the feel for the brutality without having to face an endless barrage of it.

He finds refuge with Vinayak, one of  the dabbawallas who has befriended him while picking up tiffins at their restaurant. In his company, Kunal comes to know those who belong to the Dabbawalla Association and he longs to be like them:

"Kunal listened to the story, his eyes not leaving Moray's face. The dabbawallas took their jobs seriously, upholding the tradition and their impeccable track record as a team. Once again something twisted inside him. They were all so close. They even had stories they could recount. They belonged, whereas he had a past he wanted to forget and belonged to no one."

Kunal finally begins to feel accepted and worthy. His need to belong, and his headstrong nature, leads him to use his new friends to help him find his birth mother. The final pages hold surprise and hope.

I cannot finish without telling you that the city of Mumbai is like a strong main character, and integral to the telling. On more than one occasion I could smell the smells, hear the cacaphony of sounds and bake in its oppressive heat. Factual and fictional, this is a riveting tale that enlightens and will capture every reader's attention.

A glossary helps readers with unfamiliar words and with some of the cultural references. It is a starting point for those who want to know more about Mumbai, the dabbawallas and life in India. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

E-MERGENCY, written by Tom Lichtenheld and Ezra Fields-Meyer and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle Books, 2011. $18.99 ages 5 and up

"After the ambulance exited, A assembled the alphabet.
Someone is going to have to take the place of E while she gets better. O, you're the obvious option., because you're so well-rounded.
But I'm SOooOO busy! Why can't one of the consonants help out?
Don't be obnoxious, O. You know the consonants just speak gibberish without us vowels."

If you don't know from the above quotation that you are in for a bucket of fun, you will just have to read more of this zany and wonderful new book.

It seems that the whole alphabet has found housing together. One fateful morning, E is descending the stairs when she takes a tumble and must be transported to the ER. With no E available and A in charge, O is given the task of taking over and doing E's job. No one can use E...she is laid up for a while.

And the hilarity ramps up:

"That's right. Starting right NOW, it's O instead of E. That's it, poriod."

It takes some practice to be ready to read this tale aloud. Have you considered how much E is used in our daily reading, writing and speaking? Memos are sent, government announcements are made, and the other letters make sure that the news gets out through talk show banter on many channels. It is a laugh riot!

There are jokes galore and so much to read on every page. The illustrations are filled with dialogue and banter between the letters. The front endpapers give us a taste for the fun to come. On one side we meet 'the cast', consisting of all the letters of the alphabet and some punctuation while the facing page offers 'the other cast'....that is, E on crutches with a cast on her foot. Oh, boy!

Clever asides, perpetual puns, convoluted 'e-less' newspaper headlines will have readers poring over the pages and spouting chuckles and guffaws. It can't be helped. I was constantly rethinking what I was reading, and kids will do the same.

With E unresponsive to treatment, the letters take their dilemma world wide asking for assistance in helping her heal. They ask everyone to stop using E and thus give her the rest she needs. Finally, they turn their attention to the narrator and 'eh! voila!' E's health is immediately restored.

'Just in time for ....thE End.' Wonderful, witty and wise! What more can I say?

Missing Mummy, written and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb. Macmillan, Harper Canada. 2011. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"I feel so scared because I don't
think she is coming back.

And then I feel angry because I
really want her to come back."

I have not seen other work by Rebecca Cobb but I hope to see more since reading this quietly powerful book about the loss of a parent. It is told entirely through the eyes of a young child and rings with authenticity.

The young boy was there when everyone said goodbye; he is unsure where she has gone. He has looked for her everywhere and has only found her 'things'. He is sad, and scared and even mad about it all. He doesn't like that other kids have their mums. So, he asks his Dad about Mummy.

His father tells him straight that she cannot come back, that it was nothing he did and that Dad shares his son's wish for her to be back with them. He reassures the little one that they are still a family and that photos and stories will remind them of Mummy, and that they will work together to help each other as Mummy always helped them.

It is a poignant and beautifully told story, full of sadness and honesty and ending with a feeling that all will be well at some point in the future...

The accompanying art tells all that the words do not say. The rain-filled sky and the umbrella  parade that protects those attending the funeral show Dad holding the little one while hugging the older daughter. The search for Mum has the boy looking inside, outside, in his parents' bedroom (where Dad is sitting on the bed and crying). Each helps the reader understand the changes wrought by the loss. There is beauty, warmth and tiny touches of humor as the family learns to cope.

Worthy of your attention, it is an honest and real book to share with the young.

Bird, written by Zetta Elliott and illustrated by Shadra Strickland. Lee & Low Books, 2008. $21.95 ages 8 and up

``I didn`t know how to fix Marcus, so I left my drawing on the floor and went back to my room. The only people I ever saw shaking and sweating like that were the crazy people in the park. Mama called them addicts. Grandad  called them junkies. Papa said to stay away from them `cause people like that would do just about anything to get more drugs.``

So much has changed for Mehkai and his family. He is called Bird because he reminded his family of one when he was a baby. Now, he spends his time drawing them. It is his brother Marcus who helped Bird learn to draw.  His grandfather died last year and Marcus is sick. It is Uncle Son, an old friend of his beloved Grandad who consoles him and helps him deal with his aching heart.

The drawing also helps:

"That's what I like about drawing -
you can fix stuff that's messed up
just by using your imagination
or rubbing your eraser
over the page."

 There is safety and security in doing what he does well; and, it connects him to Marcus. He does much learning about the world he lives in, and the people who make a difference in his life. Grandad was his rock, and now Uncle Son fills the same role, visiting weekly and taking Bird to the park:

"I like talking to Uncle Son
'cause he treats me like I'm grown,
not like I'm some little kid
who can't understand anything."

He begins to realize what is happening to his older brother and that he can do little to change the choices that Marcus makes. He loves him just the same, and misses him when he is gone. With the help of Uncle Son, his parents and his love for drawing, Bird is making his way in the world, wiser, stronger and ready to soar like the birds he so admires.

Of her book, Zetta Elliott says:

" We teach children to “just say no,” but we don’t always give them the tools they need to understand addiction. I felt a picture book could promote discussion between children and adults. I definitely see parents reading this book with a lot of conversation—it’s okay to stop reading and start talking! Give the child an opportunity to ask questions or express emotions. When we demystify things such as drug addiction, we empower children to make better choices."

Shadra Strickland brings Bird's world to us in her drawings of his urban environs. She infuses the pages with light and is attentive to detail that give readers an authentic feel for the joy and pain that Bird and his family experience. The birds soar, the trees sway, the pond provides refuge for Uncle Son and Bird as they discuss the worries and the wonders of their world.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

One Thousand Tracings, written and illustrated by Lita Judge. Hyperion Books, 2007. $17.50 ages 6 and up

"Dr. Kramer included a list of ten families. He sent tracings of their feet. Mama and I found a pair of shoes for each one. I matched the shoes to the tracings.

Papa asked Dr. Kramer for more names. And soon names came like rain, pouring out of letters written in German. "

I had never heard anything of this story previously, and I am so happy that I ordered the book and got the chance to read it and to share it with you...just in case you don't know it either.

It is a wonderful nonfiction picture book whose story is taken from the author's own family history. Such an inspiring tale to tell, and Lita Judge tells it brilliantly. It begins with a box of old letters and foot tracings found in her grandparents' attic. When she asks her mother about them, she learns that her grandparents had taken a very active role following WWII in helping some of the families devastated by the effects of that war.

She tells the story from her mother's perspective. She is a young girl when it begins. Her father had joined the war effort and was gone for three years. Naive and innocent, it is her feeling that, with the war over, all is well. Until the letter arrives... it tells of starvation, worn clothing and no shoes. It doesn't take long for her mother to set about making a difference, with her young daughter's help.

A care package is quickly dispatched to Germany. In their return thank you note, their doctor friend asks for no further help for his family, rather that they help others who were facing terrible times. Ten families, all needing help and shoes! The foot tracings are there.  For two years, the family does its best to bring comfort to those in need. They ask friends and neighbors, family and strangers to get involved and help those European families who are struggling to live in the aftermath of the war. One thousand foot tracings, three thousand care packages about heroes!

Eliza is just one of the children helped by the Hamerstrom family. Perhaps the fact that she is the same age as the young girl telling the story makes her special. Her father has not returned to the family and her mother is doing her best to keep her children safe and warm:

"My little girl and baby boy and I lived in a cellar with two other families for five weeks, with only beans to eat. My husband is still missing. Now we live with my father."

A special gift is sent to Eliza and the reader lives in hope that the kind and giving Hamerstrom family will hear from her in the near future. There is great joy and dancing when that letter arrives.

The illustrations that Lita Judge has created for this lovely story are the perfect accompaniment, with their soft edges and pastel colors. She intersperses them with authentic items found in the box. There are foot tracings, balls of wool used to make warm mittens, sweaters and socks. There are family photographs, letters and addressed envelopes. It is inspiring and uplifting to know that one family could, and did, make such a difference. She finishes her author's note with the following letter found among the foot tracings:

'We are full of thanks to our American colleagues; their friendship lets us believe once more in the future, which otherwise lay before us in frightful darkness."

Now, there's a legacy!