Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Smash! Crash!

Smash! Crash! is the first in the new Jon Scieszka's Trucktown series, aimed at pre-schoolers. The first book features Jack Truck and Dump Truck Dan, but the cast of characters will eventually include more than ten personified truck characters including Rescue Rita, Payloader Pete, and Hook and Ladder Lucy.

In Smash! Crash!, best friends Jack and Dan are looking for opportunities to do just that.

"'Hey, Max!' says Jack. 'Help us smashing!' 'Yeah, Max,' says Dan. 'Help us crashing!'
But Max is awfully busy. 'Sorry, guys. No can do. Got to stack these barrels by two.'
'Aw, don't be such a four-wheeler dud,' says Jack. 'Come on and ...'
The storyline is sure to appeal to Scieszka's favorite audience, boys.

The illustrations are a riot of action and color from the winning team of David Shannon, Loren Long, and David Gordon. The headlight eyes and grill mouths are as full of expression as the town is full of action. Even the words are busy. The text zooms and jumps through the pages with varying fonts, sizes, and cartooning effects. The final page is a vertical foldout of Wrecking Crane Rosie. At last the boys will Smash! Crash! where their help is actually wanted!

Scieszka, the newly appointed National Ambassador for Children's Literature has more than fifty books planned for the Trucktown series. Details are in the following Simon & Schuster link along with PDF activity sheets for librarians and teachers.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Out of the Dust

Listening Library’s, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, read by Marika Mashburn

Obviously, this was a great book – winner of the 1998 Newbery Medal and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. It tells of the heart-wrenching Dust Bowl years in the life of Billy Jo, a 14-year-old girl from the Oklahoma panhandle.

The audio version, however, has a slight handicap to overcome. Because this is a free verse novel written in a journal format, there is no dialogue to break the monotony of single voice narration. Marika Mashburn does an excellent job in evoking Billy Jo’s emotions; the reader can hear both the smiles and the tears in her voice. Additionally, her voice sounds youthful and believable as the young Billy Jo; however, the reading sometimes feels rushed. Overall, I think that this title is best read rather than heard. YALSA’s Audiobook and Experimental Media Committee selected Out of the Dust for their “annual list of spoken word recordings with high aesthetic and content appeal for listeners ages 12 through 18.”

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Though I’m most interested in reading J titles, the Young Adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was suggested to me by too many people to pass up.

Alcoholism, bullying, bigotry, racism, violence, masturbation, bulimia, obscenities – they all show up here in Sherman Alexie’s newest book, guaranteeing that it will be controversial; but yet – the book’s message is positive, funny, real, and not the least bit didactic. Reviews note that the character of Junior is somewhat autobiographical, explaining the protagonist’s honesty and believability. He is part Arnold-part Junior, part White-part Indian, part geek-part athlete, and an endearing mix of part chicken-part warrior. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel which is literally and figuratively animated by the hilarious cartoon illustrations of Ellen Forney.

I don’t know if Junior’s views on the nature of Indian life and reservations are widely held within the culture, but I am pleased to see that The Absolutely True Diary… won the inaugural American Indian Youth Literature Award for young adults. Knowing that the title has the blessing of those within the Indian culture is yet another reason to recommend this book. Junior’s ultimate realization that he has a rightful and natural place within many “tribes,” and that each of us must follow our own inner calling, is a fitting end to this coming-of-age novel of a “part-time Indian.”

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy

I didn’t think that I would like listening to an audio version of a picture book, but I thought I’d give it a try. I downloaded Jane O’Connor’s, Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy, read by Isabel Keating. My initial instinct was correct.

I have several thoughts on the experience -

  • While Isabel Keating's reading of the book was not bad, the accompanying music was both distracting and annoying.
  • The running time of Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy is a mere five minutes. I wonder if the download process might be lengthier than the listening process.
  • The value of a picture book lies in its pictures as much as its words. Even if the young listener has the book in hand, the absence of a “tone” or “chime” makes it impossible for a child to know when the page should be turned. If an adult is present to tell the child when to turn the page, the adult could just as well be reading the book – a more satisfying encounter to be sure.

Prince Caspian

I have to admit that I’ve never read C.S. Lewis’, Prince Caspian. With the movie coming out in a few months, I made good use of my commuting time to listen to a download of the book on my MP3. After listening to the audio-book version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, read by Michael York, it took me a chapter to get used to Lynn Redgrave’s voice reading Prince Caspian. After the first chapter or two, however, she had me hooked. The award-winning, English-born, Ms. Redgrave, did a fine job in creating voices for the many characters in Prince Caspian, particularly, Reepicheep, the prideful rabbit warrior. I thoroughly enjoyed the audio-book, and I’m looking forward to the movie. One downside of audio-books – you don’t know the spelling of unfamiliar character names and places. (I had to look up the spelling of Reepicheep at An upside – I know how to pronounce them!

The Many Rides of Paul Revere

The Many Rides of Paul Revere by James Cross Giblin is a fascinating new look at a man we thought we knew through the famous Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem. How wrong we were! Paul Revere was a Renaissance man of his time, much like Benjamin Franklin or much later, Thomas Edison.

The son of a French Huguenot immigrant, Revere overcame early poverty and minimal education to become a master silver and goldsmith, a rider for the Revolution, a skilled copper engraver, a dentist, a soldier, a bell-caster, and the father of sixteen children. He learned the art of making gunpowder and built Massachusetts’ first gunpowder mill to supply the Patriots. He was a messenger for the Revolutionary forces, making many trips in addition to his famed “midnight ride.” He built the new nation’s first copper-rolling mill. He worked with Robert Fulton, designing boilers for the new steamboats.

The award-winning Giblin has lived up to his reputation, creating an engaging and well-documented look at this famous American. The Many Rides of Paul Revere is a chronological look at Revere’s life and the text is generously accompanied by sepia-toned replicas of period paintings, engravings, and photos of primary sources, including colonial paper money engraved by Revere. Complementing the captivating biography are supplemental materials including a look at Wordsworth and the famous poem, a timeline, a list of present-day historical sites to visit, source notes and an index. Hopefully teachers will not dismiss this book for biography assignments due to its length of less than 100 pages. Suitable for 4th grade to adult.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Elijah of Buxton

I have not yet read this year’s Newbery Medal winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! but it must be a phenomenal book to have beaten Christopher Paul Curtis’, Elijah of Buxton. There are certainly enough superlatives about this book already circulating. I will only add an observation. Curtis’ knack for distilling the wisdom of ages and the lessons of life into a formula for young readers is simply superb! Reading Elijah’s experiences and his estimation of them is like returning to childhood, with all its innocence and honesty. The lessons learned in Elijah of Buxton will stick with the reader for a lifetime. As in The Watsons Go to Birmingham, the more horrific parts of history play a peripheral role to that of the central characters, creating books that are as entertaining as they are educating. Elijah is a winning, likable and believable character. This book had me laughing out loud, as well as crying.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Howtoons: The possibilities are endless!

A graphic non-fiction book for kids challenged to make "something other than trouble." Presented as the comic book-style adventures of siblings, Tucker and Celine, Howtoons offers step-by-step illustrated instructions for making rockets, ice cream , "the infamous Marshmallow Shooter," and more! An illustrated glossary follows. A great alternative to the boring science fair project book!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Mysterious Benedict Society

I purchased this book, by Trenton Lee Stewart, as a Christmas present for my daughter , based on a favorable review that I can no longer remember. The best review, however, was the incidence of my daughter bouncing into my room and onto my bed announcing that this book was "most awesome." She followed my passage through the book as eagerly as I read it, checking every day to see "what part" I had reached.

The Mysterious Benedict Society is long, 485 pages (486 if you count the riddle challenge from Mr. Benedict on the last page), but it is a quick read and never boring. Four orphaned children with disparate backgrounds are discovered and chosen for their exceptional and unique talents. The mysterious Mr. Benedict recruits them for a dangerous and challenging mission. Even the mission is shrouded in secrecy, it's exact aim unknown even to Mr. Benedict. The children must overcome their initial wariness of each other and pool their talents for the success of the mission. It is a story of friendship, bravery, daring, cleverness, and trust.

TMBS succeeds because it immediately draws the reader in to the story. As the children are tested to determine their worthiness to join in the adventure, the reader is tested as well. Each child passes the same tests, yet not in the same way. The reader finds himself plotting how he would pass the tests. How would he pass through the labyrinth without light? How would he solve the puzzling riddles posed by Mr. Benedict? The reader is one with the group that ultimately names itself, The Mysterious Benedict Society.

With trustworthy and level-headed Reynie, nervous and brilliant Sticky, resourceful and cheerful Kate, and obstinate and resolute Constance, the reader will be entertained, amused, educated and thrilled. A deeper look into this novel reveals the possibilities of media or governmental brainwashing (think 1984's "doublethink" or more recently- Feed), however most teens and pre-teens will likely be too engrossed in solving the mystery to take much note of the subtle undertext.

Part sci-fi, part mystery, all fun. The Mysterious Benedict Society will keep you guessing (literally) until the very end. And yes, I solved the final riddle. When my
daughter wakes up, that's the first thing that I'll tell her.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Motherbridge of Love

Knowing a young child adopted from China, I read this book with interest. Motherbridge of Love is a gentle, poetic look at the relationship between an adopted Chinese girl and her two mothers. The poem, written anonymously by a mother of an adopted Chinese daughter, is simple and affirming of both roles, "One gave you a body, the other taught you games. One gave you a talent. The other taught you aims." The front piece depicts the poem in Chinese characters, and a source note offers information on the charity, Mother Bridge of Love. (
The illustrations by Josee Masse are soft and weathered and inviting, showing beautiful nature-inspired scenes of the daughter and her mothers in China and the US.
A touching and heartfelt answer to an American Chinese child's question of "Where do I come from?" A book that is as beautiful to look at as it is to read.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Rabbit Hill

At the request of my son, who took the book out of his school library, I just finished reading Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson, first published in 1944 and Newbery Award winner in 1945. My son was having trouble with his book discussion questions, so I took time out to read his book so I could be helpful.

His complaint was that the book didn't follow the usual pattern of a problem, a solution, and a resolution - staples of his language arts class. I suggested that since the book is 64 years old, perhaps plots and themes were much different then. I eagerly anticipated a dip into the past as I read the book.

The past I found was an unpleasant one. The copy that my son checked out was from 1966. Animals walked "Indian file," and the African American cook, Sulphronia, was portrayed in an offensive and stereotypical manner. A quick search of the internet showed me that many schools use this title, and I was surprised to say the least. Further checking showed that all copies issued since 1970 have been edited to remove the offensive portrayals common at the time Rabbit Hill was written.

If a racially or ethnically insensitive book is to be left on the shelves for an elementary school reader, then it should be used as a "teaching moment," to comment on the positive changes made in society and the need for acceptance and tolerance.

What I think of the book is immaterial. What I learned is the importance of
  • knowing one's collection
  • remaining engaged in my children's learning experiences
  • and of course, weeding

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Baseball Treasures

Wong, Stephen. Baseball treasures. 2007. New York: Collins.

Well, I have to start somewhere, so I'll start with one of my greatest pleasures - baseball.

My son and I have been sharing this book aloud, skipping around the chapters - "Balls," "Baseball Cards" (we couldn't wait for Chapter 4, we had to read this one first!), etc.
Imagine our surprise as we read that one of the greatest baseball memorabilia collectors is our own family eye doctor! That explains the photos in the waiting room!

Stephen Wong has combined his obvious love of baseball with his experience in writing the adult book, Smithsonian Baseball, to create Baseball Treasures - a collector's look at balls, bats, gloves, jerseys, cards and other baseball memorabilia - pitched to fans ages 10 and up.

Art photographer, Susan Einstein's, superb photos of many of baseball's greatest treasures (including the legendary Honus Wagner card and Ty Cobb's 1927 jersey), accompany this comprehensive look at baseball collectibles. Although the cost of collecting is certainly mentioned throughout, (2.35 million for that Honus Wagner card!) it is apparent that Stephen Wong loves the game of baseball for its place in American history. Through these collectibles, he offers a glimpse into the storied past of baseball and its heroes.

A great book to read aloud with your baseball fan. A home run for baseball lovers.
I can hardly wait for my eye exam!

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 ...