Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Birds on a Wire

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

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

Goodnight Goon

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

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

Martians taking over the moon ..."

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

Monday, September 29, 2008

How to Heal a Broken Wing

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

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

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

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

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

He has succeeded, beautifully.

The Trouble Begins at 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 27, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About 5 hours on CD or mp3 download.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Giver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 15, 2008

Everything is Fine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 11, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for Normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Daniel Boone's Great Escape

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 5, 2008


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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 4, 2008

In a Blue Room

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

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

Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Astronaut Handbook

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

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

Bedtime at the Swamp

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

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

Dog Day

Hayes, Sarah. 2008. Dog Day. Ill. by Hannah Broadway. New York: Straus Giroux.

Imagine going to school and finding that your teacher is a dog! That's the premise of this amusing new book. Ben and Ellie's new teacher, Riff, shows the class such useful skills as sniffing, tail wagging, barking and more. The children take P.E., nap, and receive a surprise visit from the principal, Mrs. Pink.

The humor in Dog Day is completely in the artwork. This is Hannah Broadway's first picture book. Her style is simple and funny. There is no description of the medium used in the front or end papers, but she appears to use pen and acrylics, each character outlined in black. The features are mere dots; the children's moods are understood by their word bubbles and goofy mannerisms as they shake, pant, and wag their bottoms. Some collage art is used, in depicting denim jeans, wood flooring, and other textured surfaces. Hannah Broadway should have a good future in children's' book illustrations.

This would be a great choice for storytime. It invites participation, as children can act like dogs with Ben and Ellie. Only the choice of the word "poo" ("What's that smell? It smells like poo.")might deter me from reading this very cute story to a crowd.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

One Hen, etc.

Milway, Katie Smith. 2008. One hen: How one small loan made a big difference. Ill. by Eugenie Fernandes. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press.

Vacation is over and it's back to business...I have a canvas bag full of new books to look over. I'll start with One Hen.

One Hen is the true story of how a small micro-loan to a young African boy, Kojo, enables him to sell eggs, buy chickens, pay for school, go to college, and eventually become a successful businessman in his own community, helping others on his way to success.

Micro finance seems an unlikely subject for a picture book, however, One Hen does a fine job of introducing a complicated subject in an uplifting manner that children of many ages will understand. On the simplest level, the book may be read as a picture book to small children, employing only the large print text and colorful, busy, acrylic paintings. The large print text is only one line per double spread, and tells the story in a cumulative style, "This is the hen that Kojo buys with the loan he got. These are the eggs that Kojo sells from the hen he bought..."
Smaller print, enclosed in text boxes tells the story in more detail, " Slowly, slowly, Kojo's egg money grows. After two months he save enough to pay his mother back. In four months he has enough to buy another hen. Now Kojo can sell five eggs a week, and he and his mother have more to eat." Fernandes' artwork is busy, bright and cheerful, depicting life (even a poor life) in Ghana as colorful and purposeful.

The story is followed by a photo and biography of the real Kojo, a page listing suggestions of how children can help others in Kojo's situation, a listing of other people who have been helped by micro loans, and finally a glossary of unfamiliar African (calabash) and financial (profit) terms.

This is a book that may have a limited audience but it's worth checking out.

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 ...