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1. Review of the Day: One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom

OneDayOne Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree
By Daniel Bernstrom
Illustrated by Brendan Wenzel
Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-235485-3
Ages 3-6
On shelves May 3rd

Like any children’s librarian, I like to assess each picture book that crosses by my eyeballs for readaloud potential. While every picture book (even the wordless ones) can be read aloud to a large group of children, only a select few thrive in that environment. It takes a certain magical combination of art and text to render a story readaloud-perfect. Books you can sing have a leg up. Ditto books with flaps or pull-tabs. But the nice thing about Bernstrom’s book One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree is that it doesn’t need to rely on those extra features to enrapture an audience. The book’s lilting rhymes, when practiced beforehand, have the potential to render an audience entranced. Add in the art of Brendan Wenzel, and how well it reads across a room, and you’ve got yourself the makings of what might possibly be the best readaloud picture book of the year.

A boy and his whirly-twirly toy are just the first things to disappear down the gullet of a hungry yellow snake. But rather than bemoan his fate, the boy gets to work in his new role as the snake’s inner id. Commenting on the sheer amount of room and space in the belly, the boy cajoles the snake into eating more and more and more. From birds and worms, to mossy sloths, to a single apple bearing a tiny fly, the creatures slide down the snake’s rapidly expanding throat. A final meal proves too much for the voracious viper and next thing you know boy, toy, and a host of other animals are upchucked back into the world from whence they came. A sly illustration at the end suggests that history may repeat itself soon.

OneDay1It’s not as if Mr. Bernstrom is the first person to find the word “eucalyptus” so exceedingly delicious to both tongue and ear, but he certainly seems to have been the most prominent in recent memory. As I read the book the language of the reading triggered something in my brain. Something long forgot. And though his name evokes strong feelings in every possible direction, it was Rudyard Kipling I thought of as I read this tale. Specifically the tale of “How the Elephant Got His Trunk”. Though that story does not realize how superb the word “eucalyptus” is when repeated, Kipling got a great deal of mileage out of illustrating thoughts with words. Terms like “great grey greasy Limpopo river”, “Kolokolo Bird”, and “the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake” make those of us reading the stories aloud sound good. Bernstrom is writing for a younger audience so he doesn’t flex his muscles quite as far as Kipling did, but at the same time you recognize that he has the potential to do so. One hopes his future publishing plans may include longer stories just meant for sharing aloud. Lord knows we need more authors like that these days.

The story itself sounds familiar when you read it, but that may have to do more with familiar tropes than a tale we’ve actually seen done. The book also taps into a very popular method of extracting eaten creatures from predators’ bellies: burping. Vomiting works too, though the word sounds more disgusting, so usually in cases like this book the critters are released in a big old burp. In this case, we’re basically seeing a nature-based version of that Monty Python skit where the diner is persuaded to eat one final item (“It’s wafer-thin”). It’s odd to enjoy so much a book where a kid tricks the animal it is within to throw up, but there you go. The storytelling itself is top notch too, though I had a moment of confusion when the snake ate the beehive. Seems to me that that moment is where the boy’s plan potentially takes a turn south. Being stuck in a snake’s belly is one thing. Being stuck in a snake’s belly with flying, stinging insects? Thanks but no.

OneDay2Illustrator Brendan Wenzel burst onto the children’s picture book illustration scene in 2014 but his rise in prominence since that time has been slow. The artist first caught everyone’s eye when he illustrated Angela DiTerlizzi’s Some Bugs but it was the cover art of Ellen Jackson’s Beastly Babies the following year that was the most eye-catching. That cover sold that book. An ardent conservationist, it makes a lot of sense to turn to Wenzel when you’ve a story chock full of sloths, snakes, and bees. With Bernstrom’s tale, Wenzel must render this tale in the style of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. Which is to say, he needs to balance horror with humor. Books where the protagonist gets eaten are common. Books where the protagonist gets eaten and then continues to comment on the action are rare. Wenzel’s snake falls into that category of villains that must be vicious enough to serve as a legitimate threat, but tame enough that a four-year-old won’t fear them on sight. To do this, Wenzel’s art takes on a distinctly jovial tone that treads towards the cartoonish without ever falling in completely. The colors are bright but not overwhelming, just as the action is consistent without horrifying the audience. Most of the creatures handle being eaten with gentle good grace (though the sloth looks more than a little put out about the whole thing).

The idea of being eaten whole is as old as “Little Red Riding Hood”. Heck, it’s even older than that. Look at the Greek myths of Cronus devouring his children whole. Look at any myth or legend that talks of children springing unharmed or fully formed from within nasty beasties. Together, Bernstrom and Wenzel take this ancient idea and turn it into a trickster tale. Usually it’s the eater doing the tricking, and not the eaten, but One Day in the Eucalyptus Eucalyptus Tree isn’t afraid to shake things up (or, for that matter, swallow them down). An oddly peppy little tale of surviving through another’s hubris, this is bound to become one of those readaloud picture books that teachers and librarians lean heavily on for decades to come. Look out, Bernstrom and Wenzel. You guys just went and created for yourselves a masterpiece.

On shelves May 3rd.

Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.

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2. Review of the Day: Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner

SamuraiRisingSamurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune
By Pamela S. Turner
Illustrated by Gareth Hinds
Charlesbridge
$16.95
ISBN: 9781580895842
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now

When you read enough children’s books published in a single year, folks tend to believe that you’ve an ability to spot trends in the general literature. Trend-spotting is easy enough when you’re dealing with picture books (hot in 2016: Bears rampaging through picnics and blobfish!) but books written for older readers are trickier. I think I’ve hit on at least one incredibly popular trend for the current year, however: Overwhelming depression and sadness. Whether it’s baby foxes are getting their legs blown off in landmines, dads being deadbeat, or girls falling down wells, 2016 is officially The Year of the Hankie. So you can imagine the glee with which I devoured Samurai Rising. “A samurai fights for honor and survival in a real-life Game of Thrones,” reads the blurb for the book (minus the torture and nudity, of course). In producing a fantastic look at the true story behind Japan’s most famous samurai, Turner doesn’t just cheer up an otherwise depressed literary year. She highlights a figure too long ignored in America. Say goodbye to boredom. Say hello to crazy-eyed heroics and an anti-hero for the young masses.

On the book’s title page is written a small alert. “WARNING: Very few people in this story die of natural causes.” No lie, just fact. This is the story of Minamoto Yoshitsune. A boy who “could not yet walk when his father left him a lost war, a shattered family, and a bitter enemy.” Yoshitsune’s father (not the brightest samurai of all time) throws away his family’s comfortable existence protecting Japan’s Retired Emperor when he decides to kidnap the guy instead. Swiftly defeated by his rival Taira Kiyomori, the man’s son, little Yoshitsune, is spared but eventually sent to train as a monk. Determined to win back his family’s honor, the boy runs away and with the help of a friendly lord becomes a full fledged samurai. Not a moment too soon either. Forces are brewing and Yoshitsune’s older brother Yoritomo needs his brother’s help to revolt against Kiyomori’s reign. Through it all, Yoshitsune doesn’t just show the heart of a warrior. He shows he has the guts and brains to carry out even the craziest campaign. But with trouble brewing at home, it may be his own family that proves the deadliest enemy of all. Author’s Notes, Time Lines, a Glossary, Chapter Notes, and a Bibliography appear as well.

I was at a conference recently where the terms “creative nonfiction” and “narrative nonfiction” got tossed about like so many ping-pong balls. These terms are generally produced when someone writes a work of nonfiction that reads like a novel. In order to do this and yet still retain even a modicum of historical accuracy, the author in question must bend over backwards to get everything right. Fifty-whopping-two pages, or so, at the back of the book are dedicated to Turner’s chapter notes alone. Here you’ll find every quotation and historical detail cited (Turner also writes an intro to these notes, marking this as the first time I’ve ever seen an author sell the reader on reading them, since who could resist trying to figure out, “why Yoritomo didn’t use ninjas”?). As for Turner’s writing, you forget almost instantly that this is a work of nonfiction. This is both a good and bad thing. Good, because it proves to young readers that there’s more to nonfiction than what you’ll find in a textbook. Bad because life, unlike fiction, doesn’t always adhere to our understanding of narrative rise and fall. When Minamoto’s enemy Kiyomori died without ever having confronted Yoshitsune, I was momentarily baffled. Of course Turner, skillful as she is, is able to naturally call upon Yoshitsune’s older brother as the new enemy, and it’s done with slow, exquisite care.

When you’re watching a musical, the songs have to serve the story. You can’t just have characters burst into a melody without a reason. Likewise, a nonfiction book can be laden with facts, but only if they serve the narrative to its best advantage. Turner has all kinds of tricks up her sleeves, and integrating facts into the story is one of her greater strengths. She can move from the story of Yoshitsune learning how to be a samurai to a description of the brilliant work of engineering that is a samurai’s armor or sword with aplomb.

Even with all this, Turner’s working at a natural disadvantage. Her story is set in the 12th century. Source material from that time? Not exactly copious. So she relies upon informed speculation, i.e. what a character may have seen or may have considered in one scene or another. A number of years ago I read a book called Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron which was a true history of a child who lived in the wild and was brought back to “civilization” near the end of the French Revolution. The author leaned heavily on a plethora of “probablys” which is no crime. Honestly, it informs the reader as to what they do or do not know. Still, it can prove distracting if too many are clustered in one spot. The only time I found myself irked in a similar way here was around the beginning of the book when Minamoto and a gold merchant were avoiding the samurai. From “the homey smell of wood smoke probably drew the weary travelers to wayside inns” to “The teenage runaway probably watched, mouth agape, as entertainers performed the popular tales of his time”, I found my willingness to go along with Turner’s speculations stretched, if never quite broken. Fortunately it’s the only time in the book I found Turner’s reliance on probability too overt. For the most part, she does a fine job of keeping everything copacetic.

I was also taken with the humor of the book. Judicious use of it in any nonfiction title is a delicate art. Here, the author has the advantage of time (no one’s going to read about the beheadings of the 1100s and think “Too soon!”). So when she pulls out lines like “News of severed heads travels fast,” you can’t but help but admire the wordplay’s moxie. Ditto, “If things went badly, Kiso had the usual samurai backup plan: kidnap the Retired Emperor” (this line works better after you see how many times the poor guy gets kidnapped in the course of his life – a calming retirement it is not).

The inclusion of Gareth Hinds’ art in the book was good planning on someone’s part (mostly likely Art Director Susan Sherman, according to Turner’s Acknowledgements). Though he’s illustrated the occasional title for other authors (Gifts from the Gods) generally Gareth sticks to his own graphic novel adaptations of classics like The Odyssey or Beowulf or King Lear. A meticulous hand, Hinds’ interstitial art keeps the narrative moving without distracting from it. And while it did have the odd personal problem of making me really want a Minamoto Yoshitsune graphic novel (ahem ahem!), for the most part I think it’ll be of greatest use to those students that need a little visual stimulation with their descriptive texts.

Here’s a pretty basic question for the book: Is Minamoto a hero? The comparison to Game of Thrones on the book’s blurb isn’t all that wrong. Things get pretty ethically dicey in the midst of power plays and wars. Honestly, coming out of this book I had particular sympathy for two people in particular and neither one of them was Minamoto. Minamoto’s heroism in terms of bravery cannot be called into question, but if we’re trying to figure out why he comes across as sympathetic, a lot of that can be attributed to our innate sense of fairness, or lack thereof. He starts off clawing his way up, already at a disadvantage thanks to dear old dad, and then just when everything seems to be working out for him his own brother stabs him in the back (figuratively and nearly literally). He deals decently at times, establishing law and order at critical moments. Then again, he’s not against lighting the occasional peasant village on fire like some insane 12th century version of streetlights. And so I say to teachers and the leaders of bookgroups, if you are doing this book with a group of kids and you need a topic of discussion, just ask this: What is a hero? You’re bound to get some pretty interesting answers after the kids read this book.

As I write this review, the hottest musical on Broadway right now is Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It seems to me that we’re seeing a lot of narratives right now that discuss scrappy youngsters, eager to make their mark on the world, no matter the cost to themselves or others. So hey, if you need an idea for a new musical, have I got a book for you! Bringing to the attention of American kids new historical heroes from cultures they may not have any familiarity with is a difficult proposition. Turner and Hinds tackle the challenge with a kind of manic glee. The end result is infinitely readable and downright fun. So pile on the other tear-drenched novels for the kiddos. As long as I have a plucky samurai kid not throwing away his shot I’ll be satisfied. More fun than it deserves to be and a great read.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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3. Review of the Day: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

RaymieNightingaleRaymie Nightingale
By Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-8117-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

My relationship to Kate DiCamillo’s books is one built entirely on meaning. Which is to say, the less emotional and meaningful they are, the better I like ‘em. Spaghetti loving horses and girls that live in tree houses? Right up my alley! China rabbits and mice with excessive earlobes? Not my cup of tea. It’s good as a reviewer to know your own shortcomings and I just sort of figured that I’d avoid DiCamillo books when they looked deep and insightful. And when the cover for Raymie Nightingale was released it was easily summarized in one word: Meaningful. A girl, seen from behind, stands ankle-deep in water holding a single baton. Still, I’ve had a good run of luck with DiCamillo as of late and I was willing to push it. I polled my friends who had read the book. The poor souls had to answer the impossible question, “Will I like it?” but they shouldered the burden bravely. Yes, they said. I would like it. I read it. And you know what? I do like it! It is, without a doubt, one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but I like it a lot. I like the wordplay, the characters, and the setting. I like what the book has to say about friendship and being honest with yourself and others. I like the ending very very much indeed (it has a killer climax that I feel like I should have seen coming, but didn’t). I do think it’s a different kind of DiCamillo book than folks are used to. It’s her style, no bones about it, but coming from a deeper place than her books have in the past. In any case, it’s a keeper. Meaning plus pep.

Maybe it isn’t much of a plan, but don’t tell Raymie that. So far she thinks she has it all figured out. Since her father skipped town with that dental hygienist, things haven’t been right in Raymie’s world. The best thing to do would be to get her father back, so she comes up with what surely must be a sure-fire plan. She’ll just learn how to throw a baton, enter the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, win, and when her father sees her picture in the paper he’ll come on home and all will be well. Trouble (or deliverance) comes in the form of Louisiana and Beverly, the two other girls who are taking this class with Ida Nee (the baton-twirling instructor). Unexpectedly, the three girls become friends and set about to solve one another’s problems. Whether it’s retrieving library books from scary nursing home rooms, saving cats, or even lives, these three rancheros have each other’s backs just when they need them most.

DiCamillo has grown as an author over the years. So much so that when she begins Raymie Nightingale she dives right into the story. She’s trusting her child readers to not only stick with what she’s putting down, but to decipher it as well. As a result, some of them are going to experience some confusion right at the tale’s beginning. A strange girl seemingly faints, moaning about betrayal in front of a high-strung baton instructor. Our heroine stands impressed and almost envious. Then we learn about Raymie’s father and the whole enterprise takes a little while to coalesce. It’s a gutsy choice. I suspect that debut authors in general would eschew beginning their books in this way. A pity, since it grabs your attention by an act of simple befuddlement.

Initial befuddlement isn’t enough to keep you going, though. You need a hook to sustain you. And in a book like this, you find that the characters are what stay with you the longest. Raymie in particular. It isn’t just about identification. The kid reading this book is going to impress on Raymie like baby birds impress on sock puppet mamas. She’s like Fone Bone in Jeff Smith’s series. She’s simultaneously a mere outline of a character and a fully fleshed out human being. Still, she’s an avatar for readers. We see things through her rather than with her. And sure, her name is also the title, but names are almost always titles for Kate DiCamillo (exceptions being The Magician’s Elephant, The Tiger Rising, and that Christmas picture book, of course). If you’re anything like me, you’re willing to follow the characters into absurdity and back. When Beverly says of her mother that, “Now she’s just someone who works in the Belknap Tower gift shop selling canned sunshine and rubber alligators” you go with it. You don’t even blink. The setting is almost a character as well. I suspect DiCamillo’s been away from Florida too long. Not in her travels, but in her books. Children’s authors that willingly choose to set their books in the Sunshine State do so for very personal reasons. DiCamillo’s Florida is vastly different from that of Carl Hiaasen’s, for example. It’s a Florida where class exists and is something that permeates everything. Few authors dare to consider lower or lower middle classes, but it’s one of the things I’ve always respected about DiCamillo in general.

Whenever I write a review for a book I play around with the different paragraphs. Should I mention that the book is sad at the beginning of the review or at the end? Where do I put my theory about historical fiction? Should character development be after the plot description paragraph or further in? But when it comes to those written lines I really liked in a book, that kind of stuff shouldn’t have to wait. For example, I adore the lines, “There was something scary about watching an adult sleep. It was as if no one at all were in charge of the world.” DiCamillo excels in the most peculiar of details. One particular favorite was the small paper cups with red riddles on their sides. The Elephantes got them for free because they were misprinted without answers. It’s my secret hope that when DiCamillo does school visits for this book she’ll ask the kids in the audience what the answer to the riddle, “What has three legs, no arms, and reads the paper all day long?” might be. It’s her version of “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Now let us discuss a genre: Historical fiction. One question. Why? Not “Why does it exist?” but rather “Why should any novel for kids be historical?” The easy answer is that when you write historical fiction you have built in, legitimate drama. The waters rise during Hurricane Katrina or San Francisco’s on fire. But this idea doesn’t apply to small, quiet novels like Raymie Nightingale. Set in the summer of 1975, there are only the barest of nods to the time period. Sometimes authors do this when the book is semi-autobiographical, as with Jenni Holm’s Sunny Side Up. Since this novel is set in Central Florida and DiCamillo grew up there, there’s a chance that she’s using the setting to draw inspiration for the tale. The third reason authors sometimes set books in the past is that it frees them up from the restrictions of the internet and cell phone (a.k.a. guaranteed plot killers). Yet nothing that happens in Raymie Nightingale requires that cell phones remain a thing of the past. The internet is different. Would that all novels could do away with it. Still, in the end I’m not sure that this book necessarily had to be historical. It’s perfectly fine. A decent time period to exist in. Just not particularly required one way or another.

Obviously the book this feels like at first is Because of Winn-Dixie. Girl from a single parent home finds friendship and (later rather than sooner, in the case of Raymie Nightingale) an incredibly ugly dog. But what surprised me about Raymie was that this really felt more like Winn-Dixie drenched in sadness. Sadness is important to DiCamillo. As an author, she’s best able to draw out her characters and their wants if there’s something lost inside of them that needs to be found. In this case, it’s Raymie’s father, the schmuck who took off with his dental hygienist. Of course all the characters are sad in different ways here. About the time you run across the sinkhole (the saddest of all watery bodies) on page 235 you’re used to it.

Sure, there are parts of the book I could live without. The parts about Raymie’s soul are superfluous. The storyline of Isabelle and the nursing home isn’t really resolved. On the flip side, there are lots of other elements within these pages that strike me as fascinating, like for example why the only men in the book are Raymie’s absent father, an absent swimming coach, a librarian, and a janitor. Now when I was a child I avoided sad children’s books like the plague. You know what won the Newbery in the year that I was born? Bridge to Terabithia. And to this day I eschew them at all costs. But though this book is awash in personal tragedies, it’s not a downer. It’s tightly written and full of droll lines and, yes I admit it. It’s meaningful. But the meaning you cull from this book is going to be different for every single reader. Whip smart and infinitely readable, this is DiCamillo at her best. Time to give it a go, folks.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Song to Listen to With This Book: King of the Road
Alternative Song: I Wanna Hold Your Hand

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4. Review of the Day: Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Don'tCallDon’t Call Me Grandma
By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Carolrhoda Books (a division of Lerner)
$19.99
ISBN: 978-1-4677-4208-5
Ages 4-7
On shelves now.

In 2016 a picture book won a Newbery Award. Which is to say, a picture book was declared the best-written work for children between the ages of 0-14. After its win there was a fair amount of speculation about what precisely the Newbery committee was trying to say with their award. For that matter, there was a fair amount of speculation about what it meant for children’s literature in general. Are we, as a people, less tolerant of loquacious books? Considering the fact that a book with 592 pages was a runner-up, I think we’re doing just fine in terms of wordy titles. Just the same, I hope that if anything comes out of this surprise award it’s a newfound appreciation for the picture book’s art of restraint. A good picture book shows but doesn’t tell. Don’t believe me? Read the original manuscript of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are where he spells everything out for the reader. All these thoughts were in my head recently when I read the remarkable Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Tackling the almost nonexistent subcategory of grouchy great-grandparents, Ms. Nelson deftly encapsulates a woman’s personality and lifetime of experiences in a scant 32 pages.

“Great-grandmother Nell is scary.” You got that right, kid. She also does not hug, or kiss, or chase her great-grandchild for fun. Instead she sips an intoxicating beverage from a glass bedecked with a spider. She serves up fish for breakfast, buggy eyes and all. But she also has a vanity full of mysterious perfumes, lipstick as red as rubies, and memories as sharp and painful as the day they were made. And when her great-granddaughter sneaks a kiss, Nell is still scary. But that’s okay. “…I like her that way.”

Don'tCall2First and foremost, this is not a fuzzy grandparent (or great-grandparent) book. There are plenty of fuzzy books out there, filled to brimming with warm snuggly feelings. If that is the kind of book you require then grab yourself the nearest Nancy Tillman and content yourself accordingly. What we have here instead is a kind of character study. Whatever expectations you carry into this book, they will be upended by the text. Nell is an amazing character, one that I’ve never seen in book of this sort. Her prickly nature may well hide that “broken heart” she mentions obliquely, but it could just as easily hide more prickles. We get three distinct memories of her past, but it’s a single wordless two-page spread that probably says more about her than anything else. As an adult, I found myself speculating about her life. How perhaps she had dreams of dancing professionally but that she put those dreams aside when she had her children at a very young age. No kid is going to read into Nell what I have. That’s what makes reading this book so dynamic. Come for the prickly relative. Stay for the enticing, unknowable back story.

What I would really like to praise in this review, if nothing else, is just how deftly author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson parses words into sentences that swell with meaning. Take, for example, the moment when our heroine enters Great-Grandmother Nell’s bedroom. She considers playing with the cloth ballerina on the best but abstains, saying, “her expression makes me think she might tell.” Later she kisses her great-grandmother in her sleep. “Even asleep, Great-Grandmother Nell is scary. But I like her that way.” The very last line? “She won’t know”. It would be fascinating to see Nelson’s original manuscript. Was it just this sparse and spare? Or was it much longer and cut down to the bone in the editing process? Whichever it was, it works.

Don'tCall3The child in this book is much like the child who will be reading it with an adult. Both she and they sense that there is more at work here than meets the eye. And it is the art by Elizabeth Zunon that backs that feeling up. Elizabeth Zunon has been a force to reckon with for years. I first noticed her when she illustrated William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, though I unknowingly had already been a fan of hers when she illustrated Jeanne Harvey’s My Hands Sing the Blues. In Don’t Call Me Grandma she begins with a straightforward contemporary story. Even then, her endpapers start telling the tale long before the words do (not counting the title). She fills these early pages with strings of pearls. Fat pearls, small pearls, pink and gray and white pearls. Note that in the text there is just one mention of those pearls, and it’s in the context of a lot of other things on Nell’s dressing table. But Zunon is getting a grip on her personality in her own way. Because of her we get a distinct sense of Great-Grandmother’s style, poise, and dignity. There are fun little details too, like the family peering out through the window as Nell gives a singing bird what for and how to. Zunon also lends Nell a humanity on the sidelines. When her great-granddaughter looks around her room we see Nell observing affectionately from the sides (though she’d be the first to deny it if you accosted her with the evidence). Then there are the memories. Depicted as splotchy watercolors, Zunon subtly changes her style to indicate how some memories are crystal clear even as they blur and go soft around the edges. The two-page spread of objects representing other memories (everything from photographs of Civil Rights marchers to tickets to an Alvin Ailey ballet) will require giving child readers some context. Nothing wrong with that. Sit them down and explain each thing you see. Don’t recognize something? Look it up!

A woman of my acquaintance used to make a big show of objecting to any and all picture books that depicted grandmothers as white-haired, doddering old women, tottering on the very edge of the grave. To her mind, there should be at least as many books that show those women as resourceful, spry, and full of energy. Great-Grandmothers probably have few books where they’re wrecking havoc with the universe. Generally speaking they just dodder and die. There will be no doddering and certainly no dying in Don’t Call Me Grandma, though. Nell isn’t just a character. She comes off the page like a full-blown human being, warts and all (just an expression – Nell would take me to the cleaners if she heard me indicating she has any warts). Sharp and smart, this is one of those picture books I’d like to see more of. Which is to say, stories I’ve never seen before.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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5. Review of the Day: When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano

WhenGreen1When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons
By Julie Fogliano
Illustrated by Julie Morstad
A Neal Porter Book / Roaring Brook Press (Macmillan)
$18.99
ISBN: 9781596438521
Ages 6 and up
On shelves now.

I don’t think I can adequately stress to you the degree to which I did not want to review this book. Not because it isn’t a magnificent title. And not because it isn’t pleasing to both eye and ear alike. No, it probably had more to do with the fact that it’s a work of poetry. I make a point of reviewing poetry regularly, though I’d be the first to say that it wasn’t my first language (if you know what I mean). I respect it but can occasionally find it tough going. I was determined to give this book its due, though. And the only way I could make myself physically sit down and review it was to read it cover to cover again. As I did so I was struck over and over, time and again, by just how melodious the language is here. Look, I’ll level with you. Seasonal poetry books are a dime a dozen. But what Fogliano and Morstad have created together is a lot more than just a book of poems for the changes of the year. This book manages to operate on a level that presents the very act of the seasonal cycle as positively philosophical, yet without distancing itself from its readership. It’s tricky territory, but together Fogliano and Morstad get the job done.

“from a snow-covered tree / one bird singing / each tweet poking / a tiny hole / through the edge of winter”. In the very first poem in When Green Becomes Tomatoes (a poem called “march 20”) the child reader is alerted to a change in the air. The snow is still present and the weather still gloomy, but there is hope on the horizon. Yet rather than turn the book into a paean to warmer weather, poet Julie Fogliano takes time to both celebrate and criticize the passing seasons. By the end of spring you look forward to summer and the end of summer leads to the relief of autumn, and so on and such. Accompanying these thoughts are small poems in lowercase and illustrations carrying the weight and expectations these seasons evoke in us. The end result can only be described in a single word: beautiful.

WhenGreen2Like I said, I’ve read a lot of poetry books for kids about the seasons in my day. The good ones have some kind of a hook. Like Joyce Sidman tackling it with colors in Red Sings from Treetops or Jon J. Muth writing the poems entirely as haikus as in Hi, Koo! A Year in Seasons. But Fogliano doesn’t really have a hook, and so I approached the title with trepidation. No hook? You mean it was just going to be . . . poems?! It takes the courage of your convictions to do a poetry book for kids straight these days. And it’s not true that Fogliano didn’t have one ace up her sleeve. A lot of works of poetry start in January (when the year itself technically begins). Using a technique of highlighting random dates, this poet begins the book on March 20th, the first day of spring. A small hook, sure, but at least it’s something.

As for the poems themselves, I was impressed not just with the writing, but with Ms. Fogliano’s grasp of what each season actually entails. There are a LOT of cloudy days, rainy days, and generally blah days in this book. They don’t weigh down the narrative or really make it all that gloomy. You just end up experiencing precisely the same feeling you have when you’re living those days. This is the rare book that acknowledges that spring doesn’t immediately mean sunshine and 55-degree temperatures. There’s a lot of snow and some mud and a whole ton of rain. Listen to how she puts it, though: “today / the sky was too busy sulking to rain / and the sun was exhausted from trying / and everyone / it seemed / had decided / to wear their sadness / on the outside / and even the birds / and all their singing / sounded brokenhearted / inside of all that gray.” It really isn’t until June that things even out, and I respect that. All the seasons are like that. It’s great to watch.

As you might have noted, the poetry found in this book straddles a line between being child-friendly and introspective (the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but neither are they always natural pairs). I found myself noting line after line after line that I wanted to quote. Here’s a small taste for each season.

On Spring: “shivering and huddled close / the forever rushing daffodils / wished they had waited.”

On Summer: “if you ever stopped / to taste a blueberry / you would know / that it’s not really about the blue, at all.”

On Fall: “october please / get back in bed / your hands are cold / your nose is red / october please / go back to bed / your sneezing woke december.”

On Winter: “a gust of wind / blew by my nose / i think i will be frozen soon / this living room / (all cozy chairs and fireplace) / has some real explaining to do.”

Some books of children’s poetry lean heavily on the works of other poets. I won’t presume to name her influences but if the July 12th poem is any indication then William Carlos Williams might have had some influence here. And maybe e.e. cummings too (with all that mudlicious mud).

WhenGreen3When she was much younger it’s clear that author Julie Fogliano made some kind of a blood sacrifice to the God of Perfect Illustrator Pairings. How else to explain how she has managed to work alongside such artists as Erin E. Stead and now Julie Morstad? Morstad is no newbie to the field, of course. I’ve been a big fan of her for years, starting with her art for The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson. Morstad’s great talent lies not necessarily in her waiflike black-eyed children, but rather in how she creates tone. Though there are plenty of sequences in this book of kids playing together or sharing food and soup, for the most part her characters go it alone. These poems are the contemplations of a young person with time and space and nature in spades. I don’t know that if I read Ms. Fogliano’s poetry without the art I would have picked up on that myself. Note too how cyclical the book is. The first poem is the last, sure as shooting, but so too is the person seen at both the beginning and the end. It’s the same kid wearing the same clothes, which makes a subtle implication that though a whole year has gone by, time is simply doubling back on itself. Not sure what to make of that one, frankly.

With poetry, we have to play the game of answering what ages we think the poems are appropriate for. This book poses a bit of a challenge on that front. Some are younger, some definitely older. This mix will allow kids of all ages to take part in the fun, even as the book asks questions like whether or not there is a space between where things begin and things end “or just a slow and gentle fading”. Enticing to the eye but, more importantly almost, alluring to the brain as kids parse what Fogliano is trying to say, this is a book that has the potential (with the right teacher or parent) to convert the formerly unconvertible to the wonders of poetry itself. The truth of the matter is this: Fogliano and Morstad will make poets of us all.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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6. Review of the Day: A Great Big Cuddle by Michael Rosen

GreatBigCuddle1A Great Big Cuddle: Poems for the Very Young
By Michael Rosen
Illustrated by Chris Riddell
Candlewick Press
$19.99
ISBN: 978076368116
Ages 0-4
On shelves now.

Did you know that, generally speaking, Europeans have absolutely no interest in the works of Dr. Seuss? It’s true. For years his works have been untranslatable (though great inroads have been made thanks to some recent Spanish editions) and those that remain in the original English have done very poorly in the United Kingdom. Americans by and large tend to be baffled by this. We look at the British lists of Best Picture Books and the like and find them Seuss-free zones. Abandon Seuss, all ye who enter here. I once asked an overseas friend if she’d ever heard of The Lorax. What she’d heard of was the abominable Danny DeVito movie. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Here in the States we rely heavily on Seuss because he was such a genius when it came to writing rhyming verse for the very youngest of readers. Now I hold in my hands a big, beautiful, thick collection of poetry for the very smallest of fry and I have to face an uncomfortable notion. If indeed the English are capable of producing books this good for kids this young, perhaps they don’t need any Seuss. With Rosen and Riddell pairing in this way, they seem perfectly capable of making remarkable, rhythmic, ridiculously catchy titles of their very own.

Thirty-five poems greet you. Thirty-five varying in complexity and content. Just to set the tone, the first rhyme is “Tippy-Tappy” and it contains such a catchy rhythm and happy beat that kids will be bouncing in tandem by the time it is done. Next is “The Button Bop”, limited in word count, high on bops. Accompanied by the vibrant watercolors of artist Chris Riddell, each poem aims to set itself apart from the pack. Some are short, and some slightly longer. Some are anxious or scared while others beat their chests and roar their loudest. It feels like there’s something for everyone in this collection, but the takeaway is how well it holds together. A treasure in a treasury.

Michael Rosen isn’t a household name in United States, but I’d say at least one of his books is. Anyone who has ever sought out or read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury has read his words. We’re just nuts about that book, and we have him to thank for it. Despite that, he’s not an author to relegate himself to just one kind of story. Indeed, I haven’t seen him produce much of anything quite as young as “Bear Hunt” in years (or, at the very least, I haven’t seen works of his brought to U.S. shores this “young” in content). That’s why this book is such a surprise and a delight.

If you have a small child, you grow accustomed to the classic nursery rhymes. They have, after all, withstood the test of time. Still, roundabout the one hundred and fortieth time you’ve read “Bye, Baby Bunting” you long for something a little different. Imagine then the palpable sense of relief such a parent might feel when reading jaunty little poems like “What a Fandango!” starring (what else?) a mango. The thing about Rosen is that so many of his poems feel as if they’ve been in the canon of nursery rhymery for centuries. “Oh Dear” is very much in the same vein as “Hush, Little Baby” all thanks to its regular rhythm and repetition. “Party Time” counts down and brings to mind “This Old Man” in reverse. And should you be under the misbegotten understanding that writing poems of this sort is easy, go on. Write one yourself. Now fill a book with them. I’ll just wait right here and finish my sandwich.

GreatBigCuddle3It is also worth noting that without including any verbal instructions, even the dullest of parental readers will catch on pretty early that many of these poems are interactive. Consider “Finger Story” where your fingers are instructed to do everything from “wake up” and “stretch” to “climb” and “slide”. And just in case they’re still not getting it, Chris Riddell’s art is on hand, showing a pudgy youngster and an orangutan of uncommon sweetness walking their fingers together on the ground.

What is interesting to me here is that in terms of age of the reader, Rosen isn’t limiting himself solely to toddlers. There are a couple poems in here that preschoolers would probably appreciate more than their drooling, babbling brethren. “I Am Hungry”, for example, stars a hungry bear listing everything he could eat at this moment (both the usual fare and unusual selections like “A funny joke” or “The sound of yes”) ending with “Then I’ll eat me” which is just the right level of ridiculousness to amuse the canny four-year-old. And “Don’t Squash” is going to ramp up the silly levels pretty effectively when a splatter happy elephant is instructed not to squash her toes, nose, a bun, the sun, cars, stars, a fly, or the very sky.

Now just the slightest glance of a gander at the back bookflap of this book and you’ll get an eyeful of the sheer talent Rosen has been paired with over the years. His words have been brought to life by folks no less eminent than Helen Oxenbury, Quentin Blake, Bob Graham, and more. Truth be told, I don’t really know if this is his first book with Chris Riddell or not. I will say, though, that when I saw that Riddell was the artist on this title I was surprised. When last seen in the States, Riddell had illustrated that nobly intentioned but ultimately awful Russell Brand Pied Piper of Hamlin. Nothing against Riddell, of course, he did what he could with the material (Clockwork Orange Piper and all). So usually when I see his work I associate it with children’s books a bit more on the hardcore side of the equation. Neil Gaiman and Paul Stewart and the like. Could he do adorable? Could he dial back the disgusting? Yes, yes, and (for good measure) yes again. He has that thing we like to call in the business “talent”. Seems to suit him, it does.

Riddell also seems capable of occasionally re-interpreting Rosen’s rhymes with a particularly child-centric view. The poem “Are You Listening?” felt wildly familiar to me, for example. On the left-hand page sits a guilty dinosaur, slurping a piece of spaghetti, looking mildly nervous. On the right-hand page a toddler is berating a small dinosaur stuffed animal, and it will be very easy indeed for kids looking at the picture to extrapolate the relationship between the realistic dino on the left-hand page, and the one on the right. Sometimes I even got the impression that he was softening the content a tad. The poem “Winter” is one of splinters and blisters, but thanks to the gentle hand of Riddell it turns into a snuggly bear hug with mom. All this and he makes the book multicultural as well. Manifique.

GreatBigCuddle2Is it very British? With an author from London and an artist from Brighton it runs the risk of indulging in a bit of English chicanery. There wasn’t much that struck me as containing a particular sense of humor, though, with the possible exception of the poem “Once”. A thoroughly silly but darker little work, it will probably remind Yankee readers more of Shel Silverstein than the aforementioned Seuss. There is also “Lost”, the story of a small mouse all alone, without any particular happy resolution in sight. Had such a poem appeared in a collection for small children originally in the States, I don’t think it’s ridiculous to think that an American editor would have gently nudged the author away from ending the poem with the somewhat dire, “I don’t know, I don’t know, anything at all. / I’m going to sit still now and just look at the wall.”

The least respected form of children’s literature in existence is poetry. It hasn’t any American Library Association awards it can win. It typically is remembered by teachers in April and then never thought of again. But nursery rhymes fare a bit better. Not every parent remembers to read them to their children, but a fair number try. Getting those same parents to read original works of poetry to their little kids can be trickier, so it helps if you package your book as a big, beautiful, lush and gorgeous gift book. Delightful to read aloud again and again (a good thing since I’m afraid you will have to, if only to please your rabid pint-sized audience) and lovely to the eye, Rosen and Riddell aim for the earliest of ages and end up creating a contemporary classic in the process. It may not be Seuss but you won’t miss him while you read it. A necessary purchase for any new parent. A required selection for libraries and bookstores everywhere. Or, as the book puts it, “Tippy-tappy / Tippy-tappy / Tap, tap, tap.”

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Interviews: Chris and Michael speak on the radio about the book.  Many fine sketches are to be seen as well.

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The man himself.  Repeatedly.

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7. Top 5

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Well it's that time of year.  Looking back and looking forward.  Combing through my goodreads to look at what I read but didn't have time to blog.  Looking at other people's blogs to see what they have been loving in 2015.

What follows are my top 5 titles.  These are not *the* top five, simply five favorites of mine.

I'd love to hear about your favorites of 2015 as well, so please feel free to use the comments to let folks know what your top 5 titles are!!




First off, we have The Water and The Wild, by K.E. Ormsbee.  This book showed up in the mail for me one day, and boy I sure am glad it did.  There hasn't been loads of buzz around it, but THERE SHOULD BE!  As I've said before this is a charming story filled with magic and friendship and it's right up my alley!  If you don't want to take my word for it, check out Nafiza's review over at The Book Wars!






Next up is A Curious Tale of the In-Between, by Lauren DeStefano.  This book is a slow burn for me.  Of course, I was immediately drawn to the cover, but the story of Pram is a curious one, and she has taken up residence is a corner of my mind.  Perfectly creepy, this one dips its' toes into the truly frightening but has hope woven through all the text. This one gets some love over at Good Books & Good Wine as well!






On to Gone Crazy in Alabama, by Rita Williams-Garcia.  Here's where I kick myself for not blogging this one.  These are my favorite sisters in children's books.  They've even beaten out those Penderwick girls.  I am thinking this summer I may get my hands on the audio books for all 3 titles in the series and share them with my daughters. I feel like they beg to be enjoyed aloud.  Filled with humor, heart and family this was a super satisfying conclusion to the series.





Oh, The Truth About Twinkie Pie, I love you so.  Kat Yeh has written a story about family secrets, family history that is filled with charm and heart.  I love discovering stories that examine class differences, and Yeh does so with aplomb and manages to avoid falling into the didactic.  Every tween I've handed this to has come back raving about it.  Check out this review in the emissourian!






And rounding it out is My Diary from the Edge of the World, by Jodi Lynn Anderson.  This one is all about the world and the journey.  I just loved Gracie's family. The fact that they are slightly broken but hopeful in different ways created a kind of magic for me.  I loved imagining the USA as a place filled with dragons and overgrown cityscapes.  It really made me sit up and notice.






What are YOUR top 5 titles of 2015?

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8. Review of the Day: The Tea Party in the Woods by Akiko Miyakoshi

TeaParty1The Tea Party in the Woods
By Akiko Miyakoshi
Kids Can Press
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1771381079
Ages 3-6

There are picture books out there that feel like short films. Some of the time they’re adapted into them (as with The Snowman or The Lost Thing or Lost and Found) and sometimes they’re made in tandem (The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore). And some of the time you know, deep in your heart of hearts, that they will never see the silver screen. That they will remain perfect little evocative pieces that seep deep into the softer linings of a child’s brain, changing them, affecting them, and remaining there for decades in some form. The Tea Party in the Woods is like that. It looks on first glance like what one might characterize to be a “quiet” book. Upon further consideration, however, it is walking the tightrope between fear and comfort. We are in safe hands from the start to the finish but there’s no moment when you relax entirely. In this strangeness we find a magnificent book.

Having snowed all night, Kikko’s father takes off through the woods to shovel out the walk of her grandmother. When he forgets to bring along the pie Kikko’s mother baked for the occasion, Kikko takes off after him. She knows the way but when she spots him in the distance she smashes the pie in her excitement. Catching up, there’s something strange about her father. He enters a house she’s never seen before. Upon closer inspection, the man inside isn’t a man at all but a bear. A sweet lamb soon invites Kikko in, and there she meets a pack of wild animals, all polite as can be and interested in her. When she confesses to having destroyed her grandmother’s cake, they lend her slices of their own, and then march her on her way with full musical accompaniment.

TeaParty2Part of what I like so much about this book is that when a kid reads it they’re probably just taking it at face value. Girl goes into woods, hangs out with clothed furry denizens, and so on, and such. Adults, by contrast, are bringing to the book all sorts of literary, cinematic, and theatrical references of their own. A girl entering the woods with red on her head so as to reach her grandmother’s reeks of Little Red Riding Hood (and I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of a wolf at the tea party). The story of a girl wandering into the woods on her own and meeting the wild denizens who live there for a feast makes the book feel like a best case fairy encounter scenario. In this light the line, “You’re never alone in the woods”, so comforting here, takes on an entirely different feel. Some have mentioned comparisons to Alice in Wonderland as well, but the tone is entirely different. This is more akin to the meal with the badgers in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe than anything Lewis Carroll happened to cook up.

Yet it is the art that is, in many ways, the true allure. Kirkus compared the art to both minimalist Japanese prints as well as Dutch still life’s. Miyakoshi does indeed do marvelous things with light, but to my mind it’s the use of color that’s the most impressive. Red and yellow and the occasional hint of orange/peach appear at choice moments. Against a sea of black and white they draw your eye precisely to where it needs to go. That said, I felt it was Miyakoshi’s artistic choices that impressed me most. Nowhere is this more evident than when Kikko TeaParty3enters the party for the first time, every animal in the place staring at her. It’s a magnificent image. The best in the book by far. Somehow, Miyakoshi was able to draw this scene in such a way where the expressions on the animals’ faces are ambiguous. It isn’t just that they are animals. First and foremost, it seems clear that they are caught entirely unguarded in Kikko’s presence. The animals that had been playing music have stopped mid-note. And I, an adult, looked at this scene and (as I mentioned before) applied my own interpretation on how things could go. While it would be conceivable for Kikko to walk away from the party unscathed, in the hands of another writer she could easily have ended up the main course. That is probably why Miyakoshi follows up that two-page spread (which should have been wordless, but that’s neither here nor there) with an immediate scene of friendly, comforting words and images. The animals not only accept Kikko’s presence, they welcome her, are interested in her, and even help her when they discover her plight (smashing her grandmother’s pie). Adults everywhere who have found themselves unaccompanied (and even uninvited) at parties where they knew no one, and will recognize in this a clearly idyllic, unapologetically optimistic situation. In other words, perfect picture book fodder.

Translation is a delicate art. Done well, it creates some of our greatest children’s literature masterpieces. Done poorly and the book just melts away from the publishing world like mist, as if it was never there. Because I do not have a final copy of this book in hand, I don’t know if the translator for this book is ever named. Whoever they are, I think they knew precisely how to tackle it. Originally published in what I believe to be Japan, I marvel even now at how the story opens. The first line reads, “That morning, Kikko had awoken to a winter wonderland.” We are plunged into the story in such as way as to believe that we’ve been reading about Kikko for quite some time. It doesn’t say “One morning”, which is a distinction of vast importance. It says “That morning” and we are left to consider why that choice was made. What happened before “That morning” that led up to the events of this particular day? Whole short stories have been conjured from less. I love it.

If none of the reasons I’ve mentioned do it for you, consider this: On the front inside book flap of this book perches a squirrel in a bright red party dress in the crook of a tree. Tiny squirrel. Tiny red flowing gown. A detail you might easily miss the first ten times you read this book but it is there and just makes the book for me. Add in the tone, the light, the mood, and the writing itself and you have a book that will be remembered long after the name has faded from its readers’ minds. Something about this book will stick with your kids for all time. If you want something that feels classic and safely dangerous, Miyakoshi’s book is a rare piece of comfortable animal noir. No one is alone in the woods and after this book no one would want to be.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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9. 100 Magnificent Children’s Books 2015

Happy New Year!!

As with each and every year, I like to make my own little list of 100 children’s book titles.  These are pretty much for my own reference in the future, though you’re more than welcome to critique the choices as you prefer.  Previous lists can be found for 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.  And, as always, you’ll note that this isn’t a “Best Books” list but rather just a listing of books I personally found magnificent.  ONWARD!

100 Magnificent Children’s Books 2015

Board Books (new category!)

If You’re a Robot and You Know It by Musical Robot. Illustrated by David Adler

Picture Books (For Children Ages 2-6)

Beep! Beep! Go to Sleep! by Todd Tarpley. Illustrated by John Rocco

Bernice Gets Carried Away by Hannah E. Harrison

Betty Goes Bananas by Steve Antony

Billy’s Booger by William Joyce

Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle. Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred) by Josh Schneider

Fire Engine No. 9 by Mike Austin

Float by Daniel Miyares

The Fly by Petr Horacek

Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise by Sean Taylor. Illustrated by Jean Jullien

In a Village By the Sea by Muon Van. Illustrated by April Chu

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena. Illustrated by Christian Robinson

Moletown by Torben Kuhlmann

The Moon is Going to Addy’s House by Ida Pearle

The Night World by Mordicai Gerstein

Mr. Squirrel and the Moon by Sebastian Meschenmoser

One Day, The End: Short, Very Short, Shorter-Than-Ever Stories by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Illustrated by Fred Koehler

Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon. Illustrated by Mark Siegel

The Potato King by Christoph Niemann

Raindrops Roll by April Pulley Sayre

Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall

The Red Hat by David Teague. Illustrated by Antoinette Portis

Red, Yellow, Blue (And a Dash of White Too) by C.G. Esperanza

Robo-Sauce by Adam Rubin. Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri

Sidewalk Flowers by Jonarno Lawson. Illustrated by Sydney Smith

Snow White and the Seventy-Seven Dwarfs by Davide Cali. Illustrated by Raphaelle Barbanegre

The Tea Party in the Woods by Akiko Miyakoshi

Tell Me What to Dream About by Giselle Potter

This Is Sadie by Sara O’Leary. Illustrated by Julie Morstad

Water is Water: A Book About the Water Cycle by Miranda Paul. Illustrated by Jason Chin

When Otis Courted Mama by Kathi Appelt. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry

The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski

Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman. Illustrated by Zachariah OHora

A Wonderful Year by Nick Bruel

 

Folktales and Fairy Tales

The Hare and the Hedgehog by The Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Jonas Lauströer

Maya’s Blanket: La Manda de Maya by Monica Brown. Illustrated by David Diaz

The Most Wonderful Thing in the World by Vivian French. Illustrated by Angela Barrett

Mousetropolis by R. Gregory Christie

One the Shoulder of a Giant: An Inuit Folktale by Neil Christopher. Illustrated by Jim Nelson

Poetry

Beastly Verse by Joohee Yoon

A Great Big Cuddle: Poems for the Very Young by Michael Rosen. Illustrated by Chris Riddell

Hypnotize a Tiger: Poems About Just About Everything by Calef Brown

Lullaby and Kisses Sweet: Poems to Love With Your Baby, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Alyssa Nassner

The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry, edited by J. Patrick Lewis

Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes, collected by Elizabeth Hammill

Sail Away by Langston Hughes. Illustrated by Ashley Bryan

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by Ekua Holmes

 

Stories for Younger Readers

Buckle and Squash: The Perilous Princess Plot by Sarah Courtauld (ill?)

The Day No One Was Angry by Toon Tellegen. Illustrated by Marc Boutavant

Don’t Throw It to Mo! by David Adler. Illustrated by Sam Ricks

Dory and the Real True Friend by Abby Hanlon

The First Case by Ulf Nilsson. Illustrated by Gitte Spee

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon

The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems. Illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi

 

Stories for Older Readers

The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Lawrence Yep

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold. Illustrated by Emily Gravett

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

Lilliput by Sam Gayton. Illustrated by Alice Ratteree

Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Masterminds by Gordon Korman

MiNRS by Kevin Sylvester

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!) Alison DeCamp

A Nearer Moon by Melanie Crowder

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel. Illustrated by Jon Klassen

Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall

A Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold

The Sign of the Cat by Lynne Jonell

The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John. Illustrated by Kevin Cornell

Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins. Illustrated by Jamie Hogan

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. Illustrated by Katie Kath

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

 

 Graphic Books

Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola. Illustrated by Emily Carroll

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

Human Body Theater by Maris Wicks

Lost in NYC by Najda Spiegelman. Illustrated by Sergio Garcia Sanchez

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor by Nathan Hale

The Only Child by Guojing

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Rutabaga: The Adventure Chef by Eric Colossal

Space Dumplings by Craig Thompson

Nonfiction

28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World by Charles R. Smith Jr. Illustrated by Shane Evans

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton. Illustrated by Don Tate

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko. Illustrated by Sean Qualls

Emu by Claire Saxby. Illustrated by Graham Byrne

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by Jamey Christoph

I, Fly by Bridget Heos. Illustrated by Jennifer Plecas

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery That Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff. Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno

Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower by Greg Pizzoli

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10. Review of the Day: Gordon and Tapir by Sebastian Meschenmoser

GordonTapirGordon and Tapir
By Sebastian Meschenmoser
North/South Books
$18.95
ISBN: 9780735842199
Ages 3-6
On shelves April 1, 2016

There is a perception here in America about the Germans. It is a firm belief that, as a nation, they are devoid of a sense of humor. Americans love to bring this up. I’m not sure what they’re trying to prove necessarily when they say it, but the idea has been repeated so often that few would bother to contest it. Can you name any German stand-up comics? How about funny imported German films? What about funny German picture books? AH HA! There I’ve got you. Because while I cannot pull out of a hat any comics or movies, what I can do is show you without a sliver of a doubt that thanks to picture books like those of Sebastian Meschenmoser, we have absolute proof that Germans have a distinct and ribald sense of humor. With the release of his latest book in the States, Gordon and Tapir, Meschenmoser plumbs the Odd Couple concept with some distinctive twists of his very own. This is some primo German goofball stuff.

The book opens wordlessly. A penguin goes to his restroom with a newspaper. He reaches for the toilet paper. But what is this? Someone’s used it all up. And not just anyone. The penguin, who goes by the name of Gordon, stamps down the hall to his roommate Tapir’s room. Inside he finds the animal reclining in a toilet paper constructed hammock, an elaborate fruit cup in hand and a headdress that would wow Carmen Miranda on his noggin. Immediately Gordon launches into a litany of transgressions Tapir has engaged in. The floor’s sticky with fruit, the dishes are never done, and why exactly has there been a hippo living in the bathtub for the past few days? Tapir isn’t taking this lying down. He has his own complaints, like why does EVERYTHING have to be so neat and tidy? Why does the garbage have to stink of fish all the time? And why can’t Tapir join Gordon’s all-penguin club? Eventually, Gordon moves out and once Tapir discovers this he gives the bird a call. Turns out, it is a fantastic solution. Now Tapir can be dirty, Gordon can be neat, but they can visit each other and be friends again far better than if they lived together. Happy endings for all.

I’ve always carried the torch for Meschenmoser’s art. From his sleepless animals in Waiting for Winter to his previous penguin dip into surrealism in Learning to Fly the man has a strange kinship with the furry and feathery. So much of the character development in these tales comes from their body language. For example, there’s a spread in this book where Gordon lies in bed on his back staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. while Tapir does much the same thing, albeit blearily, in his own room. This is followed by a silent film of sorts where Gordon finds a new place to stay in the paper and takes off as Tapir hears the door open and looks up with just the saddest expression in his eyes. Any picture book that dares to go silent for an extended amount of time in the center of the story is being gutsy. It’s not easy to pull off, and Meschenmoser ups the ante (as it were) by rendering everything during those wee hours of the morning in black and white graphite sketches.

GordonTapir2Then there are the little visual details and gags. The humor is sublime here. Meschenmoser is just as comfortable with silent gags (remember, this is coming from the man who made Charlie Chaplin references in the images of Mr. Squirrel and the Moon) as he is with words. Some of the jokes are there for the parents doing the reading. Did you notice the tapir in a bathing suit that bedecks the inside bathroom door? Or the fact that when Gordon stomps from the bathroom to Tapir’s room the wallpaper goes from a pristine fish pattern to paper that’s torn and peeling in large chunks? Did you see that the little cactus that Tapir gives to Gordon as a housewarming present is sitting on his dresser earlier in the book? And did you know that every single one of Gordon’s penguin friends is based on a famous author? I’ve good money riding on the fact that one of them resembles Sigmund Freud. I loved that Gordon has a goldfish swimming in his party drink (a tasty treat for later?). And so tiny you’d probably miss them but worth it every time I notice them is this: mongooses in teeny tiny colorful party hats. Life is sweeter because they are there.

But for all that, the real reason I loved this book as much as I did was that the lesson I took away from it wasn’t American in the slightest. Imagine if a Yank tried writing the same book. Gordon and Tapir would have their differences. They’d have their fight. They’d both spend a sleepless night. Then the next morning Gordon would make a concession, Tapir would make a concession, and they’d work out their differences. And there is nothing wrong with a book about meeting someone halfway. Yet what I loved so much about this book was the fact that it eschewed every rote picture book plot I’d come to expect and went in an entirely new direction. Because honestly, let’s face it, sometimes friends are NOT meant to live together. Couples grow apart, people change, and there are times when you are much closer to someone if they don’t share the same space that you do 24/7. Meschenmoser makes it crystal clear that Gordon and Tapir’s friendship is stronger when Gordon leaves. Now I’m sure some folks will read this as a “stick with your own kind” narrative (after all, tapirs and penguins don’t even occupy the same temperate zones) but I’d argue that their friendship belies that. It isn’t that they don’t vastly enjoy each other’s company. They just need their own personal space at the end of the day, and that is absolutely 100% a-okay.

GordonTapir1As crazy as it sounds, this actually wouldn’t be the worst picture book to hand to a small child with parents going through a divorce. I think it’s pretty clear from the book that sometimes you have nothing in common with the person you’re living with and that it’s best for all parties if a split is made. I don’t think the book was written with that intention in mind, and that is probably why it would work particularly well. There isn’t any didacticism to plow through. Just good storytelling

There’s a long history of funny German children’s literature that leads directly to Mr. Meschenmoser. Remember that this is the country where Der Struwwelpeter came to light (though its humor is a bit of an acquired taste). And alongside fellow contemporary funny German picture book artists like Torben Kuhlmann and Ole Konnecke he’s in good standing. With any luck we’ll be seeing more of their books coming to U.S. shores in the coming years. So who knows? Maybe if we get enough Gordon and Tapir types of books the humorless perception of the German people will undergo a change. At the very least, we’ll get some magnificent stories out of the deal. This one’s a keeper.

On shelves April 1st.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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11. Review of the Day: Jazz Day by Roxane Orgill

jazzday1Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph
By Roxane Orgill
Illustrated by Francis Vallejo
Candlewick Press
$18.99
ISBN: 9780763669546
Ages 9-12
On shelves March 8th

Some books for kids have a hard road ahead of them. Here’s a secret. If you want a book to sell just oodles and oodles of copies to the general public, all you have to do is avoid writing in one of two specific genres: poetry and nonfiction. Even the best and brightest nonfiction books have a nasty tendency to fade from public memory too soon, and poetry only ever gets any notice during April a.k.a National Poetry Month. I say that, and yet there are some brave souls out there who will sometimes not just write poetry. Not just write nonfiction. They’ll write nonfiction-inspired poetry. It’s crazy! It’s like they care about the quality of the content more than make a bazillion dollars or something. The latest book to fall into this category is Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill. Melding topics like jazz musicians and photography with history, poetry, and some truly keen art, this isn’t really like any other book on your shelves. I’m betting that that’s a good thing too.

It was sort of a crazy idea for a graphic designer / jazz buff to come up with. By 1958 jazz was a well-established, deeply American, musical genre. So why not try to get all the jazz greats, and maybe some up-and-comers, into a single photograph all together? The call went out but Art Kane (who really wasn’t a photographer himself) had no idea who would turn up. After all, they were going to take the picture at ten in the morning. That’s a time most jazz performers are fast asleep. Yet almost miraculously they came. Count Basie and Thelonious Monk. Maxine Sullivan and Dizzy Gillespie. Some of them were tired. Some were having a great time catching up with old friends. And after much cajoling on Kane’s part a photo was made. Fifty-seven musicians (fifty-eight if you count Willie “Lion” Smith just out of frame). Orgill tells the tale in poetry, with artist Francis Vallejo providing the art and life. Extensive backmatter consists of an Author’s Note, Biographies, a page on the photo and homages to it, Source Notes, and a Bibliography that includes Books, Articles, Audiovisual Material, and Websites.

Jazz is often compared to poetry. So giving this book too rigid a structure wouldn’t offer the right feel at all. I’m no poet. I wish I had a better appreciation for the art than I do. Yet even with my limited understanding of the style I found myself stopping when I read the poem “This Moment” written from the point of view of Eddie Locke, a drummer. It’s the kind of poem where it’s composed as a series of quatrains. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. It was fortunate for me that Orgill mentions in the back of the book that the poem is a pantoum. I’d never have come up with that term myself (I thought it was a sestina). Most of the poetry in the book isn’t really that formal. In fact, Orgill confesses that, “I write prose, not poetry. But this story demanded a sense of freedom, an intensity, and a conciseness that prose could not provide.” The result is that most of the poems are free verse, which I much preferred.

jazzday2Did you know that when publishing a book for kids you’re not supposed to turn in your manuscript with an illustrator already attached? True fact. Editors like having the power to pair authors and artists together. To be honest, they have experience in this area and sometimes their intervention is sublime (sometimes it fails miserably too, but that’s a tale for another day). I’m afraid I don’t know what Candlewick editor saw Orgill’s manuscript and thought of Francis Vallejo as a potential illustrator. If I knew I’d kiss them. Detroit born Vallejo is making his debut with this book and you’d never know in a million years that he wasn’t a born and bred Harlemite. His style is perfect for this tale. As adept at comic style panels as he is acrylic and pastel jazz scenes, there’s life in this man’s art. It was born to accompany jazz. It’s also particularly interesting watching what he does with light. The very beginning of the book shows a sunrise coming up on a hot August day. As it rises, shadows make way. This play between light and shadow, between the heat of the photo shoot and the cool jazz clubs that occasionally make an appearance in the text, gives the book its heart. It’s playful and serious all at once so that when you lift the page that reveals the real photograph, that action produces a very real moment of awe.

There’s been a lot of talk in the world of children’s literature lately about the research done on both works of fiction and nonfiction. Anytime you set your book in the past you have a responsibility to get the facts right. Part of what I love so much about Jazz Day is the extent of the research here. Orgill could easily have found a couple articles and books about the day of the photograph and stopped there. Instead, she writes that “Kane was by all accounts a wonderful storyteller, but one who did not always adhere to the facts. With the help of his son Jonathan Kane, I tried to set the story of the photograph straight.” Instructors who are teaching about primary sources in the schools could use this anecdote to show how reaching out to primary sources is something you need to do all the time. The rest of the backmatter (and it really is some of the most extensive I’ve ever seen) would be well worth showing to kids as well.

The question then becomes, whom is this book for? The complexity of the subject matter suggests that it’s meant for older kids. Those kids that might have a sense of some of the history (they might have heard what jazz is or who Duke Ellington was at some point in their travels). But would they read it for pleasure or as a kind of assigned reading? I don’t know. I certainly found it amusing enough, but I’m a 37-year-old woman. Not the target age range exactly. Yet I want to believe that there’s a fair amount of kid-friendly material here. Poems like “So Glad” and “quartet” may be about adults talking from an adult perspective, but Orgill cleverly livens the book up with the perspective of kids every step of the way. From the children sitting bored on the curb to a girl peering down from her window wishing the jazz men and photographer would just go away, kids get to give their two cents constantly. Read it more than once and you’ll begin to recognize some of them. Brothers Alfred and Nelson crop up more than a couple times too. Their mischief is just what the doctor ordered. With that in mind, it might be a good idea to have kids read different poems at different times. Save the more esoteric ones for later.

Jazz is hard to teach to kids. They know it’s important but it’s hard to make it human. There are always exceptions, though. For example, my 20-month-old is so obsessed with the book This Jazz Man by Karen Ehrhardt that he’ll have me read it to him a hundred times over. To my mind, that’s what this book is capable of, if at a much older level. It humanizes the players and can serve as a starting point for discussions, teaching units, you name it. These men and women are hot and tired and laughing and alive, if only at this moment in time. It’s a snapshot in both the literal and figurative sense. It’ll take some work to get it into the right hands, I suspect, but in the end it’s worth it. Jazz isn’t some weird otherworldly language. It’s people. These people. Now the kids in the book, and the kids reading this book, have a chance to get to know them.

On shelves March 8th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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12. Review of the Day: The Airport Book by Lisa Brown

AirportBook1The Airport Book
By Lisa Brown
A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook, an imprint of Macmillan
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-62672-091-6
Ages 4-7
On shelves May 10th.

Look, I don’t wanna brag but I’m what you might call a going-to-the-airport picture book connoisseur. I’ve seen them all. From out-of-date fare like Byron Barton’s Airport to the uniquely clever Flight 1-2-3 by Maria Van Lieshout to the odd but helpful Everything Goes: In the Air by Brian Biggs. Heck, I’ve even examined at length books about the vehicles that drive on the airport tarmac (see: Brian Floca’s Five Trucks). If it helps to give kids a better sense of what flying is like, I’ve seen it, baby. And I will tell you right here and now that not a single one of these books is quite as good at explaining every step of the journey as well as Lisa Brown’s brand new The Airport Book. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s more than just an instructional how-to. Packed with tiny details that make each rereading worthwhile, a plot that sweeps you along, and downright great information, this one here’s a keeper to its core.

“When you go to the airport, you can take a car, a van, a bus, or even a train. Sometimes we take a taxicab.” A family of four prepares for a big trip. Bags are packed with the haste that anyone with small children will recognize. Speed is of the essence. As they arrive at the airport we meet other people and families taking the same flight. There’s airport security to get through (the book mentions the many lines you sometimes have to stand in to get where you’re going), the awesome size of the airport itself, the gate, and then the plane. As we watch the younger sister in the family is having various mild freakouts over her missing (or is it?) stuffed monkey. The monkey in question is always in our view, packed in a suitcase, discovered by a dog during the flight, and finally reuniting with its owner on the luggage carousel. The family meets up with the grandparents and at last the vacation can begin. That is, until they all have to go home again.

AirportBook2The problem with most airport-related picture books is something I like to call the Fly Away Home conundrum. Originally penned by Eve Bunting, Fly Away Home is one of those rare picture books out there that deal with homelessness in a realistic way. The story features a father and son living out of an airport. Since it touches on such an important, and too little covered, topic, the book continues to appear on required reading lists, in spite of the fact that the very premise is now woefully out-of-date. There are few areas of everyday American life that have changed quite so dramatically over such a short amount of time as the average airport experience. That’s why so many things about The Airport Book rang true for me. When Brown covers the facts surrounding departures and goodbyes to family and friends, she doesn’t set the scene inside the building but rather on the sidewalk outside of ticketing, as people are dropped off. Later you see people at their gate plugging in their cell phones willy-nilly (something I’ve never seen in a picture book before). It lends the book a kind of air of authenticity.

The story’s good and the art’s great but what I liked about the book was the language. Brown never tells you precisely what is going to happen, but she does mention the likelihoods. “Sometimes the plane is bouncy, but most of the time it is smooth.” “Sometimes the sidewalks and staircases move by themselves.” “Sometimes there are small beeping cars driving through . . .” As you read, you realize that in a way the narration of the book is being created for us from the perspective of the big brother. He’ll occasionally insert little notes that are probably of more use to him than us. Example: “You have to hold your little sister’s hands tight, or she could get lost.” Mind you, some of the sections have the ring of poetry to them, while staying squarely within a believable child’s voice. I was particularly fond the of the section that says, “Outside there are clouds and clouds and clouds.”

AirportBook3With all the calls for more diverse picture books to be published, it would be noticeable if Ms. Brown’s book didn’t have a variety of families, races, ages, genders, etc. What’s notable to me is that she isn’t just checking boxes here. Her diversity far surpasses those books where they’ll throw in the occasional non-white character in a group shot. Instead, the main family has a dark-skinned father and light-skinned, blond mother. Travels through the airport show adults in wheelchairs, twins, women in headscarves, Sikhs, pregnant ladies, and more. In other words, what you’d actually see in an airport these days.

And then the little details come up. Brown throws into the book a surprising array of tiny look-and-discover elements, suggesting that perhaps this book would be just as much fun in its way as a Where’s Waldo? game for older siblings as it is their younger brethren. Ask them if they can find The Wright Brothers, Hatchet (don’t think too hard about what happens to the plane in that book), the mom’s copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or the person looking for Amelia Earhart (who may not be as difficult to find as you think). There’s also a cast of characters that command your attention like the businesswoman who’s always on her cell phone and the short artist with the mysteriously shaped package.

There’s nothing to say that in five years airports will be just as different to us today as pre-9/11 airports are now. Yet even if our airports start requiring us to hula hoop and dance the Hurly Burly, Brown’s book is still going to end up being the go-to text desperate parents turn to when they need a book that explains to their children what an average airplane flight looks like. It pretty much gets everything right, exceeding expectations. Generally speaking, books that tell kids about what something is like (be it a trip to the dentist or a new babysitter) are pedantic, didactic, dull as dishwater fare. Brown’s book, in contrast, has flare. Has pep. Has a beat and you can dance to it. Like I said, this may be the best dang going-to-the-airport book I can name (though you should certainly check out the others I’m mentioned at the beginning of this review). A treat, it really is. A treat.

On shelves May 10th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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13. Review of the Day: ¡Olinguito, de la A a la Z! / Olinguito, from A to Z by Lulu Delacre

OLINGUITO¡Olinguito, de la A a la Z! / Olinguito, from A to Z
By Lulu Delacre
Children’s Book Press, an imprint of Lee & Low Books
$18.95
ISBN: 978-0-89239-327-5
Ages 4-7
On shelves now

Adults, I have a little secret. Have you ever wanted to sound smart at dinner parties? Knowledgeable in the ways of the world and how it works? It’s easy to do if you know the secret. Come closer… I’ll whisper it to you. Read nonfiction children’s books. Seriously, do that and watch as your brain expands. If I can talk with any competency about the Donner Party or the siege of Leningrad or the Pentagon Papers, it is because I read nonfiction written for people half my age and younger. Most recently I learned about olinguitos. Ever heard of them? If not, you aren’t alone. These shy little rainforest denizens were only discovered and announced as recently as 2013. Not too much is known about them, which makes placing them into picture books a bit of a challenge. Author/illustrator Lulu Delacre had a plan, though. All she’d need to do would be to turn the story of the discovery of olinguitos into a bilingual/alphabet/nonfiction/search & find title. You see? Easy peasy. Or, put another way, so incredibly difficult that no one else would have ever attempted it. But that’s what I like about Ms. Delacre. Sometimes the craziest ideas churn out the most interesting books.

Olinguito1A zoologist from Washington D.C. is in the cloud forest today. He is searching for the elusive olinguito, a squirrel-like mammal that dwells in the trees. Along his path we meet the rainforest in an abecedarian fashion. From the A for the Andes to the M of moss and monkey, finally ending with Z for the zoologist himself, the book observes the many denizens that call the cloud forest their home. The book is entirely bilingual and backmatter (also bilingual) consists of notes on the “Discovery of the Olinguito”, facts about the Cloud Forest, information about the illustrations, hints on how to be an explorer, a heavily illustrated Glossary, “More Helpful Words”, and an extensive list of Author’s Sources.

I’ve read plenty of Spanish bilingual picture books in my day. In doing so, I’m a bit handicapped since I don’t speak the language. Still, there are things that I can observe from my end. For example, the difficulty Ms. Delacre must have faced in writing two texts, both of which had to contain specific letters of the alphabet. Now the primary language in this book, to a certain extent, is the Spanish. For each letter the Spanish sections get a lot more use than the English. Take the letter “J”. In the Spanish language section it reads, “Jigua jaguey y jazmin brotan, crecen en tal jardin.” Pretty straightforward. Now in the English: “Jigua, fig, and coffee trees sprout and grow in this garden.” Were it not for the “jingua” we’d be out a J. To be fair, sometimes the two languages get equal use of a letter. “I”, for example, is “insectos incredibles y una inerte iguana” and also “incredible insects, and a resting iguana.” However, more often than not the Spanish gets more words with the chosen letter. This is particularly true near the end of the book where the English translations at times completely do away with the letter at all. In “X” and “U” (surprisingly) not a single word in the English portions begin with those letters. What is clear is that the Spanish is the focus of the book. With that in mind, the book acquires another potential use; excellent reading for people learning Spanish.

Olinguito2It’s been a long time since I reviewed a Lulu Delacre book. I think the last time I seriously considered one was when Ms. Delacre illustrated Lucia Gonzalez’s The Storyteller’s Candle. There, the book integrated newspapers and other mixed media to tell the tale of two children introducing their immigrant neighborhood to the library. Here, the art is also mixed media but there’s a smoothness to it that was lacking in Storyteller’s Candle. In the back of the book Ms. Delacre mentions that there are real pressed leaves and flowers in every picture (something I entirely missed on my first, second, and third reads). There is also a zoologist in every picture, like a fuzzy little olinguito-seeking Waldo. Add in the colors, angles, and gorgeous spreads and you’ve got yourself one heck of a colorful outing. Ms. Delacre even mentions in her note at the book’s end that, just to be honest, these pictures are entirely too clear. “I decided to remove the clouds and limit the vegetation. I represented the fog and mist with squares of translucent paper framing the alphabetic letters. This allowed the species to be in plain sight.” Not only is she honest but creative as well.

I’ll level with you that I’m not entirely certain how one goes about using this book with kids. That is not to say that I don’t think it can be done and done well. But what Ms. Delacre has conjured up here isn’t a simple book. It’s not simplistic. The English text lacks much of the fun alliteration of the Spanish, which means the teacher or parent who reads this with their non-Spanish speaking children will need to span that gap themselves. It’s not a readaloud in the sense that you can just read it to a group without comment. This is an interactive text. You need to be spotting the zoologist, naming the vegetation and animals, flipping back and forth between the pictures and the glossary for clarification on different names, etc. In other words, this book requires the adult reader to be an active rather than passive participant in the reading process. Olinguito is more than mere words on a page.

There’s a soft spot in my heart for any book that proves to kids that there is more out there to find and discover than they might expect. The oceans haven’t been mapped out. Outer space remains, in many ways, a mystery. And hidden in the rainforests are tiny creatures just waiting to be discovered. Our world still needs explorers. If it takes one tiny mammal to prove that to them, so be it. A clever, lovely, wise little book. Knowledge of Spanish helpful, but not required.

On shelves now.

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14. Review of the Day: The Storyteller by Evan Turk

Storyteller1The Storyteller
By Evan Turk
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
$24.99
ISBN: 9781481435185
Ages 4-8
On shelves June 28th

Credit the internet age for doing what the television age never could. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there is a movement around the world that can be interpreted as nothing so much as a direct response to our digital age. You may have noticed it in small things, like the rise of Steampunk or the sudden surge of interest in Maker stations and the kinds of “hacking” that look suspiciously similar to activities found in shop class in days of yore. All this comes about because people have come to believe that we do not create enough tangible objects in our day-to-day lives anymore. And while this is true, let us not forget that we do not create enough intangible objects either. I’m talking about storytelling, that ancient artform that is currently seeing a worldwide resurgence. It isn’t just the increase in storytelling festivals and podcasts like The Moth here in the States. Young people in countries worldwide are doing what their elders have desired for decades; they’re asking to be told a story. Taking his cues from the newfound interest of young Moroccans in Marrakech in the ancient storytelling tradition, author/illustrator Evan Turk uses the folktale format to craft an original story about storytelling, weaving, history, and language. The end result is a twisty turny story within a story within a story that challenges young readers even as it lures them in.

Once, in the great country of Morocco, storytellers flourished and the cities’ fountains flowed with cool, clear water. As time went on the people became comfortable and forgot about the storytellers, and so they disappeared over the years. So too did the fountains dry up, until one day a boy went looking for some water. What he found instead was an old storyteller. As the man told his tale he would end his story with a story within a story and the boy would find his brass cup filled with liquid. Even as this was happening, however, a desert djinn saw the drought as an opportunity to reclaim the cities that had previously held him back with their fountains. Yet when the djinn was set to level his town, the boy managed to delay him with his storytelling. And as he wove his tale, the people were able to refill their fountains until finally storytelling and water ran freely in the cities once more.

Storyteller2My brain is not what it used to be. Remind me again. What’s that term for a story that tells a story that tells a story that ends only when the innermost story doubles back and each tale is finished in turn? Is there a word such a thing? I suspect that the storytellers amongst us would know. The most obvious similarity to this book that comes to mind is, of course, the tale of Scheherazade. Indeed, the boy uses his stories to trick the djinn. And what could be a more natural comparison? In both tales it is storytelling that proves to be the saving of us all. Our thirst is quenched and we are tied to our history like never before. The obvious question then is whether or not Turk’s text is too complex for kids to follow. Sure, he distinguishes between the tales with different colored fonts, but will that be enough to allow them to remember what came before as they plunge deeper and deeper into the narrative? I think there may be some confusion at work, certainly. I wouldn’t necessarily hand this to a three or four-year-old. However, Turk’s text takes pains to remind the reader where the tale was before. The art helps as well. Confusion, such as it is, will be held to a minimum.

I first knew of Turk’s work when he illustrated Bethany Hegedus’s Grandfather Gandhi. In that book he integrated real spun cotton threads into the art, knowing full well the importance spinning had to Gandhi and his followers. In this book, weaving is the craft of choice so I wondered, not without reason, if woven threads would make their way into the art. As it happens, there are plenty of water-soluble crayons, colored drawing pencils, inks, indigo, sugared green tea, and even art created by heat gun and fire in the illustrations, but nothing so simple as thread. Turk mentions this on his publication page and he puts a little note to the reader there as well. It reads, “Look for a blue glimmer of hope to appear around each story!” and a small blue diamond appears. Naturally, I was curious so I looked. Sure as shooting, after each story’s text a diamond appears. However, as the stories appear within stories within stories, the diamonds grow more elaborate and decorative. Then, as the stories end one by one, the diamonds simplify once more. I began searching the art for more diamonds and here Turk doesn’t disappoint. If you look closely at the borders of the book, you see that the diamonds appear when there is hope and fade from blue to brown diamonds when hope dries up. As the storytelling increases the borders fill in more and more blue, just as the townspeople fill their fountains with bowl after bowl of water. Point out to a child reader the diamond motif and you are sure to be surprised by all that they find hidden in these pages.

Storyteller4I should probably say something about Turk’s art itself. When I reviewed Grandfather Gandhi I had difficulty putting into words precisely what Turk does with his images. So I looked at the book’s professional reviews. His art causes reviewers to use terms like “dynamic visuals”, “stylized” and “strikingly patterned”. They say his art displays “bold, expressive imagery” or that he “mixes carefully detailed renderings with abstracted expressions of emotional struggle.” I agree with all of that but no one mentions his faces and hands. The patterns here are striking and upon closer inspection they yield such marvelous details it wouldn’t take much for this art to spin wildly out of control, opting for an abstract approach to the proceedings as a whole. Instead, Turk centers his art through the hands and faces of his characters. Look closely and you’ll see what I mean. The old storyteller’s hands are gnarled and wonderfully expressive, even as his audience of one clutches a single brass bowl. The hands of a cunning neighbor stroke her child as she schemes, while a princess, escaping on the night before her wedding, holds up her hennaed hands in despair. Hands. Heads. Hearts.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about diversity in children’s literature. Specifically, some of that discussion has concerned those books written by white people about other cultures. It’s not a new phenomenon but what is a bit new is the increasing understanding that if you are going to use another culture, you need to do your homework. If, for example, you are setting a story in Morocco, then you need to make the readers understand why you made that choice. That it wasn’t arbitrary. This is yet another of the many reasons I’m so impressed with Turk’s work here. That he sets his story in Morocco (contemporary Morocco, by the look of it) is deeply purposeful. The Author’s Note at the end explains further. From this we learn that Morocco’s public storytellers or hlaykia have told tales for “nearly one thousand years” and yet “Only a handful of master storytellers remain”. All is not lost, though. Renewed interest in storytelling has surfaced, specifically at a restaurant called Café Clock in Marrakech. Turk then closes with a small Bibliography of sources on everything from storytelling to carpet weaving. The book then is not an appropriation of an “exotic” culture done on a whim but rather a considered, thoughtful selection that serves as an ideal setting for a tale about storytelling then, now, and in the future.

Storyteller3It was once part of a children’s librarian’s training to know how to tell a story from memory. Here in America it was even considered part of a children’s librarian’s heritage, though in the last few decades it has been fast forgotten. There are still pockets that remember, though. That’s why books like Turk’s give me the oddest little sense of hope. As I mentioned before, storytelling everywhere is seeing renewed interest. It seems odd to say, but this book, wrapped as it is in classic motifs and themes dating back hundreds, even thousands, of years, is one of the freshest, most timely picture books I’ve had the honor to read in a long time. Visually stunning with a storyline to match, Turk is beginning to make good on his talents. This is a man with storytelling in his blood and bones. Our children reap the rewards. A can’t miss book.

On shelves June 28th.

Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Frederick by Leo Lionni
  • Tell Me the Day Backwards by Albert Lamb, ill. David McPhail
  • The Girl Who Saved Yesterday by Julius Lester, ill. Carl Angel

Misc:

See more images from the book here.

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15. Review of the Day: Dwarf Nose by Wilhelm Hauff

DwarfNose1Dwarf Nose
By Wilhelm Hauff
Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger
Translated by Anthea Bell
Minedition
$19.99
ISBN: 97898888341139
Ages 8-12
On shelves April 1st

It seems so funny to me that for all that our culture loves and adores fairytales, scant attention is paid to the ones that can rightfully be called both awesome and obscure. There is a perception out there that there are only so many fairytales out there that people really need to know. But for every Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty you run into, there’s a Tatterhood or Riquet with the Tuft lurking on the sidelines. Thirty or forty years ago you’d sometimes see these books given a life of their own front and center with imaginative picture book retellings. No longer. Folktales and fairytales are widely viewed by book publishers as a dying breed. A great gaping hole exists, and into it the smaller publishers of the world have sought to fulfill this need. Generally speaking they do a very good job of bringing world folktales to the American marketplace. Obscure European fairytales, however, are rare beasts. How thrilled I was then to discover the republication of Wilhelm Hauff and Lisbeth Zwerger’s Dwarf Nose. Originally released in America in 1995 by North-South books, the book has long been out-of-print. Now the publisher minedition has brought it back and what a beauty it is. Strange and sad and oddly uplifting, this tale has all the trappings of the fairytales you know and love, but somehow remains entirely unexpected just the same.

For there once was a boy who lived with his two adoring parents. His father was a cobbler and his mother sold vegetables and herbs in the market. One day the boy was assisting his mother when a very strange old woman came to them and starting digging her dirty old hands through their wares. Incensed, the boy insulted the old woman, which as you may imagine didn’t go down very well. When the boy is made to help carry the woman’s purchases back to her home he is turned almost immediately into a squirrel and made to work for seven years in her kitchen. After that time he awakes, as if in a dream, only to find seven years have passed and his body has been transformed. Now he has no neck to speak of, a short frame, a hunched back, and a extraordinarily long nose. Sad that his parents refuse to acknowledge him as their son, he sets forth to become the king’s cook. And all would have gone without incident had he not picked up that enchanted goose in the market one day. Written in 1827 this tale is famous in Germany but remains relatively obscure in the United States today.

DwarfNose4I go back and forth when I consider why this fairytale isn’t all that famous to Americans. There are a variety of reasons. There are some depressing elements to it (kid is unrecognizable to parents, loses seven years of his life, etc.) sure. There aren’t any beautiful princesses (except possibly the goose). The bad guy doesn’t even appear in the second act. Still, it’s the peculiarities that give it its flavor. We’ve heard of plenty of stories where the heroes are transformed by the villains, but how many villains give those same heroes a useful occupation in the process? It’s Dwarf Nose’s practicalities that are so interesting, as are the nitty gritty elements of the tale. I love the use of herbs particularly. Whether the story is talking about Sneezewell or Bellyheal, you get the distinct feeling that you’re listening to someone who knows what they’re talking about. Plus there are tiny rodent servants. That’s a plus.

We like it when our fairytales give us nice clear-cut morals. Be clever, be kind, be good. This may be another reason why Dwarf Nose never really took off in the States. At first glance one would assume that the moral would be about not judging by appearances. Dwarf Nose’s parents cannot comprehend that their beautiful boy is now ugly, and so they throw him out. He gets a job as a chef but does not search out a remedy until the goose he rescues gives him some hope. I was fully prepared for him to remain under his spell for the rest of his life without regrets, but of course that doesn’t happen. He’s restored to his previous beauty, he returns to his parents who welcome him with open arms, and he doesn’t even marry the goose girl. Hauff ends with a brief mention of a silly war that occurred thanks to Dwarf Nose’s disappearance ending with the sentence, “Small causes, as we see, often have great consequences, and this is the story of Dwarf Nose.” That right there would be your moral then. Not an admonishment to avoid judging the outward appearance of a thing (though Dwarf Nose’s talents drill that one home pretty clearly) but instead that a little thing can lead to a great big thing.

DwarfNose2When this version of Dwarf Nose was originally released in the States in 1994 the reviews were puzzled by its length. Booklist said it was “somewhat verbose to modern listeners” and School Library Journal noted the “grotesque tenor of the book”. Fascinatingly this is not the only incarnation of this tale you might find in America. In 1960 Doris Orgel translated a version of “Dwarf Long-Nose” which was subsequently illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The School Library Journal review of Zwerger’s version in 1994 suggested that the Sendak book was infinitely more kid-friendly than hers. I think that’s true to a certain extent. You get a lot more pictures with the Sendak and the book itself is a much smaller format. While Zwerger excels in infinitely beautiful watercolors, Sendak’s pen and inks with just the slightest hint of orange for color are almost cartoonish in comparison. What I would argue then is that the intended age of the audience is different. Sure the text is remarkably similar, but in Zwerger’s hands this becomes a fairytale for kids comfortable with Narnia and Hogwarts. I remember as a tween sitting down with my family’s copy of World Tales by Idries Shah as well as other collected fairytales. Whether a readaloud for a fourth grade class, an individual tale for the kid obsessed with the fantastical, or bedtime reading for older ages, Dwarf Nose doesn’t go for the easy audience, but it does go for an existing one.

Lisbeth Zwerger is a fascinating illustrator with worldwide acclaim everywhere except, perhaps, America. It’s not that her art feels too “foreign” for U.S. palates, necessarily. I suspect that as with the concerns with the length of Dwarf Nose, Zwerger’s art is usually seen as too interstitial for this amount of text. We want more art! More Zwerger! I’ve read a fair number of her books over the years, so I was unprepared for some of the more surreal elements of this one. In one example the witch Herbwise is described as tottering in a peculiar fashion. “…it was as if she had wheels on her legs, and might tumble over any moment and fall flat on her face on the paving stones.” For this, Zwerger takes Hauff literally. Her witch is more puppet than woman, with legs like bicycle wheels and a face like a Venetian plague doctor. We have the slightly unnerving sensation that the book we are reading is, in fact, a performance put on for our enjoyment. That’s not a bad thing, but it is unexpected.

DwarfNose3When Zwerger’s Dwarf Nose came out in 1994 it was entering a market where folktales were on the outs. Still, libraries bought it widely. A search on WorldCat reveals that more than 500 libraries currently house in on their shelves after all these years. And while folktale sections of children’s rooms do have a tendency to fall into disuse, it is possible that the book has been reaching its audience consistently over the years. It may even be time for an upgrade. Though it won’t slot neatly into our general understanding of what a fairytale consists of, Dwarf Nose will find its home with like-minded fellows. Oddly touching.

On shelves April 1st.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Misc: Check out this fantastic review of the same book by 32 pages.

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16. Review of the Day: The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

hiredgirlThe Hired Girl
By Laura Amy Schlitz
Candlewick Press
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0763678180
Ages 12 and up

Bildungsroman. Definition: “A novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education.” A certain strain of English major quivers at the very term. Get enough Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man shoved down your gullet and you’d be quivering too. I don’t run across such books very often since I specialize primarily in books for children between the ages of 0-12. For them, the term doesn’t really apply. After all, books for kids are often about the formation of the self as it applies to other people. Harry finds his Hogwarts and Wilbur his spider. Books for teenagers are far better suited to the Bildungsroman format since they explore that transition from child to adult. Yet when you sit right down and think about it, the transition from childhood to teenagerhood is just as fraught. There is a beauty to that age, but it’s enormously hard to write. Only a few authors have ever attempted it and come out winners on the other side. Laura Amy Schlitz is one of the few. Writing a book that could only be written by her, published by the only publisher who would take a chance at it (Candlewick), Schlitz’s latest is pure pleasure on the page. A book for the child that comes up to you and says, “I’ve read Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. What’s new that’s like that?”

The last straw was the burning of her books. Probably. Even if Joan’s father hadn’t set her favorite stories to blazes, it’s possible that she would have run away eventually. What we do know is that after breaking her back working for a father who wouldn’t even let her attend school or speak to her old teacher, 14-year-old Joan Skraggs has had enough. She has the money her mother gave her before she died, hidden away, and a dream in mind. Perhaps if she runs away to Baltimore she might be able to find work as a hired girl. It wouldn’t be too different from what she’s done at home (and it could be considerably less filthy). Bad luck turns to good when Joan’s inability to find a boarding house lands her instead in the household of the Rosenbach family. They’re well-to-do Jewish members of the community and Joan has no experience with Jewish people. Nonetheless she is willing to learn, and learn she does! But when she takes her romantic nature a bit too far with the family, she’ll find her savior in the most unexpected of places.

I mentioned Anne of Green Gables in my opening paragraph, but I want to assure you that I don’t do so lightly. One does not bandy about Montgomery’s magnum opus. To explain precisely why I referenced it, however, I need to talk a little bit about a certain type of romantically inclined girl. She’s the kind that gets most of her knowledge of other people through books. She is by turns adorable and insufferable. Now, the insufferable part is easy to write. We are, by nature, inclined to dislike girls in their early teens that play a kind of mental dress-up that’s cute on kids and unnerving on adolescents. However, this character can be written and written well. Jo in Little Women comes through the age unscathed. Anne from Anne of Green Gables traipses awfully close to the awful side, but manages to charm the reader in the process (no mean feat). The “Girl” from the musical The Fantastiks would fit in this category as well. And finally, there is Joan in The Hired Girl. She vacillates wildly between successfully playing the part of a young woman and then going back to the younger side of adolescence. She pouts over not getting a kitten, for crying out loud. Adults reading this book will have a vastly different experience than kids and teens, then. To a grown-up (particularly a grown-up woman) Joan is almost painfully familiar. We remember the age of fourteen and what that felt like. That yearning for love and adventure. That yearning can be useful to you, but it can also make you bloody insufferable. As such, adults are going to be inclined to forgive Joan very easily. I can only hope that her personality allows younger readers to do the same.

My husband used to write and direct short historical films. They were labor intensive affairs where every car, house, and pot holder had to be accurate and of the period. It would have been vastly easier to just write and direct contemporary fare, but where’s the fun in that? I think of those days often when I read works of historical fiction. Labor intensive doesn’t even begin to explain what goes into an accurate look at history. Ms. Schlitz appears to be unaware of this, however, since not only has she written something set in the past, she throws the extra added difficulty of discussing religion into it as well. Working in a Jewish household at the turn of the century, Joan must come to grips with all kinds of concepts and ideas that she has hitherto been ignorant of. For this to work, the author tries something very tricky indeed. She makes certain that her heroine has grown up on a farm where her sole concept of Jewish people is from “Ivanhoe”, so that she is as innocent as a newborn babe. She isn’t refraining from anti-Semitism because she’s an apocryphal character. She’s just incapable of it due to her upbringing, and that’s a hard element to pull off. Had Ms. Schlitz pushed the early portion of this book any further, she would have possibly disinterested her potential readership right from the start. I have heard a reader say that the opening sequence with Joan’s family is too long, but I personally believe these sections where she wanders blindly in and out of various situations could not have worked if that section had been any shorter.

But as I say, historical fiction can be the devil to get right. Apocryphal elements have a way of seeping into the storyline. Your dialogue has to be believably from the time and yet not so stilted it turns off the reader. In this, Laura Amy Schlitz is master. This book feels very early 20th century. You wouldn’t blink an eye to learn it was fifty or one hundred years old (though its honest treatment of Jewish people is probably the giveaway that it’s contemporary). The language feels distinctive but it doesn’t push the young reader away. Indeed, you’re invited into Joan’s world right from the start. I also enjoyed very much her Catholicism. Characters that practice religion on a regular basis are so rare in contemporary books for kids these days.

As I mentioned, adults will read this book differently than the young readership for whom it is intended. I do think that if I were fourteen myself, this would be the kind of book I’d take to. By the same token, as an adult the theme that jumped out at me the most was that of motherhood. Joan’s mother died years before but she has a very palpable sense of her. Her memories are sharp and through her eyes we see the true tragedy of her mother’s life. How she wed a violent, hateful man because she felt she had no other choice. How she wasn’t cut out for the farm’s hard labor and essentially worked herself to death. How she saw her daughter’s future and found the means to save her (and by golly it works!). All the more reason to have your heart go out to Joan when she tries, time and again, to turn Mrs. Rosenbach into a substitute mother figure. It’s a role that Mrs. Rosenbach does NOT fit into in the least, but that doesn’t stop Joan from extended what is clearly teenaged rebellion onto a woman who isn’t her mother but her employer. Indeed, it’s Mrs. Rosenbach who later says, “I felt her wanting a mother.”

Is it a book for a certain kind of reader? Who am I to say? It’s a book I’d hand to a young me, so I don’t think I can necessarily judge who else would enjoy it. It’s beautiful and original and old and classic. It makes you feel good when you read it. It’s thick but it flies by. Because of the current state of publishing today books are either categorized as for children or for teens. The Hired Girl isn’t really for either. It’s for those kids poised between the two ages, desperate to be older but with bits of pieces of themselves stuck fast to their younger selves. A middle school novel of a time before there were middle schools. Beautifully written, wholly original, one-of-a-kind. Unlike anything you’ve read that’s been published in the last fifty years at least, and that is the highest kind of praise I can give.

On shelves now.

Professional Reviews:

Interviews: Laura speaks with SLJ about the book.

Videos:

More discussions of the book and where it came from!

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17. A Glorious List of YA Apocalypse Books

I have a deep love for all books about the end of the world and the apocalypse. It’s exciting! I love the speculation of what could happen. Because zombies could totally happen. Or angels. Or destruction by walking trees. WHO KNOWS. Today I have a list of Young Adult books about the apocalypse and the end of the world. […]

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18. Review of the Day: Human Body Theater by Maris Wicks

HumanBodyTheaterHuman Body Theater
By Maris Wicks
First Second (a imprint of Roaring Brook and division of Macmillan)
$14.99
ISBN: 978-1-59643-929-0
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

I gotta come clean with you. Skeletons? I’ve got a thing for them. Not a “thing” as in I find them attractive, but rather a “thing” as in I find them fascinating. I always have. Back in the 80s there was a science-related Canadian television show called “Owl TV” (a Canuck alternative to “3-2-1 Contact”) and one of the regular features was a skeleton by the name of Bonaparte who taught kids about various scientific matters. But aside from the odd viewing of “Jason and the Argonauts”, walking, talking (or, at the very least, stalking) skeletons don’t crop up all that often when you become grown. So maybe my attachment to Human Body Theater with its knobby narrator has its roots deep in my own personal history. Or maybe it has something more to do with the witty writing, untold gobs of nonfiction information, eye-catching art, and general sense of intelligence and care. Whatever the case, it turns out the human body puts on one heckuva good show!

When a human skeleton comes out and offers to right there, before your very eyes, become a fully formed human being with guts, skin, etc. who are you to refuse? Tonight the human body itself is putting on a show and everyone from the stagehands (the cells) to the players (whether they’re body parts or viruses) is fully engaged and involved. With our narrator’s help we dive deep beneath the skin and learn top to bottom about every possible system our bods have to offer. When all is said and done the readers aren’t just intrigued. They’re picking the book up to read it again and again. Backmatter includes a Glossary of terms and a Bibliography for further reading.

HumanBody2I’ve been a big time Maris Wicks fan for years. It started long ago when I was tooling around a MOCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) event and ran across just the cutest little paperback picture book. It couldn’t have been much bigger than a coaster and all it was was a story about a family taking a daytrip to the woods. Called Yes, Let’s it was written by Galen Goodwin and illustrated by a Maris Wicks. I didn’t know either of these people. I just knew the book was good, and when it was published officially a couple years later by Tanglewood Publishing I felt quite justified. But for all that I’d been a fan, I didn’t recognize Ms. Wicks’ work or name, at first, when she illustrated Jim Ottaviani’s Primates. When the connection was made I felt like I’d won a small lottery. Now she’s gone solo with Human Body Theater and the only question left in anybody’s mind is . . . why didn’t she do it sooner? She’s a natural!

Now for whatever reason my four-year-old is currently entranced by this book. She’s naturally inclined to love graphic novels anyway (thank you, Cece Bell) and something in Human Body Theater struck a real chord with her. It’s not hard to figure out why. Visually it’s consistently arresting. Potentially dry material, like the method by which oxygen travels from the lungs to the blood, is presented in the most eclectic way possible (in this case, like a dance). Wicks keeps her panels vibrant and consistently interesting. One minute we might be peering into the inner workings of the capillaries and the next we’re zooming with the blood through the body delivering nutrients and oxygen. The colorful, clear lined style certainly bears a passing similarity to the work of author/artists like Raina Telgemeier, while the ability imbue everything, right down to the smallest atom, with personality is more along the lines of Dan Green’s “Basher Books” series.

For my part, I was impressed with the degree to which Wicks is capable of breaking complex ideas down into simple presentations. The chapters divide neatly into The Skeletal System, The Muscular System, The Respiratory System, The Cardiovascular System, The Digestive System, The Excretory System, The Endocrine System, The Reproductive System, The Immune System, The Nervous System, and the senses (not to mention an early section on cells, elements, and molecules). As impressive as her art is, it’s Wicks’ writing that I feel like we should really credit here. Consider the amount of judicious editing she had to do, to figure out what to keep and what to cut. How do you, as an author, transition neatly from talking about reproduction to the immune system? How do you even tackle a subject as vast as the senses? And most importantly, how gross do you get? Because the funny bones of 10-year-olds demand a certain level of gross out humor, while the stomachs of the gatekeepers buying the book demand that it not go too far. I am happy to report that Ms. Wicks walks that tightrope with infinite skill.

HumanBody1One of the parts of the book I was particularly curious about was the sex and reproduction section. I’ve seen what Robie H. Harris has gone through with her It’s Perfectly Normal series on changing adolescent bodies, and I wondered to what extent Wicks would tread similar ground. The answer? She doesn’t really. Sex is addressed but images of breasts and penises are kept simple to the point of near abstraction. As such, don’t be relying on this for your kid’s sex-ed. There are clear reasons for this limitation, of course. Books that show these body parts, particularly graphic novels, are restricted by some parents or school districts. Wicks even plays with this fact, displaying a sheet covering what looks like a possible penis, only to reveal a very tall sperm instead. And Wicks doesn’t skimp on the info. The chapter on The Reproductive Cycle, for example, contains the delightful phrase, “ATTENTION: Would some blood please report to the penis for a routine erection.” So I’ve no doubt that there will be a parent somewhere who is offended in some way. However, it’s done so succinctly that I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it causes almost no offense during its publication lifespan (but don’t quote me on that one).

If there is a problem with the book it may come right at the very beginning. Our skeleton hero introduces herself and from there you would expect her to jump right in to Human Body Theater with the bones. Instead, the storyline comes to a near screeching halt from the get go with a laborious explanation of cells, elements, and molecules. It’s not that these things aren’t important or interesting. Indeed, you can more than understand why they come at the beginning the way that they do. But as the book currently stands, this section feels like it was added in at the last minute. If it was going to preface the actual “show” then couldn’t it have been truly separate from the main event and act as a kind of pre-show entertainment?

What parent wouldn’t admit a bit of a thrill when their kid points to their own femur and declares proudly that it’s the longest bone in the human body? Or off-the-cuff speculates on the effects of the appendix on other body functions? We talk a lot about children’s books that (forgive the phrase) “make learning fun”, but how many actually do? When I wrack my brain for fun human body books, I come up surprisingly short. Here then is a title that can push against a certain kind of reader’s reluctance to engage with science on any level. It’s for the science lovers and graphic novel lovers alike (and lord knows the two don’t always overlap). More fun than it has any right to be. No bones about it.

On shelves now.

Like This? Then Try:

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Interviews: A great one conducted with Mara and The A.V. Club.

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19. Debbie Reese at Chicago Public LIbrary, Edgewater Branch, November 7, 2015

I am pleased to be the keynote speaker at the Chicago Public Library, Edgewater Branch, on November 7, 2015, as the library system there kicks off its programming for Native American Heritage Month.


Della Nohl took that photo of me a few years ago when we were both at a Culture Keepers gathering. Do hit that link and see what Culture Keepers is all about. You'll learn a lot about working with Native people and you'll come to know people like Omar Poler of the Sokaogon Chippewa Tribe of Wisconsin, who was named as one of Library Journal's Movers and Shakers in 2014. And, check out Della Nohl's page. Right now (October 28, 2015) the photo at the top of her page is of the Indian Agency House in Portage, Wisconsin.

Knowing about Culture Keepers and knowing about Della Nohl's work is part of my world. Earlier today, I submitted a comment to Betsy Bird's blog post at School Library Journal. There, she is making the argument that people have to read a book in its entirety to say anything meaningful about the book. I disagree.

I don't, for example, need to read every page of Meg Rosoff's Picture Me Gone to say I don't recommend it. My reason? I got to the page where her main character is in a coffee shop with unusual decor. As her character looks around, she describes what she sees, including:
A painting in a big gold frame of an Indian squaw kneeling by a fire needs dusting.
Rosoff's Picture Me Gone is not about Native people. It is, however, a best selling book, and part of what I do is read some of those bestsellers so that I stay abreast of the happenings, so to speak, in children's and young adult literature.

Rosoff used "Indian squaw" -- a term most people view as offensive. Did Rosoff know it is offensive? Did Rosoff's editor know it is offensive? My guess is no. I speculate that they don't know because they don't step over into the world that I am in.

So many Native children don't do well in school. Might they do better if the textbooks they read were ones that honestly presented their nations, past and present? Might they do better if they didn't come across terms like "squaw" as a matter of course, in the literature they read?

As I write this blog post and think about what I'll say in Chicago, I'm thinking about Rosoff's book, and I'm thinking about troubling books that are being discussed as possible winners of prestigious children's literature awards: Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl and Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall's A Fine Dessert troubling. And Rae Carson's Walk On Earth a Stranger has, perhaps, some of the most damaging content that I've seen in a very long time. It was on the long list for the National Book Award.

I do--of course--know of some terrific books that accurately and beautiful present Native peoples, and I will share those, too, on November 7th. I shared some--for teen readers--in a column that went live a few hours ago at School Library Journal. And I shared even more, there, two years ago. Here's the graphics SLJ's team put together, using the book covers for the books I recommended in that column:




My guess is that people who come to my talk on the 7th will be people who care about Native peoples, our histories, our cultures, and our lives. They will likely want me to talk about good books. It isn't enough, however, to know about books that accurately portray who we are; people have to know the others, too, because in the publishing world, they take up a lot of space.

Please put this day of events on your calendar! Bring your friends! Step into my world, and help me bring others into it, too, so that the status quo changes... So that best selling writers and books deemed worthy of awards are not ones that denigrate Native people.

Below is the press release Chicago Public Library is sending out.
_____________________


CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY CELEBRATES NATIVE AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH IN NOVEMBER

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 20, 2015

Chicago Public Library is "Celebrating Diversity," with its annual observance ofNative American Heritage Month. Throughout November, the Library offers a variety of programs highlighting the history, culture, traditions, and contributions Native Americans have made to Chicago, the state of Illinois, and to the U.S.  In addition, a selected bibliography and the Library’s 2015 Native American Heritage Month Calendar of Events are available at chipublib.org.

The opening program for Native American Heritage Month takes place on Saturday, November 7, at 11:00 a.m., at the Edgewater Branch, 6000 N. Broadway St.  Debbie Reese, author, lecturer, and blogger will be the keynote speaker. Ms. Reese is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo and has a PhD in Education from the University of Illinois and an MLIS from San Jose State University. Her research articles and book chapters on American Indians in Children’s Literature are used in Education, Library Science, English, and Creative Writing courses in the U.S. and Canada. Andrea Perkins and the Chi-Nations Youth Council will provide drum performances. A film screening of, From Old to Modern, which focuses modern activism will also be presented by the Chi-Nations Youth Council.

During Native American Heritage Month, the Library will present interesting, entertaining and informative programs for all ages, including storytelling and crafts for children, lectures, film screenings, art exhibitions and workshops, and adult book discussions.

Here are some highlights from the 2015 Native American Heritage Month Celebration:

  • Archery for Beginners
Al Eastman, a certified archery coach with the Olympic Committee’s USA Archery program will teach the ten-step form of safety techniques for a hands-on archery demonstration with Olympic-style recurve bows. Eastman started the archery program at the American Indian Center in 2010 to help youth learn about math, science and history through archery.

  • Ehdrigohr: A Role-Playing Experience
Allen Turner, creator of Ehdrigohr—a table top role-playing game—will present this fun and challenging game that incorporates Naïve American themes. Turner has been involved in storytelling, games, play design, and education for most of his adult life. His work includes coordinating youth and adult programs focusing on literacy, storytelling, role-playing, and team dynamics for developing inference and problem-solving skills.

  • Create a Dreamcatcher
Artist and musician Dan Pierce will explore the meanings Dreamcatcher components and instruct participants in how to use materials to craft Dreamcatchers that they can take home. Pierce has taught music and art in the Chicago Public Schools for more than 20 years.

  • Film Screenings
The Library presents five selected feature films spotlighting Native American culture including:
·         The Exiles by Kent Mackenzie
·         Up Heartbreak Hill by Erica Scharf
·         Sun Kissed by Maya Stark and Adi Lavy
·         In the Light of Reverence by Christopher McLeod and Malinda Maynor
·         Stand Silent Nation by Suree Towfighnia and Courtney Hermann

For more information about the film series, or for the complete listing of Native American Heritage Month events, dates and locations, please visit chipublib.org.

Throughout every calendar year, Chicago Public Library “Celebrates Diversity” and its importance to a sustainable society, during all of its ethnic heritage and diversity month celebrations including: African-American History Month, Women’s History Month, Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, LGBT Pride Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Polish American heritage Month and Native American Heritage Month.

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20. Review of the Day: Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

GoneCrazyGone Crazy in Alabama
By Rita Williams-Garcia
Amistad (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0062215871
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

I’m a conceited enough children’s librarian that I like it when a book wins me over. I don’t want them to make it easy for me. When I sit down to read something I want to know that the author on the other side of the manuscript is scrabbling to get the reader’s attention. Granted that reader is supposed to be a 10-year-old kid and not a 37-year-old woman, but to a certain extent audience is audience. Now I’ll say right off the bat that under normal circumstances I don’t tend to read sequels and I CERTAINLY don’t review them. There are too many books published in a current year to keep circling back to the same authors over and over again. There are, however, always exceptions to the rule. And who amongst us can say that Rita Williams-Garcia is anything but exceptional? The Gaither Sisters chronicles (you could also call them the One Crazy Summer Books and I think you’d be in the clear) have fast become modern day literary classics for kids. Funny, painful, chock full of a veritable cornucopia of historical incidents, and best of all they stick in your brain like honey to biscuits. Read one of these books and you can recall them for years at a time. Now the bitter sweetness of “Gone Crazy in Alabama” gives us more of what we want (Vonetta! Uncle Darnell! Big Ma!) in a final, epic, bow.

Going to visit relatives can be a chore. Going to visit warring relatives? Now THAT is fun! Sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern have been to Oakland and Brooklyn but now they’ve turned South to Alabama to visit their grandmother Big Ma, their great-grandmother Ma Charles, and Ma Charles’s half sister Miss Trotter. Delphine, as usual, places herself in charge of her younger, rebellious, sisters, not that they ever appreciate it. As she learns more about her family’s history (and the reason the two half sisters loathe one another) she ignores her own immediate family’s needs until the moment when it almost becomes too late.

I’m an oldest sister. I have two younger siblings. Unlike Delphine I didn’t have the responsibility of watching over my siblings for any extended amount of time. As a result, I didn’t pay all that much attention to them growing up. But like Delphine, I would occasionally find myself trying, to my mind anyway, to keep them in line. Where Rita Williams-Garcia excels above all her peers, and I do mean all of them, is in the exchanges between these three girls. If I had an infinite revenue stream I would solicit someone to adapt their conversations into a very short play for kids to perform somewhere (actually, I’d just like to see ALL these books as plays for children, but that’s neither here nor there). The dialogue sucks you in and you find yourself getting emotionally involved. Because Delphine is our narrator you’re getting everything from her perspective and in this the author really makes you feel like she’s on the right side of every argument. It would be an excellent writing exercise to charge a class of sixth graders with the task of rewriting one of these sections from Vonetta or Fern’s point of view instead.

As I might have mentioned before, I wasn’t actually sold initially on this book. Truth be told, I liked the sequel to One Crazy Summer (called P.S. Be Eleven) but found the ending rushed and a tad unsatisfying. That’s just me, and my hopes with Gone Crazy were not initially helped by this book’s beginning. I liked the set-up of going South and all that, but once they arrived in Alabama I was almost immediately confused. We met Ma Charles and then very soon thereafter we met another woman very much like her who lived on the other side of a creek. No explanation was forthcoming about these two, save some cryptic descriptions of wedding photos, and I felt very much out to sea. My instinct is to say that a child reader would feel the same way, but kids have a way of taking confusing material at face value, so I suspect the confusion was of the adult variety more than anything else. Clearly Ms. Williams-Garcia was setting all this up for the big reveal of the half-sister’s relationship, and I appreciated that, but at the same time I thought it could have been introduced in a different way. Things were tepid for me for a while, but then the story really started picking up. By the time we got to the storm, I was sold.

And it was at this point in the book that I realized that I’d been coming at the book all wrong. Williams-Garcia was feeding me red herrings and I’m gulping them down like there’s no tomorrow. This book isn’t laser focusing its attention on great big epic themes of historical consequence. All this book is, all it ever has been, all the entire SERIES is about in its heart of hearts, is family. And that’s it. The central tension can be boiled down to something as simple and effective as whether or not Delphine and Vonetta can be friends. Folks are always talking about bullying and bully books. They tend to involve schoolmates, not siblings, but as Gone Crazy in Alabama shows, sometimes bullying is a lot closer to home than anyone (including the bully) is willing to acknowledge.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about needing more diverse books for kids, and it’s absolutely a valid concern. I have always been of the opinion, however, that we also need a lot more funny diverse books. When most reading lists’ sole hat tip to the African-American experience is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (no offense to Mildred D. Taylor, but you see what I’m getting at here) while the white kids star in books like Harriet the Spy and Frindle, something’s gotta change. We Need Diverse Books? We Need FUNNY Diverse Books too. Something someone’s going to enjoy reading and want to pick up again. That’s why Christopher Paul Curtis has been such a genius the last few years (because, seriously, who else would explore the ramifications of vomiting on Frederick Douglass?) and why the name Rita Williams-Garcia will be remembered long after you and I are tasty toasty worm food. Because this book IS funny while also balancing out pain and hurt and hope.

An interviewer once asked Ms. Williams-Garcia if she ever had younger sisters like the ones in this book or if she’d ever spent a lot of time in rural Alabama, like they do here. She replied good-naturedly that nope. It reminded me of that story they tell about Dustin Hoffman playing Richard III. He put stones in his shoes to get the limp right. Laurence Olivier caught wind of this and his response was along the lines of, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?” That’s Ms. Williams-Garcia for you. She does honest-to-goodness writing. Writing that can conjure up estranged siblings and acts of nature. Writing that will make you laugh and think and think again after that. Beautifully done, every last page. A trilogy winds down on just the right note.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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21. Review of the Day: Emu by Claire Saxby

emuEmu
By Claire Saxby
Illustrated by Graham Byrne
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-7479-3
Ages 4-7
On shelves now.

Alas for poor emu. Forever relegated to be consider a second rate ostrich, it encompasses all of the awkwardness and none of the stereotypes. Does anyone ever talk about burying your head in the sand like an emu? They do not. Are schoolchildren routinely called upon to ooh and aah at the size of an emu’s egg? They aren’t. And when you watch Swiss Family Robinson, do you ever find yourself wishing that the kids would try to saddle an emu for the big race? Not even once. Emus are the second largest living bird in terms of height, coming right after the ostrich, and you might be fooled into believing that they are the less interesting of the two. There, you are wrong. Wrongdy wrongdy wrong wrong wrong. I do not wish to start a war of words with the prominent ostrich societies of the world, but after reading Emu by Claire Saxby (illustrated by Graham Byrne) I’m a bit of what you might consider an emu convert. Chock full of interesting information and facts about what a typical emu might experience in its day-to-day life, the book is full of thrills, chills, and a species that gives stay-at-home dads everywhere a true animal mascot.

Meet the emu. Do not be offended if he fails to rise when you approach. At the moment he is safeguarding a precious clutch of eggs from elements and predators. While many of us consider the job of hatching eggs to be something that falls to the female of the species, emus are different. Once they’ve laid their eggs, female emus just take off, and it is the male emu that hatches and rears them. In this particular example, the male emu has a brood of seven or so chicks but though they’re pretty big (ten times bigger than a domestic chicken hatchling) they need their dad for food, shelter, and protection. The chicks find their own food right from the start and within three to four months they’ve already lost their first feathers. They zigzag to escape predators, live with their fathers for about a year, and have a kick like you would not believe. Backmatter of the book provides more information about emus, as well as an index.

Emu2This is not what you might call Saxby and Byrne’s first rodeo show. The Aussie duo previously had paired together on the book Big Red Kangaroo, a book that did just fine for itself. Following a kangaroo called “Red”, the ostensibly nonfiction title was best described by PW as, “An understated but visually arresting portrait of a species.” For my part I had no real objections to the book, but neither did I have anything for it. Kangaroo books are not rare in my children’s rooms, though the book was different in that it was written for a younger reading level. That same reading level is the focus of Emu and here I feel that Saxby and Byrne have started to refine their technique. One of the problems I had with Red was this naming of the titular kangaroo. It felt false in a way. Like the author didn’t trust the readers enough to show them a typical day in the life of an animal without having to personalize it with faux monikers. Byrne’s art too felt flatter to me in that book than it does here. This may have more to do with the subject matter than anything else, though. Emu faces, after all, are inherently more amusing and interesting than kangaroos

In terms of the text, Saxby utilizes a technique that’s proven very popular with teachers as of late. When kids in classrooms are given open reading time there can sometimes be a real range in reading levels. With this in mind, sometimes nonfiction picture books about the natural world will contain two types of text. There will be the more enticing narrative, ideal for reading aloud to a group or one-on-one. Then, for those budding naturalists, there will be a complementary second section that contains the facts. On the first two pages of Emu, for example, one side introduces the open forest with its “honey-pale sunshine” and the emu’s job while the second block of text, written in a small font that brings to mind an expert’s crisp clean handwriting, gives the statistics about emu (whether or not they can fly, their weight, height, etc.). In the back of the book under the Index there’s actually a little note about these sections. It says, “Don’t forget to look at both kinds of words”, and then writes the words “this kind and this kind” in the two different fonts.

Emu3Artist Graham Byrne’s bio says that he’s an electrical engineer, builder, and artist. This is his second picture book and the art is rendered digitally. What it looks like is scratchboard art, with maybe an ink overlay as well. I enjoyed the sense of place and the landscapes but what really made me happy was how Byrne draws an emu. There’s something about that bright yellow eye in the otherwise impassive face that gets me. I say impassive, but there are times when one wonders if Byrne is fighting an instinct to give his emu some expression. There’s a scene of the emu nosing his eggs, his beak appears to be curling up in just the slightest of smiles. Later an eagle threatens his brood and there’s almost a hint of a frown as he runs over to the rescue. It’s not enough to take you out of the story, but such images bear watching.

In comparing the emu to the ostrich I may have omitted certain pertinent details. After all, the emu doesn’t have it quite so bad. It appears on the Australian coat of arms, as well as on their money. There was an Emu War of 1932 where the emus actually won the day. Heck, it’s even not too difficult to find emus on farms in the United States. Still, culturally they’ve a far ways to go if ever they are to catch up with their ostrichy brethren fame-wise. Books like this one will help. I think there must be plenty of teachers out there a little tired of using Eric Carle’s Mister Seahorse as their de facto responsible-dads-in-the-wild motif. Now kids outside of Australia will get a glimpse of this wild, wacky, wonderful and weird creature. Consider it worth meeting.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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22. Review of the Day: The Red Hat by David Teague

51xONVs2CGLThe Red Hat
By David Teague
Illustrated by Antoinette Portis
Disney Hyperion (an imprint of Disney Book Group)
$16.99
ISBN: 9781423134114
Ages 4-7
On shelves December 8th

There is a story out there, and I don’t know if it is true, that the great children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore had such a low opinion of children’s books that involved “gimmicks” (read: interactive elements of any sort) that upon encountering them she’d dismiss each and every one with a single word: Truck. If it was seen as below contempt, it was “truck”. Pat the Bunny, for example, was not to her taste, but it did usher in a new era of children’s literature. Books that, to this day, utilize different tricks to engage the interest of child readers. In the best of cases the art and the text of a picture book are supposed to be of the highest possible caliber. To paraphrase Walter de la Mare, only the rarest kind of best is good enough for our kids, yes? That said, not all picture books have to attempt to be works of great, grand literature and artistic merit. There are funny books and silly ones that do just as well. Take it a step even farther, and I’d say that the interactive elements that so horrified Ms. Moore back in the day have great potential to aid in storytelling. Though she would be (rightly) disgusted by books like Rainbow Fish that entice children through methods cheap and deeply unappealing, I fancy The Red Hat would have given her pause. After considering the book seriously, a person can’t dismiss it merely because it tends towards the shiny. Lovingly written and elegantly drawn, Teague and Portis flirt with transparent spot gloss, but it’s their storytelling and artistic choices that will keep their young readers riveted.

With a name like Billy Hightower, it’s little wonder that the boy in question lives “atop the world’s tallest building”. It’s a beautiful view, but a lonely one, so when a construction crew one day builds a tower across the way, the appearance of a girl in a red hat intrigues Billy. Desperate to connect with her, he attempts various methods of communication, only to be stumped by the wind at every turn. Shouting fails. Paper airplanes plummet. A kite dances just out of reach. Then Billy tries the boldest method of reaching the girl possible, only to find that he himself is snatched from her grasp. Fortunately a soft landing and a good old-fashioned elevator trump the wind at last. Curlicues of spot gloss evoke the whirly-twirly wind and all its tricksy ways.

Great Moments of Spot Gloss in Picture Book History: Um . . . hm. That’s a stumper. I’m not saying it’s never happened. I’m just saying that when I myself try to conjure up a book, any book, that’s ever used it to proper effect, I pull up a blank. Now what do I mean exactly when I say this book is using this kind of “gloss”? Well, it’s a subtle layer of shininess. Not glittery, or anything so tawdry as that. From cover to interior spreads, these spirals of gloss evoke the invisible wind. They’re lovely but clearly mischievous, tossing messages and teasing the ties of a hat. Look at the book a couple times and you notice that the only part of the book that does not contain this shiny wind is the final two-page image of our heroes. They’re outdoors but the wind has been defeated in the face of Billy’s persistence. If you feel a peace looking at the two kids eyeing one another, it may have less to do with what you see than what you don’t.

Naturally Antoinette Portis is to be credited here, though I don’t know if the idea of using the spot gloss necessarily originated with her. It is possible that the book’s editor tossed Portis the manuscript with the clear understanding that gloss would be the name of the game. That said, I felt like the illustrator was given a great deal of room to grow with this book. I remember back in the day when her books Not a Box and Not a Stick were the height of 32-page minimalism. She has such a strong sense of design, but even when she was doing books like Wait and the rather gloriously titled Princess Super Kitty her color scheme was standard. In The Red Hat all you have to look at are great swath of blue, the black and white of the characters, an occasional jab of gray, and the moments when red makes an appearance. There is always a little jolt of red (around Billy’s neck, on a street light, from a carpet, etc). It’s the red coupled with that blue that really makes the book pop. By all rights a red, white, and blue cover should strike you on some level as patriotic. Not the case here.

Not that the book is without flaw. For the most part I enjoyed the pacing of the story. I loved the fairytale element of Billy tossed high into the sky by a jealous wind. I loved the color scheme, the gloss, and the characters. What I did not love was a moment near the end of the book where pertinent text is completely obscured by its placement on the art. Billy has flown and landed from the sky. He’s on the ground below, the wind buffeting him like made. He enters the girl’s building and takes the elevator up. The story says, “At the elevator, he punched UP, and he knocked at the first door on the top floor.” We see him extending his hand to the girl, her hat clutched in the other. Then you turn the page and it just says, “The Beginning.” Wait, what? I had to go back and really check before I realized that there was a whole slew of text and dialogue hidden at the bottom of that previous spread. Against a speckled gray and white floor the black text is expertly camouflaged. I know that some designers cringe at the thought of suddenly interjecting a white text box around a selection of writing, but in this particular case I’m afraid it was almost a necessity. Either than or toning down the speckles to the lightest of light grays.

Aside from that, it’s sublime. A sweet story of friendship (possibly leading to more someday) from the top of the world. Do we really believe that Billy lives on the top of the highest building in the world? Billy apparently does, and that’s good enough for us. But even the tallest building can find its match. And even the loneliest of kids can, through sheer pig-headed persistence, make their voices heard. A windy, shiny book without a hint of bluster.

On shelves December 8th.

Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.

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23. Review of the Day: The Perilous Princess Plot by Sarah Courtauld

PerilousPrincessBuckle and Squash: The Perilous Princess Plot
By Sarah Courtauld
Feiwel and Friends (an imprint of Macmillan)
$14.99
ISBN: 978-1-250-05277-3
Ages 7-10
On shelves now.

Considering that I will never but EVER write an early chapter book or, for that matter, an easy book for new readers, it’s funny how often I sit around contemplating their difficulty. More precisely, I want to know which ones are more difficult to write. Easy books sounds like they’d be the hardest, particularly since it is remarkably hard to siphon a book down to its most essential parts while also making it interesting. Then again, those early chapter books are the devil. We see whole bunches of them published every year but how many are the type you’d like to read to your kids at bedtime over and over and over again? Nothing against Magic Treehouse, but would it kill Mary Pope Osborne to include just one tiny giant name Bonnet? Or have her characters fake The Black Death with the aid of turnip soup? I guess that’s what’s so great about Sarah Courtauld’s early chapter book import The Perilous Princess Plot. Not only is it sublime bedtime reading, it’s also perfect for transitioning kids to longer books, AND it’s knock your socks off funny. Goat and gruel, there’s something for everyone here. Unless you hate humor. Then you’re out of luck.

Meet Lavender. Interests include princesses, being a princess someday, handsome princes, and princesses (did I mention that one?). Meet her younger sister, Eliza. Interests include not hearing Lavender mention anything fairy tale related ever ever again (to say nothing of her singing). The two live in the Middle of Nowhere, in the Forgotten Corner of the Kingdom, in the realm of Squerb and their lives are pretty ordinary. Ordinary, that is, until Lavender gets herself kidnapped by the villain Mordmont who is hoping to ransom a pricey princess. Now it’s up to Eliza and her trusty steed/goat Gertrude to rescue Lavender (whether she wants to be rescued or not) and to generally save the day. There just might be a couple odd pit stops to attend to first.

It’s interesting. An author has a lot of ways of making a protagonist sympathetic to the her readership. Often in children’s books an instantaneous way is to make them the recipient of unfair treatment. Nothing captures hearts and minds more swiftly or efficiently than good old-fashioned outrage on behalf of your heroine and that’s certainly how Courtauld begins the book, with Eliza mucking out the goat pen as Lavender tra la las about. However, the real way in which you bond with Eliza is through your mutual annoyance with Lavender. Lavender is sort of what would happen if Fancy Nancy ever got so swallowed up in a princess obsession that she became unrecognizable to her family. Courtauld was quite clever to make Lavender the older sibling too. We’ve all seen the younger-princess-obsessed sibling motif in various books and while I’ve nothing against it, there’s something particularly grating when someone who, by dearth of age alone, should know better yet doesn’t.

In a given day you probably won’t read many early chapter books for kids that feel like the cast of Monty Python meandered out of retirement to write a book for children. Funny? Baby, you don’t know the half of it. Funny is hard. Funny is difficult. Funny is almost impossible to pin down because everyone’s sense of humor is different in some way from everyone else’s. But I simply refuse to believe that there’s a kid out there who could read this book and not crack a smile once. Here, I’ll give you an example. Early in the story the evil villain Mordmont is depressed. As he says, “I’m a man of simple pleasures . . . All I ever wanted was a castle, my own pride of lions, a jeweled crown, a choir of elves singing me awake each morning, sainthood, the power to make gold, the best mustache in Europe, a Jacuzzi, an elephant from the Indies, another one to be its friend, a singing giraffe, the power of invisibility, Magic Cheese Powers, a tiger with the feet of a lamb, the head of a lamb, and the body of a lamb – basically, a lamb – power over the sea, power over the letter C . . .” at which point we’re told that another 4,235 simple pleasures are to be skipped over so that we can fast forward to the final one, “a meringue that speaks Japanese.” It’s the lamb part that really got me. Love that lamb.

So let’s say you’re writing an early chapter book and you have the chance to illustrate it yourself. Do you do so? Particularly if it’s your debut novel? Yep. I’ve checked out her CV and from what I can tell Ms. Courtauld isn’t exactly a trained artist. In this respect she reminds me not a little of Abby Hanlon, another hilarious early chapter book author/self-taught illustrator whose Dory Fantasmagory is largely aided by her seemingly effortless pencilings. In this book too the art is deceptively simple. Just pencil sketches of silly tiny things, really. Yet I tell you right now that if some fancy pants illustrator walked up and said they’d redo the whole thing for free, I’d turn ‘em down flat. Courtauld has this perverse little style (in the best possible way, naturally) that just clicks with her storytelling. Some of it is obvious, like the view of a tearful rhino forced to watch Swan Lake, and some are visual gags so cheap that you just want to physically hug the book itself (like the image of people poking a girl after Mordmont talks about losing at poker). And how many early chapter book British imports can you name that contain images of Kanye West? I rest my case. Check and mate, babies.

According to a number of reputable sources this book has, “won the Sainsbury’s Book Award, and has been shortlisted for the Sheffield Children’s Book Prize and Coventry Inspiration Book Award.” In the U.K. it was also originally released with the title Buckle and Squash and the Monstrous Moat-Dragon. I’m not entirely certain why the U.S. publisher chose to change that one. Perilous plots are nice and all but they can’t really hold a candle to freakin’ moat dragons, now can they? I mean, it’s a dragon! In a moat! Still, a title change is a small price to pay when you get a book as good as this one. Hand it to a boy, hand it to a girl, hand it to a goat, they’ll all enjoy it in their own ways (though the goat may need a bit of a floss afterwards). If there are more Buckle and Squash books on the horizon, let us hope they float our way. I, for one, will look forward to those adventures. After all, the Monty Python guys can’t live forever. Time for someone else to pick up the torch.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Other Blog Reviews: Reading Rumpus

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And here’s the book jacket whut wuz in Britain.

MoatDragon

Misc: Read the first chapter here.

 

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24. Boomerang Book Bites: My Top 5 Reads of 2015

What another great year of reading! The great books didn’t seem to stop this year. My favourite read of the year was nearly tipped out by a trilogy and my big discovery of the year was Ben Aaronovitch and the Peter Grant series. So here it is my top 5 reads of 2015 (plus 5 […]

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25. NYPL Releases Their Annual Lists (Plural!)

NYPL100BooksEach year New York Public Library produces what I seriously consider to be the most beautiful Best Books list of them all.  Encompassing 100 books in total, it breaks all children’s books written in different categories to the following: Picture Books, Early Chapter Books, Middle Grade Fiction, Poetry, Folk and Fairytales, Graphic Novels, and Nonfiction.  They print out hundreds of gorgeous lists with lush covers and great interior art from the winners.  The list will now be in its 105th year, and for those of us unable to see the print version (*sniff*) you can get to see the next best thing: An interactive one.

Not to be outdone, the YA list of NYPL has arisen from the dead.  You may not know it but the Books for the Teen Age list started decades and decades ago.  It suffered quite a lot when it was renamed “Stuff for the Teen Age” (cause . . . teens don’t . . . read?) and then was killed outright in the bad old days when NYPL did away with specialties.  Now things are happy and good again, Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 9.41.36 PMso after a trial run last year it’s almost up to full power.  You can see their beauty of a list here.

I was able to give my input to the children’s NYPL list up until my leaving at the end of July.  The YA list pretty much operated outside my sphere.  And I adore these choices.  Do I agree with all of them?  Not even!  Example: No Cuckoo Song on the YA list, and in what universe is Human Body Theater doing there for teens?!?!  I mean, seriously, that’s my 4-year-old’s favorite book.  In any case, they’re still brilliant choices and the lists I spend all year waiting for.  Huzzah!

 

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