Wednesday, December 31, 2014

tara recommends Blizzard by John Rocco

For me, winter doesn't live up to its name unless the world has a nice covering of white, glistening snow.  Gentle snowflakes falling, building snowmen and shoveling walks are all part of a magical, sometimes slightly inconvenient, winter experience.  But, what happens if the snowfall is so extreme, you can't even leave your house?

Blizzard by John Rocco is based on the author's true experiences in the blizzard of '78 that blanketed his town in forty inches of snow when he was a boy.  A snowstorm that trapped people inside their homes, canceled school (obviously), and left a community watching for snowplows to clear the roads and release them from their snow prison.

On page one (before the title page), creative pictures cover a small boy with snow, inch by inch, pulling you into a snowy wonderland that transformed everything in an instant.  Snow-covered pictures look like a real blizzard has enveloped the pages and the clever use of everyday items, such as the stop sign almost entirely buried in a snow bank, bring home the seriousness of the storm.

The passage of time is expertly laid out as each day is identified in a different way.  Tracks in the snow, raisins on the floor and the top of a grocery list are a few ways Rocco counts down the weeklong adventure.

When rations get low, young John decides to implement the training gleaned from his "Arctic Survival Guide" and he sets off with tennis rackets on his feet and a sled to carry supplies on a journey to the neighborhood market.  A sense of adventure carries him along as he checks in with neighbors and makes a list of things to pick up at the store.  The neighborhood connectivity and historical details (the clerk uses the store phone to call John's parents, letting them know he is on his way) create a charming and heartwarming glimpse into the past.

Rocco deftly recalls a personal "heroic" story filled with charm, nostalgia and adventure that will appeal to all readers.  This is a must have for  any winter library.

by John Rocco
published by Disney-Hyperion

Monday, December 29, 2014

Dog on Good Books 2014

If you haven't tired of lists yet, we have one more for you to peruse--our favorites.  These are 2014 books that we read, re-read, shared, and bought for our personal library shelves.  Every title is a keeper!

Picture Books:
  • How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Hadley Hooper
  • Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated Melissa Sweet
  • On the Wing by David Elliott, illustrated by Becca Stadlander

Friday, December 19, 2014

December Storytime Briefly 2014

This December, I was hoping for a big snow storm so I could have an excuse to share some of my favorite snow books.  But our weather has been unseasonably warm, so I gave up on waiting for snow and read the books anyway.

We talked about snow storms and read
  • Big Snow by Jonathan Bean and
  • Blizzard by John Rocco
I brought one of my favorite childhood books, Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton to show the kids, and we looked at the map of the city and the picture of the snow-covered city.  We discussed similarities in the pictures of David's town in Big Snow.  The students also enjoyed finding the days of the week in the illustrations for Blizzard.

We talked about the Christmas truce during World War I and read
  • Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by John Hendrix
I appreciated the author's note at the end of the story that led to an interesting discussion as we discussed the question many of the students asked: Why didn't the soldiers just make peace if they wanted to stop fighting?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Best of 2014 -- More Lists!

Check out three more Best of 2014 lists:

Kirkus Best Children's Books of 2014, New York Times Notable Children's Books of 2014, and Horn Book's Fanfare.

And if you haven't read How I Discovered Poetry yet, you really should.  Love that book!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

November Storytime Briefly 2014

The weather is turning cold, the kids are turning restless, and since we were talking about nonfiction books in the library, I read fiction for storytime.  Although, for one week I did return to what is becoming one my favorite themes: inventions.

We read books illustrated by Jon Klassen:
  • Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen;
  • Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen; and
  • This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen.
We talked about the importance of the text and the illustrations in a picture book and how they work together to tell the story.  We also talked about the possible endings for Sam and Dave Dig a Hole.

We talked about inventions with steel.  We read
  • the poem "Skyscraper" by Dennis Lee and
  • Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, illustrated by Gilbert Ford.
We talked about the first skyscraper in 1885 that rose 10 stories high and skyscrapers today that reach up over 2,000 feet.  We marveled at Ferris wheel passenger cars that held 40 velvet seats.

We talked about wishing and read
  • The Witch's Walking Stick by Susan Meddaugh and
  • Joha Makes a Wish: A Middle Eastern Tale by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Omar Rayyan.
I asked, "If you had one wish what would it be?"  One student wanted to fly, another wanted to be rich, and then there was my favorite: "I would wish to be a shape shifter."

Friday, November 28, 2014

When All Is Said and Done . . .

We had a great month reading and re-reading the animal books in our library, and as we wrap up our Fabulous 590s, we consider, Was it a success?  Every book we booktalked was checked out and some now have multiple holds on them.  We filled our wall with student recommendations.  Students crowded around our 590s section and left our shelves depleted.  But the real questions in my mind are these: Will students choose nonfiction books for leisure reading in the future?  Will they continue to check out these excellent books in the months ahead?  Will the current enthusiasm build into a life-long love for some students?

Here's hoping the answers are Yes!

Two weeks into the event, our shelves are looking bare.
Our student recommendation wall.
You can find previous Fabulous 590s posts here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Fabulous 590s and Steve Jenkins

Did you know that the most deadly animal to humans is the mosquito?  Did you know that one of every four animals on earth is a beetle?  Did you know that when black widow spiders hatch, they begin to eat their brothers and sisters?  You can find these amazing facts and many others in Steve Jenkins's books.  We have a dozen titles by Steve Jenkins in our 590s, and we talked about them all.  No book was more popular than Never Smile at a Monkey which now has double-digit holds.  I shared it with a third-grade class, and before I made it through the first page, a boy had a question: "This isn't nonfiction--these are just supposed to be funny, right?"  After assuring him that it was all true, I continued, but still got a few incredulous looks.

Jenkins is a master of paper collage, and to my mind, one of his most striking pictures is the Siberian tiger in Actual Size (a title we pulled from our picture book section for this event).  We looked at the fur, the eyes, and the amazing detail as we talked about how Jenkins makes his pictures.  Nothing sums up the overall feeling as well as the comment made by a boy who was flipping through the pages of his book as he waited in line to check out:  "I can't believe he made these with paper!"

Here are a couple of student recommendations:

Monday, November 24, 2014

Fabulous 590s and Nic Bishop

Laser detectors, flash guns, and hand-built shutters help Nic Bishop take phenomenal animal photos, but that's probably not what readers are thinking about when they pick up his books.  In fact, the photos are so captivating that you don't really think about a person being involved in their creation at all.  Instead, each feels like a unique story that you have happened upon just by turning a page.  Whether it's a baby koala waiting for his mother to wake up, a snake swallowing an egg, or a basilisk darting across a pond, Nic Bishop's photos express the action and emotion of you-are-there moments.

Nic Bishop has a great website with information about his photography, his research, his books, and his life.  These resources, combined with the notes at the back of his books, make booktalking his books a cinch.

I was sharing Nic Bishop Lizards with a fourth-grade class when one of the girls pointed to our display of books and asked, "Did he take the pictures for ALL these books?'

"Yes," I assured her, "He took them all."

"Really?  Even for the spider book?"

"Yep, even for the spider book."

I quickly changed my plan for that class and began telling them how Mr. Bishop had kept several of the spiders in his home and had even taken them "on holiday . . . if they needed special care".  Then I opened Nic Bishop Spiders to the title page.  That same girl took one look at the gorgeous crab spider camouflaged on goldenrod flowers, and her hand shot up again.  "Did he take THAT picture?"

"Yes, he took that picture."

Almost unbelievable . . . but true.

Here are a few student recommendations:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Naming the Best of 2014 -- Lists!

It's that time of year when "best of " lists start popping up, and I love them!

The winners of the New York Times Best Illustrated Books for 2014 were chosen by an illustrious panel of judges--Jennifer M. Brown, Brian Floca, and Jerry Pinkney.

The ten titles on the National Book Awards Longlist for Young People's Literature were announced clear back in September.  And the finalists on the shortlist were announced in October.  Congratulations to Jacqueline Woodson and Brown Girl Dreaming for winning the award this week.  Click here to read the lists, the winners, and interviews with the authors.

Publisher's Weekly has announced their Best Books 2014 lists.  Check out the choices for Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult.  This is the list that convinced me to finally pick up The Witch's Boy--oh, so good.

One of my favorite lists of the year is School Library Journal's: Picture Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, and Nonfiction.

I was thrilled to see My Grandfather's Coat, Firefly July, and Rules of Summer on both PW's and SLJ's lists.  I also heartily agree with the inclusion of Revolution, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, Brown Girl Dreaming, The Port Chicago 50, and The Family Romanov--best books all!  And now I really need to find a copy of The Crossover.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Fabulous 590s and Scientists in the Field

We kicked off our Fabulous 590s program with the fabulous Scientists in the Field series.  This series provides a diverse glimpse into the animal world--tapirs and tarantulas, kakapo and cheetahs, snakes and seahorses--by following scientists at work.  Engaging texts and stunning photography take readers right into the scientists' explorations as they ask questions, search for answers, overcome obstacles, and make discoveries.

Booktalks for twelve of the thirteen Scientists in the Field titles in the 590s section of our library were received with plenty of oohs and aahs, particularly when we showed photographs of the kakapo and the tree kangaroo.  After two days, all of our 590s Scientists in the Field books (including Kakapo Rescue which we moved from 639) were checked out.

My favorite moment was when two girls grabbed Project Seahorse at the same time and sank down to the floor, side-by-side, and began reading it.  They were so engrossed in the book that when one of them finally glanced up, she was startled to find the library empty and her class halfway down the hallway.  'Cause these books are just that good.

Here are a couple of student recommendations:

You can get more information on Scientists in the Field books here.  For updates on the research explored in the books, subscribe to Adventure Notes.  And oh, I can hardly wait for Octopus Scientist by Sy Mongomery--coming next year!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

tara recommends Shh! We Have A Plan by Chris Haughton

A couple of years ago, I came across a book that felt different and quirky - in a good way.  At first glance, you are not sure if you should love it or not, but it won me over with its enthusiasm and personality.  This book was Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton.

Now, Haughton has a new story that showcases his unique style.  Shh! We Have A Plan features four friends out for a walk in the dark woods.  They are carrying nets and they "have a plan."  Predictably, the littlest adventurer has a plan of his own - one the other three won't listen to.  Their persistence in trying to reach their goal is amusing and the build-up to the twist at the end is rewarding.

Blue and black tones dominate the pages with just a punch of red to draw your eye.  Blocky characters manage to have personality without extensive detail and the eyes especially are able to convey anticipation, frustration and surprise.  There are just over 100 words in the entire story, so the magic really is in the humorous pictures and well-paced adventure.

The premise is simple enough that my four-year-old can recite it perfectly with minimal prompting and the repetitive cadence invites participation from even the oldest audience.  This is definitely a bedtime story that will be well read and loved because of its brevity, unique pictures and delightful story.

Shh! We Have A Plan
by Chris Haughton
published by Candlewick Press
September 2014

Monday, November 3, 2014

Lions and Tigers and Bears . . . and Lizards and Spiders and Turtles and Tapirs . . .

I don't really read nonfiction.  Nonfiction is just not my thing.  I haven't read that--it's nonfiction, right?  I can't count the number of times I have heard variations of this sentiment recently.  And as I was listening to Sy Montgomery (Kakapo Rescue, Chasing Cheetahs) speak at a conference this summer, I thought, Why?  Why are these captivating books so often dismissed?  Are we as enthusiastic book talking nonfiction titles as we are talking about the newest fantasy series?  What can we do to get our students excited about nonfiction?

So, at our library, we have decided to celebrate nonfiction during November with an event called The Fabulous 590s.

Throughout the month we will be spotlighting many of the books from our 590-599 shelves.  And because nothing can rival the power of peer recommendations, we are encouraging our students to write about their favorite books.

Student recommendation wall.
Our first recommendation.

Bookmarks for students who recommend books.
More bookmarks.

Tarantula highlighting our event.

Our 590s shelves.

We are looking forward to a great month sharing fabulous books!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

October 2014 Storytime Briefly

Because of fall break, we only had three weeks for storytime in October.  I chose more nonfiction books for the first two weeks, and then finished out the month with spooky books.

We talked about great ideas and read
We also talked about a couple of longer picture books that I hope some of the students will pick up on their own:  The Boy Who Invented: The Story of Philo Farnsworth by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Greg Couch and The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton, illustrated by Toni Persiani.

We read true stories about animals:
  • Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox, illustrated by Brian Floca; and
  • Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas.
Many of the students are either reading or have read Katherine Applegate's fiction story inspired by Ivan's life, The One and Only Ivan, (particularly because it is a selection for America's Battle of the Books this year).  Reading Ivan's story gave us a chance to discuss elements of the story that are factual and elements that are imagined.  The kids especially loved the photos of Ivan and the picture of one of his paintings.

In anticipation of Halloween, we read about two creepy gardens.  We read
  • Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown; and
  • The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg.
We talked about achromatism and color choice.  We discussed why an artist might want to create black-and-white illustrations, and the marvelous effect of having spots of orange color in Creepy Carrots.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

kids recommend The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

The Princess in Black is a story about a seemingly perfect princess, with a secret.  When a nosy duchess comes to visit, Princess Magnolia has to rush to turn into her alter ego (the Princess in Black), battle monsters from the nearby Monster Land, and make it back to the castle before her secret is discovered.   This comical story with colorful illustrations is sure to delight young readers.

Now, it's time to let our kid readers do the talking.

K. (age 7) wrote:

My favorite part is when the Princess in Black is thinking about the nosy duchess.  If I were the Princess in Black, I would try not to think about the nosy duchess.  I like how cute the Princess in Black looks when she is hoping the duchess will not snoop.

L. (age 7) wrote:

My favorite part was when she switched from the Princess in Pink to the Princess in Black.  If I were the Princess in Black, I would save people all over the WORLD!!!

The Princess in Black
by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
illustrated by LeUyen Pham
published by Candlewick
October 2014
recommended for ages 5-8

Review copy received from publisher.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tick . . . Tick . . . Tick

You only have a few more days left to nominate books for the Cybils this year.  Look at this list of some of the good nonfiction books that haven't shown up on the lists yet:
  • Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life by Catherine Reef
  • Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa's Fastest Cat by Sy Montgomery
  • Everybody Paints!: The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family by Susan Goldman Rubin
  • Freedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by Susan Goldman Rubin
  • Strike!: The Farm Workers' Fight for Their Rights by Larry Dane Brimner
  • The Dolphins of Shark Bay by Pamela S. Turner
If you haven't nominated your favorites yet, do it now--it only takes a minute.  Here is the link.

Monday, October 6, 2014

danyelle recommends Take Away the A by Michael Escoffier

When I was young (think four or five), my sisters and I were allowed to watch television until Mom rang the dinner bell.  (Yep, we actually had a dinner bell.)  Dinner-prep time was when PBS showed The Electric Company, and I loved the segment called "The Adventures of Letterman" where the villain, Spell Binder, created havoc by changing a letter in a word.  The hero, Letterman, then came to the rescue by ripping a letter off his sweater and changing the word back to the original, or better yet, by changing the word to something else entirely.  Letterman could fix all kinds of perilous situations with the power of a single letter.  Michael Escoffier's new book, Take Away the A, reminds me of that.

In it, each letter of the alphabet is featured on a double-page spread where a word is transformed by taking away just that letter.  For example, "Without the A the BEAST is the BEST" and, "Without the E BEARS stay behind BARS."

The illustrations take the cleverness up a notch, with a droll cast of animals and personified inanimate objects inhabiting small, individual stories that extend the text and are funny, funny, funny.   Jam flirts with Peanut Butter, saying, "Jam I am" as a slice of bread sits on a plate nearby, presumably to become a sandwich when the two jars get together.  "SNOW falls NOW" on two unfortunate pigs who are sitting under their beach umbrella clad in swimwear.  And I won't give away P's story, but trust me, it's good.  In a twist for the letter Z, a curtain call loosely wraps the stories together and provides a tidy sense of completion.

Readers will want to linger before turning pages and may find themselves looking for word pairs of their own.

Take Away the A
by Michael Escoffier
illustrated by Kis Di Giacomo
published by Enchanted Lion Books
September 2014

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Ready, Set, Nominate!

Get yourself on over to the Cybils site where nominations open today and submit the titles you think deserve some attention.  And . . . bring on the books!

Monday, September 29, 2014

September 2014 Storytime Briefly

I am one of those moms who longs for longer summer vacations--library visits, summer projects, and no homework.  However, there are a few good things about school being back in session, and one of them is a return to weekly storytimes.  This year, I am reading to third graders and enjoying slightly longer books.  In September I paired fiction books with true stories.

We talked about books and read
  • The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers; and
  • With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School by Suzzane Slade, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell.
At the end of With Books and Bricks, we read Booker T. Washington's words: "Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed."  We discussed the obstacles he had to overcome to get an education and build a school.

We talked about math and read
  • The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham; and
  • One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale by Demi.
In spite of the third graders' confidence that the Rani had made a good choice when she chose her reward of a single grain of ice on the first day and then an amount double that of the preceding day on each subsequent day for thirty days, I still heard "ahs" and "wows" as I unfolded the page showing her final payment in One Grain of Rice. Numbers become more real when you can visualize them.

We talked about freedom and read
  • Two Parrots by Rashin; and
  • Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson.
I asked the students to think about the merchant's conclusion in Two Parrots:  "Freedom is more important than food and water and all the wealth in the world."  That can be hard to understand when you have always known freedom.  The students were troubled by Henry's plight, particularly when his wife and children were sold, and despite an unexpected fire drill midway through the story, Henry's Freedom Box was one of my favorite books of the month.

We talked about the joy in finding just the right word and read
  • Nelly May Has Her Say by Cynthia DeFelice, illustrated by Henry Cole; and
  • The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.
I wished I had had the thesaurus my dad bought for me when I was seven to show the students as I told them how I loved reading through the lists of words.  A thesaurus reminds me of Mark Twain's words: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and lightning."

And finally, we talked about inventions and read
  • Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Dan Santat; and
  • Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball by John Coy, illustrated by Joe Morse.
We talked about two inventions that had accidental beginnings--chocolate chip cookies and Post-It Notes.  I have been waiting for a good chance to share Hoop Genius, one of my favorite books from last year, and finally found one.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

danyelle recommends A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown's War Against Slavery by Albert Marrin

Some books capture a reader's attention with suspense-filled action, and you can hardly turn the pages quickly enough to find out what will happen next, while others present sympathetic characters that you come to care about.  Still others, render the setting so vividly that you can imagine being there yourself.  Certainly, these strengths are not mutually exclusive, and the books we love to read usually have multiple strengths.  And while Volcano Beneath the Snow does many things well, the thing that makes it stand out in my mind is the remarkable way it engages readers in ideas.

The narrative opens with a speech given by a tall, thin, sunken-cheeked man at a political meeting: "'A house divided against itself cannot stand,' . . . I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free . . .'" (2)  These words spoken by Abraham Lincoln addressed a mid-nineteenth century crisis for our country, but the ideas they convey are still relevant today, as are the other questions introduced in the six-page prologue and explored throughout the text.

Can a man engage in villainous acts and be a hero? Should man act in strict obedience to the laws, thus supporting and upholding the government, or in obedience to his conscience?  Can violence in the pursuit of moral justice be righteous?   Marrin offers conflicting answers posited by Abraham Lincoln,  Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and of course, John Brown.

Brown grew up at the beginning of the nineteenth century when our country was young, restless, and divided by the issue of slavery.  Marrin addresses the rise of slavery, the terrible cost of the slave trade, and gives equal time to the problems facing the country and Brown's role in them.  (In fact, there are entire chapters when you can forget you are reading about Brown.)

Clashing viewpoints of abolitionists, Free-Soilers, and pro-slavery advocates underscore the complexity of the problem, thereby resisting simplification of this historical chapter into good guys versus bad guys.  And Marrin doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of racism and flawed individuals.  The honest portrayal of Lincoln's views in particular may surprise some readers.

In John Brown, readers meet neither a villain nor a hero, but a man whose life was filled with contradiction.  He had little formal education, was a troublemaker as a teen (bossy, aggressive, and prone to lying), and was fascinated by history.  He was deeply religious, highly opinionated, and "admired for his 'invincible honesty'".  (15)  And most importantly (to this story, at least) he firmly believed he was called by God to liberate slaves, and he embraced the use of terrorist tactics to do it.

Brown's execution does not come at the end of the book, just as his death did not end his influence.  The final sixty pages of the book lay out the chain of events that were triggered by Brown's failed plot at Harpers Ferry and end with the eventual abolition of slavery.

Marrin's conclusion looks at Brown's legacy, citing examples of men who acted on similar beliefs in recent times.  He says, "[Brown] raised thorny questions about the use of violence at a time when democracy seemed ineffective and the road to justice blocked by self-interest, brutality, and racism."--questions readers will ponder long after the last page.  (207)

A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown's War Against Slavery
by Albert Marrin
published by Alfred A. Knopf
April 2014
recommended for ages 12 and up

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Another Excuse to Read

The Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards (Cybils Awards) recognize books with both literary merit and popular appeal.  If you would like to learn more about the Cybils, you can read about the awards here.

This year I'll be serving as a first-round panelist for Young Adult Nonfiction, and it looks like I am in good company.  I'm looking forward to spending heaps of time with the nominated books during the next couple of months, so put together a list of books you would like to see recognized and nominate your favorites starting on October 1.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

tara recommends Lockwood & Co. The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

Some books are meant to be read late into the night; a dark, shadowy room with only small flickering light illuminating the words on the page creates an ambiance that ignites your imagination . . . if you dare.  In the case of The Whispering Skull, you may want to read in mid-day to avoid any sudden appearances of uninvited Visitors.

This second book in the Lockwood & Co. series continues the ghost-fighting adventures of Anthony Lockwood, Lucy Carlyle and George Cubbins, children with psychic abilities who risk their lives confronting Britain's wandering spirits.  Lockwood is the charismatic leader of the struggling agency, George is the researcher, and Lucy. as the newest member of the team, is still identifying all of her psychic abilities.

As the smallest agency, they are always looking for ways to prove themselves.  When a job goes wrong, and members of the Fittes Agency, a much larger a prestigious company, are there to swoop in and finish the job, Lockwood throws out a challenge.  Whoever loses the next job will have to post a letter in the newspaper admitting defeat, thereby solidifying the winning agency's reputation as superior.  Unfortunately, the next job proves to be especially challenging with dangerous ghosts, murderous grave robbers, missing supernatural artifacts, haunted houses, and dangerous criminal contacts.  To top it all off, Lucy starts hearing a menacing voice that seems to be coming from a ghost jar . . .

Clever dialogue, elegant characters and a well-paced plot line show off Jonathan Stroud's palpable talent as a story-teller.  Even those of us not drawn to horror will appreciate this well-crafted adventure and be totally entrenched in this eerily plausible story.  Because the subject matter is supernaturally charged, there are some gruesome aspects that may turn the squeamish away and the obvious horror theme does make this more appropriate for an older audience.  All that being said, this somewhat heavy ghost-filled tale is masterfully broken up with witty banter, in typical Stroud style, that will make you laugh out loud.  

The ending is satisfying and does what any book in a series should do -- wrap up the loose ends that have arisen in the latest adventure, but leave a door open with an intriguing twist to lure you to the next book.  Without the frustration of stopping mid-story, there is just enough of a twist at the end to want to keep reading.  The only problem?  Now we have to wait for Book Three.

*Review copy received from publisher.

Lockwood & Co., Book 2  The Whispering Skull
by Jonathan Stroud
published by Disney-Hyperion
September 2014
recommended for ages 12 and up

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Long List and and Moving Beyond First Impressions

The National Book Award long lists are being announced this week.  Check out the long list for Young People's Literature.   I'm glad to see Revolution, The Port Chicago 50, and Brown Girl Dreaming--they are all on my long list this year.  I just started Greenglass House last night and still have Skink--No Surrender in my to-read stack.  I guess I'm a little behind in my reading.

We are well into September and that means Heavy Medal and Calling Caldecott are both up and running for the season.  You can get in on the speculation and discussion or just enjoy lurking.  Either way, you'll read about some of the best books of the year.

And if you are interested in some early Newbery and Caldecott predictions, Betsy Bird has her picks at A Fuse 8 Production.  Don't skip the comments.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

tara recommends Colors of the Wind by J.L. Powers, paintings by George Mendoza

Lately, I have been drawn to non-fiction picture books.  They are such a great way to expose all ages to  amazing, true stories in a very short amount of time.  It is especially fun to be introduced to people you've never heard of before.  Such is the case with Colors of the Wind:  The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza.

George Mendoza was a boy who "never stayed still" and "never got sick."  He dreamed of being a basketball player.  Until one day, he started getting terrible headaches and the world looked like it was painted red.  He was losing his sight, but started seeing brilliant colors and flashing lights.  Because he couldn't play basketball anymore, he started to run.  He ran to forget that he was blind, but he soon discovered he was fast.  So fast, in fact, he became an Olympic runner.

George continued to see the world in a kaleidoscope of colors and decided to follow the advice a priest had given him to "paint what you see."  After winning a contest for blind artists, he started painting every day.  Now, his paintings hang in museums and inspire people to explore and develop hidden talents.

Mendoza's life is an inspiration to anybody who has faced seemingly unbearable obstacles and broken dreams.  His story gives hope with a message of second chances and the power of reinventing your life and reevaluating your goals.

You will want to check out this book to enjoy the inspirational story of George Mendoza and marvel at his beautiful paintings.  Each page showcases his unique style in an explosion of texture, bold colors and interesting lines that will stay with you long after you close the book.

*Review copy received from publisher.

Colors of the Wind:  The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza
by J.L. Powers, paintings by George Mendoza
published by Purple House Press
September 2014

Monday, August 11, 2014

tara recommends Loot by Jude Watson

"No thief likes a full moon.  Like mushrooms and owls, they do their best work in the dark."  The first lines of Loot by Jude Watson set up a fun heist adventure that will keep you on your toes as you follow the twists and turns through an engaging mystery.

March McQuin's father Alfie, an infamous jewel thief, taught his son all the tricks of his trade while adventuring the world, and they always had each other.  But, when his father slips off a building during a robbery gone bad and dies, March loses the only family he has ever known, and he is truly alone.

Alfie McQuin's dying words were to "find jewels," so March sets off to find his last big score.  He soon realizes, however, that "jewels" is not the fortune he is expecting, but is actually his secret twin sister, Jules and their reunion begins an adventure neither of them planned as they search for seven mysterious moonstones, originally stolen by their father many years ago.  They are pursued by a dangerous thief who will do anything to grab the gems first, and they also must stay a step ahead of an ex-detective with his own agenda.

Peppered with useful hints to be a successful conman -- "Never trust a guy who says, "Trust me."  Never give your real name to a cop.  Never let someone steal your getaway car." -- Alfie's advice is engaging and provides the background for March and Jules' dangerous adventure.

Jewel heists, betrayal, greed and loss mix together with a familiar story about family ties, friendship and love.  While the criminal knowledge and experience of these twelve year olds is a little unsettling, their independence and persistence make for an entertaining adventure.  There are certain scary elements (hooded men chasing the kids through dark streets, fight scenes and death) that skew the story to a slightly older audience.

Loot: How To Steal A Fortune
by Jude Watson
published by Scholastic Press
June 2014
recommended for ages 10 and up

Friday, July 18, 2014

Spotlight on Fiction 2014

Pigsticks and Harold and the Incredible Journey
by Alex Milway

“Pigsticks [is] the last in a noble line of pigs,” but he hasn’t done anything great yet.  After reading about his forepigs, Pigsticks decides to travel to the Ends of the Earth and (“unlike [his ancestor] Colonel Pigslet) . . . make it back alive!”  After a futile search for an assistant, Pigsticks serendipitously meets a small hamster named Harold who is strong, honest, and just what Pigsticks is looking for.

“The job’s yours . . . We shall leave tomorrow, before breakfast!”
“But I’m going to a tea party tomorrow . . . There will be cake.”
“We shall take a cake with us.”
“I don’t mean to be rude . . . but I could never leave before breakfast.”
“We shall take two cakes with us!” (21)

Reluctantly--and only after a promise of three cakes, one of them Battenburg--Harold agrees to the arrangement, and the unlikely pair set off on an adventure.

Pigsticks’ studied inattention, Harold’s penchant for cake, and the dialogue between the two create unpredictable humor and some absurd situations.

An interesting, elevated vocabulary makes this upper-level easy reader a great choice for independent readers who still want shorter stories with plenty of pictures.

*Received Netgalley ebook for review.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
by Karen Foxlee

 “Ophelia did not consider herself brave . . . but she was very curious.  She was exactly the kind of girl who couldn't walk past a golden keyhole without looking inside.” (9)  That keyhole happens to be in a snowy foreign city where her father has just taken a job at the museum. Her mother died three months ago, and since her father is distracted with work, and her sister is moody and distant, Ophelia explores the museum alone.  But the museum is a confusing place with signs pointing the wrong direction and guards that knit, sleep, and yell for no good reason, and of course, that golden keyhole.  Behind the keyhole she finds a 303-year-old boy who claims his name was taken by a “protectorate of wizards from the east, west, and middle . . .” (14) and that he is a prisoner of the Snow Queen.  He needs Ophelia’s help to find a magical sword and the One Other who will know how to wield it.  In short, he needs her to save the world.

Foxlee gives readers a wonderfully wicked villain.  The Snow Queen is “dazzlingly beautiful,” ice cold, deceptively kind, and she smells like hot chocolate. (13)  Eleven-year-old Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard is an equally delightful heroine.  She has a pale face, ragged braids, smudgy glasses, and asthma, and she simply refuses to believe in magic.  (Oh, and she likes sardines.) (76-77)

With lyrical writing, an adventure-filled plot, and the triumph of love over misery, this Snow Queen story is everything that a modern-day fairy tale should be.

*Review copy received from publisher.

Half a Chance
by Cynthia Lord

For 12-year-old Lucy Emery, moving to a lakeside cottage in New Hampshire means starting over in a new place again.  While her dad is out of town on another photography assignment, Lucy makes friends with Nate, the boy next door, and together, they spend the summer trying to find the perfect shots for a photo contest that Lucy is determined to win.  They hike a mountain, kayak on the lake, and watch the loons, but when one photograph reveals too much about Nate’s grandmother, it might mean the end of their friendship.

Lucy’s thoughtful observations provide insight into the characters and the human experience.  For instance, Lucy’s thought that kids “care a lot about other people, but most times . . . don’t have the power to change things for them” rings true. (71)  And her reaction to meeting new people (“Practice only makes familiar . . . Never easy.”) made me stop and think what many introverts might think: “Yep! That’s exactly right!” (6)  The sometimes difficult subjects of aging and dementia are treated in a candid, yet sensitive way.

This is a perceptive story about new beginnings, saying goodbye, and all the moments captured in between.

by Deborah Wiles

Segregation is a way of life in Greenwood, Mississippi, so 12-year-old Sunny Fairchild doesn't think much about why only white people go to the movies at the Leflore, or why no black children swim at the city pool, or why the only black woman at church is not a congregant, but a nursery assistant.  Besides, Sunny has worries of her own: her mother left when Sunny was a baby and her father’s new wife and children are “stuffed” into her home (80).  But this summer--the summer of 1964--agitators from the North are invading Mississippi, bringing big changes to the South, and as Sunny learns to look beyond her own concerns, she finds herself changing, as well.

Wiles uses Freedom Summer--the summer when 1,000 volunteers descended upon Mississippi and worked in a coordinated effort to empower black residents by registering them to vote--as the setting for her story. 

Revolution is the second book in The Sixties Trilogy, and as in the first book, period photographs, music lyrics, speech excerpts, and brief biographical sections are inserted between pages of story.  The factual--LBJ, Muhammad Ali, the Beatles, escalation of the war in Vietnam, and the murder of three Freedom Summer volunteers--intersects with Sunny’s fictional story, enhancing both and creating a memorable read.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.  RevolutionFreedom Summer by Susan Goldman Rubin and the young adult book, The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell are all excellent for exploring this pivotal period in our nation’s struggle with civil rights.

Spotlight on Nonfiction 2014

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life
by Lois Ehlert

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life is like a mini-presentation Lois Ehlert printed and bound between two 8 ¼ inch-square covers.  With just a sentence or two per page (and an occasional third), Ehlert tells of her childhood, the inspiration for her art and stories, and her process for creating books.

Photographs of her parents, tools, supplies, and workspace, along with her artwork (both in progress and from her books) fill the pages, while notes label the pictures and provide additional detail.  She even shares a few art project ideas that readers can try.  The book’s scrapbook style is perfectly suited to the colorful collage art.

Fans of Lois Ehlert will love learning about her work, and budding artists may be inspired to create collages of their own.

He Has Shot the President!: April 14, 1865: The Day John Wilkes Booth Killed President Lincoln

by Don Brown

He Has Shot the President! is the most recent title in Don Brown’s Actual Times series--a series that

belongs in every library.  These excellent nonfiction books for younger children chronicle significant moments in America’s history such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the start of the Revolutionary War, and the discovery that triggered the California gold rush.

He Has Shot the President recounts the events of April 14, 1865--the day John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln, detailing not just the assassination, but also, the larger story of the conspiracy to cripple the Union’s leadership and the ensuing manhunt.

Brown’s use of sharp angles and diagonal lines creates emotion and movement in the watercolor illustrations.  With impeccable pacing and a tightly spun narrative, this book is enough to make a history fan out of anyone.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights 
by Steve Sheinkin

On July 17, 1944, just after 10 p.m., two explosions destroyed the 1200 ft pier at Port Chicago Naval
Magazine in California. 10 million pounds of ammunition packed into a naval ship created an immense bomb, destroying a second docked ship, disintegrating the locomotive and box cars on the pier, and killing 320 men. 202 of those men were black. (65-68)

Although the Navy began accepting black volunteers to train as sailors in 1942, they were strictly segregated, and at Port Chicago, the dangerous job of loading ammunition went only to black sailors. The men were not adequately trained to handle explosives, and white officers sacrificed safety for speed as they raced their divisions to load the most cargo. (47)

When the 328 surviving men from Port Chicago were ordered to return to loading ammunition at Mare Island Naval Shipyard a few weeks after the explosion, over 200 refused. After threats of court-martial, 50 men still refused to load ammunition under the same officers with unchanged conditions. These were charged with mutiny, resulting in the largest mass trial in U.S. Naval history.

Sheinkin is one the best writers of children’s historical nonfiction today. His narratives are engaging, powerful, and eminently readable. This story of 50 men primarily follows Joe Small (the man accused by prosecutors of leading the mutiny), keeping it focused and personal. Brief examples of segregation and racial discrimination endured by servicemen elsewhere give a broader context to the story. And contemporary reports and transcripts, recollections of participants, and photos bring this compelling moment in history to life.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia
by Candace Fleming

In 1903, 1.5 per cent of the Russian population owned 90 percent of the country’s wealth. (4)  While peasants and factory workers struggled just to get enough food to eat, this small minority enjoyed unparalleled privilege, fabulous wealth, and “an unshakable belief in their own superiority.” (4)  Foremost among these were the Romanovs: Tsar Nicholas who was ill-prepared to lead when he became Russia’s “Little Father” at age 26; Alexandra, his German-born wife, who was aloof and superstitious; the four Grand Duchesses who disappointed the Russian people by being born girls; and the heir, Alexei, who held a deeply-guarded family secret. (24, 31, 45, 55, 58)

Extensive research and first-hand accounts make this story of Russia’s last Imperial Family strikingly personal.  Fleming looks at people and events that were inextricably linked to the Romanovs (Lenin, Rasputin, peasants, factory workers, and World War I), but adroitly contains the details so they never threaten to eclipse her primary subject.  This bigger picture helps readers understand the social and political forces that led to unrest, revolution, and ultimately, the Romanovs’ demise.

This is Candace Fleming at her best.

*Review copy received from publisher.

Spotlight on Picture Books 2014

Little Santa
by Jon Agee

I know . . . it’s 93 degrees outside, but just for a minute, imagine snow--lots and lots of snow.  Because in Jon Agee’s book, Little Santa, that is what there is--snow, cold, and hard work.  In fact, life is so tough at the North Pole, that the Clauses (well, the parents and six of the children, at least) are miserable.  Santa, the youngest of the bunch, loves the North Pole, and his red suit and cheerful face stand out in comical contrast to his family’s glumness.  Just when the Clauses decide to leave the “miles and miles” of snow and move to Florida, they get trapped by a “terrible blizzard,” and young Santa has to go for help.

This is not the story from the TV specials, instead it’s the story of how Santa flies on a reindeer, meets some helpful elves, and ends up staying at the North Pole--all told with Jon Agee’s characteristic dry humor and cartoon illustrations.

Perfect for Christmastime . . . and pretty terrific even in July.

by Lori Nichols

Before she was born, Maple’s parents planted a tree for her, and as Maple and her tree grow, she spends
time singing, swaying, and pretending with her tree.  Some days the “leaves . . . dance for her.”  Then one day, a sapling appears near Maple’s tree, and she learns that she will soon be a big sister.

A restrained text in this sweet book about sisters lets readers discover for themselves just what is happening in the story, creating a couple of great “Aha” moments.

Details in the pencil and digital-color illustrations, including Maple’s toys and a nest made by the birds in spring, encourage multiple readings.  The painterly feel of the maple tree, created with gorgeous shades of green and yellow, will have you seeking out the shade of a welcoming tree.

Look for the next book about these sisters, Maple & Willow Together, due to release in November.

Peggy: A Brave Chicken on a Big Adventure
by Anna Walker

Peggy (the chicken) lives in a “small house on a quiet street” where she enjoys a nice, simple routine, until “one blustery day” when a “gust of wind” scoops her up and carries her far from home.  Undaunted our plucky heroine “pick[s] herself up, ruffle[s] her feathers, and [goes] for a walk.”

Here the splendid, double-page, ink and photo collage illustrations tell the story best and heighten the humor.  Peggy wanders amidst an umbrella-carrying, faceless crowd, rides the escalators, tries on shoes, and watches a movie (with popcorn, of course).  Just try not to giggle when she comes face to face with the chicken-shaped gravy boat.  After exploring the city, Peggy makes it safely home, but her daily routine will never be quite the same.

Anna Walker is an Australian author and artist whose concern for her own bantam hens blowing over the fence sparked the idea that grew into Peggy’s adventure.  It’s funny, beautiful, and utterly charming.

Rules of Summer
by Shaun Tan

“Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.”

That’s the first rule of summer.

“Never be late for a parade.”
“Never give your keys to a stranger.”
“Never forget the password.”

While it seems to be all about the rules, it is more about the relationship between brothers.  This is one of those books that you really have to read for yourself, but I’ll give you half-a-dozen adjectives:  captivating, enigmatic, emotive, thought-provoking, powerful, and inimitably Shaun Tan.

One reading is not enough.

Have You Seen My Dragon?
by Steve Light

In Have You Seen My Dragon by Steve Light, a small boy searches the city for his dragon.  “Maybe he got hungry and stopped for a hot dog./ Or perhaps he went downtown on the bus.”  Detailed illustrations capture the frenetic energy of a city.  And the dragon looks perfectly at home in the busy double-page spreads where he can be found swimming in the harbor, riding atop a subway car, and visiting the playground.  As readers join in the search for the dragon, they will find something new to count with every page turn.  Splashes of color on the otherwise black and white pages highlight 2 hot dogs, 3 buses, 4 sailboats, and so on, up to 20 Chinese lanterns.

This book works on multiple levels: a spot-the-dragon book; a counting book; a wow-check-out-everything-that-is-going-on-in-this-city book.  And besides, who wouldn't love to pick up a book with a green foil dragon on the dust jacket?