Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

...Comes Bob-Bob Bobbin' Along

For as long as I can remember their presence is one of several signs spring will be here soon.  First you occasionally see one or two, then you might see an entire flock covering a lawn as they migrate to their home territories.  The once cold, silent sunrises are now filled with a new song.

There is an old practice for bringing good luck when you see the first one of a new season.  Upon sighting one, lick the thumb of your right hand and then place it in the palm of your left hand.  You next make a fist with your right hand and stamp it on top of the thumb print on your left palm.  When you make a wish as you do this, it will come true.

According to this old tradition American robins, the state bird of three states, Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin, are like winged, four-leaf clovers.  When visiting a book store recently I knew I had to have Robins! How They Grow Up (Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 7, 2017) written and illustrated by Eileen Christelow.  You may think you know everything there is to know about robins but this book offers you much more.

We're robins!
Our black and white speckles mean we're young---a few months old.
Robin teenagers!
Why are we living in your yard?
Well, here's the story.

With that short introduction our two robin narrators begin a tale of truth on how they came to be talking to us.  It all starts in the spring when millions of male robins come north first.  It's not an easy trip avoiding treacherous weather and predator birds.  These male robins look for a secure area with plenty of food and water.  Then they defend their space and wait.

After weeks the female robins travel to all the places selected by the males.  Amid all the singing partnerships are formed.  Females look for the safest sheltered place to build a nest.  Like a potter molding clay they use bits and pieces of grass, twigs, leaves and mud as glue.  You can find these natural bowls just about any place they believe is protected.

Once the eggs, three or four, are setting in the nest the female keeps them warm with her body.  Did you know she turns the eggs to regulate the temperature?  Have you ever heard of a brood patch?  When these two teenage robins' mom leaves one time, a sneaky squirrel gets one of the eggs.  It takes two weeks for the remaining eggs to reveal their contents.

At two day increments we learn how the babies eat, how their feathers grow and even how they deposit their waste.  When they first leave the nest at two weeks, it's seriously frightening.  At this point the learning of flying and eating needs to escalate.  The dad has now takes charge keeping the birds safe at night by joining other males and babies in a large tree for roosting.  As lessons progress another baby is lost to a hungry hawk.  It's not easy being a baby robin.

Bathing is a must for cleanliness, bug removal and oiling.  At two months the learning is still proceeding with listening to adults and practice, practice and more practice.  At three months old the night tree gets more crowded.  Mom has hatched another set of eggs.  Within five months large changes take place and another one is about to begin.

Throughout the title Eileen Christelow has her two "experts" speaking directly to readers.  Their informed revelations compel you to keep turning the pages.  The insertion of sound effects heightens the realism.   You want to know the outcome of all their challenges.

Along with the narrative text, Christelow has the two robins making side comments within speech bubbles on nearly every page.  These comments include extra details such as why males chase other males from their space, coloration, animals which eat the eggs, baby food, and the function of tail feathers.  They are slightly humorous too.  To give readers a sense of time, she places the number of weeks and months old of the babies above a shift in the text. Here is a sample of the narrative.

Dad starts dropping the worms,
and we have to find them.
We poke, peck, scratch...
Then we learn a trick.
If we tilt our heads, we can see and hear better!  With a little practice, we're finding moths, spiders, caterpillars...and worms!

Our eyes are on the side of our heads.

Yeah, I'm looking right at you!

Rendered digitally using various Photoshop brushes, an iMac, and a large Wacom Pro tablet all of the illustrations are bursting with life.  On the matching dust jacket and book case you can almost hear the peeping of the babies wanting to be fed immediately.  To the left, on the back, an adult has captured a worm and is stretching it out of the ground.  This is placed within a small square framed in red on a white background.  The opening and closing endpapers are robin's breast red.

Eileen Christelow spans her illustrations across a page and a half, in a series of vertical panels, a single page panel, a series of square and rectangle panels on a single page or a combination of a large panel sharing a page with two or three smaller ones.  Her picture sizes perfect the pacing.  The two narrating robins are always outside of any frame.

To add interest to the visuals she has elements extend outside of the frames.  The perspective in the illustrations varies but many times we are given a distinctive bird's eye view usually on the ground because this is about babies coming into adulthood.  Her attention to detail is either a result of intense and long observation or extensive research or a combination of both.

One of my favorite series of illustrations is when the last baby bird is poised on the rim of the nest.  To the left of the page is a long vertical view of the nest sitting on top of a hoe in a storage shed.  Then to the right are five separate smaller pictures.  It's almost like stop-action photography how she frames the flapping of wings, the leaning over the edge, the leap and the fall and some flying.

To enhance your collection's bird titles Robins! How They Grow written and illustrated by Eileen Christelow is one you will want to acquire.  For libraries in Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin it's a must have!  At the conclusion of the book is an Author's Note, Glossary, two pages of facts, More About Robins! and Sources, print and online.

To learn more about Eileen Christelow and her other considerable work, please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.

Please visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see the other titles listed by bloggers participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.  It's amazing how much we all learn each week from these nonfiction picture books.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

To Be Seen To Be Recognized

In the early hours of yesterday morning, after finishing up a writing project, my canine companion and I took a stroll around our backyard.  As we were approaching the house, she began to growl.  She became more and more agitated.  As a mere human, looking into the night and listening, I still had no clue as to the cause of her upset.  Nevertheless, we scampered up the deck steps and into the house.  After turning on the backyard lights I swirled around as her barking increased to look at one of the biggest opossums I have ever seen running across the patio tiles.

To state the obvious, if you don't see something, you really aren't aware of it sharing your living space.  What can be described as upbeat, informative and completely hilarious Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You've Never Heard Of (David Fickling Books, October 6, 2016, Scholastic, Inc., February 2017) written and illustrated by Martin Brown introduces us to twenty-three animals about which we rarely encounter in books.  Readers will finish this title after visiting small, almost hidden, sections of land and vast areas around the globe with a greater respect for these creatures and the need to preserve and protect their habitats and lives.

The five paragraph introduction begins:
FED UP WITH THE SAME OLD ANIMALS?  HAD ENOUGH of hippos?  Bored with bears?  Tired of tigers?  Do you want animals that are fresh, new and exciting?

A diet of nearly 20,000 termites a day is a staggering figure but to a Numbat, a marsupial residing in Australia, it is a culinary feast.  And here's another interesting little tidbit; it has no pouch for the baby numbats.  Crossing to an island in the Caribbean we find the Cuban Solenodon which is a rare, dangerous and remarkable nocturnal being.  It actually has a ball-and-socket joint in its nose.  Do not, if you should ever see one, let it bite you.

On the continent of Africa there are two animals making their home in the southern portion who are almost neighbors.  The Lesser Fairy Armadillo and Zorilla use armor and stink respectively to protect them.  To give you some perspective skunks smell like roses compared to a zorilla.

Java, Indonesia is the only place on earth where the Silvery Gibbon can be found.  They are endangered because they are struggling for a place to live sharing the island with a huge human population.  As beneficial as bees the Dagger-Toothed Flower Bat flies throughout the islands of Southeast Asia and even into northern Australia.

A mouse that's not a mouse, a insectivore with a nose having four distinct uses, a rock-dweller with a name that should be on a Hollywood screen, a wild ass which runs at an astonishing speed and a critter so sneaky it can make its cat-like shape appear to be a snake are given places in these pages.  Kangaroos are mentioned more frequently than wallabies but the Yellow-Footed Rock Wallaby is in a class all by itself for beauty and leaping from dizzying heights in its rocky abode.

You would think you would have heard of a cow more than six feet tall, nine feet long and weighing up to 2,200 pounds but have you ever read about a Gaur?  Sand-hiding cats, bottom-of-the-world dwelling dolphins living in groups of a thousand, red, gray and golden descriptors for three endangered primates, critically endangered grassland antelopes of Kenya, the most massive population of large seals, a rabbit relative with exceptional grass-gathering skills for surviving winters, disappearing duikers and the comeback-kid Black-Footed Ferret are presented.

The manner in which Martin Brown weaves facts into easy conversation brimming with humor captivates and fascinates on the first page.  For each of the showcased animals he provides their name with a clever remark underneath referencing a distinctive quality.  There is a half to whole page discussion revealing their most intriguing aspects.  He includes in a sidebar their size, what they eat, where they live, their status on the threatened list and an extra fact.  At times Martin will include an additional sidebar with other items of interest.  Here are some sample passages.

...And although skunks might be able to pack a punch with their powerful fumes, it's a relatively local stink.  The stench delivered by the zorilla is even more potent and can be smelled nearly a mile away.  Imagine what it must be like up close!

Next time your dog lets out a mutt-fart just be thankful you don't have this two-tone African stinker for a pet.

of an Indonesian jungle at night.  The air is heavy and alive with clicks and hoots and howls.  Everything smells musty and damp.  You are standing in a small open patch of rain forest, halfway up a remote ridge on the island of Sumatra, and you're waiting for a banded linsang to come along.  It might be a long wait.

From the expressions on the animals' faces (wide-eyed looks) and comments on the front of the matching dust jacket and book case, it's a given this book is anything but ordinary.  When readers' eyes move to the left of the opened jacket and case a wary Speke's Pectinator whispers EEP!  Above him are postage stamp comical portraits of five of the featured creatures.

Delicate details and fine lines are filled with realistic but somewhat muted hues.  Each animal is given an entire page with elements sometimes extending over the gutter. (or half a body as in the case of the gaur)  Contributing to the humor Martin may have his animals making remarks.  These usually refer to something mentioned in the longer narrative.  As on the back of the jacket and case smaller framed-drawings are used to prove a point and extend comic comments for almost all the creatures.

One of my many favorite illustrations is for the Dagger-Toothed Flower Bat.  The background color is a chocolate brown.  Along the top of the page four bats with wings wrapped around them like blankets are hanging upside down.  All of them with the exception of the one on the far right has bowed heads and closed eyes.  The one on the right is looking down with a question mark within a thought bubble.  It is looking at the bottom of the page.  Along the bottom is the tail of the Long-Tailed Dunnart extending from the next page.

The copy being used for this blog post was found at the public library but after reading Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You've Never Heard Of written and illustrated by Martin Brown, this reader will be acquiring several copies; one for my personal collection and more to hand out to eager readers.  One of many very important aspects of this title is found in the final paragraph:

So maybe the black-footed ferret shouldn't be in this book at all.  It's not so lesser spotted anymore.  But, perhaps, it shows that being better known helps you have a future---and that is what this book is about.  1,000 black-footed ferrets isn't many---but it's better than 18.

Martin Brown dedicates two pages to a glossary at the end.  He also explains the eight terms assigned to threatened species.

Martin Brown does not have a website but he is the illustrator for the hugely popular series, Horrible Histories.  You can find a little bit about him there.  Martin talks about his work and this book in a guest post for The Federation of Children's Book Groups.  He also talks about this book at London Mums.  Martin is interviewed at Paper Nations on March 6, 2017.  For a look at the jacket/case of the UK edition follow this link.  The Classroom Bookshelf at School Library Journal features this title.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Friendship Finds A Way

The existence of cities and civilizations beyond our knowledge is intriguing.  They may have flourished centuries ago leaving behind only fragments of their presence yet to be discovered.  To believe there is a corner on our planet with people, animals and plants thriving today untouched by anyone other than themselves is thrilling.  Hopefully in the future there will be societies more wonderful than we can imagine not only here but on other planets in other solar systems in other galaxies.

To allow our minds to wonder about these possibilities creates stories which fascinate us with every word we hear or read.  Last year graphic novelist Faith Erin Hicks released such a tale into the children's literature realm.  The Nameless City (First Second, April 5, 2016) is a remarkable place filled with The Named.  These people, the city's people, remain neutral as it is conquered over and over throughout generations.

Strategically located at the base of a mountain range, it contains a passage carved through the mountains so the River of Lives can flow into the sea.  For thirty years the Dao have held the city but the Yisun and the Liao are waiting for an opportunity to take it back.  As this book begins a group of Dao children have been sent to the city from their homeland to begin training as soldiers.

Twenty-five year old Erzi, the first Dao born in the city, is the son of the current ruler, The General Of All Blades.  He and his highly skilled body guard, a woman of The Nameless City, called Mura are instructing the group.  In the midst of this one of the main protagonists, Kaidu, meets his father, Andren, for the first time. As their relationship develops we come to understand why they are meeting after so many years and the role of Andren in the city's politics.

On his first adventure into the city alone, against palace policy, Kaidu meets one of The Named who calls herself Rat.  She is understandably not happy with a Dao.  He simply wants to find his way back to the palace.  After a theft and an impromptu race, a bargain is made; food in exchange for learning how to navigate the city on the rooftops.

Over the course of more than thirty days as their mutual respect and trust grows, so too does our knowledge of the monks home called The Stone Heart, a place of refuge and keeping of the city's history, the power struggle at the palace between the ruler, his son and Kaidu's father and of the Northern People, original occupants and builders of the city.  A secret meeting observed and a gift (two seemingly unrelated incidents) result in heart pounding life or death actions bringing readers breathlessly to the conclusion of this first title.

The Stone Heart (The Nameless City 2) (First Second, April 4, 2017) written and illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks with color again by Jordie Bellaire begins three months after the electrifying conclusion of The Nameless City.  Rat has been spending time at the palace healing.  Tension between Erzi and his father, The General Of All Blades is intensifying.  Andren's plan for a council of all those concerned with the city is accepted by The General Of All Blades but not his son.

We understand something is amiss between Mura and Jonah, a former soldier now turned monk at The Stone Heart.  Rat reveals to Kaidu the monks harbor secrets forgetting he is Dao.  Two of Rat's friends are introduced to Kaidu, one grudgingly accepting his presence.  Two more key pieces in the ever-growing puzzle are supplied to readers; the death of Rat's parents and the saving of Mura by Erzi.  Every page turn sizzles with revelations as the pressure mounts.

A shocking betrayal will leave you stunned.  The status quo no longer exists.  New enemies and unexpected allies emerge.  Decisions with horrifying results are made to lessen the loss of life.

Adversaries within the city and outside the city are devising strategies.  That which has been stolen must be stolen again.  An escape under the cover of darkness holds promise but...what does the final panel mean?  Is a dark, bitter soul about to radiate pure evil?  (Talk about a cliffhanger...)

It is abundantly clear the heart of this trilogy as seen in the first two titles is the growing (unlikely) friendship and affection between Kaidu, a son of a Dao general and diplomat, and one of The Named, Rat.  As an author Faith Erin Hicks fashions this relationship in light of other bonds, Jonah and Rat, Kaidu and Andren, his father, The General Of All Blades and Erzi, and Erzi and Mura.  Expertly woven into the narrative, especially in the second book, are explanatory portions of the past.  The world Faith has built inspired by thirteenth-century China asks readers to think deeply about the conquered and their conquerors.

Told entirely through a skillful blend of dialogue and wordless images, the story captivates you through the universality of young people trying to make sense of the past, striving toward a better future while realizing their full potential.  The playful humor, the harbored feelings of wrongs committed, the emotional turmoil between parents and children and the strain of a city and country unraveling are displayed in Faith's use of words and language.  Here are some sample passages from book one and book two.

I guessed you'd go back there, and I was lucky: you did.
That's not fair! You can't beat me with luck!
Yeah, well, it happened.  Goodbye.
Race me again.
What? NO.
You have to!  No one is faster than me.
You're just going to have to live with one person being faster.
I'll take you back to the Dao palace.
Fine.  You take me home and I'll race you again.
C'mon, let's race.
Nope, done enough for today.  Race later.  Tomorrow, I guess.
Ugh, fine!  Tomorrow we race.
Just so you know, the palace is this way.
What's your name?
HaHa, I thought you said your name was Rat---
I did.
Do you want to know my name?
Why not?
I don't want to know any Dao's name. (Kaidu and Rat)

The city is a part of me, in a way that it isn't a part of you.
I was born here!  I grew up here!  I am the city's rightful heir.
You can't take that away from me because...because you feel sorry for a child!
A child who saved your life.
I will fight this plan for a council of nations.  I have supporters within the military.
I will not stand aside while you throw the empire away.
Then I will send you back to the Dao homelands.
I am the General Of All Blades.  I have decided on a path for the Dao in The Nameless City.  You will stand with me, or I will send you back to the homelands.
I've never even seen the Dao homelands.
You would send me away from everything I've ever known? (Erzi and his father)

The magnificent front of the book cases, on the hardcover and paperback copies, has raised portions of text and line work.  Each of the images is full of action nearly ready to leap from paper to reality.  From Rat and Kaidu running along the tiled roofs to Mura's warrior stance within Erzi's silhouette readers know they are in for nonstop adventure in this fantastic world.  On the opening and closing endpapers Faith Erin Hicks has drawn a map of The Nameless City and the outlying areas.

The intricate details in every single panel will have you pausing and going back to look at each one again.  The panoramic views are breathtaking and the close-ups bring you intimately into the moment.  The action sequences, of which there are many, are elaborately executed.  There will be times when you no longer feel like you are holding a book.  Instead you will believe you are watching a movie.

Some of my favorite illustrations are when Rat and Kaidu are running along the rooftops in the city.  Their feats display amazing agility.  When they leap across the river, rooftop to rooftop, you have to remind yourself to breathe.

If you have not read The Nameless City written by Faith Erin Hicks with color by Jordie Bellaire, remedy that immediately.  Then on April 4, 2017 run, don't walk, to your nearest independent bookstore to get a copy of The Stone Heart.  If they don't have it, stop by your public library to put in a request for them to purchase it or place a hold on a copy.  I read both these books twice yesterday.  You better believe when the final book in the trilogy, The Divided Earth, is released, I will get it as soon as possible.

To learn more about Faith Erin Hicks and her other work please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  Faith also maintains a Tumblr account.  To view panels from book one and book two please visit the publisher's website.  The publishers have created a guide, Understanding and Exploring the Middle-Grade Graphic Novel.  Faith Erin Hicks is interviewed at Geek Mom, Comic Book Resources,  Chicago Review of Books and the Los Angeles Times.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Comical Companions Continue

Can you hear that sound?  It's the music of shared laughter.  This happens when readers get to enjoy the company of their favorite characters over and over.  When those characters maintain the personalities we've previously appreciated, it makes the hilarity far richer.

Another marvelous transformation takes place with the readers and listeners.  When they leave the story walking out into the real world, a bear is no longer just a bear.  It may be Winnie the Pooh.  A spider is simply not a spider, it could be Charlotte.  Our view of the world is changed forever.

Last year readers met two creeping, crawling companions whose brand of comedy will always have us giggling repeatedly.  Snail & Worm: Three Stories About Two Friends won the Cybil Award for best Easy Reader.  This lovable duo is back in Snail & Worm Again: Three Stories About Two Friends (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 28, 2017) written and illustrated by Tina Kugler.  Neither will a snail nor a worm ever be anything but Snail and Worm.  If you see one, you will be looking for the other.  And you will be listening very carefully for their next outrageous and heartwarming chat.

Hey! Wow!
What's going on?
LOOK---I grew wings!

A sleeping Snail wakes when a feather falls on Snail's shell.  When Snail tells Worm the wings will be used to fly away, Worm is understandably sad.  At first Snail thinks Worm doesn't like the wings but Worm explains.

A silent sorrow descends on the two pals.  Then a stiff breeze blows the wings (feather) away.  Wise words are uttered by both Snail and Worm.

During their next conversation Snail finds a penny thinking it is a mirror.  The penny is facing out showing the portrait of President Abraham Lincoln.  In kindly but truthful queries and observations, Worm points out the differences between Snail's actual physical traits and those of the former president.  Readers will be shocked not once but twice as the ending depicts silliness and sensitivity at the same time.

In their third meeting Snail is suffering from an identity crisis.  Comparisons with a beetle, rock and flower leave Snail feeling dissatisfied.  As a true friend Worm steps in voicing a glass-half-full attitude.  While Worm and readers feel the relief of a personal disaster being averted, Snail's final remark is sure to trigger guffaws and groans.

The three stories are told entirely in dialogue using short, lively sentences uttered by Snail and Worm. What Tina Kugler does with her words is to leave pauses for her characters' and readers' thoughts and for her images to broaden and deepen the amiable discussions.  It's the final line in each story which reveals the extent of her skill when we are unexpectedly touched by tenderness or absolute folly.  Here is a sample passage.

Are you sure that is a mirror?
Yes, of course.
I am so handsome.
I did not know I was so handsome.
Are you sure that it your reflection?
Why, yes.
Look at my 
handsome chin.

If we were to look at the world from the perspective of a worm or of a snail, the plants, the flowers and leaves, would appear as Tina Kugler has placed them on the large illustration covering the matching dust jacket and book case.  Her blend of full color and line drawings creates a whimsical atmosphere perfect for her two characters.  The smiling faces on Snail and Worm welcome readers and advise us of the joy to follow.  Having Snail hanging upside down is superb.

A warm, golden orange-yellow covers the opening and closing endpapers.  Etched on these in white are ferns, leaves and stems.  A nearly identical picture of the duo as seen on the front of the jacket and case appears on the title page with wildflowers in the two lower corners.  Flowers, leaves, ferns and stems are placed on all the pages reminding us of the habitat of these two buddies.

Snail's eyes on the antenna with his curved mouth and Worm's longish nose and quirky mouth portray a full range of emotions.  It's amazing how much can be done with the placement of a dot in an eye.  Tina alters her picture's sizes depending on the point in the narrative.  Most of them are loosely framed or extend page edge to page edge.  She sometimes places Snail and Worm in their own small portrait-like shapes.  In this title her two-page wordless visual is very profound.

One of my favorite illustrations of many is a close-up of Snail and the "mirror".  The Lincoln penny is resting against a leafy stem as Snail's antenna arch up and gaze at it.  Snail is ridiculously happy.  Tina has placed a single leaf in the lower, right-hand corner as if to hold the picture in place.

The intended audience, actually anyone who wants to add joy into their day, will take great pleasure in Snail & Worm Again: Three Stories About Two Friends written and illustrated by Tina Kugler.  These short but sometimes tender and other times deliriously funny tales are worthy of repeated readings.  In fact when read aloud today as soon as the book was finished a voice rang out, "Will you read it again?"  "Right now?" I asked.  "Yes, right now."

To discover more about Tina Kugler and her other work please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  Snail and Worm have their own website.  Tina is interviewed at KidLit Artists on June 20, 2016.  Enjoy some of the tweets about this book.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Neatness Overload

In our area of Michigan last Wednesday we had high winds which caused power outages for many hours and for some, days.  The wind decided to leave her best handiwork in front of my home rather than any other house in the neighborhood.  The pile was more than three feet deep at some points.  Like others with less leaves, I could have left them for another wind to play with but on Saturday after four hours of work, thirty-two bags were filled with leaves and are now stored in my garage until pickup begins in April.

It's not that I am super-neat.  Okay, maybe I am but I am a librarian and there was no access to my front door.  When I read the newest title by Emily Gravett, Tidy (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, March 21, 2017), there was an instant kinship with the main character.  Although, with that being said, he does take neat-as-a-pin to a whole new level.  

Deep in the forest lived a badger named Pete, who tidied and cleaned and kept everything neat.

The wildflowers looked like a highly skilled horticulturist performed daily work in their midst.  The fox looked like he was ready to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.  The birds looked stunningly fastidious with nary a feather fluffed.  There was a place for everything and he put everything in its place.

When autumn appeared a single leaf fell into all this tidiness Pete had perfected.  Before long more leaves than could be counted drifted down to the forest floor.  Of course he had to pick up every single one.  He literally had mountains of bags.  Now, there was another problem.

What would he do with all those bare looking trees?  Oh, no!  He dug them all up!  The more he tried to clean, the worse it was for the forest until he realized there is such a thing as too much perfection.  

Pete had eliminated the essence of the forest.  He was without access to food and even his home.  This was an even bigger dilemma.  Fortunately this badger had a healthy work ethic.  Fortunately this badger still had friends.  And fortunately for the forest Pete had a new attitude...maybe.

Emily Gravett has been charming readers with her stories such as The Rabbit Problem, Wolf Won't Bite and Again! since 2005 when her first book, Wolves, won the Kate Greenway Medal.  (She won it again in 2008 for Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears.)  In this title sentences are structured to contain two rhyming phrases or two sentences are grouped with the final word rhyming which make this a read aloud treat.  To create a pause in the narrative, punctuation works to introduce a variance as does a single individual sentence.  

The story is told by an unseen narrator in an easy, conversational style providing a warm and inviting atmosphere.  This allows readers to speculate and form their own opinions as Pete pursues his perfection.  Here is a sample passage.

He picked up stray sticks,
he swept and he rubbed.
He polished the rocks,
and he scoured and he scrubbed.

The dust jacket, book case and opening endpapers (I have an F & G.) have an enormous WOW factor.  The opened dust jacket spans scalloped end flap to scalloped end flap.  The scallops edge around forest bushes, shrubs and trees.  It is a scene in Pete's forest.  The fox is looking up at the closing end flap information.  A magpie sits on top of the opening flap introduction.  On the left side tacked on a tree is a poster with Pete shelving a book which reads


The Tidy is placed on this book.  Near the tree is a rabbit and hedgehog.  The ISBN is held in place by the spikes on the hedgehog.  Beneath the title text on the right side is a die-cut opening which shows Pete placing a single leaf in a trash bin.  On the reverse of the dust jacket is another forest scene with Pete carrying a mop.  In the distance is his digger.

On the book case we are privy to another forest setting.  An owl sits in a cleaning bucket as a crow sitting on a branch dumps cleaning soap from a bottle.  A cleaning brush is sticking out of a hole in a tree trunk.  There is a die-cut in the book case front also revealing Pete.  The opening endpapers indicate it's autumn in the woods.  On the right is the final die-cut.  It's spring with pink blossoms on the tree branches on the closing endpapers and for once, no cleaning utensils are visible.  On the title page a rabbit watches Pete.  A rubber glove hangs from a tree and a bottle of soap is next to the same tree.

Rendered in pencil, watercolor and wax crayons each image is full of delightful details; Pete using a hedgehog to comb the fox's fur, birds carrying toothbrushes so Pete can scrub their beaks, a vacuum cleaner with eyes to sweep the forest floor, Pete's umbrella with a duck handle, the rooms underground in Pete's home and the numbered tags on the trees Pete returns.  (You are going to love the final two pages containing the publication information.) Many of the illustrations are spread across two pages in vibrant full color.  When Pete begins to go overboard on his neatness, those colors shift to darker more limited colors of browns, black and grays.  Emily's animals' expressions and actions are adorable; even the ants get in on the action.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is one of two on a single page.  Pete is wearing a flowered full-length apron.  Next to him is a soap bottle with a tiny blue bird on the label.  He is using a large sea sponge to scrub an owl sitting in a soapy bird bath.  The bird bath basin is held in place by two sculptured badgers.  Another small bird is leaning over the edge holding a tube of tooth paste ready to squeeze some on the next brush and bird in line.  This is just one example of the humor in this book.

This book, Tidy written and illustrated by Emily Gravett (it was released in Great Britain in April 2016) is a must read.  It needs to be on every personal and professional bookshelf.  The narrative, illustrations and book design are heartwarming, timely and timeless.  I know you will want to use it in April for Earth Day but it will be requested to be read any time of the year.  I love this book and so does the Kate Greenaway Medal committee.  It is on their longlist. (And I just read a tweet which says it made the shortlist announced today.)

To learn more about Emily Gravett and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  This website also contains many activities to be used with her books.  At the publisher's website are seven images to view, including the cover.  At The Guardian Children's Books there is a wonderful step-by-step article on how to draw a badger. At Teaching Ideas, a UK website, there are many story stretcher thoughts related to this title.  There is an older series of video interviews with Emily at Reading Rockets.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Courtly Contenders

Any time of the year, anywhere in the world, it is guaranteed a sporting event is taking place in which the opponents have the spectators rooting for a favorite with every fiber of their being.  Why they cheer for one over the other is usually based on a combination of reasons.  They may believe one is superior in skill.  They may focus on the challenger from their home town, state or country.  They may have a connection from having played the sport themselves.  They may even know one or more of the participants personally.

Some rivalries last for a season.  Others have been going on for as long as anyone living can remember.  Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports (Candlewick Press, March 14, 2017) written by Phil Bildner with illustrations by Brett Helquist gives readers the reasons this competitive relationship is decidedly distinctive.

Hey, guys---
yeah, I'm talking to you.
You see those two names on the cover?
Martina and Chrissie?
That's Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

If you have never heard of Martina and Chrissie, the narrator of this book is about to reveal the most interesting things you need to know.  To begin we meet Chrissie who was born and raised in the state of Florida. Between five years of age and eighth grade she managed to perfect her game to be ranked the number one tennis player in the country.  Her persona on the court was one of quiet determination.  Her distinguishing two-handed backhand was legendary.

She was still in her teens when she played in her first Grand Slam tournament.  She didn't win but she never gave up, fighting her way back to take a match.  You better believe the crowd was cheering for Chrissie Evert.

Martina was from Czechoslovakia.  At the early age of four and a half you could see her swinging a tennis racket and hitting balls.  By the age of fifteen, she was the national champion.

One could say Martina's demeanor when playing was super-charged with emotion.  This woman's feelings were released for the entire world to see.  Her best strategy was rushing the net.  This was not typical for women tennis players but this is the way Martina wanted to play her game.

When Martina and Chrissie finally met on the tennis court, Chrissie won.  She did it again and again and again.  No one could beat her for five years.

Given this competition between the two you would consider them adversaries.  Add in the fact one is from the United States and the other is from a Communist country during the Cold War era, you would expect them to hardly speak.  This was not the case.  They were the best of friends.

After Martina won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon their rivalry was stepped up a notch.  Spectators never knew from year to year who would be the champion or who would be the runner-up.  In the midst of this constant exchange of being the best of the best, a new coach challenged their friendship.  It was tested.  After all was said and done, who was the winner?

Imagine sitting in a room with a circle of friends.  You are about to hear a story of one of the greatest rivalries in sport's history.  You lean in toward a guy who looks you straight in the eyes and starts chatting about two of the best female athletes in tennis.  This is exactly the way you feel when reading the words penned by Phil Bildner.  It's as if the setting wherever you are reading vanishes and you are in the same space with him.

His delivery is eager and passionate.  We know this because the enthusiasm he has for his subjects is conveyed through his sentence structure, word choices and punctuation.  For emphasis and to create a cadence he repeats certain key words.  Here is a sample passage.

Chrissie was this All-American girl.
Patience and poise and precision.
Calm and collected and completely in control.
Her ground strokes were perfect, perfect.
From the baseline, she was automatic, automatic.
And that two-handed backhand of hers---oh, man!
Everyone copied the way she hit it.

Rendered in acrylic and oil on paper the illustrations by Brett Helquist we first see on the matching dust jacket and book case (and throughout the title) are utter excellence.  Look at the design on the front.  The net holds the title text.  The two opponents, the two friends on either side of the net, are eyeing each other, ready for action.  To the left, on the back, in the center is what appears to be a replica of a photograph of the duo when they are older.  They are walking off the court side by side, holding their rackets.  Martina has her arm around Chrissie's shoulders.  The opening and closing endpapers are a deep, bright teal blue.

When featuring Chrissie, Helquist has a golden wash to his images.  For Martina the color is hues of blue.  Regardless of the size of the illustration, which he alters to heighten the narrative, there is intensity in the facial expressions and body movements.  To portray the emotional nature of Martina, he brings us very close to her face at one point.

The close-ups of the crowd scenes during games will have you pausing to look at each person in the stands.  When a match is being played he alters his style going from Chrissie to Martina almost like panels in a graphic novel.  He uses a thicker white line to separate the action, placing the frames on a diagonal.  Like the game of tennis, his images are dynamic and lively.

One of my favorite illustrations of many is when Martina and Chrissie are younger.  They are seated at a table eating lunch.  Martina is speaking and Chrissie is listening with a smile on her face.  It is an intimate moment during their friendship.  They nearly fill the left page with the table extending to the right.  A small bouquet is setting on the table with the text above it.  In this case the background color is a wash of purples.

I have already read this book not once, not twice, not three times but four times!  The words of Phil Bildner complemented by the art of Brett Helquist make Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports one of my favorite picture book biographies of 2017.  I highly recommend it for your personal and professional bookshelves.  There is a three page timeline of Martina and Chrissie Through The Years at the conclusion of the book.  It is followed by a list of sources, books, articles, audiovisual and websites.  It's also important to note that Phil, with clarity, explains the Cold War in the context of his narrative keeping the flow going.

To learn more about Phil Bildner and Brett Helquist and their other work please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  Brett maintains a blog here.  You can view an interior image at the publisher's website.  Phil chats about the book at educator Alyson Beecher's website, Kid Lit Frenzy, during the cover reveal.  Educator Michele Knott offers talking points for this title on her blog, Mrs. Knott's Book Nook.  Enjoy the book trailer.

I hope you will all take a moment to stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other selections by bloggers participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Jaws Of Fate

People will never stop debating the subject of destiny.  There are those who fervently believe it is predetermined; everything happens according to a plan.  For many it is thought to be controlled by each individual.  Each choice made serves to direct us down a particular path.  If obstacles block the way, additional decisions may or may not alter the original course.

As a whole the domesticated canine clan seems to be fairly certain about the course of each day regardless of their human companions.  They know what they enjoy.  They know what they need.  And they know how to get what they need and enjoy.  Percy Dog Of Destiny (Boyd Mills Press, March 28, 2017) written by Alison McGhee with illustrations by Jennifer K. Mann is a tale of one determined dog who adores his ball.

Dog park?
What ho!

At the sight of his leash, Percy knows fun with friends is in his near future.  Before he can even consider leaving he has to find his ball.  After checking all his favorite, familiar spots in the house, he locates it sitting in his personalized bowl.  Percy is ready!

Along the way to the dog park Percy meets Molly, a poodle, Oatmeal Raisin Cookie, a dachshund, and Fluffy, a Great Dane.  Each one of them is carrying their prized possessions.  Four happy pooch pals race through the gate and along the fence.  Wait...where's Fluffy?  Oh, there he is.

They sniff and greet each other except for Fluffy.  The big guy would rather take a whiff of a nearby flower.  They enjoy other tail-wagging doggy diversions with Fluffy favoring a more individual approach to each one.

In the midst of their fun a squirrel taunts Percy, challenging him.  This squirrel wants his ball.  There is no way that squirrel is getting Percy's beloved ball.  When Percy summons his crew, the rotten rodent makes a move.  Woof! Woof!  What a fetch-tastic surprise!

When a dog love a ball, nothing else will do.  Wherever they go, the ball goes with them.  In this narrative author Alison McGhee displays her understanding of this canine characteristic perfectly.  Told in first pooch point of view, short sentences provide readers with the inside scoop on Percy's thoughts and actions.  Alison masterfully manipulates the plot toward the unexpected conclusion with a cadence created by Fluffy's signature deviations from the norm.  Percy's "pet-names" for his ball are guaranteed to bring on the giggles and grins.  Here are two sample passages.

Where's my special ball?
There you are,
my little porkie pie.

Time to pee on the tree.
Oh, Fluffy.

Percy is one perky pooch as clearly shown on the matching front of the dust jacket and book case.  That ball is going with him forever and always.  Look at the spine which extends to the left in the same width.  Those paw prints are moving forward with purpose.  To the left, on the back, the three friends, Molly, Oatmeal Raisin Cookie and Fluffy, are walking away from us as Percy stands over the ISBN with his tail happily wagging.  The combination of the pale yellow with the red reaches out and grabs your attention.  The opening and closing endpapers are covered in the same rich, radiant red.

Beneath the text on the title page, Percy is looking forward at readers with his ball firmly held in his mouth.  Jennifer K. Mann uses white space as an element in her design and layout.  It frames the other elements on each page.  She might have a single major image on one or two pages or display several on a page as when Percy is looking for his ball in the beginning.  She has him checking inside a shoe, a dresser drawer, a toilet and a waste basket.

The perspective is always at a dog's level.  When Percy's human sets off to the dog park with him, all we see are legs and the leash coming from above Percy.  The pictures rendered in pencil and digital paint have a casual but realistic feel to them.  The lines are loose and flowing.  If the expressions on Percy and his friends don't have you laughing out loud, the squirrel is sure to do the trick.

One of my favorite illustrations is when the four friends are running through the gate into the dog park.  The sheer bliss they are feeling is evident is their stretched body postures.  Even though each one is holding their favorite toy, you can see them smiling.  This image spans two pages.  The outline of the fence is spare with flowers along the outside and flowers inside the park within enclosures.  We can see the trunks of several trees and birds and butterflies flying.  The squirrel makes a first appearance; a foreshadowing of his dastardly intentions.

This book, Percy Dog Of Destiny, written by Alison McGhee with illustrations by Jennifer K. Mann is fabulous!  With every reading it gets funnier and funnier.  The pacing supplied by the blend of text and images, as any dog lover can tell you, is superb.  Readers will be asking you to read this again and again.  For a delightful read aloud session I would pair this with award winning titles, A Ball For Daisy by Chris Raschka and Ball by Mary Sullivan.

To discover more about Alison McGhee and Jennifer K. Mann please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  You can view interior images at Jennifer's site.  I know you will enjoy reading the post at author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast when she chats with Jennifer. There is a lot of artwork to enjoy.