Quote of the Month

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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

PSST! Celebrating Xena's Birthday With A Cat Book But Don't Tell Her

Fifteen years ago on the twenty-first day of August a sweet girl puppy was born; the runt in a litter of Chocolate Labrador Retrievers.  Knowing she would need to make up for her size in spirit, I named her Xena, the Warrior Princess.  Anyone who meets her agrees the name fits her perfectly.  Her zest for life is contagious.

As a youngster she was so small she needed three meals a day.  For the first six months of her life with me, she came to the elementary school library, safely tucked away in my office.  She was frequently seen on my lap during story times.  Over the years when I worked evenings, weekends and summers at school, she was a constant companion.  We have rarely been apart.

This form of devotion, a love that's completely unconditional, is a rare gift we humans receive from our animal friends.  People from all walks of life will readily concur with their own stories about these daily moments.  One of the more notable examples of this faithfulness can be found in one of this year's newer titles, Mummy Cat (Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 21, 2015) written by Marcus Ewert with illustrations by Lisa Brown.

The winds hiss over desert sand.
The moon shines down on empty land.
And long ago...

Traveling back in time to ancient Egypt, within the walls of a pyramid built to house a queen, a being stirs after one hundred years of stillness.  It's a cat, wrapped in cloth, which awakes from death.  Each century this cat seeks to see if his friend, Hat-Shup-set, no longer sleeps.  During her reign the two were inseparable.

Paintings in the tomb chronicle their lives and shared experiences.  Days resting during game challenges, playing along and on the River Nile, dreaming and lounging beside the pool and posing for an artistic pal are some of the pastimes they relish.  Treachery ends their joy.

Each is prepared, carefully bound, for their journey into the afterlife.  This the cat sees while searching for his queen as sadness descends like a shroud.  Ahead a doorway leads to a room, a storehouse for lifetime treasures.

At the center a coffin bears a likeness of the beloved young woman.  All the cat desires is to see her again after three thousand years.  Waiting.  Wanting.  Wishing. Wonderful!

As quietly as the tomb in which the story begins Marcus Ewert writes words in gentle rhyme flowing flawlessly.  We are wrapped, like the mummies, in history woven into the narrative.   We learn of a culture past and of a rare friendship standing the test of time.  Here is a sample passage.

Or this mural of a noontime nap:
dreams of mice, on the queen's own lap.
Their couch was set beside the pool.
The shade from date trees kept them cool. 

Unfolding the dust jacket readers see a happy mummy cat arising from a long sleep; hieroglyphs on the coffin spelling out the title.  Like the cat the text is wrapped in cloth.  Two yellow butterflies appear here and on interior images throughout the book.  Perhaps they are representative of transformation, souls living after death or acting as guides.  A single mouse watches.  On the back, to the left, two other mice, friends with the first, gaze at a painting on the wall of the tomb, the queen happily holding the cat on her lap.

A stylish book case, different from the jacket, uses a darker gray as the background, appearing like stone. (This is used again in the body of the book.)  An Egyptian pattern adorns either side of the spine.  On the front the queen and her cat are walking together in life.  On the back they are walking away from us as they appear in death.  The opening and closing endpapers are rows of two different lotus shapes; highly symbolic in ancient Egypt.

Lisa Brown starts her visual story on the double-page spread for the title page with a panoramic view of the Egyptian desert with pyramids and a setting sun.  A closer view is presented to readers under a full moon on the next two-page image.  Each set of two pages brings us closer to the door of the tomb and finally inside.  The textured floors and walls supply a realistic but important background helping to make the fine details in the artwork, cat, mice and butterflies, the queen and her sister visually stunning.

A series of smaller images are placed on a white background to serve as an introduction to the relationship between the cat and queen.  The portrayals of the animals are beautifully rendered as if they are ancient Egyptian art.  From the entrance to the tomb until the next to last two pages hieroglyphics have been incorporated into the design of the pictures.  Brown also extends the text to provide readers with an additional illustrative story as to the events leading to the death of the queen and her cat.  A true sense of stepping back in time is generated.

One of my many favorite illustrations spans two pages.  The background in the stone gray showcases the highly decorated queen's coffin extending nearly edge to edge from left to right.  The three mice are placed along the coffin's upper sides.  The mummy cat wearing the queen's favorite ring on his paw meows a message.  Will this be magical enough?

Although Mummy Cat written by Marcus Ewert with illustrations rendered in ink, gouache, and watercolor on paper with digital collage by Lisa Brown is a work of fiction, we learn much about the culture in which the story is placed.  It's a story of eternal love and friendship.  This is guaranteed to be a much requested story time title.  At the close of the book there are several pages dedicated to Mummies, Cats, Queens and Hieroglyphs.

To learn more about Lisa Brown please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  The publisher has provided a fun page on Tumblr.  Lisa Brown is a guest at author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Both Marcus Ewert and Lisa Brown talk with teacher librarian Matthew Winner on the Let's Get Busy Podcast #170 about this book. An earlier title Lisa Brown illustrated, Emily's Blue Period, is featured as a trifecta at the Scholastic's new Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs John Schumacher's Watch. Connect. Read. Links to other posts by the author are found there.  Enjoy this video about the making of Mummy Cat. 

Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert and Lisa Brown from HMH Kids on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Blowing In The Wind-Changes

Dear Readers:

I actually started this blog back in October of 2008 with a single short post.  Professional duties shifted and it was almost two years later before I began to blog in earnest in August of 2010.  I worked my way through an online program called School Library Learning 2.0.

Through my posts explaining websites and online tools, book recommendations, cover reveals and professional news gleaned from Twitter, I found my professional and personal connections growing with like-minded people.  With every exchange, virtually or face to face, my passion, my lifelong dedication to service in the field of library science, expanded.  Over the weeks, months and years I have felt myself improve as a writer, especially in expressing why a certain author, illustrator and their work needs to be shared with others.

We are living in a time when there is an abundance of wonderful books being written, illustrated and published.  It has become an important part of my life to write these posts for you.  It feels as though a day is not quite whole unless I talk about books, authors or illustrators at Librarian's Quest.

With that being said, over the next several weeks my blog posts will not be as regular.  Xena and I are going on a new adventure.  A dream decades in the making and further fueled by Kirby Larson's Hattie Big Sky is about to be realized.  Nothing will be certain until late September but excitement is brewing.  I hope all of you will be patient with my intermittent posting.  I will also be a less frequent visitor on social media but I will be back as soon as I can to talk about all good things in the world of children's literature.

I wish you all the best each and every day,
xxoo Margie


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Chilling Encounters

Fear is a curious thing.  We can carry it with us constantly for reasons easily explained or for no reasons at all.  Fear can creep up quickly causing us to go from calm to panic in mere seconds.  Some fears are shared.  Other fears belong to the individual alone.

People may tell us to face our fears but what they should really do is encourage us to assess each situation, if possible, weighing the reality of whom or what gives us the jitters or fills us with dread.
The Fun Book Of Scary Stuff (Frances Foster Books, Farrar Straus Giroux, August 11, 2015) written by Emily Jenkins with illustrations by Hyewon Yum is a lively look at one boy's fears.  His two canine companions join the conversation.

Dad says I should make a list of everything that frightens me.  He says it will help me be brave.

The bull terrier with a shake of his head voices his opinion of the dad.  His boy agrees. This dog wants to know what scary things the boy put on his list.  Not sure the dog can endure the sheer terror of those listed items, he is hesitant.

Of course the bull terrier proclaims his fear of absolutely nothing.  With confidence the boy shares the position of monsters; they're at the top.  It doesn't help what the boy's mom says about monsters and staying in his own bed.  The dog cleverly points out how he never sleeps in his bed but on the boy's bed.  He goes on to say ghosts are afraid of dogs when the boy mentions them.

Cauldron stirring witches make an appearance but mister-I'm-not-afraid-of-anything is sure it's something to eat rather than a hex.  With total lack of tact he points out how the boy seems to fear things which might not be real.  Irritated by this remark a particularly nasty relative is named.  Joining the discussion the pug admits his lack of fondness for this obnoxious cousin.

The boy names three other possible encounters found in their neighborhood which give him and the pug the willies.  The nonchalance and downright laughter they receive in response leads him to mention the final thing---the dark.  In a twist, perhaps bolstered by the remarks of the bull terrier, the boy is able to banish another's growing alarm.  It's time for treats given in love.

Tapping into her inner dog, Emily Jenkins gives the personalities to the boy's bull terrier and pug perfect for them and their relationship with him.  The casual way they all feel free to express themselves openly supplies ample opportunities for outbursts of laughter for readers while revealing how much they care for each other.  In the course of the narrative, told entirely in dialogue, the rhythm is formed with the boy naming a fear and why it's scary with the dogs either agreeing or pointing out why it might be unfounded.  This makes the twist even better.  Here is a sample passage.

Hee Hee!  Scared of the crossing guard. (Bull terrier)
She's so bossy. (Boy)
I'm scared of her, too.  She smells like gasoline. (Pug)

On the matching dust jacket and book case, we are introduced to the three main characters and some of those things the boy finds scary; things other readers might find frightful, too.  You can readily see which of the three are not comfortable and which one is confident in the face of unnerving situations.  On the back, to the left, Hyewon Yum cleverly depicts the view of the front as if we are looking at the back of the scene.  The opening and closing endpapers are the same shade of red as the text color on the jacket and case.

The title page background looks like notebook paper; the same used by the boy to make his list.  The three characters are named.  The humor begins immediately with

Bull Terrier the Bravest Dog Ever.

On the verso and first page the trio starts the story.  White space is used as an element in many of the pictures to bring the dogs and the boy to the center of our attention.  Speech bubbles hold their comments.

The pacing of the narrative is enhanced with the variations in illustrative sizes.  For most of them the scary thing is introduced with a single page visual followed by a group of smaller ones.  Several times Yum inserts double-page images for impact.  This works to great effect when moving from the fear of the swimming pool to sharks.

One of my favorite illustrations is for the dialogue highlighted above.  It spans across two pages.  On the left the bull terrier is rolling on the ground in laughter at the boy and the pug.  The boy looking fearful is supported by the pug looking disgusted at the bull terrier.  In the center of the crosswalk a rather formidable, frowning crossing guard stands with outstretched arms.  Wearing a whistle, vest, official hat, white gloves and orange-tinted sunglasses as extras to her pants, shirt and boots, she presents an imposing picture.  Behind them a woman driving her care has stopped.  She's looking a little scared herself.

Addressing fears, real or conjured in his mind, The Fun Book Of Scary Stuff written by Emily Jenkins with illustrations by Hyewon Yum will generate giggles and grins during any reading.  Possible voices to use for the characters promptly pop into your mind based upon the charming, detailed illustrations and the heartfelt words each speaks.  You couldn't have picked a better title as this book truly helps us to see the lighter side of scary stuff.

To learn more about Emily Jenkins and Hyewon Yum please take the time to visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  At the publisher's website eight interior images can be seen.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Of Work And Wishes

Even before the last of the snow melts the daily ritual begins anew.  It's a slow meander around the perimeter; frequently stopping to clear leaves, pull unwanted grass or weeds and observe the health of each individual growing thing.  Everything in a garden flourishes under the careful eye and hard work of the gardener.

The vines extend, wrap and weave, bulbs burst and bloom, and the perennials push upward a little more each day.  The Little Gardener (Flying Eye Books, June 1, 2015 UK, August 11, 2015 US) written and illustrated by Emily Hughes gives readers an entirely different view of the gardening world.  We come to appreciate those things nearly too tiny or hidden for us to see.

This was the garden.

It didn't look like much, ...

If we were to lie down flat on our stomachs and peer among the leaves, stems, stalks and flowers in a garden we would see someone extraordinary.  Before us is a gardener who takes great pride in his work and who needs the garden to provide shelter and food for him.  More important than those two things, the garden is the source of filling his soul with complete bliss.  Gardens can do this for a person no matter their size.

The Little Gardener does not believe he is good at what he loves best.  He toils all day long carting, cutting and digging but he is small and the garden is huge.  Only one thing looks beautiful.  A single flower tall, strong and brilliant in color, like a sun shining through a gap in a gray, cloudy sky, it supplies a much needed belief in possibilities.

Working with more diligence day in and day out and even through the night, he longs for more blooms like the other.  No matter what he does, he can see the garden is not thriving.  If it does not grow, the Little Gardener will lose those things he needs and values most.

Exhausted and not knowing what else he can do, at the end of a day and before going to bed, the Little Gardener voices his hope.  At times we are not heard but our deeds are visible to others.  When they see the magic our work is making, it inspires them to do the same.  When our tiny friend wakes from a very long rest, the garden is glorious.  Even the smallest of us can bring wonder into the world.

One thought at a time, with an economy of words, Emily Hughes brings us into the world of her little gardener.  By the end of the second sentence we are well aware of his connection to the land of plants.  As the story continues our understanding and empathy for his investment grows even as the garden is dying.  Though he believes he is failing, he has presented the gift of promise to another who in turn without knowing it helps him realize his dream.  In a stroke of storytelling splendor Hughes uses a familiar phrase (as she does more than once in this title) from the beginning at the end helping us to understand the link between the garden and its gardener.

Looking at the book case of The Little Gardener is similar to looking at a work of botanical wonder.  The expression on his face is full of happiness and hope.  A shiny glaze (forgive my lack of knowledge) has been placed on the title text, the Little Gardener and portions of two leaves, the stem and the brilliant blossom.  To the left, on the back, beneath a short blurb about the story, the gardener's constant companion, a worm, has a look of peace on its face.  Both the opening and closing endpapers contain a background canvas of pale yellow.  Clusters of two or three leaves are shown sprouting from small patches of dirt.  On the title page under the text, the spectacular flower is only a bud.  Resting, curled around its base, is the sleeping worm.

Rendered in pencil and colored in Photoshop, the illustrations vary in size from double page spreads to a group of two images on a single page, and single page pictures.  The smaller images tell us to slow down to appreciate the shifts in the story.  Hughes' perspectives will leave readers nearly breathless.

Every minute detail on the plants adds to the elegance of the visual story.  The Little Gardener's home is exquisite.  In fact one of my favorite illustrations is of his home.

It's a single page picture.  Hughes gives us a cutaway to the inside.  It's nighttime with a single star tucked in the upper right-hand corner.  A woven blue and white rug is on the floor.  Off to the side is a special bed filled with dirt and a single sprout labeled Wormy.  Wormy is snuggled in The Little Gardner's bed beneath a homemade quilt.  Our tiny friend is standing on a stool, arms resting on the window sill, starring at the moon.  On the wall is a picture of the Little Gardener on a sunny day standing next to the magnificent zinnia.

Every time I read this book I love it more.  The Little Gardener written and illustrated by Emily Hughes is an ode to the importance of the individual.  We can never know how what we do will change others.  We just need to keep on doing what we do best.  I encourage you to share this book with everyone you know...often and with joy.  And I will be looking for The Little Gardener in my own gardens from now on.  Will you?

To discover more about Emily Hughes please visit her Tumblr by following the link attached to her name.  You can view more interior images at the publisher's website.  Julie Danielson, reviewer, author and blogger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast highlights this book at Kirkus and shares artwork on her blog the following week.  Scholastic's new Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs John Schumacher chats with Emily Hughes on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read.  Teacher librarian and blogger at 100 Scope Notes Travis Jonker reviews this title. UPDATE: Teacher librarian and soon-to-be-published author Carter Higgins highlights this book on her blog, Design Of The Picture Book and here.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Live, Just Live

When looking at bodies of water, ponds, lakes, small and large, seas and oceans I do so with a great deal of reverence and respect.  Firsthand experience at an early age, nearly drowning during a swim lesson at the YMCA as the instructor chatted on the deck with someone, taught me the power of water.  As an adult getting caught in a sudden squall on a twenty-six foot sailboat on the Atlantic Ocean and nearly falling overboard the same day due to a rogue wave (a portion of the rigging saved me but gave me a baseball-size lump on my check), reinforced my beliefs.

My admiration for every swimming feat performed by humans continues to grow story by story.  Overboard (First edition, 2002, Cricket Books, Carus Publishing) has been recently released in a print-on-demand version.  A debut novel for Elizabeth Fama it garnered a unanimous decision to be placed on the 2003 Best Books For Young Adults list by the American Library Association.

Emily might have been the only fourteen-year-old in the world who could change the sheets of a hospital bed with the patient still in it.  She had done it more times than she cared to remember.

Emily lives with Olivia and James, her parents, in Banda Aceh on the island of Sumatra.  Both of them are doctors working in a clinic as part of an international program, moving every two years.  Fair-haired, light-skinned Emily longs to return to Boston to attend school and be with her friends.  Her physical appearance causes her to feel like a freak.  The heat and humidity make her situation even more oppressive.

Her uncle, Matt, tries to get her parents to let her join him on the nearby island of Weh for a bit of a vacation but they want her to stay with them.  A death at the clinic for which Emily believes she is responsible has her running away toward the ferry headed for Weh.  Without a word to anyone, it's a decision placing her life in jeopardy.

The holiday of Ramadan has more than normal amounts of people using the ferry.  It hardly looks seaworthy but after several hours wait it leaves the docks.  Two British tourists Richard and Catherine strike up a conversation with Emily but moments later it's apparent by unusual activity of the crew, the ferry is in trouble.  Life vests are being thrown to passengers.  Emily snags one but without a second thought gives it to a young boy.

Shoved into the vest cabinet by panicked passengers, Emily is locked inside.  Liquid fills every space as the ferry sinks.  In a fierce battle with the water and her own thoughts she makes it to the surface of the sea.  Relieved to find Richard and Catherine in the growing darkness, little does Emily know the fight for survival is just beginning.

People turn into crazed individuals while attempting to secure a spot on a life raft, exhausted people make terrible choices, sharks swirl around the groups of passengers, and then following a distant speck of light, alternately swimming a variety of strokes or using her make-shift floaty,  Emily hears soft crying.  Following the sound she discovers the boy, the very boy to whom she had given the vest.

Sometimes an uneasy and at other times an appreciative relationship develops between nine-year-old Isman and Emily as hour after hour passes during the night and into the next day.  Each has lessons for the other to learn, practical means of existing in the water and spiritual practices of the Islamic faith.  In a further stunning turn of events a heart wrenching decision is made as the story spins toward a resolution.

As soon as the first chapter readers can understand the good intentions of the parents but through the writing of Elizabeth Fama we are drawn in empathy to Emily.  It's extremely hard to endure a situation not of your own choosing; especially when you believe your opinion and desires are thought to be insignificant.  We readers will come to realize as does Emily, it could always be worse.

Each chapter ends with an important thought, conversation or statement.  These propel you forward quickly to the next page, cause you to knowingly nod or pause wondering what you would do in similar circumstances.  Even before the ferry accident the mood created by Fama's writing is intense.

Emily's conversations when she is alone are exquisitely written; an exploration of self in the midst of survival.  The portrayal of Isman and the strength he finds in his faith in the face of overwhelming odds will go straight to your soul lifting it up.  Some of the scenes between Isman and Emily will bring readers to tears.  The contrast provided by the British couple's understanding of the people and Emily's points out to readers that while Emily is not happy living in Indonesia, she does have insights into the culture of the people.  Here are some sample passages.

Before she could hear an answer, she was pulled under the water.  She didn't have time to catch a breath.  Someone, something, was dragging her under from behind.  She felt water churning in front of her face.  She scraped at the water with her hands, losing her leggings-float.  She didn't feel any pain, but she was sure it was a shark.

She focused on the stars again and one little point of light moved down in a streak.  For a fraction of a second she thought it was a plane, but it was clearly a shooting star.  Half a minute later, another.  The longer she looked, the more she saw.  A beautiful light show, hundreds of miles away.  No, not really a light show.  These were bits of rock or dust, burning up as they traveled through the earth's atmosphere.  They were lifeless meteors that cared nothing for her.  They weren't shooting for her; they weren't shooting for any human beings.  They had shot long before humans were on earth, and they would shoot long after humans were gone.  Look at that sky, millions of miles deep.  Nothing in that incredibly full sky cares about humans, or about the silly, stupid things we do.  Humans are the only things that care about humans, and in the end we don't even do that very well.

Isman held up the bitten tomato.  "This is from Allah.  No matter who grew it or who bought it.  Allah alone made this tomato possible.  I try to remember whatever I have---whatever I love---comes from God.  Saying the ninety-nine names helps remind me."
He took a last measured bite and handed Emily the rest.
"My father says that nothing belongs to us in this world, Ehm-lee. This is why we share our good fortune with others, and give alms to the poor.  This is what we learn; that everything is on loan from God."

When you start to read Overboard written by Elizabeth Fama you need to make sure your time is free because there is no stopping until you are finished.  It's a highly captivating story of survival and human growth in an extreme situation.  It defines page-turner.

In her Author's Note at the conclusion of the novel Elizabeth Fama explains the true events on which this story is based.  To learn more about Elizabeth Fama and this book please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  She has included a discussion guide for educators on themes and ideas important to her when writing this book.

Small But Mighty In Mind

In my way of thinking you can never have too many fairy tales on your personal or professional book shelves.  At the very least a perusal of your library statistics should indicate you as a frequent visitor and borrower of titles from the folklore section.  On most days you can see me exhibiting my firm support of this particular train of thought in a pendant I wear.

Interpretations, variations and fractured fun on the classics broaden our views on the intent of the original stories and the cultures from which they and others come.  Eleven versions of Little Red Riding Hood appear on my personal shelves; some are more light-hearted than those which adhere to the conclusion of the earliest tales.  On May 7, 2015 Little Red And The Very Hungry Lion (Scholastic) written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith celebrated a book birthday.  To begin the story we journey to the continent of Africa.

This is Little Red
and today she is going to
be gobbled up by a lion.
This Lion.
Well, that's what he thinks is going to happen anyway...

Aunt Rosie looks in her mirror one fine morning to discover spots all over her body.  A quick phone call to Little Red has her hustling from her daddy's general store to deliver medicine to her ailing auntie.  She merrily makes her way on the long walk over water and dozing crocodiles, through the grasses and under grazing giraffes.

Monkeys, termites, and gazelles go about their business as she strolls past them.  A kindly elephant offers assistance.  Wandering, waving and unaware she settles for a rest under a large shade tree.  It's the voice of The Very Hungry Lion that alerts her to his presence.  

When he asks and she answers, a plan, his plan, is put in place.  In a flash he dashes away, away to Aunt Rosie's place.  He stashes her in a closet, dons her sleepwear and paints dots all over his furry self.  

Little Red is no fool.  She sees Aunt Rosie looking out through the crack in the cupboard door.  And that is definitely a lion in her bed.  It's time someone learned the difference between right and wrong.

In quick succession three things not part of The Very Hungry Lion's plan happen.  Disgusted by this turn of events, he lets out a roar of protest.  It is addressed emphatically by one determined gal.  Before we sigh and read the words


there may have been the consumption of scrumptious treats, the solicitation of a promise, a reminder and the sheer enjoyment of childhood play under the stars.

Along with shifting from a forest to the landscapes found in Africa Alex T. Smith further freshens the story with the substitution of an aunt with an unusual rash for the sickly grandmother and a father for the traditional mother.  Without a word, only a goodbye wave, he sends his daughter off on her errand.  This, to me, is a clue about his confidence in her ability to take care of herself in any situation she might encounter on the way to Aunt Rosie's house.

The way Smith fashions the story it's as if a family friend or relative has gathered a group together to tell this tale.  The narrative is lively, completely in keeping with the character of Little Red.  Verbs are loaded with action linking sentences together in an upbeat rhythm.  The dialogue is dramatic and hilarious.  Here is a sample passage.

...he opened his mouth wide and... 
tutted Little Red.
"What grubby, grotty
teeth you have, Auntie!"

The book case is a vibrant beckoning call to read this story.  On my copy gold foil is etched over the title letters, along the circles at the top, on all the plants, Little Red's ribbons and throughout The Very Hungry Lion's mane.  To the left on the back, Little Red, The Very Hungry Lion, the two elephants as well as Little Red's constant companion, a goat, are showcased with the first page text.  The opening and closing endpapers awash in reds, oranges and yellows with black silhouettes begin and end the story.  In fact the verso and title page are on the opening endpapers with Little Red and her goat out and about as the sun rises.  

The selection of colors, no matter the place, exudes warmth with every page turn.  Smith's layout, design and use of white space are superior.  The facial looks on Little Red but especially on The Very Hungry Lion are guaranteed to generate laughter.

Careful readers will appreciate Smith's attention to detail; Spot Medicine advertised on the wall of Daddy's general store, crocodiles drinking morning coffee as they lounge in the water, red glasses on one of the giraffes, and hippos wearing snorkels and masks as they mud swim. They might even spy a lurking, bowtie-wearing lion in the background.  Image size is altered to supply pauses and intensify a portion of the narrative.  The one vertical, double-page illustration is a show-stopper.  

One of my favorite pictures is the first two-page spread when Little Red is walking to Aunt Rosie's house.  The background is a glowing golden hue.  Tiny details are finely drawn.  Over them are the more colorful trees, plants water and animals.  Dotted lines represent Little Red's route.  You can almost hear the sounds; perhaps Little Red is singing.  She looks so happy.  So does her goat.

Readers are going to request this title, Little Red And The Hungry Lion written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith, over and over again for bedtime or story time.  It's uproariously good fun with one of the best endings I've ever seen.  You'll want to make sure to add it to your bookshelves.  I'm glad I did.

To learn more about Alex T. Smith and his other work please visit his Tumblr by following the link attached to his name.  If you select Archive you can see interior images from this book in the May 2015 section.  There is a short musical book trailer there.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Story, A Ballet, A December Night

If you were to ask a group of children if they have heard of the German author E. T. A. Hoffmann, you will probably find yourself the recipient of many silent stares.  If you question them about their knowledge of a Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a low mumbling about your current state of mind is likely to begin.  On the other hand if you mention The Nutcracker, nods of recognition and slight smiles will be seen and the stories will start.

The more curious minds in your group will start to wonder what possible connection an author and composer living across the ocean from the United States and residing in different countries could possibly have to this well-known Christmas fairy tale.  The Nutcracker Comes To America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created A Holiday Tradition (Millbrook Press, September 1, 2015) written by Chris Barton with illustrations by Cathy Gendron offers a fascinating explanation.  It all begins with three births in 1902, 1904 and 1909.

AND THIS. (a ballerina)
AND MAYBE EVEN THIS. (the Mouse King)

In a small town in the state of Utah there lived the Christensen brothers, William, Harold and Lew.  The family had a dancing school, so naturally the boys danced.  Up until the arrival of their Uncle Pete the boys had little introduction to the world of ballet but those ballerinas accompanying their uncle opened up a whole new world for William and Lew.  Harold decided the United States Military Academy at West Point better suited his wants.  Before too long Harold failed at the academy returning home to run the dancing school.

Why, you ask, was Harold running the school instead of the other brothers?  William and Lew had practiced and perfected their form of ballet and could be seen on the Vaudeville circuit.  It took Harold three years to learn to dance like his brothers but he did it, joining them in New York City.

During the next eight years the three brothers never gave up their pursuit of ballet, sometimes working together, sometimes working in states apart.  One while teaching in Portland, Oregon, chatted with a Russian immigrant, a conductor, about a possible performance for his students.  Portions of a Christmas ballet, the music written by Tchaikovsky, got a positive audience response.  Two others were refining their performing and choreography skills in their own original ballet in New York.

World War II separated the brothers for four years with Lew serving while the other two, Harold and William, taught in San Francisco.  Times were tough on those aboard and at home but Harold and William with help decided to keep ballet alive by staging the first American full production of The Nutcracker on Christmas Eve, 1944.  It was years later before William, Harold and Lew each worked together to present another full length version of The Nutcracker but doing what you love with those you love can bring about a miracle and create a holiday tradition.

One of the first things which come to mind when reading this book is how much fun it is to read aloud.  Chris Barton strings words together to supply us with an energetic, down-to-earth chronicle of the three Christensen brothers.  We are keenly aware of his impeccable research in the way personal details are presented within the text.  In the course of the narrative if a word is introduced which Barton feels the reader might not know, it is defined easily and without pause.  The flow of his storytelling matches the ups and downs experienced by the brothers as they come together, move apart and join one another again.  Here is a sample passage.

Now, folks in San Francisco were not in the habit of attending big shows during the holiday season.  But it was on Christmas Eve, no less, that the Christensens and company put on the whole shebang.  
And---who would've thought?---the War Memorial Opera House was packed.  Aside from some troublesome wigs, The Nutcracker was a genuine, deck-the-halls, oh-come-all-ye-faithful holiday smash.

A stunning display of light and shadow is spread across the matching dust jacket and book case in a single illustration, bleeding into the flaps, rendered with painstaking care by Cathy Gendron. The chosen color palette here, throughout the entire book, invites an emotional response in the reader.  The magic of the dance, like the ribbon flowing within several images, weaves around the reader.

The opening and closing endpapers are a dazzling panoramic view of the entire stage as it is being set up for a performance of The Nutcracker and how it changes during a particular scene with a common element in both illustrations.  On the initial title page and the formal title page, the nutcracker, inanimate and alive, is featured.  Pacing and emphasis on the narrative direct the size and background of the paintings. Gendron may place several smaller visuals on a background of white followed by an edge to edge single page picture.  Her double-page images are breathtaking.  You will pause at every single one.

The details in body positions and facial features will have you believing everything is going to come to life any second.  To present this type of accuracy the research must have been extensive.  We are given a clear sense of the people, the time and the places in which they lived and worked.

One of my many favorite pictures is prior to the first full performance of The Nutcracker.  It covers two pages.  It's a casual gathering in a living room.  William and Harold are chatting with their two friends, George and Alexandra.  These two unlike the Christensen brothers had danced during an entire performance.  The scene is luminescent.  Woven through the picture above the heads of the four people is a musical staff with notes.  Among the notes are tiny pictures from the ballet, soldiers, candy canes, peppermint candies, a nutcracker, a ballerina, a mouse and a gingerbread man.

As surely as this ballet is a part of the Christmas season, you are going to want The Nutcracker Comes To America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created A Holiday Tradition written by Chris Barton with illustrations by Cathy Gendron to become a favorite read aloud with your students, children, family and friends.  The story of these three brothers continuing to follow their passion despite life's trials is truly inspirational.  You can't help but think what if William had not been where he was, when he was.  This is nonfiction at its finest for all ages.  At the close of the book the Author's Note, Illustrator's Note, Timeline, The Whole Shebang, In A Nutshell: A Summary Of The Nutcracker and Suggestions For Further Reading are must reads.

To learn more about Chris Barton and Cathy Gendron please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Cathy Gendron blogs here.  She is interviewed at Writing and Illustrating about her work and process.  Please take a moment to read Setting the Record Straight: The Nutcracker Comes To America at Huffington Post.

Make sure to stop by Kid Lit Frenzy to enjoy the selections of the other participating bloggers in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by educator Alyson Beecher.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Sleuth And Truth

There are any number of reasons a book ends up on your to-be-read stack.  In the case of one of my most recently read titles, a middle grade novel, it was first a reference made on social media about the illustrator creating the artwork for the dust jacket and interior images.  This particular illustrator, John Hendrix, is respected for his signature depictions of history.  His interpretations and details direct our attention to the most fascinating aspects.  
When mystery, history, Chicago, and two spirited female characters are words used to describe the story, the intrigue heightened.

A copy, ordered in February, of The Detective's Assistant (Little, Brown And Company, April 7, 2015) written by Kate Hannigan arrived shortly after the release.  Weeks went by with the cover and promise of a marvelous tale calling to me.  I finally ordered another copy in audio format so every time I drove my car, I could follow the adventures of the characters.  (At this point I have to admit, I did, more than once, sit in my driveway and garage unable to stop listening.)

Before the first page, a single eye looks directly at the reader with the words


written beneath the picture.  This is, as you will soon discover, the logo for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.  With a page turn, the narrator, Cornelia, begins the story.

Chapter 1
In Which I Find Myself on the 
Doorstep of a Pickled Onion

You're expecting me to do what?" snapped a peevish voice from the other side of the heavy wooden door.  It opened just a few inches to allow a single blue eye to survey me up and down.  "Take in this gangly urchin you claim is one of my kin?" One look tells me the child hasn't made the acquaintance of a bar of lye in a good many years, not to mention been in the same two-mile vicinity of a comb."

Cornelia, Cornie to her friends, has been left at her only remaining relative's door in a Chicago boarding house; the Right Reverend Abernathy having thrown paperwork toward the woman and skedaddled down the stairs and out into the street.  Her widow aunt, Kate Warne, who she calls Aunt Kitty, wants nothing to do with Cornelia including her name.  Within minutes Cornelia has been given the title of Nell Warne.  Now in all fairness to Kate Warne, you can understand her indifferent, rigid attitude toward Nell once the past is revealed.  Nell's recently deceased father, who was shot to death, had years earlier accidentally, under mysterious circumstances, shot his brother, Matthew Warne, Kate's husband.

To Nell's utter distress the next morning her aunt announces her intention to place her in the Home for the Friendless newly located on Wabash Avenue.  Thankfully a pickpocket, Nell's quick thinking and an injured knee alter the course of events for that day.  The next morning a routine is established with Nell helping the owner of the boarding house, Mrs. Wigginbottom, with shopping to help ease the newly inflated rent due to her presence.

Nell is astonished to learn during a trip to town her aunt's occupation as a detective in the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.  One thing you should know about Nell is while her command of the English language in speaking and writing is not refined, she enjoys keeping up-to-date on the latest happenings by being an avid reader of newspapers.  You can't imagine Nell's surprise when an ad in the paper announcing the presence of the Seventh Daughter of a Seventh Daughter, Madam L. L. Lucille, a fortune teller, turns out to be part of a plan to snare a criminal.  Aunt Kitty is masquerading as Madam L. L. Lucille and at the last minute Nell will be playing a part in the ruse.

This is the first in a series of cases in which Kitty and Nell work together along with the other detectives at the agency even though it's due to circumstances rather than choice by Kate.  Her determination to find another place for Nell is met in full measure with Nell's desire to stay with her at the boarding house.  The tension between them ebbs and flows as respect for each other grows.

In letters received and sent to her best friend Jemma, a free-born African American, now living in safety in Canada, we come to have a clearer picture of the night Jemma's family ran to freedom and Matthew Warne was killed.  As pieces in each case for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency are put together to create a solvable whole, Nell works to clear the name of her beloved daddy, Cornelius.  A meeting with the Maple Tree and a harrowing train ride with a disguised distinguished guest ease and elevate anxiety and fear. As the pace quickens when pages are turned, readers' hearts will race as we are lead to a conclusion blended in liberty, inevitable war and the strength of family.

When you read the words penned by Kate Hannigan you are well aware of two things:  her meticulous research and skill as a storyteller.  Like her character Nell she can tell a captivating tale.  Several techniques add to the experience of the reader.  Each chapter is captioned with a statement alluding to the nature of the events to come;

In Which I Share My Woe
with My Best Friend, Jemma

In Which I Fall Victim
to the Silent Sit


In Which Aunt Kitty Transforms 
into a Southern Belle, and 
I Get a Bit Choked Up.

Nell's descriptions of her surroundings, the details of the cases and disguises worn, and the conversations between all the characters are like stepping into the years of 1859 to 1861.

The letter writing between Jemma and Nell is a brilliant bridge between the present and the past.  The girls each hint at the truth of both their lives, then and now.  They devise a cipher system for conveying information.  Too much said by either of them could put family members in danger as well as themselves.

Here are some sample passages from the book.

Aunt Kitty pounced on me as if I'd uttered a profanity right there on Washington Street for all to hear.  Color rose up in her cheeks and turned them as red as radishes.
"Why would Mr. Pinkerton hire me, a woman?  Because I can go where a man cannot---I can befriend the wives and girlfriends of criminals, and I can worm out their secrets.  I can go where no one suspects me.
"And because I was not put on this earth to spend my days filing a man's papers or writing down every word he utters---nor washing trousers and darning his socks.  Because I can do most any job a man can do, and maybe even do it better.
"I can do great things, Nell Warne.  And so can you."

"School," she repeated.  "You need the firm hand of a schoolmarm, Nell.  We will enroll you today."
She sounded determined.  It was time to take drastic measures.
"Aunt Kitty," I began, trying out her same cool delivery just to see how it would go over, "these schools here in Chicago have seventy, maybe one hundred kids in each classroom.  If you make me go, I'll catch the croup and die before Christmas."
She did not look moved.
"Or I might pick up foul language and rough habits."
She merely cleared her throat and dusted at her sleeve.
I was not getting through.
"Or even worse," I whispered, watching her lean in a bit closer to hear me.  "Head lice."
Aunt Kitty gasped and shot both hands to her tidy brown hair.
Conversation over.  I would take my lessons at home.

The Detective's Assistant written by Kate Hannigan is an action-packed adventure brimming with suspense, larger-than-life characters and historical figures, humor and the importance of making and keeping family ties.   Hand this title to anyone who craves a mix of the past with excitement and fear and questions and answers.  As a read aloud this will be outstanding.  It not only gives us glimpses into important places of the day, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the first female detective in the United States but also addresses slavery, abolition and the Underground Railroad.  At the conclusion Kate Hannigan provides an extensive Author's Note, Answers to Ciphers and an If You Want to Read More section.

To discover more about Kate Hannigan please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  You can read several chapters from the beginning of this book at the publisher's website. (Trust me; you will not be able to put this book down once started.)  Take a moment to read this article and interview, Kate Hannigan on Kate Warne: New book brings 19th century detective to life, in the Chicago Tribune.  Enjoy this video interview with Kate Hannigan by Becky Anderson of Anderson's Bookshop.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sweet Dreams Picture Book August 10 for 10 #pb10for10

If anyone doubts the truth of time flies when you're having fun, then they need to join in the children's literature community.  Each and every day Twitter and Facebook are filled with people talking about their current favorite titles or those they can hardly wait to read.  I simply can't believe it's August 2015.  For weeks the buzz has been building about this year's Picture Book Ten For Ten.  Co-founders of this event, educators Cathy Mere and Mandy Robek, invited people to participate in recent blog posts.  In 2012 I featured alphabet books.   The next year I could not get my list down to ten titles, so Xena picked her favorite dog books.  Last year I did a companion list to my first year; books featuring counting.

For as long as I can remember bedtime means story time or, as I became an adult, a time kept sacred for reading.  For the last fifteen years this part of the day signals a peaceful interlude.  I listen for the sound of my dog's settling on her bed and her deep breathing as she falls asleep.  It's a feeling that all is right in the world.  To bring this same sense of calm to our children at bedtime is a shared joy.

This year I started this post with a list of twenty-four books.  I pulled out those books with a high laughter factor and those titles focusing more on night and the natural world.  This still left me with thirteen titles.  It wasn't easy but here are ten titles I recommend reading to send everyone to sleep guaranteeing them sweet dreams.

1.  Moonlight (Greenwillow Books, January 24, 2012) written by Helen V. Griffith with illustrations by Laura Dronzek

Some winter mornings after a snowfall when the full moon is setting and the sun has started to lighten the horizon, walking in the backyard, I see signs of a party, of dancing by the light of the moon.  Rabbits have left their footprints peppered across the landscape in gleeful circles.  It makes me wonder what happened when I was sleeping and they were not.

Are rabbits the only beings playing in the crispy air?  Maybe something else moves through the quiet hours during the seasons, silently leaving a mark.  Moonlight (Greenwillow Books, January 24, 2012) written by Helen V. Griffith with illustrations by Laura Dronzek whispers an invitation to readers about Earth's lunar orb.

2.  All the Animals Are Almost Asleep (Little, Brown and Company, October 2, 2012) written by Crescent Dragonwagon with illustration by David McPhail

Sleep, the natural periodic suspension of consciousness during which the powers of the body are rested (Merriam-Webster), sometimes eludes those who crave it, comes to those who wish for a little more awake time and is rarely on the immediate agenda of a little boy or girl, unless they're too pooped to protest.  Depending on the little bits and pieces of everyone's day, now brought together, bedtime is either frustrating or a golden opportunity for parents and their children.  The ritual of reading or telling a story when all else has quieted, once begun, lasts a lifetime.

A magical connection is manifested in these moments.  All the Awake Animals Are Almost Asleep (Little, Brown and Company, October 2, 2012) written by Crescent Dragonwagon with illustrations by David McPhail is a tip-toeing alphabetical adventure into the world of animals at day's end.  Soothing slumber will soon follow...guaranteed.

3.  Sleep Like A Tiger (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, October 23, 2012) written by Mary Logue with illustrations by Pamela Zagarenski (2013 Caldecott Honor Award)

Our bodies are wired to be active during the daylight and desirous of sleep as nightfall approaches.  Of course, most little guys and gals will have nights when they can truthfully say sleep is the last thing on their minds.  They have a multitude of other activities they would rather be doing; anything but sleep.

Thankfully there are caregivers, parents, who can remember those nights as a child feeling energized, wide awake and ready to go.  Those memories fuel their wisdom.  Sleep Like A Tiger (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, October 23, 2012), a first picture book written by Mary Logue with illustrations by Caldecott Honor winner, Pamela Zagarenski, is like watching treasured moments from a bedtime ritual.

4.  Once Upon a Northern Night (Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, July 30, 2013) written by Jean E. Pendziwol with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault

Over the years, winter has become my favorite season of the year.  There is nothing I enjoy more than hiking through the snow with Xena on a calm night. The air is so clear; the stars seem to hang from the heavens like crystals on a celestial chandler.  As we pause in the stillness, there is no sound other than our breathing.

When the final page is read and the cover slowly closed, there are books which cause the same stillness to surround a reader.  Unlike the perfect frosty evening, with each reading the same feeling can return any day all year long.  Once Upon A Northern Night (Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, July 30, 2013) written by Jean E. Pendziwol with pictures by Isabelle Arsenault is an exquisite portrayal of nature's nocturnal harmony.  It's a song of love to life.

5.  Goodnight Songs: Illustrated by Twelve Award-Winning Picture Book Artists (Sterling Children's Books, March 4, 2014) by Margaret Wise Brown with illustrations by Jonathan Bean, Carin Berger, Sophie Blackall, Linda Bleck, Renata Liwska, Christopher Silas Neal, Zachariah OHora, Eric Puybaret, Sean Qualls, Isabel Roxas, Melissa Sweet and Dan Yaccarino.

If we trust our instincts, follow a hunch, the results are frequently surprising in the best possible way.  It's almost as if some unseen hand is guiding our way.  Untold treasures await us.

Twenty years ago, Amy Gary, editor of the Margaret Wise Brown Estate, on a whim asked Brown's sister, Roberta Rauch, if she knew of any unpublished works.  Can you imagine hearing an affirmative reply? Stacked in a trunk kept in the attic of the barn on her Vermont farm were pages and pages of poems, stories and musical scores.  Last week some of those gems were released into the world, collected in a title, Goodnight Songs: Illustrated by Twelve Award-Winning Picture Book Artists (Sterling Children's Books, March 4, 2014).  The words of Margaret Wise Brown have been visualized by Jonathan Bean, Carin Berger, Sophie Blackall, Linda Bleck, Renata Liwska, Christopher Silas Neal, Zachariah OHora, Eric Puybaret, Sean Qualls, Isabel Roxas, Melissa Sweet and Dan Yaccarino.

6.  May The Stars Drip Down (Abrams Books For Young Readers, March 11, 2014) written by Jeremy Chatelain, a musician, with illustrations by Nikki McClure

Every parent wishes for their children a peaceful, deep rest each night.  Most will agree seeing their son or daughter (no matter their age) sleeping is perhaps the sweetest thing in the whole wide world.  It seems as though the bond between parent and child becomes even stronger in those moments; the act of sleeping is one of trust.   It's a condition when we are more vulnerable.

Caregivers may read favorite books aloud, insure treasured toys and cozy blankets are near or softly sing a beloved melody.  May The Stars Drip Down (Abrams Books For Young Readers, March 11, 2014) written by Jeremy Chatelain, a musician, with illustrations by Nikki McClure is a lullaby of love.  A boy's dreams are choreographed masterfully in words and torn and cut paper illustrations.

7. Go To Sleep, Little Farm (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2, 2014) written by Mary Lyn Ray with art by Christopher Silas Neal

 As if on some internal clock, a stiff breeze blowing throughout the day will calm as dusk descends.  Squawking blue jays, save further chiding for tomorrow.  Bright blooms fold their petals until the sun welcomes with warming rays in the morning.

A busy pace is slowing. In Go To Sleep, Little Farm (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) written by Mary Lyn Ray with art by Christopher Silas Neal readers are gently lead about the farm, surrounding fields, and nearby woods as night falls.  Inside the house a little girl mirrors the animals and their activities as she and her family welcome bedtime.

8.  Sweetest Kulu (Inhabit Media Inc., November 1, 2014) by Celina Kalluk with illustrations by Alexandria Neonakis

It doesn't have to be at the end of the day.  It could be anytime.  Pausing to appreciate someone, something or somewhere simply is not done enough.

Yesterday I wanted to stop at the top of a hill I have descended hundreds of times, so struck by the beauty of the swath of colorful trees bordering along and up from the shores of a harbor in a nearby town.  I knew the other motorists speeding by would not be appreciative.  For more than the thousandth time as I walked my marvelous old dog last night, I felt a huge thankfulness and affection for the sound of her breathing as she slowly paced along a well-known path.   When we acknowledge the importance of someone, no matter their age, both parties are the better for it.

When reading Sweetest Kulu (Inhabit Media Inc., November 1, 2014) by Celina Kalluk with illustrations by Alexandria Neonakis, I felt a sense of deep compassion.  Most notable within the narrative is the birth of a child as an occasion to be revered and celebrated.  The natural world is tightly woven into, an intricate part of, the Inuit culture.

9. Power Down, Little Robot (Henry Holt and Company, March 3, 2015) by Anna Staniszewski, with illustrations by Tim Zeltner

 As soon as the words are uttered by an adult, the children show an unprecedented genius.  Plans worthy of a seasoned general are put into place.  It's a battle of strategy and wits.  Even if the guys and gals previously seemed to be slowing down, the sound of "It's time for bed" will energize them into action.

They will develop a thirst similar to an individual wandering the Sahara for days without a drop to drink.  A need for clean pajamas, the brushing of teeth, another trip to the bathroom, forgotten homework needing to be completed by morning, and please, pretty please, just one more story will be only a few of their moves for avoiding the dreaded bedtime.  Power Down, Little Robot (Henry Holt and Company, March 3, 2015) written by debut picture book author Anna Staniszewski with illustrations by Tim Zeltner gives a unique spin to the nuts and bolts of a daily ritual.

10.  You Nest Here With Me (Boyd Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights, March 3, 2015) written by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple with illustrations by Melissa Sweet

When the leaves fell from the trees, there it was.  It's no bigger than the size of a golf ball.  Through the cold, rain, thunder, lightning, sleet, snow and wind, it has endured.  It's so secure; you can almost imagine it as a part of the branches which hold it.

Out of habit, I look every single day to make sure it's still there, wondering about the parents who crafted it so well.  I think of other questions.  What kind of birds lived there?  Did all the babies fly away?  Will any of the birds come back?  You Nest Here With Me (Boyd Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights, March 3, 2015) written by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple with illustrations by Melissa Sweet is a soothing lullaby of birds and their homes.

WOOF! WOOF!  I guess Xena wants to add one more title to the list.  After she had her own post in 2013, she feels the need to give us a canine perspective.  This title is most definitely funny.

11.  Time for Bed, Fred! (Walker Books For Young Readers, an imprint of Bloomsbury, February 11, 2014) written and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail

On any given day, depending on whom you talk to or the hour, most will agree the passage of time is tricky.  For the most part it goes faster than intended, especially if you are enjoying a particular activity.  Whether anyone is willing to admit it or not, age is definitely a factor.  It's been said the perception of time going faster the older you are is because you are not experiencing nearly as many first-time events.

Endless energy seems to go hand in hand with youth as does leaping from one endeavor to another numerous times between awakening and falling asleep.  It's no easy task to turn off all that get-up-and-go.  If you think little humans are the only ones with all this zest, zip and zing, think again.  Time for Bed, Fred! (Walker Books For Young Readers, an imprint of Bloomsbury, February 11, 2014) written and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail (born in Dublin, now based in London) follows a cutie-pie pooch that is simply not ready for rest and relaxation.

Feel free to add any of your favorite titles in the comments.  Happy reading to all of you!

Friday, August 7, 2015

An Unbroken Bond

Book characters can find a permanent place in your heart.  They are as real to you as your neighbors, best friends or family.  When they appear in companion titles you can feel your spirit soar because you enjoy their company.

These characters look at life as readers do or as readers wish they could.  They inspire us to pause and ponder trying to be our best selves.  Maple & Willow Apart (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), July 21, 2015) written and illustrated by Lori Nichols is the third title about these sisters began in Maple (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), February 20, 2014) and continued in Maple & Willow Together (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), November 4, 2014).  It's a joy to watch their friendship grow stronger as they get older.

Maple and Willow loved summer.

Every minute possible the pair was outside happily busy enjoying what nature had to offer.  When the last day of summer rolled around they never rested for a single second.  They wanted these magical moments of play to last.

On Monday Maple was going to school for the first time.  Even though she was a big girl now, Willow was not quite big enough to go with Maple.  Willow missed Maple...a lot.

After her first day of kindergarten Maple talked nonstop about all the fun she had.  Not to be left out, Willow spoke about her new friend, Pip.  Her description of him and where they met resembled an acorn.

On Tuesday when Maple is at school Willow discovered tiny bits of nature.  She also became the teacher at Rock School.  Pip was her only student.  His guessing abilities had him in the third grade quick as a wink.

By Wednesday Maple's chatter about school couldn't top Willow's announcement of visiting Pip's home.  It was a tree house.  On Thursday morning and when Maple came home from school, she was quiet, more thoughtful.  She was a little upset when Willow told her Pip taught her to ride a bike.

After a sister to sister chat that evening, Friday morning was better for both the girls.  Willow shared a secret with Maple making her day at school more exciting.  The weekend (and many days after) turned out to be spectacular because more was truly merrier.

Endearing, lighthearted text paired with conversations between the sisters welcomes us back into the world of Maple and Willow.  Lori Nichols gives her characters real-life feelings and circumstances; inseparable sisters, loneliness when they aren't together, inventiveness when facing absence and the sharing which comes from unconditional love.  When Maple comes home from school excited about her day, her dialogue is delightful; exactly as you would expect from a kindergarten student.  Willows' responses are genuine to a fault; spoken softly and bravely from her wonderful imagination.

"I had fun, too," said Willow.
"I played with Pip."
"Pip?" Maple asked.  "Who's Pip?"
"Pip is my new friend," said Willow.
"He has a bumpy head and he is afraid of squirrels."

One word comes to mind, my mind, when looking at the matching dust jacket and book case, winsome.  As Maple climbs the steps on the school bus, she is sure to wave and smile at Willow.  Looking as cute as cute can be in her overalls Willow waves in return.  The autumn leaves extend to the left, the back, where review excerpts from the two previous titles are featured.  Delicate oak leaves, mushrooms, a snail, snail shells, crickets, dragonflies and acorn caps are patterned across the opening and closing endpapers.  The background colors change from soft green to soft rust.

Beneath the text on the title page, Maple is petting their white cat as Willow stands next to her holding a bunch of acorns in her gathered shirt.  Rendered in

pencil on Mylar and then digitally colored 

the illustrations are placed on a white canvas with the exception of four double-page images.  These are a glorious display of large fall-shaded leaves as a background for the adventures Willow has with Pip.

In all of the images we feel closeness to and affection for the sisters.  Lori Nichols has a way of including us by way of her layout and design.  The facial looks and body language of Willow and Maple are completely charming.  Tiny details call to readers; Willow riding an oak tree branch as if it's a bike, the M and W hooks on the wall for their coats, Willow giving thumbs up to a snail, and heart-shaped rocks.

One of my many favorite illustrations is when Willow and Pip are in his tree house.  A swirl of leaves surrounds them.  Clusters of acorns are placed around a bird's nest which is his home.  Willow and Pip are looking over the edge at the sisters' yard.  We feel as though we can be in the nest with them, too.

Maple & Willow Apart written and illustrated by Lori Nichols is an absolute gem.  Read it at home, read it to your students.  It will generate discussions and empathy.  As in the other two titles, relishing the out-of-doors and appreciating what if offers is the tie binding these sisters.  I think this might be the year to renew my collecting of acorns; especially when two are joined together.

To learn more about Lori Nichols please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  The book trailer for this title and a guest post by Lori Nichols appears on teacher librarian extraordinaire John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

This Phenomenal Pooch

Most, if not all, people chosen by one or more dogs to be their person can say with confidence their dog is like no other dog in the history of dogs.  Each canine companion has a set of quirks as unique to them as fingerprints are to a human.  Some of our furry friends are Frisbee catcher champions, sheep herders, super snoopers finding all sorts of things with their noses, and some are extraordinary protectors, ever watchful.  Others can run or walk for hours, or swim like an otter all day long with minimal rest.  Those swimmers may branch out to be expert rock divers and hole diggers.  You may find a combination of these skills in a single dog.  All of them, at the end of the day, will look for you; especially if it's dinnertime.

Given the variety of talents exhibited by our pups it's easy to believe our dog is the best regardless of what it is they do.  My Dog, Bob (Holiday House, July 30, 2015) written and illustrated by Richard Torrey makes all other pooches pale in comparison.  This dog takes clever to a whole new level.

This is my dog, Bob.

First thing in the morning Bob gets a great big hug from his human.  When it comes to breakfast, this dog is ready.  Every ordinary canine on the planet is the very same.

The remarkable thing about Bob is he not only cooks his own breakfast but breakfast for Jeff and his parents.  He's a regular Chef Bow-Ar-Dee.  After the meal it's time for the family to take a drive.  You'll never guess who has his paws on the steering wheel.

Unless there is a raging storm all dogs love the out-of-doors.  Bob is no exception.  I wonder if his clubs are custom made.  His attraction to bones gives him a chance to let his expertise shine in a very special spot.

Jeff has a neighbor named Mimi who has a dog too.  She thinks her dog, Truffles, is better than Bob. (She certainly has a lot to learn.)  Surprisingly enough when it comes to stick catching, sitting and speaking the outcome is unexpected.  Bob knows best.  No apology necessary.

Bob's boy, Jeff, narrates this story as one would expect for someone his age.  Richard Torrey uses short, simple statements along with dialogue.  Both are initially unassuming but when the page turn reveals the twist, you can't help but laugh out loud at the contrast.  The truth in the conversations continues to build so when the my-dog-is-better-than-your-dog competition takes place each reader can draw their own conclusion.  Here is another passage.

And like many dogs, Bob loves
to ride in the car...
Ready, Bob? (Jeff)
...especially when he's driving.
Buckle your seat belts,
everyone. (Bob)

On the front of the matching dust jacket and book case readers are given a very large clue as to one of Bob's spectacular skills.  To the left, on the back, he and Jeff are strolling side by side within an oval framed in the sky blue used on the front.  The opening endpapers in the same blue hue and the closing endpapers in pale yellow provide a background for Bob in various positions in six rows with eight "poses" per row.  On the title page Richard Torrey begins the narrative with Bob waking up his boy.

Rendered in watercolor and oil pencil Torrey shifts between two-page images and single-page pictures.  The canvas for his characters changes from white, to yellow and blue.  Another predominant color is grass green.  So Bob, Jeff, and his parents stand out, the background elements are sometimes lightened.  

The expressions on the faces, the dots and curves for eyes, and the smiling mouths supply a lighthearted feel to the illustrations.  It's important to note that during the competition Jeff's hand rarely leaves Bob's head; they are always connected.  Perhaps this is why Richard Torrey's dedication reads

To all the Bobs out there---quietly amazing.

One of my favorite pictures is the first one.  Bob has gone to Jeff's bedside to greet him in the morning.  Jeff is now kneeling on the floor giving Bob his first hug of the day.  Hearts are above their heads and Bob's tail is wagging.  The use of white draws our attention to the rumpled bed, Jeff and Bob.  There is lots of love in this scene.

Heartwarming and funny My Dog, Bob written and illustrated by Richard Torrey is a definite read for dog lovers and anyone who enjoys great storytelling.  More than once Torrey leads us to a point only to switch directions.  As to the outcome of the competition, I think Bob is exceedingly smart.

To discover more about Richard Torrey please follow the link attached to his name to access his website.  He also provides a link there to his blog.  At the publisher's website a few discussion questions are shown.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Building Freedom One Loaf At A Time

Making bread from scratch is a labor of love.  Measuring and mixing the ingredients, selecting the correct temperature to activate the yeast, kneading the dough, letting it rise, kneading it again, dividing it into loaves and baking it are time-consuming steps but even the smell of the yeast working is enough to trigger memories of complete comfort.  As it bakes the odor drifting from the oven wraps around you like arms in a hug.

Growing up, every town, no matter the size, had a bakery.  Each morning fresh baked pastries and breads would fill the glass cases.  Gingerbread for Liberty!:  How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 27, 2015) written by Mara Rockliff with illustrations by Vincent X. Kirsch is about a bake shop in Philadelphia and its baker who served for and with General George Washington during the American Revolution.

Everyone in Philadelphia knew the gingerbread baker.  His honest face...his booming laugh...

With his creative hands all sorts of shapes were formed and outlined in frosting.  For the children there were always left-over bits and pieces so none went hungry.  You could hear him say

"No empty bellies here!" 
"Not in my America!"

This baker knew what it was to be hungry living in Europe as a child but he also understood America offered opportunities for those willing to work hard perfecting their skills.  So he came.  In time rumors turned to truth; Americans were fighting for their freedom from British rule.  

Regardless of the advice from his wife about his age (old) and his robust physical shape (fat), this baker was determined to fight for his country, America.  He set off with the other soldiers to serve in General Washington's army.  When the baker arrived at the camp, he heard grumbling rumblings of soldiers ready to leave.  They were hungry.

While the baker from Philadelphia baked and baked for those soldiers, trouble was brewing across the ocean.  Men arrived in boats hired by the king of England.  It was more men than anyone had ever seen except for one man, the baker.  

After a consultation with General Washington, under cover of darkness the baker rowed toward those men from across the ocean.  Upon his arrival and looking at them all his plans changed.  He knew what he kneaded to do.  At the end of the revolution, believing his duties as baker general to be fulfilled, the baker from Philadelphia was ready to leave but General Washington had one more request.  And Christopher Ludwick did it.

The geniality of the baker in Philadelphia is apparent from the first two phrases penned by Mara Rockliff.  With great care she blends her research into a narrative easily understood by the youngest reader infusing the personality of the baker into her words.  With ease we follow the course of events and the baker's part in them.  Here is another passage.

But now, something was in the air (besides the smell of baking gingerbread).  Newspapers shouted
Revolution! Independence! Liberty!
Boys rolled up blankets, shouldered guns, and kissed mothers goodbye.
The baker hung his apron up.  He dusted flour off his hands.

As soon as you see the matching dust jacket and book case, you know this picture book biography is unique.  Marching off to join the army the baker is carrying stars on a platter.  He is ready to help America using his greatest skills.  To the left, on the back, other soldiers are marching to serve with General Washington.  The remarkable style of the illustrations seen here is continued throughout the book.  Created by Vincent X. Kirsch with 140-lb. press watercolor paper, watercolor, and rubbelkrepp (masking fluid) each image looks like the work of a master gingerbread baker.  

The opening and closing endpapers done in brown and cream feature a visual and written recipe for Simple Gingerbread Cookies.  Each letter in gingerbread appears as a cut-out cookie.  On the title page the majority of the text is placed on a sign such as one would find hanging outside a place of business during this time period.  Along the bottom buildings reflect the architecture of historic Philadelphia.  They continue on the verso and on the first page with the baker in a similar stance as on the front of the jacket and case.  

The color palette chosen by Kirsch is muted and warm with details etched in icing.  All of the pictures span across two pages.  Most of them present a larger overview with the exception of the conversation between Washington and the baker prior to his mission.  We are so close, we feel like participants in this communication. 

One of my favorite illustrations is when the baker is leaving to join the army.  To the left his wife is standing outside the bake shop, hands on hips.  A cow is grazing nearby.  The baker, carrying all his gear on this back, legs spread wide, is running.  It's as if he is floating over the countryside.  This is a reflection of the man's continuous can-do attitude. 

Gingerbread for Liberty!:  How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution written by Mara Rockliff with illustrations by Vincent X. Kirsch is a piece of our history too delicious to miss.  It showcases the importance of doing what you do best in service to a cause in which you believe.  One person did and can make a difference.  An author's note and list of sources are found on the last page.

To learn more about Mara Rockliff and Vincent X. Kirsch please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  This title and Mara Rockliff are featured at Jama's Alphabet Soup.  Publishers Weekly showcases this book, 'Gingerbread Liberty' Serves Up A Slice of Revolutionary History.  You will want to listen at TeachingBooks.net to hear Mara Rockliff talk about her name.

Please take a few moments to stop by Kid Lit Frenzy to see the selection of titles other bloggers have included in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.  I can never thank educator Alyson Beecher enough for hosting this each week.