Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mercy Watson to the Rescue - a review

Dicamillo, Kate. 2006. The Mercy Watson Collection: Volume 1. Read by Ron McLarty. Listening Library.
41 minutes

Last week, I was about ready to leave for work when I realized that I had nothing loaded on my mp3 player for the commute. (I have neglected to mention it here, but in January, I traded in my bicycle commute to return to my previous branch) In any case, I began frantically searching my library’s available downloads for something that would load quickly and keep me entertained during my drive to work.

My choice? Mercy Watson. Despite the book's irresistibly cute cover art, I’d never read a Mercy Watson book before.  I thought it was about time. And anyway, how can you go wrong with Kate Dicamillo? 

Answer:  You can't.

Despite the loss of Chris Van Dusen’s charmingly funny artwork featured in the print version, Mercy Watson still "clicks" as an audiobook.  Upbeat intro music sets the stage and Ron McLarty's narration is a perfect fit, with kind of a retro feel to it - as if you're listening to a favorite old story that you've heard a thousand times before.  (It's hard to believe that he's also the voice of books by David Baldacci, Danielle Steel and Stephen King!)

However, the best thing about Mercy Watson to the Rescue (the first book in the series), is Mercy herself.  She may be a pig, but she's an awful lot like most children - when sent to find help to rescue her parents, she quickly forgets her mission and goes instead, in search of buttered toast!  And when chased by mean neighbor, Eugenia, Mercy waits until Eugenia's good and close before she starts running.  After all, it's all about the chase, isn't it?  Mercy is simply delightful.  I'm sorry I waited so long to find her.

What else do I love about the book? 

- that calling the fire department is the solution of choice when one's bed has collapsed (I'm rather partial to firefighters, having married one and all)
- that Mercy's parents adore her unconditionally

Here's an excerpt.  Enjoy!

One thing I found particularly amusing is the choice of Eugenia as the name for the neighbor. When my children were little, the girls were very fond of Laura McGee Kvasnosky's Zelda and Ivy books. When their brother was old enough to read, they introduced him to the books, directing him to read the part of Eugene, the boy next door. Can any name other than Aloysius be more difficult to pronounce phonetically? My son promptly declared the name to be Ignoo, and could never be dissuaded from his chosen pronunciation. No telling what he might have made of Eugenia!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Women's History Month blog

March is Women's History Month!

Last year, fellow blogger, Margo, of The Fourth Musketeer, and I, initiated a month-long blog celebration, Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month. Now in its second year, our commemorative blog features women's history through the lens of literature for children and young adults - joining authors, librarians and bloggers from across the Kidlitosphere to celebrate women's history.  Each day of Women's History Month (March 1-31), KidLit Celebrates Women's History Month features a new essay, commentary or review. Donna Jo Napoli, Jeanette Winter, Andrea Davis Pinkney and Karen Blumenthal are among the many authors slated to guest post in March. Numerous bloggers will participate as well, including SLJ bloggers Betsy Bird, Marc Aronson, and Diane Chen.
Beginning March 1, I invite you to visit our blog, Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month. We've brought together, 31 talented children's authors and bloggers - one for each day in March, as well as a host of Internet resources on women's history. Last year's posts, by authors such as Candace Fleming, Marthe Jocelyn, and Ann Bausum (as well as many other wonderful authors and bloggers) were moving, inspiring, and educational.  This year's lineup is equally impressive.  Please join us in spreading the word about this great collaborative project. 

If you feature a Women's History related post in March, feel free to send the URL to me or Margo, of The Fourth Musketeer, and we will link your post to the blog.


Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at The Children's War.
(Alex, of The Children's War, was one of our KidLit Celebrates Women's History Month guest bloggers last year with her post, "Women Heroes of WWII.")

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Picture Book Roundup - funny bone ticklers

It's been a while since I've done a picture book round-up.  Here are few guaranteed gigglers for a variety of ages.

Long, Ethan. 2012. Up! Tall! and High!. New York: Penguin.

Featuring three simply drawn, brightly-colored birds, Up! Tall! and High! (but not necessarily in that order) is a hoot. With vocabulary simple enough for a very beginning reader or a book for toddlers, the three birds contemplate their sizes and abilities with a dry humor reminiscent of Ten Apples Up on Top.  Punchlines in the three 8-page "chapters," are delivered visually - with foldouts, facial expressions or sight gags. Cute!

Vail, Rachel. 2012. Piggy Bunny. Ill. by Jeremy Tankard. New York: Feiwel and Friends.

With an opening setup like this, how can Piggy Bunny not be funny?
Liam was just like all the other piglets except for one thing.  All the other piglets wanted to be pigs when they grew up.  Liam wanted to be the Easter Bunny.
Even though "salad remained a challenge," Liam believed in himself, and so did his grandpa, and so will you!  The story is hilarious, and Jeremy Tankard's "ink and digital media" illustrations are a perfectly droll complement to a very funny story.

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse. 2012. Chopsticks. Ill. by Scott Magoon. New York: Disney Hyperion.

If you were a fan of Spoon (and who wasn't?), you'll love Chopsticks,  "Not exactly a sequel to Spoon.  More like a change in place setting."

I'm a sucker for puns, and Amy Krouse Rosenthal knows how to set them in their place. With shocked utensils watching,  the unfortunate Chopstick snaps.  The stunned assemblage watched as Chopstick
was quickly whisked away. 
(Cue the earnest whisk, racing for the doctor with the snapped  utensil cradled in his wires.)
The others all waited quietly.  No one stirred, not even Spoon.
(Yes, our dear friend, Spoon, pictured here in the medicine chest being comforted by a bandage.)

But not to worry!  Things will work out for the best.  Perhaps there will even be a call for a toast (with butter!) before this story's ended.   Irresistible!

and to wrap things up, some laughs for a slightly older crowd ...
Catalanott, Peter. 2012. Question Boy Meets Little Miss Know-It-All.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

Question Boy - perhaps you've known one.  If so, you can imagine this conversation,

"What are you doing?" Question Boy asked.
"I'm filling a tank with oil so the people who live here will have hot water and heat when they need it."
"Can I see the tank?"
"There, my work here is finished," Oil Man said.  "What? No, you can't see the tank.  It's in the basement.  Even I've never seen it."
"How do you know it's there?  What if someone took the tank for a drive?"
"Ah!" Oil Man said.  "It's not an army tank!"
"How do you know if you've never seen it?"
And perhaps you've known a Little Miss Know-It-All as well,

"Kangaroos can't walk backward!" Ketchup was once sold as a medicine!  A giraffe can clean its ears with its tongue! Hummingbirds can weigh less than a penny! ..."
Now, imagine what happens in the park when Question Boy goes head-to-head with Little Miss Know-It-All!  It's the quest for knowledge vs. knowledge itself. Question mark vs. exclamation point. Boy vs. girl.  Which will win?  You'll have to read it to find out!

(just be sure to read the back jacket for an important footnote that should have been included within the book's pages)


Monday, February 20, 2012

Can We Save the Tiger? a review

Here’s another review of a  Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book finalist …

Jenkins, Martin. 2011. Can We Save the Tiger? Ill. By Vicky White. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Martin Jenkins explains extinction and its causes in a manner that, while factual, is also conversational and thought provoking.  Consider his opening paragraphs that inspire an immediate sense of wonder combined with an easy familiarity,
The world’s quite a big place, you know.  But it’s not that big, when you consider how much there is to squeeze into it.
After all, it’s home not just to billions of people, but to the most amazing number of other kinds of living things, too.  And we’re all jostling for space.
After a cursory introduction to extinction, he offers the varying reasons for why creatures have become extinct – poaching, invasive non-native species, over-hunting, chemical poisoning.  Each time, he hints that problems are not so easily solved.  Take the tiger for example,
…they’re big, they need a lot of space.  But the countries where they live, like India and Indonesia, have huge numbers of people in them too, all trying to make a living and needing to be fed. …
So if you were a poor farmer trying to make a living with a couple of cows and a few goats, you might not be too happy if you found there was a hungry tiger living nearby.  And if you knew that someone might pay you more for a tiger skin and some bones than you earn in three whole months working in the fields, then you might find it very tempting to set a trap or two, even if you knew it was against the law.
Jenkins looks at failures (the Dodo, the Great Auk and others), successes (the Buffalo, the White Rhinoceros, the Kakapos, and more) and other works in progress.  In each case, he presents the conundrum of competing interests or unintended consequences in a manner easily understood by young readers.  Text size, too, is inviting to younger readers – smaller text is punctuated by sections of very large font print.

Similarly to Jim Arnosky’s Thunder Birds, field-style pencil sketches accompany many pages.  Vicky White’s larger illustrations are done in pencil and oil paint with lightly sketched backgrounds, or on plain cream-colored pages. The large and realistic illustrations are accompanied by basic facts including habitat, size, diet, life span, and existing population. An index and online resources complete the book.

A small final illustration of the rare Sander’s Slipper Orchid hints that not only creatures are in danger of extinction; or perhaps the illustration hints at a future book. The over sized book has sturdy pages that, although they have a matte finish, have a smooth and creamy texture - like icing on the cake.  A beautiful and affecting book.

Can We Save the Tiger? is a 2011 Cybils finalist in the Nonfiction Picture Book category.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Giants Beware! a review

Aguirre, Jorge and Rafael Rosado. 2012. Giants Beware! New York: First Second.
(Advance Reader Copy supplied by publisher)

Giant is a perfect descriptor for this new graphic novel.  What’s “giant” about it?

  • Claudette, the would-be giant slayer. Small in size, but with giant-sized ambition, personality and loyalty.
  • Gaston. Claudette’s little brother is a giant himself  - well, at least in culinary circles.
  • Marie, the Marquis’ daughter. She may lack a fighting nature, but she’s got a giant dose of cleverness.
  • The book. Its audience may be small readers (ages 7 and up), but it’s a much bigger size (10 x 7.5) than most graphic novels for this age group.  No squinting to see all the action in these big panels.
  • Color. Bam! Lots of it.
  • Humor. A giant helping of elementary school humor.
  • Fun.  202 quick-reading, action-packed pages of it.
  • The Baby-Feet-Eating Giant.  Of course.  You knew there had to be a giant!

Due on shelves in April, 2012.

Click for a sneak peek at pages 35-39 of Giants Beware!

Another review @
100 Scope Notes

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Thunder Birds - a review

Now that the Cybils judging is completed, I can finally release this review that I wrote last month. Thunder Birds was a finalist in the 2011 Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book category.

Arnosky, Jim. 2011. Thunder Birds. New York: Sterling.

In Thunder Birds, Jim Arnosky profiles “only the largest and most powerful birds” – eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, vultures, herons, egrets, pelicans, loons, cormorants and gannets. No matter where one lives, there is surely something familiar and something to be learned in this attractive nonfiction picture book for older readers.

The chapters are an appealing combination of “book knowledge” and experiential knowledge unique to Arnosky and his wife, Deanna.  Regarding owls, Arnosky writes,

Prey animals are taken suddenly and without warning in the midst of whatever they happen to be doing.  Only in bright moonlight might an owl’s intended victim sense what is coming, when it sees the hunter’s large shadow moving across the ground.
At night in the forest, while I was taking flash photos of owls, one of the big birds swooped down toward me from behind, lightly brushing my head with its wings.  I felt it and then I saw it, but I never heard it coming.
How thrilling to imagine such a close encounter with a bird that many have never actually seen in the wild.

Writing, of course, is not Arnosky’s only talent.  He is an accomplished naturalist and artist. Each section of the book is illustrated with detailed pencil sketches and notes, similar to ones that might be found in a field notebook. Some, like the eagle foot, are drawn to scale.  Illustrations created with acrylic paints and white chalk offer  vivid depictions of the birds in their native habitats, many are life-sized.  There are four foldout pages, including two, which are double foldouts.  Many of the illustrations have textual overlays containing additional information on length, wingspan, etc.  Particularly helpful to the aspiring bird-watcher are the silhouette illustrations for identifying birds in flight by their shapes.  Also included are an Author’s Note, bibliography, and curiously, a metric equivalent chart.

Whether writing fact or fiction, Jim Arnosky’s love of the natural world is apparent in everything he does. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cybils winners announced!

The 2011 Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards have been announced!

I'm pleased to have been part of the judging panel for Cybils Nonfiction Picture Books

And the winner is:

Carlyn Beccia's, I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat

Following is reposting of an audio booktalk that I created for I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat on November 29, 2010.

Beccia, Carlyn. 2010. I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: History's Strangest Cures. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Congratulations to all of the Cybils Nonfiction Picture book finalists!  All of the books were wonderful. I'll be posting reviews of several other finalists in the next few days.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Meltdown! a review

Bortz, Fred. 2012. Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and our Energy Future. New York: Lerner.
(Advance Review Copy provided by NetGalley)

Last week, if you asked me to explain the processes and dangers inherent in the creation of nuclear energy, I would be hard-pressed to offer more than a rudimentary explanation.  After reading Meltdown! however, I marveled at how easily I grasped the entire process.  Physicist and author, Dr. Fred Bortz, has a distinct talent for distilling a complex subject into an easily understood concept.

In a compact, colorful book, complete with numerous illustrations and photographs, Fred Bortz recounts the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, sandwiched between solid scientific facts and a global view of the world's energy needs. The reader is left shocked by the massive destruction caused when a natural disaster causes a man-made one of nearly equal proportion. However, the purpose of Meltdown! is not to shock the reader, but to make him think.  Yes, this was a terrible disaster, but what are the alternatives?  Can the world's energy needs be powered by solar? by wind? by coal? by oil?  No, they can't - at least not now.  The readers of Meltdown! (recommended for ages 11-17) will be the decision makers of the world within a few short years. Meltdown! will challenge them to see that the world's problems do not always have easy answers. 

This seems to be the time of year that teachers are assigning many biography and nonfiction reading assignments.  If this were on my shelves now, I would be recommending it highly, though sadly, many teachers will likely dismiss Meltdown! as a book report choice because of the number of its pages, 64. (This gives me a meltdown, as minimum page requirements give me "Minimum Rage.")

This should be required reading, offering an easily understood lesson in nuclear energy, a factual account of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster caused by the massive Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and extensive references and supplemental materials.

Teachers, check the Fred Bortz website for great resources including news stories, videos, and classroom connections.

Due on shelves March 1, 2012 - in time for the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

It's Nonfiction Monday. Today's roundup is at Wrapped in Foil.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What we say without words

It is said that a picture's worth a thousand words.

Every few years, publishers will print new geography books, replacing outdated population statistics, government leaders, general information, photos, etc. Cover art is typically updated as well.  In with the new, out with the old, standard procedure, nothing unusual.

Today, however, I spotted the new cover photo for the nonfiction, informational children's book, Iran, and I was taken aback.

If a picture's worth a thousand words, what do these three pictures say? 

2003 edition

2008 edition

2012 edition
Remember, these are books for children.  Can we create bias with a photo?
I think so. Should we? I think not.

Monday, February 6, 2012

An interview with Marcia Vaughan - Irena's Jars of Secrets

Today I'm pleased to interview Marcia Vaughan, author of Irena's Jars of Secrets (2011 Lee & Low), a 2012 Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the  Older Readers category.  This interview is part of the official Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour, sponsored by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

If you have not yet read Irena's Jars of Secrets, it is the true story of a courageous young Polish Catholic woman who saved the lives of more than two thousand children trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto, and destined for concentration camps during WWII.

Q. I had never heard the story of Irena Sendler prior to reading Irena’s Jars of Secrets. I understand from the Afterword that the Communist Polish government did not promote the heroism of Ms. Sendler. Can you share with us how you first discovered Irena’s story?

Marcia Vaughan
 © Marcia Vaughan
I came upon the story of Irena Sendler quite by accident. I was watching the Today Show three years ago when Matt Lauer announced he was about to read the obituary of a woman few people had ever heard of, a woman who helped rescue 2500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII. As I listened I could hardly believe what I was hearing. How could one woman and a small group of rescuers save so many lives! I had to know more and I knew young readers would be amazed by her courage and all the ingenious ways Irena Sendler and her team smuggled babies and young children out of the Ghetto past the German guards. I wanted to know about her life and what compelled a Polish Catholic woman to risk death time after time to save Jewish children. I felt young readers would want to know as well.

 Q. I am always interested in the collaboration (or lack thereof) between authors and illustrators. How did Ron Mazellan become your illustrator, and did you share any discussions over the artwork, which is, by the way, a fine complement to your story.

As author I am the storyteller. I’m not much of an artist at all. Publishing companies have editors and art directors who select artists to illustrate children’s picture books. While I researched the facts of Irena Sendler’s life, the illustrator researched the appearance of the characters and what Warsaw, Poland looked like during WWII. He used this information, his creative imagination and incredible talent to tell the story in pictures. Believe it or not, Rod Mazellan and I have never communicated directly about the story. He was free to interpret the story and bring the words to life as he wished. What a marvelous job he’s done!
Q.  Were you able to interview any survivors saved by Irena Sendler? And if not, how did you choose which particular rescues to highlight in the book?

While there were quite a few websites with reputable information on Irena Sendler, there were few books published when I was doing research. The most helpful book was written in German so I had it translated into English. I hope soon there will be many more books available for children, teens and adults about Irena Sendler’s incredible life. When selecting scenes for the book I tried to include examples of the variety of ways children were rescued. I was most impressed with the dog that was made to bark to cover the cries of frightened infants. I was also amazed that children were smuggled past guards in suitcases, tool chests, inside bundles of laundry,even under the floorboards of vehicles. For every child that was rescued, there was a story to tell. Yad Vasham was another excellent source and many emails were exchanged. I also contacted Stefanie Seltzer and other individuals who were extremely helpful. And my hat’s off to Louise May, VP and Editorial Director at Lee & Low Books for her invaluable help.

 Q. And finally, When ever I read a story of selfless heroism, I cannot help but think what I would do in a similar situation. Of course, this is somewhat of an imponderable, but after all of your research, do you have any thoughts on what compels some people to risk their own lives for the sake of others?

I’m not sure what compels some people to risk their lives to save the lives of strangers. Nor do I understand how others can sit back and do nothing when witnessing cruelty. When I read about people like Irena Sendler, or Abbie Burgess [Abbie Against the Storm, Beyond Words Publishing, 1999], who is left alone to care for her ailing mother and two little sisters while keeping the lighthouse running during a vicious winter storm, or the teacher who broke the law and taught a young slave to read and write before Emancipation [Up The Learning Tree, Lee & Low Books, 2003] it makes me wonder if I would have the courage to act as bravely. I do know that as I write about such people it inspires me to find my inner strength and be the best person I can. I hope in reading Irena’s Jars of Secrets children learn to look inside and find their own greatness.
Well said.  I hope so, too.  Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me and the readers of Shelf-employed.  Congratulations on your Sydney Taylor Honor Award.

Irena Sendler (1910-2008)
 Warsaw, February 13, 2005
Copyright: Mariusz Kubik

 About the Sydney Taylor Book Awards:

The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries since 1968, the award encourages the publication and widespread use of quality Judaic literature. Gold medals are presented in three categories: Younger Readers, Older Readers, and Teen Readers. Honor Books are awarded silver medals, and Notable Books are named in each category.

See the complete list of Sydney Taylor award, honor, and notable books for 2012.
The complete blog tour schedule is posted on the ALJ Blog.

Blog reviews of Irena's Jars of Secrets @
Today is Nonfiction Monday.  The roundup host is Capstone Connect.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Fake Mustache - a review

Angleberger, Tom. 2012. Fake Mustache: How Jodie O'Rodeo and her Wonder Horse (and some nerdy kid) Saved the U.S. Presidential Election from a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind. New York: Amulet.

(Advance Reader Copy supplied by publisher)

With another impossibly long title (who can forget last year's hilarious Horton Halfpott: Or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset?), Tom Angleberger is ready to unleash another load of laughs on eagerly waiting middle schoolers in Fake Mustache: How Jodie O'Rodeo and her Wonder Horse (and some nerdy kid) Saved the U.S. Presidential Election from a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind.

In retrospect, 7th grader, Lenny Flem, Jr., realizes that he never should have loaned his friend Casper Bengue, the ten dollars to buy the Heidelberg Handlebar Number Seven from Hairsprinkle's own Sven's Fair Price Store.  The mustache, combined with the "man-about-town" suit purchased at Chauncey's Big & Small, Short & Tall Shop, enable a chain of events that threaten the town of Hairsprinkle, the presidential election and especially, Lenny Flem, Jr.  A cast of zany characters, including washed-up teen rodeo queen, Jodie O'Rodeo, fill out this funny, improbable adventure story.

Midway through the story, the first-person narration switches from Lenny to Jodie, so the reader doesn't miss any of the action.  Angleberger's humor can be blatantly obvious, as in the "first-ever billion-dollar bank robbery" "carried out by a gang of strolling accordion players," or hidden away for those who take notice. 

One chapter ends,
"No, thanks," I told the mime. "You clowns can either let us both go or get your heinies kicked.  What'll it be?"
"First of all, I'm not a clown.  I'm a mime.  Second of all, do you really think you can kick the heinies of Hairsprinkle's top ten karate instructors?"
"I only see five."
"Look behind you." 
And what, you ask, is the title of the next chapter?  Why, "Behind Me," of course!

Kids looking for a quick and goofy read will devour this book as quickly as a Hairsprinkle Hot Dog!

I look forward to seeing the finished artwork, which was not ready in time for the printing of this Advance Reader Copy.

Note: Just in case you're disappointed with our own election season and are seeking another choice, Tom Angleberger has got you covered.  Get your Vote Fako! bumper sticker.  Heck, he'll even throw in a free mustache (but not the Heidelberg Handlebar Number Seven - it's simply too dangerous!)
Other reviews @
Fuse #8
Educating Alice

Coming to a bookshelf near you on April 1st.

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 ...