Wednesday, December 31, 2008

We are the Ship

Nelson, Kadir. 2008. We are the ship: The story of Negro League Baseball. New York: Jump at the Sun.

If you have ever watched Ken Burns' landmark documentary, Baseball, then you will have heard of the Negro Leagues. In fact, it was Burns' documentary that inspired author and artist, Kadir Nelson, to create We are the Ship, to document the rise and fall of America's all-black baseball league.

The story is told, appropriately, not in chapters, but in "innings," beginning with the exclusion of blacks from major league baseball and ending with the bittersweet success of Jackie Robinson - bittersweet because while it opened baseball to other black players, it also signaled the death knell of the Negro Leagues.

The Negro League teams had more than just colorful baseball players, they had a colorful style of play - faster, looser and more inventive than that of MLB.

"There was a catcher, Chappy Gray, who used to catch Satchel when he was in his prime. One time they were playing in Enid, Oklahoma. By the time the game got up into late innings, it started to get kinda dark. So Chappy told Satchel, 'Hey, Satchel, you got two strikes on this hitter. Man, you throwin' the ball so hard, I can't see it too well and I don't want to break my finger. I'll tell you what you do. You wind up like you are going to throw the ball and I'll hit my fist in my mitt, make it sound like it's the ball. Man, nobody'll know the difference. ... Satchel said, 'Okay, I'll do that.' So he went back out there and he wound up and came down with that long stride, big follow-through. Chappy hit his fist in his mitt, and the umpire yelled, 'Strike three!' That hitter was so mad, he threw his bat down. He yelled at the umpire, 'You blind, Tom?! Anybody who could see knows that ball was high and outside!'"

The chapters, or "innings" are each compelling parts of the whole game, seamlessly weaving history, baseball and personalities. Although segregation is a great part of the Negro League story, We are the Ship is an uplifting book, highlighting a love of baseball and a can-do spirit.

Nelson's paintings are beautiful and lifelike depictions of a bygone era and some of baseball's greatest players. There is a double-spread foldout depicting the first Colored World Series in 1924.

The book concludes with Negro Leaguers Who Made it to the Major Leagues (count Hank Aaron among these!), Negro Leaguers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (including Satchel Paige and Smokey Joe Williams), an Author's Note, Acknowledgments, Bibliography, Filmography, Endnotes and Index.

My only complaint with this book was the author's stated choice to write the story in the collective "we" voice. It helps to place the reader firmly inside the story, however, as a history buff and baseball fan, I spent the entire book wondering "who" was speaking. Only in the Author's Note did I discover that, although a true story, the "voice" is a fictional "we." This minor complaint will probably go unnoticed by most readers however, and certainly does not detract from the story.

This picture book for older readers is highly recommended. Hopefully, we'll see it on some of the winning book award lists next month!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bedtime Stories

Bedtime Stories. 2008. Directed by Adam Shankman. Starring Adam Sandler.

Imagine if the stories you told at bedtime came true the next day? That's the premise of Bedtime Stories, the new movie starring Adam Sandler. Adam Sandler is Skeeter, a handyman at a California hotel once owned by his father - now a mega resort owned by a pompous old man (the original Mr. Dursely of HP movies). When Skeeter's sister finds that she will be losing her job, she takes a trip to Arizona to find a new position. Skeeter watches her young children for a week - and so the bedtime stories begin.

Of course, it would be simple to tell a bedtime story that works out well for our hero, Skeeter, who is desperately seeking a grander position at the hotel, but these magical bedtime stories have a twist and don't always turn out as expected!

This is a great family movie. The three kids I brought to the movie (ages 12-15) gave it 2 thumbs up. I could hear them laughing out loud throughout the movie. I enjoyed it too. In spite of its PG rating, it was not too juvenile for an adult to enjoy. A funny family movie with a great message. (The only thing that one could find offensive were the two scenes involving "little people." That's one stereotype that our ever-enlightening culture has yet to shed.) Still, the movie is well-worth seeing.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Tales of Beedle the Bard

Rowling, J.K. 2008. The Tales of Beedle the Bard: A wizarding classic from the world of Harry Potter. New York: Children's High Level Group in association with Arthur A. Levine.

Suggested reading for Hogwarts School children and a favorite of wizarding families everywhere, this version of Beedle's famous stories was recently translated from ancient runes by Hogwarts' own, Hermione Granger, and contains commentary by Albus Dumbledore.

In reality, this new book by J.K. Rowling is a collection of wizarding fairy tales written in a classic style. The stories, complete with requisite moral messages, are each a delight in their own right; the sometimes serious, sometimes humorous commentary by Albus Dumbledore only adds to the reader's enjoyment. There are five tales in all. "The Fountain of Fair Fortune" is good enough to rival classic fairy tales of old.

A delightful collection to sustain Harry Potter fans waiting anxiously for the long-delayed next movie! Purchases of this book benefit the Children's High Level Group, a worldwide children's charity established by J.K. Rowling.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Night's Nice

Emberly, Barbara and Ed. 2008. Night's Nice. New York: Little Brown.

I have just discovered this reprint of Night's Nice, first published in 1962. It's a bright, colorful and rhyming romp through all of the reasons why night is nice,

And yellow-eyed cats
All think night's nice
And of course
So do bats."

Illustrated by Ed Emberly in gouache and ink, in his now-classic style, (I love his drawing books!) the light-hearted illustrations manage to evoke evening, while still offering a riot of color. A perfect book to read before going to bed,

"So hop into bed,
Turn over thrice
And whisper this softly:

Night's nice, night's nice, night's nice."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Anna's Wish

Hachler, Bruno. 2008. Anna's wish. New York: NorthSouth.

This book may have been first published in Switzerland, but it's a perfect story for any town that hasn't seen snow in recent years. In the town where Anna lives, snow is becoming just a memory. It hasn't snowed in years,

"At first people thought nothing of it. Each winter, grown-ups got out their snow shovels. Children drew pictures of snowmen and sleds. Surely snow would fall soon.

But when the first crocuses popped out of the ground, people put their shovels away and turned their thoughts to spring."

Passing the bakery shop window daily, Anna becomes entranced by a sparkling white horse in a window display and consumed with her desire to feel snow. In her mind, she entwines the white horse with her wishes for snow - and

"Like tiny stars, her wishes floated up into the sky and froze. Then, slowly, they began to fall back down to the earth. ... Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Millions of them."

The illustrations are cheerful, but subdued. Bright colors adorn the people, cars and shops, while the sky remains resolutely gray. The town, the bakery, the weather are the focus of the paintings - not Anna. Anna is a small, cheerful girl dwarfed by the hustle and bustle of the world. Humorous details include a leashed dachshund refusing to budge and two moving men carrying a sign which contains the text of the story.

This is a simple, quiet and joyful story of a long awaited snowfall. It may be about Switzerland, but it could just as well be New Jersey. A perfect read on the eve of a possible snow day.

Even Firefighters go to the Potty

Wax, Wendy and Naomi Wax. 2008. Even Firefighters go to the Potty. New York: Little Simon.

This is a lift-the flap book and behind every flap is ... ? You guessed it! A person on the "potty." Firefighters, policeman, doctors, astronauts and more - they're all on the potty in this toilet-training book. Each flap is a restroom door. Personally, I think it's in bad taste, but I see that parents on GoodReads and Amazon are giving it rave reviews. It's hard to argue with a satisfied toddler! If you've got a sense of humor and a child reluctant to use the "potty," perhaps this book is for you.

Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray. 2007. Dandelion Wine. Narrated by Colonial Radio Theatre on the Air, et al.
Blackstone Audio, Inc.

I downloaded Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, thinking that I was choosing Bradbury's classic 1957 novel - a bittersweet recollection of 12-year-old protagonist Douglas Spaulding's magical summer of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by a full-cast dramatization of the story by the Colonial Radio Players, narrated by Jerry Robinson. No expense seemed to be spared in the creation of this audio play - the large cast, sound effects, and orchestral soundtrack were flawless.

I wondered how the venerable Mr. Bradbury would rate the audio rendition, and was answered by the post-play narration. Mr. Bradbury, himself, dramatized Dandelion Wine.

This audio version is a new way to enjoy one of America's timeless classics! At only 114 minutes (2 discs on CD), it's hard not to find the time.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Six Days in October

Blumenthal, Karen. 2008. Six days in October: The stock market crash of 1929. New York: Atheneum.

This Robert F. Sibert Honor Book should be required reading. It is an historical account of the six days beginning with Black Thursday, on October 24, 1929. Blumenthal's book is chock full of well-researched historical facts, as well as period photos and newspaper articles. Practical information, "What is a Stock Split?," "What are Bonds?," etc. is in highlighted text boxes. This book may be found in the children's section of your library, but there is something in it for everyone. In these troubled financial times, this is certainly a period worth remembering. For ages 12 and up.

Cyberia by Chris Lynch

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Lynch, Chris. 2008. Cyberia. New York: Scholastic.

A booktalk for Cyberia Click for the podcast!

So, imagine it's the future - but not too far into the future. All your cool technology is now totally integrated. Your walls? High def screens. Your ceiling? It talks to you, answers you, plays your music. Your food? Ready whenever you're hungry and announced by the Scent-O-Com feed to your room. Sound great? Well, not quite. Your internal chip also displays your constant whereabouts to your parents - along with your height, weight, blood pressure, and, for crying out loud - even when you next need to use the bathroom!

Well, that' my life, and it really wasn't all that bad until Dad got me the latest in technology, the Gizzard. It's like a universal remote for my world, syncing everything wherever I go. But there was just one small glitch. My dog,Hugo. Hugo has an experimental chip called the Gristle 2.0. Our veterinarian, Dr. Gristle, installed it. He’s famous for all kinds of creepy animal experiments. And now that I've connected my new Gizzard, I can hear Hugo talk!

And that's not all - Hugo's got friends in the WildWood - lots of them; and they're not particularly happy. It seems that Dr. Gristle has been up to some nasty business; and now that the animals know I can understand them - they want me to help! Me! Suddenly I have hundreds of animal friends - although I should hardly call them friends - they won't leave me alone! Our Friend, they call me. “Our Friend, help us!’ “Help us!” They really think I can save them, but
can I?

Cyberia … a new series

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Little Klein

Ylvisaker, Anne. 2008. Little Klein. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.

Little Klein is a slow, peaceful trip through rural America, circa 1949. Little Klein is the youngest and smallest of three brothers. Considered frail by his sturdy and practical mother, he is looked after (but never down upon) by his rough-and-tumble brothers (the Bigs). In this simple, dirt road town, Little Klein is the only one too frail to go barefoot in the summer. The addition of the stray dog, LeRoy, to the Klein family, adds joy and purpose to the Kleins' lives and Leroy's.

Written in what author Kirby Larson describes as "gossip-over-the-back-fence style," Little Klein meanders easily through the thoughts of the Kleins and their dog. The easy-going style makes the reader wistful for times he never knew,

"As the grown-ups went inside for iced tea, Little Klein, with LeRoy on his heels, raced to the garage for a trowel. He dug a hole in the discussed spot before Mother Klein could change her mind. He slipped into the kitchen, grabbed three forks, and stuck them in the ground around the hole, then tied string around the forks, marking the territory. He made a label, CORN, and sat waiting for his brothers, LeRoy at his side."

Of course, there is danger and adventure in the lives of all little boys, and Little Klein is no exception, but this is not an edge-of-your-seat adventure, but rather, the adventure of a bygone summer in a bygone era.

"Where were his boys? LeRoy tried to go to sleep, but the air was so empty of boy smell. He sniffed at the garbage can, but it was no good. He needed his boys. LeRoy rose up on his sturdy legs and picked his way to the alley and slouched slowly out of town."

There is no monumental historical message in this book, just simple and timeless themes - love between a boy and his dog (or in this case, between a dog and his boys, both the Bigs and the Little), the bonds of family, and the realization that in times of great need, we are all possible of performing great deeds.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Twice Upon a Marigold

Ferris, Jean. 2008. Twice upon a Marigold. Harcourt: Orlando.

Twice Upon a Marigold is the follow-up story to the multiple award-winning bestseller, Once Upon a Marigold (one of my favorites). The story continues the saga of Princess, (now Queen) Marigold and Prince Christian after the tyrant, Queen Olympia's, "unfortunate" disappearance into the river on their wedding day.

Twice Upon a Marigold continues the tongue-in-cheek humor of the original. Reading the "Daily Discourse," Marigold remarks,

"Look at that. Alison Wonderland has gotten lost again. That girl just never learns."

There are not enough new fairy tale funnies, however, to match the original book. "P mail," (pigeon messages), and Marigold's penchant for bad jokes, are holdovers from the previous book. Additionally, the moral messages in Twice Upon a Marigold are delivered a little heavy-handedly. When Lazy Susan is demoted to a job as a scullery maid, Mrs. Clover questions her and takes her to task,

"'How are those kettles coming along?' she asked pointedly. 'They're repulsive,' Lazy Susan said. 'That's true,' Mrs. Clover agreed. 'But getting them clean is a necessity. And a great accomplishment. Something to be proud of.' ...

Always before she'd been content to avoid effort of any kind, and she hadn't cared who knew it. But the things Mrs. Clover had said to her made her feel . . . maybe ashamed? Or chastened? Or embarrassed? Whatever it was, it wasn't a good feeling."

A surprise twist at the end regarding the royal dressmaker and chef - the magically handy, foreign language expert, Stan Lucasa, adds some last-minute humor. A quick, fun read for middle-grades, but not on par with the original.

Once Upon a Marigold was the winner of multiple awards including: ALA Best Book for Young Adults, ALA Notable Children’s Book, and Voice for Youth Advocates (VOYA) Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Narrated by Tom Parker. Blackstone Audio.

I just finished listening to Blackstone Audio's unabridged version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, narrated by Tom Parker. I know there are other audio versions, and I have not compared them, however, I would venture to guess that Parker's version is one of the best, if not the best reading. A narrator's note prior to the story explains the differing dialects used throughout the story. Remaining true to the story's time period and Twain's dialogue, speech patterns, accents and vocabulary vary according the the character's class, color, and geographical location. Tom Parker nails them all.

This is wonderful medium for bringing new life to an old classic. About 9 1/2 hours on CD or mp3.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Who's Haunting the White House?

Belanger, Jeff. 2008. Who's Haunting the White House? The President's Mansion and the Ghosts Who Live There. New York: Sterling.

In spite of it's attention-grabbing title, this book is a bit of a disappointment. The book chronicles the history of White House hauntings, from its most famous, the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, to the unnamed British soldier from the War of 1812, and all the ghostly inhabitants in between.

Who's Haunting the White House? walks the reader through a quasi-scientific look at the supernatural. Unfortunately, it does not offer a balanced perspective. The author is steadfast in the belief that ghosts do exist, even offering testimony as to what ghosts do and do not like,

"Sometimes spirits don't like to see their homes changed around too much, and they may let us know this in rather frightening ways."

Apart from Mary Lincoln's testimony (which some may discount because of her well-known peculiar behaviors), the book offers little proof in the supernatural other than passages in President Truman's letters, "the place is haunted, sure as shootin'," second-hand accounts, and several witnesses' accounts of a "cold presence" or "eerie chill."

Who's Haunting the White House? does contain some interesting White House history, as well as drawings, and photographs. A bibliography, index, photo credits, references and acknowledgments follow the rather text-heavy body of the book.

This is a book for would-be ghost hunters or those interested in White House history.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Little Audrey

White, Ruth. 2008. Little Audrey. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux.

In Little Audrey, Ruth White does for 1940s coal miners, beholden to the "company store," what Karen Hesse did for the Dust Bowl farmers in Out of the Dust. Based on her own life (and including photos of her family), White brings life to both the pervasive hopelessness and the individual hopefulness of a Virginia coal mining town, through the voice of her older sister, Audrey. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Marley: A Dog Like No Other

Grogan, John. 2007. Marley: A dog like no other. New York: Harper Collins.

Marley, A Dog Like No Other, is a juvenile version of the bestseller, Marley & Me. I have not read the adult version, so I cannot compare the two, however, Marley: A Dog Like No Other is a wonderful book in its own right.

A true story, based on the life of a lovable yet incorrigible Labrador, this book is a celebration not only of a dog, but of a family as well - one that is willing to see its imperfections and find humor in them. Like a comedian that spends ten minutes setting up the perfect punchline, Grogan has a perfect sense of comedic timing. Even if the reader can guess the outcome of any one of Marley's many escapades, Grogan delivers them with humor. More difficult than humor, however, is conveying the love that the Grogan family has for their dog.

"We could have bought a yacht with what we spent on our dog and all the things he destroyed. We'd take Marley any day. Yachts don't wait by the door all day for your return. And they don't live for the moment they can climb into your lap or ride down the hill with you on a toboggan, licking your face."

Eight pages of color photos are included. This is a humorous and heartwarming book that has just been chosen as the 2009 One Book New Jersey choice for middle grade readers. An excellent choice!

The movie version is due out on Christmas Day. Read the book first!

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

High School Musical 3: Senior Year.

I finally got around to seeing the latest High School Musical installment. This time, Troy, Gabriella, Chad and the rest of the East High kids, are making plans for college as they wind up their senior year. The year's musical, The Last Waltz, is a celebration of their final year.

It was a predictable movie. When it began with Troy breaking into song while driving the lane to the hoop in a championship basketball game, I wondered if I'd be able to make it through - but I did, and the believability improved (albeit slightly) as the story went on.

The bottom line is this: the East High students are motivated to attend college, their parents are well-meaning, the kids don't drink or smoke or curse, and the teacher is caring. There are worse ways for a kid to spend 112 minutes.

My daughters enjoyed it.

As for the slew of books that accompany each movie release - consider this:
High School Musical is a musical. Watch it, dance to it, listen to it - don't read it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Minn and Jake's Almost Terrible Summer

Wong, Janet. Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer. 2008. New York: Frances Foster.

This is the second in a series of books about two unlikely friends, Minn – a tall, lizard- loving girl, and Jake, a very small boy. Separation, misunderstandings, and Jake’s often meddlesome little brother, Soup, almost combine to ruin Minn and Jake’s fifth grade summer; but honesty and a little dose of humility help to save summer.

This book has a lot going for it, including the humorous sketches by Geneviève Côté. Its short length and minimal text on each page make it a good choice for reluctant readers. Additionally, protagonists of both sexes make this series appealing to boys as well as girls. The revelation that Jake is part Korean, adds a hint of multiculturalism and interest.
When Minn meets Jake’s grandmother,

“She whispers,
You didn’t tell me you were Asian!
Jake whispers back,
Did you ever tell me that you’re white?

Jake explains his hapa heritage.
Hapa = slang for half-white, half-Asian.
His mother is half-Korean, half-Norwegian.
His father is half-German, half-French.

Minn points out that Jake is not hapa, then,
but three-quarters white,
and only one-quarter Asian.

OK, then, Jake says. Quarpa, I’m quarpa.
Jake likes the sound of quarpa.
It sounds like something with superpowers.”

The best feature of Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer, though, is humor that children can relate to – as when Jake vomits at the all-you-can-eat buffet and is forced to wear his mother’s pink shirt.
“MINN: Yup. (Your mom’s shirt?)
JAKE: (Can you believe my mom?)
She put the stupid pink shirt on me,
she buttoned the buttons (daisy buttons!),
she wiped my chin like a baby. PINK!
(I can’t even stand to think about it now.)”

The free-verse style is appealing, but the choice of punctuation distracted me. In most instances, dialogue (including unspoken thought) is differentiated solely by the use of italics. However, Minn and Jake’s phone conversations and conversations between Jake and the boys from his old neighborhood, are written in script format,

Of course, maybe I’m just showing my age! Today’s kids are not hung up on punctuation – or spelling, and perhaps they’ll find Wong’s format refreshing. Minn and Jake are believable fifth grade friends.

The first title in this series, Minn and Jake was a Bank Street College Best Children's Book of the Year and A Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon Book.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Scieszka, Jon. 2008. Knucklehead:Tall tales and mostly true stories about growing up Scieszka. New York: Viking.

If you know a reluctant reader with a biography book report assigned, and you don't point him toward Knuckleheads, you're missing a great opportunity to turn that child into a great reader. Scieszka knows his audience and his biography is right on target. His biography humorously details the events in his childhood that led him to his current success as an author. Raised in a family of six boys and hard-working parents, he has a wealth of material to work with.

He mentions his many of his favorite childhood stories, Mad Magazine, My Side of the Mountain, Go, Dog. Go!, and more. He was not a fan of Dick and Jane.

"When I read the Dick and Jane stories, I thought they were afraid they might forget each other's names. Because they always said each other's names. A lot.

So if Jane didn't see the dog, Dick would say, 'Look Jane. Look. There is the dog next to Sally, Jane. The dog is also next to Mother, Jane. The dog is next to Father, Jane. Ha, ha, ha. That is funny, Jane.'

Did I mention that Dick and Jane also had a terrible sense of humor?

At home, my mom read me real stories. These were stories that sounded like my life. These were stories that made sense. She read me a story about a guy named Sam-I-am. He was a fan of green eggs and ham."

Knuckleheads, his father's name for the collective Scieszka boys, is full of life's great lessons - read, if it sounds to good to be true - it is, listen, learn to cook (because stirring oatmeal is more fun than picking up dog poop!), have a sense of humor.

Chapter 36, "What's so funny, Mr. Scieszka?" will have the reader in stitches.

Black and white graphics and period photos and advertisements add humor and interest - Gregg's broken collarbone x-ray and the dreaded Halloween bunny suit come to mind.
This is a heartwarming and hilarious biography that will entice even the most reluctant of readers. And for budding humorists, Knuckleheads is a "must read."

A note about Jon Scieszka (rhymes with Fresca):

Jon Scieszka is the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. He is probably best known for his Time Warp Trio series and The Stinky Cheese Man, although these are just a fraction of his large and growing collection of juvenile fiction, easy fiction, non-fiction, and poetry titles. His main focus is promoting reading to boys. To this end, he has two great websites: Guys Read focusing on older boys, and Trucktown, , (a site with a tortuously long url)that corresponds with his new preschool series , Trucktown.

My favorite Jon Scieszka stories? "Duck-billed Platypus vs. Beef Snack Stick," and "Straw and Matches," from Squids Will be Squids.

Seer of Shadows

A video booktalk for Seer of Shadows by Avi

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Phillies in Phive!

The Phillies are the new World Series champions, their first World Series title since 1980!
Now, someone, please, write a new children's book about my favorite team!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Maze of Bones

Since all of my library’s copies of The 39 Clues: Maze of Bones, were checked out, I tired of waiting and uploaded the book from CD to my mp3. Maze of Bones is the first in a scheduled, ten-book series, and is the continuing saga of Amy and Dan Cahill and their quest to find the mysterious 39 clues. (see earlier posts for more details on the storyline)

The first installment is written by Rick Riordan, and read by David Pittu. Pittu does an admirable job inventing accents and distinct voices for the many characters of varying nationalities - no small feat and very helpful in sorting out the many members of the vast and varied Cahill clan. One minor complaint -his voice is not ideally suited for portraying the young female characters.

I don’t think that this series will be Scholastic’s answer to the Harry Potter void, but The 39 Clues concept has a lot of potential. The accompanying online game ( and trading cards add interest and intrigue to a story that contains enough of both to stand on its own. Several kids have told me that they enjoy the online game. The online quest does not require the player to read the book (a shame in my opinion).

As a public librarian, I'm not too sure about how the enclosed trading cards will work. The cards contain a code that can be used to obtain clues for the online quest. The downside - the code may only be used once - making them impractical for public library circulation. I understand that future library editions will not contain trading cards. Hopefully, the cards are not essential in solving the mystery.

It will be interesting to see how future authors will pick up on the threads of Rick Riordan, and if the interest will grow with each new book. Anything that entices kids to read is a winner in my book, so I hope the multi media concept is successful!

A co-worker described Maze of Bones as "National Treasure meets Spy Kids. " I can't sum it up any better than that. Enjoy!

Book #2 is due out in January and will be written by Gordon Korman.

NOTE: I just discovered something! The audiobook has one more chapter than the print version does...more intrigue for followers of the 39 Clues!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Schooled by Gordon Korman

I've posted this Schooled booktalk before, but here it is in podcast form!I'm having great fun in my Tech Savvy Booktalker class and hopefully, the skills I'm learning will help me to reach out to more tech savvy kids! (The podcast is about 2 minutes in length. I hope someone enjoys it!)

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek:

Hopkinson, Deborah. 2008. Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale (Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend). New York: Schwartz & Wade.

What we do in life does matter - even if we're not famous, even if no one is watching, even if we're only ten years old. That's the message in this little-known true story from Abraham Lincoln's childhood. Delightfully told,

"Now, I can just hear you grumblin', Who? That feller isn't in my history book. What do I care?"

and humorously illustrated, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek is a fun read-aloud with a great message.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Mozart Question

Morpurgo, Michael. 2008. The Mozart Question. Ill. by Michael Foreman. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.

This book, by British Children's Laureate (2003-2005), Michael Morpurgo, was first published in London in 2006. The Mozart Question is a small, short work of fiction that will leave a large and long-lasting impression on the reader.

Paolo Levi is a young boy in Venice. His parents are kind, working-class people; his father is a barber. The family lives in an apartment over the barbershop, where, hidden in a bedroom, is a broken violin. Paolo learns that his father used to play it, and he longs to hear him play; but there is a mystery. Mama tells Paolo that he must never mention the violin. He must not mention it to his father. He must pretend that it does not exist.

But Paolo is drawn by the mysterious violin and by the music of a street musician who plays near the bridge. Paolo becomes friends with Benjamin, the elderly musician. Paolo secrets the violin away from his apartment and Benjamin repairs it; then teaches him to play.

Paolo Levi becomes a famous musician, renowned as much for his musicianship as for his peculiar concert habits - no applause, no recordings, and no Mozart - ever.

Fast forward to today... a young reporter lands a plum assignment - an interview with the famously reticent, Paolo Levi. But the assignment comes with a warning - Don't ask the Mozart question. Young reporter, Lesley, does not ask the Mozart question, yet in a reflective mood, Paolo answers it; and in so doing, he draws the reader into the story of his parents, the Holocaust, and Mozart's role in their survival.

Morpurgo succeeds in conveying the horror of the Holocaust with the simple affecting tale of one family's survival. Both haunting and uplifting, The Mozart Question illustrates the power of music and love, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit. The watercolor illustrations of Michael Foreman are a beautiful addition to the story, muted colors and expressionless faces of Nazis in the concentration camps, contrasted with the beautiful scenery of modern Venice.

More a mystery than a Holocaust novel, this short (less than 70 pages) book is a perfect read-aloud or introduction to the Holocaust. For 5th grade and up.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Motherbridge of Love

A 2nd try at a video "booktalk." I think I've got it this time! Animoto is great fun to work with and offers a lot of potential for this type of use. Hope you enjoy the video (and the wonderful book)!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Donut Chef

Staake, Bob. 2008. The donut chef. New York: Golden Book.

I recognized the jacket art on this book right away as belonging to Bob Staake, illustrator of one of my new favorites, Mary Had a Little Lamp. (I also noticed his signature Adobe PhotoShop style on the new Sputter, Sputter, Sput!, but I didn’t enjoy the story line on that one)

Who would ever think that a picture book about unbridled capitalism, rampant consumerism, and aggressive marketing could be a hit? But it is!

In The Donut Chef, a baker is surprised and threatened by a competitor who opens up shop on the same street.

"Indeed, with two shops on the block,
Both selling donuts round the clock,
Well, people asked - you might have guessed -
'Whose donuts are the very best?''

The fierce competition for customers leads to drastically reduced costs and an explosion of new flavors,

"If one chef dropped his donut cost,
The next would add more chocolate frost!
If one would scram, 'Buy two, get three!'
The other yelled, 'But mine are FREE!'

They made new flavors, quite bizarre,
Like Cherry-Frosted Lemon Bar,
And Peanut-Brickle Buttermilk,
And Gooey Cocoa-Mocha Silk!"

In the end, it takes "little Debbie Sue, a teeny girl, just barely two," to bring the baker and his customers back to their senses!

This book has potential to be used in more ways than one. It's a fun choice for storytime, it's a humorous introduction to the free enterprise system, it's an inspiration to young artists, and it's a testament to the artistic possibilities of a program as simple and readily-available as Adobe PhotoShop.

Here's a sneak preview from Bob Staake -

Motherbridge of Love (video booktalk)

I am enrolled in a great ALA/ALSC sponsored class, The Tech Savvy Booktalker, taught by Nancy Keane. This is my homework - a video booktalk of the picture book Motherbridge of Love. More on this later...

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Underneath

Appelt, Kathi. 2008. The underneath. New York: Atheneum.

Most simply put, The Underneath is the story of a faithful hound dog, Ranger; his master, the cruel and possibly unredeemable Gar Face; and a small calico cat and her two kittens, Puck and Sabine. The story is set in the swamps, woods, and bayous in the wilderness somewhere between Louisiana and Texas. But that is the only thing simple about this haunting, suspenseful, mystical and poetic tale.

Woven into the story of Ranger, Gar Face, and the cats, are the magical stories of Grandmother Moccasin, a monstrous and venomous snake; the Alligator King, more than 100 feet long and a thousand years old; the shape-shifters, Night Song and Hawk Man, and the loblolly pine, who watches and remembers and sometimes intervenes in the fates of mammals, reptiles, and shape-shifters.

The underneath refers to the porch under which Ranger and the cats seek protection, but Grandmother is also underneath, trapped for a thousand years under the loblolly pine in an earthenware pot; and so too, is the Alligator King underneath, as he waits in the depths of the bayou, the Petite Gateaux, for the man he knows will hunt him.

“Do not go into that land between the Bayou Gateaux and its little sister, Petite Gateaux. Do not step into that shivery place. Do not let it gobble you up. Stay away from the Gateaux sisters.”

The story spans more than a thousand years and chapters alternate between the stories of man, animal, and reptile.

“A thousand years later…
Here is another listener.
Puck, wet and cold,
listening for his mama,
listening for his sister,
listening for his old hound, Ranger,
listening to the creek running by.
All he heard was loss.

Loss. A small, hissing word. A word that simmers into nothing. Beneath the old pine, Grandmother stewed inside her jar. Loss engulfed her as it had a million times before in this dark space. Lossssss! She whispered.
A word that scrapes against the skin.”

Each short chapter is written in similar fashion, a poetic style with recurring themes – loss, love, promises, and the price to be paid for one’s actions. Words are repeated as well,

“Do not trust a living soul. Do not.”

This is a book like none other that I have read and there is much “buzz” about it in the librarian community. I applaud Kathi Appelt’s bold foray from picture books into juvenile fiction, however, I am not entirely sure that this book will connect with young readers, particularly the stated target audience of grades 3-7. In 311 pages (I read the Advance Reader Copy, the actual final copy may have a slightly different number), there are only about twenty lines of dialogue. The Underneath is suspenseful, in that the reader will want to discover the fate of the protagonists and how their stories will intertwine across the ages, but I am not convinced that young readers will persevere through Appelt’s poetic prose. I confess that having received and Advance Reader Copy back in June, I was not initially interested enough to finish this book. I set it aside and only picked it up again because of the keen interest surrounding it. I may be wrong, but I predict that adults will love it, and children’s reviews will be mixed, at best. Time will tell.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Children's Poet Laureate

The second Children's Poet Laureate has been named, and it is Mary Ann Hoberman, who follows in the impressive footsteps of the previous Children's Poet Laureate, Jack Prelutsky.

Details may be found in the blog, Poetry for Children, created and maintained by author, librarian, and educator, Dr. Sylvia Vardell.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Robot Dreams

Varon, Sara. 2007. Robot Dreams. New York: First Second.

Sara Varnon's Robot Dreams, is a wordless graphic novel that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. In chapters titled with the months of August through July, she tells the story of a friendship between a dog and a robot. With simple and muted colors, Varnon is able to tell a complex and rich story. Check this one out! It's a winner.

(Approximately 200 pages)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Marco Polo

Demi. 2008. Marco Polo. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish.

As with other titles by Demi, Marco Polo is as much a joy to look at as it is to read. Marco Polo is of course, the story of the remarkable explorer's journeys - over 33,000 miles and 24 years - particularly remarkable considering the time period and transportation available, 1271-1295AD!
Attacked by bandits in a desert dust storm, robbed by Indian pirates in the Arabian Sea, crossing the 20,000 foot high Pamir Mountains, Demi's telling of Marco Polo's journey reads like the fictional Tales of the Arabian Nights - a fantastic story of wonders and adventures - but of course, it's true. Whenever possible, Demi captures the essence of the time by quoting from The Travels of Marco Polo, the book which he dictated from prison after he fought and was captured in a battle for his beloved Venice in 1298.

"He described wild orange men with tails, or orangutans, and huge "unicorns nearly the size of elephants," or rhinoceroses!"

She does not invent dialogue, choosing rather to tell the story as true to Polo's own narrative as possible.

Each page contains an illustration bordered by replicas of Chinese and Indian embroidery or Italian, Arabian, and Persian designs. The artwork is a colorful and in the flat style evocative of medieval times. Demi uses Chinese inks and glossy, gold overlays in her depictions of Marco's many exploits. Marco Polo is easily identified in each scene by the red feather in his head covering. Important characters or images from each illustration often spill over the border onto the blank space, which is reminiscent of a creamy linen or parchment paper.

This is a lovely book that would make an excellent choice for sharing with youngsters at bedtime, or in a school setting over several sessions. Unfortunately, as with many books of this type, its slim size and many illustrations makes it an unlikely choice for a school assignment. Conversely, its rich detail and language make it an unlikely choice for preschoolers. Teachers assigning books based on the number of pages, might want to take a fresh look at some of the wonderful picture books being written for older readers.

My only complaint is that the map was not placed in the front of the book, giving the reader a preview of the extraordinary journey of this extraordinary man.

Audiobook downloads

Great news for fans of audiobook downloads (like me!)

Until recently, with few exceptions, public libraries have offered mp3 compatible downloads only. OverDrive, the digital supplier used by most libraries, did not have software compatible with the iPod.

A new format has been unveiled, and now, public library digital book downloads are available for iPod, as well as mp3 users. The list of titles is not large, but I'm sure it will be growing.

If you've been missing out on digital downloads because you are an iPod user, check out your public library! Chances are good that you won't be dependent on the Apple Store for your audiobooks any longer!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Thump, Quack, Moo

Cronin, Doreen. 2008. Thump, quack, moo: A whacky adventure. Ill. by Betsey Lewin. New York: Atheneum.

I am a big fan of Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, Duck for President, and Dooby Dooby Moo, but this latest collaboration by Cronin and Lewin is missing the same cleverness as the other titles. Duck is, of course, cooking up a scheme and at odds with Farmer Brown, but his work in altering the farmer's corn maze is done clandestinely. The humorous back-and-forth between Duck, Farmer Brown, and the other animals is missing. They are working at cross-purposes towards a humorous and clever ending, but the witty interactions are absent.

Of course, fans will love Thump, Quack, Moo anyway, but this is not Cronin's best... And be careful with the fold-out ending! It's not easily managed by big or little hands - my copy tore on the first attempt to open it!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Birds on a Wire

Lewis, J. Patrick and Paul B. Janeczko. 2008. Birds on a wire. Ill. by Gary Lippincott. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong.

Birds on a Wire introduces children (and adults) to the ancient Japanese poetry form of renga, a precursor to the better-known haiku. Poetic, collaborative, multicultural, calming, beautiful - this book has much to offer, particularly for teachers or for children's librarians seeking interesting programming options. I know that I will come back to this book.

Goodnight Goon

Rex, Michael. 2008. Goodnight goon: A petrifying parody. New York: Putnam.

"In the cold gray tomb
There was a gravestone
And a black lagoon
And a picture of --

Martians taking over the moon ..."

Fans of Margaret Wise Brown's classic, Goodnight Moon, should love this adorable spoof. Just in time for Halloween! Rex has the rhythm down perfectly! Colorful and cute!

Monday, September 29, 2008

How to Heal a Broken Wing

Graham, Bob. 2008. How to heal a broken wing. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.

A book in the same vein as the 2006 title, The True Story of Stellina, this is a beautiful story of compassion toward an injured bird, in this instance, a big city pigeon.

"High above the city, no one heard the soft thud of feathers against glass.
No one saw the bird fall.
No one looked down...
except Will. "

The words and the story are simple, yet touching, perfect accompaniments for the pen, watercolor and chalk illustrations. The story begins in the muted grays and blues of the big city. Only Will and his family bring color to an otherwise dreary urban landscape. Many of the illustrations are done in comic book style - wordless panels depicting the birds' recovery.

In speaking about the book, the author says, "In troubled times, when many of us are losing contact with the natural world, I wanted to show there there is still hope in a coming generation of children who have curiosity and empathy with the world around them ..."

He has succeeded, beautifully.

The Trouble Begins at 8

Fleischman, Sid. 2008. The trouble begins at 8. New York: Grennwillow.

Let me start by noting two things: 1. I loved this book 2. I think it would be better classified as a teen book. Here's why:

The Trouble Begins at 8 (a reference to how Twain billed his speaking engagements), is a highly entertaining and informative look at one of America's best known authors - although he is arguably equally famous for his biting wit. The book chronicles "the adventurous years that turned the unknown Samuel Clemens into the world-famous Mark Twain."

With chapters titled "The Man Who Made Frogs Famous,"and "Eggs, Three Cents a Dozen," through "Golden Gate, So Long," Fleischman's book follows Twain's mixed attempts at finding his fortune, his travels in the wild west, and his growing career as a writer. Peppered with many period photographs and art reproductions, as well as excellently sourced quotations, the reader is fully immersed in the whirlwind of personality that was Mark Twain. Mark Twain was at times a liar, a printer, a schemer, a riverboat pilot, a lecturer, an author, a lazy drifter, even a dueler! In his own words, "I have been an author for twenty years, and an ass for fifty-five."

The Trouble Begins at 8, ends with an Afterstory, A Mark Twain Sampler (an excerpt from the story that made him famous, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"), a Mark Twain Timeline, References, Illustration and Photograph Sources, Bibliography, Novels and Other Works, and Index. It is an exhaustive look at a finite period in this American icon's storied life.

Some of the reasons that I loved the book are the reasons that I find it unsuitable for a Juvenile Biography classification. It's focus on a short period of Twain's life makes it unlikely to be acceptable for a school biography assignment. Additionally, Fleischman's success in offering the unique "flavor" of times gone by, makes the prose difficult reading for all but the oldest of the juvenile audience,

"In addition to the paper's social denseness, Clemens felt in the wrong harness at the fact-
obsessed Call. His nimble imagination went unappreciated. he was heavily blue penciled for
writing sentences his editor regarded as salty caviar to the paper's meat-and-potato readers. "

Fleischman's use of period quotes is also very entertaining,

"Concerning the difference between man and the jackass: Some observers hold that there isn't
any. But that wrongs the jackass,"

but perhaps above the level of the average juvenile nonfiction reader.

In short, I loved this book, but I think it will be better received by teens and adults.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


Spinelli, Jerry. 2003. Milkweed. Read by Ron Rifkin. Listening Library.

As soon as I began listening to this book on my mp3 player, I knew that the voice sounded familiar. Ron Rifkin's serious and recognizable voice also narrates the audiobook version of Lois Lowry's, The Giver.

Rifkin has the perfect voice for this haunting Holocaust story. He manages the seriousness that the book demands, without the graveness of an adult, for the protagonist in this book is a young child, possibly only 8 or so, when the Nazis march into Warsaw.

Thief, Gypsy, Stupid, Jew, Misha, Jack - the protagonist in Milkweed progresses through many names and identities. When the book begins in Warsaw, 1939, the boy identifies only by what he has been called as long as he can remember, "Stop! Thief!" He is small and quick - his greatest and most useful attributes. He has no name, no family and no history - although the listener comes to understand that he is an orphaned Gypsy. In time, he begins to identify with a band of orphaned Jewish boys living on the streets.

His tender age, lack of formal education, and status as a non-Jew, enables Misha (for so he becomes named) to offer a unique, insightful and unvarnished perspective on life in the Warsaw ghetto under the control of the Nazis. With childhood innocence he wonders why the other boys are not enthralled with the exciting "jackboot" parade, or why a Jewish man would be washing the sidewalk with his own beard. At first he announces, "I'm glad I am not a Jew," and wishes for the shiny boots of the Nazis. Later, however, he completely identifies with the Jews who have accepted him into their midst, and he chronicles the increasingly horrific conditions of the Warsaw ghetto.

What makes this story so compelling is the fact that Misha, due to his age and limited life experiences, is incapable of passing judgment on the events that unfold. He merely recounts the story and adapts to the downward spiral of human conditions. At first he steals loaves of bread and sausages and all manner of delicious foods. He later is forced to eat rats, spoiled cabbages and garbage. Finally, he scrounges for fat at the bottom of an empty garbage can. In all instances, he shares with his "adopted" Jewish family and a house of Jewish orphans - never losing his innate sense of fairness and responsibility to those who have treated him with decency.

He chronicles the increasing callousness with which the Ghetto inhabitants regard the dead - stripping them of their shoes and clothes, if they are lucky enough to have them. Death carts, flame-throwing guards, beatings, murders, deportations to "the ovens," Nazi soldiers with white-gloved girlfriends in Sunday dress tossing bread scraps and taking photos - Misha reports it all.

He is street-wise and contextually ignorant. He knows only what he has lived and lacks a framework in which he can process the atrocity of the Holocaust. It is this combination that provides a framework for explaining the Holocaust in terms that a child can understand. A very compelling book that highlights the depravities of human nature side by side with the indomitable human spirit.

About 5 hours on CD or mp3 download.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Giver

Lowry, Lois. 1993. The Giver. New York: Random House Audio. ISBN 0807286095.

Plot Summary:
Jonas is about to turn twelve years old - an age of importance and responsibility. At a special ceremony, he will receive his role for life in this futuristic community where discomfort, want, and uncertainty are unknown. But Jonas does not receive the duty that he expected. He is apprenticed to "The Giver," and his life and that of his community's may never be the same.

Critical Analysis:
This unabridged audio book version of The Giver consists of four CDs that run for a total of 4 hours and 47 minutes. The reader is Broadway actor, movie star, and television actor Ron Rifkin. Rifkin is the only reader, although background instrumental music is played to underscore important scenes. The packaging claims the book to be appropriate for ages 10 and up.

Rifkin did a wonderful job of giving voice to Lois Lowry's story narration and the male characters of the story. His portrayal of female dialogue, however, was not believable, particulary his impersonation of Jonas's younger sister, Lily. In spite of this shortcoming, the audio version of the book was engaging and moved along quickly enough to keep a listener interested. The use of orchestral music to highlight pivotal events was overkill, however, younger listeners might possibly need such a clue.

The Giver is a futuristic fiction tale that is suitable for classification as a YA or juvenile novel. It takes place in what initially appears to be a future utopian community, free of want, need, and uncertainty. It is a community where "preciseness of speech is required" ("starving" is not acceptable because "hungry" is more precise), a community where children are rationed and assigned to households (no more than fifty new children per year and no more than two per household), a community where each person has an assigned duty (food-bringer, nurturer, birth mother), a community where a faceless voice from a speaker issues orders and public chastisement. Finally, it is a community where those who do not conform are "released." The sterility of the setting and the preciseness and blandness of the characters' dialogue add realism to the stark world of "the community." Rifkin employs a calm and almost monotonous tone to add to the colorless world of the community.

The protagonist is Jonas, a young boy about to "come of age" at twelve. Until the age of twelve, birthdays of those in the community are celebrated "en masse," every December "ones" become "twos," "threes become fours," etc. At the significant "twelve" ceremony, children are given their assignment, their life's duty for the benefit of the community. In a world where there should be no fear, no uncertaintly, no individuality, Jonas is nonetheless uneasy. What will his duty be? Why does he notice things that others do not? Readers will relate to Jonas as his innermost thoughts are revealed through narration. The contrast between Jonas and the rest of the community will unnerve the listener as well. Listeners will identify with Jonas and feel his unease in the sterility of his world.

His assignment does not answer his questions. It merely poses more. Jonas is assigned to be "The Receiver." He must work with the elderly "Giver" to receive all of the memories and experiences outside the realm of the here and now. He may share his knowledge and experiences with no one. From "The Giver" he learns of color,of music, of cold, of hot, of sunshine and of snow. He also experiences the memories of sickness, of pain, of war, and of death. And he learns what it means to be "released" from the community. Jonas must reconcile the knowledge of what is possible in a free society with the consequences of those freedoms. Is it better to live in peace, safety, and health than to experience love, music, color, and freedom along with pain, sickness, war, and misery?

Jonas makes his choice, and the listener is left to wonder what the final consequences will be.

The ending is unresolved and somewhat symbolic. Jonas, carrying "newchild" Gabriel before him, arrives in a place outside the community on a snowy December day. He can hear music. He sees colored lights and a decorated tree. Is Gabriel symbolic of Jesus? Is Gabriel carried in front because he is like the biblical herald, heralding the arrival of the savior? Will Jonas be the savior of the community? Or has Jonas simply escaped with Gabriel? The listener is left with a hopeful, yet undetermined ending.

From ages ten to adult, this book will not leave the listener unaffected. It is sure to provoke discussion about the consequences of free choice and the very nature of society. This Newbery winner is a perennial favorite for all ages.

Review Excerpts:
"The story is skillfully written; the air of disquiet is delicately insinuated. And the theme of balancing the values of freedom and security is beautifully presented," writes Ann A. Flowers in the Jul/Aug 1993 Horn Book Magazine.

Amy Kellman writes, "This tightly plotted story and its believable characters will stay with readers for a long time." (School Library Journal May 1993)

Lois Lowry has a website for children that is a wonderful resource. It contains a bibliography of Lowry's books, FAQs, biographical information and more.

Read Lowry's two later books, Gathering Blue and The Messenger. Together with The Giver, they create a futuristic trilogy. The character of Jonas returns in The Messenger.

Before reading the sequel, have students resolve The Giver's ending.

For another thought-provoking futuristic tale, suggest
Z for Zachariah by Robert O'Brien

The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963

Curtis, Christopher Paul. 1995. The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963. New York: Delacorte. ISBN 0385321759

Plot Summary:
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 is a realistic historical fiction account of the Watson family -- Momma, Dad, Kenny, Joetta, and Bryon. The first person account is through the eyes of 10-year-old Kenny. Joetta is his younger sister, and Byron, his 13-year-old "juvenile delinquent" brother. The story recounts the day-to-day happenings of this tough, but loving family in their equally tough Flint, Michigan neighborhood. Byron's constant trouble-making activities prompt a trip south so that he may spend the summer under the reforming hand of his strict grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama. While in Birmingham, the Watsons witness the bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church and must come to terms with its impact upon their family.

Critical Analysis:
The Watsons Go To Birmingham is a Newbery and Coretta Scott King award winner with a 10-year old protagonist that children will relate to. Kenny has a loving family and problems that are still familiar today - a lazy eye, the unwanted attention of the school bully, poverty typical to his neighborhood, and a roller coaster relationship with his older brother, Byron. Although the Watsons witness the 1963 bombing of the Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the facts concerning the bombing are accurate, the historical aspect of the tale takes a back seat to the fictional story of the Watson family.

The harsh life of the Watsons is evident in the details of their daily lives. Although poor, Momma makes sure that each of the children have two new pairs of gloves each winter for the frigid Michigan weather. Kenny shares his lunch and his extra pair of gloves with a new friend who can afford neither, but then his gloves are stolen. Byron, 13, forcefully retrieves the gloves from a school bully and offers Kenny the chance to get even. When Kenny declines Byron's invitation, Byron punches Kenny instead of the bully. Kenny's relationship with his older brother is a major focus of the story. Bryon is at times tender; at times cruel. Kenny's younger sister, Joetta is obedient and protective of her brothers. Momma and Dad are loving, but firm.

Most of the story is set in Flint. The family travels to Birmingham to take Byron to stay with his Southern grandmother, where Momma and Dad hope he will break away from his "juvenile delinquent" friends and learn respect. The Watsons journey to Birmingham in the "Brown Bomber," accompanied by the sounds of the "True-Tone AB-700 Ultra Glide", the latest technology - a dashboard mounted record player! The Ultra Glide, the frequent use of the word Negro, references to "The Untouchables" and "Felix the Cat, and the $1.23 price for groceries at the local market, help to firmly set the story in 1963.

Although the Birmingham events occupy just the last sixty pages of the book, the contrast between the North and the South is a focal point of the story. In Flint, the only inkling of racism is a teacher's reminder that " Negroes the world is many times a hostile place for us." As the Watsons travel south, the reader feels the danger growing. Mrs. Watson carefully plots the three-day trip, making sure that they stop in locations known as friendly to Negroes. Mr. Watson is not as confident of a friendly welcome, and instead chooses to drive straight through. When they make a rest stop in Appalachia, Kenny is at first afraid of encountering a snake in the dark, but Byron tells him that snakes are the least of his worries. "Man, they got crackers and rednecks up here that ain't never seen no Negroes before. .....they'd hang you now, then eat you later." The reader can feel the fear of being a Negro in the South of 1963.

Once in Birmingham, fiction, fact, and fantasy are combined as Joette goes off to Sunday school at the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church with her relatives. Kenny remains at the house, exhausted from his near-drowning in a "whirlpool" a day earlier. The family hears the blast and races to the church. Kenny follows and discovers a shiny, little shoe in the church and believes that his sister has perished, killed by the devilish "Wool Pooh" of his imagination. Miraculously, his sister is found alive and insists that Kenny saved her, waving to her and luring her away from the church before the bomb blast.

The family travels together back to Flint and struggles to regain normalcy. Byron and Kenny undergo changes as Kenny suffers post-traumatic stress, and Byron helps him overcome it. Eventually, the Watson family rises above the experience of racism and violence in the same way that they overcome all difficulties - with love, pride and determination.

An Epilogue offers the reader a short, factual account of the Civil Rights struggle, and a challenge to continue the quest for freedom.

Christopher Paul Curtis grew up in Flint, Michigan in the same era as the fictional Watsons, making his setting authentic and believable. The addition of the Birmingham church bombing makes this a historical fiction story, but the true purpose of this factual event to the story is to underscore the far-reaching effects of racism and injustice. The fundamental theme of the book is the strength and power of family to overcome adversity.

Review Excerpts:
Writing for Horn Book Magazine in March, 1996, Martha V. Parravano wrote, "Curtis's control of his material is superb as he unconventionally shifts tone and mood, as he depicts the changing relationship between the two brothers, and as he incorporates a factual event into his fictional story."

In the Jan/Feb volume of Book Report, Susan N. Bridson wrote, "The transition from comic to tragic jars the reader's sensibilities as Curtis hammers home the cruelty of racism. Recommended--should be seriously considered for purchase."

An excellent website for students to visit after reading this title is This is the official website chronicling the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas' Central High School in 1957 - a pivotal event that set helped propel the Civil Rights movement and set the stage for the climate leading to the Birmingham bombing. The site is slightly dated, but contains poweful video of the events and is a great resource.

An appropriate title to accompany The Watsons.. is Newbery award-winning, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

An introduction to artist, Norman Rockwell, and his famous painting "The Problem We All Live With," depicting integration, would also be appropriate.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Everything is Fine

Everything is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis (Advance Reader Copy)
New York: Little Brown and Company

Everything is Fine is due out in March, 2009. I received an ARC from a colleague who really enjoyed it, as did my teenage daughter.

I had mixed feelings about it. Everything is Fine is reminiscent of Laurie Halse Anderson's, Speak, in that the reader knows that something terrible has happened, but must suffer the pain of the protagonist as she comes to terms with the truth. The protagonist in this case is the adolescent Mazzy. In stark, first person, stream of consciousness chapters, Mazzy details her life at home alone with a severely depressed mother and an absent father,

When Dad found out he had to stay away longer than he thought, he found someone to bring us food.
She sometimes forgets. Her name is Lisa and she smells like hair spray.
She's Bill's friend who needed some extra cash.
She's supposed to come every week but sometimes she forgets. I feed Mom what's in the kitchen even though all she really wants is sorbet and Diet Coke.
Once I put SpaghetttiOs in the blender and gave it to her like a shake.
She threw it up."

If I had not just finished reading Waiting for Normal, perhaps I might have liked this book better. Waiting for Normal tells a similar, albeit less tragic story. Both books have a young female protagonist, an absent father figure, and a sickly, overweight, kindly, and helpful neighbor. Waiting for Normal is more hopeful, though - perhaps because depression is not its main focus. I'm sure it's difficult to write a hopeful book that deals with depression. Ellis has done a great job in trying, but this was not one of my personal favorites, although it is certainly well written. Everything is Fine should appeal to teen fans of contemporary realistic fiction.

I prefer juvenile lit to YA lit. I'm basically an optimist at heart, preferring a good laugh or an enlightening perspective to a walk through the depths of someone else's despair.

I'm ready for something funny. I can't wait for Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Korman, Gordon. 2007. Schooled. New York: Hyperion.

Gordon Korman was on many school summer reading lists. He's a great choice for reluctant readers and is popular with the boys. Here's a booktalk I created for Schooled.

Capricorn Anderson knows only one person – Rain, his grandmother; and together they are the last two residents of Garland Farm, an autonomous collective, a hippie commune founded in 1967. He has never handled money, gone to school, or witnessed violence. He makes his own clothes from hemp, his shoes from corn husks. He has never watched TV. But when Rain falls from a plum tree and needs hip surgery, Cap is thrust into a strange and turbulent new world – Claverage Middle School, better known to students as C Average Middle School.

As you might expect, the transition is anything but smooth. After a traumatic first week of school and life at the social worker, Mrs. Donnelly’s home, he ponders the complexities of his new world,

“Like what were those little white paper balls that I kept brushing out of my hair every night? Was there so much paper in a school that the molecules eventually clustered and fell like precipitation? And how did a pickled brain and all those other weird objects get into my locker? I thought the whole point of a lock was that no one could open it but me. I sure never put pink goo and a dead bird in there.”

When he is elected 8th grade class president, Mrs. Donnelly cannot understand it. That is, until her daughter Sophie explains,

“Duh – eighth grade president isn’t an honor, Mother. It’s like being elected village idiot. Every year they pick the biggest wing nut in the building. It must have seemed like the freakzoid dropped straight from heaven to fill the post.”

So how does clueless Capricorn Anderson become the most popular kid in the school, attend his own memorial service, make eleven hundred new friends, and still have time to pick up a supermodel? You’ll have to read Gordon Korman’s, book, Schooled to find out!

Each chapter in Schooled is written in a different voice - Cap, the school bully, the school nerd, Mrs. Donnelly, the popular girls, Mr. Kasigi the principal, and more. A humorous and insightful look at values, Schooled is a fun read!

Waiting for Normal

Connor, Leslie. 2008. Waiting for normal. New York: Harper Collins.

“Truth was I never really liked dinnertime. Breakfast was our best meal because it was the only meal that was normal. What I mean by that is we had either toast or cereal. That’s normal for breakfast – everyone eats those things for breakfast. But we often had cereal or toast for dinner, too. … So, toast dinners became my specialty.”

Addie and Mommers live in a dilapidated trailer, sitting on cinder blocks on a busy street corner in Schenectady. The corner, not in Schenectady’s best part of town, has a vacant lot, a Laundromat, and thankfully, a mini mart and gas station. The trailer is a parting gesture from Addie’s ex-stepfather. After Mommers fritters away the mortgage money on another Internet scheme and abandons Addie and her half-sisters while Dwight is out of town on a job, Dwight really has no other choice but to take his daughters (whom Addie affectionately calls, The Littles) and move on. But despite his love for her, Addie is not his daughter. Addie belongs to Mommers, and Mommers is what Addie describes as "all or nothing." The problem is, Addie often gets nothing, while business schemes, boyfriends, and Internet chat rooms, get all.

In spite of all this, Addie displays remarkable courage, self-sufficiency, adaptability, honesty and humor. She becomes friends with Soula, the sickly and overweight owner of the mini mart and and her employee, Elliot. She makes new friends at her new school. She waits for normal.

This first person account of a young girl's triumph over adversity is reminiscent of Susan Patron's Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, however, Connor's protagonist is more hopeful, more believable. Even the dismal Schenectady street corner trailer seems to offer more promise than Lucky's trailer in a remote California desert town.

Both a coming-of-age and a triumph over adversity story, Waiting for Normal is a winner.

Rumor has Waiting for Normal as a possible Newbery contender. If chosen, it will be the second choice in as many years of a young adult (YA) or teen title. As a children's librarian, I hope that juvenile (J) title is chosen instead. There are many good choices this year.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Daniel Boone's Great Escape

Spradlin, Michael. Daniel Boone's great escape. 2008. Ill. by Ard Hoyt. New York: Waler & Co.

Nonfiction, particularly history, is one of my favorite genres in children's literature, so I enjoyed this little-known episode in the life of the famous frontiersman, Daniel Boone. Daniel Boone's Great Escape recounts his escape from the Shawnee tribe, which had held him in friendly captivity for several months. Boone escaped to warn the settlement of Boonesborough, Kentucky (where his own family resided) of an imminent attack by the Shawnee. According to the Epilogue, Boone's own account of his journey through the wilderness, pursued by Shawnee warriors, is as follows: "On the 16th, before sunrise, I departed in the most secret manner and arrived at Boonesborough on the 20th, after a journey of one hundred and sixty miles, during which I had but one meal."

While Daniel Boone's heroism and bravery is the heart of the story, Spradlin makes sure to highlight the Shawnee position on the white settlements. The aggression of the Shawnee was a reaction to the murder of their chief at Fort Randolph, where he had traveled under a flag of truce to discuss broken treaties. Hoyt's pen and watercolor illustrations appear to depict both Whites and Indians in authentic dress and accoutrements. Life in the Shawnee village is shown as friendly and productive, while warriors and Boone alike are shown with the expected expressions - pride, anger, thoughtfulness, concern. It's clear that both author and illustrator have tried to take a balanced approach in this frontier tale.

The Epilogue contains detailed historical information, however, a bibliography or resource page would also have made a nice addition. This is a picture book for older readers, and as such, will probably receive limited use. It is not suitable as biographical material because it covers only four days in the life of Boone. It is equally unsuited as a balanced look at Westward expansion because of its limited scope. That being said, it is an interesting story and will hopefully find its niche.

Friday, September 5, 2008


Sutton, Sally. 2008. Roadwork. Ill. by Brian Lovelock. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.

Better than a book about bulldozers or dump trucks, Roadwork follows the sequence of events in the construction of a new road. Excavators, cranes, steamrollers and more, make their appearance in this delightful rhyming romp down the path to a new highway. Each step in the process is described (even the planting of trees along the shoulders) in fun and easy to understand language. The rhymes roll out easily and never seem forced, "Roll the tar. Roll the tar. Make it firm and flat. Squash it down and press it out. Squelch! SPLUCK! SPLAT!"
The font is large and the exclamatory words are in a concrete style, "Screech! BOOM! WHOOSH!"

Each stage has a double-spread illustration, done in bright but realistic colors in style reminiscent of folk-art. Colorful paint speckles adorn each painting, adding a touch of playfulness. In a nice touch, the construction crew is very diverse, featuring women and various ethnicities.

Roadwork is a non-fiction book that is as much fun to read as fiction.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

In a Blue Room

Averbeck, Jim. 2008. In a blue room. Ill by Tricia Tusa. Orlando: Harcourt.

A short and gentle bedtime story about Alice, a little girl who wants everything to be blue before she goes to bed. Her kind and inventive mother, however, coaxes her with with fragrant white lilacs and lilywhites, warm orange tea, and a silky-soft quilt of red and green. And as she drifts off to sleep, "off goes the lamp and in comes the moon, bathing everything in its pale blue light." The pen and watercolor illustrations are softly colored with soft edges and a slight hint of whimsy, as in the painting of Alice floating down to her bed with her makeshift blue parachute. A very pretty book.

Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War

2004. Barker, Clive. Abarat: Days of magic, nights of war. New York: Harper Collins.

Reading the second book in the Abarat series was quite a contrast from the first. (see earlier post) I listened to the first book and was entranced by narrator Richard Ferrone's compelling rendition. At first, it was difficult to enjoy the printed version, however, Barker's fantastic artwork more than compensates for the lack of Ferrone's rich voice.

This continuing saga of Candy Quackenbush in the Abarat has slightly less mystery than the first installment, but an equal amount of "edge of your seat" adventure. The reader will likely begin to realize why Candy's journey in the fantastical Abarat seems so familiar before Candy, herself, unravels the mystery. There are plenty of surprises however and the conclusion is satisfying, but sufficiently "open" to leave the reader yearning for book three - which has been a long time in coming. Absolute Midnight, its working title, is rumored to be due out this autumn or next spring. The movie, originally scheduled to be a Disney production, is apparently on hold.

Following is the official Abarat site, but its content is somewhat dated.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Astronaut Handbook

McCarthy, Meghan. 2008. Astronaut Handbook. New York: Knopf.

A perfect introduction to a career in space exploration. Suitable for younger readers or storytime, this non-fiction picture book is humorously illustrated in colorful , double-spread acrylic paintings. Using simple text, "You've done the hard stuff, and now it's time to have some fun! A special plane nicknamed the Vomit Comet will take you high in the sky and then ZOOM back down. As a result, you'll be able to FLOAT! It might upset your stomach, but you'll get the hang of it," Astronaut Handbook offers a glimpse into the versatility of astronauts (pilots, scientists, mechanics) as well as the myriad requirements that make space travel possible (space suits, space toilets, freeze-dried ice cream, wilderness training and more). Fascinating Facts, Places to Visit, and Bibliography follow the story.

Bedtime at the Swamp

Crow, Kristyn. 2008. Bedtime at the swamp. Ill by Macky Pamintuan. New York: Harper Collins.

I love this book! A little boy is just a "sittin' by a swamp just hummin' a tune," when he hears "Splish splash rumba-rumba bim bam BOOM! Splish splash rumba-rumba bim bam BOOM!" He takes off running and is soon summoned by his sister, brother, and cousins in turn. Each arrives with the same message and receives the same response, "'Ma said to fetch you 'cause it's time for bed!' ‘QUICK! HIDE! There's a monster in the swamp!' I said."
The refrain is so catchy that children won't be able to resist chiming in! The artwork is rich with the deep blues, purples and greens of an evening in the swamp. Pamintuan's illustrations are able to convey fear with humor as the children hang upside from the willow tree where they have taken refuge from the swamp monster. Of course, the book has a humorous surprise ending. A perfect choice for storytime! Great fun!

Beneath the Waves - a review

As we read disturbing news accounts of dying manatees , environmental disasters caused by toxic waste, and ocean pollution on the scale of ...