Monday, November 30, 2015

Drowned City - a review

 The National Council of Teachers of English recently named Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) the winner of its prestigious Orbis Pictus Award.

The NCTE Orbis Pictus Award  was established in 1989 for promoting and recognizing excellence in the writing of nonfiction for children. The name Orbis Pictus, commemorates the work of Johannes Amos Comenius, Orbis Pictus—The World in Pictures (1657), considered to be the first book actually planned for children. (from the NCTE website)


Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans is a spare, but powerful graphic novel account of the tragedy that befell the City of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.  Don Brown researches and illustrates Drowned City in his usual fashion.  It has extensive Source Notes and a corresponding Bibliography.  Every direct quote is sourced.  The illustrations are serious and in muted colors to accurately convey the gravity of the events; but they are sufficiently vague to spare the individual horror experienced by victims, survivors, and rescuers.  As he has done with other topics, Don Brown creates a focused, accurate, and powerful story - suitable for visual learners and for readers in a wide age range.


Other Hurricane Katrina books reviewed on this site:
Also by Don Brown and reviewed by Shelf-employed:

Monday, November 23, 2015

Bunjitsu Bunny's Best Move - a review

Bunjitsu Bunny's Best Move

by John Himmelman
(Henry Holt, 2015)

When Bunjitsu Bunny's Best Move came across my desk, my nose wrinkled and I thought, "Oh, this is going to be goofy."  But yet, I loved the cover art, and dove in anyway - taking it on my lunch break.  I'm so glad I did.

In fourteen, short, illustrated chapters, Isabel, John Himmelman's "bunjitsu" expert, learns important lessons of wisdom that are the perfect complement to her martial arts prowess.  In the second chapter, "Bunjitsu Bunny Fails," the usually perfect Isabel fails to master the "bunchucks."  She is profoundly disappointed,

     "You should not be unhappy," said Teacher.
     "But everyone passed the test except me," said Isabel.
     "Do you know what you did wrong?" asked Teacher.
     "Yes," said Isabel.
     "Can you do better?" asked Teacher.
     "Yes," said Isabel.
     "Lucky you," said Teacher. "They passed the test, but you learned the most."
Bunjitsu Bunny learns wisdom through action and observation.  Her lessons are similar to those imparted in John Muth's award-winning Zen Shorts picture books. However, the Bunjitsu Bunny books are simple chapter books for a suggested age range of 6-8 years.  The words are large, and the red, black and white illustrations are bold and full of expression.  The final chapter includes instructions for making an origami bunny face. Bunjitsu Bunny is a winner.

This is the second book in the series.  The first was Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny. (Images and excerpts here: [http://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250068064]) 


Bunjitsu Bunny is similar in reading level with one of my other favorites, Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson books.  I reviewed Mercy Watson to the Rescue in 2012


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Blackthorn Key - an audiobook review

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
Read by Ray Panthacki
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2015
7.25 hrs
Grades 5-9


Christopher Rowe, is a lucky lad.  Plucked from the orphanage for his intellectual potential, Christopher is apprenticed to the kindly apothecary, Master Benedict Blackthorn. Despite his lowly upbringing, relayed by narrator Ray Panthacki's hint of a Cockney accent, Christopher receives training in Latin, astronomy, ciphers, potions, and other tools of the apothecary's trade. In the midst of a suspicious atmosphere following great political upheaval, a mysterious cult of murderers arises. Christopher will need all his skills and more to decode a series of clues to a dangerous plot that threatens to upset the balance of world power. Panthacki clearly defines each of The Blackthorn Key's large cast of characters, creating distinctive voices that reflect their standing in British society.  Christopher's best friend is Tom, an apprentice baker.  Like Harry Potter and Ron, they are a memorable pair, and their dialogue sounds honest and warm.   Whether in terror, danger, or mere horseplay, the listener feels the emotion in and between the characters.  The only thing that slows the pace of adventure in this gripping mystery is the occasional reading of lengthy ciphers. Print readers may well try their hand at decoding them, but for listeners, they're primarily a drag on the action. The setting is as rich as the plot in this mid-17th century adventure brought to life by veteran actor Ray Panthacki.

 


My review copy was provided by AudioFile MagazineMy review of The Blackthorn Key for AudioFile Magazine (along with an audio excerpt) appears here. [http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/107274/]

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Green Bicycle - a review

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour
(Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015)

Eleven-year-old Wadjda lives with her parents in Saudi Arabia.  Lately, however, she's seen very little of her father. Rumor has it that he is seeking a second wife.  Because money is scarce and women are not permitted to drive, Wadjda's mother takes an hours-long cab ride each day to a remote village to teach school.  Covered in black from head to toe, she shares the ride (without air-conditioning) with other teachers - crammed in a dilapidated cab in the sweltering desert heat.  Wadjda, due to her young age and family's financial circumstances, has a special note that allows her to walk alone to school each day—but she longs to ride a bike like Abdullah.  She and Abdullah were once friends, but now that she is older, she is not permitted to fraternize with boys.

Wadjda, however, does not easily take "no" for an answer.  She rebels against the tedious rules of her girls-only school. Why shouldn't she be able to sell mix-tapes of Western musicians? She rebels against her mother and father. Why can't she play video games in her living room designated for men only. She rebels against the constraints of her culture. Why can't she talk to Abdullah if she wants to? And why can't a girl have a bicycle?  Despite the obstacles and consequences, Wadjda is determined to have her way.

     A lecture she'd heard in science class tickled her memory.  Again and again, her teacher had told them that dark colors absorb heat, while lighter colors reflect it back.  She ended the lesson my stating that this phenomenon was one of the miracles of the universe.  It proved there was one almighty God, Allah, and that he had created everything for a purpose.
     Beneath her hot black veil, Wadjda twisted her lips.  She wondered if people knew this scientific secret when the tribal code assigned black to women and white to men.  Maybe the real miracle of the universe was that she was able to walk home in Riyadh's sweltering afternoon sun without passing out!
     The boys were gone now.  Their bicycles moved like a flash around the corner.  Wadjda squinted into the dusty afternoon and continued slowly on her way.  As she walked, she pitched the stone Father had given her at various targets— a can, a stick, a funny-colored brick on the side of a building—thinking all the while about the different miracles of the universe.  It had taken so much to get her to this exact spot, at this exact moment.  So what was her purpose, now that she was here?
Wadjda is an endearing protagonist because, despite a setting that is foreign to the American reader, Wadjda is familiar to us.  She is just a girl like most girls—sometimes obedient, sometimes rebellious, sometimes remorseful, sometimes not.  To women and girls of the West, life as a female in Saudi Arabia seems oppressive, cruel, unfathomable. To a girl like Wadjda, it is just life—a life in which she must eke out moments of hope, happiness, and laughter.  Along with heartache, Haifaa Al Mansour has showed us those moments.

I've heard that the movie is phenomenal.  Whether by book or by movie, I urge you to know Wadjda's story, The Green Bicycle. I think you will love this spirited young girl.

Below is the trailer for the movie Wadjda, on which The Green Bicycle is based.
What makes this even more inspiring is that this movie, made in Saudi Arabia was written and directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour, in a country without movie theaters and where women are not even supposed to be outside without a male relative. You can read highlights of an interview with Haifaa Al Mansour here: [http://www.npr.org/2013/09/22/224437165/wadjda-director-haifaa-al-mansour-it-is-time-to-open-up]

My copy of The Green Bicycle was provided by the publisher at my request.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What Does Otis See - thoughts on beginning readers

What Does Otis See? - Thoughts on beginning readers and a roundabout recommendation for a very "beginning reader."

I don't usually review beginning reader books, because I don't like many, and I'm frustrated by the lack of publisher consensus on what constitutes the levels.*  I've seen harried parents grab a selection of "Level 2" books off the shelf and assume that their second grade child will be able to read them (not a totally unreasonable assumption). However, aside from the obvious fact that not all children in a particular grade read at the same level, not all "Level 2" books are the same level of difficulty.  I intervene with assistance whenever possible, but pity the poor child whose parent doesn't receive assistance and returns home with insistence that the child slog through a book that doesn't match her ability. This is not the recipe for an enthusiastic reader!

Choosing books for Kindergarten children can be even more frustrating.  "Pre-level 1," "Emergent reader," "Ready to read," "Level 1" -- the choices are endless and the books often much too difficult for the earliest of readers. I love David Milgrim's Pip and Otto books, but ours are coming out of circulation due to age-related wear and tear.  BOB Books are wonderful, but too flimsy for library circulation.

Aggravated is an understatement for my feelings about the whole easy reader situation.

And then along comes What Does Otis See?

What Does Otis See? by Loren Long
Penguin Young Readers, 2015
Level 1, Guided Reading Level C (for those of you keeping score - I'm not)

What Does Otis See? features Otis the tractor exploring the farm. Here's what I like about it:
  • There are only three or four simple words to each double-spread illustration, "Otis sees a calf."
  • The illustrations are detailed, but simply presented with ample use of white space - not busy or distracting.
  • The illustrations offer foreshadowing and invite examination. The page preceding "Otis sees a calf," depicts Otis examining a flowery meadow with the calf partially obscured by grass and flowers.
  • Otis and the dog are adorable.

 
That Otis is an old tractor might make him unfamiliar to urban and suburban kids, but any child who has watched Disney/Pixar's Cars will certainly remember the tractor tipping scene.

Until publishers come to an agreement on a standard of leveling, I will continue to ignore the numbers on the book jacket.  I'll look on the inside and find the right book for each reader.  It takes more time, but it's what needs to be done.  If you're looking for a very easy, "easy reader," What Does Otis See? is worth checking out.


Note:
*In 2010, I wrote a piece for Children & Libraries titled "The Conundrum of Choosing Book Levels." My frustration level hasn't changed much.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Lincoln's Spymaster: Allan Pinkerton, America's First Private Eye - an audiobook review

Lincoln's Spymaster: Allan Pinkerton, America's First Private Eye by Samantha Seiple, Read by Danny Campbell
Scholastic Audiobooks
3.5 hours
Best for upper middle grades and/or high school

I recently reviewed Lincoln's Spymaster for AudioFile Magazine.  A link to my review of this biography of the nation's most famous private investigator is here: [http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/107600/]  Pinkerton's is a compelling story, well-told and read.


Antietam, Md. Allan Pinkerton ("E. J. Allen") of the Secret Service on horseback, Creator(s): Gardner, Alexander, 1821-1882, photographer, Source: Library of Congress 

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Other Side of the Wall - a review

The Other Side of the Wall by Simon Schwartz
Translated from German by Laura Watkinson
Published by Graphic Universe, 2015
112 pages, best for grades 6 and up
Paperback

Simon Schwartz was born in East Berlin in the 1980s.The Other Side of the Wall is his graphic memoir of growing up in the divided city, of his parent's three-year struggle to obtain an exit permit to leave East Berlin, and of his later forays between the two Berlins.

His parents met in college. His father came from a family of staunch Communist Party members.  His mother's family was secretly more liberal, though any deviation from expected Party behavior was cause for examination and surveillance by the Stasi, or secret German police.  It was dangerous to stray from party orthodoxy, particularly if you were a teacher, as Simon's father was. His parents became disillusioned with life in the restrictive East German city.

The Soviet Union had recently invaded Afghanistan. My dad worked on his speech, night after night.
     "God, how can you describe a war as just?  They want me to use fancy words to justify this invasion."
     "Just write something you can square with your own conscience -- at least in part."
     "I don't know if I can do that."

When his parents requested exit permits, their lives became fraught with poverty,ostracism, and physical danger.

The book's layout is as structured as Communist life - with few exceptions, four blocks per page - each bordered in black. The artwork is monochromatic, fitting for the stark reality of life behind the Wall. The story is told  in speech bubbles, text blocks that set the scene or relay back story, and the occasional footnote explaining terms that may not be familiar to readers (well-known  politicians or artists of the time, and uniquely German or Communist terms). Several panels are wordless - vague remembrances of the young Schwarz.

Back matter includes a glossary, a timeline of the Berlin Wall, and maps of Germany and Berlin 1961-1989.

I recently reviewed the historical fiction novel, A Night Divided, that describes life in East Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Berlin Wall's construction.The Other Side of the Wall is a perfect companion book - a nonfiction, graphic novel account of the Wall's waning days.  For younger readers not familiar with day-to-day life in the Cold War Era, this is a chilling introduction.