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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: 2011 reviews, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 72
1. Review of the Day: Bandits by Johanna Wright

Bandits
By Johanna Wright
A Neal Porter Book – Roaring Brook (an imprint of Macmillan)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-59643-583-4
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

There has been inadequate use of raccoons in children’s literature. Seems to me that if you have a furry woodland creature with a homegrown mask as part of its fuzzy face, it’s a crime NOT to make it a creeping bandit at some point. I mean, raccoons basically live up to their sneaky looks anyway. They turn over folks’ garbage cans. They lark about when the world is dark. Over the years I’ve seen the occasional book here and there give these creatures of the night their due, but few have done it quite as beautifully as Johanna Wright’s Bandits. Having discovered Ms. Wright when she wrote the utterly odd and charming The Secret Circus, Bandits proves to be an evocative follow-up. As amusing as it is to read (and it is amusing) Wright’s original eclectic style also makes this one of the stranger and yet more beautiful recent picture books out there. A funny mix of unreliable narration and sweet family life, these bandits are the ones you’ll think of from here on in whenever you spot a raccoon’s telltale face.

“When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, beware of the bandits that prowl through the night.” Traveling en masse, a family of raccoons begins its evening of mini larceny. Raiding garbage cans and stripping the apples from the topmost branches of trees these sneaky petes are clearly under the impression that they are villains par excellence. Even when their ramblings are discovered by (highly amused) humans they believe that they’re in possession of some pretty choice “loot”. And when the sun comes up, the family goes inside to sleep and read some books. “But just until the sun goes down.”

Part of what makes the book so charming is that while the raccoons appear to be entirely of the opinion that they are master thieves stealing great treasures from their unsuspecting victims, in truth their capers are fairly innocent and their “treasures” items that folks don’t need (like the garbage) or don’t mind losing (like the fruit from the trees). I mean, when you get down to it, the sneakiest things these “bandits” do, aside from knocking over the odd garbage can, is to brush their teeth in somebody’s fountain. Booga booga! I love that the writing in this book is clearly from their perspective too. Even as the pictures make it clear that you’re dealing with some pretty tame criminals, they’re trying to impress you with their daring. At one point you read, “They baffle the fuzz with each little trick” while the picture shows the raccoons tiptoeing past an old hound dog that couldn’t be less interested. And multiple readings of this book yield multiple ways to grow fond of the raccoon family unit. After all, there are some scenes of them relaxing in their home, their thoughts far from their pilfering ways. Reread the bo

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2. Review of the Day: Toys Come Home by Emily Jenkins

Toys Come Home: Being the Early Experiences of an Intelligent Stingray, a Brave Buffalo, and a Brand-New Someone Called Plastic
By Emily Jenkins
Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
Schwartz & Wade
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-375-86200-7
Ages 5-10
On shelves now

I’m feeling tetchy. Let’s set out some rules when it comes to prequels of children’s books then. Number One: You are allowed to write a prequel if you wrote the original book in the first place. Um . . . . okay, that’s all I can think of off the top of my head. But it’s a good rule in general, don’t you think? Follow that rule and you won’t have to deal with seeing Anne before she came to Green Gables or speculate as to how Captain Hook got to be so mean. Not that every author should consider writing a prequel, mind. I’m sure Harry Potter fans would love to see what capers his parents got up to in school, but then we’d probably have to deal with a How Edward Cullen Became a Vampire novel, and that’s a road I’d rather not tread. All this is to say that if you have to write a prequel to a popular children’s book, it needs to make a certain amount of sense. Fortunately for all of us Toys Come Home makes oodles of caboodles of strudels of noodles of sense. Over the years children have asked Ms. Jenkins how Sheep lost her ear. Now that and a host of other questions (including some remarkably huge ones) are answered at long last.

How do special toys become beloved? Not in the ways you might imagine. StingRay, the stuffed sting ray, arrived too late to be a birthday present at The Girl’s party. Faced with not being The Girl’s favorite present she put up with the insufferable Bobby Dot (a walrus who wasn’t very nice) until after helping rescue the Sheep and facing her fear of towels, she managed to become worthy of snuggling and cuddling on the high bed. Lumphy, the toughy little buffalo, was plucked from a bin full of teddies, proving his valor soon thereafter with a particularly energetic kitten. And Plastic’s sheer energy and curiosity about the world leads the others to ask the ultimate question. Literally. In this way, we get to see how the characters of Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party came to be who they are.

I have never, in all my live long days, seen an author recall the trauma that comes when a child throws up on their favorite toy better than Ms. Jenkins. It’s sort of a two-part trauma. The first part is the sudden disgusting nature of your once beloved companion and the second is what happens when they go through the wash. Jenkins doesn’t dwell too heavily on the death of toys (just the nature of existence itself, but more on that later) but it’s there and it’s r

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3. Review of the Day: The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett

The Princess and the Pig
By Jonathan Emmett
Illustrated by Poly Bernatene
Walker & Co. (a division of Bloomsbury)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8027-2334-5
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

The princess craze is a relatively new phenomenon. I’m sure that little girls have pretended to be princesses for as long as the occupation has existed, but the current concentrated capitalization on that desire has taken the obsession to a whole other level. You can’t enter a toy department these days without being bombarded with the idea that every little girl should wear pink, frilly, sparkly costumes and woe betide the child that might prefer a good unadorned set of overalls instead. Naturally, all this sank into the world of picture books after a while. Stories like The Paper Bag Princess were now being ignored while the latest pink monstrosity would suck up all the attention. So you can probably understand why I was a little reluctant to pick up The Princess and the Pig at first. My first instinct was to just throw it on the pile with the rest of the princessey fare. Fortunately, I heard some low-key buzz about the book, making it clear that there might be something worthwhile going on here. Thank goodness I did too. Ladies and gentlemen, two men have come together and somehow produced a book that thumbs its nose at the notion of a little girl wanting to be a princess. In fact, when it comes right down to it, this is a tale about how sometimes it’s difficult to tell the royalty from the swine. Now that’s a lesson I can get behind!

The day the queen didn’t notice that she dropped her baby daughter off of the castle’s battlements could have been horrific. Instead, it led to a case of switched identities. When a kindly farmer parks his cart beneath a castle so as to take a break, he doesn’t notice when a flying baby lands in the cart and launches upward the cart’s former inhabitant, baby piglet. The piglet lands in the baby’s bassinet and the queen, seeing a change in her daughter, is convinced that an evil fairy must be to blame. Meanwhile the baby, dubbed Pigmella, is promptly adopted by the kindly farmer and his wife. She grows up to love her life while Princess Priscilla, a particularly porcine royal, pretty much just acts like a pig. Years later the farmer and his wife figure out the switcheroo but when they attempt to right a great wrong they are rebuffed by the haughty royals. So it is that Pigmella gets to marry a peasant and avoid the chains of royalty while Priscilla has a wedding of her own . . . poor handsome prince.

Normally I exhibit a strong aversion to self-referential fairy tales. You know the ones I mean. The kinds of stories that act like the Shrek movies, winking broadly at the parents every other minute whether it serves the story or not. And certainly “The Princess and the Pig” never forgets for a second that it is operating in a fairytale land. The king in the queen in this book have a way of using fairytales to justify their already existing expectations and prejudices, constantly holding them up as the solution to their every problem. Rather than feel forced, the royals’ silliness is utterly consistent with their characters. It was only after I reread the book that I realized that while they are under the distinct impression that every problem beg

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4. Review of the Day: Big City Otto by Bill Slavin

Big City Otto: Elephants Never Forget
By Bill Slavin
With Esperança Melo
Kids Can Press
ISBN: 978-1-55453-476-0
Ages 8-11
On shelves now

Boy, The Man With the Yellow Hat just lost all credibility, didn’t he? Time was that Curious George snatcher could nab the jungle beast of his choice, slap his hands together, and call it a day. These days, though, readers don’t take too kindly to fellows who go about grabbing the next spare primate they set their sights on. Various children’s authors have dealt with him one way or another (Furious George Goes Bananas by Michael Rex comes most immediately to mind). Big City Otto takes the idea from an entirely different bent. What if George left a friend behind? And what if that friend was an elephant? The result is something along the lines of Babar by way of Mowgli setting off on a mission to rescue Curious George. With a parrot sidekick. Can’t believe I almost forgot the parrot sidekick.

Otto the elephant is depressed. No two ways about it. You’d be pretty depressed too, mind you, if your best buddy and practically step-brother, Georgie, was up and kidnapped by some crazed man with a wooden nose and a sack. After sighing and crying over his friend’s disappearance, Crackers the parrot convinces Otto participate in a kind of a crazy scheme. Clearly Georgie was kidnapped and taken to America so all they’ll have to do is go to the U.S., find him, and rescue him. Trouble is, it’s not that simple. There’s the getting there from Africa part (extra large cargo, anyone?), finding friendly folks who can help out, interviewing zoo animals, and more. But when Otto and Crackers fall in with a pack of crocodiles with ulterior motives, locating one little monkey is the least of their problems.

In his little bio attached to this book author/illustrator Bill Slavin says he is in “Millbrook, Ontario, surrounded by his well worn Asterix collection.” The Asterix influence is indeed felt in this work. Not so much the artistic style, mind you, but definitely the pace. Never lagging, always upbeat, “Otto” makes for a quick read. And really, it was the art that attracted me to this book in the first place. Slavin’s style manages to encompass all kinds of settings and characters with ease. It can’t be simple to try to replicate the big city’s feel. You’d end up drawing sheer amounts of people more than anything else. But Slavin paces himself, and the reader could be forgiven for concentrating primarily on Otto anyway. He’s a big lovable lummox. One that’s hard to look away from.

Of course the time period is a bit of a mystery. As I see it, there are two possible reasons why this book appears to be set in 1993. Reason #1: Slavin originally wrote the book in that year and saw little reason to update it to the current day. Reason #2: He just real

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5. Review of the Day: The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker

The Luck of the Buttons
By Anne Ylvisaker
Candlewick Press
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5066-7
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

There are kids out there that like historical fiction. I know that there are. I’ve met them. They come into my library and curl their lips in disgust at the covers with the shiny dragons and sparkly motes of dust swirling and whirling. The thing is, they don’t know the term “historical fiction” and even if you told them that was the kind of book they preferred they’d look at you like you were attempting to make them eat something green and leafy. All they know is that they like stories about real kids and if those kids happen to live in the past, so be it. Why slap a label on what they love? Because if I don’t make it clear that this is a genre that gets read we’re going to find less and less books of that ilk appearing on our library and bookstore shelves. That would be a real pity too since books like The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker are some of the best in the biz. A svelte little novel that’s chock full of plum, pluck, and vinegar, Ylvisaker gives us a heroine you can believe in but never pity. And the readability? Through the roof, man. Through the roof.

If you’re growing up in Goodhue, Iowa then you probably know the Button family. More to the point, you probably know that they’re just about the most luckless group of nobodies ever to place a foot on God’s green earth. This has been true for generations and there’s no reason to think that Tugs Button would be any different. Yet this year, she seems to be. First thing, Tugs wins the three-footed race with fancy Aggie Millhouse as her partner (Aggie’s another story right there). Next, she wins the essay content for a piece of writing she though she’d dumped in the trash. And then third, she wins a raffle for a real, honest-to-goodness, Brownie camera. A gorgeous camera that takes great photographs. If the luck of Tugs is turning around, she’d definitely going to need it. There’s a fast-talking newspaper man in town taking donations for a new paper, and Tugs is certain the fellow’s up to no good. The result is a story of a girl who’s been sleepwalking through her own life until, one day, she gets lucky.

There are two books out this year where smooth-talking shysters try to talk some money out of the local rubes. In The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm, the shyster gets away scot-free. In Luck of the Buttons . . . well, I shouldn’t give anything away. Suffice to say, Tugs is onto this Harold Hill wannabe, pretty much from the get-go. And part of what I respect about Ylvisaker’s writing is that Tugs has her reasons. She also has her handicaps. There is, first and foremost, the fact that she’s a girl, and second there’s the fact that her family lies on one of the lower rungs of their small town’s status. Who’s going to believe the suspicions of somebody that inherently (through no fault of her own) untrustworthy?

In fact, it’s the small town mentality here that I really loved. It’s easy to condemn small towns for their single-mindedness and stubborn memories. It’s also easy to hold small towns up as bastions of truth, justice, and the American w

5 Comments on Review of the Day: The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker, last added: 12/8/2011
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6. Review of the Day: Come to Bed, Red! by Jonathan Allen

Come to Bed, Red!
By Jonathan Allen
Double Digit productions
Kindle Edition
File Size: 6845 KB
For ages 4-8
Available now

Each year I like to review one independently published title. In an era where even review journals like Kirkus have a section dedicated to self-published titles, it’s always a good idea to give some credit to the folks out there who do well on their own. Finding something to review, however, can be tricky. For every hidden gem there are mountains of schlock to sift through. Recently I decided to cheat. I went with an author/illustrator I already knew. Years ago Jonathan Allen, a British fellow, came out with one of the best little storytime readalouds ever to cross the pond. I’m Not Cute! followed the adventures of a Baby Owl intent on proclaiming to the world that he was “a huge and scary hunting machine”. Recently Allen decided to go the digital route, publishing the new bedtime fare title Come to Bed, Red! on Kindle. The book utilizes Allen’s customary fluffy protagonist fare with that hint of snark that always keeps things interesting.

Bedtime has come at last and Red Panda’s mama is calling her little one inside. Unfortunately, every time she tells him to come he explains that he’s just about to break his record in pinecone tossing, or just about to balance a stick on his nose for his longest time yet, OR just about shake off the last two leaves on the branch. When Red’s cries of “Just a minute” prove to be too much for his mother in he comes at long last. Then it’s time for a story, but every time Red tries to get his mother to come into the bedroom and tell him one she’s doing something else. When she finally does trot in, Red comes to the realization that while some things are worth waiting for, others should be done ASAP. A nice Author’s Note at the end explains a little bit about red pandas and how Mr. Allen got the idea for the book.

Allen’s protagonists like to proclaim things. The aforementioned Baby Owl, for example, is never happier than when he can say that which he is not. That’s probably why his titles say things like, I’m Not Sleepy! and I’m Not Santa! Other characters exist in titles that protest, Don’t Copy Me! and a very forthright Banana! (kind of a non sequitur, that one). Come to Bed, Red! is no exception and its hero is just as obstreperous. Kids reluctant to call it a day will find a kinsman in Red Panda. Now, of course, the slight danger here is that some kids will go on and learn the phrase “In a minute” from

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7. Review of the Day: Everything Goes by Brian Biggs

Everything Goes on Land
By Brian Biggs
Balzer & Bray (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$14.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-195809-0
Ages 3 and up
On shelves now

There is much to be said for simplicity. The elegant understated picture book that contains peaceful moments of serenity with the idea that a child might get lost in the image of a single field during a snowstorm, say, for hours at a time. Yes indeed. Nothing like it. There is much to be said for simplicity, but let me level with you. When I was a kid I liked quiet books, but only when my craving for the wild, colorful, frantic, and fast-paced had been fulfilled. It’s easy to swallow Tasha Tudor when you’ve supped first on some Seuss and Scarry. Part of what I love about picture books is that there’s room for all kinds. The long and the short. The classic and the new. The understated and, in this particular case, the overwhelming. Brian Biggs has brought to life the literary equivalent of Pop Rocks and Pixie Stix dissolved into Jolt Cola. A hugely entertaining, entirely loving citywide romp that puts the author/illustrator on the map and (I predict) will be impossible to pries from the hands of many a vehicular loving tot.

In the first few panels we see a boy and his father hop into their car and take off. Onto highways, off ramps, and finally into the big city. The two take note as they drive of all the kinds of vehicles they see. Different kinds of cars and bicycles. An array of motor homes and motorcycles. Trains and trucks. Buses and subways. Basically if you can think of the method of ground transportation, it’s in here somewhere. Biggs breaks up his incredibly detailed city scenes with close examinations of the vehicles in question. You might see the different parts the bicycle on one page or the way a motorcycle comes together on another. Finally, we learn about the duo’s ultimate destination and then it’s a quick jaunt home yet again.

No surprise that Mr. Biggs loved to pieces his copy of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go when he was a kid. This book feels like nothing so much as the lovechild of Richard Scarry and Robert Crumb with a healthy dose of Mark Alan Stamaty for spice. I explain. The Scarry comparison is obvious. One of the great joys of his books is that in the midst of great big city scenes you can find small storylines and continuing gags. Like Scarry, Biggs makes a point of identifying vehicles of different types and kinds. Yet he also

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8. Review of the Day: Peaceful Pieces by Anna Grossnickle Hines

Peaceful Pieces: Poems and Quilts About Peace
By Anna Grossnickle Hines
Henry Holt (Macmillan)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8050-899607
Ages 4-8
On shelves now.

Folks will ask for it. Sure they will. You sit at a children’s reference desk in a library long enough and eventually somebody is going to ask you for a book on the topic of “peace”. As a librarian, you’re in a pickle. See, you want to give them what they want, and certainly there is no lack of peace-related books for children out there. But since you’re a librarian you want to get your patrons to best of the best. And to be perfectly frank, I’d say that the bulk of peace books for kids out there are dreck. Goopy, icky, sentimental crud. There are exceptions, of course. Books like The Big Book for Peace for example are pretty good without dipping a toe too often in the tempting waters of didacticism. Poetry exists too but as with most things it’s hard to separate the good from the bad. You get a leg up if the art’s extraordinary, though. Now Anna Grossnickle Hines probably ranks as one of the top (maybe THE top) quilt-based illustrators of children’s books on the North American continent. I regularly use her 1, 2 Buckle My Shoe in my Toddler Storytimes. Her art is delightful but I admit to suppressing a small sigh when I saw that she’d created a book of peace poems. Fortunately I was pleased to discover that quite a few of these are pretty good. The poems are far more touch and go than the art, but all in all the collection is strong. And pretty. Did I mention pretty? Pretty.

“O peace, / why are you such / an infrequent guest?” In twenty-eight poems Anna Grossnickle Hines seeks to answer that very question and to come up with solutions to some close-to-home problems that kids face all the time. Set against a backdrop of handmade quilts of her own making, Hines tackles both the big questions and the small. A boy considers what would happen if he frightened away a deer, while another stands nose to nose with his sister until their anger is forgotten and somebody laughs. One poem shows that if you say “peace” over and over again the word turns your lips into a smile. They discuss the domino effect and the role of fear as it relates to violence. Through it all, the quilts capture these poems and reflect them like cloth prisms. Notes at the end of the book list some Peacemakers of the world (everyone from Jimmy Carter to Dorothy Day, and even a couple kids as well) and a section called “Peaceful Connections” discusses the creator’s quilting process.

Most collections of poetry for kids contain some poems that are top notch and others that are so-so. This is just as true for books of different poets as it is for a single poet writing a bunch of poems. Hines is a good poet, but the collection starts off slowly. The poems “Making an Entrance”, “An Invitation” and “Wher

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9. Review of the Day: Hopper and Wilson by Maria van Lieshout

Hopper and Wilson
By Maria van Lieshout
Philomel Books (a division of Penguin)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-399-25184-9
Ages 4-8
On shelves now.

Inspiration comes in a variety of different forms though family is probably best source. One author might write a picture book and make all the monsters in it the relatives they knew growing up. Another might write a tale based on an amusing catchphrase picked up by her husband. In the case of Hopper and Wilson, author Maria van Lieshout found inspiration when her father and brother found home. Apparently the two went on a sea voyage once and proceeded to get lost. The story has a happy ending since the two came back, wiser and more appreciative of the place they left behind, and so Hopper and Wilson finds its footing. A quiet tale of safe journeys, returns, and friendship, this is the bedtime book you’re looking for when bathtime has come and gone.

Hopper the elephant and Wilson the mouse wonder one day what exactly they might find at the end of the world. Determining that there’s a good chance of finding lemonade there, the two set out in a little boat with only a red balloon for company. Along the way they are caught up in a sudden squall and the two friends are separated. Wilson searches high and low for Hopper, until at last a friendly bird leads the two to one another. Continuing their journey (minus one red balloon) they find themselves back at their old dock. The end of the world is also the beginning. And for that the two of them could not be happier.

Until now the books both written and illustrated by van Lieshout have consisted of small, specialized little stories. Bloom is a tale of two little pigs searching for love while Peep is of the first flight/graduation gift variety and Splash about having a down day. Compared to these Hopper and Wilson plays out like a veritable epic tale. As epic a tale as toys ever have, of course. There is, you see, a stitched quality to Hopper and Wilson. You can make out the long stitched lines on both of their bodies. There’s a comfy, cuddly quality to them. Hopper in particular seems to have rather relaxed stuffing, probably from a lot of hugging over the years. Theirs is a world right out of Winnie-the-Pooh. Of small tragedies, lemon trees, the occasional pet cactus, and the discovery that the end of the world is also the beginning.

The watercolors in the book definitely drill home that dreamlike quality. Van Lieshout has a great deal of fun conjuring up the colors of stormy seas and yellow early morning skies. There’s one moment at night when Hopper and Wilson stare up at the stars and the red of their balloon is reflected oh-so-faintly in the deep dark blue waters below. And I, for one, would lo

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10. Review of the Day: The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont by Victoria Griffith

The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont
By Victoria Griffith
Illustrated by Eva Montanari
Abrams Books for Young Readers
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-4197-0011-8
Ages 6-10
On shelves now

The American publishing industry is good at a lot of things. They produce some pretty delightful fare for children on a variety of different topics. If you want vampires or stories of cute puppies or twists on fairy tales then you are in luck. If, however, you’re looking for something about people who are famous in countries other than America, I have bad news. We’re not that great at highlighting other nations’ heroes. Oh, you’ll see such a biography once in a rare while but unless they’re a world figure (Gandhi, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.) we’re not usually going to hear much about them. Maybe that’s part of the reason I get so excited when I see books that buck the trend. Books like Victoria Griffith’s The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont. The other reason is that in a greedy way I get to learn about new historical figures along with the child readers. Alberto Santos-Dumont, for all his charms, is not exactly a household name here in the States. Credit where credit is due, then since author Victoria Griffith is doing what she can to remedy that problem.

If you were a resident of Paris, France in the early 20th century you might have glanced up into the sky to see one Alberto Santos-Dumont in his handy dandy dirigible. A transplanted Brazilian and fan of the power of flight, Alberto was friends with Louis Cartier who bestowed upon him a wrist-based alternative to the pocket watch. Now he could time himself in the sky! Determined to create an official flying machine, Alberto announces the date and location that he intends to use one to take to the sky. But when sneaky Louis Bleriot arrives with the intention of stealing Alberto’s thunder, the question of who will go down in the history books is (ha ha) up in the air.

I’m having a bit of difficulty believing that this is Victoria Griffith’s first book for children. To my mind, writing nonfiction picture books for young readers is enormously difficult. You sit in front of a plate of facts with the goal of working them into something simultaneously honest and compelling for kids. Taken one way, the book’s a dud. Taken another, it does its subject justice. Griffith, for her part, takes to the form like a duck to water. The first sentence is “Alberto Santos-Dumont loved floating over Paris in his own personal flying machine.” After the first few pages don’t be too surprised if the kids you’re reading this book with start wondering why exactly it is that we don’t have our own personal dirigibles (this question is promptly answered when we learn that Alberto’s preferred mode of transportation had a tendency to .. um… catch on fire). Deftly weaving together the invention of the Cartier watch with Alberto’s moment in history, Griffith manages to create compelling characters and a situation that lets kids understand what was at stake in this story.

She also places Alberto squarely within his context in history. In the book we learn that while the Wright Brothers did fly at Kitty Hawn before Santos-Dumont, because their flight needed assistance then it wasn’t really flying. Griffith prefers to explain this not in the text but in the Author’s Note, but I think that’s fair. As long as you make clear to kids that there can be two different opinions on a

4 Comments on Review of the Day: The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont by Victoria Griffith, last added: 9/24/2011
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11. Review of the Day: Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri

Ghetto Cowboy
By G. Neri
Illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson
Candlewick Press
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-4922-7
Ages 10 and up.
On shelves now.

Fun Fact: Parents these days speak in code. As a New York children’s librarian I had to learn this the hard way. Let’s say they want a folktale about a girl outwitting a witch. I pull out something like McKissack’s Precious and the Boo Hag and proudly hand it to them. When I do, the parent scrunches up their nose and I think to myself, “Uh-oh.” Then they say it. “Yeah, um . . . we were looking for something a little less . . . urban.” Never mind that the book takes places in the country. In this day and age “urban” means “black” so any time a parents wants to steer a child clear of a book they justify it with the U word, as if it’s the baleful city life they wish to avoid (this in the heart of Manhattan, I will point out). Any black author or illustrator for children that you meet will probably have stories similar to this. Maybe part of the reason I like Greg Neri so much is that he’s not afraid to be as “urban” as “urban” can be. He does all the stuff these parents cower from. He writes in dialect, sets his stories in cities, talk about gangs and other contemporary issues, and produces stories that no one else is telling. That no one else is even attempting to tell. Street chess? Try Chess Rumble. Graphic novels discussing how the media portrays black youth? Yummy. And how about black cowboys living in big cities like Philadelphia or Brooklyn? For that you’d have to find Ghetto Cowboy (not “Urban Cowboy”) and read it in full. Because if there’s one thing Neri does well it’s tell a tale that needs to be told.

Cole’s been in trouble plenty of times before, but this is different. This is worse. After getting caught after skipping school for large swaths of time, Cole’s mother has had all that she can take. Next thing he knows they’re barreling out of Detroit, the only home he’s ever had, straight for Philadelphia. There, Cole’s father, a guy he’s never met before a day of his life, lives a peculiar life. Cole’s heard of cowboys, sure, but whoever heard of cowboys in Philly? Turns out that his dad helps run an urban stable where he works to get neighborhood kids interested in helping care for and ride the local horse population. But with a city intent on carting the horses away, it’s going to take more than good intentions to keep these modern day cowboys up and running. It’s going to take Cole’s help.

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12. Review of the Day: Icefall by Matthew Kirby

Icefall
By Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-545-27424-1
Ages 9-14
On shelves now.

There’s a certain breed of middle grade fiction novel for kids that defies easy categorization. Call them fantasies without fantasy. These strange little novels pop up from time to time encouraging readers to believe that they are reading about something fantastical without having to throw magic spells, ghosts, or singing teacups into the mix. Frances Hardinge’s Fly by Night and Fly Trap fit this description. Ditto any book that really involves an alternate world. Now when I received my copy of Matthew Kirby’s Icefall I had an inkling that it would definitely be that kind of book. This notion was confirmed when I flipped to the first entry in my advanced reader’s galley and read the following classifications. They call it: “Action & Adventure”, “Science Fiction, Fantasy, Magic”, and “Mysteries & Detective Stories”. Highly amusing since there isn’t much in a way of science fiction or fantasy or magic here. Action, Adventure, Mysteries, and Detective Stories though? Tons! And entirely worth discovering too.

It’s tough being the middle child. Solveig knows this, but it doesn’t make her life any easier. Neither a beauty like her older sister Asa nor . . . well . . . male like her younger brother Harald, Solveig has never attracted the attention of her father, the king. Now with their nation at war, the three children have been sent to a distant mountain fortress to wait out the days until the battle’s end. As they wait they are joined by their father’s guard, the highly unreliable and frightening berserkers. At first Solveig is put off by their manners and actions, but as time goes on she grows to trust them. That’s part of the reason she’s so shocked when someone attempts to poison them all off. Though the community in this fortress is small, someone amongst them is a traitor. And in the midst of her training to be a storyteller, Solveig must discover the culprit, even if he or she is someone she dearly loves.

Now when I said that this book didn’t contain so much as a drop of magic within its pages I was being facetious. Truth be told, aside from the whole alternate world building Kirby does allow Solveig some premonitions in the form of dreams. And yes, the dreams seem to foretell what will occur in the future. Admitted. That said, I get the feeling that Mr. Kirby included the dreams almost as an afterthought. To be perfectly blunt, they come right out. Their sole purpose is to foreshadow, and foreshadow they do. There are certain fictional tropes for kids that just rub me the wrong way, like prophecies and the like. Portentous dreams, as it happens, don’t bother me one way or another unless they rate too much importance. In Icefall Kirby grants his characters’ dreams just the right amount of attention. Not too much. Not too little.

The book would actually make a fairly effective murder mystery play, should someone wish to adapt it. Like any good murder mystery the suspects are limited, cut off from the rest of the world. Scenes can only be set in the woods or in the buildings, and not much of anywhere else. The

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13. Review of the Day: Little Chicken’s Big Day by Katie Davis and Jerry Davis

Little Chicken’s Big Day
By Katie Davis and Jerry Davis
Margaret K. McElderry Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
$14.99
ISBN: 978-1-4424-1401-3
Ages 4-8
On shelves now.

Are there any picture book catchphrases that have entered the cultural lexicon? I’m serious in asking this, but I’m a poor judge of what everyone knows. When you spend your days reading lines like “He was a big FAT caterpillar” aloud and then find yourself working those phrases into your everyday speech, you’re not exactly the best average consumer. Still, even I know that when you look at the great picture book classics, they may be great books but you don’t hear words or phrases from them showing up in late night talk show opening monologues or anything. Leno isn’t throwing out a “Let me drive the bus!” reference and Conan isn’t bringing up Madeline’s line to the tiger in the zoo. The closest I can come up with might be Goodnight Moon and its lulling lines. If a comedian starts saying, “Good night” in a variety in different ways, folks know what they mean. Otherwise, there’s not much. Maybe Little Chicken’s Big Day will change all that. Because when it comes to memorable lines, I suspect Katie and Jerry Davis are going to go down in history for inspiring a whole generation of kids to chirp cheerily to their parents, “I hear you clucking, Big Chicken”.

It’s early in the morning and it’s time for Little Chicken to get dressed, wash his face, and get ready for the day. Each time his mother tells him these things he comes back with a prompt, “I hear you cluckin’, Big Chicken.” Then it’s off to have some fun. Yet while following his mother Little Chicken gets pretty distracted. A lovely butterfly catches his eye and next thing he knows he’s alone. Fortunately, mama’s not far away calling his name, to which he replies (all together now) “I hear you cluckin’, Big Chicken.” Then home and bed and when her baby whispers, “I love you, Mama” it meets a gentle “I hear you cluckin’, Little Chicken.”

The given story behind the book’s creation is that co-author Jerry Davis worked or knew a fellow employee who, when asked to do anything by his boss, would reply “I hear you cluckin’, Big Chicken.” It really was a natural fit for the picture book format, though of course the tone is entirely different. In the original format it was a snarky line. Here it does have a bit of cheek to it at first, but as it goes each version of it has a different meaning. Cheeky first. Bothered next. Overjoyed the third time. Loving at last. On a personal level I appreciated the fact that they removed the “g” in the word “clucking” too. The story itself is really just there to hang on the already existing phrase. We’ve loads of stories for kids about getting separated from a parent and finding them again, but they kind of blur together a

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14. Review of the Day: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls
By Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd
Illustrated by Jim Kay
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5559-4
Ages 11 and up
On shelves now

I don’t mind metaphors as much as I might. I think that generally I’m supposed to hate them when they show up in children’s literature. I don’t if they’re done well, though. Maybe if I were an adult encountering The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time I’d find the Jesus allegory annoying, but as a kid it flew right over me. Similarly, if I were an eleven-years-old today and someone handed me A Monster Calls I could read this whole book and not once speculate as to what the monster “really means”. Author Patrick Ness (who also wrote a book called Monsters of Men just to confuse you) writes a layered story that can be taken straight or at an angle, depending on what you want out of the book. What I wanted was a great story, compelling characters, and a killer ending. That I got and so much more.

The monster comes at 12:07. It would probably be easier for everyone, the monster included, if Conor were afraid of it, but he isn’t. Conor’s afraid of much worse things at the moment. His mom has cancer and this time the treatments don’t seem to be working as well as they have in the past. He’s plagued by a nightmare so awful he believes that no one else ever need know of it. Bullies at school pound him regularly, his grandmother is annoying, and his dad lives with a different family in America. The crazy thing is that Conor kind of wants to be punished, but the monster has a different purpose in mind. It’s going to tell him three stories and when it’s done Conor will tell him a fourth. A fourth that is the truth and also the last thing he’d ever want to say.

For the record, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate a book that includes the word “monster” in the title and then proceeds to include lots o’ monster. Since we’re dealing with the serious subject matter of a boy learning to forgive himself as his mother dies of cancer, Ness could also be forgiven for just putting a dab of monster here or a dribble of monster there. Instead he starts with the monster (“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”) continues to pile on the monster scenes, and by the time you reach the end there’s not a kid alive who could say they were mislead by the cover or title. The monster in this book isn’t the only wild Green Man to be published this year. Season Of Secrets by Sally Nicholls

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15. Review of the Day: Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
By Kadir Nelson
Balzer and Bray (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$19.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-173074-0
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Humans tend to be a highly visual species. When folks tell you not to judge a book by its cover, that’s an optimistic sentiment rather than a rule. People like to judge by covers. Often we haven’t time to inspect the contents of all the books we see, so the jackets bear the brunt of our inherent skepticism. With this in mind, Kadir Nelson has always had an edge on the competition. If the man wants to get you to pick up a book, he will get you to pick up a book. You often get a feeling that while he doesn’t really care when it comes to the various celebrities he’s created books for over the years (Spike Lee, Debbie Allen, Michael Jordan’s sister, etc.) when it’s his own book, though, THAT is when he breaks out the good brushes. Nelson wrote We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball a couple years ago to rave reviews. Now he’s dug a little deeper to provide us with the kind of title we’ve needed for years. Heart and Soul gives us a true overview of African Americans from start to near finish with pictures that draw in readers from the cover onwards. This is the title every library should own. The book has heart. The pictures have soul.

An old woman stands in front of a portrait in the Capitol rotunda in Washington D.C. Bent over she regards the art there, recounting how it was black hands that built the Capitol from sandstone. “Strange though . . . nary a black face in all those pretty pictures.” Looking at them you would swear black people hadn’t been here from the start, but that’s simply not true. With that, the woman launches into the history of both our nation and the African Americans living in it, sometimes through the lens of her own family. From Revolutionary War soldiers to slavers, from cowboys to union men, the book manages in a scant twelve chapters to offer us a synthesized history of a race in the context of a nation’s growth. An Author’s Note rounds out the book, along with a Timeline, a Bibliography, and an Index.

Kadir Nelson, insofar as I can tell, enjoys driving librarian catalogers mad. When he wrote We Are the Ship some years ago he decided to narrate it with a kind of collective voice. The ballplayers who played in the Negro Leagues speak as one. Normally that would slip a book directly into the “fiction” category, were it not for the fact that all that “they” talk about are historical facts. Facts upon facts. Facts upon facts upon facts. So libraries generally slotted that one into their nonfiction sections (the baseball section, if we’re going to be precise) and that was that. Now “Heart and Soul” comes out and Nelson has, in a sense, upped the ante. Again the narrator is fictional, but this time she’s a lot more engaged. The Greek

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16. Review of the Day: What Animals Really Like by Fiona Robinson

What Animals Really Like
By Fiona Robinson
Abrams Books for Young Readers
$15.95
ISBN: 978-0-8109-8976-4
Ages 4-8
On shelves now.

I’m sitting in a room with other children’s librarians. Together, we are attempting to determine what the best children’s books of a given year are. It’s late in the publishing season and we haven’t a lot of time left when one of us walks in with Fiona Robinson’s What Animals Really Like. None of us are familiar with Ms. Robinson’s work (though we’ve heard nice things about The 3-2-3 Detective Agency) so our expectations are pretty low. The librarian who has the book, though, informs us in no uncertain terms that this is one of the best of the year. She then proceeds to read it aloud. Ladies and gentlemen, there are few finer pleasures that being read a picture book that works. I don’t care if you’re 5 or 55 or 555. Everyone likes storytime and many people like learning about great new picture books through readalouds. By the time the librarian was done it was unanimous. We were in love with What Animals Really Like and ready to join Fiona Robinson’s fan club, should someone ever feel the urge to start one. And trust me, after this book gains a bit of a following, folks are going to be lining up around the block to start organizations in honor of its author/illustrator. You want a surefire storytime gem? Baby, I got your back.

Maestro Herbert Timberteeth has written a brand new song going by the name of “What Animals Really Like”. For this one time performance he has assembled a chorus of some twelve different groups of animals. At the start, all goes according to plan. The lions reluctantly sing, “We are lions, and we like to prowl.” Next a tepid, “We are wolves, and we like to howl.” “We are pigeons, and we like to coo.” Finally, “We are cows, and we like to . . . dig.” There stand the cows holding various digging accoutrements and looking very pleased. Herbert, suffice to say, is not amused. He’s even less amused when the warthogs suddenly declare mid-song that they like to blow enormous bubbles. As the book continues, more and more animals start to sing what they really like to do, rather than what society expects them to. And though it causes him some serious stress, Herbert eventually lets everyone sing what it is that they really like, even though it doesn’t rhyme or, sometimes, make a lot of sense.

I’m a sucker for any book that upsets expectations. Kids are so used to picture books that allow them to guess the rhyme that when they encounter a book that turns that idea on its head they’re initially flummoxed, and then soon delighted. Not many picture books have the guts to do this. The best known, to my mind, is Mac Barnett’s Guess Again!, which takes the idea to its logical extreme. What’s nice about Robinson’s book is that while it’s not as downright goofy as Barnett’s, the upset expectations serve the story. In a way, all readers are automatically placed in the shoes of Herbert Timberteeth. We may not iden

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17. Review of the Day: Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac

Dragon Castle
By Joseph Bruchac
Dial Books (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8037-33767-3
Ages 10-14
On shelves now.

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain though no one has ever been able to prove it much one way or another. The sentiment, however, is universal. There comes a certain time in a young teen’s life when their parents lose a bit of their luster. Suddenly the kid feels that they themselves are the arbitrators of the universe and their parents old has-beens without a brain to share. Not every teenager feels this way, obviously, but a whole mess of them do and it’s rare that I see this feeling portrayed in a work of fiction as brilliantly as it is in Joseph Bruchac’s latest novel Dragon Castle. Best known for his books that have, in some ways, called upon his Abenaki Indian heritage, Bruchac switches gears and presents a book that finds its roots in another part of his family: His Slovakian ancestry. The result is a wry, funny, thoroughly enjoyable book from start to finish. The kind of fantasy novel a person can sink into with glee.

Prince Rashko has a problem. On the horizon marches a large army of foes, clearly bent on conquering his castle. His parents, not the brightest sorts to begin with, have been lured away to fairyland in the interim and don’t look like they’ll be home for a while. His older brother Paulek, meanwhile, keen to invite the invaders in for some good old fashioned sparring exercises, let’s them in without a second thought. Their castle, the impressive Hladka Hvorka, was raised by the legendry hero Pavol and it houses a secret. A secret the army’s evil Baron wants. A secret Rashko will have to use all his ingenuity to protect. That said, if he just pays a little bit of attention, Rashko will find that he has friends of all sorts willing to help him out. He need simply trust them. An extensive Author’s Note, Cast of Characters, Places, and Slovak Vocabulary and Numbers appear at the end of the book.

Right from the start Rashko informs us in no uncertain terms that his parents are less than entirely intelligent. That they’re a sandwich short of a picnic. A Brady short of a bunch. The wheel is running but the hamster’s dead. “Why, I sometimes wonder, am I the only one in our family who ever seems to entertain a thought as anything other than a transient visitor?” Bruchac starts us off with a hero who is sympathetic not necessarily because he has a sterling personality, but rather because kids who see their own families in much the same light will sympathize. Never mind that as the story continues Bruchac manages to show instances of Rashko’s parents and older brother showing great savvy while looking like they are dumb as a trio of stumps. You believe that Rashko is truly ignorant of these moments. To my surprise, he does change his tune a little by the story’s close but not as much as you might think. Though he ends his story by saying that he has been too quick to judge his family, he still doesn’t quite understand his brother’s role in everything that has occurred. Telegraphing information to your readership without overdoing it is no easy task. Mr. Bruchac, however, is clearly an old pro at the height of his game.

I confess that I haven&rsquo

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18. Review of the Day – Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand

Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina
By Carmen T. Bernier-Grand
Illustrated by Raul Colon
Marshall Cavendish
$19.99
ISBN: 978-0-7614-5562-2
Ages 8-11
On shelves now

When I was a kid I took a fair amount of ballet. I liked it. Kept me on my toes (yuk yuk yuk). I retain fond memories of that time in my life, but don’t be fooled. I’m just as likely to groan when I see a children’s biography of a ballerina as anyone. “Not another one!” I’ll kvetch. Never mind that ballerina bios don’t exactly stuff my shelves to overflowing. Never mind that when artists like Raul Colon are involved the end result is going to be magic. Never mind that author Carmen T. Bernier-Grand has attempted to sate my unquenchable thirst for original biographies of people never covered in the children’s sphere before. It was only when my fellow librarians repeated the phrase, “No. Really. It’s incredibly good” to me in about thirty different ways that I finally picked the dang thing and cracked it open. Fun Fact: It’s incredibly good. Who knew? [Aside from all those children's librarians, of course.] From the pen of Ms. Bernier-Grand comes a biography that tells the balanced, nuanced story of a woman pursuing the art form she loves in the face of personal tragedies, political upheavals, and worldwide acclaim/blame.

A child named Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martinez y del Hoyo dances in her Cuban home. “Like light, / she’s barely aware / of the floor beneath her dancing feet.” Few could suspect at the time that she would grow up to become perhaps the greatest Cuban ballerina in the world. After years of practice she marries at fifteen to a fellow dancer and moves to New York. It’s there that she is discovered, just in time for her retina to detach. But even blinded she dances in her head and when she comes back to the stage her toe shoes are glued to her feet with blood. Back in Cuba she starts a dance company that suffers under the dictator Batista and does better under Castro. When the decision comes to dance for Cuba or the U.S. she stays with her roots, to the admonishment of the exiles. To this day she dances still. A final author’s note, list of ballets she’s performed, awards received, a Chronology, Glossary of terms, Sources, Website, and Notes appear at the end.

Books for children that deal with Cuba make me wish I had been a better student in school. My knowledge of the Cuban Revolution comes in bits and pieces, fits and starts. Recently we’ve seen quite a few titles concerning this moment in history but often I found them strangely black and white. In books like “The Red Umbrella” for example, characters were portrayed as incredibly black and white. When one starts to join with Castro, she becomes evil near instantaneously. Sometimes historical choices and moments have bits of gray in there, though. Part of the reason I liked Alicia Alonso as much as I did had to do with these gray areas. First off, it was one of the few books to speak about Dictator Batista. Next, here you have a woman who chose to stay in Cuba. As the Author’s Note explains, “Alicia had

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19. Review of the Day: Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend

Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend: A Civil Rights Story
By Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud
Illustrated by John Holyfield
Candlewick Press
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-4058-3
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

Certain historical figures inspire multiple generations of children’s authors to go a little hog wild and pig crazy writing up their lives for general posterity. The biography section of my children’s room, like many out there, suffers from an overabundance of Lincoln/Edison/Washington/etc. bios. Even utterly worthy folks like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. get a little overdone, causing one to wonder why folks even bother. Do authors keep writing about the same five folks because schools concentrate only on those people and therefore it is more lucrative to give them credit over and over again? How hard is it to find new takes on overdone cultural heroes? Enter Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud. Shelved in the fiction picture book section of your local library, the book actually places the bulk of its attention on a true moment in history, little remembered in schools and textbooks. Though it is couched in a made up story, Ramsey and Stroud have found a way to give Dr. King’s legacy a new tale and take. The end result is a book that may straddle the line between story and truth, but there will be few who argue that it straddles the line between good and bad.

Alex is bored. His mom has dragged him along to Gee’s Bend so that she can buy a quilt, but while she’s doing so he’s stuck on an old porch with nothing to look at but an old mule chomping on somebody’s garden of collard greens. When an old woman joins him on the bench and introduces herself as Miz Pettway Alex inquires as to why the mule is allowed to eat all the greens it wants. She explains that Belle isn’t just any old mule. Back in the day when segregation was rampant Dr. Martin Luther King visited Gee’s Bend. After encouraging the residents to take the ferry the people find that the white folks in Camden across the river are so intent to deny the vote that they’ve closed down the ferry. Undeterred the Benders had their mules pull them along and around the river the long way. Later when Dr. King died, Belle and a mule named Ada were selected to pull his coffin along its funeral route. Of course state policeman tried to stop the mules from arriving, but when it was clear that there would be a national incident if the mules were not taken to the funeral, state troopers escorted the animals the rest of the way. That is why Belle, for all that she’s a mule, is important. As Alex himself says, “even an old mule can be a hero.” An Author’s Note explaining the true history of this incident alongside a photograph of the actual mules pulling Dr. King’s coffin, is included at the end.

Many is the children’s librarian who has picked up a work of historical fiction like this and encountered what can only be described as Needless Exposition: The Book. Let me describe it to you. In such a book a child character walks up to an adult and asks something along the lines of, “Grandpa what was World War II / Jim Crow / The Bay of Pigs?” (take your pick). Then the adult tells them what they want the reader to know and there you go. Instant book. Such stories don’t always make a lot of sense either. Oftentimes you’ll encounter a narrator who by all rights would have been told such

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20. Review of the Day: The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone

The Romeo and Juliet Code
By Phoebe Stone
Arthur A. Levine (an imprint of Scholastic)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-545-21511-4
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

It seems unfair that my attention was first drawn to The Romeo and Juliet Code because of its cover. No book deserves to be held responsible for its misleading jacket and Phoebe Stone’s latest is no exception. Set during the Second World War, the book looks like a rejected shot from a GAP catalog more than a historical novel (pink Converse?? Really??). When ire was aimed at the jacket early on I remember many a supporter saying, “It’s such a pity it has that cover because the story is wonderful!” Willing to give it the benefit of the doubt (after all, The Trouble with May Amelia has a similar problem and is a magnificent bit of writing) I plucked up a copy from a friend and started to read. Oh my. No book, as I say, deserves to be held responsible for the sins of its jacket, but this book has sins of its own above and beyond its packaging. Ostensibly a kind of mystery for kids, folks with a low twee tolerance would do best to steer clear of this one. It is indeed beloved in its own right but this particular reviewer found its style to be strangely grating. As historical fiction goes, this does not go to the top of my list.

Flissy has found herself unceremoniously dumped. One minute she is living happily in her flat in England with her parents Winnie and Danny (though she doesn’t much care for the bombing going on outside). Next thing she knows they’ve managed to hitch a ride on a ship bound for America and she is left in the care of an unmarried uncle, an unmarried aunt, and a grandmother, none of whom she has ever met before. Her initial homesickness and loneliness are partly appeased when she starts uncovering the secrets lurking in the house. A hitherto unknown cousin by the name of Derek is found upstairs. Uncle Gideon is receiving strange coded messages and they seem to be coming from Flissy’s Danny. And why does everyone keep talking about the whispers in the nearby town? What other secrets can one family harbor? Flissy doesn’t know but with the help of her cousin she is bound to find out the whole truth.

I have an unattractive habit that comes out whenever a book starts to grow repetitive in some way. I count. Which is to say, I count the number of times that repetitive element appears. When I read Eragon for the first time I counted how many times a chapter began with some version of “Eragon woke up” (final count: twenty-one chapters do this). In the case of The Romeo and Juliet Code my weirdness was prompted by the author’s use of the term “ever so” as in “I was ever so interested in the number of times `ever so’ appeared in this book.” There are thirty-seven moments when the phrase pops up. In two cases the phrase appears twice on a single page. Reading an advanced readers galley of the book I was convinced that this had to be a typo of some sort. Surely the author got a little carried away and the copy editor would lay down the law before publication time, yes? Apparently not. On the child_lit listserv the book’s editor spoke about the ubiqui

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21. Review of the Day – Then to Now: A Short History of the World by Christopher Moore

From Then to Now: A Short History of the World
By Christopher Moore
Illustrated by Andrej Krystoforski
Tundra Books
$25.95
ISBN: 978-0-88776-5407
Ages 9 and up
On shelves now.

I have nothing but respect for contemporary historians. A few of them, let us be honest, are rock stars. They have to take something as strange and ephemeral as knowledge (such as it stands) about the past and make it into something relevant and interesting and coherent. These days historians also need to make sure they don’t follow in the footsteps of their forefathers and just focus everything on white people. I grant that it was easier to write history when it came down to just a single ethnicity, but talk about restrictive! Then there are the historians for children. They have to not only do all the aforementioned steps, but make history as accurate and simple, without being simplistic, as possible. It would be difficult enough to do all of this if your book was about a person or a country. Now imagine the challenge that comes from writing about the entire history of humankind in a scant 188 pages. With pictures, no less. Leave it up to the Canadians to get it right. Toronto historian Christopher Moore does his best to render an entire world in a single book without putting the whippersnapper young readers to sleep. That he manages it has got to be some kind of miracle right there.

As Moore says in his Preface, “When does a history of the world – even a short history of the world – start? This history starts with people.” So it is that we are plunged into the past. From rice farmers in China to The Great Pyramid of Giza. From Cleopatra to Martin Luther. Though he can only provide the barest of overviews, Moore takes care to give history a kind of structure, allowing student readers the chance to find the aspects that interest them the most for future study on their own. The book includes an explanation of BCE and CE vs. BC and AD in an Author’s Note, as well as an Index and a map on the endpapers of places named in the text. Very oddly, no Bibliography appears here. Strange indeed.

The endpapers of this book, displaying a map with highlighted locations, pretty much give you a blunt encapsulation of where Moore’s attention is going to focus in this text. You can sort of tell that the author is a Canadian right off the bat since L’Anse aux Meadows and Ramah Bay make the cut. The map identifies places that will come up in the text. Folks will undoubtedly object to the areas of the world that seemingly do not warrant a mention, but don’t be fooled. Just because a major metropolitan area in Australia doesn’t appear on the map that doesn’t mean that it has been excised from Moore’s history. A cursory examination of the Index yields at least 18 pages where the lands, and the Aborigines, are mentioned.

As for the text itself, Moore has been exceedingly careful. He starts off with the hominids of Africa, gives an overview of how they spread, launches into the Ice Age, goes into the whole hunter/gatherer society thing, and next thing you know you’re in the next chapter, “Learning to Farm”. He doesn’t mince words, this guy. As you read, you realize that Moore’s focus

4 Comments on Review of the Day – Then to Now: A Short History of the World by Christopher Moore, last added: 11/16/2011
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22. Review of the Day: Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Jefferson’s Sons
By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Dial (an imprint of Penguin)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3499-9
Ages 9-12
On shelves September 15th

When I was in high school I started reading Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved on my own. At the time, my mother said something about the book that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. She noted that the novel was remarkable because it showed that even the best possible slave situation was still an intolerable one. There is no “good” slaveholder, no matter how nice they might be, and no matter how well they treat their slaves. I understood a bit of this but I’ve never really encountered a book for kids that approaches this idea. I’d say that a good 95% of middle grade novels written for kids about slavery tend to show the same idea. The slaveholders are all evil except for one or two wives/daughters/granddaughters who teach our hero/heroine to read. Kids know that people who own slaves are bad so what’s the point in throwing in questionable morality? Yet Jefferson’s Sons couldn’t exist under those restrictions even if it wanted to. If a good chunk of the American population has a hard time wrapping its head around the idea that the Founding Fathers owned slaves then how much harder would it be for an author of children’s literature to bring the point up? Kimberly Brubaker Bradley doesn’t just tackle the issue of someone like Thomas Jefferson owning slaves, though. She tackles the notion that he owned his own children as well. To pull this storyline off and to make it child appropriate, Bradley has a couple tricks up her sleeve. And danged if it doesn’t pay off in the end. To her I doff my cap.

Three residents of Monticello. Three boys with a connection to its owner, Thomas Jefferson. The first boy, Beverly, is the eldest son of Sally Hemings. He is also, as it happens, a son of Jefferson himself. Born with light-colored skin, Beverly comes to learn from his mother that when he turns twenty-one he is expected to leave Monticello, never see his family again, and go into the world as a white man. On this point he is conflicted (to say the least). After him comes Madison, or Maddy for short. Born with darker skin, Maddy will never be able to live as a white person like his siblings, and he fights with his anger at his father and at the system of slavery itself. Finally there is Peter, a young slave boy, who ends up suffering the most at the hands of Jefferson’s negligence. Through it all, these three boys help one another and attempt to come to terms with how a man can be considered great and yet participate in an institution of evil.

Before we get any further I’m going to cut short an objection to this book that a segment of adult gatekeepers are going to lob straight off. The idea that Thomas Jefferson sired children with Sally Hemings is widely but not universally accepted. Some people believe that her kids were fathered by a cousin of Jefferson’s. Bradley even incorporates this theory into her story, mentioning that Jefferson’s daughter Martha spread the rumor of the cousin to distract the curious from making connections she deemed inappropriate. Bradley also tackles the fact that the Hemings/Jefferson connection is something she and “almost everyone else who’s investigated the subject” believes. She offers up a plethora of research for this, including a “Report of the

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23. Review of the Day: Witches! by Rosalyn Schanzer

Witches!: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem
By Rosalyn Schanzer
National Geographic Children’s Books
$16.95
ISBN: 978- 1426308697
Ages 10 and up
On shelves September 13th

Sometimes I wish I could sit down with my 10-year-old self and have a conversation. We’d chat about the improvements that will come to fashion someday (I think 10-year-old me would really appreciate knowing that 1988 was America’s low point), the delight to be found in School House Rock and eventually I’d turn the conversation to books. From there we’d give praise to good Apple paperbacks like The Girl With the Silver Eyes or pretty much anything with a ghost in it (does anyone even remember Ghost Cat?) but eventually I’d have to start pushing myself. “So what,” I might say, “would it take to get you to read nonfiction?” Even from a distance of twenty-three years I can feel the resistance to such a notion. Nonfiction? You mean like the latest edition of The Guinness Book of World Records, right? Nope. I mean like straight up facts about a moment in history. And not any of those Childhood of Famous Americans books either, missy thang. Then I’d pull out my secret weapon: Witches!: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem. The cover? Enticing. The subject? Not off-putting. The overall presentation? Enthralling.

When 9-year-old Betty Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams began to twist and turn in the home of the Reverend Samuel Parris there was only one possible reason for it: witchcraft. And why not? This was Salem, Massachusetts where the Puritan populace knew anything was possible. What they didn’t know was that the afflicted girls would be joined by fellow accusers and launch the town, and even parts of the state, into a series of witch trials the land of America had never seen before. Rosalyn Schanzer tells it like it is, recounting many of the details, giving information on what happened to all the players when the dust settled and things got back to normal. Notes, a Bibliography, an Index, and a Note From the Author explaining how she abridged, updated, and clarified some of the original texts follow at the end.

I’ll admit it. I’m not ashamed. Here I am, thirty-three years of age with a Masters degree to my name and if you had asked me to recount exactly what happened during the Salem Witch Trials I’d have been hard pressed to come up with anything I didn’t just learn from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Okay . . . so I’m a little ashamed. And I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know until I started reading Schanzer’s book. The author lays out her book chronologically. It’s like watching an episode of Law & Order. You see the “crime”, the characters, and the endless strange courtroom scenes (Note: Teacher’s wishing

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24. Review of the Day: What Do You See? by Martine Perrin

What Do You See?
By Martine Perrin
Albert Whitman & Co.
$8.99
ISBN: 978-0-8075-6712-8
Ages 0-4
On shelves now.

*Offspring Approved*

I have always acknowledged the danger of having a child of my own. You see, as a children’s librarian I deal with parents that truly believe that if their kid does or does not like a book, that is the final word on the matter. So if I try to suggest a book the child did not like they will curl their lips in severe distaste or, worse, try to have it removed from my collection. Likewise if I eschew a book the offspring adored they will assure me that it’s the best in my children’s room. Parents have a kind of selective tunnel vision with their heirs, which is understandable up to a point. And for eight years I’ve been a childless librarian with only my experience to call upon when reviewing books. Now the tables have turned. I find myself with a small human in my home and I become desperate to amuse her. Board books, once appreciated only in a vague theoretical way, are now for me mysterious godsends with secrets waiting to be uncovered. The danger I alluded to is that I will become one of those very parents I dislike, saying to the world that simply because my progeny likes a book, therefore all progeny everywhere will follow suit. This is not the case. With that in mind, just consider this a review that was once tested on a child of two months and held their interest. For what it’s worth.

Right from the cover onward this book works hard to suck in infant interest. Turn the cover and the wavy pattern on the boat becomes an ocean scene with a red fish cresting the waves. After that the book begins in earnest. “Rolling yarn, in a little house . . /” turn the page and, “Look! Here comes Kitty, ready to play! Meow, meow!” A checked pattern of red and white square that had previously been the makeup of the house now become a floor with a silhouette of a black cat in the upper right hand corner. Meanwhile the page you’ve just turned reveals that the house is now red and white too. This sets up the rest of the book. Patterns will appear within objects, and when you turn the page the colors of the objects will change and the patterns become something else. From black stripes to orange polka dots to green zigzags, Perrin creates patterns that seem to move when the eye takes them in. At the end of the book older children can identify the objects, colors, and animals that were spotted throughout.

Board books, those sturdy denizens of the nursery library, have never been more popular. At some point publishers realized that if they simply took already existing picture books and turned them into board book versions they could potentially double their sales. Some of these work. Many do not. Books that have always been board books from conception onward fare better with small fry, but they still n

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25. Review of the Day: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck
By Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press
$29.99
ISBN: 978-0545027892
Ages 9 and up
On shelves September 13, 2011

Hype. What’s the point? A publisher believes that a book is going to be big so they crank up the old hype machine and do everything in their power to draw attention to it long before its publication date. That’s what they did for Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck and I was sad to see it. As far as I was concerned, Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret was too tough an act to follow. Here you had a book that managed to get hundreds of librarians across the nation of America to redefine in their own minds the very definition of “picture book”. Cabret was remarkable because it combined words and pictures in a manner most closely resembling a film. Indeed the whole plot of the book revolved around filmmaking so what would be the point of writing another book in the same vein? If Cabret credits its success in part to its originality, doesn’t that give his Wonderstruck a handicap right from the start? You’d think so, but you might also forget something about Cabret. While the art was spectacular and the plotting just fine, the writing was merely a-okay. By no means a detriment to the book, mind you. Just okay. And maybe that’s partly why Wonderstruck works as well as it does. The art is just as beautiful as Cabret’s, the plotting superior, and the writing not just good, but fantastic. Where Cabret wowed readers with spectacle, Wonderstruck hits ‘em where it hurts. Right in the heart. For once, we’re dealing with a book that is actually worth its own hype.

Ben: Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, June 1977. Rose: Hoboken, New Jersey, October 1927. Ben’s Story – written: Newly orphaned when his mother dies, Ben comes to believe that he has a father, hitherto unknown, living in New York City. When an accident involving a telephone and a bolt of lightning renders him deaf, he sets out for the big city in search of clues to who his father really is. Rose’s Story – seen almost solely in pictures: A seeming prisoner in her own home, Rose too sets out for New York City to see the actress Lillian Mayhew for reasons of her own. The two children both end up in The American Museum of Natural History and both discover something there that will help to give them what they need to solve their own problems. And in that discovery, they will find one another.

I’ll just state right here and now that you could probably tell from the opening paragraph of this review that it’s extraordinarily difficult to talk about Wonderstruck without invoking Hugo Cabret in the same breath. This is mostly because of the unique written/image-driven style Selznick utilizes in both of these books. It’s not an unheard of technique, alternating written passages with visual ones, but it’s rarely done this well. What strikes me as significant, though, is that the style is chosen f

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