Tuesday, August 26, 2008

So You Want to Be President

St. George, Judith. 2000. So You Want to Be President. Ill. by David Small. New York: Philomel Books. ISBN 0399234071

Plot Summary:
So You Want to Be President is a collection of facts about our nation's presidents. Some of the facts are well-known - Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin; some are not - Andrew Johnson couldn't read until he was fourteen. The book also offers a glimpse into the duties of the president and shows the great variety and humanity in the men who have inhabited the White House.

Critical Analysis:
So You Want to Be President is chock full of the kind of fun facts that will interest young readers. Heights, weights, dancing ability, speeding tickets and duels are all covered. The facts are presented in a way that engages the reader and brings history to his level. (e.g. "Do you have pesky brothers and sisters? Every one of our Presidents did.")

The front and end papers are decorated with caricatures of the presidents, and much of the bibliographic information is located at the end of the book. This gives the reader the opportunity to enter directly into the fun, without paging through the copyright and publishing information.

The substantial text is in a smaller typeface which leaves plenty of room for busy illustrations, making use of positive space. The Presidents are drawn in caricature style, and are shown in both formal and embarrassing situations. Double-page spreads are used frequently to show a humorous situation or to depict many Presidents in the same setting. Readers will likely want to go through this book again and again, just to be sure that they haven't missed anything in these cartoon-style illustrations.

The only negative to this book, is that it may be passed over by older readers who will view the cover and assume that it's not meant for the independent reader. In truth, this book's engaging facts and illustrations should be able to satisfy readers as old as fifth or sixth grade.

Review Excerpts:
In the July/August 2000, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Kate McDowell wrote, "While accounts of particular presidents abound, rarely are they as entertaining as this collective biography of chief executives."

This book makes a great introduction to Presidential biographies. Children's interest in lesser known presidents may be piqued by the little-known facts.

Follow up a reading of this book with a reader's theater performance of "The Field Trip to Remember," or "Ask the Presidents,"

Visit the official White House site for kids,

The Hello, Goodbye Window

Juster, Norton. 2005. The Hello, Goodbye Window. Ill. by Chris Raschka. New York: Hyperion Books. ISBN 0786809140

Plot Summary:
The plot in this Caldecott Medal winning book is simple. The story is an account of a child's day spent at her grandparent's home while her parents are working. She relates a typical day, focusing on the "hello goodbye" window, the window in the front of her grandparent's home through which she enjoys the view from both the inside and the outside throughout the day and early evening hours.

Critical Analysis:
This tale is told in the first person in a tone that should be quite believable to small children. The little girl says "I get tired I come in and take my nap and nothing happens until I get up." This is one of my favorite lines in the book because I remember my own daughter being absolutely shocked to find out that Mom and Dad ate ice cream while she was sleeping! Norton Juster clearly understands a child's perspective.

The "hello goodbye window" is an integral part of the setting, both in the text and illustrations. The window represents reality, fantasy, and imagination. She sees her grandparents through the window as her parents prepare to drop her off. She sees the Queen of England coming to visit for tea. Her grandfather amuses her by talking to her nighttime reflection in the window as if she is actually outside the window.

The illustrations are bright and cheery and busy and serve to set the book's mood. They are done in the impressionistic style. The blended colors and somewhat out of focus characters make this apparently mixed-race family relative to readers of any ethnicity. It's culturally inclusive in an understated manner. The lively colors and curly lines set the tone for an upbeat look at a mundane experience.

Review Excerpts:
Writing for School Library Journal, Angela Reynolds praised the artwork in this Caldecott award winning book,noting "The artwork is at once lively and energetic, without crowding the story or the words on the page; the simple lines and squiggles of color suggest a child's own drawings, but this is the art of a masterful hand."

This book can be a great jumping-off point to entertain and interact with a child confined inside due to illness, injury, or bad weather. With a sign created in the likeness of the book's artwork, any window can be designated the "hello goodbye window" or the "rainy day window" or even the "chicken-pox window." From that point, with pencil and lined paper or crayons or paints the possibilities are endless - bird watching, people watching, or fantasizing and even creating the perfect view from the window.

Monday, August 25, 2008

An Innocent Soldier

Holub, Josef. 2005. An Innocent Soldier. New York: Arthur A. Levine. ISBN 0439627729.


The year is 1812, and Napoleon is gathering his Grande Armée for an assault on Russia. When a privileged farmer’s son is sought as a new recruit, the farmer sends his unwitting farmhand, Adam, to serve in his stead. The poor servant boy is exposed to grueling conditions –depravity, deprivation, and the horrors of war as he struggles to survive the ordeal and make sense of it all.


An Innocent Soldier is a historical fiction novel best suited for a YA audience due to its mature subject matter. The book is the 2006 winner of the Mildred Batchelder Award for an outstanding children's book first published in a foreign language. The story by Josef Holub and translated from German by Michael Hofmann, tells the story of Napoleon's grand march to Russia and subsequent retreat, through the eyes of an uneducated, though not unintelligent, teenaged farmboy, Adam. Betrayed by his master and forced to substitute for the master's son, Adam travels with the army through the Germanic Kingdoms, Prussia and Poland and finally to Moscow itself. French spellings (Armée and troupe) are scattered throughout the text to remind the reader that Adam has been thrust into a foreign army, while the names of the soldiers in his troop are indicative of Adam's home in Wurttemburg (Konrad Klara, Kleinknecht, Krauter). Adam tells the story in a kind of musing format, with sparse dialogue. "On the street lies an upset barrel. Thousands of kopek pieces have spilled onto the dirt. What riches! But no one is interested. If only it were bread. What would we do with metal coin?" This format suits his position and condition; an innocent farmhand assigned as a lieutenant's servant in a cold, miserable, and eventually pointless military campaign.

Although set amidst a tragic military campaign, the overriding theme of Soldier is one of friendship. Through shared hardships, Adam becomes the friend and confidant of the noble-born, Konrad Klara, and becomes respected in his own right. Ironically, Adam receives succor from an elderly Russian woman, and his greatest enemy is a sadistic member of his own regiment, underscoring the perplexities of war and the transforming power it has over human nature.

The story of An Innocent Soldier is timely despite its 1812 setting. The weapons, tactics, and adversaries may change, but the moral questions of war remain constant throughout the years. Young teens should relate to Adam as he grows in maturity and overcomes adversity. A period map and historical notes precede the book.


"Arthur A, Levine Books has been awarded the 2006 Mildred L, Batchelder Award for its publication of An Innocent Soldier, The award is given for the most outstanding children's book originally published in a foreign language and subsequently translated into English for publication in the United States, The book was written by Josef Holub, translated from the German version by Michael Hofmann."

2006. "Mildred L. Batchelder Award." Teacher Librarian 33, no. 4: 12-12. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 7, 2007).

"This is a well-wrought psychological tale that might have a difficult time finding an audience, but has a lot to offer to those seeking to build a deep historical fiction collection."

Stenson-Carey, Christina, Jones, Trevelyn E., Toth, Luann, Charnizon, Marlene, Grabarek, Daryl, and Dale Raben. 2005. "An Innocent Soldier." School Library Journal 51, no. 12: 148-148. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 7, 2007).


This book is an obvious choice for an integrated curriculum based on this period in history. The rich historical details of daily wartime struggles can add life to the study of this era.

Though it may be a difficult sell because of its unappealing cover art (Adam appears too feminine and childlike to be a battle-weary soldier, and Konrad Klara appears more as an "add-on" than an integral part of the cover *), this book has great possibilities for a book discussion group. The themes of friendship, war, and morality are sure to engage older teens.
Read Thura's Diary: My Life in Wartime Iraq (2004) by Thura al-Windawi for a view of the current war through the eyes of a teen.

* since I first reviewed this book, an alternative cover has been designed

My Father's Shop

I'm on vacation this week, so I'll post a few of my older reviews while I try to finish up the 2nd book in the Abarat series.

Ichikawa, Satomi. 2006. My Father's Shop. La Jolla, CA: Kane/Miller. (originally published in Paris by l'ecole de loisirs) ISBN13 9781929132997.


Young Mustafa's father owns a carpet shop in a busy Moroccan marketplace. When Mustafa requests a carpet with a hole in it to keep for himself, his father makes a deal. Mustafa must agree to learn the foreign languages necessary for working in the shop. When the foreign language lessons become boring, Mustafa dashes off into the bazaar wearing his brightly colored carpet, peering through its convenient hole. A similarly attired rooster follows him and Mustafa calls to the rooster in his native tongue, "Kho Kho Hou Houuu!!!" Tourists from France, England, Spain, and Japan offer their own rooster calls, "Co-co-ri-co!" "Qui-qui-ri-qi!" "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" and "Koke-ko-kooo!" Mustafa races back to the shop, carpet flying. Trailing behind him are his new-found feathered friend, and all of the foreign tourists. Not only has he brought many customers to his father's shop, he has learned to speak rooster in five languages as well!


My Father's Shop is a multicultural book in every sense of the word. Although its setting is Morocco, Mustafa interacts with tourists and shoppers from Spain, France, England, and Japan. The book simultaneously points out cultural differences and brings cultures together. Each group of tourists is dressed in the fashion of their country and calls the rooster in their own language; yet all of the rooster calls are similar, and all of the characters delight in Mustafa's garb - a brightly colored carpet over his head with a hole for his eyes.

Japanese born Satomi Ichikawa may seem an unlikely author and illustrator for a book about a Moroccan carpet shop, however, she has lived in Paris for over thirty years. Morocco has a strong French presence, being once a protectorate of France. I have been fortunate enough to have visited Morocco and shopped in the busy Casbah marketplace. Ichikawa's colorful double spread paintings evoke the essence of the bazaar in their bright colors and details. The abundant, richly colored and patterned carpets are warm, typical and inviting, as is the silver teapot for mint tea, a common offering in shops and restaurants. Only the teeming crowds are missing. The locals are depicted in the varying head coverings, robes, sandals and slippers typical for the hot desert climate.

My Father's Shop has an exotic setting, but it is a story of inclusion and humor. The antics of little boy and a rooster are enough to warm the hearts of people from any country. The liner notes on the artwork are sparse, noting only that Ichikawa never attended art school.


"A joyous story that brings people from different cultures together."

2006. "MY FATHER'S SHOP." Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 6: 292-292. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 7, 2007).

"Besides a gentle cultural lesson in how animals sound in different countries, Ichikawa's glowing pictures, with their radiant colors...., present an engaging image of a Moroccan marketplace and of a boy who can find a dozen ways of playing with a rug with a small hole."

DeCandido, GraceAnne. 2006. "My Father's Shop." Booklist 102, no. 12: 102. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 7, 2007).

On the 2007 United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) Outstanding International Booklist


My Father's Shop makes an excellent introduction to a study of Morocco, and can also serve as a segue to a lesson on map reading or globes - finding the location of Morocco and the home countries of the tourists.

The colorful carpets can serve as an inspiration for an art class, examining the woven rugs of different cultures.

Public librarians might follow a reading of this story with multicultural or multilingual children's music.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Green Glass Sea

2007. Klages, Ellen. The green glass sea. New York: Puffin.

The source of the title for Ellen Klages' book, The Green Glass Sea, is a mystery to the end. So too, is everything about life on "The Hill," to the story's protagonist, 11-year-old Dewey Kerrigan. Since her mother's disappearance, Dewey has been living with her Nana while her father works in Boston. When Nana suffers a stroke and has to enter a Home, an Army car comes to pick up Dewey. She is surprised, not only because her father has not come for her himself, but also because her destination is not Boston, but New Mexico. There, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, she finds that her father and many of the world's brightest scientists are at work on a top-secret "gadget" to help end the war. Officially, their neighborhood, called "The Hill," their town, and even they themselves, do not exist in this mysterious desert community. They are allowed no phones or regular communication with the outside world.

The four girls walked down the middle of the road, with Betty and Joyce a little behind, giggling to each other. They headed south, the pine-studded canyon far over on their right. The road didn't have a name, none of them did. Suze thought this made it really hard to give anyone directions, but the army didn't want people knowing much about the Hill. Even if you lived there.

Dewey, a bright and inquisitive inventor herself, loves this strange new life. She has her father all to herself and hours of time to spend on her inventions. The only thing she does not like is the treatment that she receives at the hands of the other scientists' children, who call her Screwy Dewey and mock her handicap - a leg, shortened by an injury. Another young girl, Suze, becomes an unlikely friend due to circumstances beyond either of their control.

Suze and Dewey's life, and life itself, are about to change as two cataclysmic events unfold - the successful test of the atomic bomb and Dewey's own personal tragedy.

The Green Glass Sea, winner of the Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction, is the story of what life was like for scientists and their families working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. In addition to the story of the young girls, Dewey and Suze, and their families, The Green Glass Sea poses the age-old questions of scientific ethics and "greater good, " as in this exchange between two of the scientists:

"Well, yes. We started for a good reason, and we've been working so hard. It was pleasure. It was excitement," he said. "But you stop thinking about - you know? You just stop. And now..."
" And now that we've seen what it can do. My god," Terry Gordon said, her voice raised, sounding angry. "They can't use it. Not on civilians. Not on anyone, for that matter. I mean, maybe as a demonstration, but -"

"That's not realistic, Terry, said Dr. Teller in his Hungarian accent. "It's no longer an experiment to be demonstrated. It's a weapon, to end this terrible war once and for all."

This is moving and slowly paced novel - giving the reader time to absorb the hot New Mexico summer, the single-mindedness of the pursuit, the dreary and secretive life on "the Hill," and the enormity of the "gadget's" importance. The book is told alternately from the viewpoints of Dewey and her new friend, Suze, and contains supplementary information from and an interview with the author, Ellen Klages. The book's only distraction was the author's peculiar choice to write one chapter in a present-tense voice. Highly recommended for ages 11 and up.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


AbaratEdition: Unabridged
by Clive Barker
Richard Ferrone
Publisher: Harper Collins
Imprint: HarperAudio
Candy Quackenbush leads a dreary life in a Minnesota prairie town, Chickentown to be precise, so named for its unglamorous and principal industry, chicken farming. The continual smell of blood, feathers and excrement, the stench of her father’s beer, the drudgery of her mother’s life, and the salt of her own tears is enough to set any child to daydreaming. But lately, Candy’s daydreams have become more insistent, her doodling more focused – as if she’s being called – called, inexplicably, to the sea. The only sea in Chickentown is the vast sea of waving prairie grasses that begins at the outskirts of town…until one day, when the scent of an ocean breeze wafts in from another world, bringing with it the self-proclaimed, master thief, John Mischief – together with his seven brothers that reside in antlers upon his head, and their pursuer, the deadly Mendelson Shape. Desperate for a respite from the dreariness of Chickentown, Cindy agrees to aid Mischief, and in so doing, calls forth the Sea of Izabella, which carries them all to the shores of Abarat.

The Abarat is an archipelago consisting of 25 islands, each one set eternally at a particular hour of the day, with the exception of the 25th hour, about which little is known. Yebba Dim Day at 8:00pm, Ninnyhammer at 10:00pm, 6:00am at Efreet - each island with its own weather, geography and particular character. Populated by ordinary, fantastic and mythical creatures including geshrats, sea skippers, and stitchlings, the Abarat is an unsettled land – torn between the mythical old ways, the dark ways of Christopher Carrion, Lord of Gorgossium (or midnight), and the insatiable commercialism of Rojo Pixler’s and his Commexo City on Pyon (3:00am). Candy is thrust into a world that is at once strange and fantastic, yet again, strangely familiar.

This is a novel of epic proportions, over 11 hours on mp3. The cast and lands of the Abarat are rich and fully developed, as is the prose of Clive Barker, full of vivid description and extensive vocabulary, as in this description of the Yebba Dim Day,

It was a city, a city built from the litter of the sea. The street beneath her feet was made from timbers that had clearly been in the water for a long time, and the walls were lined with barnacle-encrusted stone. There were three columns supporting the roof, made of coral fragments cemented together. They were buzzing hives of life unto themselves; their elaborately constructed walls pierced with dozens of windows, from which light poured.

There were three main streets that wound up and around these coral hives, and they were all lined with habitations and thronged with the Yebba Dim Day's citizens.

As far as Candy could see there were plenty of people who resembled folks she might have expected to see on the streets of Chickentown, give or take a sartorial detail: a hat, a coat, a wooden snout. But for every one person that looked perfectly human, there were two who looked perfectly other than human. The children of a thousand marriages between humankind and the great bestiary of the Abarat were abroad on the streets of the city.

Richard Ferrone’s voice on the audiobook version is as rich and varied as the world of the Abarat. A fantastic book! Highly recommended. Ages 12 and up. (Check out the print version as well to enjoy Barker's fantastic artwork!)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Keisha Ann Can!

Kirk, Daniel. 2008. Keisha Ann Can! New York: Putnam.

Who can catch the school bus for the early-morning ride?
Who can wait in line until it's time to go inside?
Who can sit in front because she's teacher's biggest fan?
Who can stand to say the pledge?

A bright, cheerful, rhyming story of a confident young girl in Kindergarten. Even when her blocks fall down or she misspells a word on the board, Keisha Ann takes it all in stride - trying again until she gets it right. Finishing with an upbeat message to the reader, "you can do them, too!" Keisha Ann Can! should help to dispel any first-day-of-school jitters.

The illustrations, also by Kirk, are bright watercolors of a smiling, multicultural class. The protagonist is an African American girl with pigtails. Whites, Latinos and Asians are also represented. Each painting (many are double-spreads) is filled with color and only two have any white space. The backgrounds show a lot of texture and almost appear to be sponge-painted. The text is large, with only a sentence or two per page. A great book to share with children entering PreK or Kindergarten.

The Retired Kid

Agee, Jon. 2008. The retired kid. Hyperion.

(Hyperion, now an imprint of "Disney Book Group?")

Being a kid is hard work! Now, after eight long years of toil, 8-year-old, Brian, has decided to retire. No more grueling soccer practices, violin lessons, or broccoli for Brian! He's headed to Florida to the Happy Sunset Retirement Community. At first it's great fun - swimming, card games, fishing... but then there's the hip replacement discussions, prune juice smoothies, television documentaries, knitting classes... Perhaps being a kid isn't so bad after all.

A humorous look at the joys and difficulties of being a kid! Simply illustrated in Jon Agee's minimalist style - painted sketches and lots of white space.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Dragon's Child: A Story of Angel Island

2008. Yep, Laurence. The dragon’s child: A story of Angel Island. New York: Harper Collins.

Prolific writer, Laurence Yep and his niece, Dr. Kathleen S. Yep, are fortunate to have uncovered over 500 pages of historical documents relating to their family’s immigration records. Children are fortunate that they have chosen to share this information in The Dragon’s Child: A Story of Angel Island. The Dragon's Child, is written in the form of an interview of Yep Gim Lew, by the author, Laurence Yep. Each answer is followed by a first-person "flashback" to young Yep Gim Lew's past in 1922.

QUESTION: Did you want to go to America?

POP: Sure. I didn't have a choice. My father said I had to go. So I went.

"I had always known I would have to leave home. Our villages land was so poor that men in my clan always had to work elsewhere. My grandfather had been one of the first to cross the ocean to the Golden Mountain. Others went to different countries. For generations my clan had been like rice chaff, scattered in the wind all over the world."

The book follows Yep Gim Lew's journey from his rural village in China to San Francisco, where he will become a Guest of the Golden Mountain. Full of documented information on the difficult path to immigration faced by Chinese immigrants in the era of "Chinese exclusion" laws, this is a wonderful resource for children learning about immigration. The immigration stories of Angel Island, "The Ellis Island of the West," are markedly different from the stories of those greeted by the Statue of Liberty.

A stuttering, 10-year-old, Yep Gim Lew must make the long journey to San Francisco and study for the grueling interrogation at Angel Island as he prepares to make the transition from Chinese farm boy to grown-up, Guest of the Golden Mountain, as travelers to the American West were called. His father, Yep Lung Gon, uncomfortable as a wealthy Chinese "lord" during his visits back to China, instructs Yep Gim Lew in the ways of the west.

In addition to the novel, there is an extensive Author's Note, a chapter on Chinese Immigration , as well as period photographs, web resources, and a bibliography. At under 150 pages including extras, this book is a quick and interesting read. There are not many light-hearted moments in the story, but the voice is authentic, and the story offers a great insight into Chinese and Chinese-American culture.

Coincidentally, according to immigration documents, the author's grandfather, Yep Lung Gon arrived in San Francisco on one of his many voyages, the day after the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. He writes about this period in history in The Earth Dragon Awakes. (see earlier post)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Regarding the Fountain: A tale, in letters, of liars and leaks

Klise, Kate. 1999. Regarding the fountain: A tale in letters, of liars and leaks.

I read this first in the Regarding the... series, because my book club has chosen it. I was already a fan, having read Regarding the Bathrooms: A Privy to the Past (see earlier post) a few months back. I'm still a fan, but I did prefer the later book in the series. Regarding the Fountain is a great place to start, though. This first book follows the students from Dry Creek Middle School through their fifth grade year. That being said, it's a great choice for 5th grade students, particularly reluctant readers or children who are comfortable sticking with a series. In the later books, the children grow older, the plot grows thicker, and the mystery becomes less obvious. The Regarding the... series is meant to grow along with the reader.

This book, like later ones, is full of puns, interesting facts, drawings, and of course - letters. An interesting and engaging format. I love it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Puberty books

Two new books just recently arrived - The Girls Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing up You by Kelly Dunham and On Your Mark, Get Set, Grow! A What's Happening to my Body Book for Younger Boys by Lynn Madaras.

Both of these titles are upbeat, humorously illustrated books for kids on the younger side of puberty. Full of useful information, but devoid of discussion about sexual topics more appropriate for older or sexually active kids, these books are great for younger kids starting their journey into puberty. The boys' book is a particularly welcome addition because books for boys on this topic are not as plentiful as those for girls. Both books contain information on bodily functions and anatomy, hints and encouragement from other kids, nutrition and exercise requirements for a healthy body, and social advice for negotiating difficulties at school and home.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

39 Clues

The buzz continues for Scholastic's new adventure, 39 Clues. The first book, Maze of Bones, written by Rick Riordan (of Percy Jackson and the Olympians fame) is already out in advance reader copies, although even the advance readers are missing the ending! Here's a link to an excerpt released by Scholastic Let the countdown begin!

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Seer of Shadows

Avi. 2008. The seer of shadows. New York: Harper Collins.

The prolific Avi has a winner in Seer of Shadows, historical fiction with a decidedly eerie and menacing twist. Horace Carpetine, raised to believe in science and rationalism, has been apprenticed to a photographer in post-Civil War, New York City. When his unscrupulous employer decides to perpetrate a hoax on a grieving mother, a tangled tale of death, deception, abuse and the supernatural "develops," literally, on the glass plates of the photographer's camera.

Horace befriends Pegg, a black servant girl from the deceased's household, and together they confront the inconceivable. The Seer of Shadows is a gripping tale with a strong historical base and the supernatural eeriness of Gaiman's Coraline.

Peter Spit a Seed at Sue

Koller, Jackie French. 2008. Peter spit a seed at Sue. New York: Viking.

This is a funny, rhyming, riotous story of the fun that ensues when four bored children begin a watermelon fight. The colors are bright, the story is fast-paced and funny,

Off we ran across the yard,
Spitting fast and spitting hard.
The laundry fluttered in the breeze
As seeds buzzed through the air like bees.
Soon our sheets had polka dots
And Dad's shorts sported leopard spots.

...but the story leaves me nostalgic for watermelon seeds. I wonder if children even see watermelon seeds anymore. As for myself, I special-order watermelons with seeds. Somehow, I just like things the way they were meant to be - imperfections and all. Are we the last generation of seed spitters? I hope not.

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 ...