Thursday, April 20, 2017

Monticello - a review

Monticello: A Daughter and Her Father; A Novel
by Sally Cabot Gunning
Harper Collins, 2016
ISBN 9780062320438

No one can ever recount with certainty the conversations and events that transpired within Thomas Jefferson's sphere of influence at his famous Virginia plantation, Monticello.  However, because of his status as, arguably, the most famous of the nation's founding fathers, the particulars of his business dealings, his ownership of enslaved people, and other financial matters are as well known today as they were in his own time.  Also well-documented are his periods of travel to/from Monticello and the important life events (births, deaths, marriages, etc.) of his legal family members.

Armed with this information, Sally Cabot Gunning has crafted a thoughtful piece of historical fiction that explores the relationships of Martha Jefferson, the former President's eldest child, with her father, her siblings, her large family through marriage, and the people enslaved by her family—particularly Sally Hemmings.

The story unfolds in three parts, arranged by date and the plantation at which Martha lived. It begins with the years 1789-1800, and her residence at the Varina planation with her husband Thomas Randolph, whom she married shortly after returning from France.

Martha had decried the decadence and filth of Paris to Tom Randolph, but in truth, there was something as decadent about Monticello, although in a different way—the slower pace of life, perhaps, or the way her father's French wines and more elaborate French furniture, just now beginning to arrive from France, seemed out of place.  And then Negroes.  They crept about in an unnerving, pantherlike silence that Martha hadn't noticed before she left for France.  What did they hear as they moved about? And why hadn't Martha ever before wondered about that?  Martha puzzled over what seemed such a great change, either in her or in life at Monticello, she truly didn't know which.  She asked Maria, pointing as Sallys' sister Critta whispered out of the room after stirring up the fire, "Were they always so quiet?"
(from page 20)

This finely crafted work of historical fiction gently forces the reader to view history through a variety of lenses, none of which are rose-colored. Wishing for an end to the family's dependence on slavery, Martha nevertheless becomes embroiled in a lifelong conflicted existence - constrained to the restrictions and social mores of a Virginia planter's wife and daughter of a President, which render her often helpless yet still complicit in her family's continued connection to enslaved people. The political upheavals of the new nation provides the backdrop of the story, but politics is not the story.  This is a story of a woman's struggle to be a good wife, to be a good mother, to honor her father, and to help shape his legacy.


My copy of Monticello was an Advance Reader Copy supplied by the publisher.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors - and its Malaysian alternative

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors

by Drew Daywalt with pictures by Adam Rex
Harper Collins, 2017

I read The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors on the advice of a librarian friend (thanks, Rebecca). It tells the fictional origin story of the game that siblings and playground pals have used to decide things for as long as one can remember.  Of course, with the combination of Drew Daywalt and Adam Rex, you know it's going to be funny.

I don't want to review it, however, I want to tell a story.

When my children were little, a Malaysian friend of mine came over to visit.  We each had three kids and they played together often.  When I suggested that they decide something with Rock Paper Scissors, she was puzzled, so I explained the concept.

"Oh!" she said.  "I know that.  In Malaysia, it's bird, water, rock," and she made the appropriate hand gestures for each.  It took me a minute to wrap my head around that.  Water wears down rock, bird drinks water, rock crushes bird.  At first, it seemed a gruesome game for little kids to play, but who am I to say? Honestly, I always thought that rock covers paper was a rather lame win. Is Bird Water Rock not a more accurate depiction of how things work in the world? 

My roundabout point here is that we must always remember that everyone comes into life with a different backstory.  That's what makes the world such a rich and interesting place. That it the reason for the #WeNeedDiverse books campaign.  Not only is it comforting to see yourself in the pages of books; it's eye-opening and mind-expanding and refreshing to see someone different in the pages of books.

And speaking of refreshing, I kid you not ... On another warm summer day, nearly twenty years ago, I asked this same friend if I could get her a cold drink.  She asked for a shandy.

"A what?" I asked.

"Half beer, half lemonade," she said. "We drank that in Malaysia all the time."

"Ha! ha!" I laughed.  "That sounds awful!"

That was nearly twenty years ago.  How I wish we would have run with that thought to the patent office or the nearest brewer!  Now shandies are so popular - but don't kid yourself into believing that Budweiser invented them.  Just ask someone from Malaysia.

So, enjoy The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors (a sample is below), but keep Bird Water Rock in the back of your head.  Both are worthy of your attention.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hell and High Water - a review

Hell and High Water
by Tanya Landman
Candlewick Press, 2017

Many, many years ago, I was a waitress working the graveyard shift at a diner.  When the annual change to Standard Time came rolling around, I thought nothing of it–until I went to work that night.  Standard Time means an extra hour of sleep for most people.  For a waitress working the graveyard shift, the switch to Standard Time means a 9-hour shift with no overtime pay. Why do I mention this? Because this experience helped me to see with great clarity the relevance in a story that takes place more than 250 years ago.

Tanya Landman's publisher notes that author  "explores the lives of history’s dispossessed and disenfranchised."  Not only is this true, but her depiction of 1750s England also has a message and a relevancy to our own era.  When we read of something momentous in a history book, it does not have the same urgency or immediacy that it can have in the a work of historical fiction. If you read in a history book of the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, it would have little meaning to you if you had not had a similar experience. However, consider this scenario from Hell and High Water,

The village went to sleep on the evening of Wednesday, September 2nd, and woke on the morning of Thursday the 14th, yet this was no enchanted sleep or supernatural occurrence.  A year earlier an Act of Parliament had decreed that England's calendar must be synchronized with those of other nations.  In order to do so, eleven full days must be struck from the year.  Drinking coffee in Porlock's, Pa had explained the matter of the Gregorian and Julian calendars in great detail, but Caleb had paid little attention.  It involved politicians. Foreign nations.  Who cared about numbering the days?  It could make no difference to him and Pa.

He had given it no further thought at all until Letty returned from Tawpuddle with a rumor that William Benson would be collecting rent for the whole month of September as usual.  No concession was to made for the changing calendar.  Every tenant had lost eleven days of work and consequently eleven days of pay, but Sir Robert would not lose eleven days of rent.
The news made Anne dizzy with panic. "How can we manage? We will be turned out!"
"It can't be true!" Caleb scoffed.  "No man could be so unfair."
"Word of advice, boy . . ." The steward leaned toward him until his face was an inch from Caleb's.  Raising his voice so that the men who were unloading the boat could hear, Benson said, "If you want to keep a roof over that miserable hide of yours, you keep your head down and your mouth shut.  And you pay your rent when it's due, the same as everyone else."

The fact that Caleb is a person of color in 1750s England only makes his situation more difficult. His father is accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit, and Caleb is left to fend for himself in a world where birthright equals power and power equals money. Hell and High Water is a work of historical fiction, but it is also a murder mystery, and a story of race, class and privilege.  Sadly,  it has great relevance in our modern age.

Hell and High Water will be on a shelf near you in June, 2017.

My copy of Hell and High Water was provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Short - an audiobook review

by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Read by Tara Sands
Listening Library, 2017

I recently had the opportunity to review Short for AudioFile MagazineA link to my complete review of Short is available here. [] It's a realistic fiction chapter book featuring Julia, a young girl whose mother insists that she try out for a summer community theater production with her younger brother.  Because of her small stature, Julia is chosen (along with her brother) to play a munchkin in "The Wizard of Oz," hardly the way she wanted to spend her summer. 

Please read my review for AudioFile for more details, but if you don't have time right now - keep this kernel of information in mind:  If you have a customer, child, parent, or patron seeking a book that includes adult little people, this is the book for you. 


A personal note:
I do not want to post medical information about a family member, however, I'd like to mention that one of my children has suffered a life-changing accident, only as a reason to explain my lack of blog posts.  It is the latest of many changes in the last year including a move to Florida, a new job, a hurricane, and now this - the most impactful of events.  I will be posting posting sporadically while I help my child heal and recover.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Threads - a review


by Ami Polonsky
Disney Hyperion, 2016

I have always appreciated an interdisciplinary approach to everything.   My favorite children's science books integrate the hard and fast facts of science with the ways in which science affects people's lives.  The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition) and The Day the World Exploded are two fine examples of this style of writing.  The same interdisciplinary approach can be taken with the social sciences. My children will attest to the fact that when they neglected to wash strawberries before eating them, I would point out that they may be riddled with toxic chemicals.  If they protested that I had purchased organic berries, I would counter that many migrant farm workers who pick strawberries have inadequate access to clean bathroom facilities.  In this way, they understand that there are choices to be made in the cultivation and harvesting of food. Produce does not arrive in the grocery store by some tidy and precise process. Hard human labor is behind every easy purchase.

Ami Polansky takes an interdisciplinary approach, and thereby broadens the reader's scope of the world while addressing a very personal and intimate problem.  Threads is a book about loss and grief and the difficulty in carrying on in the wake of a loved one's death.  However, she has placed it in within the broader story of Chinese adoption, forced child labor, and the complexities of Chinese culture.

In first person voice, 12-year-old Clara struggles with her adopted sister's death from cancer, while simultaneously attempting to assuage her grief by rescuing a similarly aged girl working in a sweatshop somewhere north of Beijing. 

A car horn honks and I snap my head up.  Dad is waving to me through the closed window, the air around his car glistening in the heat.  I stand up.  I don't know what to do with this letter and photograph, but Dad will.
He's scrolling through something on his phone--probably a text from Mom asking him how I'm doing, if I seem like myself.  I open the car door and look one more time at Yuming's photograph before getting in.

Yuming, the unfortunate captive girl, also relates her story in the first person; and chapters alternate between the two girls.

The door to our room creaks open.  My heart flutters, and I look back down at my sewing.  I know very well that by now someone in America could have found my note, and I curse myself yet again for signing my name and including the photograph.  I wasn't thinking; those risks were unnecessary.  Whoever finds the note could easily notify Mr. Zhang or the police.
Clara and her family journey to China, but with different goals in mind.  Clara hopes to find Yuming.  Her parents hope to find closure.  Yuming's goal is more immediate.  She needs to escape Mr. Zhang's purse factory.

This is a satisfying story on all fronts and I was thankful that I had a realistic conclusion.

From the publisher:
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Grade Range: 3-7
  • Pages: 256

My copy of Threads is an Advance Reader Copy supplied by the publisher.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Paint me a Picture - a review

Paint Me a Picture
A Colorful Book of Inspiration
by Emily Bannister
Kane Miller, June, 2017

An edited version of my review appears in the February, 2017, edition of School Library Journal

Looking for a color mixing concept book? Go with Mouse Paint. Wishing for a fanciful romp through colors? Read Swatch: the Girl Who Loved Color. Seeking to inspire a child to pick up a paintbrush and give it a try? Paint me a Picture will suit you just fine.

My copy of Paint Me a Picture was provided by School Library Journal.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Stanley's Store - a review

I first met Stanley at the farm in 2015.  It was love at first sight. Peachtree Publishers calls him "the hardest working hamster in the book business." Today I'm pleased to participate in a blog tour for Stanley's latest gig as a storekeeper.

Stanley's Store
by William Bee
Peachtree, 2017

With simple text,
It's going to be another busy day at Stanley's Store,
and vivid colors outlined in black against a white background,

Stanley's Store is perfect for very young listeners—but there is much more to like.  There are myriad opportunities to explore shapes, colors, numbers, and food groups while sharing this and other Stanley books. There is also some light humor, as when silly Charlie spills Stanley's fruit display and ends up with a banana on his head.  Stanley's Store spans the course of a day, so the concept of time is included as well.  The day begins with the delivery of produce to the store, proceeds to shopping, and ends with supper, bath, and bed - a recurring theme in the series.  A sturdy cover and substantial pages complete the cheery story. 😊
View an excerpt from Stanley's Store here.

Previous Shelf-employed reviews of Stanley books:

Bee, William. 2015. Stanley the Farmer. New York: Peachtree.
Stanley is a hardworking hamster. Illustrations and text  are bright and simple, making Stanley a perfect choice for very young listeners. Along the lines of Maisy, but with a crisper, cleaner interface.  Nice size, sturdy construction.

When I next encountered him, he was offering a small and sturdy look at colors and shapes.

Stanley's Shapes by William Bee
Peachtree Publishers, 2016

William Bee's illustrations are crisp, bright and simple. In Shapes, he ensures that the featured shape on each double-spread page is easy for children to discern, outlined heavily in black.   There are 8 shapes in all, and each one is something that should be easily recognizable for a child.  A tent is a triangle, a window is a square, bike wheels are circles, a kite is a diamond, etc. Text is minimal for each shape,
Wheeeeeeee! Circles make the best wheels!
Preceding the simple, black text is a white outline of the featured shape.  The final spread is an illustration that contains all of the shapes,
What a lot of shapes! How many can you see?
Stanley's Shapes is exactly what a concept board book should be.

Stanley's Colors by William Bee
Peachtree Publishers, 2016

Like Stanley's Shapes, Stanley's Colors is a perfectly simple, child-sized, concept board book.  There are eight featured colors on double-spread pages.  The background is white, except for a colored banner on the bottom.  The colored banner contains the simple black text,
Choo Choo!  Here is Stanley driving his purple train.
and matches the color in the illustration.  Almost everything in the image is purple with the exception of Stanley, and a few small accents.  Black outlining ensures clarity.

If you're looking for a color concept book for very young kids, this is a great choice.

My copy of Stanley's Store was provided by the publisher at my request.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Astronaut Instruction Manual - an audiobook review

The Astronaut Instruction Manual: Practical Skills for Future Space Explorers
by Mike Mongo, read by Mike Mongo with foreword by Alyssa Carson
Listening Library, 2017
47 minutes

If you'd read my blog for any length of time, you will know that I'm an avid fan of several things - two of them are nonfiction and outer space.  I was happy for the opportunity to review the audiobook version of The Astronaut Instruction Manual.

Mike Mongo narrates his own book with an infectious enthusiasm for his topic guaranteed to draw you in to this practical and inspirational look at the future of space travel.

The Astronaut Instruction Manual began as a book on Inkshares, basically a "Kickstarter" for self-published books.  Largely do to its author's subject knowledge and enthusiasm, it became a popular seller, hence the recent release of the audiobook version.  According to the Hollywood Reporter, there is also a television series in the works.

My complete review of The Astronaut Instruction Manual may be found in AudioFile Magazine, in print and online at this link [].

Friday, February 10, 2017

Scratch Coding Cards - a review

Scratch Coding Cards
No Starch Press
Creative Coding Activities for Kids by Natalie Rusk
 December 2016, 75 cards ISBN: 978-1-59327-774-1 Full Color, Box Set

No Starch Press was kind enough to provide me a review copy of their new Scratch Coding Cards.  The set of 75 cards contains instructions for a variety of projects including games, stories, and the creation of virtual pets.  Each card shows the desired project on the front and simple instructions on the back.  They are large and sturdy and would be perfect for classroom use.  While the cards can be used as definitive instructions for particular projects, their true purpose is to be inspirational and instructive for the creation of personalized projects.  Scratch teaches kids (and adults) to think logically and act creatively.  With time and practice, you can create almost anything with Scratch.  It's a great precursor to other coding languages.

To illustrate, I used the basic instructions on the cards to create a small sampling of things that can be designed with Scratch.  To begin, click the green flag below. (Turn on your sound) If the project does not appear in your browser, you can use this link:

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Queen of Frogs - a review

The Queen of Frogs

by Davide Cali with illustrations by Marco Soma
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2017

If you have seen the popular South African movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980, 20th Century Fox), then you will understand the premise of this delightfully illustrated cautionary tale of a colony of frogs who suddenly discover a crown. If you have not, I will suggest that queen in question has the desire and ambition of "Yertle the Turtle" (from Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories) and the clueless bravado of the infamous emperor in "The Emperor's New Clothes." Turnabout is fair play is exhibited in the book's humorous ending with a twist.

The illustrations appear to be a combination of pencil sketches painted with the muted earth tones of a frog bog. The anthropomorphic frogs cavort with great expression. Humorous details include frogs fishing with spools of thread for reels and a Venus Flytraps as bait. The frogs fish up, of course, as the target catch are flies! A bottle cap can also be spotted as the official seal on the the royal spokesman's podium.

The Queen of Frogs was first published in Portugal. My copy was courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program. I highly recommend it as a read-aloud for older listeners or a read alone for elementary school students.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sachiko - an audiobook review

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story
by Caren Stelson
Read by Katherine Fenton and John Chancer
Dreamscape Media, 2016

The survivors of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings are known as "hibakusha" in Japan. As with all combatants and victims of WWII, their numbers are dwindling; it is important for their stories to be told.  Sachiko shared her personal story and that of her family with author Caren Stelson.  Despite the horrific circumstances of the bombing, and a lifetime of related hardship, Sachiko remains amazingly positive.  Her story is compelling and Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story contains the historical information that young people may need to put her story in context.  I highly recommend it.

I reviewed Sachiko for AudioFile Magazine.  You can read my entire review here: []

Sachiko was on the National Book Award Longlist for Young People's Literature, 
and has garnered numerous other awards and accolades.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

I Dissent - a review

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark
by Debbie Levy with illustrations by Elizabeth Baddely
Simon and Schuster, 2016

"Disagreeable? No." "Determined? YES." Whether objecting, dissenting, resisting, or disapproving, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always done it with passion, with flair, and with conviction. This is her story, from childhood to the present. She has spent a lifetime fighting for the rights of women and minorities - beginning with her refusal to write with her right hand in grade school(she has always been left-handed), and continuing today with her Supreme Court decisions in favor of equal opportunities for women and minorities. The story is compelling; the illustrations have a cartoon-like quality, but are detailed and emotive.

There should be no dissent that I DISSENT: RUTH BADER GINSBURG MAKES HER MARK is a powerful introduction to a determined, successful, and inspiring woman.

Back matter includes:
  • More About Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Notes on Supreme Court Cases
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Quotation Sources
I Dissent is a 2017 winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award
See the entire list of winners and honor books at the Association of Jewish Libraries website.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Mouse and Hippo - a review

Mouse and Hippo
By Mike Twohy
Paula Wiseman Books, 2017

How does a mouse view a hippo? How does a hippo view a mouse? And more importantly, can they be friends? Mouse and Hippo is an entertaining commentary on artistic perspective, but at heart, it's a comical story of friendship.

On a shelf near you beginning in February, 2017.

My complete review of Mouse and Hippo is in the January, 2017 edition of School Library Journal.

Advance Reader Copy provided by School Library Journal.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Father's Road - a review

Father's Road

by Ji-yun Hang. Translation from Korean by Joy Cowley.
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2017

Young Wong Chung is old enough to take part in his father's caravan from Chang'an (Xi'an) to Constantinople (Istanbul). He heeds his kindly father's advice and pays attention to everything he sees along the way as they travel the Silk Road from east to West.

We arrived at a place called Turpan where I could smell a sweet aroma. "That's the smell of grapes," said Father.

"Grapes?" I asked. "In a desert?"
"See that white mountain over there? The ice from Tian Shan melts into the soil, and these delicious grapes grow." Father traded some silk for a bunch of grapes that tasted sweet as honey.

I gave two grapes to my camel. He liked them too.

Illustrator Tan Jung creates delicate ink drawings on paper that is flecked and textured to mimic sand. Its color also serves to represent the skin tone of the travelers and the coats of their many camels. Only the silks and featured geographical or commercial highlights are rendered in colors outside a muted palette of tans and grays.  Wong Chung, however, is readily discernible from the rest of the caravan by the pompom atop his cloth hat and his simple, yet endearing facial expressions.

Entertaining, educational, and culturally respectful,  Father's Road is part of the Trade Winds series.

Front and endpapers combine to create a map of the ancient Silk Road.
Back matter contains the following sections:

  •     The Silk Road (a discussion of its commercial and historical significance)
  •     Key Terms and Concepts (definitions of terms related to cultural and economic globalization)
  •     Global Exchange (a discussion of "non-commodities" exchanged on the Silk Road, e.g., religion, inventions, disease)
  •     Goods from Around the World (India, Rome, Europe, Eastern Mediterranean, Central Asia, China - a list of the main trading groups and their products)
  •     Geography of the Silk Road (a list of major Silk Road cities, their ancient and modern names, significance)
  •     A Timeline of Events ( 3000 BCE - 2013 )

On sale 1/30/17.
My Advance Review Copy of Father's Road was provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.