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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Hansel and Gretel, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti. TOON-BOOKS, Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $19.00 ages 8 and up

"She gathered a pile of leaves, and the two children made themselves as comfortable as they could beside the crackling fire. They awoke in the small hours of the night, when the fire was only embers. The moon was full, and in the moon's light Hansel found it easy to retrace his steps: the white stones from the stream were perfectly visible even in the darkness. Hansel and Gretel held hands as they walked."

If you love language and you enjoy retellings of the old fairy tales have I got a treat for you. Neil Gaiman has a decidedly delicious tale to share. He knows that kids love to be scared, and his retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story fits that bill, with a vengeance. Lorenzo Mattotti matches the feelings the story evokes in his haunting dark silhouette images.

Mr. Gaiman wastes not a word as he brings this old story to a brand new generation of readers. I love it from first page to last, having read it numerous times to savor each and every word. It's design is stunning and will captivate readers with each turn of the page. Two pages of glorious text are consistently followed by a double page spread which provides a perfect backdrop for the dark tale of desperate parents putting themselves before the welfare of their children. Their lives have been enormously changed by the war that has ravaged their country. The family now lives a life of misery.

"If you do not eat," said his wife, "then you will not be
able to swing an axe. And if you cannot cut down a tree,
or haul the wood into town, then we all starve and die.
Two dead are better than four dead. That is mathematics,
and it is logic."
"I care for neither your mathematics nor your logic,"
grumbled the woodcutter. "But I can argue no more."
And Hansel heard only silence from his parents' bed."

Mr. Gaiman's witch has few of the characteristics we might know from earlier stories. She appears to be a softer, gentler version: appearances can be deceiving. Her house is just as appealing, enticing the very hungry children to eat. The witch has poor eyesight, a bad temper and explains that she no longer has any skills for hunting the meat she craves, She expresses sadness at their plight. She may be old; she is undeniably strong. Soon, Hansel is caged and Gretel is chained.

"The old woman was stronger than she looked - a sinewy,
gristly strength: she picked Hansel up, and carried the
sleeping boy into the empty stable at the rear of the little
house, where there was a large metal cage with rusty bars.
She dropped him onto the straw, for there was only straw
on the floor, along with a few ancient and well-chewed
bones, and she locked the cage, and she felt her way along
the wall, back to her house.

"Meat," she said, happily."

If you are a fan, you will know that Neil Gaiman loves to tell a dark and fantastic tale. He does not leave us in darkness, thankfully. Lorenzo Mattotti matches his storytelling with some pretty decent storytelling of his own in the dark, often forbidding images he creates to accompany the text. Only when the father is finally reunited with his children does he allow a more generous light.

Master storytellers? Indeed, they are. Bravo, gentlemen! 

Friday, January 30, 2015

A Year in the Life of a Total and Complete Genuis, written by Stacey Matson. Scholastic Canada, 2014. $14.99 ages 10 and up

"Why did I ever think I could be a writer? I have all these ideas in my head, but I don't know how to write them down. Or else I tell Nicole or Luke about them, and then when I try to write them down, all my ideas are gone. It's like someone took them away as soon as I said them out loud. I can't make my brain work. I can't even make my fingers type."

Oh, grade seven! Do you remember anything about it? I have some vivid memories of days spent with friends, and the angst of adolescence. Arthur has much more to deal with than I did at the time.

Using variety in presentation, Stacy Matson (in her debut novel) helps us get to know Arthur through his assignments for class, the entries he makes in his journal, notes from his teachers and the emails that he writes. Arthur considers himself to be quite the exceptional writer, but he is definitely struggling with sharing his skills in any obvious way.

Writing has become more of a challenge since his mother's unexpected and untimely death in the spring of his sixth grade year. He returns to school later than other students in the fall, and that return has been very difficult for him. His writing now consists of bitter musings, or copying what others have written. These problems are generally faced with humor and offer some very funny moments for readers:

 “Most people say that it’s geeky
 That a boy who makes sweaters should quit
 But that’s when I say something cheeky:
 I tell them, ‘It takes balls to knit!’”

The secondary characters add heft to the telling. Up until March when she breaks her hip, Ms. Whitehead provides thoughtful and useful assignments for her students. She gives Arthur clear and helpful advice for his writing and encouragement to compete in the school writing contest. His confrontations with another student who struggles where Arthur does not has Ms. Whitehead setting him up to tutor Robbie. Their individual progress reports for the peer tutoring program show their developing friendship, while also being hilarious at times. Writing for the school newspaper introduces another teacher, Mr. Everett, who encourages Arthur to submit articles about a variety of topics and provides constant feedback concerning his writing.

Arthur is interested in winning the writing contest. He is also enamored of Kennedy and badly wants to win her heart. As his writing partner, Kennedy offers encouragement for his work through a series of very personal emails that recount her relationships, her hopes and dreams, and her ebullient personality:

"My bf wants to go as Fred and Wilma from the FLINTSTONES LOL! I told him that was crazy since I have BLOND hair, not red LOL! Now I think we will go as a fisherman and a mermaid LOL!"

So many of the various interactions made me laugh out loud, and some made me want to cry. I loved every minute spent reading about this young man and his relationships. Arthur may have his flaws concerning honesty; he is also intuitive, smart, capable of being a good friend and oh, so funny!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie, by Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2014. $21.99 ages 5 and up

"She grabbed Sweetie Pie and yanked his bony paws though the sleeves of a pink dress. "Aren't you pretty?" Sue asked, then dropped him into the dollhouse. He spun like a top, making a terrible mess. "That's not polite," she said, and tossed him back into the cage."

I wonder how any small animal really feels when it is leaves the comfort of a familiar setting to live with a new owner? In Chris Van Allsburg's latest picture book about such a hamster, we learn that thing are not always as good as they might seem.

Sweetie Pie has lost each of a dozen former friends to new homes. He himself has avoided such a fate by being belligerent and unwilling to play nice. Loneliness has finally caused him to change his ways. The next person interested in taking him home finds him reasonable and willing to discover the world beyond the pet shop window. There is excitement in the air.

Little does Sweetie Pie know he is leaving one cage to be trapped in another. Although his new owner often takes him out to cuddle, he is not particularly thrilled with it. Soon, she is concerned with other electronic pursuits. She feeds and waters him, but they spend little time together. Life becomes very routine and Sweetie Pie fills the alone time with consuming every bit of food that comes his way. Having become disinterested, his owner sells him to a friend.

Life goes from bad to worse! Constant confrontations between the resident dog and the interloper results in Sweetie Pie going to live with Sue. This results in a new and terrifying adventure in a plastic ball that moves much too quickly; soon, the hamster is lost and alone. A new owner, a new home and another misunderstanding. Oh boy, some life!!

Will Sweetie Pie ever find his place in the world?

I have missed Chris Van Allsburg's work. I think the last book I read was Queen of the Falls in 2011 (HMH Books for Young Readers). I have always been a big fan of his precise, detailed work and his ironic stories. In this, he does not disappoint. The softly colored illustrations are done in watercolor, pen and ink, and colored pencil. They almost give a false sense of the book being a gentle story about a pet. Sweetie Pie's pain at being caged, mistreated and finally lost is evident in his ever-changing expressions. Mr. Van Allsburg is a master at perspective and he clearly shows his readers the plight of a tiny creature whose life is not what we might think it should be ... until it is!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Take Away the A, written by Michael Escoffier and illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo. Enchanted Lion Books, Publishers Group Canada. 2014. $19.95 ages 4 and up

"Without the


hides a SCAR. "

Two of my favorite books this year have been alphabet books. Previously, I sang the praises of Oliver Jeffers' fantastic Once Upon An Alphabet (Penguin, 2014). Now, I want to tell you about Michael Escoffier's Alphabeast of a book!

When I left my school library and teaching, we had an incredible array of alphabet books for our students to read and enjoy. I was in awe then, as I am today, that there are authors who can take such a simple concept and create a new model of excellence with 26 letters.

In this most amusing and inventive book, the author shows how removing one letter from a word can create a completely new concept:

"Without the L

It took no time at all until I was trying my hand at doing the same. You know your readers best, and will know which kids will take this idea and run with it. The possibilities are endless, aren't they? Each of the double page spreads boast brilliant stylized illustrations that tell a story to enhance the choice of words and letter omissions made by the author. It is a perfect pairing.

Observant children will be aware that a little mouse is a frequent participant, or observer. There is humor in the depiction of the scenes, and more to the artwork than meets the eye in the initial reading. It is a celebration of language and ingenuity.

Read it again and then again, sharing it with eager listeners. You will be happy that you did and they will have much to say about the stories told here!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ava and the Little Folk, written by Neil Christopher and Alan Neal, with illustrations by Jonathan Wright. Inhabit Media, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012. $13.95 ages 6 and up

"But as the sleds approached, he realized they were not very far away at all. They were simply very small, just like the man in front of him. None of them was taller than Ava's knee. And they were accompanied by dogs that were the size of siksiks, the little ground squirrels that burrowed into the ground around town."

Have you ever wanted to change your size whenever you chose to do so? Think of the possibilities ... being shorter than the acceptable height for a ride at Disney World ... easy, just get taller! Too tall to get inside the snow fort built by a group of friends ... easy, just get smaller. Who hasn't wanted to do those things?

Consider Ava. When we meet him, he is freezing cold, starving, and alone in his world. Imagine the joy he feels when he meets the 'small folk' who are willing to show him just exactly how he might change his world as he makes adjustments to it.

In this folktale from the Arctic, we meet those 'small folk'; they are so much a part of the literature of the North. They are renowned hunters. They can change size when the situation calls for it. They are able to change weather when it is needed. Now there is a skill that would make northern winters more palatable.

Ava's home is the North. Readers learn much about that harsh and wondrous environment through the authors' vivid descriptions:

"As he charged on, excitement  started to mingle with fear in his mind. He had heard the hunters in his village talk about huge white bears suddenly appearing in the white drift, like a phantom from nowhere, a sudden mass of claws and teeth, roaring. Those stories had plagued him in nightmares. Would a hidden bear pounce upon him? What if he could not fight or escape it?"

Jonathan Wright's illustration add lustre and life to the story being told. Realistic in the portrayal of the North, and of these characters, the artwork adds an appeal that will have readers poring over their expressions, their movement and the excitement of accompanying the little folk on the hunt.

It is lengthy, but this is a tale that will be enjoyed by all readers and listeners!   

Monday, January 26, 2015

Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story, written by Sebastian Robertson and illustrated by Adam Gustavson. Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2014. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"Summers, holidays, and many weekends were spent at the Six Nations Indian Reservation where Robbie's mother had been born and raised. Robbie and his mom would take a two-hour bus ride from Toronto up to the reservation. It was here that it all began; it was here where the rhythm, melodies, and storytelling of Robbie's First Nations relatives captured his imagination."

In an enlightening homage to his father and his successful career as a hardworking Canadian musician, Sebastian Robertson begins by sharing a note about The Band's final stage performance in 1976 in San Francisco. Only then does he take readers back to the beginning and chronicle the path that took Jaime Royal Robertson from a crib in Toronto to the world stage.

Influenced by his Mohawk heritage, his love for the storytelling of the elders, and his family's musical expertise, Robbie soon had a guitar in hand and a teacher who could not keep up with his need to know more than he was being taught. He took charge of his own learning and spent countless hours working at improving his skills. Encouraged by family, music became his life. He formed his first band at 13 and never looked back.

At sixteen he had written two songs for Ronnie Hawkins, and was on his way to making his mark on the music world. His belief in himself and his abilities led him on a journey that would change his life. Always willing to hone his craft, he took advice from Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan. The music scene at the time was changing.

Taking up residence in Woodstock, the Hawks worked at developing their own style and were known to the locals as 'the band.' The name stuck! The release of Music From Big Pink marked a real departure from much of the music of the day:

"Its roots were deeply embedded in the American landscape but the music was entirely unique - a mix of mountain music, Delta blues, rhythm and blues, Canadian folk, and rockabilly. There wasn't a name for it then, but there is now. It's called Americana Music, and The Band was instrumental in its creation."

The fresh and realistic oil paintings done by Adam Gustavson give readers a chance to see the world as seen from Robbie Robertson's perspective. They ensure that we are aware of time and place. I loved seeing the almost photographic images of some of the famous people Robbie met on his musical journey on the 'rock and roll highway.'

The timeline included is filled with useful information and rife with archival photos. An interview between father and son is a very special addition in which Sebastian encourages readers to do what he did - interview your parents! You will never be sorry that you did.

Blue on Blue, written by Dianne White and illustrated by Beth Krommes. Beach Lane Books, Simon & Schuster. 2014. $21.99 ages 3 and up

Clouds swell.
Winds blow bolder.

Weather changes.
Air grows colder.

Gray on gray.
Dark and glooming.

Black on black.
Storm is looming."

There is work to be done every day on a family farm. Some of the family work harder than the rest. As we begin the day with them, Mama is already to hang laundry, the garden is hoed, and the pets are off on a romp. From the top bedroom window, a little girl watches the action. As Mama pegs the laundry and the baby plays happily on a blanket in the grass, our little girl skips rope. The wind
appears  to be getting up.

Turn the page and ominous looking clouds are blowing in, and an awareness for the coming storm is felt. With thunder and lightning roaring in the background, the little one has found shelter under the blankets on her bed. If you look outside her window, you can see Papa trying to get a horse and colt into the warmth and safety of the barn.

Everyone and everything is affected by the power of the raging storm. It seems to last forever. When it subsides, there is nothing to do but enjoy the aftermath ... and enjoy it they do!

Perfectly picked for their power and their rhythm, the words chosen to tell this timeless tale of a day in the life of a young child will have little listeners begging for more. It is sure to evoke chatter about other rainy day terror, and fun.

Beth Krommes' watercolor and scratchboard artwork is, as usual, glorious. She captures the bucolic beauty of the farm and its environs while also showing the storm at its wildest and scariest. From bright, inviting, morning sunshine and the lasting power of the storm to the joy in muddy play and the starlit sparkle of a summer evening, her images are detailed and layered ... yet stunningly simple in the story they tell. There is so much to see; you will immediately return to the story's first page and begin all over again.

"Sun sneaks back.
Warms the air.
Muddy, muddy ...

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Branching Out: HOW TREES are part of OUR WORLD, by Joan Marie Galat. Owlkids, 2014. $13.95 ages 8 and up

"When you plant a silk cotton tree, you plant an umbrella tree species - one that a large number of animals use for food and habitat. You might also help increase the population of the endangered white-rumped vulture, which favors this tree for roosting and nesting."

This is nonfiction that will be welcomed by readers in grades 3 and up. Each section provides informative text about a variety of trees around the world, and adds intriguing details that make natural connections concerning our dependence on the tree being described.

Each of the 11 trees featured is given a full page illustration which begs comparison from one tree to the next for interested readers. I like the maps that show where the trees are found in the world, and the fact boxes that add meaning to the rest of the text. Close ups offer details that might be missed otherwise, and are well done.

Carefully researched and wisely chosen examples of how trees impact human lives mean that the trees included are very important to each of the ecosystems where they are found. It is a most useful introduction for young readers, and will be much appreciated by those interested in nonfiction writing.

In her introduction, Joan Marie Galat explains much about all trees: why we need them, the impact they have on nature, the definition of their parts. She goes on to explain how the book is designed and why it will be useful to readers. In the end, we all understand how much trees matter to the health of our world. I was fascinated by how much she had to share with her audience. I like that she encourages each one of us to do our part in replacing trees that have been lost, and are much needed for the future. Many details are included: common and Latin names, leaf silhouette, native growing locations, appearance, and average height.

Accessible and informative, the author also includes a glossary and an index that prove useful for returning to favorite parts, and to understanding new vocabulary.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Coyote Run, by Gaetan Doremus. Enchanted Lion Books, Publishers Group Canada. 2014. $18.50 ages 5 and up

"The Old West.

A chase.

Near capture...escape!

It seems that there is no Enchanted Lion book to be found that isn't worthy of your attention. Coyote Run is the newest in the Stories Without Words series and had me looking back to my childhood love of westerns. It actually had me dreaming about the simplicity of life in the 1950s, free of worry and smitten with western heroes and their dramatic encounters as they worked to save those around them from harm. What did I know about the world beyond my neighborhood at that time. As I remember it now, very little!

This tiny treasure causes 'readers' to think and to smile. It is a tad peculiar as we are observers of a coyote breaking out of jail, only to be pursued by an unusual-looking sheriff. When they finally come to a stalemate, the coyote's attention is drawn to a tiny ladybug. Have we seen her in a previous spread?

Her presence sidetracks the two from their confrontation and completely changes their reaction to the situation at hand. Deciding to be friends rather than enemies, they lay down their weapons and spend a lovely evening together. Others in pursuit have no idea about the events that precipitated a new warmth between the two. So, when the posse arrives, the sheriff and coyote make a run for it. When they appear to have run out of options at the edge of a cliff, you won't believe what happens!

The characters are surprising, the fantasy reassuring, and the hero unexpected but most welcome. This is a tale of friendship and adventure, of pursuit and escape; it entertains and endears its characters to those who will share it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Raven and the Loon, written by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley and illustrated by Kim Smith. Inhabit Media, Fitshenry & Whiteside, 2013. $16.95 ages 4 and up

"As usual, Raven talked.
And talked.
Loon sewed.
She listened.
Until Raven ran out of
things to say.
Bored, Raven pointed to
Loon's sewing and said,
"I could do better ..."

In the long ago time, both Raven and Loon wore coats of white. Because of boredom with the blandness of  that white, Raven visits Loon with the idea that they might create more interesting coats for each other. His process is magical:

"So, Raven took Loon's needle and her precious stone lamp.
Raven used his magic.
He dipped the needle in lamp soot.
"Sit still," he told Loon."

Loon is delighted with her new look. She is proud of her new coat. Raven is beyond satisfied with his intricate work. Loon sets out to return the favor, knowing that she can create an even more amazing look for Raven. But, Raven cannot be still. His mouth is constantly moving, and so is his body:

"For the hundredth time, Raven jerked.
The needle zigzagged.
Loon's beautiful work was ruined.
Loon became angry.
"You've ruined it!" she yelled.
Loon threw her lamp at Raven."

And you KNOW what happens next!

This pourquoi story is sure to entertain and entice readers who enjoy folklore. The authors tell it with humor, and emotion. It is a wonderful readaloud, and a memorable story that is sure to be asked for again. The artwork matches the text with expressive birds, frenzied movement and changing perspectives. The Arctic setting is cool and unadorned. Add it to your library at home or at school! It will be a popular read.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Shoe Dog, story by Megan McDonald and pictures by Katherine Tillotson. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster. 2014. $19.99 ages 4 and up

She, Herself said.

That night,
Shoe Dog slept
at the bottom
of the Big Bed.
She did not give Shoe Dog
one ear scratch or head pat.
Not one tummy rub.
Not a single nose kiss."

When your new owner loves shoes, and you are a shoe-loving dog, you might expect there will be some issues. So, it will come as no surprise to young readers that it doesn't take long for Shoe Dog to start doing what he does best:
"That very day,
Shoe Dog chewed through
five high heels,
four flip-flops,
three sneakers,
two boots,
one wing tip."

It is not an auspicious beginning for the two. She, Herself, quickly makes her irritation known. Shoe Dog sleeps 'at the bottom of the Big Bed.' There are no special considerations for a dog who gets himself into so much trouble.

New shoes hold real appeal. They are soon ruined and Shoe Dog must deal with the consequences, despite the fact that they make him very unhappy. And, it happens again the very next day:

"That night,
Shoe Dog slept
on the cold, cold floor
with only a mop
for a friend."

Nothing seems to discourage his incorrigible habit. He tries to be good. He fights the urge to chew anything for a while. Then, when a bright new bag full of boxes and noisy papers makes an appearance, all of his resolve disappears. A surprise assures a change in behavior and peace is restored.

It is a story told with whimsy and love for a charmer of a dog whose crayoned, coiled body will have you totally enamored with his bouncy demeanor and boundless energy.  Perfect for reading aloud with its expressive text and onomatopoeic fun, kids will beg to hear it again as soon as the first reading is done.

You go, Shoe Dog!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Spirit of the Sea, written by Rebecca Hainnu and illustrated by Hwei Lim. Inhabit Media, Fitzhenry & Whiteside. 2014. $16.95 ages 6 and up

"When spring arrived, and the sea ice broke up, Arnaq and her father moved their camp to the shore. There they lived a peaceful and solitary life. One day, a fulmar that was disguised as a handsome young man arrived at the camp. He was Qaqulluk, and he was a powerful shaman."

In another cautionary tale from the Inuit tradition readers meet Arnaq and her father. The two are inseparable; she has been spoiled badly by her father as a result of her mother's death when Arnaq was just a little girl. She grows more beautiful with every year and is pursued by many young hunters. She does not have any interest in marriage.

When the shaman Qaqulluk arrives to woo her, he makes her a promise that is hard to resist:

"Your quilliq will always be filled with oil, and your pot with food. You will have the best pelts for clothes, and the softest caribou hides for blankets. My tent is made of the best skins. Come with me and be my wife."

Nothing is as he promised, and Arnaq lives a life that quickly leads her to a deep depression. Alone and miserable, she sings for her father to come and save her. Ataata is uncomfortable with not seeing his daughter and travels to find her hopelessly unhappy. As they leave, her husband is summoned by other fulmars. They swarm the boat. Ataata will not back down, until his boat and his life are threatened by swirling waters. To save himself, he throws his daughter into the roiling sea, and then refuses to let her back in the boat.

Arnaq disappears, sinking deeper and deeper into the sea. Protected by the animals that surround her, she is changed to become a spirit. Today she is known as Nuliajuq.

"Since the day that she was taken by the sea, the only way for humans to appease the fearsome Nuliajuq is to send a shaman down into her lair to soothe her. Only then will the waters become calm and the sea mammals return to their hunting grounds."

In back matter, the author includes an afterword and a pronunciation guide for the Inuktitut words and their meanings. Beautifully illustrated and compelling, this is a wonderful addition to any folktale collection.                                                                              

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, written by Jack Gantos. Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan. Raincoast Books, 2014. $19.50 ages 10 and up

"Still, any way you look at it our family has always been trip-wired for things to go wrong. One step out of line and who knows what fuse will blow around here, so I try to keep the peace as I eat my family of pizza-people and then let the dogs lick the plate so I don't have to worry about washing the dishes before putting them back."

This is the fifth book that Jack Gantos has written about Joey Pigza. I have not read all five, but each one read has been a revelation and a burst of enjoyable reading time. Now, that is not to say that they have all been easy to read. It's hard to think about the many challenges that Joey faces in the wake of his family's dysfunction. He is such a bright light!

With his father out of the picture, and his mother unable to cope with her blues following the birth of Joey's brother, Joey is left to deal with taking care of the baby, running the household, and giving up his schooling in order to do so. It seems incomprehensible that he has to shoulder all of the problems of his broken family. As if those difficulties are not enough, Joey's mother has hidden the drugs he takes to control his attention deficit disorder.

Then, he discovers a key ... what does it mean? How will it help him solve the mystery of his father?
If you read the previous novel, you will know that his father is dealing with a badly bungled facelift. Now, he is in the neighborhood trying to get his younger son back. Joey is trying to stay positive as he also tries to be:

“the mature Joey, the think-before-you-speak Joey, the better-than-Dad Joey, the hold-the-fort-for-Mom Joey, the keep-the-baby-safe Joey.”

What's a guy to do? And how is a young man with so many obstacles in his path meant to come out of his adolescence with an ability to cope with life in any form? Jack Gantos has created a winning protagonist in Joey, and a young man who will remain long in your consciousness concerning kids and the many difficulties that are some are facing in families that do not function with any success.

This fifth book is an invitation to readers to go back and check out the first four, and for fans to bid a final, sad goodbye to Joey.

Monday, January 19, 2015

HELLO, I'm Johnny Cash. Written by G. Neri and illustrated A.G. Ford. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $19.00 ages 8 and up

"Too young
to work the fields,
J.R. watched
from the front porch
as his family
headed out to
the cotton patch.
He hated
being by himself,
so Daddy bought him
a small battery-powered radio..."

I found myself really liking this picture book biography of one of my son's musical heroes. G. Neri has chosen poetry to recount Johnny Cash's life from farm boy to the much honored Man in Black of country music fame. Each one of the poems presented to tell his fascinating, and often heartbreaking, story is titled for one of Johnny Cash's many memorable songs.

His was an inauspicious beginning, and the Depression didn't help:

"Before he became
Johnny Cash,
he was simply called
J. R. -
a name that stood for nothing,
and nothing was all he had
coming into this world."

The Depression forced the family from the place they called home, and sent them looking for something better. As they journeyed, they sang together. In their new home the family toiled extremely hard to work fields of cotton. It was not an easy life, by any means. Only his mother's guitar brought peace to J. R. when he was filled with fear for their future. J.R. had to watch, as he was too young to help.

He loved the radio his father bought to keep him company while he was alone. He loved the sounds, the promises that the songs made, and he could remember every song he heard. At five, neighbors would drop by to hear him sing. He had a dream:

"He dreamed that
he'd fly away
to those faraway places
and write songs about them
for the radio,
so that some kid
might hear them
and dream a little

It is the music that gets J. R. through the heartbreaking loss of his older brother, Jack. Following his funeral, he sings the spirituals heard there to bring peace to the family as they returned to their work in the fields. It was while taking long walks to deal with the loss that J. R. met Jesse Barnhill, another young boy who loved music just as much as he did. They worked together to learn chords; J. R.  felt the call of the music more and more:

"But J.R. couldn't help it -
he felt the music calling
like a voice
from the middle of the earth,
full of mystery
and power,
reaching up
and grabbing hold
of his heart."

The final poems allow readers a look at J. R.'s time in the military, his marriage and move to Memphis, his invitation to sing in church, his meeting with Elvis and making a name for himself and his music at Sun Records. Opening for Elvis was the catalyst to a long and rewarding career as a singer/songwriter:

"the Man in Black believed
his role was to sing the truth,
whether it was popular or not.
His songs gave a voice
to the voiceless,
capturing so many people's
heartaches, struggles, and triumphs
it seemed like he spoke
for America
just as America spoke for him."

Back matter includes More About Johnny Cash, Historical Events in Johnny's Lifetime, a Discography and a Bibliography.

A. G. Ford uses oil paints to enhance the storytelling and afford readers a look at a young boy growing up in hardship and finding the path to his dream.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Blind Boy and the Loon, retold by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and illustrated by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Daniel Gies. Inhabit Media, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2014. $16.95 ages 6 and up

"Just as he had hoped, a loon came to him. The loon told him that it was his very own mother who had caused him to go blind. Having lost her husband, she came to resent her son. Seeking revenge, she rubbed dirty whale fat into his eyes while he slept and cursed him blind."

Choosing to make a short animated film that tells one small part of the epic story called 'Lumaajuuq' was a difficult, but deliberate choice for Alethea Arnaquq-Baril:

"Despite my hesitation, I chose to make the film because this story has always stayed with me, and my hope is that even a short film that tells only part of the story will inspire other young Inuit to take interest and to ask their own community members to teach them their version of the traditional story."

Using cels from her animated film to illustrate this one small part of a huge tale is sure to encourage viewing the film, and beginning to know the story that has 'been shared amongst Inuit families for centuries.'

We are told at the very beginning that we are dealing with a cruel mother, who has a daughter and a blind son. Cruel is right! She hates her son, and treats him with disdain and ignorance. The son had once been a successful hunter; now, she made him feel wretched and meaningless. He has only one recourse.

When spring arrives, and with help from his sister, he is lead to the lake where he meets with a loon who tells him the truth about his mother. Thinking that the loon might be able to help him regain his sight, he asks for help. The loon acquiesces. After three dives into the deep water of the lake, the two surface and the boy is healed. He can now see what the loon sees.

With thanks, the boy returns home. He asks nothing of his mother. Bent on revenge, he agrees that she should join her children in a whale hunt. What happens to her is a cautionary tale for readers, and an explanation for the appearance of the narwhal today:

"Today, the narwhal will forever be a reminder that every act of revenge is a link in a chain that can only be broken by forgiveness."

This origin story is powerful, the art is strong in color and movement, and the fact that it is one small part of a much larger story is sure to encourage readers to find out more about the Lumaajuuq.  It is a retelling in the best sense of the word. It celebrates the Inuit storytelling tradition, and is certainly a worthy story to be shared.

Now, you can watch the film here.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh, written by Sally M. Walker and illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss. Henry Holt, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2015. $20.50

         WIN A WINNIE!

Would you like to win a copy of WINNIE: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the Pooh?
If so, here's a contest for you:
Send me a favorite memory of time spent reading Winnie's story on your own, or with your children at home or at school, and you will have a chance to win a copy of this lovely new book. Email me at with Win a Winnie as the subject of your note. Sorry, but the winning book can only be sent to a Canadian address. Can't wait to read those memories!

"Harry's job was caring for horses that
would be needed for battle.
Winnie's job was being Harry's shadow.
While Harry listened to a horse's heart,
Winnie nuzzled its muzzle.
If the horse snorted and scared Winnie,
Harry cuddled her until she stopped trembling."

I was very happy this week to accept Fernanda's invitation to be part of a group of bloggers eager to share this brand new book about Winnie with our readers. Fernanda hasn't been with Raincoast for a very long time; but, in the time since I met her, she has been an amazing and very supportive contact for me with the publishers that are represented there. True to her word, she immediately sent me an e-galley so that I might have a close look and let you know what I think about Winnie.

I like it ... a lot! The connection to Winnipeg is obviously important since I have lived in Manitoba for my whole (long) life. But, it is much more than that. Told simply and very affectionately, it is the tale of a compassionate military man, who was a member of the WWI Canadian Veterinary Corps. Seeing an orphan bear at one of the train stops made in Ontario, Harry Colebourn could not leave her to fend for herself. He impulsively bought the bear,  and took it aboard the train where she was welcomed by other soldiers and promptly named Winnipeg after their company's home base. Winnie quickly endeared herself to the men on the train. 

The two had quite the remarkable relationship, and loved being together. When the corps boarded a ship headed for the war in Europe, Winnie accompanied them. Playful and happy, she was much loved by all and her care was shared when Harry needed assistance. As the fighting escalated and Harry was needed in France to care for wounded horses, he made the difficult decision to leave Winnie at the London Zoo.

"Harry visited Winnie whenever he could, 
but the war lasted four years.
During that time, the zookeepers took good
care of his bear. Winnie had many friends.
In 1919, just before Harry returned to Winnipeg,
he made another hard decision. He decided that
Winnie would stay at the London Zoo permanently.
Harry was sad, but he knew that Winnie would be
happiest in the home she knew best."

It became her home for the rest of her life. One of her many visitors at the zoo was A.A. Milne's young son. The rest, as they say, is history. Christopher Robin changed Edward Bear's name to Winnie-the-Pooh and his father created stories for father and son to share, prior to putting pen to paper.

Thanks to Mr. Milne, many thousands of families have shared Winnie's stories.

It's my understanding that this is Jonathan Voss's debut picture book. I can only beg for more. Using pen, ink, and watercolor, he creates nostalgic and impressive images that endear Winnie to our hearts and give the entire book a very warm, lighthearted feel. The addition of archival photos, an author's note, a source list and websites up the appeal.    

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Perfectly Messed-Up Story, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2014. $19.00 ages 4 and up





When you read on the copyright page that 'no pages were harmed in the making of this book', you will have difficulty believing that it is true ... and kids will, too! The messes made to create the engaging artwork are so realistic, I found myself wanting to reach out and touch the pages. What fun!

Louie is the type of lovable and appealing character who looks as if he belongs in a perfect picture book; that is his take on the situation as well. So, imagine his concern when faced with the splatter of jelly at the page turn. He smells it, he tastes it, and discovers that someone has been eating a jelly sandwich while reading his book. WHAT?

To add insult to injury, a glob of peanut butter lands on his head ... and it's chunky! Enough? Certainly not. Now, fingerprints make their appearance and finally, drips of orange juice.

His outrage is evident:




Can you imagine how much fun you will have reading this one? You know you will. I love it when he decides that the problem is solved and we should all try again; "Okay. From the top."
What could possibly go wrong?

Just when Louie is certain that his story is totally ruined, that no one will want to read his book, he is reminded that little bumps in life's path might just be the ticket to a great story!

Patrick McDonnell does a terrific job of creating a banal tale in the midst of chaos, with his tiny carefree narrator strolling along until faced with the superbly realistic messes created to add humor and evoke discussion.

I will surely read this one repeatedly!


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Waiting Is Not Easy! Written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion Books for Children, Hachette. 2014. $9.99 ages 3 and up

"So I will have to ...
wait for it?



Oh, well. If I
have to wait,
I will wait."

No one knows better how hard it is to wait than every preschooler I ever met! Well, and retired people who don't seem to like standing in lines at the grocery store. I cannot tell you how many times I have offered my spot so they can get on with whatever pressing engagement has them waiting so grumpily. I also taught kindergarten (and helped raise two kids), so I know a lot about 'how much longer?', 'when will we be there?', what are we waiting for?'

Poor Gerald! He knows there is a surprise coming. Piggie practically blows him over with her daring pronouncement. Once his curiosity has the better of him, Gerald cannot get one tiny tidbit of information from his best friend. After all, 'a surprise is a surprise.'

He does manage to finagle some clues about it. But, Piggie is adamant that he won't get any more information, and that the surprise is not yet ready to be shared! Throughout the WHOLE day, the pattern is the same. Gerald asks. Piggie refuses. Gerald GROANS! On and on it goes.

All the while, your listeners will be totally engaged in the dialogue and the action! Mo Willems has the touch. He just keeps proving that to be the truth. When the surprise is finally revealed, we will all agree that it was so worth it to wait, and anticipate, and share the moment. Then, it's 'turn about is fair play' for Gerald. Can it get any better than this?

Oh, the joy that real friendship brings!

We are waiting, Mr. Willems. What surprise do you have in store for us in your 23rd book about this dynamic duo?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Dreaming In Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. Annick Press, 2014. $19.95 ages 12 and up

"Today is Pink Shirt day at my daughter Naia's school. All the kids wore pink to send the message that bullying won't be tolerated. I'm happy that bullying has a negative social stigma these days. It wasn't like that when I was a kid growing up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. But today, I would personally like to thank everyone who bullied me as a child..."

I was keen to read this anthology featuring aboriginal writers and artists from both Canada and the United States. In a welcome note, Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale tell readers:

"This book stemmed from a desire to showcase the real life of indigenous people. Not the life portrayed in  mainstream media and certainly not the life of Native People as it is seen through the lens of Hollywood. We wanted to give people a fresh perspective on what is means to be Native in North America."

Wab Kinew (Anishinaabe), Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg adds:

"There is no one Indigenous perspective ... no one Indigenous story. We are tremendously diverse peoples with tremendously diverse life experiences. We are not frozen in the past, nor are we automatically just like everybody else. That is why it is so important for everyone to share their own story."

And so they do ...

The strong poetic voices, the telling photographs, the poignant stories, the incredible artwork, and the personal experiences shared shed light for readers on what it means to be First Nation, Metis, Inuit today. This is a masterful anthology that begs to be read in classrooms and with families. It is a telling look at the tough and the triumphant, the pain and the hope, the true genius of young artists, and is a resource that is tremendously valuable to inform ourselves and to share with others.

There are four parts to the book: roots, battles, medicines and life lessons. Within each part, you will be privy to the variety in experience. We hear from a throat singer, grateful to those who bullied her in school for making her strong, compassionate and resilient; an acclaimed writer who did not always make the best choices for himself as he struggled through a difficult adolescence; a dancer who changed his course from break dancing to traditional hoop dancing; a Canadian Olympic team member whose love of sports changed her life; a hunter who connects through it to his culture and the land; a musician who offers advice to other young musicians; and a poet who dreams of the future. The list is long.

There is pain and there is joy; there is heartbreak and there is hope. They are young and they are older. They are always emotional and honest. Each artist deserves to be seen and heard. In this wonderful new book,  you have the opportunity to see and hear them. Please do.

"Home is Family

The sound of music and jingle dresses
The smell of sweetgrass
The feel of smudging
The sight of yellow, red, black, and white on the medicine wheel
The taste of fry bread
Home is not where I live but who I live with.
My family is my home.
My favorite people in the world.
The ones who mean the most to me
I love them with all my heart
And nothing can take us apart
Family means home to me.
And it always will be.

Abigail Whiteye
(Moravian Delaware First Nation)"

"Hunting is a reset button. When I'm working in my office in the city, it's
a reminder of where I come from and why I do the things I do. When we
do bring down a moose, I always cut the tip of the heart off and I'll find a
birch tree and offer up a prayer to the Creator and leave my tobacco and
thanks. I think that's why I'm successful every year. I respect the animal
and I eat it. And I give it away to other people who eat it.

JP Gladu
(Ojibwa, Sand Point First Nation)"

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Operation Bunny: Wings & Co. Written by Sally Gardner and illustrated by David Roberts. Square Fish, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2012. $6.99 ages 8 and up

"Emily had no idea how she and Fidget had arrived in the heart of the countryside. The last thing she remembered was the Lost Property Office, and the next thing she knew, she was standing in the early morning sunshine at a disused railway station. "Come in, my little ducks," said Fidget, leaping down from the platform onto the grassy tracks. "Wait," said Emily. "Where's the pink rabbit?"
This is the first book in a new series from Sally Gardner, called Wings and Company. If it is any indication of what is to come, it promises to be great fun.

When Daisy Dashwood reads about the baby left in a hatbox in the Stansted Airport terminal, she makes a wish and her husband makes it come true ... 'easy peasy.'

"Five years later, Daisy Dashwood had to admit that Emily Vole wasn't exactly what she had in mind when she'd made her one and only wish. What she had really wanted was a baby girl with blue eyes and blond hair, ideally the same color as her own strawberry-blond extensions. The truth was that Emily's eyes were far too dark to be a true Dashwood offspring. But worse than the ebony eyes was Emily's hair. It was jet-black."

When the Dashwoods eventually get the news that they are expecting triplets of their own, they need no longer consider schooling Emily. They decide that they will educate her themselves as a nanny and a housekeeper. As luck would have it, their neighbor Miss String and her cat Fidget (who talks) are there to protect little Emily and teach her all they know about the world of magic!

Their magic is just the ticket for Emily. As well, she begins to see some of the good things in life: friendship, compassion, joy, and unconditional support. Miss String even teaches her to read and write:

"Within a year, Emily could read, write, do math, and speak fluent French and German. Plus another strange language that Miss String called Old English."

Miss String tells wonderful stories. None appeal to Emily more than the ones about a very strange shop called Wings & Co. It sells potions and helps solve mysteries. It is only when Miss String dies that Emily learns she has been left that shop, and made the new Keeper of the Keys. The adventure amps up when Harpella (an evil witch) makes her appearance, with plans to turn all citizens into bunnies. It's up to Emily to sabotage that plan.

Fairy tale references, humorous illustrations, clever language and a quick pace assure that this first instalment will have fans eagerly awaiting what is next for Emily and her detective agency. There is so much to enjoy about the storytelling:

  “Could we send her back to the orphanage?
I have the receipt for her somewhere,” Daisy asks.
“Not really, Smoochikins,” Ronald replies.
“It wasn’t a receipt — it was the adoption papers.”

"Exactly. Have you noticed how few fairies there
are in those stories?" asked Buster. "More often, there
are hard-done-by princesses dressed in rags and boring
princes being all soppy. The only time we fairies come
into the picture is when we are invited to christenings
and grant daft wishes."
Emily had to admit that Buster had a good point."

Please read it. You have a treat in store for you!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

I'M MY OWN DOG, written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $18.00 ages 3 and up

"Every morning when
I look in the mirror, I
lick my own face
because I am so happy
to see me.

I say, "GOOD DOG.

Does the world need a new book about dogs and their owners? Any self-respecting dog (and its  owner) is sure to answer in the affirmative. When the book is written and illustrated by the incomparable (and droll) David Ezra Stein, it is a certainty, even without canine approval.

You will be reading this book for weeks, every chance you can get. I don't think you will tire of sharing it for a long while. It is just too funny and full of bravado. I was drawn to it by the self-assured bulldog that graces the cover. You might remember that my granddogs are English bulldogs!
While Percy and Eddie like being taken care of, this dog narrator is pretty proud of his ability to take care of himself, no assistance needed.

He knows how to roll over, fetch a stick, scratch where it itches ... until he doesn't. When he can't quite reach the spot that is most itchy,  a nearby human solves the problem and then follows him home. The dog could not be happier. To celebrate, he adopts the little man, shows him how to play, follow instructions and be a friend. Life could not be much better than that!

"So I got a leash. How else am I
supposed to lead him around?
"COME ON!" I say. "COME ON, BOY!

There are some annoying issues; but, life with a friend is better than without him.

Kids will be rolling in the aisles as they carefully watch the artwork that accompanies the dog's assertions of the training he does for his human, and will beg for the book to be read again and again!
If you don't LOVE David Ezra Stein's work, you should! If you have not read any of his books, hustle to the nearest library or bookstore and prepare to spend countless hours sharing his stories with your kids. It will be SOOO worth it!

This is an absolutely joyful read! Kids and parents will be glad to share it time and again.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Malala, A Brave Girl From Pakistan/Iqbal, A Brave Boy from Pakistan, by Jeanette Winter. Beach Lane Books, Simon & Schuster, 2014. $21.99 ages 5 and up

"I have the right of education.
I have the right to play.
I have the right to sing.
I have the right to talk.
I have the right to go to
the market.
I have the right to SPEAK UP."

Jeanette Winter is a gifted and thoughtful writer. Her picture book biographies are worthy of our attention, and should certainly be shared with our children to garner attention for heroes who live, or have lived, in this world. In her newest book, she shares two stories.

On one side, we meet Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani boy. Chained to a loom as a 4 year old in return for a $12 loan made to his parents, he earned twenty cents a day creating tiny, complicated patterns for the carpet factory owner.  Freed at ten from this forced slavery, he went on to speak bravely against child labor.

The rage toward him for speaking out resulted in his death in 1995, when he was 12. At the time, he was doing what 12 year old boys love to do - he was riding his bicycle. He was known internationally for his work to bring justice to the children forced to labor long hours for a pittance.

"And he travels across the ocean to speak out in America.

I would like to do what Abraham Lincoln did.
I would like to do it in Pakistan.
I would like to free children in bondage."

At the centre of the book, in a meaningful double page spread, we can see Iqbal unable to hold onto his kite string as Malala holds tight to hers. She is dressed in stunning coral, Iqbal is dressed in lifeless funereal gray. It is set as the turning point in the book; now, children can turn the book over and read Malala's story.

Malala will be more familiar to the children for whom this book is written. She was shot by the Taliban for her stance on education for Pakistani girls. To this day, she works tirelessly to assure education for all, and recently she shared the Nobel Peace Price with Kailash Satyarthi. Both are dedicated to making conditions right for all children of the world to have an education.

"When Malala was only eleven, she first spoke publicly about the importance of education for girls. Even as the Taliban became more aggressive, Malala continued to speak out. The threats continued, never stopping Malala - until the day a Taliban fighter shot her as she rode home in a school van."

Following her long recovery from the gunshot, Malala refused to step back:

"They thought that bullets would silence us,
but they failed....
One child, one teacher,
one book, one pen,
can change the world."

Two brave children, victims of injustice and terror; their stories are told with spare prose. Ms. Winter's signature rich artwork adds a sense of serenity to these stories and assures that both will be remembered as symbols of bravery and advocacy for all children and young people. Their work on behalf of children should be remembered; this book pays homage to their lives and their work, and needs to be shared.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Sweetest Kulu, by Celina Kalluk and illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis. Inhabit Media, Fitzhenry & Whiteside. 2014. $16.95 ages 1 and up

"Melodies of wind arrived,
sharing voices of how the
weather forms, and telling
you to always listen closely.
Wise Wind had learned
your name, charming Kulu,
and invited the world to
meet you."

What a welcome Kulu receives upon his birth! His arrival coincides with summer in the Arctic, and his first words of welcome come from Smiling Sun who stays through the night to assure a warm blanket and enough light. After the Wind shares its stories, the animals of the Arctic make their presence known when they start arriving.

According to traditional Inuit beliefs, each of the animals that presents itself has a very important role to play in Inuit lives and a special blessing to bestow:

"Arctic Hare, with rock willow and roots,
came to show you love so easily.
You became a best friend, baby Kulu, loving to give."


The entire book sings a song of love for nature and the Arctic, with a tiny baby being the reason to ensure a connection between the two. The author is a noted throat singer, and her words weave the traditions and beliefs of her people throughout the telling. The illustrations are as tender as the blessings imparted to 'sweetest Kulu'. They exude a warmth and glow that is indicative of the northern world that is home to this brand new life.
"Thinking of you,
Arctic Char enjoyed reflections in waters so sea green,
and gave you tenderness, too, beautiful and handsome Kulu."
This book is filled with peaceful promise and would make a welcome and winning gift for a new baby and its parents.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Joseph Fipps, written by Nadine Robert and illustrated by Genevieve Godbout. Enchanted Lion Books, Publishers Group West. 2014. $20.95 ages 4 and up

"I look at the floor.
Then I blurt out:

"You always say 'no'!
I can never do anything.
You're mean and I want
another mommy."
She looks at me with
big round eyes.
But it's too late.
I've said it."

If you are a parent, you have probably heard that same sentiment from one or more of your children. If you were a child, you likely made such feelings very well known to your own parents. We have all been there, and perhaps still feel the same even now!

Our introduction to Joseph comes when we are witness to an error in judgement. The cat also takes note of Joseph's arrival in the room; then promptly falls asleep. That nap is all too short! The evidence lies on the floor, and Joseph is on the run down the hallway before we read any text:

"Again this morning Mommy called me Gremlin.
Every time I do something kind of silly, she calls me Gremlin.

So now my dad, my grandpa, and my grandma all call me
Gremlin, too. But Gremlin isn't my real name."

Meet Joseph Fipps and his jauntily bow-tied teddy bear. He takes us along on a walk around his yard and gets himself in a bit of a pickle once again. Mommy is definitely mad now! As she scolds, Joseph gets worked up, too. When he threatens, she suggests he find another mother on the banks of the North Pole. Why not try a walrus mother?

Off he goes, imagination in tow, to the banks of the river beside his favorite chestnut tree. It isn't long until he is seeing that kind and generous walrus in a very positive light ... until he realizes that he is a very small boy and he knows a place he would rather be.

Using layers of pastel and colored pencil, Genevieve Godbout creates a sense of softness for both the child and the setting. Joseph's demeanor is evident in his clear expressions. Expressions throughout offer much opportunity for discussion as the story is being read. I especially love the wordless spreads where not one word is needed to let us know exactly what is happening, even before Joseph can explain it for us.                                                                          

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Princess in Black, written by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale, and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $14.99 ages 6 and up

"The duchess peeked under a table. Not so much as a wad of gum! Was Princess Magnolia as perfect as she seemed? No, surely everyone had secrets. Duchess Wigtower would find something amiss. The duchess left Princess Magnolia's tower room. She poked around the throne room. She examined the ballroom. She explored the kitchen. She even paused to inspect the cookies."

Magnolia seems to be a perfect young girl. She had better be! You see, Magnolia is a Princess, and great things are expected of princesses. All the time. Every day in every way. The only untoward thing that might ruin that ideal reputation is that she has a secret. It's a big secret, too.

Princess Magnolia is also known as the Princess in Black, and she is a superhero. In her disguise, she protects the kingdom. As happens when you are a princess, there are at times unexpected visitors. Duchess Wingtower is prone to dropping in, and to being very, very nosy! As they tour the castle, Magnolia uses all her wiles to keep the Duchess from making any discoveries concerning her alter ego. Then, when her secret alarm goes off, Magnolia has no recourse but to leave the castle. She is needed, and she must be there.

What all that means is that the Duchess is free to do all the snooping that she sees fit, and Magnolia must leave her to it! She makes a quick change to the Princess in Black regalia, saddles her faithful companion Blacky (aka known as Frimplepants the Unicorn) and heads off to provide protection for Duff, a young goat herder. He is being bullied by a monster bent on a goat dinner. Magnolia tries to reason with the monster; he is having none of it. A fight ensues. With her special moves and LeUyen Pham's engaging artwork, readers will be fascinated to watch the rather comical encounter.

Something else is taking place as the conflict escalates. Duff begins to notice some similarities between this Princess and Princess Magnolia. He quickly dismisses any such thoughts. In the meantime, the Duchess is nosily poking through all of Magnolia's rooms, closets and belongings. Nothing much alerts her to any misdoings ... noting that the black stockings she finds are simply dirty. She knows that real princesses don't wear black!

Lots of action, gentle humor, wonderful artwork worthy of close attention, and a secret. What more can we ask from a pleasing and sure to be popular early years novel? Oh, and there is a hint that a new hero may be on the horizon. Let's keep our fingers crossed!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Mystery Hat, written by Rune Brandt Bennicke & Jakob Hjort Jensen, with pictures by Jakob Hjort Jensen. Sky Pony Press, Thomas Allen & Son. 2014. $19.95 ages 3 and up

"He probably woke up
early from his winter's
sleep with his tummy
rumbling and bumbling
from hunger, so he
hurried out to find
something to eat.
Seeing as he was
still quite sleepy,
he must not have
seen the hole..."

Well, we definitely got our first snowstorm of the season on Friday. Today, the streets are lumpy and bumpy, parking lots have huge piles of the white stuff, and it is a tough slog to make it on foot through the snow on the ground. It's too cold for snowmen; it isn't too cold to be dreaming of building one. We might have to wait for it to warm up a lot.

This seems the perfect book to read on the first day back to school after a long Christmas break!

When three friends decide to go for a walk in the woods, they have no idea that they might soon be faced with a mystery. There, on the path right in front of them, is a sodden knit cap. Crow recognizes it and thinks it belongs to their friend Bear.

Together the three imagine scenarios that might have taken place for the hat to be there. Perhaps Bear was so consumed by hunger after his long winter's sleep that he didn't see the water-filled hole in the road ... and he fell right into it! Turns out the deep hole filled with water is only a shallow puddle.

As they stand and consider other things that might have befallen anyone owning a red knit cap, readers will have occasion to laugh at the absurdity of their conjectures. Finally, Pig thinks back on a snowball fight from a few days ago. He remembers what happened during their play. In doing so,  Crow is reminded why the hat seems so familiar to him!

The artwork matches the text with expressive looks and imagined adventures, leaving readers in the end with a terrific little sign to warn future walkers.

Amusing and full of charm, your listeners will enjoy everything about this book!


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar, written by Keith Richards, with Barnaby Harris and Bill Shapiro and illustrated by Theordora Richards. Megan Tingley Books, Little, Brown and Company. Hachette, 2014. $20.00 ages 6 and up

"We'd walk for miles.
We'd walk through towns.
and we'd walk through the
countryside ...
and Gus, he would hum
every step of the way.
He'd hum whole symphonies
as we strolled from one
village to the next.
He'd hum funny little
tunes ... "

I am not always a fan of  'celebrity' books. I AM a huge fan of Keith Richards' lovely and heartwarming story of his grandfather Gus, who 'turned him on to music.' When Keith's fifth grandchild Otto was born, his birth awakened the grandfather to the fact that grandparents can have a tremendous impact on a child's life. His grandfather had certainly made a difference to his.

I love listening to Keith's voice as he reads the text on a CD that is included in the back of the book.
The voice is so personal and relaxed, making it obvious to listeners how much he enjoys sharing it.  His love of his musical grandfather is evident and heartwarming ...

"There was nothing like visiting Gus.
The closer to his house I'd get,
the bigger my smile would grow.
By the time I landed on his doorstep,
I was all teeth."

Gus was a musician, and a role model for his young grandson. They walked and talked; and one day, they walked right into a musical workshop where men were testing guitar strings. It held an immediate and lifelong fascination for the young boy. After that visit, the two returned to Gus's house where a guitar sat on top of the piano. Gus promised his grandson that he could 'have a go' when he was tall enough to get it down. I'll bet growing taller never seemed more tedious for Keith.

Then one day, Gus handed him the guitar and proceeded to teach him what he was ready to learn. He gave good advice:

"When you learn to play 'Malaguena'" he told me,
 "you can play anything.""

He was absolutely right!

Keith Richards' daughter Theodora (named for her great-grandfather Theodore Augustus Dupree) did the artwork in pen, ink and collage after visiting her father's family home in Dartford, England and seeing family and historical photos from her father's childhood.

His first book for children is a warm and wonderful family story. There is magic in the music, and in the telling. We are blessed to be able to share it!

A biographical note about the famed guitarist is in back matter; it adds charm and fascinating information. In a final note, he tells his audience:

"The bond, the special bond, between kids and grandparents is unique and should be treasured. This is a story of one of those magical moments. May I be as great a grandfather as Gus was to me."

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Curse of the Buttons, written by Anne Ylvisaker. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $18.00 ages 8 and up

"Main Street was as familiar to Ike as the terrain of his own room. He knew where the hooligans congregated after dark, which shopkeepers were feuding, and where he'd be most likely to get an apple or a lump of sugar for Barfoot. He kept Barfoot close to the sidewalk, letting faster horses and carriages pass in the middle."

Ike can't believe his great good luck when the men in his small town of Keokuk, Iowa are asked to join President Lincoln as allies in the Civil War. He imagines what life will be like with his brothers, his father and his male relatives. Instead, he is deemed too young to go along, and is relegated to staying at home with the women of the family. What nonsense! Of course, he feels that he is ready to serve his country (at 11). All he has to do is figure out a way to get to where they are!

I hope you have met the Buttons in previous novels. Ike is a fine character ... one who has energy and nerve to burn, despite the many setbacks he faces. He can be downright cantankerous; he is also determined to carve his own path. He would prefer to do it somewhere else, where he doesn't have to deal with being bullied by the Hinman brothers. They are a constant thorn in his side. Then, there's Albirdie Woolley, an unusually bright and opinionated girl who doesn't mind telling Ike what to do. Don't even start with all the women in his family, who need his help at numerous times.

As he does his best to make the plan that will take him to the battlefield, he finds himself faced with a dilemma that tests his mettle and his courage. It is while doing so that he realizes the war rages beyond the battlefield, and he can do something honorable even though he is not a soldier.

Readers will enjoy the setting and time as they are ably described by Ms. Ylvisaker. Basing her story of real events, she tells a convincing story of family and community in time of war, and how one person (or two), no matter their youth, can make a real and lasting difference. Ike and Albirdie are credible and worthy characters who step up when the going gets tough, and who help where help is needed.

This is the third book in a series of stories about the Button family. It is not necessary to read the others before enjoying this one. Once you have read it, I hope that you will make a trip to the library to find the other books about them. They are a family worth knowing!