Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lost and Found by Andrew Clements

It’s only the end of July, but it’s back to school time anyway with the next book from Andrew Clements. Lost and Found continues what was begun so masterfully in Frindle: telling readers a school story about school kids that quite easily, and with very little imagination, could happen in the very school readers attend.

Everyone knows a kid like Nick in Frindle. Most kids could imagine a class newspaper like in The Landry News. Most kids can relate to, or at least imagine, a new rich kid in school (A Week in the Woods) or a genius classmate (The Report Card) or life in a one room school house (Room One). But Lost and Found covers a subject that every single kid daydreams about at one point or another: What if I had an identical twin?

Yep, every single kid. Except the twins.

Jay Ray and Ray Jay are identical twins, save for the freckle on Ray’s right ankle. All their life they’ve been known as the twins. “Look at the twins!” and “Aren’t they cute?” They’ve had matching sailor suits and cowboy outfits and Superman pajamas and pictures, pictures, pictures. Of them both. Always both of them. The twins.

Other kids found it hard to make friends with one of them since, well, there were two of them. How would you pick? As they got older the frustrations grew worse – switched grades, love notes to the wrong brother, revenge paid back to the innocent twin. How can you avoid comparisons to your brother when the two of you are exactly the same?

So when the Grayson family moves to a new town and Ray stays home sick from school on the first day, Jay realizes that school officials aren’t expecting two brothers. Ray’s file has been mistakenly stuck inside Jay’s. He lives a full day as Jay. Just that…Jay. Not Jay and Ray, Ray and Jay, the twins. And it’s great! After Ray’s second day home sick, they both realize how cool it is to be twinless.

They also realize that if nobody expects two kids, only one needs to arrive at school. What if they shared the load, rotated days, did half the work?!?! After all, they’re identical. Nobody could tell the difference! So they put their plan into action. Two boys, one person. Easy.

But then Ray has to go to soccer practice when Jay is the better athlete. And then Jay has to talk to lab partner Melissa when Ray’s much smoother with the ladies. How can Ray get extra help in math when Jay is doing problems on the board? How can Jay get to know Julie Parkman when Ray has his eye on Melissa?

When Ray secretly confesses the ruse to Melissa and Jay confesses to soccer teammate James, who has twin brothers of his own, the secret slowly seeps out. And when the school nurse discovers the missing file, Jay and Ray’s plan becomes the secret everyone knows.

Eventually Jay and Ray – and everyone else – realize an important truth: Just because two people are identical doesn’t mean they’re the exactly same.

Monday, July 28, 2008

After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

The more I read, the more I liked the characters in After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson. Responsible parents, loving and accepting families, kids with dreams, a neighborhood with people who watch out for one another, and friends to the end. Great stuff.

Whether it’s a big family or an only child and a single mother, the parents in the story recognize the importance of parenting. The narrator is an only child living with her single mother. Her best friend Neeka lives across the street with her parents, two older brothers, two younger brothers, and toddling twin sisters. Neither girl is allowed off the block, even though they’re twelve, and they complain that their moms are always watching. (Isn’t that a sure sign a parent is parenting?) Their friend D, whose mom has left, lives with a foster mother. The narrator and Neeka envy D’s freedom, but D envies their families.

Neeka’s oldest brother Tash was arrested and imprisoned for “doing something stupid.” The family recognizes what he did, knows the truth, and loves him anyway. Tash is openly gay, a fact accepted by the family even if his flamboyance isn’t always appreciated by his mom. When the family visits Tash in jail, Jayjones, second son and aspiring NBA player, “just kept looking at Tash and grinning, like he couldn’t believe he was getting to be right across from his big brother.” Two brothers couldn’t be more different, yet their relationship as brothers supersedes all differences. Rock solid relationships despite differences and difficulty. That’s family.

The narrator and Neeka dream of “roaming” like their friend D, while D dreams of her real mother, not a foster mother, and of finding her Big Purpose. Jayjones works toward his dream of playing in the NBA and taking care of his family. Tash hopes his experiences will help steer his siblings in the right direction – away from the law and the stupidity that attracts trouble.

Their neighborhood has front steps, men playing dominoes, moms watching out the window and seeing when their kids come and go, little girls who watch the older girls jump double-dutch and soon become the older girls themselves, and neighbors who know you by name. I’ll admit it: I like my neighborhood. I like my yard and being set back from the road and the air that, when the wind is right, brings the fresh smell of cut hay or the dairy farms just outside town. But there’s an attractive quality to the community built through a neighborhood’s physical closeness.

The narrator, Neeka, and new friend D spend two years together. D just shows up one day, watching them from across the street. They talk briefly, and the next time D arrives she brings her double-dutch rope. Woodson ties the timeline of their friendship to that of Tupac Shakur’s life – D arrived just before Tupac was shot the first time and left the summer before he died – and marvelously shows how people can see life through art, in this case Tupac’s lyrics and videos. Only real friends, knowing it’s not true, can still feel “like we’d grown up and grown old and lived a hundred lives in those few years that we knew [D].” Three girls. Three the Hard Way.

Can you tell I liked it? Are you sure? I want you to be sure since…here it comes…I’m not recommending it. Not because it’s not a good book. It is. But I’m recommending a specific type of book here, and this one doesn’t fit. After Tupac & D Foster deserves a place on library shelves and in classroom discussions and in the hands of the right readers, and I certainly hope it reaches those destinations.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hey Batta Batta Swing! by Sally Cook & James Charlton

Last night I watched the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Astros and tie the Cubs for first place. So in honor of the First Place Milwaukee Brewers (that sounds great to a Brewer fan, and if you don't believe me, click this out) here's a book subtitled The Wild Old Days of Baseball. What's wilder than these sweet uniforms from 1982? The Brewers in the World Series? Are you kidding me? They haven't made the playoffs since then, the longest post-season drought in the major leagues (not counting the Montreal Expos who were robbed of one in 1994). Twenty-six years and no playoff appearances. Even the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino and won two - TWO - World Series since then. The Cubs even sneak into the playoffs every couple of years, only to fall victim to the Curse of the Billy Goat. Yep, Harvey's Wallbangers sure seem like the wild old days of baseball, at least for most Wisconsin sports fans.

So I want to post this before anything happens. Sure I'm confident. Sure I think the Brewers are due. But I'm also a realist. They may not - maybe - be in first place for long. So, as I said, in honor of your First Place Milwaukee Brewers, here's Hey Batta Batta Swing! The Wild Old Days of Baseball by Sally Cook and James Charlton.

Hey Batta Batta Swing goes back to the earliest days of baseball, played in pastures with wool uniforms. All sorts of history is given from uniforms and equipment to rules and how teams have broken them over the years. Baseball words are included throughout the text with handy definitions in the margins. So if you want to know what it means when someone says, "That guy's normally the team's ace, but his high heat wasn't working, so after an easy can of corn, he gave up a frozen rope gapper and two gopher balls in the opener of a twin bill before the manager gave him the hook," then this is the book for you.

Learn about Murderer's Row and the origins of numbers on unforms. Learn about player nicknames and team nicknames (the Spiders, Blues, and Naps all were the same team, and they still exist today). Even umpires get a section about their uniforms and equipment.

As the book progresses through history, the connections to today are constant. Baseball has the longest history of sports in the United States - traditions, records, and even superstitions. It's all in there.

Here's hoping the Milwaukee Brewers return to their wild old days too. (I just hope the result is a little better than 1982.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

One Duck Stuck by Phyllis Root

As indicated in the title, one duck is indeed stuck. In the muck. Down by the deep green marsh. (Those webbed feet are great for paddling but apparently they create quite a vacuum when submerged in the sleepy, slimy marsh.)

“Help! Help! Who can help?” asks the narrator.

“We can! We can!” responds a chorus of swampy helpers.

Two fish swim to help, followed by three moose and four crickets. After them come snakes and snails and killer whales…oh wait, not the killer whales. But there are snakes and snails and numerous other helpers. Some big, some small. Some fly, some crawl. Some slither, some hop. But all are willing to help.

Unfortunately each time the result is the same: “No luck. The duck stays stuck.”

Bold pictures clearly illustrate each of the helpers. The number of helpers increases with each creature until finally, after the ten dragonflies fail by themselves, all of the creatures team up to help the duck together. “Spluck!”

“‘Thanks,’ said the duck who got out of the muck down by the deep green marsh.”

Kids quickly figure out the correct response to the plea for help (“We can! We can!) and the unfortunate result (“No luck. The duck stays stuck.”). One Duck Stuck keeps kids from staying passive listeners and makes them into active readers.

Have fun counting each of the animals. Of course the illustrations match the number of animals that come to help, and both words and numbers are given. When all the animals team up at the end, see if young readers can locate and count all fifty-four helpers. Listen carefully to the arrival of each animal, too. Their activity rhymes with their name, “Seven snails making slippery trails,” for example.

Just be careful where you walk when you’re done reading or you may end up like the moose…

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Shooting the Moon by Frances O'Roark Dowell

Jamie Dexter is your typical Army brat. Loves her family, loves her country, and loves the United States Army. She'd go to Vietnam along with her brother if the Army suddenly allowed twelve-almost-thirteen-year-olds to enlist. She's Army through and through. Combat ready.

When her brother announces that he's enlisted, her father’s emotions are not what Jamie expects. Colonel Dexter had medical school in mind for TJ and, to Jamie's confusion, encourages TJ to opt out of his enlistment and continue on his path to the University of Georgia. Why would a man who loves the United States Army just a bit less than his own family discourage his son from following in his own Army footprints? (Maybe the answer is within the question.) While Mom stays typically quiet, Jamie supports TJ completely.

TJ has a love of photography, especially the moon. He has a photographer's eye, the ability to tell stories in pictures, a talent that even a younger sister like Jamie can recognize. When the first letter arrives from Vietnam, it includes a long (boring, in Jamie's opinion) letter and a canister of film for Jamie to develop.

As more and more film arrives, TJ's story unfolds. Over time the photos change from pictures of huts and buddies drinking beer to helicopters and severely injured soldiers. Jamie begins to realize the truth of war, reevaluate her blind support for the war, and understand her father's hesitancy to support his son.

An interesting subplot involves Jamie's card partner at the rec center, Private Hollister, and whether he will be reassigned to Vietnam, a decision that falls to Jamie's father. Predictably, TJ is reported MIA, just as Private Hollister is no longer working in the rec center.

Shooting the Moon isn't a bad book, but I couldn't get past the feeling that I'd read it before. Other than the interesting photography thread and the photos of the moon, this reads as your typical someone-goes-off-to-war story. I do like the ending, not as tightly tied up as some like, and certainly not at dismal as it could have been.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It's 2009 Newbery Preview Time

Now that we're past the halfway point of 2008, it's time to start looking at books that are garnering 2009 Newbery buzz. A quick look around the Internet (which adds up to a page and a half of Google results) leads to the usual suspects: war (5 titles and 3 different wars), dead/dying siblings (2), dead/dying parents (2), divorced/separated parents (2), learning disabilities (2), and bullying.

I say “the usual suspects” because each year it seems the most attention is given to the books that explore the heaviest and most serious themes. Why is that? Is it easier to be distinguished, as designated by the Newbery Medal’s criteria, when writing about serious topics as opposed to the potentially hilarious?

Check recent history. From 1999-2008 there have been ten Newbery Medal winners and thirty Honor books. Of those forty books (of which I’ve read thirty-eight – sorry Rules and Penny from Heaven), I count only four (A Long Way from Chicago, 26 Fairmount Avenue, A Year Down Yonder, and Surviving the Applewhites) where “funny” is my first reaction. Other books certainly are funny (Bud, Not Buddy, Joey Pigza Loses Control, and The Wednesday Wars to name a few) but remembering “funny” is tough when Bud lives in the Great Depression, poor Joey can’t control himself, and people are dying in Vietnam.

Here’s a partial theory, in two parts. First, serious topics are always serious whereas comedy is subjective. If a book is about the atrocities of war, everyone will agree that war is atrocious, so the discussion will immediately progress to the book’s distinguished-ness. Comedy is too widely varied. One person’s hilarity is another person’s confusion. “That was funny? Really? Why was that funny?” Nothing kills a conversation like having to explain a joke. The joke is clarified, the discussion wanes, and it’s off to another book about a dead sibling. As E. B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."

Second, we adults get too caught up in our adultness. We evaluate children’s books based on a strict set of guidelines, none of which is appeal to children, and few of which kids actually use in their personal evaluations. As readers we understand the characteristics of quality literature. As teachers and children’s librarians we should have a feel for what our kids will enjoy and appreciate. As professionals we need to find a balance.

It is possible (Holes, Hoot, Surviving the Applewhites, 26 Fairmount Avenue, Mercy Watson) to write books kids love that don’t burden their shoulders like a backpack full of four hours of homework. Where are these books?

It’s hard to believe that the best books for children don’t necessarily have to appeal to the children themselves.

I read once that when The Long Winter was written, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original title was The Hard Winter. Her publisher, however, didn’t want children or their parents to be scared away by such a foreboding title, thus the change. If it was published today it certainly would have retained the original title and probably subtitled Frozen Death Stalks at the Door. A Pioneer Girl’s Survival of the Dreadful Great Plains Winter of 1880-1881.

[In an effort to prove I’m not anti-everything, I will admit that one of my top all-timers includes the death of two beloved characters plus a stillborn sibling and a mother in an institution. Can you name this Newbery book?]

Nevertheless, it’s on to the potential 2009 Newbery books. Here’s where I’m starting, gleaned from online mock Newbery lists, and given in no particular order:

Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell
After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes
The Fortunes of Indigo Skye by Deb Caletti
The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman
Eleven by Patricia Reilly Giff
Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor

I’ll post my thoughts as I finish, but right now I’m curious what readers think. Is this list a good start? Is anything missing? What’s your opinion about serious and comedic themes in children’s literature and the likelihood of these books to be considered distinguished? Leave comments below or send me an email.

Update: Part II and Part III of my updates are also available. To see my opinion on all the potential 2009 Newbery Books I've read, click here.

Update II: Now that the real deal has been announced, click here for my initial thoughts and additional reviews.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Downhill Lie by Carl Hiaasen

All adult hackers - current, former, recovering, or as Hiaasen, returning after a 30 year layoff - will relate to The Downhill Lie. (And make no mistake, this is a book for grown-ups.) We've all played Ray-Ray golf. (One shot like Ray Floyd, the next like Ray Charles.) After slicing/hooking into the woods, we've all deserved to be called Daniel Boone for our affinity to the wilderness. Every golfer who has struggled for mediocrity, who has set "average" as a goal, will relate to Hiaasen's superstitions (find items that hold great mojo) and attempts at the mystical (Sympathetic Resource Technology via the Q-Link necklace), the medicinal (Mind Drive capsules), and the technological (the RadarGolf kit).

Something, we think. Something will allow us to eliminate the three-putts, slices into the water, hooks into woods, and second shots from the ladies' tee. If we could just do that we'd be happy. That's all we ask.

At one point a friend of his describes the wonder of numberless golf and suggests that it's a much more enjoyable sport when you don't keep score. I half expected him to ask his friend, "So how do you compare yourself with other golfers?" only to hear, "By height."

Why is it that sub-par golfers... Wait a second! Why is it that sub-par is used to describe something less than desirable? "My bagel was good, but the coffee was sub-par." That makes absolutely no sense. Sub-par is exactly where golfers want to be. I'd love to be described as sub-par when it comes to golf. It'd be a ton better than being described as a double-par golfer, which, in actuality, is much more accurate.

My apologies for the digression. Back on topic. Hiaasen perfectly captures the emotions in the golfer's quest for adequacy. Part hope, part despair, part neurosis. We've all deconstructed a round of golf, realizing we were only two three-puts, one triple bogey, two lost balls, and that one #$&#%@ snowman away from breaking par.

We've all stood on the last tee box swearing we'd never play this ruinous sport again, promising ourselves to mothball the clubs as soon as we got home. And then...what's this? A drive that splits the fairway? A long iron that sticks? (Have the heavens opened? Do I hear the heavenly host singing?) A twelve-footer for birdie?

And that's enough. Those two shots feed the addiction. Whether we knock down the birdie or three-put for a bogey, both equally probable, we'll be back tomorrow.

Friday, July 18, 2008

HIVE: Higher Institute of Villainous Education by Mark Walden

So where do all the supervillains of the world come from? Really! How do the likes of Lex Luthor and the Joker and Dr. Doom and Lord Voldemort come up with these schemes? Oh sure, the history of each is well documented within their respective books or comics of origin, but honestly, can we really believe each is capable of developing their nefarious skills without formal training? That they can simply become the full embodiment of evil without a little "polishing" along the way?

Maybe. But had they displayed such reprehensible behavior as youngsters, it is highly unlikely they would have escaped the watchful eye of the Higher Institute of Villainous Education. And had they been enrolled at H.I.V.E., due to the school’s secrecy, Superman and Batman and the Fantastic Four and Harry Potter (heck, even Dumbledore) would never had known.

H.I.V.E. is a school created to guide the immensely talented on the road from petty crime to true villainy. Otto Malpense got their attention. His stunt with the Prime Minister of England got everyone’s attention, but only H.I.V.E. recognized that Otto was the brain behind the scheme. Likewise, Otto’s future roommate, Wing Fanchu, and numerous other youngsters have shown great potential in the realm of supervillainy. Each has been enrolled at H.I.V.E., an immense fortress located inside a remote island, for a six year education. Once selected, enrollment is nonnegotiable. Students don’t leave H.I.V.E. midstream.

And this is what bugs Otto. Sure, the education he will receive is interesting. His first day’s class schedule includes Deathtraps: Their Use and Care, Effective Threats, Elementary Evil, Global Domination: What You Need to Know!, and A Beginner’s Guide to Doomsday Weapons. But all of that doesn’t outweigh the fact that Otto is a prisoner. He has been given no choice in the matter. Wing agrees, as do other classmates, which leads to a plot no students, let alone first-years, have ever accomplished.

Escape from H.I.V.E.

Their plot is secretly put into motion, but as most plots, especially those conceived by villains, there are snags. Otto, Wing, and their accomplices handle them all. There is one snag, however, that takes both teachers and students by surprise, demanding everyone’s immediate attention.

The school is amazing. A vast underground cavern with gadgets James Bond (and Alex Rider) would admire, technology beyond what the world knows, and weapons so advanced they keep the “conventional” weapons in storage. There are four streams of education: Henchman, Technical, Political/Financial, and Alpha. Otto is in the Alpha stream, designed for leadership and strategy training.

The staff at H.I.V.E. represents a cross section of villainy. Dr. Nero is the devious leader who always knows more than he lets on. Contessa Sinistre, complete with long cigarette holder and Italian accent, has a sickly sweet voice that reveals her slight irritation when questions are not to her liking. Raven is the virtually invisible assassin who stealthily patrols the halls of the institute.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that got my attention like this one. The action is nonstop, the setting is fascinating, and the devious double-crosses and characters’ secrets will keep readers guessing. (Of course! They’re all villains! Who can you trust?)

Other books in the series: The Overlord Protocol and Escape Velocity (upcoming).

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman

From the opening chapter of Son of the Mob, readers know Vince's life is juuuust a bit different from your average seventeen-year-old. Most guys don't have a father who works in the “vending machine business.” Most guys don’t get dates with girls like Angela O’Bannon. Most guys don’t have brothers who do business with someone named Benny the Zit. And finding a body in the trunk of your car? Yep, again…not for the average seventeen-year-old.

So Vince, on his first – and last – date with Angela O'Bannon, goes to the trunk for a beach blanket only to find it wrapped around Jimmy Ratelli. Seems Jimmy Rat is delinquent on a business loan from Vince’s father, and Tommy, Vince’s brother, borrowed the car to "encourage" Mr. Ratelli to settle his account.

Of course Angela sees Jimmy Rat drooling and bleeding on the blanket, she freaks, screams, and demands to go home. Then there’s a police road block, Jimmy Rat’s thumping, and the imminent police search of the car. But just in time, who comes to the rescue? Benny the Zit! He causes quite a distraction, the police forget about Vince, the date ends, and Vince heads home.

There you have it. Life in the “vending machine business.”

Vince wants no part of his family’s business. No “relatives” named Uncle Shank or Uncle Pampers or Uncle Fingers. No “vending machine” money. Nothing. Just a happy, clean, lawful life. His father respects that, but then again, he always thought Vince would grow out of it.

Eventually Vince does something most seventeen-year-old do. He gets a girlfriend. The problem is that this young lady, Kendra Bightly, is the daughter of one Agent Bightly, the FBI agent assigned to watch one Anthony Luca. Vince’s father. But give these two love-struck teenagers credit! Just because their families don’t, shall we say, see eye to eye doesn’t mean they’ll let their relationship crumble.

Gordon Korman has a knack for writing books that don’t slow down. After Jimmy Rat there’s plenty more interesting characters, some family members and some business associates, who enter into Vince’s life. Uncle Uncle (yes, that’s his name) even shows up on one of Vince and Kendra’s dates…singing karaoke!

Vince trying to stay clean in his family is like a mole trying not to dig. Regardless of even their best efforts, dirt inevitably will fly.

Other books available in the series: Son of the Mob: Hollywood Hustle.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Duck on a Bike by David Shannon

Duck is the friend that most of us have, the one who gets wild ideas and acts on them rather hastily but somehow the outcomes never backfire. Secretly we admire these friends for their daring and bravery. Aloud we ask, warningly, "Are you sure that's a good idea?" while we shake our heads and inwardly mumble, "I'd never get away with that," knowing full well the friend will. And way down deep, sometimes even unknowingly, we think, "Wish I'd thought of that."

Don't have a friend like that? Maybe it's you.

Anyway, one day Duck gets the wild idea that he could ride a bike. So just like that he tries it. The bike's a little big, he rode slowly and he wobbled a lot, but he did it. Just like that.

So Duck sets off on the Tour-de-Barnyard (alas, there is no yellow jersey). He rides past all the other farm animals, and each gives the standard bark or neigh or bleat or cluck.

Ducks don't ride bikes, but of all the barnyard animals which one would be more likely to attempt it? Here’s part of the beauty of David Shannon’s book. Each animal’s standard “Moo” or “B-a-a-a” or “Woof” is followed by their actual thoughts. These thoughts, to this non-farmer anyway, seem to match the animals’ personalities. The horse, smug, thinks, “You’re still not as fast as me, Duck!” The cat thinks, “I wouldn’t waste my time riding a bike.” The goat, rummaging through the garbage and with a tin can in his mouth thinks, “I’d like to eat that bike.” Only mouse recognizes his desire to duplicate Duck’s feat.

Good ole Duck. After being so daring, there’s only one thing to do when an entire flock (herd? school?) of kids park their bikes in the yard: Recognize your inward desire to be like that friend and go riding!

I’ve said this before, but any book that gets kids calling out words is a winner. Kids will quickly be moo-ing and meow-ing and woof-ing with each corresponding animal and will also notice the repeated text (“But what he thought was…”).


Hey. Why is Duck looking at the tractor that way?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy by Gregory Maguire

After checking, I realize now the misunderstanding between the book and me. You see, I was originally intrigued by the “rogue” tooth fairy subtitle.

Here’s what I was expecting:
rogue noun- 1. a dishonest, knavish person; scoundrel.

Here’s what the book presented:
rogue noun- 2. a playfully mischievous person; scamp. 3. a tramp or vagabond.

So after seeing What-the-Dickens on numerous shelves in libraries and bookstores, I finally was ready to read about a “rogue” tooth fairy. Maybe this rogue would tweak kids’ noses while they slept or swipe teeth and leave no change. Or better yet engage in underground black market sales of baby teeth, getting in over his head with the fairy mafia, risking broken knees and wings as, now remorseful, he tries to reconcile his past by going undercover for the Fairy Police Department, eventually seeking asylum in the Fairy Witness Protection Program, but as he secretly moves to the Seattle suburbs, he discovers his protection is limited as winged assailants with thick Brooklyn accents and short cigars arrive hoping to “discuss his past business practices.”

Instead we get an orphan fairy born in a tuna can who thinks a cat is his mother and his reflection is a friend. Sigh. Not what I expected.

Two stories are told. The first involves the Ormsby children, Zeke, Dinah, and toddler Rebecca and their distant cousin Gage, who’s been left to supervise the children in their parents’ place. Mr. and Mrs. Ormsby left suddenly to attend to an emergency in the middle of a horrible storm, leaving the children with no food, no power, and not much hope. This medical emergency is later revealed, but I can’t figure out why it was left secret for so long.

The second story is that of What-the-Dickens, the orphan skibberee, left to independently discover who he is and what he is and what in the world he’s supposed to do in this world. In his search for a home, and despite his immaturity and ignorance, he soon discovers others like him.

The explanation of the skibbereen is fascinating. They have sectors and divisions and roles they play in the tooth trade. There are other tribes, each with their own hidden villages, each with their own community rules and regulations. Tooth fairy mysteries are explained such as how skibbereen get change to trade for teeth and what they do with all those collected teeth anyway. Birthday wishes are also tied in.

Unfortunately, that was too little of the book for my tastes. Other than the reassurance that the Ormsby family will be okay, too little of their whole story is told, and the good parts of What-the-Dickens’ story – the community of skibbereen – were too few and far between. My guess is that kids will get lost in their questions (Why did the parents leave? Is there something going on besides a bad storm? Where did What-the-Dickens come from anyway?) and reading will not reap adequate answers.

Monday, July 14, 2008

I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! By Karen Beaumont

This kid is an artist. For real. Holy cow. On the first page alone you see his talent. There are birds and people and geometric dots and shapes and patterns and an incomplete tic-tac-toe game. Every color of the rainbow, the entire visible spectrum, is present. Backgrounds, foregrounds, topsides, bottomsides, all painted.

And, since he’s such a thoughtful young man, he skipped the paper and canvas and painted directly on the walls. Won’t Mom be pleased?

Um, no.

Mom declares, “Ya ain’t a-gonna paint no more!” She puts the paints on the top shelf of the closet and plops Jr. and his loyal canine accomplice in the tub. And that’s that.

Until, of course, our young Michelangelo climbs to top of the closet to retrieve the tools of his trade and begins to bit by bit, rhyme by rhyme, body part by body part, coloring his colorless world.

“So I take some red and I paint my…” Head.

“Aw, what the heck! Gonna paint my…” Neck.

And so it goes until all…well, almost all…of him is colorfully colored. Chest, arm, hand, back, leg, feet…all colored. Then it’s…

“But I’m such a nut, gonna paint my –” WHAT?

I know what you were thinking. Rhymes with nut, it hasn’t been painted yet, it’s underneath his tighty-whiteys which have just been removed revealing a very white full moon in a universe of color. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.

And so will your students. And they will love it. The pictures will capture their attention immediately, then the rhymes will draw them in more, making them yell out the body parts as they figure out the pattern. (If you sing the words it’s even better. It goes to the tune of…well, I know the tune but can’t place the name, but I’m humming and whistling it to everyone I meet. It goes: Da dum dum dum da da dum dum dum, da dum da da dum dum daaa. You know it? Was that enough?)

Regardless of the tune (and I’ll let you know as soon as someone recognizes my dum dums), any book that makes kids laugh out loud and call out words is a winner in my world. I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! will have them giggling, Karen Beaumont’s rhymes will have them singing, and David Catrow’s illustrations will have them begging for more.

UPDATE: So the word on the street says the tune is "It Ain't Gonna Rain No More," which is apparently a campfire song. Funny thing is, after three summers as a camp counselor, I'd never heard of it. And then – as I am writing this, no less – in the background I hear the “There Ain’t No Bugs on Me” commercial as my kids watched some cartoons. Now it’ll probably be everywhere. Ten bucks says someone is humming the tune in line ahead of me this afternoon in the grocery store.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

Right from page one, our enigmatic author gives readers warning not to read any further, then congratulates readers for their inquisitiveness and bravery at turning the page. He also informs readers that he will not be held responsible for the consequences of said inquisitiveness and bravery.

The name of the book is Secret, meaning that he cannot tell you the title, not that it’s the actual title (or maybe it is, one can never tell with Mr. Bosch…if that is his real name*…). The book centers on the despicable desires of Ms. Mauvais and Dr. L to acquire knowledge of the Secret, in this case an actual Secret, ancient and Egyptian in nature, and the efforts of Cass and Max-Ernest to keep the Secret a secret.

Mr. Bosch goes to great lengths to protect his readers, even refusing to give any details about his characters. So I will not tell you about Cass’s pointy ears, survivalist instinct, single mother, adopted grandfathers, or tendency to predict disaster. I will also not tell you about Max-Ernest’s logical mind, desire to understand jokes, friendlessness, quirky divorced parents, or proclivity to ramble.

Together, Cass and Max-Ernest stumble on a mystery involving Italian twins, carny folk (ain’t no folk like carny folk!), kidnapping, magicians, a trip to the spa, synesthesia (for more information, see A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Hass or click here), and an Egyptian secret. After a classmate disappears, Cass realizes that she knows where he’s gone. After she leaves to rescue him, Max-Ernest realizes where Cass has gone and leaves to rescue her.

All this leaving and rescuing sets up an edge-of-your-seat ending (or whatever ending you choose seeing that Mr. – eh-hem – Bosch has left two pages of blank lines for readers to fill in their own endings, an addition surely lauded by librarians around the world). The denouement, so called because “the word sounds so sophisticated and French,” ties up most loose ends, leaving just enough yarn for the spinning of a sequel.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

New Category

Having just read The Wall by Peter Sis, I realize now that I need a new category for books on the site. Here’s what I currently have:

Highly Recommended Books – These are the books that I eagerly thrust into the hands of students, confident that that they will be well received. They’re funny or exciting or adventurous or take students to a place far away from everyday life.

Recommended Books – Pretty must the same as above, except my confidence in how well students will receive them isn’t quite as high.

Not Recommended – These are books that I don’t believe will be quickly accepted by students. They’re not bad books – many times it’s just the opposite – but something about them makes me hesitate to recommend them.

So now I need a new category. A category that says, “According to the conditions set forth by this website, I cannot in good conscience recommend this book, however, there are certain extenuating circumstances that negate the website’s qualifications and nevertheless earn this book a high recommendation, regardless of what is contained therein.”

Or, in other words, “This book doesn’t match my rules, but I like it anyway.”


Maybe I should just say, “It’s my website and I make the rules so I can recommend what I want to recommend!” (Nanner, nanner, nanner!)

Okay, I agree. That doesn’t work either. But that still leaves me in need of a new category, a new label with which to classify the unclassifiable. Recommended Anyway? Unclassifiables? Recommended But…? Exceptions? Exemptions?

I have to do some thinking about this. If you have any suggestions or thoughts, send me an email (address to the right) or leave me a comment below.

Update: 1/16/09 - Six months later I changed the whole works: the recommendations, the recommended exceptions, all of it. Good thing I'm so decisive.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Wall by Peter Sis

One wouldn’t think a book about growing up behind the Iron Curtain under the thumb of the Soviet Army and an oppressive Czechoslovakian government that squashes any form of free thought or expression would make this website.

And you’d be right. Usually.

The Wall by Peter Sis is an exception.

It’s part picture book. The majority of the book is black and white. At first the only other color used is red, and only to illustrate the communist influence – stars, flags, banners, bandanas, missiles. Eventually, as news and ideas from the West creep into Czechoslovakia, so do colors into the book. American and British flags. Musicians. Sports figures. Artists. Yellow submarines. And as more ideas are expressed, the more the government attempts to squash them, returning the book to black and white and red, with only the occasional color, like subversive Western thought, sneaking in. The pictures, at first seemingly simplistic, offer more detail, often amazing and tiny details, with each reread.

It’s part history lesson. As Peter’s story is told across the bottom of the page, italicized writing in the margins tells the history of Czechoslovakia as Peter grows. Readers learn how the Soviets took control of the country and closed the borders, how communist ideals were demanded and enforced, and how children were brainwashed into believing this was the only acceptable way of life. Readers learn how people behind the Iron Curtain learned more about Western styles (long hair, blue jeans) and music (the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Rolling Stones) and culture (theater, poetry, and even the Harlem Globetrotters) and how the government tried to stop it all.

And it’s part memoir. A one-page introduction explains the formation of the Eastern Bloc countries after World War II. At the end is an explanation of what happened to Peter’s family during these years. Interspersed between are three two-page spreads of excerpts from his journals which include school lessons, sports memories, arrests, rock bands, censorship, and the beginnings of his art career. The earliest journal entry is dated 1954 and the last is dated June 1977. Also included are photographs, posters, historical documents, and additional drawings showing even more of the time period.

I just noticed another amazing detail. At the top left of each journal page is a picture of a brain. The first brain is all red – the young boy who knows only what he’s taught. The second brain has many colors – the young adult now exposed to new ideas and beginning to think for himself. The last brain is fully developed – the adult who now knows the freedom he desires, long forbidden.

No, a book about growing up behind the Iron Curtain would normally not be a one I’d recommend. But The Wall, through its many layers and incredible pictures, is a remarkable book and deserves recognition.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard S. Marcus

"What Shall the Children Read?"

That's the question, referencing the title of a 1939 book by Laura E. Richards, asked at the onset of Leonard S. Marcus' historical record of children's book publishing in America. Throughout history people have attempted to answer, and the funny thing is, no consensus has ever been reached. Opinions abound.

"What Shall the Children Read?" The only answer I know for sure after reading Minders of Make-Believe is this: Not this book.

Well, not the children anyway. But grown-up lovers of children's literature need to carve out a chunk of their allotted reading time and delve in. Starting with colonial America and ending at Hogwarts, Minders of Make-Believe covers books (and book covers, ba-dum-dum), publishers, authors, editors, printers, and pretty much anything else involved in children's literature.

The research is exhaustive, and I found myself wishing I could have been a fly on the wall or a worm in the book or...well, I found myself absorbing all of it and hoping for more. From stories of classics that were almost passed over to the behind the scenes work of editors to the stories of how authors got their start. I found all of it fascinating.

Watching how children's book publishing has changed over the years and how our culture, education, politics, parents...and oh yeah, kids...have influenced the industry makes me wonder what the future holds for children's books. But most exciting is the fact that we won't need to wait for Volume II. We'll get to watch it happen.