Wednesday, June 27, 2012

May B. A Novel - a review

Rose, Caroline Starr. 2012. May B. New York: Random House.

In Kansas' early days as a state, there is no help in the prairie schools for a child with what will later become known as dyslexia.  Nor is there help for a farmer whose spring wheat crop has failed.

So it is neither unforeseen, nor unusual when the parents of Mavis Elizabeth Betterly, May B., literally "farm her out" as hired help to a prairie neighbor.  Hiram, the Betterly's son, will stay at home, he, being of more use to the frontier family.

The closest homestead is 15 miles away, a full day's journey by wagon.  Young May Betterly passes the long hours to the Oblinger's simple, sod house that will be her home until Christmas,

I play a game inside my head,
counting plum trees that dot a creek bed,
rabbits that scatter at the sound of wagon wheels,
clouds that skirt the sky.
For hours, that is all,
and grass,
always grass,
in different shades and textures
like the braids in a rag rug.

Miss Sanders told us that lines never end,
and numbers go on forever.
in short-grass country,
I understand infinity.

When Mrs, Oblinger takes a horse and deserts her new husband to return east, Mr. Oblinger goes off in pursuit.
"Don't worry about supper," he says.  "I could be gone some time."
"Some time" will be longer than May could ever have dreamed. It will take all of her courage, strength and perseverance to survive.

I am afraid
in the dark
all alone
I am afraid


In similar style to Karen Hesse's Newbery-winning, Out of the Dust, and Witness, Caroline Starr Rose's novel in verse is deeply affecting.  May's honesty in assessing her shortcomings is balanced by her inner optimism that she may yet overcome her situation - against all odds.

We all share that struggle.  May B. gives voice and hope to us all.
Teacher's Study Guide for May B.

The librarians of the NJLA's Children's Services Section will likely be discussing this book in the upcoming months on our new mock award blog, Newbery Blueberry Mockery Pie.  Please join us.

Monday, June 25, 2012

ASL books for kids

American Sign Language (ASL) books for kids

As a general rule, unless I am under obligation to SLJ or LT, I don't write reviews of books that I don't like.  The work of many committed people goes into the commercial publication of a book, and it would be the height of arrogance to assume that I am the best or only arbiter of good taste and quality.  I offer my opinions here for the benefit of myself and those who may not have the time to read as extensively or expansively as I do.  That being said, without referencing a particular book, I wish to offer a caveat regarding American Sign Language books for children.

I am very fortunate in that I work with a deaf woman who has been teaching me sign language for over a year.  She and I often share books and discussion about deaf culture, ASL, and unrelatedly, our interest in star gazing. (We both loved Wonderstruck.)

Over the past few weeks, I've received numerous new ASL picture books at my branch.  These recent additions depict ASL in simplistic drawings.  This may make for a cute picture book, but the signs are nearly impossible to decipher and replicate with one's actual hands. Sign language is a fluid language.  The required movements are very difficult to duplicate in pictures.  If you must rely on printed text and illustrations (which will work fine for most of the ASL alphabet), purchase or borrow books with photographs of hands rather than artistic renderings.  A better suggestion, however, if you are seeking to teach ASL, is using one of the many kid-friendly DVDs, or YouTube tutorials.  Purchasing books which rely on simple, hand-rendered illustrations of complex signs is, in my opinion, a waste of money.  My co-worker did use our new books to teach me something - the signs for "wrong picture."  (I already knew the signs for "bad book.")

If you want to learn about deaf culture or ASL, check out the site for the National Association of the Deaf, or the National Institutes of Health site, or best of all, ask a deaf person.

Today is Nonfiction Monday.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Marathon - a review

 Yakin, Boaz and Joe Infurnari. 2012. Marathon. New York: First Second
Advance Reader Copy

From the publisher's website,

In 490BC, an Athenian messenger named Eucles ran 153 miles from Sparta to Athens, and in so doing preserved ancient Greek civilization from subjugation to the Persian Empire.

This is his story.

The Greek and Persian wars are standard fare in the history books of middle and high schoolers, but it's doubtful that school text books can generate the same interest level as this sparsely tinted graphic novel treatment of the epic run that made the town of Marathon synonymous with running -  Eucles' race against time and foes to save Athens from the advancing Persian army of King Darius.

Alternating between shades of gray for flashbacks of Eucles' youth, and shades of brown for the present, Joe Infurnari's illustrations are teeming with action and intensity, frequently spilling between panels. Some scenes do require close inspection to differentiate between the similarly swarthy characters and combatants not clothed in signature battle dress.

Flashbacks notwithstanding, the story is chronological from the point of the runner, though sections are divided not by time, but by distance and destination,

"'Distance from Athens to Sparta: 153 Sparta," "Distance from Sparta to Marathon: 158 miles," and finally, with pursuers close behind, "26 miles to Athens," to deliver the final message of warning,

It's Eucles!
Eucles returns!
What news?
Does our army stand?

Victory is ours.
-but the Persian fleet approaches.
They will arrive ... before our army is able to march back to defend the city.
The final 26 miles is the basis for our modern marathon races.  This year, the spirit of Eucles and Ancient Greece will live on in the city of London's 2012 Olympic Games. Information on the 2012 Olympic Marathon race in London (including a route map) is available here.

View a 7-page excerpt from Marathon here.

Aptly suggested for grades 7 and up.

The graphic novel format brings new life to ancient history.  This title should be especially appealing to boys.

Monday, June 18, 2012

George Bellows: Painter with a Punch!

Burleigh, Robert. 2012. George Bellows: Painter with a Punch! New York: Abrams.

New York City painter George Bellows (1882-1925) was a member of what  became known as the Ashcan School of painting because

he is among a group of artists who focus on the less romantic parts of the city, like bars, train stations, movie theaters, and alleyways.
He was taught by the well-known, Robert Henri, who encouraged his students to seek out scenes worthy of being painted.

George listens, looks, and learns.  He sees that painting can be a great adventure.  He becomes what Henri calls a "sketch hunter."  When not in class, George wanders the streets, looking for new or different scenes to paint.   Excited, alert, he feels his life is beginning in a completely new way.
Eventually, he becomes best known for his paintings of boxing matches in New York City's "clubs," which were created by saloon owners to side-step the city's boxing ban.

More than a picture book biography, George Bellows: Painter with a Punch!, offers readers an insight into an era of early 20th century New York history that includes industrial growth, socialism, poverty and the immigrant experience as well as the birth of a movement toward realism in American paintings.  Not just a painter, Bellows was also a sketch artist whose work appeared in Harper's Weekly and other publications.  An affable man with a loving wife and family, his story is inspiring and informative.

Burleigh's briskly moving prose is accompanied by photos of Bellows (he was a promising baseball player when young) and more than twenty large spreads of his paintings and sketches.

A helpful section, "Where to See Works by George Bellows," is included, with state-by-state listings. Check first, however, if you plan to look for any of his paintings this summer.  Some, including one from the only New Jersey institution housing his work, are on loan to the National Gallery of Art. The National Gallery of Art is featuring a George Bellows Exhibition from June 10 - October 8, 2012.

[Policeman and young boy argui... Digital ID: 805823. New York Public Library
This print from Harper's Weekly,
does not appear in the book, but illustrates Bellows'
penchant for depicting the seamier side of
life in New York City.
(image from NYPL digital gallery)

Best for older readers, art teachers, aspiring artists, and those with an interest in the history of New York City and the historical significance of art in boxing.  Though neither a student of art nor a boxing aficionado, I love this book!

Middle-grade teachers that do not permit or make use of picture book nonfiction such as George Bellows: Painter with a Punch! are missing a great resource.

Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Simply Science.

Friday, June 15, 2012

An invitation

You're invited!

Librarians from the NJLA Children's Services Section have begun a mock Newbery blog,

Please join us as we discuss past Newbery Medal winners, and try to pick the 2013 medalist. 
All are welcome!

You can find me there today.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

SYNC free YA audiobooks

It starts today!  Don't miss SYNC's free audiobook downloads - two each week, a current book with a related classic. The pairings are inspired and the books are free. The following information is taken directly from SYNC's site.  Go there today without delay!

Pass it on!

SYNC YA Literature into Your Earphones


2 Free Audiobook Downloads Each Week

June 14 - August 22, 2012

Teens and other readers of Young Adult Literature will have the opportunity to listen to bestselling titles and required reading classics this summer.   Each week  from June 14 - August 22, 2012, SYNC will offer two free audiobook downloads.

The audiobook pairings will include a popular YA title and a classic that connects with the YA title's theme and is likely to show up on a student's summer reading lists.  For example, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, the first book in a new series about a girl who opens a door to two otherworldly cities at war, will be paired with Charles Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities.

To find out when you can download titles to listen to on the run this summer, visit or text syncya to 25827. 

SYNC Titles

Summer 2012


The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch, Read by Dan Bittner (Scholastic Audiobooks)

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Frank Galati [Adapt.], Read by Shirley Knight, Jeffrey Donovan, and a Full Cast (L.A. Theatre Works)


Irises by Francisco X. Stork, Read by Carrington MacDuffie (Listening Library)

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, Read by Wanda McCaddon (Tantor Media)


The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, Read by Simon Jones

(Listening Library)

Tales from the Arabian Nights by Andrew Lang, Read by Toby Stephens

(Naxos AudioBooks)


Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake, Read by August Ross (AudioGO)

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Read by Ian Holm (AudioGO)


Guys Read: Funny Business by Jon Scieszka [Ed.] et al., Read by Michael Boatman, Kate DiCamillo, John Keating, Jon Scieszka, Bronson Pinchot (Harper Audio)

The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Stories by Mark Twain, Read by Norman Dietz (Recorded Books)


Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter, Read by Kirsten Potter (Oasis Audio)

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, Read by a Full Cast (AudioGO)


Pinned by Alfred C. Martino, Read by Mark Shanahan (Listen & Live Audio)

Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson (Brilliance Audio)


Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Read by Khristine Hvam (Hachette Audio)

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Read by Simon Prebble (Blackstone Audio)


Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, Read by Rupert Degas (Harper Audio)

Dead Men Kill by L. Ron Hubbard, Read by Jennifer Aspen and a Full Cast

(Galaxy Press)


The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, Read by Jay Laga'aia (Bolinda Audio)

The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Read by William Roberts (Naxos AudioBooks)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Nonfiction Monday is here! Featuring DK Pocket Genius

Welcome, everyone!  I'm happy to be today's host for Nonfiction Monday,
a weekly gathering of bloggers writing about nonfiction books for kids. 

DK Publishing. 2012. Pocket Genius series. New York: Dorling Kindersley.

I've always loved camping, hiking, plants and the outdoors, but was never much of a bird watcher.  My husband, however, is a bird lover and can tell the difference between similar waterfowl or shore birds at a great distance.  The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds has been a fixture in our house for ages.  After the addition of curious kids, we added the Field Guide to Seashore Creatures, North American Trees, and North American Insects & Spiders.  There's something very satisfying about these little books - a modern, non-lethal form of hunting perhaps.  I love that "Aha, I've found it!" moment when I discover the unknown bird in the yard or the little critter crawling on the windowsill.  So, it was with pleasure that I received the set of DK Pocket Genius guides for my branch.
Now granted, kids won't be able to spot a shark or dinosaur in the neighborhood and rush home to identify it, but the books are designed in much the same manner as adult field guides and will teach the same classification skills.  For example, Sharks begins with an overview of sharks, their common attributes, habitats and features.  The guide is then divided into two sections: Sharks and Rays, skates, and chimaeras.  Sections are then subdivided into types (e.g. Frilled and cow sharks) and then into the neat little photographic plates with which any fan of field guides is familiar.

Differing from adult guides, the informative text is presented in the same box as the photograph (no flipping to tissue paper thin pages in the rear).  Similar to adult guides, icons appear in each box.  These icons, however, are much more fun than a silhouette of a tree-clinging bird or coniferous tree!  The shark icon depicts a swimmer with a proportionally sized shark swimming above.  The Rocks and Minerals guide shows a hand next to the average size of a found specimen.  Animals and Dinosaurs icons compare a human body to the featured creature.

Each book also contains fun facts, an index and a glossary. And while they don't have the flexible, textured covers of National Audubon Society guides, they are still a cozy and satisfying size, about 5.5" x 6.5" x .5".  The publisher's suggested age for Pocket Genius books is 8 and up.

I may be nerdy, but I like them!

Future additions to the series will include: Ancient Egypt, Earth, Space and Bugs.

 I look forward to reading your offerings.   Add your link below using InLinkz.  Thanks!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Poison Most Vial - a review

I've got a science-themed book review for you today, but if you're a teacher, I invite you to visit the ALSC blog today as well.  Let's talk.

Carey, Benedict. 2012. Poison Most Vial. New York: Amulet.
(Advance Reader Copy)

When the famed forensic scientist, Dr. Ramachandran, is found murdered in his office at DeWitt Polytechnic University, suspicion falls on Ruby Rose's father, the university's custodian.  Someone has planted empty vials of poison in Mr. Rose's locker.  With the help of her friend, T. Rex, and the reclusive "Window Lady" from apartment 925, Ruby and Rex attempt to clear her father's name before he is arrested.

 Although it's not specifically spelled out, Ruby and Rex appear to be in 7th or 8th grade.  They attend the Lab School, located on the university campus.  Using their proximity to the labs, and the knowledge of and familiarity with campus that is intrinsic to a custodian's daughter, Ruby and Rex begin to ferret out the whereabouts of everyone present on the evening of the murder, monitoring the comings and goings of employees and grad students through a labyrinth of access points. However, more difficult than discovering who may have had opportunity, the pair must learn the science behind toxicity, absorption and concentration.  Exactly what was it that killed Dr. Ramachandran?  When? and Why?

To truly enjoy Poison, readers should be prepared to think.  There is the science of forensics to ponder, as well as the internal musings of the three main characters - Ruby, Rex, and Mrs. Whitmore, the retired toxicologist in apartment 925,

"Why, hello," said Mrs. Whitmore, opening her door.
     The young faces looked so different up close, she thought, and it seemed that the boy was more then (sic) merely anxious.  He was searching her face so intently that she averted her eyes.
     "Welcome," she said, stepping aside. "Do come in."
     The untied sneakers, the shuffling way they walked, the shifting eyes; like no one had taught these children the proper way to carry themselves.
     "I made some cakes," Mrs. Whitmore said abruptly.
"Pudding cakes.  Would you like some?"
     She disappeared into the kitchen and overheard the boy whisper, "It's the left one.  See how it bulges a little?"
     "No more than your big bug-eyes right now," the girl replied. "Jimmy's pulling your chain. He's got no idea."
     "Ruby," the boy said, "Why do you think they call him the Minister of Information if -- Oh, hello."
     Mrs. Whitmore marched back in with a tray from the kitchen and nearly dropped it on the coffee table in front of the couch. A piece of cake, and the boy -- Tex, was it? made to lunge for it and then recoiled, glancing oddly at her face and turning away, moving back toward the window.
    "This is real nice," he said in an alto voice that surprised her. "You can see all the way past DeWitt through here."
     "Yes, it's quite a view," Mrs. Whitmore said.
     Silence held them in place until the girl -- Ruby, with that pile of golden hair -- said, "This is so much bigger than our little window. It's like there's a whole village down there."
     Mrs. Whitmore smiled and felt the air return to the room.
Though this passage contains the unspoken musings of Mrs. Whitmore, at other times, readers will be privy to the thoughts of Ruby and Rex.  This style of writing places the reader squarely in the moment, illuminating feelings and motivation, and underscoring the danger of the youngsters' clandestine forays into restricted areas of the university. Struggling readers, however, may have trouble with Benedict's free-flowing style.

Not strictly a science-themed murder mystery, the back story in Poison Most Vial is Ruby's adjustment to her new life. Originally from the rural south, Ruby's father brought her north in search of better employment. His modest wage has landed them in the Garden Terrace Apartments, a dilapidated housing project in a neighborhood of rival gangs, closed stores and wig shops. At first, Ruby's only friend is T. Rex, a good-natured Jamaican boy from the large family in apartment 1113, but in the quest to solve Dr. Ramachandran's murder, she and Rex make some surprising new friends.
With the current educational focus on S.T.E.M. topics, and a current popular interest in C.S.I., it's hard to see how this book could not be a hit.

Today is S.T.E.M. Friday.  Check it out.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship - a review

Freedman, Russell. 2012. Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The date is August 10, 1863. Frederick Douglass has arrived at the White House, taking a seat on the stairs, determined to speak with President Lincoln.  Many others are waiting as well.  Douglass stands out in the crowd, not just for his size.  All the other petitioners are White.  Douglass, a freed Black is an outspoken critic of Lincoln.  The two men have never met.  Douglass has no appointment.  He is prepared to wait.

He does not wait long, however.  The President does see Frederick Douglass on August 10, 1863; and in Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship, award-winning author, Russell Freedman tells us why.

Freedman is a master writer, and ingeniously sets up this story of friendship. Chapter One, "Waiting for Mr. Lincoln," sets the stage.  The next three chapters detail the life of Frederick Douglass before his meeting with Lincoln.  Three subsequent chapters do the same for the President.  The final three chapters highlight the collaboration of the two men in pursuit of their mutual interest, abolition.

The extensive use of period photographs and artwork, as well as images of period realia (election poster, paycheck, editorial cartoons and the like) add interest to an already compelling story.  The depth of Lincoln's regard for Douglass is cemented by the revelation that Mary Todd Lincoln sent Douglass a memento after Lincoln's death, knowing that Lincoln had "wanted to do something to express his warm personal regard" for Douglass.

Appendix: Dialogue Between a Master and Slave, Historic Sites, Selected Bibliography, Notes (on the sources of more than one hundred quotes) and Picture Credits (including many from the Newbery Medal-winning Russell Freedman book, Lincoln: A Photobiography) round out this extensively researched book.

The Contents page indicates an Index beginning on page 115, however, it was apparently not completed in time for the printing of the Advance Reading Copies.

Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglas is suggested for Grades 4-7, and is due on shelves June 19, 2012.  It is a fascinating look at two of the most influential men of their time by one of the great children's authors of our time.  Highly recommended.

Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at True Tales with a Cherry on Top.  Next week's roundup will be right here at Shelf-employed.

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 ...