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Friday, May 30, 2014

Gravity, written and illustrated by Jason Chin. A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2014. $ 18.99 ages 4 and up



Luckily, Jason Chin writes remarkable books for children and their adults! In his newest book, after tackling Redwoods, Coral Reefs and Island: A Story of the Galapagos, he has turned his attention to helping us learn about gravity. The gorgeous cover painting provides an alluring invitation to step inside.

The book opens to a gull and a book with a fully open page and the single word GRAVITY. As the page turns, we see an ocean beach and take note that the book appears to be flying. The book falls to the ground and lands near a young, caped, space-loving boy who is surprised by its sudden appearance. The author goes on to explain what would happen if there were no gravity...and to show us!

So much might happen without the pull of gravity. Chaos would reign on earth and in space, as earthly things would just float away from the earth's surface. Even the moon and the sun would drift! In a quick turn of events, we are made acutely aware of what does happen because of gravity. Alas, life does not exactly return to its former self! But, the results are pretty humorous.

It is a bit scary thinking about gravity not holding us in its grip. In just a few sentences Jason Chin is able to teach a solid science lesson for even our youngest readers. To keep that lesson both entertaining and informative he creates an imagined world that will delight his readers, and offer up a gentle dose of humor to settle any concern they might feel.

If you know Jason's other books (and if you don't, you need to get right out there and find them), you will have a real sense for the wonder he creates in his outstanding watercolor and gouache artwork. You will be astounded at the imaginative fantasy world he weaves to help his young readers understand a tough concept. There is so much to see; you will be happy to return for a repeat read!

If you want to know even more, he accommodates with a double page spread following the main text. On these pages, he uses short paragraphs and captioned illustrations to explain more complex matters.

A boy, his toys, four girls, a lemonade stand...what an ingenious way to get kids interested in science!

Out of this world, literally!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Whoosh! A watery world of wonderful creatures, written by Marilyn Bailiie and illustrated by Susan Mitchell. Owlkids, 2014. $ 17.95 ages 3 and up

"SHHH! I'm a great blue
heron fishing for my supper.
Silently, I keep watch through
the ripples. SPLASH! In a
flash, my long, strong beak
catches a wriggling fish.
SLURP! I swallow it

Get ready for some fun when you share this new book by Marilyn Baillie! She introduces her young audience to eleven creatures whose habitat is water; then, Susan Mitchell adds delightful watercolor artwork that captures children basking in the same joy the animals are feeling.

As dolphins play, leaping and talking with one other on the left hand side of the spread, two smiling boys do the same on the right side. The author is obviously aware of the endless interest that children have in the animal world, and she uses that knowledge to share tidbits meant to inform. It works brilliantly.

 The first person voice of the creatures included ensure rapt attention and mimicking of their actions:

"I am a water strider, but guess why I'm called the magic bug. I can race across lakes and ponds - my light body and long legs help me walk on water. Doesn't that seem like magic?"

To the right, we see an obviously smitten girl on a mattress pool float, toes and fingers dipped in calm waters. Lovely!

Each double page spread is designed to delight, and to provide quick fun facts. Read it once, read it again! Your audience is sure to want to try the various movements on display. The final page offers advice for water play, in the manners already shown. The preceding two page spread shows thumbnail sketches of each of the critters, accompanied by an additional tidbit of info for each one.

It's essential for our kids to recognize the importance of water in our daily lives, and to understand that it needs our protection from waste. It doesn't hurt that this book will help the adults in their lives to be aware of the same thing.

A perfect book to share on these warm spring days, as pools and parks open for family enjoyment.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Worm, written and illustrated by Elise Gravel. Tundra, 2014. $12.99 ages 7 and up

"The worm is a long animal
that's shaped like a tube. It
doesn't have a SKELETON
or a spine: it's an
It also doesn't have any legs.

If I had legs,
I'd have to buy shoes!"

So, we meet a worm with attitude. We also get to know him far too well. I will admit I am not nearly as disgusted by the earthworm as I am about the fly. I wonder why that is?

Reading this simultaneously published book from the Disgusting Critters series, I did add to my knowledge of the legless wonder that is 'basically a long digestive tract inside a muscle tube. It's that
muscle tube that's slimy and disgusting!" The worm is not happy with that description; that is, until it suits him later in the book.

Humorous, as was the first book, this provides information that may not always be familiar to readers (isn't that the real joy of nonfiction?). Some of the various types of worms are introduced, their size, their habitats and even a bit about their evolution. Here an obviously elderly worm, with beard and rocking chair, complains:

"Back in my day, kids RESPECTED earthworms!"

Take that!

If you are looking for books that will teach while entertaining, and that are just right for early readers looking for information, this would be a perfect choice. You will have fun reading it, too!

The Fly, written and illustrated by Elise Gravel. Tundra, 2014. $12.99 ages 7 and up

"We don't call him the
because he's a pet,
like a dog or a cat,
but because he likes
to get inside our
The housefly is found
in every country in the
world. Houseflies like
humans because we offer..."

Just what exactly is it that we offer, and how do we stop? Well, I'm not sure we can do anything at all about it. After reading this engaging and enlightening book, you will find yourself knowing far too much about that eternal pest that somehow manages to live through record-breaking cold winters and be first to greet the spring, with as much joy and welcome as we do!

The Fly is one of  two new books in the Disgusting Critters series. It promises to be a most welcome addition to any school collection, and for those early readers who love to build their store of information about all things icky!

I'm sure that you will not like 'the fly' any more than you already do, but I do think that you will come away from the reading more knowledgeable about it. You are also likely to be grossed out, a real selling feature for its intended audience. Filled with wonderful graphic artwork and plenty of laughs, kids are sure to be soon sharing it with anyone who might listen.

Elise Gravel has a lot of fun with the information she wants to share. When his mother cautions Jonathan (the fly in question) about not spoiling his dinner, we spy him with his hand almost caught in the cookie jar of  'doggie doo'. I mean, YUCK!!!

The fly family has all the attributes of a family life...a mom, a dad, a younger child and an adolescent. Their dialogue will have kids giggling with delight, as they perhaps see themselves in some of the scenes (minus the gross and disgusting parts). They do eat dinner together, the parents do give advice, the adolescent is a bit trying in his baseball cap and with his prerequisite 'attitude'. It is this family dynamic that adds the much appreciated humor, while the author provides all of the essential information.

Oh, what fun!

The Worm is next up;
The Slug and The Rat will be ready for the fall list, I hope.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Share, written and illustrated by Sally Anne Garland. Owlkids, 2013. $16.95 ages 3 and up

"...with my dolls instead.
But he was behind me -
he followed me there!
Mom said, "He wants to play.
Please let him share."

He jumped
and bumped
and bounced on my bed."

Parents like it when their kids are good hosts. So, when Mom suggests sharing with a young cousin on a quick visit, we know that she wants what is best for both the visiting child and her own. That does not alter the fact that sharing can be very difficult, even impossible at times.

Bunny has all her ducks in a row in her neat and tidy room, when Mom makes the announcement. The cousin makes his presence known immediately, with a request to play with the exact bear she has in her arms. Gentle suggestions from her mother keep sharing at the forefront, and the older bunny shares the bear, moving on to another activity. You know little ones...they ALWAYS want what you have! Too true in this lively rhyming tale of patience and persistence.

As Bunny continues to move on to new things, in hopes that her little cousin will settle to one thing, she becomes more and more frustrated. The gentle reminders that he's only copying her actions to be 'just like her' do help a little bit. Play seems hopeless as he pokes and pulls, jumps and bumps, grasps and grabs, jostles and jiggles, bobs and blocks, scribbles and scrawls, huffs and puffs, and finally hugs and squeezes. That final act eases the frustration felt!

Ms. Garland tells a heartfelt and delightful story, while recognizing the feelings of both bunnies in her appealing artwork. Expressive and full of movement and detail, they accompany a lively rhyming text with enough repetition that young readers will soon want to try reading it independently. Her use of color helps to define the most exasperating moments. The final tour of destruction makes it evident that the day has been long and trying when her aunt finally arrives to rescue the older cousin with a gentle reminder of her own! 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dirty Science, written by Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone and illustrated by Lorenzo Del Bianco. Scholastic, 2013. $7.99 ages 7 and up

"Believe it or not, in some cultures around the world people actually eat clay. This practice is called geophagy. Researchers now think that some specific types of soil are eaten to help protect people from toxins or parasites in their food."

This is the fourth book in Scholastic's winning 25 Experiments series. Earlier publications centered on hockey, snow and scary stuff. Once again, the authors have designed a host of investigations that will keep budding scientists occupied and learning about all things soil!

There is a lot here to discover. Again, I really like the design and the ease with which readers will be able to find and follow the directions for exploring soil in its various forms. The table of contents includes an introduction, the 25 experiments, and a glossary (which includes all those words bolded throughout the text); this makes it easy for them to return to their favorites.

From the introduction:

"Soil is an ecosystem - the soil beneath our feet contains not only rocks and minerals, but also worms, insects, bacteria, fungi and plants, as well as the water, air and rotting plant and animal matter needed to keep them alive. Soil that has only inorganic material is called dirt."

Reading on, we begin the two page lessons prepared for young scientists to follow in order to make some amazing discoveries. The title is given, followed by a carefully constructed list of materials needed (including an adult helper at times). The method is described in a step-by-step set of procedures, and finally there is an detailed explanation for what happened. A Did You Know? information box completes some of the pages.

I am fascinated by much of what I learned reading this book, and can easily see how children will find it engaging. An edible soil profile is sure to attract interest, and foodies. I couldn't believe it when I was asked if I thought a plant might actually change the color of its flowers. If you can find both blue and pink hydrangeas at this time of year, and if you are a patient scientist, you might want to check out #7 Colour Change. Oh, and you will need coffee grounds and dolomite lime. But, I think it's worth's like real magic!

The range of experiments ensures that the audience will be varied...some of the science is quite complicated and requires more careful thought and knowledge of plant science. That certainly ups its usefulness in science classrooms.

The cartoon-like artwork adds appeal, and helps with the completion of the given tasks. The characters remain the same throughout: an adult, two young scientists and a yellow dog who provides aid when needed and some comic relief as well.

The more we know about life on Earth, and how we can help sustain it, the better for each one of us and certainly for future generations.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Race, written and illustrated by Edouard Manceau. Translated by Sarah Quinn. Owlkids, 2014. $18.95 ages 6 and up

"It begins with a guy,

a can of paint,

and a paintbrush.

He paints a nice straight line..."

What is success? We might ask ourselves (and our students) this simple question after reading this contemplative fable from French author Edouard Manceau.

As I quoted above, one 'guy' begins it all. That guy is a colorful, erect caribou of sorts. He has antlers, big and expressive eyes, green boots, a stylish orange body, and he walks on two legs. He also carries everything he needs to set a race course for others of his ilk. Megaphone in hand, he calls the racers to the starting line.

Numbered 1 through 6, the caribou prepare to begin. A shotgun start has them out of the blocks and on their way. Only then do we become aware of the intense competition:

"There's always one guy who takes off
full tilt, without waiting for the others.
He must really want to be first."

He has an ace up his sleeve to slow down his fellow competitors. The 'banana peel' trick works, and causes chaos. It also creates determination in the others to catch up to, and surpass the leader. As the competition escalates, the race becomes ever more difficult. One racer finally succumbs to fatigue and common sense, leaving the race to find peace and contentment elsewhere.

In the end, readers might question who the real winner is.

Manceau uses his familiar cut paper collage to create the wonderful images that fill the pages of his newest book. The scenes are humorous and inviting, demanding close inspection to discover all that he wants us to see. The range of expression as the caribou run their race and  fall prey to the prank devised are entertaining and full of fun. There is much to note as the story unfolds. 

We are left to think about what is really important in our world...and to turn our attention to discussing it.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, written by Teresa Toten. Doubleday, Random House. 2013. $14.95 ages 14 and up

"At his second full confrontation of the threshold, he had to extend his right arm as high as it could go and tap out the evil one hundred and eleven times. Again, if the position was incorrect or he got distracted in any way, shape or form, he had to begin all over. The final steps were palming the door handle thirty-three times in one direction and eleven times in the other, then turning it and pushing with both palms flat..."

Oh, I love, love, love this book! Obviously others do, too. It is the winner of the Governor-General's Award for Children's Text in 2013. It is deserving of every single award it gets, and more.

It is hilarious, and heartbreaking, and heartfelt. Adam meets Robyn at a support group meeting where he is getting help and support for his OCD. In less than a second he is smitten. For him, there is no turning back. But, he has many other issues clouding his existence. He feels that if he can just quell his own obsessions, he will surely be able to help Robyn get better, too.

Adam's mother is a hoarder, frightened that the authorities may find out and warning Adam to never tell anyone what their home is like for fear of intervention. She has been receiving upsetting, threatening letters, and she voices grave concern about them while not sharing them with her son. His father is remarried, with a new young son. Wendall, called Sweetie by the family, is 4 and he is nearly as anxious as his big brother. Whenever he becomes impossible, it is Adam to the rescue. Only Adam can find a way to ease Sweetie's worries.

Because his parents are apart, Adam finds himself living in two houses. He is tasked with helping his little brother, while also trying to keep the peace between his mother and stepmother. It is not an easy life, but someone has to live it. While trying to get help with his compulsive disorder, he also tries to help each of the members of the support group. He works hard to control the many ritualistic practices that help him get through his days, especially counting which seems to bring an aura of calm to his daily troubles.

The pain for him is palpable. Reading about his compulsions is uncomfortable reading, but so real and clear. I am in awe of the writing that brings him so fully to life for a young adult audience. His effect on the members of his group is evident, and not more so than when his mother accidentally sets fire to the tinderbox that is their home. One of the group members is there when Adam needs him, helping to get his mom to safety, and to call the authorities.

The repercussions are that his mother is hospitalized, his father recognizes how bad the hoarding has become, and Adam is taken to live with his father and stepmother. Through it all, Adam realizes that he has new and loyal friends, needed help from his psychiatrist, and that Robyn will continue to love him even when they are apart.

Teresa Toten is superbly skilled at helping her readers learn more about OCD. It feels so natural to come to understand Adam, his illness and the restrictions it poses for this teenager. While she does nothing to downplay the real pain of mental illness, she imbues it with a lighthearted humor that occasionally made me laugh out loud. Thank goodness!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Naked! Written by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by Debbie Redpath Ohi. Simon & Schuster, 2014. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"I should dress like this
all the time.

I could go to school

Play on the playground '

Haven't we all loved watching little dimpled butts run away from our attempts to get them clothed? Have you never wanted to be just like that little kid whose inhibitions have nothing to do with being naked? Is it the freedom? Is it thumbing our collective noses at society's

The little guy in this book can't think of anything better than being naked. He loves being clothes-free and doesn't mind telling the world he can run, jump, eat cookies, and still be naked. He even begins to consider all the other things that might be able to do without any clothes.

He doesn't think he needs anything...until he considers wearing a cape. Now, there's some fun. The cape offers even more opportunity for this caped crusader! When the temperature outside cools his inside temperature, the shivering and shaking of being cold set in and he begins to change his mind about his state of undress...perhaps pants, a top and slippers will work!

Debbie Ohi matches her charming artwork with the full humor of Michael Ian Black's text, offering total and complete joy in nakedness. She allows us to see this little guy's world from various angles and ups the humor to be shared with our listeners. Expect some copycatting! Don't you just wish you could be one, too???

And now, to bed!

Jane, the fox & me, written by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Outiou. Groundwood Books, 2012. $19.95 ages 10 and up

"All black and sad, the swimsuit version of a heavy cape. She pushes me almost apologetically into a fitting room. In the Monaco suit, I'm a ballerina sausage. In the black suit, I'm an undertaker sausage. I'm a sausage. Jane Eyre may be an orphan, homely, battered, alone and abandoned, but she is not, never has been and never will be a big fat sausage."

I was in Winnipeg last month to spend a day with members of the Winnipeg Children's Literature Roundtable. It was their Amelia Read-In, where participants discussed the 10 shortlisted nominees for the 2014 Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award from the Canadian Library Association. 

Jane, the fox and me was a much-discussed nominee. In a graphic novel format it tells a compelling story of how cruel young adolescents can be. Helene is ousted from her group of former friends, and becomes the object of their censure. Apparently the bullies have chosen Helene's weight as their target. If you know adolescents, you know how even a suggestion of a weight problem can cause stress and anxiety. To temper the emotions that she is feeling, she seeks comfort in reading Bronte's Jane Eyre daily on her bus ride to school.

When her mother forces her to go on a school camping trip, she is humiliated and loses any confidence she has about being with her former friends. A quick encounter with a wild fox soothes her heart until one of the 'mean girls' chases it away, assuring Helene that she can't even find a friend in nature. Returning to school she meets Geraldine, another girl who is treated poorly by the 'mean girls'. Geraldine is totally unconcerned with their ostracism, spending time with those she likes and who like her back. She and Helene become fast friends.

Helene is an interesting and sympathetic main character. Most of her thoughts are internal, allowing us to see her humorous, edgy take on the world around her. She is clever and aware. In the end, she finds friendship, confidence and peace within herself.

One of the most interesting things about 'reading' this book through its illustrations, as we did at the read-in, is to discover the importance of visual literacy in storytelling. Isabelle Arsenault does a magnificent job of creating two worlds. Helene's world is black-and-white, her sadness expressed through dull greys and indistinct edges. The scenes from Jane Eyre are rendered in warm watercolor
artwork. There is so much to see on every page; not all of the images created are established clearly in the text.  She is able to fully capture the emotional timbre of the story, while also showing her audience the Montreal setting that will be so familiar to those who live there, or have visited.

Emotional and honest, beautifully illustrated and designed, this is a book that invites careful consideration of its themes of body image, acceptance, friendship, bullying and character. Please share it with your children, and your students.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Very INAPPROPRIATE Word, written by Jim Tobin and illustrated by Dave Coverly. Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2013. $18.99 ages 7 and up

"That afternoon, Michael heard the word at the park and on the radio
and even in the basement, where his mom was trying to fix the toilet.

"Dear," said his dad. "Don't you think that's an inappropriate word?" Michael could see there was something kind of bad about it."

Throwing about curse words, once heard, is akin to throwing snowballs when you know darn well that you are breaking someone else's rule! Who hasn't been caught using a word that others consider unsuitable, and even tasteless? I know I have, and still am.

Curse words can really get people's dander up! Acknowledging that those words are going to be heard by young children in conversation, in movies and on television, on the playground and even at home, and then often repeated,  is just one parenting stumbling block. How we respond will show our children the real importance we give to such events.

In Jim Tobin's book we meet Michael who loves words and collects them relentlessly. He keeps them in a box under his bed. Taking the speech bubble created for them by illustrator Dave Coverly and piling them in that box provides an awesome image. His interest lays in such words as pizzeria, sudsy and smithereens as well as spokes, elastic and fling. Then one day, on the school bus, he hears a word he has not yet heard. It is a mystery and very appealing for a boy who loves words. He hides it in his pocket, taking it to school with him.

After hearing many adults using it, he decides to share it with the kids at school. When his teacher learns that the word being used so vociferously on the playground and in class has been introduced by Michael, she is quick to react. She suggests that he help her find new words for their daily spelling
work. He can do it after class and he is happy to help. He works for hours, with enthusiasm and concentration. He asks if he might take some of the newly discovered words home (two full wagons, in fact). Turns out that all those new words have driven that 'very inappropriate word' out of his head. A very important lesson for all, I would say! It is, after all, just another word in a whole world of them.

Using a dictionary page to backdrop our first meeting with Michael, Dave Coverly then goes on to fill the pages with images of a young boy whose mission in life is to collect as many intriguing and
engaging words as he can, on a daily basis. The artist is so clever in his portrayal of the words collected, using word balloons to offer meaning. The inappropriate word is perfect! The comedy is enhanced by his interpretation of the text as the story builds.

When I turned the page to reveal a bird's eye view of the vast collection of words to be found in the school library, I stopped to savor it. What a perfect place for a collector of words...and Michael glories in what he finds there. Watching the pocketed curse word lose power as new words take its place is the icing on the cake, and totally 'appropriate' for every reader.

Share this one-on-one and listen carefully to the conversation and curiosity that is sure to result! (Don't miss what causes the word to be spoken in the first place...too funny, by far and oh, so clever!)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Grumbles from the Forest, poems by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Kai Dotlich and illustrations by Matt Mahurin. Wordsong, Raincoast. 2013. $19.95 ages 8 and up

"...He was always
an impatient fellow,
headstrong but sweet,
our little ginger treat.
We sip our tea and wonder
if he might've been happier
as a sugar cookie
or a peanut butter ball.
To this day we miss him -
we baked him,
after all."

There are 15 fairy tales represented here in poems that speak from different perspectives. I found myself reading them, and reading them again to savor the words and the thoughts. Two short poems are fashioned for each of the tales chosen, and the poetic formats change often. Two characters, both animate and inanimate, have a say. Very interesting to hear from the pea and the princess, each with a totally different take on the dilemma they face:

"Stuck under the mattress
As sleeping time nears,
I miss my dear pod,
My peeps and my peers.

I weep through her snoring,
But she never hears.
I miss my dear pod
And my seven green peers."


"A tower of feather beds!
A meddling of tricks!

Jagged stones and crooked sticks
could never hurt me more.

Of course I was sore,
but not from a silly pea.

You know what bothered me?
All those mattresses, and then some

made my body (tip to princess toe)
completely and royally numb."

In addition to the poetry, there is a list that provides writers' credits for each poem included in the collection. Following that, there is a short summary for each of the tales presented, in case the audience is not familiar with the story. It is a nice addition.

I have favorites, and you will find the same when you read this for yourself, or share it in your classrooms and homes. There is much to encourage students to attempt some of their own voices and perspectives. Fairy tales can be such fun for children. Most should be familiar to readers; if not, it's a perfect excuse to get your hands on a fine collection and share them alongside this book.

The authors are accomplished wordsmiths. By sharing the voices of characters in these old tales, they allow a new and fresh look. As we try to develop meaningful character studies, we can choose books such as this one for mentoring ourselves and our children. Thoughtful and inventive discussion will come when they are allowed to consider things from very different perspectives. Further learning will happen when we take the time to read some of these old and valued tales.

The bold palette used by Matt Mahurin to create his stunning illustrations are infused with light and shadow, exaggerated figures and moody backdrops. They add depth and interest to the poems presented.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

TAP TAP BOOM BOOM, written by Elizabeth Bluemle and illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $19.00 ages 4 and up

One girl
all fancy.
She's late
for dancing.
Can't wait!
Fast dash
lightning flash."

Ah, summer in the city!

It's headed our way...I know it is. The weather gods say we are expecting rain for the next two days. The bonus will be in the arrival of green buds on our trees, and the greening of winter weary grass and perennials. Isn't rain a sure sign of spring's arrival? Won't summer follow spring? We keep hoping so.

To that end, I want to tell you about this new celebration of a city rainstorm. It starts quietly with the light patter of rain, and builds to a crescendo of booming thunder and crackling lightning. All the while, life in the city goes on. As the storm threatens and it looks as if umbrellas will not offer enough protection from the swirling winds, the children seek shelter underground. There, in the subway, they meet many others who were looking for somewhere dry to wait out the storm. Even wet dogs find respite from the downpour, and happily share their wetness with anyone within spraying distance. So many gather it seems like a party! When the storm ends and they make their way outside once more, they are greeted by a lovely surprise!

I love the burgeoning rhythms of the text, which capture the sudden onslaught of rain and wind. Kids will enjoy the noises the reader makes in bringing that noise to the audience. It makes your toes want to tap, and your voices to chant the storm words that abound. It's a great break in an otherwise mundane day.

G. Brian Karas uses collages of photographs, gouache and pencil to create the detailed and delightful images that give weight to the suddenness of the storm and the fun that comes when people gather together to share an experience. A multicultural cast of characters garner attention and each can be followed through the action that ensues when the storm forces a search for shelter.

Full of warmth and community camaraderie, this is a book that will be shared on numerous occasions as we all begin to experience those rains that make spring and summer so special.

"Now people
through puddle
We wave
"So long!"
"Keep dry!"

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, written by Gabrielle Zevin. Viking, Penguin. 2014. $30.00 ages 14 and up

"How about I tell you want I don't like? I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmodern narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn't be - basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful - nonfiction only, please."

Meet A. J. Fikry...he's the owner of Island Books on Alice Island, a summer place. He's approaching 40, and reeling from the death of his pregnant wife in an auto accident. His life is spent drinking and drifting toward bankruptcy. The only thing that might save him is a rare copy of Edgar Allan Poe's Tamerlane. Estimated to be worth close to half a million dollars, it is his retirement plan.

Then, someone steals the book. Not only that, a young and distraught mother leaves her young daughter Maya at Island Books, just prior to drowning herself. What is A. J. to do? He cannot imagine handing the beautiful, charming child over to child and family services; so, he adopts her. You might think that is enough of a change in a pretty desultory life; not so! At about the same time, he meets Amelia Loman who reps for Knightley Press and is a very intriguing woman willing to push him to try new books. It takes four years to kindle the romance, but kindle it they do, and life changes once again, for the better.

I love the characters that Gabrielle Zevin creates for her story of love, and love of books. Maya is definitely my favorite, in particular the young Maya:

"The first way Maya approaches a book is to smell it. She strips the book of its jacket, then holds it up to her face and wraps the boards around her ears. Books typically smell like Daddy's soap, grass, the sea, the kitchen table, and cheese.
She studies the pictures and tries to tease story out of them. It is tiring work, but even at three years old, she recognizes some of the tropes. For instance, animals are not always animals in picture books. They sometimes represent parents and children. A bear wearing a tie might be a father. A bear in a blond wig might be a mother. You can tell a lot about a story from the pictures, but the pictures sometimes give you the wrong idea. She would prefer to know the words.
Assuming no interruptions, she can make it through seven books in a morning."

She is a girl after my own heart!

You will also come to know more about A. J., Police Chief Lambiase, writer Daniel Parish and his wife Ismay (who are A.J.'s in-laws), and of course, Amelia. They will grow on you as they also entertain with their quirks and foibles. It's sad, it's funny, it's even aggravating....and it is a most likable story.

If you love books, this is a brand new book to love. The author obviously has the same weakness for words and knows the feelings that draw each and every one of us into a bookstore, only content when we purchase more than we intended to buy upon entry. Aaaah, it's a wonderful habit! Books and stories do become part of our lives, reminding us of ourselves, our hopes, our dreams. This one is sure to be one of those books. Why do bookstores matter? That question is answered in the pages of this very special new story.

Read it once, read it again...and then pass it on to a friend so that they might discover the real gem that it is.   

Read more here:

Read more here:

A Home for Mr. Emerson, written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic, 2014. $20.99 ages 8 and up

"In college, he still dreamed of fields and woods and home. But, by his junior year in 1820, he also found new things to love: reading stacks of books, discussing them with friends, and recording "new thoughts" in a journal. He named his journal The Wide World. His thoughts took him everywhere. And when he finished school and set out on his own, he wondered..."

What a lovely and uplifting story this is about Ralph Waldo Emerson, his home, his family and the community of Concord, Massachusetts! Creative and informative, it is just one more occasion when young readers can learn about important historical figures through the magic of well-written picture books.

This is not the only time that this first rate team has collaborated to bring to life a person from the past. You might want to check out the others, too. In this book, they tell the story of a man who loves the life he lives, after many upheavals as a young child. It takes until he finishes college for him to find the home and life he loves, after setting himself an admirable task:

"Could he build a life around these things he loved?"

After buying a house in Concord, and making it suitable for his new bride, the two settle in...with hens, roses, trees, flowers and BOOKS. They have important planning on their mind, with focus given to creating an inviting and peaceful place for Ralph to work, and read, and think. It does not feel like 'home' until a host of new friends find themselves welcome there.

"The more Mr. Emerson gave talks
                   and wrote books, the more people
                                          showed up to sit in his parlor."

It matters not how famous he becomes, or how far he travels, he is most comfortable in Concord, surrounded by his family, his friends, his journals, his books and the peaceful tranquility of his life. When their beloved home catches fire, every friend and neighbor gather to save as much as they can.

Saddened by the loss of so many things precious to him, he becomes dispirited and is convinced by friends to take a rest in England. Being away makes him very lonely for everything he loves about Concord, and he longs to be home. What a surprise awaits him upon his arrival!

While Barbara Kerley's words inspire and inform her readers, Edwim Fotheringham accompanies the spirited text with illustrations that complement at every turn. There is such variety in his approach to showing the man who was Ralph Waldo Emerson happy with his life, devastated by the fire, and anxious to get back to those he loves. This fine book allows readers a clear look at the time period and an inspirational writer whose work still resounds today.

Emerson quotes are interspersed throughout, allowing context for the artwork. An author's note, source notes and acknowledgements complete the back matter.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Flight School, written and illustrated by Lita Judge. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster. 2014. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"How can this be true?
thought Penguin.
In my heart I live on
the wind.
But as he watched his
classmates fly high above,
he knew it was time to
go home.
Penguin was too
brokenhearted to even
wave good-bye."

Oh, how I love Penguin!

"I was hatched to fly," said Penguin.
"When do classes start?"

He powers up to 'Flight School' where 'we teach birds to fly' is the order of the day. Powers up? Yep, he's made his way from the south pole aboard a bright red fishing boat with an outboard motor, and he's here to do what he is meant to do!

The instructor and the other bird students are unsure; but, they don't want to rain on his parade. So, they all get to practicing for their first solo flight. When pronounced ready, each takes its turn. Then, it's Penguin's turn...

I think you know what happens. Full of sorrow at this failure, and totally discouraged, Penguin leaves. Before he can get too far, Flamingo offers an alternative. Will it work? Will Penguin take to the air as he so wishes? You don't want to miss what happens next?

Lita Judge uses warm watercolor and pencil illustrations to bring Penguin's story of dogged determination to her sure-to-be-delighted young readers. The images stretch across the pages, providing humorous details that will capture attention, and entertain. The shore birds are expressive, full of charm, and perfect foils for a visitor from much colder climes. Even the fish feel great concern for Penguin when his first attempt at flight fails.

The changing perspectives are lively and add a very special touch. The circular warm image of Penguin sailing toward sunset, while the rest of the birds settle into early evening slumber seems a satisfying end to a day of discovery.

Or is it?  You won't believe your eyes!


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Tiny Rabbit's BIG WISH, written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by David Walker. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2014. $18.99 ages 2 and up

"Tiny rabbit
wished and wished...

but no matter how
his big wish grew,
he was still

So he wished some more,
and while he was wishing..."

Tiny Rabbit is tired of being so small. As with so many young children, his wish list is long. He wants what belongs to others: the elephant's trunk, the tree's great height, a mountain-sized tail. There is no end to his wishing to be different than he is!

As time passes and he keeps those wishes front and center, he does grow a little bit! He wants even more...

The one thing that he does grow on his own are his ears. They become long and powerful, enabling him to hear more than he once did. He discovers that there is SOOO much to hear in the jungle all around him; there are real benefits to being able to hear the danger that lurks nearby!

There is much to learn here. Readers will enjoy the font changes, the understood wishes of one who is so small, and the gentle warmth of the surroundings (for the most part). It won't be long until they are reading it independently and sharing some of their own wishes and dreams.

Sure to be a hit at story time for toddlers and at bedtime.

Dare the Wind, written by Tracey Fern and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. Margaret Ferguson Books, Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2014. $19.99 ages 8 and up

"Then, every chance she could, she navigated Papa's schooner beyond the rocky arms of Marblehead Harbor. She practiced until she could find her way far out to sea with no landmarks to guide her. She practiced until she had the sunburned cheeks and wide step of a seasoned sailor."

Ellen Prentiss was not expected to be interested in sailing. No girl in the early 1800s was. She loved her father's trading boat and was keen to learn everything that she could learn about it. Many accomplished sailors did not know all that Captain Prentiss taught his daughter about sailing. His knowledge of navigation was immense; his daughter learned with great earnestness.

When she married Perkins Creesy, the two embarked on ocean adventures that took them around the world and back home. Perkins captained their boats while Ellen managed the navigation. A new ship offered further challenges when the two were hired to take passengers from New York to San Francisco and the gold rush, and to do it in double quick time. Encouraged to try to make the fastest trip around Cape Horn, they set off.

The Flying Cloud was well equipped to make the quickest possible journey. It did, however, require the knowledge that Ellen had garnered, her well planned routes, and her innate ability to read the changing sea and winds. A new record was established!

I am a big fan of Tracey Fern's previous work, and she does not disappoint with this powerful story of a woman who dared to defy the expectations of women of the time, who learned well the lessons her father taught, and who dared the wind to get in her way as she made good on her life's work. Her ability to tell another rollicking story is evident and will inspire her audience to want to know more about

Emily Arnold McCully uses ink and watercolors brilliantly for this ocean voyage...her blues and greens are filled with light and life. She uses all manner of navigational images to show her characters in their element, and fills her artwork with motion and changing horizons so that we feel as if we are partaking of the ocean journeys with Ellen and Perkins. Adding a glossary, suggestions for further reading, an author’s note and a map of the voyage on the book's endpapers will inspire interested readers to look beyond its pages.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Here Comes Destructosaurus, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Jeremy Tankard. Chronicle Books, Raincoast. 2014. $


For crying out loud.
You're tracking seaweed
and dead fish all over the
tourists. We just cleaned
this street. Now look at
the mess you've made!

Destructosaurus is on a roll when we first meet him. He comes out of the sea and makes his presence known throughout the city, smashing and bashing everything in his way! Nothing is out of bounds for his penchant for wreaking havoc.

Perhaps you recognize this type of tantrum...or don't you have any young children? As he pounds his way through the city, trashing every single thing that provides an obstacle to the trajectory of the rant, children may just recognize themselves in his actions.

The commanding voice of the caregiver trying to stem the path of destruction being trod, is loud and exasperated:

That tail of yours is the size of a small
planet! Can't you see that you're
banging it into bridges and knocking it
into skyscapers? You're going to hurt
someone with that thing."

While Aaron Reynolds captures the admonitions in perfect text, Jeremy Tankard uses bold colors and brilliant staging to create the rampage that is explicit in that text. The terrible beast carves a path of destruction thought the brilliant red, orange and yellow background, fueling feelings of heated anger. The bold outlines keeps a young child's attention focused on the action, and consciously aware of the depth of destruction.

It's tough as an adult to remember the confusion of unleashed fury that comes when a small child loses control. When the reason for the rage becomes obvious, young listeners will be thankful to have an apology end the conflict. Destructosaurus takes his calm countenance back to the water from which he emerged, making way for a clean-up committee...or NOT!

Pair this with Samantha Berger's Crankenstein (Little Brown and Company, 2013) and listen in on the discussion both evoke.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Silver Donkey, written by Sonya Hartnett with illustrations by Don Powers. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $19.00 ages 10 and up

"...but in rare moments of quiet, the enemy could be heard talking and laughing and worrying with each other. The enemy soldiers sounded young - some of them had the fresh voices of boys. The lieutenant supposed that some of them played the flute or carved wood or could draw; and that all of them had mothers and fathers waiting and wondering at home."

While wandering in the woods near their home, two young girls are quite impressed to discover a corpse. In fact, the man is alive and it turns out, he is blind. His name is Lieutenant Shepard. He is a Brit who has walked away from the trenches and terrors of WWI. His blindness is likely a result of what he has seen in those trenches, and what has happened to the men in his command.

He wants to find his way home, from France to England to help his younger, ailing brother. There is great fear that he will be caught and returned to the front as a deserter.

The girls promise to keep his secret. They bring him a blanket for warmth, a pillow, and as much food as they can pilfer from their family's very meager pantry. There is not much.
In exchange for their kindness and because Coco is particularly interested in the small silver donkey that is his good luck charm, he shares four allegorical stories of patient, brave, loyal, kind and hard-working donkeys throughout history. The children are enchanted. In speaking with them, he also shares some of the terrors of the war and his experiences. They are never graphic or terrifying to the children, but they are definitely informative and enlightening when considering the costs of war.

The girls realize that they cannot possibly make the plan needed to help the blind man find his way across the English Channel and on to the road home. Their older brother Pascal is entrusted with formulating a plan. Pascal is more interested in hearing the horrors and glory of war; the soldier is reluctant to share too much. The donkey stories offer a very different picture of sacrifice and peace. Finally, Pascal sets a plan in motion by telling Fabrice, a polio victim who is discouraged by his inability to help with the fighting. He agrees to use his motorcycle and a borrowed boat to take Lieutenant Shepard across the Channel to safety.

If you have read Sonya Hartnett's work, you will know her enduring ability to give her readers characters that matter, incomparable and elegant storytelling, writing finesse, and books that you just want to share with anyone who loves beautiful writing. There are so many moments to savor. Her finely drawn fables of peace and giving are needed by many in the world today.

This Is A Moose, written by Richard T. Morris and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Little Brown and Company, Hachette. 2014. $20.00 ages 5 and up

"The moose has been launched.

MOOSE drinking from lakes.
MOOSE eating leaves.

This is another of those of those books that begs for an audience to share it's just too funny! I will be sure to take it with me the next time I visit a classroom. I howled when I read it first, and then laughed again when I read it the next time. I know those kids who will love its irreverent humor, its precise and perfect timing, and the warm and hilarious illustrations that add to the droll humor of the telling.

Poor Moose! He has one goal in life. He wants to be a star! I mean, he literally wants to be a star - in space! The director is ready to begin filming an informative and simple documentary about the moose in its natural habitat...likely to be shown on the nature channel. That's what everyone on set thinks that they are doing. Well, not Moose - that is patently obvious when he shows up decked out in a space suit with the goal of space travel on his mind.

As they get set for action, who shows up? Why, it's Moose's grandmother! She is prepped and ready for a lacrosse game. The giraffe who also pops up is obviously on the wrong set. This is a forest adventure, not a safari! The director is fit to be tied.

When Grandma, the giraffe and others of Moose's friends use their wiles to launch him into space, the director must quickly change the gist of his planned story to make it fit the evolving events. The title This is a Moose quickly morphs to This is an Astronaut. The storytelling continues; the film is completed in a much less predictable way than first thought. We can only hope it opens to rave reviews and many encores.

There is so much fun in the text, and it is brilliantly matched by Tom Lichtenheld's humorous artwork done in ink, pencil and gouache. If you are a fan, you will be pleased that Mr. Lichtenheld meets your expectations all over again. He fills his pages with pure personality, giving his audience a sense of what filmmaking once entailed, the characters on and off screen whose dialogue and persistence will have them howling with laughter, the rural setting that is the moose's home, and the out-of-this-world place that can only be home to a star-struck dreamer.

Don't miss the Glossary of Filmmaking Terms!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Every Last Drop, written by Michelle Mulder. Orca Book Publishers, 2014. $19.95 ages 10 and up

"Water's a funny thing. You need to drink it to live, but if it enters your lungs, you can drown. Every time people dug shafts and tunnels into the ground to find water, diggers risked drowning in a flood. In the Middle Ages in Europe, diggers ran this risk not to find water, but to find coal."

I have admired Michelle Mulder's writing in previous works from this Orca series, Footprints. This time she explains to her middle school audience the importance of having clean drinking water. She has two reasons for writing it: first, to show how humans have throughout history found drinking water in all parts of the world, and second, the difficulties faced by those who are still in search of safe water to drink today.

She uses personal stories and includes many well-researched facts to make the telling personal and of great interest to those who read her book. The beautiful, clear photographs up the interest and are placed to look like a well-designed scrapbook collection. The captions are informative and useful in classrooms, and for those whose interests move beyond home to include world health concerns. 
A section includes resources, and a number of web sites. 

Organized in chapters, and including 'Go With the Flow' text boxes which tell what the author has seen and discovered about water usage while travelling, and Water Facts which will prove interesting in providing additional information, this book also includes an index to take readers back to favorite places.

It's a book that would prove useful in classrooms studying water, in libraries for research, and for those who just want to know more than they knew yesterday. It's important for our kids to have access to information that deals with sustainability and the environment. Reading this might encourage them to find a way to make their future better. Only one in two human beings have access to clean water. Much of that water is contaminated, and not fit for human consumption. It is alarming for all to understand just how careful we need to be about this precious resource. It gives us pause to watch how we use it daily...and how much we waste.

The illustrations are varied, captioned and useful. If you want to know about the water cycle, how using water has evolved throughout history, how it came to be contaminated, and the engineering feats that make it available for so many, you need to add this book to your list.

Seven Stories Up, written by Laurel Snyder. Random House, 2014. $18.99 ages 9 and up

"All the while I was thinking: Magic?Magic? It was happening. To me, Annie Jaffin. I'd fallen into a dream, a story, the past. Mom hadn't told me anything about this place, but now I'd get the chance to explore it myself. 1937! What would that be like? Flappers? Were flappers from the thirties? Or Marilyn Monroe? I looked up. Molly was watching me intently..."

Although I knew that this book was described as a companion story to Bigger Than a Breadbox, I didn't immediately make the connection. I had to go back and read what I had written about the first book to realize that Annie is Rebecca's mother, and we have gone back to her childhood. It surely doesn't alter the enjoyment of reading the second not to have read the first. Perhaps reading the two at the same time would make the connections easier.

It is a story about family with a little involves time travel. It is a tale well-told, with characters who will resonate with its intended audience. The writing is exemplary, encouraging me to reread some of my favorite parts. It is original, filled with talk between generations and emotions that are truthful and enlightening. The relationships developed are strong and satisfying.

When Annie and her mother travel to her ill grandmother's home, she knows little about the older woman. Grandmother continues to live in the old family-owned hotel where Annie's mother grew up. When they do meet, she finds her grandmother to be bitter and very angry about most things. In fact, she blames Annie and her mother for much of what has befallen her. Tired out by the conflict, Annie retreats to her room, dons a mask and falls into a deep sleep.

When she awakens she finds that she has traveled 50 years back in time. The girl she meets there is Molly, her grandmother. Annie does not give herself away. She learns that Molly rarely leaves her room, kept there because of continuing illness and a father's concern. The two become immediate friends; together, they set off on a series of escapades that are brand new to Molly. Annie has knowledge of a future that her grandmother cannot imagine. Thus, she is unafraid to encourage Molly to find out about the greater world.

Their relationship helps both make discoveries about their own lives, and the way they want to live in the future. To that end, Laurel Snyder's newest story works well, and gives readers a hopeful conclusion.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Baby Tree, written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin. 2014. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"I have a hundred questions
in my head, but the only one
that comes out is Are there
any more cocopops? And
because Mom and Dad are all
happy about the baby coming,
they let me have a second 
helping of cocopops and I 
make sure it's a big one."  

This is a perfect book for Mother's Day, or any day for that matter! I look forward to every new book by Sophie Blackall. In reading this one, you will totally understand why. She writes from the heart of a child!

The little boy begins this day with all that is normal to his existence...getting up, waking Mom and Dad, getting dressed and having breakfast. While at breakfast, his parents share important news...a new baby is coming. While his head swims with many questions, the most important one at the moment is the opportunity to up his consumption of cocopops. Then, life gets in the way and there is no time for what is really on his mind.

On the way to school, he asks his babysitter. She provides information about a seed and a baby tree. His teacher mentions the hospital. His grandfather, when they finally visit, assures that storks bring babies to your doorstep. A daily check of the doorstep yields only mail! Even the mailman has a say about eggs.

When he finally has a chance one bedtime to ask his parents, they provide the answer he needs. Their honesty matches with much of what he has been told by others...a seed, an egg, the hospital. Now, he has something to teach his grandfather.

"But Grandpa...
I'm going to have to tell
Grandpa where babies
really come from."

In an afterword, Ms. Blackall provides clear answers to the questions young children are sure to ask...just enough to satisfy their curiosity without overwhelming them with more than they really want to know.

Ms. Blackall's familiar, gentle pen-and-ink artwork clearly captures the warmth of family, the everyday events in a young child's life, and his interpretation of the answers provided to their questions, while adding humor and honesty. Careful attention to the many details she includes add to the enjoyment of this story. I know that she shares studio space with Brian Floca and Sergio Ruzzier; so, it is delightful to see that the two books the family shares at bedtime are Locomotive (Atheneum, 2013) and Bear and Bee (Disney-Hyperion, 2013).

Where's Mommy? Written by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Schwartz & Wade, Random House. 2014. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"In the kitchen, Maria found
her mother's coffee cup half
In her kitchen, Mouse Mouse
found her mother's tea thimble
completely full.
Maria looked in her mother's
bedroom, but there wasn't a

What fun to read an equally charming sequel that continues the original story of Mary and Mouse (Mary and the Mouse, The Mouse and Mary, Schwartz and Wade, 2007)! This time we meet their children, Maria and Mouse Mouse.

Maria's best friend is a wee mouse. No one else has seen her, and Maria wants it to stay that way. Should anyone discover Mouse Mouse, Maria is afraid that an exterminator (aka a cat)  might get a call, ending their blossoming friendship. Mouse Mouse feels the same. No one in her family needs to know anything about Maria, or they will have to move.

Their lives are shown in parallel stories. They do the same things at the same time, including calling for their mothers. Neither one of them is anywhere nearby, and so a double search begins. They look high and low, in their respective abodes. They ask after their mothers. The family is unconcerned, even though the mothers are nowhere to be found in the house. It is not until both notice a light coming from the shed that they make an amazing discovery!

I love that the lives are shared above and below the floor line. As they move about, readers can see the exactly parallel life each leads. The tiny details of those daily happenings has huge imaginative appeal for all young readers. They are sure to be enamored of the perspectives shared by two very different friends. The story flows quietly, and would suit for bedtime reading, repeatedly.

The pen-and-ink, watercolor and gouache illustrations match the text perfectly in both tone and imagination. You must look closely to see the many connections that Barbara McClintock makes from human to mouse home. They add charm and true delight for fascinated readers. They are sure to have little ones wishing that they, too, might live in such a tiny world.

In the end, when both mothers have been found and their secret shared, they settle their young daughters in with a bedtime tale:

 “And what do you think those stories were about?”

That is up to you to answer!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Tree Lady, written by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Beach Lane Books, Simon & Schuster. 2013. $19.99 ages 8 and up

"After graduation, Kate took a job in Southern California. When her boat docked in San Diego, she saw that her new home was a desert town. Kate never thought she would live in a place with very few trees. But now she did."

My interest in this story was piqued because of my visits to the San Diego area. I found it to be so verdant and beautiful, and I loved both visits to Balboa Park.

Kate Sessions lived in the late 1800s, the first female science graduate of the University of California. As a child she loved exploring the nearby woods and learning as much as she could about them. That led her to further study following high school graduation. She tried teaching; it was not for her. Horticulture was her passion. So, she followed her heart. Her influence remains a defining moment in the development of the arid, desert-like area that was City Park into the lovely and charming mecca that Balboa Park is for visitors today. She knew she could do it, and she did!

It was unusual for women to do such work.
The author provides much factual information to help young learners know just exactly what Kate did, even when others thought she could not, or should not. The repetitive phrase 'But Kate did' ensures that they are reminded of that. Her story is simply told, while there is much here to understand.

Jill McElmurry uses the natural details of the city to show readers how San Diego was transformed by the unique and brilliant vision of a trained horticulturalist. I like the characters she creates, and the many details she includes to capture our attention, and add humor. Done in gouache, the illustrations add the beauty that was so important to Kate herself. The greens are lush and plentiful, the patterns are evident, the work was difficult...all shown in the images created for this lovely and informative book. An author's note speaks to its inspiration.


Friday, May 9, 2014

GAIJIN: American Prisoner of War, written and illustrated by Matt Faulkner. Disney Hyperion Books, Hachette. 2014. $19.99 ages 10 and up

"The following morning...
 I think we can agree, young man,
that I've given you ample
opportunity to be a good citizen
of Alameda Downs, correct?
I guess.
If you continue with this bad
behavior I will be forced to send
you to a camp for juvenile
delinquents. Is that what you

I know that I have said this before...blah, blah, blah! I am not a huge graphic novel fan. I will read them, but I often pass them by. I have no awful experiences, I just don't read them often. Thankfully, that mindset goes by the wayside at times, or I would miss truly astonishing books such as this one.

Gaijin tells the story of Koji Miyamoto, a bi-racial boy living in San Francisco during WWII. After the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in December 1942, many people of Japanese descent face further discrimination, racist taunts and poor treatment. Eventually Koji is sent to an internment camp to live out the duration of the war. His mother who is white accompanies him, not wanting him to be alone. His father is working in Japan at the time, which further arouses suspicion for the authorities. In fact, Koji worries that his father might be working with the Japanese.

Being in the Alameda Downs Assembly Center is no easier for a bi-racial boy than living outside it. Koji is taunted by others for his 'slanty eyes', accused of having 'Jap eyes' and called by the derogatory nickname, 'Gaijin'. He is also bullied and forced to take part in petty crimes.  His lack of motivation and his pent-up anger do not auger well for his ability to survive the internment ordeal. Did I mention that he is 13?

His kind and helpful neighbor works with Koji to help him overcome the deep anger at his lot in life...being a prisoner in his own country. His brushes with the law and his mistreatment of his mother could land him in big trouble. Camp conditions are horrible Instead, he is treated with compassion and that encourages him to find ways to temper his anger. Compassion wins out. I ended up quite liking him.

The illustrations are simply marvelous. Matt Faulkner fills his pages with strong visual content, in a rich palette of colors. You cannot help but be drawn into its full, rich design. The gouache illustrations ensure that readers feel the anger that Koji is feeling, and the angst that his mother feels while trying to deal with her son's troubles, as well as the calm and gentle demeanor of his neighbors.

An author's note tells that this story was inspired by a true story from Mr. Faulkner's family, that of his great-aunt. Any story that ups our knowledge of this time in world history should be important to the young readers who share it. A resource list will encourage further reading for those inspired to seek more information.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sparky! Written by Jenny Offill and illustrated by Chris Appelhans. Schwartz & Wade Books, Random House. 2014. $18.99 ages 3 and up

"I asked her every day for a month, until she finally said, "You can have any pet you want as long as it doesn't need to be walked or bathed or fed." I made her promise. Then I went to see the school librarian. Mrs. Kinklebaum (who knows everything in the world) pointed me to Volume S..."

Begging for a new pet has never been so funny!

We know from the get-go, because of her very direct explanation to the audience, that this is a young woman who has good reason for wanting a pet. She doesn't mind what kind. Her mother is disagreeable; she refuses any kind of pet. As you can see above, her ultimatum leads her daughter to a library trip and her introduction to 'the sloth'.

When the sloth finally arrives by express mail, she must wait two days beside its tree limb perch for it to wake up,  following its extremely tiring travels. There are many things to teach a new pet. She sets out to find compatible games for them to play. It's a tough task for Sparky to win any of them...well, perhaps Statues. They are patient and persistent together. All learning, for both girl and pet, must happen at Sparky's pace.

Her friend Mary Potts is unimpressed with Sparky and his purpose as a pet, and doesn't mind making her feelings known. Feeling defensive and wanting to show Sparky in the best light, our young pet owner announces a "Trained Sloth Extravaganza" to prove his prowess. Of course, Mary remains unconvinced. In the end, it matters not. Sparky is loved, and that is all that counts.

Kids are sure to be captured by the gentle watercolor artwork, rendered in tones of blue, brown and gray. Sparky is a soulful companion, lounging on his tree limb for the bulk of the story's action. He is quite adorable, in fact. Humorous and full of heart, this is a story that will become a favorite for many readers. A terrific addition to your collection of pet books!


Rosie Revere, Engineer. Written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013. $18.95 ages 5 and up

"The Rosie heard laughter
and turned round to see
the old woman laughing and
slapping her knee.
She laughed till she wheezed
and her eyes filled with tears
all to the horror of
Rosie Revere,
who thought, "Oh, no! Never!
Not ever again will I try to build
something to sputter or spin..."

The couplets written to tell this tale of a small female builder offer up their story about Rosie. She picks up 'stuff' where she finds it. She stashes it away, and works on her inventions when no one else is watching, the result of someone older's ridicule. A visit from her great-great Aunt Rose changes all that. Turns out that she is Rosie the Riveter!

Aunt Rosie once helped to build airplanes; she never got the chance to fly one. It is a regret. With some encouragement Rosie decides to try building her own flying machine. She calls it a heli-o-cheese-copter. It is a failure. Discouraged, she decides she's had it, and she's not going to try building anything else. Aunt Rose does not lack enthusiasm. She congratulates her niece on trying, and encourages her to try again. Rosie has tenacity, and explores it with the help of a wise and trusted elder.

Readers will enjoy the creative imagination that sparks Rosie's inventions and will love the artwork that helps to tell her story. Her collections are so much fun, and invite close inspection. I laughed out loud at her hot dog dispensers! Reading Rosie's story aloud is energetic and enlightening.

Team it with Iggy Peck, Architect (2007) for a light and happy reading time.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Good-Pie Party, written by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton. Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic. 2014. $18.99 ages 6 and up

"So the girls roll out dough and push it into a deep glass pan. They peel apples and sprinkle them with cinnamon and cloves. They crimp the edges of the pale white crust. "It smells delicious in here!" says Posy's mom. "Humph," answers Posy, even though she's feeling a bit better already."

Her family may be moving but Posy has no interest in packing up her things, leaving her friends and taking her life elsewhere. She has many good reasons. There is so much that she will forced to leave behind, including her secret clubhouse and her best friends.

Megan and Mae are helping, with a general sense of ennui. It shows in their every move. Once the packing is done, but for the kitchen, the three friends take the advice of Posy's mother and set themselves the task of baking a pie. Although they don't want to admit that it makes them happier, it does. Mom suggests a 'good-pie' party and the girls take up the challenge:



              WE'D LOVE IT
              IF YOU'D
             A  PIE."

The neighborhood get-together that results is a celebration of friends and allows Posy and the Peyton family to move forward, always knowing the value of friendship, neighborhoods and memories. Moving can be a harrowing experience for everyone involved. Acknowledging the feelings of loss and working through those feelings ensure that the changes will happen in the best way possible.

It will come as no surprise to you that I love the gentle watercolors that Kady MacDonald Denton delivers to bring Posy and her story to glorious life. She is masterful at showing the emotions that the girls are feeling...anger, disappointment, loss; then, acceptance, joy and love.  The world she creates is real and familiar, as are the three girls (body shapes included). It gives the whole book a warm and very special feeling.  

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Best Friend Trouble, written by Frances Itani and illustrated by Genevieve Despres. Orca Book Publishers, 2014. $19.95 ages 5 and up

"Hanna dug into the box and chose two sets of finger cymbals. She slipped her fingers through the elastic loops on the back of the cymbals. She clanged the cymbals together until they rang out loudly. Music made her feel even better. She decided to look for her mom. Her mom was working in the study."

Friends make the world go round, don't they? I cannot imagine where I would be without them. There are, however, those times when friendships falter. Hopefully, that happens more when we are still young and eager to find solutions to the problems faced, or later when we can't remember what caused the difficulty in the first place. (Wait, will my failing memory affect my friendships?)

Lizzy and Hanna love being together; they each also like being best at whatever they do. An 'I told you so' attitude from Lizzy is the final straw for Hanna. Off she stomps! Looking for sympathy, she follows the sounds coming from the basement. There, her brother is hard at work building a birdhouse. He thinks he has the perfect solution to her 'best friend trouble'. A hammer and some nails might do the trick.

It helps...a little. Off she goes to see if her father might listen:

"She sighed a long, drawn-out sigh that stretched as long as the note her dad played on his clarinet. The music stopped."

Her father offers a solution, before she heads off to see her mom. She, too, gives advice for making
Hanna forget her troubles. Even her hamster Octavia listens to her complaints. Will there be a solution for the two? How will they work it out? How does Lizzy feel about their friendship?

Kids will relate to all the feelings so ably described by Frances Itani in her first picture book in many years. Problems arise all the time when dealing with friends. How we deal with those difficulties help us understand the importance of friends and of compromise.

The pencil and watercolor illustrations are perfectly paired with Ms. Itani's appealing text. The choice of warm colors establishes mood and enhances the telling. Lively and satisfying, this book is sure to find a lot of fans and will be most useful in opening further conversation with little ones.