Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Thanks to everyone who follows my blog throughout the year.  It is a labor of love, and I value each and every one of you who appreciates my efforts in promoting books and literacy for kids and teens via their parents, teachers, caregivers and librarians. I wish you all a healthy and joyous 2014!

 Enjoy this short performance by U.S. Navy Band Ceremonial Band
(in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

37 Auld Lang Syne

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome and  appreciated.

Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 Favorites

Another year has flown by.  I didn't post as much this year as in previous years, but a quick glance at my LibraryThing account tells me that I've read about the same number of books as usual (over 200).

There are many outstanding books published in 2013 that I'm sure I've missed. 
However, of the books I've read, 
these are my favorites:

(All book titles are linked to my reviews of same.)

  • Picture Book Nonfiction

Also wonderful:
How Big Were Dinosaurs? by Lita Judge (Roaring Brook)
Peace by Wendy Anderson Halperin (Atheneum)

  • Picture Book Fiction

I have great respect for librarian, Betsy Bird, and her blog Fuse 8 (where she took issue with this book), but I just have to disagree with her on this one.  Not only did I love it, I took it with me on numerous school visits where I read it to large and diverse groups of children; they loved it, too.

Also wonderful:
The Man with the Violin by Kathy Stinson (Annick Press)

  • Young Adult Fiction

  • Fallout by Todd Strasser (Candlewick)

Also wonderful: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters (Amulet)

  • Juvenile Fiction

  • Juvenile Nonfiction

Also wonderful:
Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (I "read" the audiobook version)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf - a review

If you check my LibraryThing account, you'll see that I have 15 books tagged "pigs," and those are just a few of my favorites.  Sometimes I even have a pig-themed storytime. Here's another book of preposterous porcine protagonists to add to my list of favorites!

Teague, Mark. 2013. The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf. New York: Scholastic.

(review copy provided by publisher)

The three comically large, anthropomorphic pigs are painted with Mark Teague's signature bold colors and droll style. They are as humorous as the story itself. The opening double-spread finds two pigs in their pen, playing basketball in a pile of mud, surrounded by empty soda bottles and scattered potato chips. A third pig, also in the pen, is seated in an armchair reading a book, a neatly chewed apple next to him on a smartly appointed white tablecloth.  All three pigs look toward the farmer,

Once there were three little pigs.  They lived on a farm, as most pigs do, and were happy, as most pigs are. Then one day the farmer told them that he and his wife were moving to Florida.  He paid the pigs for their good work and sent them on their way.

And so begins the familiar adventure with a comic twist.  One pig spends his wages on potato chips, one buys "sody-pop," and the third ("who was altogether un-pig-like"), buys building supplies. Teague's take on the story includes a hapless wolf who is very hungry and only somewhat bad.

The characters loom large on double-spread, full-bleed illustrations, making this a perfect book to share with a group. Jon Scieszka's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs may be the standard bearer for fractured folk tales, but The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf is a worthy addition to the canon of "Three Little Pig" tales. Great fun!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Free e-short stories for kids from author, Laura Sullivan

Just a reminder today, that author Laura L. Sullivan , (Under the Green Hill, 2010, Guardian of the Green Hill, 2011) is offering two short stories for free in Kindle e-book format now, for a limited time. While she has other short stories and books for adults and young adults, the following are written for young audiences. The links for free download from are below.  I became acquainted with Laura Sullivan online after reviewing her book, Under the Green Hill, back in 2010.  I will receive nothing if you download her free books (and neither will she), but if you enjoy them, I'm sure that will make her happy and she'd love to know about it.

"Clever Elody" is a feel-good fairytale about brains, love, and perseverance and is available for free until Saturday.  "Snake Plant" is a creepy tale (think "Little Shop of Horrors" creepy) and will appeal to every child who finds his mother overbearing (isn't that all of them?).  It's available for purchase at any time, but for free from December 15-19.

"Clever Elody"
 The romantic children's story Clever Elody features a poetic prince, and the poor girl who teaches him how to turn one borrowed chicken into perfect bliss.

"Snake Plant"
In the children's horror story Snake Plant, a young boy longs for a pet – any pet – but has to make due with an exotic vine that helps him battle his controlling mother.

About the author:
(from her website)

I am... hmmm...
A misanthrope who is full of hope?
A romantic who still can't quite manage to write an unequivocally happy ending?
This is what I look like, anyway, on a good day.

Laura Sullivan
©Laura Sullivan

I write everything, or if I haven't yet, I will. My published work includes middle grade fantasy; young adult fantasy, historical, and historical fantasy; and adult action/adventure/romance. Still waiting to find the perfect home are a YA contemporary with a male protagonist, and a flippantly literary adult comedy. I'll write everything else, eventually. 
I adore every single one of you who has ever read a word I've written.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Reason I Jump - a review

As you know, I usually feature children's book on Shelf-employed, however, this book, like Temple Grandin's, How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World, should be a "must-read" for teachers and librarians, and anyone who would like to hear "The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year Old Boy with Autism."

Higashida, Naoki. 2013. The Reason I Jump. New York: Random House.
Translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell.

With help from a computer and an alphabet grid, Naoki Higashida wrote a book that opens a window into the workings of a child's autistic mind. Written as a series of answers to simple questions such as:

  • "Why do you ask the same question over and over?"
  • "Why can't you have a proper conversation?"
  • "Why do you move your arms and legs about in that awkward way?"

   Naoki explains, to the best of his ability, why he (and others like him), do the things that they do.  Of course, not all people with autism are the same, but many have similar behaviors, and we should jump at the chance to understand them a bit better.

You can read this heartfelt book on your lunch hour.  It will be well worth your time.

Click here for the "Look Inside" widget from Random House, which allows you to preview the first 29 pages of The Reason I Jump.

Today is Nonfiction Monday.  Read all of today's posts at our new location, Nonfiction Monday.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Short, funny, and illustrated - two chapter book reviews

I recently finished two short, easy-reading chapter books by two very popular authors - Kate DiCamillo and Jeff Kinney.

Kate DiCamillo is nothing if not unique.  Whether gifting us with the mystical, magical, Magician's Elephant, the breath of fresh air that was Mercy Watson, or the delightfully improbable hero, Despereaux, DiCamillo never shies away from a new horizon.  In fact, I feel as if she has as much fun writing her books as we have reading them.

How else, but in a spirit of fun and adventure, could she gather

  • Flora - a "natural-born cynic," and avid reader of The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto
  • Ulysses - a dreamy, poetic squirrel with a superpower (typing), garnered from the interior of a super-suction, multi-terrain vacuum
  • William Spiver - a temporarily blind boy who prefers to be known by his complete name, so as so distinguish himself "from the multiplicity of Williams in the world."
  • two loving, but flawed (aren't we/they all?) parents
  • delightful neighbors
  • Mary Ann - a lamp
Humorous comic panels and sketches by K.G. Campbell are the perfect complement to this warm and funny, impossible story of love and poetry, friendship and family.

Flora &Ulysses resources:

  • Kinney, Jeff. 2013. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck, Book 8. New York: Amulet.

(Advance Reader Copy)

Download your own Hard Luck wallpaper here.
In Hard Luck, Greg Heffley finds himself temporarily friendless when Rowley gets a girlfriend and no longer has time to spend with Greg.  Since all of his previous life decisions have led to bad ends, Greg decides to trust his fate to chance, allowing an old Magic 8 Ball to make his choices.  How much worse can it get? (If you know Greg Heffley, you know it gets worse – much worse!)

This is not the funniest of the Wimpy Kid books, but abandonment and loneliness are not funny topics, and I give Jeff Kinney credit for tackling them, and doing it with  humor and hopefulness. Kids love the Wimpy Kid series, and they’ll love this one, too. Sure, it’s funny, but it may hit a bit closer to home than others in the series, and I don't think that's by chance.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Shark Girl and Formerly Shark Girl - audiobook reviews

My reviews of Shark Girl and Formerly Shark Girl, as they appeared in the November, 2013 issue of School Library Journal.

Shark Girl. By Kelly Bingham. 3 CDs 3:06 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2013. ISBN 9781469274997. $54.97.

Gr 6–10— In her hometown of Santa Clarita, California, 15-year-old Jane Arrowood's life changes in just a few moments when a shark attacks her. Near death, she's rescued by her older brother and spends months in the hospital—first in a coma and then undergoing painful operations and therapy to deal with the amputation of her drawing arm. Peppered with letters, text messages, and newspaper clippings, this first person account offers themes of fate and rebirth as Jane, a talented artist, strives toward recovery and self discovery. The callous nature of social media is a subtext, as the shark attack was filmed by a beachgoer and went viral on the Internet and in newscasts. A young amputee helps Jane as she battles doubts and depression. Listeners will not likely recognize that this is a novel in verse because Kate Reinders's reading does not reflect the poetic structure of the text; instead, it comes across as a stream of consciousness. Reinders's vocal dynamics guide listeners easily in the frequent transition between spoken word and thought. Though it has obvious similarities to Bethany Hamilton's nonfiction memoir, Soul Surfer (Paw Prints, 2008), Bringham's novel (Candlewick, 2007) is bursting with raw emotion and is a powerful story in its own right. Short and affecting, this would be a great choice for a book discussion group.

Formerly Shark Girl. By Kelly Bingham. 5 CDs. 5:06 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2013. ISBN 9781468274911. $54.97.

Gr 6–10— It's been a year since the shark attack that cost Jane Arrowood her right arm. Now, as she returns to school with her new prosthesis, she adds the more mundane problems of a high school senior to her recovery regimen. While suffering frequent and debilitating nerve pain, she must find a date for the prom, boost her grades, and struggle with the fact that her mother may be secretly dating. Her biggest dilemma is choosing a school. She had always planned to go to art school, but her drawing hand was lost in the shark attack, and her artistic endeavors with her left hand have not measured up. The alternative is to enroll in nursing school to learn a profession for which she has a great deal of admiration since her accident. A new boyfriend adds another wrinkle to an increasingly complicated life, as does the possibility of another surgery. Like Shark Girl (2007), this sequel (2013, both Candlewick) is told in present tense verse, though listeners will not likely notice the pattern of poetry. Instead, they will hear the poems as very short, titled chapters. Kate Reinders turns in an excellent characterization of Jane, using inflection to highlight the difference between Jane's utterances and her frequent unspoken thoughts. Her youthful voice is well-suited for the part. Listeners who made a connection with Jane in Shark Girl will enjoy the sequel, but it lacks the raw simplicity and emotional punch of the first book.


Copyright © 2013 Library Journals, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Invisible Boy - a review

Ludwig, Trudy. 2013. The Invisible Boy. New York: Knopf.
Illustrated by Patrice Barton.

With an opening that will break your heart, The Invisible Boy chronicles the school days of a quiet, lonely, artistic boy who creates his friends with paper and pencil.

Can you see Brian, the invisible boy?  Even Mrs. Carlotti has trouble noticing him in her classroom.  She's too busy dealing with Nathan and Sophie. Nathan has problems with what Mrs. Carlotti calls "volume control."  He uses his outside voice inside too much.  Sophie whines and complains when she doesn't get her way.

Nathan and Sophie take up a lot of space.  Brian doesn't.

To illustrate the above, a page bursts with brightly colored pencil sketches of Sophie and Nathan. Sophie - crying, back of hand to head, the other arm outstretched for dramatic effect. Nathan - arms raised to the sky, jubilantly shouting and joyful.  The facing page has a small, black and white sketch on notebook paper of Brian - bespectacled, hands behind his back, eyebrows raised timidly, eyes taking a sideways glance at the drama on the opposite page.  He's darling and he's cute, and his situation is heartbreakingly familiar.

Brian makes a shy attempt to befriend Justin, a new student, and it begins to look as if he's finally found a friend. When the popular kids try to make Justin choose between Brian and the rest, Justin reaches out his hand to touch Brian's shoulder to include him in the group.  As he does, the invisible boy is infused with color emanating from the touch of his new friend. He is invisible no more.

This is a wonderfully illustrated story about loneliness, and the small amount of kindness and compassion that it takes to combat it.  It is however, a shame that it takes the introduction of a new student to remedy Brian's misery.  Before sharing this one with a class, teachers would be wise to prepare suggestions for kindness and inclusion that will work within their own classroom settings.

The Invisible Boy wraps up with Questions for Discussion, Recommended Reading for Adults and Recommended Reading for Kids.

Note: Patricia Barton is also the illustrator of another favorite of mine, Mine!  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Girl Who Soared over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two - a review

Valente, Catherynne M. 2013. The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. New York: Feiwel and Friends.

In this third book in a planned five book series, September returns to Fairyland and is reunited with her two dearest friends, the Wyverary, A-L, and the Marid, Saturday.  She is older now, and perhaps wiser (perhaps not).  Either way, she maintains her same indomitable spirit. Though she has brought her hard-earned treasure to pay her way, her worth must be weighed instead, and so she steps up onto the brass plates of the till in Mercator, and her value is announced,

     "You have been accepted into the Treasury as a Contracted Villain with all the rights, privileges, and dashing uniforms due.  Please take your receipt."
     The tray of the register opened with a loud chime.  September had to stand on her tiptoes to see over the edge.  Inside was a long scroll with her name written in little calligraphy and Charles Crunchcrab [the King] writing in large calligraphy. Underneath, several words glowed with scarlet finality:
Royal Scofflaw,

professional revolutionary,

and criminal of the realm.

     A goodly number of illuminated ravens and rats and wolves and raccoons danced in gold and silver ink in the margins.  Beneath her writ lay a suit of black silks, trousers and shirt and scarf and shoes that had never dreamed of squeaking, the very best any Criminal could ask for.
If her journey into Fairyland requires her to be a criminal and travel to the moon in an old jalopy named Aroostook, so be it. September will accept  her status and her mission: deliver a box to the Whelk of the Moon.

That Cat Valente is a deep thinker on many subjects (love, loss and worth, to name a few) is apparent in this rich and complex series, filled with artful prose and magic of the most capricious sort.  It is hard not to stop and ponder as the denizens of Fairyland spout deeply held opinions on such topics as


     "All money is imaginary," answered the Calcatrix simply.  "Money is magic everyone agrees to pretend is not magic.  Observe! You treat it like magic, wield it like magic, fear it like magic!  Why should a body with more small circles of copper or silver or gold than anyone else have an easy life full of treats every day and sleeping in and other people bowing down?  The little circles can't get up and fight a battle or make a supper so splendid you get full just by looking at it or build a house of a thousand gables.  They can do those things because everyone agrees to give them power.  If everyone agreed to stop giving power to pretty metals and starred giving it to thumbnails or mushroom caps or roof shingles or first kisses or tears or hours or puffin feathers, those little circles would just lay there tarnishing in the rain and not making anyone bow their noses down to the ground or stick them up in the air. Right now, for example, as much as I admire your collection, your coins aren't coins. They're junk."
and marriage,

"Marriage is a wrestling match where you hold on tight while your mate changes into a hundred different things.  The trick is that you're changing into a hundred other things, but you can't let go.  You can only try to match up and never turn into a wolf while he's a rabbit, or a mouse while he's still busy being an owl, a brawny black bull while he's a little blue crab scuttling for shelter.  It's harder than it sounds."
The Fairyland series is for dreamers and thinkers, and lovers and revolutionaries.  There is no room for timidity in Fairyland.  Go forth boldly and revel there.

Advance Reader Copy supplied by publisher at my request.

Links to my reviews of

Monday, November 18, 2013

Electrical Wizard - a review

Rusch, Elizabeth. 2013. Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.  Ill. by Oliver Dominguez.

While Thomas Edison was busy lighting up big American cities with his new invention, Nikola Tesla was pondering the current that made it possible.  While watching a college professor demonstrate a new electrical machine,
Inspiration flashed.
Nikola realized that the motor didn't need to be run by direct current.  Alternating current, like the kind created by the hand crank, could power the motor. Sticking with alternating current would be simpler than converting to direct current -- and it would eliminate that awful sparking.
His professor scoffed, and when Nikola Tesla traveled to the United States to meet his hero, Thomas Edison scoffed, too.  Although he gave Tesla a job, Edison saw Tesla's alternating current (AC) idea as a direct competitor to the power grid he had already set up using direct current (DC).  The two men had a falling out and became rivals in the race to power the United States.

Despite Edison's attempts to discredit Tesla's AC, which Edison considered (or at least feigned to consider) more dangerous, it was Nikola Tesla's alternating current that became the standard for the US, due largely to its spectacular debut at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the culminating event of Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit up the World.

Tesla polyphase exhibit at 1893 worlds fair

Inside the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago
By Starks W. Lewis, Brooklyn, NY [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Oliver Dominguez' illustrations in graphite, acrylic, gouache and ink add a feeling of age and seriousness, and break up the lengthy small text.  Electrical Wizard is a great choice for those inventor reports assigned each year. (Teachers, please allow the picture books!)

Back matter includes:

  • "Ahead of his Time" - a look at another Tesla invention - wireless transmission
  • "Tesla vs. Edison: The Rivalry" - notes on the inventors' rivalry (see note)
  • "Scientific Notes" - detailed, illustrated notes on AC and DC electricity and explanations of events featured in the book
  • "Select Bibliography & Further Reading"
Though born in Serbia, Tesla eventually made New York his home, and it is home to the Tesla Science Center.

In Edison's defense, that he and/or his associates electrocuted an elephant with AC current is true (and in a rather gruesome footnote, he actually filmed the event), however, the elephant had killed three people and had already been condemned to die. Electrocution was considered a more humane method of death for animals than the alternatives of the time.  Edison is guilty of using this horrific circumstance in an attempt to gain commercial advantage over Tesla by using alternating current to execute the animal, thereby implying an inherent danger in AC. However, he is not guilty of killing the elephant or other animals without any cause or motive save his own financial gain, a point not necessarily made clear in Electrical Wizard.
  • 2003. "America's debt to Topsy." Economist 368, no. 8334: 33. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 16, 2013).
  • Pollard, JJ 2010, 'The eccentric engineer', Engineering & Technology (17509637), 5, 15, p. 80, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 November 2013.

Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra notwithstanding, Thomas Edison is one of New Jersey's most famous citizens. Though most know him for inventing the light bulb, he also invented most everything one would need to use a light bulb -  and most importantly, the system for delivering electricity to the lamp - in effect, the entire electrical system of his day.  He is also credited with inventing the phonograph and motion pictures. If you are in New Jersey, a trip to the National Park Service's Thomas Edison National Historic Park is an enlightening experience. (pun intended) ;)

Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is hosted at NC Teacher Stuff
where you can check out other reviews of nonfiction books for children and young adults.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Highway Rat - a review

As a very young girl, one of my favorite books was an old copy of The Fireside Book of Folk Songs. I loved songs with risk and daring.  I was especially fond of singing sea shanties, but my favorite song was "The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsies, O!"  In my mind it was so exotic and exiting. If gypsies had come to my apartment with a wagon, I would have gone with them in a heartbeat!  My taste in poetry was similar, and one of my favorites was "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, first published in 1906.  A dramatic, narrative poem, "The Highwayman" is a tragic love story about a robber and a landlord's daughter.  Hardly a likely poem for an elementary school child, but I loved it.

That is why I was so excited when I saw the cover for The Highway Rat. I immediately knew that it was based on the Noyes poem.  I was ready to like it before I even opened the book, and I was not disappointed.

Donaldson, Julia.  2013. The Highway Rat. New York: Scholastic.

Illustrated by Axel Scheffler.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Using the same rhyme scheme as the classic poem, "The Highwayman" (AABCCB), Julia Donaldson has done a spectacular job of remaining true to the meter, rhyme and mood of the original, while writing for a much younger audience.

The Highway Rat was a baddie.
     The Highway Rat was a beast.
He took what he wanted and ate what he took.
     His life was one long feast.
His teeth were sharp and yellow,
     his manners were rough and rude,
And the Highway Rat went riding --
     Riding -- riding --
Riding along the highway
     and stealing the travelers' food.

Accompanied by Axel Scheffler's vibrantly colored paintings, the story is bursting with energy - the eyes of the frightened animals wide with fear, the skies dark and foreboding. Heavy black outlining adds mood and shadow. The clever, "plucky" duck, however, offers readers the security that all will be well in the end. Her knowing look belies her simplistic dress.  It is she who leads The Highway Rat to his comeuppance and frees the rest of the animals from the rat's nightly thieving. He may not come upon the tragic end that Noyes' highwayman did, but the rat's larcenous ways do bring him to a tragic end,

As the animals rejoice and share the rat's plunder,

A thinner and grayer and meeker Rat,
     he robs on the road no more,
For he landed a job in a cake shop --
     A cake shop -- a cake shop --
And they say he still works in the cake shop,
     sweeping the cake shop floor.

I love this one! Little listeners will a flair for the dramatic will love it, too!

Poetry Friday is a weekly roundup of poetry posts and may feature original poems, favorite poems,  poetry book reviews, or poetry-related commentary and news.  Today's roundup is at Jama's Alphabet Soup.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Odds, ends, and a request

I'm blogging over at the ALSC Blog today.  
If you want to chime in with the name of a new kids' book that you can't wait to read, join me there.

In other news, if you don't follow me on FB or Twitter, you may not know of a free book offer that should interest you.  For the first time ever, the National Book Foundation (bestower of the prestigious National Book Awards) is offering free e-book excerpts of all of the finalists for the National Book Award in all three categories: fiction, nonfiction, and young people's literature.  The excerpts have been released as a three book series titled: The Contenders, with a book for each category. This is a wonderful tool for familiarizing yourself with the books, getting a "flavor" of each finalist, preparing booktalks for kids, or deciding what to read next.  The free E-books are available in most formats. Full details may be found at

And finally, a personal and totally non-book-related request:

My daughter is currently in an internship at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston (to say that she's thrilled would be an understatement).  The intern and co-op students at JSC have a Twitter account and are trying to reach 3,000 followers.  If you're on Twitter, please go there now and follow @NASAJSCStudents.  They're all working very hard and would love to share their activities with you.  Spread the word. Thanks.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Great American Dust Bowl - a review

Brown, Don. 2013. The Great American Dust Bowl. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

In a slim (80-page), hardcover, graphic novel, Don Brown offers a compelling account of the causes, effects, and consequences of America's 19th century push into the Great Plains - first for ranching, then small farming enterprises, and finally, large-scale, motorized farming.  Years of drought combined with loss of prairie grassland that had sustained the American Indians and the wild buffalo herds, led to dust storms of epic proportions that lasted for a decade. Describing one storm, Brown writes,

On May 3, 1934, whirlwinds lifted 350 million tons of dirt from the Montana and the Dakotas' prairie, gathered them into gritty clouds that reached fifteen thousand feet, a height equal to twelve stacked Empire State Buildings. 
Enough dust to fill 1,500 modern supertankers blew East.
Dust fell like snow over Chicago.
Midday Manhattan darkened beneath a dusty gray haze. Cars switched on their headlights to see. The Statue of Liberty seemed to disappear. Everywhere, dust: streets, sidewalks, grass, even the water in New York Harbor.
Panels of varying sizes, including double-spread pages, are presented primarily in sepia tones, denoting both the time period and the ever-present dirt.  Facts are presented in text boxes or within panels, in easy-reading Tim Sale Brush font, and dialogue (documented in the Source Notes and Selected Bibliography) appears in word bubbles.  Illustrations are pen and ink with "digital paint.  The hard-luck farmers are simply sketched, but convey seriousness and gravity.  Smiles can only be found on the "rainmaker," a snake oil salesman who profited from the sale of useless items that promised to bring rain, and on the faces of a small family who rejoices outside as rain finally arrives to break the drought.

When the rain came, it meant life itself. It meant a future.

The Great American Dust Bowl may be read quickly, but will not soon leave your mind. My library has cataloged this one as a young adult title, but it's certainly suitable for middle grades as well.  I highly recommend it.
  • Title: Dust bowl farmer raising fence to keep it from being buried under drifting sand. Cimarron County, Oklahoma
  • Creator(s): Rothstein, Arthur, 1915-1985, photographer
  • Date Created/Published: 1936 Apr.
  • Rights Advisory: No known restrictions. For information, see U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs(
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA
  • Title: Liberal (vicinity), Kan. Soil blown by dust bowl winds piled up in large drifts on a farm
  • Creator(s): Rothstein, Arthur, 1915-1985, photographer
  • Date Created/Published: 1936 March.
  • Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Other reviews @

Other outstanding books featuring the Dust Bowl Era:

Other Don Brown books reviewed by Shelf-employed:
Looking for more reviews of nonfiction books? 
Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Wrapped in Foil.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Short stories, short shrift, and free Kindle stories

In the world of reading, short stories get short shrift.  Perhaps it's because we don't have a shared body of popular, modern works that we can discuss with friends and family, or because there are few mainstream published collections, or because the only time we've read them was in school when we were forced to analyze them to death.Whatever the reason, I wish they were more popular, especially for young people and reluctant readers.

Recently, there have been two great efforts to get short stories into the hands of kids.
  1. Jon Scieszka's Guys Read, are themed collections of short stories.  Vol. 1, Funny Business, Vol. 2, Thriller, and Vol. 3, Sports.  Stories are written by such heavy hitters as Christopher Paul Curtis, Kate DiCamillo, Adam Rex, and Jack Gantos, just to name a few. 
  2. Kazu Kibuishi's Explorer series does for the graphic novel, what Scieszka's collections do for boy-themed stories. Vol. 1, The Mystery Boxes, and Vol. 2, The Lost Islands . Here, the premise is slightly different.  The stories aren't within a certain genre, rather they  feature a certain item - a mysterious box in Vol. 1, and a mysterious island in Vol. 2. These also feature big name artists, e.g., Jake Parker, Dave Roman, and Raina Telgemeier. (My book club kids want to Skype with Raina Telgemeier ... just throwing that out there')  
For a YA audience, my favorite collection of short stories is Kathi Appelt's, Kissing Tennessee: And Other Stories from the Stardust Dance.

Laura Sullivan
©Laura Sullivan
So, why am I going on about short stories today?  Because, in addition to writing middle-grade fantasy and young adult historical fiction, author Laura Sullivan (Under the Green Hill, Guardian of the Green Hill, Ladies in Waiting, Delusion), is also a master of the short story. 

While all of her stories are available for sale, she is making them available for free in Kindle e-book format for a limited time.  Below is a list of all the available stories.  

Two are written for young audiences  "Snake Plant" is a creepy tale (think "Little Shop of Horrors" creepy) and will appeal to every child who finds his mother overbearing (isn't that all of them?) and "Clever Elody" is a feel-good fairytale about brains, love, and perseverance. 

"Snake Plant"
In the children's horror story Snake Plant, a young boy longs for a pet – any pet – but has to make due with an exotic vine that helps him battle his controlling mother.

"Clever Elody"
 The romantic children's story Clever Elody features a poetic prince, and the poor girl who teaches him how to turn one borrowed chicken into perfect bliss.
 Mark your calendar and take advantage of these free short stories as they become available - or spring for a few dollars and buy them whenever you the mood strikes you.
Thanks, Laura! :)

Lana Halliday is a comedy for adults about a consummate meddler who saves her friend from a gold-digger.
(Note: I read this story as well.  It's a great yarn that, while modern, harkens back to classic stories of simpler times.)
Larval is an adult science fiction story about a dissolute young man who finds out that humans are only a larval stage of a vastly powerful organism.
In A Man of Kiri Maru, a scientist visiting an exotic island falls in love and must undergo a ritual involving the dangerous, man-sized Humboldt squid.
An Ideal Household Appliance is an adult science fiction story featuring an insect-loving genius obsessed with the woman next door.
In Louring Age, an independently-living ancient woman with a vivid past comes up with a scheme to fleece residents of a nursing home... and then finds herself trapped there, mistaken for someone with Alzheimer's.
The Butterfly Hunter is an adult horror story about a man who devotes his life to shooting butterflies.
An Artistic Temperament is a comedy about a sixteen year old girl on holiday who is traumatized (and liberated) when she meets a man pretending to be an artist who specializes in death scenes.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fortunately the Milk - a review

Gaiman, Neil. 2013. Fortunately, the Milk. New York: Harper Collins.

With Mum out of town and the fridge out of milk, a boy and his sister await their father's return from the store with milk for breakfast.  After an interminably long wait, he comes homes and relates a most outlandish story (frequently interrupted by his son) explaining his lengthy absence.  Much occurred on his journey, but fortunately, he managed to save the milk.  Is it a true story? You decide.

Something very long with a head on the end of it came over to us.  It was attached to a very large body, on the other side of the room. "Who are you?" it asked Professor Steg, "And why is your gorilla holding a transtemporally dislocated milk container?"
"I am not a gorilla," I said.  "I am a human father."
"The human is holding the milk in order to make these evil redecorating snot-bubbles go away and stop menacing this planet and us," said Professor Steg.
The Diplodocus in a police cap opened its mouth and didn't say anything.
The Tyrannosaurus, who had handcuffed all of the green globby people together with something that looked a lot more like pink string-in-a-can than it looked like handcuffs, which was a good thing because they probably didn't have hands and they definitely didn't have wrists, stared at us and his eyes opened wide."
"Great day in the morning!" he exclaimed. 
Humorous black and white illustrations and occasional illustrated text, accompany this explosive burst of ridiculousness. Every father should come home late with such an excuse. A yarn like this is well worth the long wait for milk. Great fun - especially for reluctant readers, boys, and budding humorists.

One caveat: Although it's short (I read it on my lunch break), and fun and silly, making it the perfect choice for reluctant readers, both the son and the father narrate in the first person, which could make it slightly difficult for struggling readers.

This is the official Harper Kids book trailer, however, I prefer the British version from Bloomsbury Publishing for its silliness.They're both fun. Check them out.

Skottie Young illustrated the US version. The UK version was done by Chris Riddell.  Interestingly, the US version is called Fortunately, the Milk, while the UK version is called Fortunately, the Milk ... (note the ellipses)  Want to see the difference?  Click for an excerpt from the UK version. Click for an excerpt from the US version.  Funny how publishers assume that we need different versions.  Other than a few unnecessary u's and misplaced c's (no offence meant, neighbour), I think we're generally on the same page and would do just fine with the same version. No?

Canadians, when there is a UK and a US version, which do you prefer?

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Man with the Violin - a review

Stinson, Kathy. 2013. The Man with the Violin. Toronto: Annick Press.  Ill. by Dušan Petričić.

Kathy Stinson's story of a boy who is interested in his surroundings and captivated by the music of a performing violinist is perfectly complemented by the illustrations of Dušan Petričić. Targeted use of watercolors highlight the flow of music and joy emanating from the violinist and the spirited observations of the child. Wanting to linger, the boy is instead pulled along, forced to adhere to the busy schedule of his mother who hurries obliviously through the crowd.  In a satisfying conclusion, the mother later finds the time to appreciate and savor the music that so captivated her young son in the transit station.

Sure to be counted among one of 2013's best picture books, The Man with the Violin is a reminder that the world is often seen and heard best through the eyes and ears of a child.

While this is not actually a nonfiction book, it is based on a true story, an experiment done by the Washington Post.  Read the Washington Post article by Gene Weingarten and watch the actual footage of violin virtuoso Joshua Bell playing in the L'Enfant Metro Station in Washington, DC.  For almost 45 minutes, harried commuters passed by, barely noticing the music of Joshua Bell. There was indeed, a young boy who wanted so badly to watch the performance, but his mother was too pressed for time.  It's a lesson for us all.

For today's roundup of children's nonfiction book reviews, visit Booktalking, where author Anastasia Suen is hosting today's Nonfiction Monday.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A librarian's thoughts on conferences, workshops and such

In addition to being a librarian, I am also a long-time school board member.  Whenever feasible, I have attended state (and sometimes, national) conferences and workshops.  Sometimes, these events are better than other times, but in general, I enjoy learning new things, meeting up with other similarly-interested professionals, and staying abreast of things that affect the education of children in my state and the nation.

Today, however, I realized several things ...

The difference between the annual gatherings of librarians and the annual gatherings of school board members has changed dramatically over the years.  When I return home from a conference of librarians, I am generally enthused, enlightened, and filled with new ideas to bring back to my library.  I used to feel the same when I returned from school board workshops.  This year, however, I was struck by how many of the sessions, labs, and programs were related to budgetary obligations, legal issues, compliance instructions, regulatory updates, legislative updates and the like.  Yes, there were still groups of students performing, and there were enthusiastic young teachers promoting STEM objectives - but even these joyous expressions of creativity and knowledge are seen through the lens of logistics and regulation.  Can we afford to bus these student entertainers to the conference?  Does this exciting lesson in rocket building fill the requirements of the CCCS?  In general, the school community seems to be less A B C than B B B,  beleaguered, besieged, and beset.  Truly, it is amazing how many wonderful and positive things are being done in school communities despite the many obstacles that face them.

Wherever you live, if you are a public librarian, a parent, or a concerned citizen, take an interest in your public schools and offer your support.  Chances are, they are doing their best with a limited budget in an increasingly regulated and litigious world.

OK, off my soapbox now.  Thanks for listening.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A visit with Claire Legrand

A few days ago, I was lucky enough to have Claire Legrand visit my library.  She is the author of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls (2012) and The Year of Shadows (2013), both published by Simon and Schuster.  An eclectic crowd of 5th-7th-graders, parents, and older adults attended the program.  Everyone was impressed.  Though Claire's books may be classified as middle-grade horror and the stuff of nightmares, Claire, herself, is a delight.  In fact, the most often asked question was "How did you ever think of that?!" "That" being something creepy, horrific, or downright terrifying.  (How could someone so nice spawn Miss Cavendish, one of the most frightening villains of children's literature?)

I'm holding Igor from The Year of Shadows
Ms. Legrand shared her earliest writings and drawings (horses, unicorns, more horses), her rejection letters (74), her publisher's edit requests (11 pages), passages from each book (creepy ones),  a bowl of candy (Starburst and Three Musketeers), and a bit of herself (as I said, she's delightful). She was inspiring, but took care to underscore the simple fact that writing is hard work; it takes time and dedication. After her presentation, she stayed on to sign books and chat with attendees. No one left empty-handed. Kids who did not purchase a book for signing were sent home with attractive autographed bookmarks (one featuring each book).

If you have the opportunity to have Claire Legrand visit your school or library, take it!
 (She Skypes, too!)

A Reading Guide and the first chapter of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls are available at the author's website. 

Reviews for The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls:

Reviews for The Year of Shadows:

Next up for Claire Legrand - an anthology of dark, short stories for middle grade readers, The Cabinet of Curiosities (Harper Collins, 2014), and Winterspell (Simon & Schuster), a young adult, dystopian retelling of The Nutcracker.  Find her on Twitter @clairelegrand

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Snatchabook blog tour

Thanks to the interns at Sourcebooks, I'm excited to be a part of The Snatchabook blog tour. The Snatchabook is a skillfully rhymed bedtime story featuring the cutest little villain, a Snatchabook. The illustrations are cheerful but nuanced, and will offer many details to discover as the book is shared again and again.  It's sure to be a bedtime favorite.

The Snatchabook's author, Helen Docherty, has graciously accepted an offer to answer a few questions.

Lisa: The Snatchabook has put me in a lighthearted mood, so here are a few lighthearted questions!
 Snatchabook is such a cute name.  Was it the seed that started the story, or did it grow from the story?

Helen: The idea of a book thief came to me first, and it was while I was trying to find the right name for him that the character and the story started to form in my mind. At first I wasn’t sure what he would be like, or what to call him, so I played around with names; the book cruncher? The book snatcher? These seemed to suggest quite a menacing character, which wasn’t at all what I wanted, so I tried inverting the words - and that’s when the Snatchabook was born. As soon as I had named him, an image started to form in my mind of a pitiful, lonely little creature who just needs someone to read to him – hence his desire to steal books, which symbolize to him the joy and warmth of sharing a story at bedtime. So I guess you could say that the name and the story came together.

Lisa: Helen, did you leave Thomas (Docherty) alone to illustrate the story as he imagined it, or could you not resist giving suggestions? (I know that I would have a hard time resisting!)

Helen: To be honest, it would have been impossible to resist, given that we see each other all the time (or at least that’s my excuse)!  Actually Tom was more than happy to discuss the development of the characters and the setting with me – it was a very collaborative process, and we had lots of fun discussing how the Snatchabook and Eliza would look. Of course, he added many visual details that I could never have dreamed up, all of which greatly enhance the story. He always asks me for feedback at every stage of the illustration process, just as I read him my stories and seek his advice. It’s great to have a critical eye / ear available around the clock!

Lisa: What were your favorite bedtime stories when you were young?

Helen: There are too many to choose from! Some of my best early memories are of being read the Winnie the Pooh stories and being convulsed with laughter. I also loved a series about a panda pajama case called Ponder, the My Naughty Little Sister stories and a Norwegian series by Anne-Cath Vestly about a little girl called Aurora and her family. Favorite picture books included The Bear’s Winter House (by John Yeoman and Quentin Blake), The Giant Jam Sandwich (by John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway) and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. I was a huge fan of Russell Hoban’s Frances books, too. Luckily, I managed to hang on to most of my favorite books from childhood, and it now gives me enormous pleasure to read them to my own kids. I hope I can keep doing that for as long as possible.

(The Snatchabook has apparently snatched all of Helen's favorites!)

Lisa: How wonderful will it be when your children can read The Snatchabook to their children?  You don't have to answer that one.  I think I can imagine!

Helen: Our five year old daughter Lucia read it to us the other day – or rather, to the gorgeous Snatchabook puppet that Pippa Curnick at Alison Green Books (our UK publishers) made for us. Lucia is just learning to read, but she knows the words almost off by heart. So that was a very special experience indeed!

Lisa: Such a fun story.  I can't wait to try it out in story time at the library! Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat with you,

Visit The Snatchabook's website to snatch up an Educator's Guide and Activity Kit.

My copies of the Snatchabook were provided at my request by NetGalley and Sourcebooks.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Tree Lady - a review

Hopkins, H. Joseph. 2013. The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever. Ill. by Jill McElmurry.

From her school, Kate could see City Park in the hills above town.  It was called a park, but it didn't look like one.  It was where people grazed cattle and dumped garbage.    
Most San Diegans didn't think trees could ever grow there.
But Kate did.

With a recurring theme of "but Kate did," The Tree Lady recounts how Kate Sessions (1857-1940), defied all expectations by enjoying the outdoors as a young girl, obtaining a science degree from a prestigious university (unheard of for a woman in 1881!), and resolutely turning a barren, desert park into a green and leafy oasis that remains a jewel of the City of San Diego to this day.  McElmurry's painted, double-spread illustrations get the colors just right and project an "old-timey" feeling that kids will immediately recognize. Katherine Olivia Sessions' story, The Tree Lady, is an inspiring and informative book for anyone, but should most definitely be in every elementary school in San Diego, where she is known as "The Mother of Balboa Park," the name given to City Park in 1915.

Having lived for many years in the Northern reaches of San Diego County, I was thrilled to learn the history behind one of my favorite places. Balboa Park is the larges urban park in North America, containing more than 1200 acres of land. By comparison, Central Park in New York consists of about 778 acres.

In addition to Kate Sessions' trees, the park houses the world famous San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Museum of Art and more than ten other museums, the Old Globe theater, the Starlight Bowl, more than fifteen individual gardens, restaurants, trails, a Spanish village, a United Nations Building, a carousel (circa 1910), and more.  Located in the heart of town, it is open and accessible to all, with many roads running through it.  No trip to San Diego is complete without a visit to Balboa Park.  I'm wistful just thinking of it.

Food for thought:
Kate Sessions imported trees and plants from around the globe that she knew would prosper in San Diego's unique climate.  Given the current focus on sustainability and native plantings, I wonder if such a project would or could ever be undertaken today. This would be an interesting topic to explore in the higher grades.

Nonfiction Monday is hosted today by Perogies & Gyoza.  All of today's nonfiction posts will be featured there.
For those of us in the U.S. (our meme host today is in Japan), enjoy your Columbus Day!  Hopefully, for you, it is a holiday from work.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Tangle of Knots - a review

Graff, Lisa. 2013. A Tangle of Knots. New York: Philomel.

A travelling salesman with a Talent for tying knots. "The Owner," a man with no discernible Talent of his own, other than perhaps floating a few inches above the ground. Miss Mallory, who has a Talent for matching orphans with new families. And Cadence,

If you peeked in the window of the orphanage you would see her,

"Cadence, that was her name.
She was standing there now, Cady, deciding what to add to her bowl of batter.  If you squinted through the window, you could just make her out from the chin up (Cady was barely a wisp of a thing). You'd see the shiny, crow-black hair that hung smooth as paper from the top of her head to the bottom of her earlobes.  And you'd see the petite - pixieish, Miss Mallory called them - features of her face.  Tiny nose, tiny mouth, tiny ears.  Cady's eyes, however, those were large in comparison to the rest of her.  Large and dark and round, and set just so on a face the color of a leaf that has clung too long to its tree."

Cady has a Talent for baking the perfect cake.

A chance encounter in a long ago bus station,  a powder blue suitcase, a boy with a Talent for getting lost - these and hundreds of other threads are tangled together, and slowly unravel to reveal a mystery of love and longing and desire and family. A wonderful book!

If you read no other middle grade fiction book this year, you will have made a good choice.

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 ...