Thursday, July 31, 2008

Amelia Rules! When the Past is a Present

Gownley, Jimmy. 2008. Amelia Rules! When the past is a present. Harrisburg, PA: Renaissance Press.

The review on the back cover reads, "Not only is it one of the finest comics of all time, it is one of the best examples of children's literature I have ever read." (Jim Rutkowski)

I'm not sure I'm willing to go that far, but I will say that I did enjoy this graphic novel in the Amelia Rules! series. I admit that I'm not a big fan on fiction graphic novels, but this one is funny and socially relevant. I have not read the other titles in the series, but I was able to pick up the story line easily as middle-schooler, Amelia, struggles with her parents divorce and her relocation. With the help of good friends and a loving family, Amelia not only manages, she rules!

The illustrations are varied in style. In keeping with the book's theme, "The past is a present," there are lifelike depictions of old newspapers, comic strips, and postcards. There is a scene regarding a war deployment that is starkly illustrated with white background. There are realistic and artful pages of outdoor scenes (Gownley has a particular talent for artfully illustrating sunlight), along with the more comedic scenes of everyday interactions between Amelia and her friends.

The best laugh in the book is the "Thank goodness you're open!" game. I loved it!

Lady Liberty: A Biography

Rappaport, Doreen. 2008. Lady Liberty: A biography. Ill. By Matt Tavares. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.

Lady Liberty is a biography of a national monument, a history of the myriad of people and events necessary to create one of the modern world’s most recognized symbols of freedom. Each “chapter” of this picture book consists of a short vignette about a person, related in some way to the Statue of Liberty. The vignettes are typeset like poetry, in narrow columns on the edge of the page, the illustrations receiving the majority of attention. Rappaport begins the book with a piece about herself, had her grandfather not told her stories of his flight from Latvia and his admiration for “The Lady,” the book would not have been written. From herself, Rappaport continues on - from Edouard De Laboulaye, who first envisioned the gift to America, to common Americans who donated pennies, nickels, dimes and even roosters (!) to raise money for the statue’s great base. Rappaport profiles poet Emma Lazarus (“bring me your tired, your poor, …”), sculptor Auguste Bartholdi, assistant Marie Simon, engineer Gustave Eiffel, construction supervisor Charles P. Stone, publisher Joseph Pulitzer, and journalist José Martí. Each story is written simply and majestically,

She wears a flowing robe
Like the ancient goddess Libertas.
Her right foot is raised.
Liberty walks.
Freedom never stands still.
A broken shackle and chain lie near her feet.
America broke the links of slavery
To fulfill its promise of equality for all.

The watercolor, ink, and pencil illustrations are all double spreads, with the exception of one lengthwise foldout of the completed statue after its initial unveiling, resplendent in its original copper coloring. Tavares’ illustrations are as varied as the scenes which they depict, a grim immigrant working to dig the massive hole for the statue’s foundation, a serious Joseph Pulitzer in his darkened office writing editorials to embarrass the nation’s elite into giving financial support for the statue’s installation, an enthusiastic New Jersey farm girl racing after the rooster she plans to donate to the cause of Lady Liberty.

Completing the book are remembrances from individual immigrants, dimensions of the statue, important events and dates, author’s and illustrator’s notes, and resources.

A beautiful book.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

DK Graphic Readers

I just finished reading two titles, Wagon Train Adventure and The Spy-Catcher Gang, both by John Kelly (2008) in the DK Graphic Readers series. The are classified by DK as Level 4 books for proficient readers.

I was disappointed in them both for several reasons. Graphic novels can be a great way to impart information in an engaging format. (see my earlier post on the 9/11 Commission Report)

A good graphic novel should rely on dialogue and illustrations. These titles are lacking in dialogue, and rely heavily on narration. In one scene of a near calamity on the wagon train trail to California, in two pages of illustrations, the dialogue consists only of "Arghh!" "This is Charles' fault!" and "Leave it, Max!" The illustrations are dreary and uninspired. Additionally, the stories themselves, do not contain crucial information necessary to truly comprehend the story of the pioneer wagon trains or the London Blitz. The most important information was not woven into the stories, rather it appears in a small print appendix or in barely visible (black letters on a blue, one-quarter inch footer) Did You Know? section at the bottom of each page.

Graphic novels certainly are a great tool for teaching or learning history. These DK Readers, however, are not up to the task.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau

Berne, Jennifer. 2008. Manfish: A story of Jacques Cousteau. Ill. by Eric Puybaret.

This is a softly and beautifully illustrated picture book biography of Jacques Cousteau. The illustrations were painted in acrylic on linen, and they are as soothing as the ocean life which they depict. Blues, greens, grays and shimmering silver take center stage in this short, but informative book. In illustrations showing human and marine life, marine life has an equal or greater presence - just as Cousteau would have liked.

The narrative is simple, yet compelling, detailing his first use of his invention, the "aqualung," Berne writes, "Below the surface, Jacques swam and glided and dove. He did flips and somersaults. He stood upside down on one finger, and laughed bubbles into the sea. Jacques could breathe beneath the water! Now he could swim across miles of ocean, his body feeling what only scales had felt, his eyes seeing what only fish had seen."

What a legacy! A great book!

Presidents FYI

Smithsonian. 2008. Presidents FYI. New York: Harper Collins.

Presidents FYI is another publication timed for the presidential election year. Written for the Smithsonian Institution, it is, as can be expected, an accurate and engaging look at each of the nation's presidents. With a page for each president (more for those who served additional terms), Presidents FYI offers a short biographical sketch with accompanying photos, paintings, newspaper articles, etc. At least one little-known fact is included in each entry, "James Madison was the smallest man ever elected president - just 5 feet 4 inches tall and only around 100 pounds." Or the entry from Andrew Jackson's page, at his White House inauguration party, "crowds of people smashed dishes, stood on the furniture, and fought over the punch. Jackson escaped from the party through a window and spent his first night as president in a hotel."

A glossary, additional resources, and information on the office of the presidency are also included.

This is a fine book for children seeking a quick glimpse into the life and times of the presidents, however, See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes and the Race to the White House or So You Want to be President? are much more entertaining and more humorously illustrated.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Juliet's Moon

Rinaldi, Ann. 2008. Juliet's moon. Orlando: Harcourt.

Juliet's Moon is a powerful and serious book about Juliet Bradshaw, a young teen living in 1863 Missouri, a state wrenched apart by the Civil War. Juliet's brother, Seth, is a a member of the famed Quantrill's Raiders. In retaliation for Quantrill's guerrilla raids, the Union Army burns the Bradshaw home. Juliet and other girls with "kin" in Quantrill's band are arrested and placed in a Union prison; but Juliet's trials do not end there. The story follows Juliet as the war heaps more danger, heartache and misery upon her.

Her brother, honest and caring, tries to make sense of the war, the inhumanity, the killings, "You live with it, eat with it, and walk with it every minute of your life for quite a while, Juliet. And then one day you find you aren't eating with it anymore and you think it's disappearing, but then it comes back just when you sit down to a good meal of steak and eggs."

Some of the plot lines seemed implausible, but truth can be stranger than fiction. The author's note that follows the story reveals that the most improbable occurrences in Juliet's Moon did, in fact, actually take place - a man masquerading as a woman in Quantrill's Confederate gang (the famous Sue Mundy) and the deadly structural collapse of a Union prison holding young, Southern, female civilians.

The story reads like a Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain for teens, starkly and honestly showing the wartime degradation of morality and the ever-fluctuating measure of integrity - not only as it affects combatants, but also civilians, and even young girls. But also like Cold Mountain, Juliet's Moon offers hopefulness in love, as Juliet finds comfort in her loving brother and his "intended."

The book jacket lists an age range of 10 and up, however, the predatory behavior of the soldiers toward the young girls, particularly Juliet, might be inappropriate. Best for ages 12 and up. Part of the Great Episodes series.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House

Goodman, Susan E. 2008. See how they run: Campaign dreams, election schemes, and the race to the White House. Ill. By Elwood H. Smith. New York: Bloomsbury.

A timely book about presidential campaigns, See How They Run is as entertaining as it is informative. This is a primer on campaign politics that explains the basics of presidential elections, as well as the other non-traditional routes to the presidency. (i.e., impeachment, resignation, assassination) The format is engaging and easy to understand, “when we vote for president and vice president, we’re actually voting for a person called an elector. Electors are the ones who elect the president. What’s going on here? How did the writers, or framers, of the Constitution come up with this one? Once again, our Founding Fathers were worried that the American public couldn’t’ or wouldn’t learn about the different candidates. Don’t forget back then people didn’t have TV news or even political parties to supply information. So they gave us electors, who would learn about the candidates and vote for us.” But don’t let this simple explanation lead you to believe that See How They Run glosses over the rough spots. Goodman helps young readers to understand third party politics (“Party Crashers”), election financing and campaigning, (“George Washington ran fro the Virginia state legislature twice and lost twice. The third time was the charm. In 1758, he treated voters to 160 gallons of alcohol and got elected!”), and other more notorious events in presidential campaigning (the Watergate break-in and the famous Boss Tweed, “vote early and often”)

Humorous cartoons by Elwood Smith break up the text and teach political satire. Photos of famous movers, shakers, and candidates are featured as insets, as well as blocks featuring the wisdom of Ben Franklin, “nothing but money is sweeter than honey.”

See How They Run concludes with “A Preachy but True Ending,” a plea for young people to take an interest in the political process.

This should be required reading for 4th grade to adult!

Contains an introduction, five chapters, presidential facts and photos, a glossary, sources and resources, and an index.

Monday, July 21, 2008

My Baby & Me

Reiser, Lynn. 2008. My baby & me. Ill. by Penny Gentieu. New York: Knopf.

New babies may seem like they can't do much, but My Baby & Me will convince any child that his new sibling can be great delight! With simple text,

You can crawl?
Watch me go. I go fast -
You go slow!

I can read.
Here's my book.
I can show you.
Look, look, look!

older siblings can see the joy of having a younger brother or sister. Side-by-side with building blocks, bottles, sipper cups, car seats, and blocks, siblings are depicted spending time with each other.

The photographs by Penny Gentieu are superb! Each double-page spread has a single color background that does not detract from the photos of brother/sister, sister/sister and brother/brother combinations. Photos show children with diverse racial backgrounds, and the they patiently and soothingly depict the reality of having an infant sibling. There are no forced poses or smiles. These are photos of earnest infants looking, laughing. and pondering with an older sibling - and no insinuation that they can do much more. And yet, My Baby & Me is able to convey the loving bond between very young children and new siblings.

Adam Canfield

Winerip, Michael. 2007. Adam Canfield: Watch your back!
Winerip, Michael. 2005. Adam Canfield of the Slash.

A quick post on these two titles...I have not read either of them, however, my now 13-year-old daughter has read them both and recommends them. Despite its small print and length, 329 pages, she finished the newest book in one weekend - in my opinion, a sure sign of a good book.

Adam Canfield is the co-editor of his Elementary/Middle School newspaper, The Slash. In the latest book, Adam Canfield does more than report the stories, he is the story, after he is mugged. My daughter's only complaint is that the plot formula for the two books is the same, but she enjoyed them nonetheless. I'll put these on my "to read" list.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me

Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me
Grifalconi, Ann. 2007. Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me. Ill. by Jerry Pinkney. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 13 9780786818570.

In Ain’t Nobody a Stranger to Me, loosely based on historical persons, a Grandfather shares with his young granddaughter his tale of escape from Southern slavery with his wife and baby. He recalls the helpfulness of strangers on the Underground Railroad, including Quaker James Stanton. His sense of gratitude has shaped his belief that “ain’t nobody a stranger.” The story appears to be set in the 1930s.

Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me is a story of fortitude, gratitude, forgiveness, and a spirit of optimism. As a slave, Gran'pa collected apple seeds in hope of a day that he might be free to plant them on his own land as a free man. He tells of his flight to freedom and the generosity of strangers. Grifalconi tells this story in a manner appropriate to introduce this heartbreaking topic to young children. The text expresses Gran'pa's belief in the goodness of mankind and his faith in God. "We had to put our trust in the Good Lord. We'd set our hearts right, and along the way help came when we needed it."The darker aspects of slavery and the dangers of the Underground Railroad are expressed not in words, but in Jerry Pinkney's line and watercolor paintings. The harrowing escape of Gran'pa his wife and baby, and their subsequent struggle to survive as free people are depicted in shades of browns and greys, evoking dark moments. The expressive eyes of Grandfather and his wife in these scenes are alternately fearful, wary, and weary. In contrast, the scenes of Gran'pa with his granddaughter are joyful colors and expressions of tenderness and love. In a colorful and heartwarming ending, Gran'pa and the young girl eat apples in the orchard he planted as a freed man. The apple blossoms are a riot of cheerful pink, and the young girl plants a new seed and promises to remember.

Grifalconi's story is a solid, age-appropriate (5-9) introduction to the Underground Railroad, however her choice of story delivery is awkward at times. Grandfather's story is told within the confines of the girl's first person account, and the girl often speaks in language styles that are conflicting or unusual for a young girl (Black or White) in the 1930s or any time period. In quoted passages, she speaks in a voice more typical of a Black child from the South in the 1930s. "They be from our stone cellar, Grandpa?" and "...could I one day plant me a seed of memory here, too?" In other passages, she speaks as an educated adult, "He grinned happily down at me" and "Soon, the spring air began to carry the fresh, sweet smell of apple blossoms to us." The frequent switching of dialect and narrator may be confusing to readers.

Jerry Pinkey's credentials as an African American illustrator are numerous and impressive. The jacket notes that he has "illustrated more than one hundred books for children" and is the recipient of Caldecott Honors, Coretta Scott King Awards, and more. His artwork for this story sets the period (a horse-drawn ice wagon, long-skirted women with hats and boots) and sets the tone (the darkness of hiding, the green grass of freedom). Kirkus Reviews refers to an "author's note" explaining the attribution of the title phrase, "Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me." The book, however, does not contain any author's notes. The dust jacket only explains that the phrase was inspired by former slave, Orleans Finger. Overall, this book can be recommended on the basis of Pinkney's expressive artwork and Grifalconi's presentation of a difficult picture book topic.

This is a picture book that can be used to introduce older students (3rd and 4th grades) to the Underground Railroad experience.

A follow-up to the story can be an exploration of the excellent National Geographic site that allows for a guided, interactive journey from slavery to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Pair this book with Caldecott Honor Book, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherfield, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Bugtown Boogie

Hanson, Warren. 2008. Bugtown Boogie. Ill by Steve Johnson & Lou Fancher.

A jazzy, rhyming, buggy, picture book with great illustrations. Bugtown Boogie has great possibilites for storytime, but I think it will take practice to get the rhythm down pat. Like the Jazz Fly by Matthew Golub, this book is probably best when read by the author. I use the Jazz Fly in audio book format because Golub reads it so well. I would love to hear Warren Hanson read this one!

Shooting the Moon

Dowell, Frances O'Roark. 2008. Shooting the Moon. New York: Atheneum.

Atheneum has another great book and Junior Library Guild selection in Shooting the Moon, the story of twelve-year-old, Jamie Dexter whose brother is about to leave for Vietnam.

This is another historical fiction novel; this one taking place during the Vietnam War. Jamie is an Army brat. Her father is a Colonel, her mother is a dutiful and cheerful Army wife, and her older brother, TJ, has just enlisted. For a child born on a German Army base and raised on a steady diet of hooah and little green army men, life could not be much better. But as she volunteers at the base rec center and learns to develop the rolls of film arriving steadily from her brother, she begins to realize that life and love and war are more complicated than the "Army way" had taught her to believe.

Shooting the Moon, (titled for her brother's penchant for taking photos of the moon), is a slow and thoughtful look at a difficult period in US History. Neither irreverent, nor uber-patriotic, Shooting the Moon can be read quickly, but will not be easily forgotten.

The Traitors' Gate

Avi. 2007. The traitors' gate. New York: Atheneum.

So many books, so little time - especially with summer reading in full swing, so I've tried to choose my summer reading books carefully. Avi's name appears on many school summer reading lists, so I tried out another of his latest books, The Traitors' Gate.

The Traitors' Gate is an historical fiction mystery that brings Dickensian London to life in a plot with as many twists and turns as the mean streets of the Rookery of St. Giles, a downtrodden neighborhood where fourteen-year-old John Huffam takes refuge with Sary the Sneak. Scotland Yard, the Tower of London, London's famous fog, debtors' prison, shabby butlers, spies, sneaks and traitors - they're all here in this richly developed story.

The mysterious Mr. O'Doul has filed a writ against John's father which threatens to send him to the notorious debtor's prison at Whitehall. But who is this Mr. O'Doul? And why is Scotland Yard investigating? Why is John being followed? Will Great Aunt Lady Euphemia Huffman assist the family in its dire circumstances? Young John Huffman has more questions than answers and the plot thickens every day,

"I had often - surely by my mother - been accused of having far too much fancy for my own good. But at that moment I was quite convinced that no one was telling me the truth!"

John must untangle the web of lies, deceit, and subterfuge on his own in this compelling mystery.

Avi, a fan of Charles Dickens, pays him homage in this thoughtful mystery set in the underbelly of London society in the late 1840s.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Carl's Summer Vacation

Day, Alexandra. 2008. Carl's summer vacation. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

This is another in a series of books about Carl, the lovable Rottweiler. In this nearly wordless picture book, Carl and Madeleine are sent off for a nap so that they'll be ready for the evening's fireworks, however, while Mom and Dad think they're napping, Carl and Madeleine are enjoying a summer adventure. They canoe (and tip over!), pick berries (and run from skunks!), swing, slide, picnic, and even play baseball! Mom and Dad just can't understand why they're too tired to watch the fireworks.

This is a delightful story, however, the illustrations are the true charm of this book that has a decidedly "old-fashioned" look and feel.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Presidency and The Supreme Court

Christine Taylor-Butler has two new books on American government, both published by Scholastic in 2008, The Presidency and The Supreme Court.

An advance warning :my review may be slightly biased by the fact that I am a huge fan of governmental literacy in children.

These two short books (each under 50 pages) both follow a similar format. They contain Find the Truth!, Contents, Chapters, The BIG Truth, True Statistics, Resources, Important Words, Index, and About the Author.

Find the Truth! is a challenge and a clever hook to hold the reader's interest. The reader is confronted with two sentences, and advised of the following, "Everything you are about to read is true except for one of the sentences on this page. Which one is TRUE?" The two statements do not reveal any obvious truth, and the average student will need to read on to discover whether or not George Washington was paid to be president. He wasn't. (Although he was offered a sum equivalent to $500,000.00 in today's wages - more than our current president makes!)

The chapters cover the basics of each topic in a manner easily understood by younger readers, "Once he or she takes office, the president is in charge of the country's relations with the rest of the world. The president leads the people when disasters occur. He or she heads the military. The president also makes sure the laws of the United States Constitution are followed."

The Big Truth is a double spread inset. For The Presidency, it's a floor plan of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, noting the facts most interesting to students. e.g., the pool, movie theater, bowling alley and three kitchens. For The Supreme Court, it's The Case of the Close Call - a simple explanation of the Supreme Court's role in the 2000 presidential election.

In addition to Find the Truth! and the easy reading style, these two books are loaded with photos, charts, graphs, maps, and images of paintings realia, and more. All images are captioned, most in red. The majority of the text is in a large, simple font, although numerous sections are highlighted or inset.

If these books don't inspire interest in national government, then nothing will. Hopefully teachers will find and use these books for grades 4-8.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Garden State Children's Book Award Nominees 2009

I just noticed that several of the books I've reviewed lately have been chosen as nominees for the Garden State Children's Book Award.

In the fiction category, I've recently reviewed The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin, Regarding the Bathrooms, by Kate Klise, and Punished by David Lubar. All were great books, but my favorite was definitely Regarding the Bathrooms by Kate Klise. (search this blog by author or title to see my reviews)

I'll be trying to read more of the choices, however, looking over the list, I have a feeling that Captain Underpants the the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People might be a fan favorite!

I'll post more on non-fiction and easy readers.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Otto Runs for President

Wells, Rosemary. 2008. Otto runs for president. New York: Scholastic.

Otto Runs for President is timely picture book entry into the presidential campaign season. Although slightly too advanced for the youngest picture book readers, Wells’ book is an excellent introduction into the politics, rather than the procedure, of choosing a president.

The Barkadelphia School is choosing a new president. Tiffany, the popular poodle is sure that she’ll win. Charles, the sporty bulldog is equally confident. Both candidates start out campaigning for their pet issues, “Eyebrow Pencils in our Pencil Kits! VOTE TIFFANY!” “Soda in the Water Fountains! VOTE CHARLES!” then quickly slide down the slippery slope of dirty politics, “The next morning, Post-it notes appeared on all the lockers.” “Charles…did he cheat on a math test? Who has fast fingers and sneaky eyes?” “Mysterious flyers appeared in the cafeteria that afternoon.” “Tiffany! Did she spend your class dues on hair spray?”

Meanwhile, quiet and deliberate Otto throws his hat into the ring. Campaigning the old-fashioned way, Otto meets with his classmates one at a time, asking their concerns. It won’t take a genius to find out who wins on Election Day.

The dogs of Barkadelphia School are drawn in Rosemary Wells’ signature style. Some of the story is told in the form of bumper stickers and Post-it notes on a background of blue lockers. Most pages have white space backgrounds, framed by humorous borders of paw prints, burgers, (“Whoppo Burgers in the Cafeteria! Vote Charles!”) and Post-its.

This is a great book, because it reinforces all the best of democratic government, while simultaneously introducing the darker side in a humorous and non-threatening manner.

Best for K-2.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Hesse, Karen. 2001. Witness. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 0439271991

Plot Summary:
Witness is an account of a small Vermont town's experience with the Ku Klux Klan in 1924. The story is told in verse. Eleven disparate residents of the fictional town offer first person accounts of life after the Klan arrives. A small Jewish girl and her father, and a young African-American girl are the first of the Klan's targets, but the Klan's activities leave no one untouched.

Critical Analysis:
Witness is a narrative of the KKK’s infiltration of a small Vermont town in 1924. It is written in free verse through the voices of eleven different residents. The verse is largely without capitalization or punctuation, using line breaks instead to separate thoughts. Through the largely first-person accounts, each the character of each of the residents is revealed.

Esther, a six-year-old Jewish girl, and Leonora, a twelve-year-old African American girl tell much of the story. The voice of Leonora, an obvious target of the Klan is compelling. The reader senses her fear as she hides in a closet but finds no escape from the specter of a cross-burning. The speech patterns of Esther may be difficult for some readers to comprehend. Her unusual speech may be mistaken for simple-mindedness; however, it is more likely representative of a recent immigrant’s dialect, and is symbolic of her innocence. The voices of Harvey and Viola Pettibone, however, are the most intriguing. The Pettibone’s are middle-aged shop owners. Theirs is the only verse that contains back-and-forth dialogue as they debate the Klan’s value, effect, influence, and activities in the intimate dialogue of husband and wife.

Although Horn Book dismissed the protagonists as stereotypes (Hepperman 2001), the use of stereotypes is necessary to illustrate the myriad of opinions as the Klan’s influence extends throughout the town. Streaming, free-form verse unfolds the innermost thoughts of the characters, revealing the influences of fear, peer pressure, guilt, conviction, and uncertainty on their behavior.

Witness begins with a Carl Sandburg quote, followed by a Cast of Characters list, and the five acts of the book. Until the characters (including the doctor, preacher, newspaper editor, rumrunner, and others) are established, the Cast of Characters is a welcome reference. Aged photographic renderings of the fictional characters help the reader to distinguish them further.

Vermont is not the usual setting for tales of the KKK and the ugliness of racism and bigotry. Witness tells an ugly chapter of history from an unusual perspective that will intrigue readers. The tale is both disturbing and hopeful. Readers will find it believable and memorable.

Review Excerpts:
In the September 2001, School Library Journal, authors Persson, et al, wrote, "...includes some quiet yet irreducible moments that resonate long after the book is put down. The small details seem just right, and demonstrate that this is much more than a social tract. It's a thoughtful look at people and their capacity for love and hate."

Writing for Horn Book Magazine, Christine Hepperman, had a different view of Witness, writing in the Nov/Dec 2001 issue, "Karen Hesse's latest free-verse novel employs eleven different voices to record the Ku Klux Klan's effects on a Vermont town in 1924, with dubious success. The fictional cast, comprising two children and nine adults, is introduced with sepia-toned photographs to boost their verisimilitude and help sort out who's who. Yet many still feel more like types than complex individuals."

Readers who enjoy this book will also enjoy Hesse's Newbery Award winning title Out of the Dust.

The short verse entries and multiple voices, make Witness and excellent choice for reader's theater. Readers should be encouraged to delve into the characters and find the motivation for their behaviors.

The Earth Dragon Awakes

Yep, Laurence. 2006. The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 13: 9780060275242.

It is Tuesday, April 17, 1906, and two boys separate for the evening. Chin heads for home in his Chinatown tenement building, riding the cable car with his father, Chinese "houseboy", Ah Sing. Henry settles in the for the night at his Nob Hill home, now that his parents are home from the opera. Neither is aware of the earthquake that will strike within hours. The Earth Dragon Awakes chronicles the story of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire through the parallel stories of Henry and Chin.

The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 is a historical fiction novel for young readers, by Newbery Honor winner, Laurence Yep. The short chapters are titled with a time, date, and location stamp, “5:12 A.M., Wednesday, April 18, 1906, Chin and Ah Sing’s tenement, Chinatown.” The story line is clear and linear, beginning on the eve of the great quake, and ending ten days later.
Yep’s genius is in telling parallel stories of the two friends, Henry Travis, son of a White banker, and Chin, the son of Henry’s houseboy, Ah Sing. When the story begins, Ah Sing and Chin are watching Henry while his parents attend the opera. As the Chinese pair leaves Nob Hill, their tale begins to diverge from the Travis’. Chin and his father travel by streetcar to Chinatown, where, although it is now midnight, the streets are still bustling as Chinese workers attend to their errands after a long day’s work. Chin and Ah Sing purchase Chinese newspapers and buy apples. Ah Quon, their neighbor, is leaving the temple. Authentic Chinese names are used throughout. Other cultural markers are less obvious, but no less authentic.

In the tenement, Chin can hear “the clacking of mahjong tiles,” and “twisted cable-car tracks look like the strokes of a mysterious, dreadful word.” (A footnote explains that a Chinese character is representative of a word)

The book’s title, The Earth Dragon Awakes, is suggestive of this culture’s historical usage of folkloric creatures. When Ah Quon warns that the Earth Dragon is upset, Ah Sing notes, “The Earth Dragon has shaken the city before,” “We’re still holding on to his back.” Chin silently asks the “Earth Dragon to keep his temper.” A dragon symbol denotes each new chapter. In another instance of personification, “fear twists inside Chin like a snake.”

A perfect example of the dichotomy of the American and Chinese American cultures lies within the story itself. Western literature is typically conflict and resolution. The Travis family’s story in the face of the disaster is one of resoluteness. At first they attempt to stay in their destroyed neighborhood, willing to suffer deprivation and hardship. Only when their situation becomes untenable, do they begin moving – vowing to rebuild and return. The focus of their resolution is to conquer their hardship. Ah Sing and Chin’s goal, however, is to adapt and to continue. As soon as the disaster befalls, they immediately decide to press on to safety, placing survival and continuance foremost. They are decidedly adaptable in their quest – even taking on a short job as wagon loaders to earn money for their ship passage to safety. Conquering the Earth Dragon would not be a culturally authentic outlook for Ah Sing and Chin.

A modernizing aside to the text is the addition of a small footnote in the last chapter. After reading that twenty thousand people have fled San Francisco by boat, and 225,000 more by train, the reader is directed to a footnote, “Never before have so many people left an American city in peacetime – until Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.” The addition of this small footnote serves as a reminder of the huge proportions of both tragedies, but also of the possibility for recovery.

As one reviewer noted, the book’s theme of “ordinary heroes” is a bit didactic, “These are ordinary people Henry sees every day. “They’re acting just like heroes,’ he says to his mother.” This is a minor flaw, however, and children will likely ignore the heavy handedness. Scientific explanations of the earthquake and resulting firestorm may be very interesting to some readers, but are so neatly woven into the story, that they are not distracting to those less scientifically inclined.

Yep’s Afterword is especially interesting, placing the Great Earthquake and Fire in terms that modern youngsters can understand, explaining that in 1906, “fourteen dollars could comfortably feed for people for a week,” then outlining the cost of the disaster in 1906 and current year dollars. He also notes which of the story’s anecdotes are factual, including people stopping “a runaway horse by flapping umbrellas at it.” Yep personalizes the book by relating that his own grandfather was a Chinese houseboy who was returning to San Francisco from China on the day following the earthquake. His grandfather was detained at the immigration center for seven days. A suggested reading list and six photographs of the quake’s aftermath (sure to interest young readers) close out the book.

With its focus on the two boys, the earthquake and the fire, The Earth Dragon Awakes is an excellent choice for middle-school aged boys (or girls) who may otherwise be disinterested in multicultural literature. The vocabulary is simple; and the uncomplicated story of one of the nation’s most famous disasters will be sure to hold the interest of the less sophisticated reader.

Bring in a mahjong set to show. Use it as an opportunity to introduce this piece of Chinese culture and its motif of Chinese characters.

The Earth Dragon Awakes is particularly well suited for cross curricular use - in language arts as a reluctant reader novel, in Social Studies to complement immigration history, and in Science to aid in the study of plate tectonics.

Readers interested in Chinatown may enjoy Yep's series, Chinatown Mysteries.

The Afterlife

Soto, Gary. 2003. The afterlife. Harcourt.

The Afterlife, by prolific and acclaimed author, Gary Soto, is both a serious and a humorous look at the meaning of a life. Upon his demise, Chuy is able to view his world from a new perspective, both literally and figuratively, as he floats above his hometown of Fresno.

He sees the distress of his friends and family, but notes that he will soon be forgotten, “a photo in a yearbook, nada más”. He realizes the value of a single life, as he tries with mixed success to save the life of a homeless man. He learns the uselessness of revenge as he faces his murderer. He meets Crystal, a ghost who may be his true love.

Characteristic of his short life, Chuy is able to float through the afterlife with a sense of wonder as well as a sense of humor. Watching the police break up a loud fighting couple, Chuy kicks back in the couple’s recliner, feet up. “This was better than a telenovela.” Later, unable to eat or drink, he spies a pot of coffee at his home, “I can’t believe it…I hadn’t even lived long enough to have coffee.”

In the end, the only answers to the mystery of the afterlife are the answers that Chuy finds for himself. He continues his journey; not regretful, but grateful.

The Afterlife is an intralingual young adult novel, liberally peppered with Spanish words and phrases. The use of Spanish gives color and authenticity to the story, however those readers unfamiliar with any Spanish words may find themselves constantly flipping to the included glossary. Other cultural markers in the story include a strong connection to the Roman Catholic faith, the close relationships between family and close family friends, and frequent references to typical Mexican foods. The Afterlife is not a stereotypical Mexican story featuring holidays, immigrants, migrants or food. Rather, The Afterlife is a fine example of Hispanic Literature that embraces the Mexican culture, yet appeals to any audience.


Justine. Published by Justeen, LLC

I reviewed this magazine last year and I'm pleased to see that it's still doing well. The subscription price has not changed, and its website just keeps getting better. In fact, the latest addition to the website is "Spark: Where Girls and Books Ignite," an online book club. What librarian doesn't love that? If you're tired of Cosmo Girl, Seventeen, and the rest, check out Justine, reviewed below.

“Teens … Real teens….Just teens” is the tag line for the bimonthly magazine with the clever name, Justine. Publisher and Editorial Director, Jana Kerr Petty, promises that Justine is “positive and uncompromising,” “with a focus on a healthy lifestyle.”
( The $14.95 per year subscription price is higher than the price for rival magazines, Teen and the industry leader, Seventeen, however Justine appears ready to take on the long-time favorites, billing itself as “the new teen in town.” The June/July 2007 cover features an attractive blond model, an inset of celebrity Mandy Moore, feature article teasers, and a top banner touting an exclusive interview with Bonnie Wright, of Harry Potter fame. Placed side by side with Seventeen magazine, it’s difficult to tell them apart. The higher subscription price can most likely be attributed to the very minimal amount of advertising in Justine.

Justine contains six focus areas – features, “just’beauty,” “just’style,” “just’life,” “just’media,” and “just’give.” True to its publisher’s promise, Justine shuns celebrity dirt in favor of uplifting celebrity stories, and the positive message reveals itself in activism (Dollars for Darfur, for example) and athlete profiles. This wholesome message, however, does not necessarily spell “uncool” for YA readers. Justine contains the beauty tips, fashion advice, and celebrity bios (Corbin Bleu of High School Musical) de rigueur for a publication of this type. Reviews of books, movies, music and technology, round out the serial’s offerings. Judging by content and the average age of letters written to the editor, the target audience for Justine is teenaged girls, aged fourteen to seventeen. It will be interesting to see if this fairly new magazine will have staying power.

Genius: A Photobiography of Albert Einstein

Marfe´ Ferguson Delano. Genius: A Photobiography of Albert Einstein
64pp. National Geographic 3/05 ISBN 0-7922-9544-7 $17.95
(Intermediate, Middle School)

The “genius” of this photobiography is its portrayal of Einstein, the man, in addition to Einstein, the genius. The photographs, ranging from grade school photos and the neighborhood in the Italian Alps where he frequently played hooky, to an aging Einstein riding a bicycle with wild hair flying, were expertly chosen to portray Einstein as a very human and fun-loving individual. Even in the staid portrait-style photos, one can almost sense a hidden smile waiting to emerge. Each photo is accompanied by a caption or a quote designed to spark the interest of young readers, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world.” The abundant text recounts his life and his groundbreaking discoveries, but more importantly, the thought process leading to his important revelations. On gravitational theory, “If a person falls freely, he won’t feel his own weight.” “What would you see if you could hitch a ride on a beam of light?” On nuclear weapons, he concluded that “organized power can be opposed only by organized power,” prompting his decision to alert President Roosevelt to the possibility of a German atomic bomb.

Genius accurately recounts the amazing phenomena that Albert Einstein was and is, his well-known likeness irreverently used “to sell everything from candy to cola,” his image even found on bobble-head dolls! Despite Einstein’s admission that he gave up playing violin because, “with the passage of years, it has become more and more unbearable for me to listen to my own playing,” Caltech University saw fit to honor him with a violin-playing Einstein gargoyle, pictured on the last page. The final humanizing touch in Genius - a letter from an admirer, “Dear Mr. Einstein, I am a little girl of six. I saw your picture in the paper. I think you ought to have your haircut, so you can look better. Cordially yours, Ann G. Kocin.” Albert Einstein, Time magazine’s Person of the Century, took it all in stride.

Summer of the Swans

Byars, Betsy. 1970. Summer of the Swans.

This 1970 Newbery Award winner is still showing up on school summer reading lists, so as I’ve been scrambling to order enough books for all the local school children, I took the opportunity to place a hold on Summer of the Swans for myself.

Summer of the Swans is the classic story of Sara, a young, angst-filled teenager, who lives with her brain-damaged younger brother, Charlie, her older sister, Wanda, and her Aunt Willie. In the midst of a difficult summer in which Sara struggles with her self-confidence and indeed, her sense of self, she learns, through Charlie’s disappearance, the importance and true measure of love, family, and self.

This is a timeless story; although, because of its age (first published in 1970 with numerous reprintings), it can almost read as historical fiction. Sara’s friend, Mary, does her hair up in “rollers” to attend a party. Charlie is called “retarded.” Aunt Willie, flustered by Charlie’s disappearance, makes an “operator-assisted” call; and there are references to The Jolly Green Giant, Gentle Ben, and Green Acres. When I asked a young colleague if she knew of these television icons of the 60s and 70s, she assumed that they were books. I wondered if the book still has resonance for a generation reared on iTunes and Wii. My daughter, however, affirmed for me that Summer of the Swans (required reading in her school), was a great book. I agree – a gentle, timeless, positive novel.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux
DiCamillo, Kate. 2006. The Tale of Despereaux: Being the tale of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. Ill. by Timothy Basil Ering. New York: Scholastic.
ISBN 0439 692202

I thought I'd post this old review because The Tale of Despereaux is due out soon as a movie. I saw the previews the other night. My daughter and I both thought that, given the wonderful cinematic opportunity that this book offers, the previews did not look promising. The characters appear much too "cute." Perhaps it will be better than we think. I hope so. The book, however, is on.

Plot Summary:
The Tale of Despereaux is a fairy tale with an unlikely hero in Despereaux, the undersized mouse who falls in love with Pea, the beautiful princess. The lives of Pea, Despereaux, the king, a rat, a serving girl, a cook, a jailer, a prisoner, and a host of mice and rats are entwined in this tale of adversity, triumph, and forgiveness.

Critical Analysis:
The Tale of Despereaux: Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread is a modern fantasy with many of the elements of high fantasy. Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery award-winning title blends anthropomorphism, heroism, the battle between good and evil, and a forgotten age into a delightful tale. The story’s unlikely hero is Despereaux, a diminutive mouse who falls in love with Pea, a human princess. The tale is divided into four books, the first three tell the tales of Despereaux, the serving girl Miggery Sow, and Roscuro the rat; the fourth brings them all together in the struggle between light and dark.

Despereaux’s honesty, humbleness, and earnestness draw the reader in immediately, as does the story’s narrator, who frequently entreats and enlightens the reader. “What will become of her? You must, frightened though you may be, read on and see for yourself. Reader, it is your duty.” When Despereaux’s brother encourages him to nibble on a book from the king’s library, he replies, “I couldn’t possibly……It would ruin the story.” He revels in the stories of “once upon a time,” and fancies himself a knight (although armed with a sewing needle, rather than a sword)"I honor you!" he shouts out to Pea, while scampering away from her angry father's big foot.

The theme of the story is light vs. darkness, both literally and figuratively. The Princess, the castle, and soup (!) are light and goodness; the dungeon and the rats are darkness and evil. Despereaux, fond of music and good books, and prone to fainting spells is on a heroic, almost Quixotic quest, to first save himself and then the princess. He is marked for death by the red thread of the Mouse Council, of which his own father is a member. In the dungeon he encounters a jailer, a prisoner, and the rats. A subplot involves a serving girl, Miggery Sow,who wishes to supplant the princess, and the devious rat, Roscuro.

Despereaux is loyal, courageous, and valiant (fainting spells notwithstanding), but the tale’s true message is that of forgiveness. Despereaux’s small size is not indicative of his big heart. He forgives his father for pronouncing his death, even before his safety has been secured. The princess, too, forgives the rat, Roscuro, the very rat that caused her mother’s death by falling into her soup. They may not all live “happily ever after,” but those who seek it will find some measure of salvation.

The story is funny and enchanting – a quick and thoroughly enjoyable read, but it has a message as well….the power of honesty and forgiveness for redemption. (Delicately and humorously illustrated in black and white sketches by Timothy Basil Ering)

Review Excerpts:
In the August 2003, issue of School Library Journal (Jones, Toth, et al), write "In her observations of the political machinations and follies of rodent and human societies, she reminds adult readers of George Orwell. But the unpredictable twists of plot, the fanciful characterizations, and the sweetness of tone are DiCamillo's own. This expanded fairy tale is entertaining, heartening, and, above all, great fun."

My 11-year old daughter liked the book because she enjoyed "reading the same story from everyone's point of view."

For readers enjoying this book, suggest Kate DiCamillo's newest book, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

The Tale of Despereaux is a great read-aloud for school.

The Scholastic website, suggests writing letters of encouragment to Despereaux. This could be a fun activity to do before the ending is revealed.

Friday, July 4, 2008


Took the kids to see Wall-E last night. It's rated G, however, I don't think that very young children will really understand it, or enjoy it. As cute as Wall-E is, he cannot compensate for the fact the movie has a very serious message. The movie takes place in the distant future. Earth has been overcome by the excesses of its people who, in turn, have abandoned the planet and taken refuge aboard a spaceship. Generations of passed and Earth's people, waited on and pampered by robots and AI computers, have grown fat, complacent and unable to think for themselves. Back on Earth, only the robot, Wall-E, and a cockroach remain. That is, until the auto bot, Eva, arrives searching for signs of life to signal the possibility of return.

Wall-E, the movie, is touching, timely and entertaining - but I don't think the pre-school set will enjoy anything more than the marketing blitz. Bring on the poorly written, cheaply made books - Wall-E has arrived. Sigh.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Battle of the Labyrinth

Riordan, Rick. 2008. The battle of the labyrinth. New York: Hyperion.

Although I did not read books 2 and 3, I was able to pick up the story line for the Battle of the Labyrinth easily. Of course, being book 4, the novelty of the modern day Olympian has worn off, but the series still has a loyal following. There are the usual jokes and a few plot twists. In this installment, Percy Jackson, half-blood son of the Greek god, Poseidon, embarks on a quest with his friend Annabeth into Daedalus' labyrinth. Some of the plot lines seem familiar - a master weapon being re-forged (Lord of the Rings), a dark lord being re-formed (Harry Potter series), but this just illustrates the timeless nature of the Greek myths. This is another solid entry in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

The upcoming movie, "The Lightning Thief," should spur renewed interest in the entire series. Rick Riordan's website shows that he is committed to promote reading. He knows how to connect with kids.


Lee, Suzy. 2008. Wave. San Francisco: Chronicle.

The dust jacket says it all, "A sunny day. A curious little girl. A playful wave." This is a delightful, wordless narrative of a young girl's experience at the beach. Like children everywhere, she is alternately brave, fearful, experimental, playful, defiant, and contemplative when facing the ocean's never-ending march to the shore. The wave has its own moods as well - tentative, playful, menacing, calm, peaceful. Seagulls and a remotely watchful adult add interest, but do not detract from the featured cast - a girl and a wave. The illustrations are simply, yet expressively rendered in shades of gray and blue, created in charcoal and acrylics. A perfect book for sharing.

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 ...