Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An Invitation

I'd like to invite visitors to Help Readers Love Reading! - new folks and the regulars alike - to visit my new site, simply called Help Readers Too!. It's an irregularly updated, miscellaneously contented, sister site. More details are available over there ... well, a few anyway ... but basically it's a place for additional thoughts and opinions that aren't necessarily book reviews.

I'd also like to invite readers, especially teachers and bloggers, to weigh in on a moral dilemma I recently posted involving a highly anticipated book and its release date.

If you feel like clicking on over today or another time, thanks. It's pretty sparse right now, and I plan on tidying up a bit in the future, but I wanted to post this story before it became irrelevant.

And thanks again for visiting Help Readers Love Reading!.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Great books are like a hike up a steep hill with a spectacular view. The heart rate climbs. Breathing quickens. The desire to finish grows, along with the effort put forth to reach that end. And the payoff is remarkable. The Graveyard Book does all these things. I’ve read and reread and considered it greatly for this review. The more I do, the more I’m convinced Neil Gaiman’s book is an incredible choice for the 2009 Newbery Medal.

As I read The Graveyard Book, I felt there were four distinct parts.

Part One: Chapter 1, How Nobody Came to the Graveyard, begins with the creepiest opening in recent memory. "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." The whole page is black, save the chapter title, that one line of text, and the knife-wielding hand. A baby boy, 18 months old, has crawled out of his bed. He proceeds down the stairs, through the front door, into the street, and up the hill to protective hands of the graveyard residents.

His family is murdered by the man Jack. The boy is unharmed.

Part Two: Chapters 2-5 each read as a short story - indeed, Chapter 4, The Witch's Headstone, was first published as a short story - and each chapter gives important information about the boy's life in the graveyard. Adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, longtime occupants of the graveyard, and looking like nobody in particular, the boy becomes Nobody Owens, Bod for short.

Five-year-old Bod meets a friend, Scarlett, who is visiting the graveyard, now more park than cemetary. Readers learn the differences between a normal child and one granted the Freedom of the Graveyard. Readers are also introduced to the Sleer, an ancient graveyard resident.

Six-year-old Bod is introduced to this graveyard’s ghoul-gate (every graveyard has a ghoul-gate), what lies beyond the gate, and the lengths to which the dead will go to preserve his life.

A ten-year-old Bod meets a resident witch and begins a friendship. He continues his education, both academic and spiritual. He witnesses and participates in the Danse Macabre.

Part Three: A brief interlude, The Convocation, reminds readers that the man Jack still exists and still wants – needs, in fact – Bod dead. His business associates, for lack of a better term, remind him of his failure and responsibility to finish the business he started.

Part Four: Chapters 6-8 read more as the novel I expected. Bod makes more and more excursions into the world outside the graveyard where, for the most part, he is unprotected. He goes to school, meets bullies, new friends, old friends, and police officers. But all these outside experiences, though beneficial to a boy quickly becoming a young man, make it increasingly difficult for Bod to remain anonymous and hidden from the man Jack.

Anticipation that steadily builds and an inescapable sense of dread work together so readers don’t see the climax coming as much as they feel it coming. So get yourself a copy of The Graveyard Book, block out a chunk of time, and set your bookmark aside.

And make sure the lights are on. Brightly.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Trouble Begins at 8 by Sid Fleischman

"Mark Twain was born fully grown, with a cheap cigar clamped between his teeth."

So begins Chapter 1 of The Trouble Begins at 8. What? Fully grown? How can that be? And a cheap cigar? Huh? Readers will be engaged from the start, questions quickly forming about Mark Twain, no doubt an author many of them are being "forced" to read in school. An author who, if students are given the opportunity and proper resources, may prove to be equally as interesting as the classic American literature he created.

In the preceding preface, Sid Fleischman offers other intriguing anecdotes. A Nevada minor once introduced Mark Twain by saying, “I don’t know anything about this man. I only know two things about him. One is, he has never been in jail. And the other is, I don’t know why.” Later Fleischman reveals the inspiration for the book’s title. Twain’s first posters advertising his speaking engagements “proclaimed that the doors would open at seven. ‘The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock.’”

Sid Fleischman does his best to separate the fact from the fiction in Mark Twain’s life, a task in which Twain himself apparently didn’t put too much stock. His autobiography, as noted numerous times, included certain exaggerations and/or additions as well as more than a few exclusions.

The book begins with young Samuel Clemens’ first work in newspaper, where he published a banner headline declaring “TERRIBLE ACCIDENT! 500 men killed and missing!!!” followed by, in smaller type, “We had set the above head up, expecting (of course) to use it, but as the accident hasn’t happened, yet, we’ll say (To be continued.)” He also started a feud with the editor of the local competition, accusing him of “failing to drink himself to death.”

The story continues following Samuel’s life as a riverboat captain, his two weeks in the military, his travel west to Nevada, more work in newspaper, his dabblings in fiction, and the next (and the next and the next...) get-rich-quick scheme. He travels the world and creates imaginary travel companions, passing them off as real. Slowly but surely readers witness the death of Samuel Clemens and the birth of Mark Twain.

Each story is as funny as the next, and each reads as a bit of humor concocted by the man himself. Teachers, get yourself a copy of this book and be sure to use it alongside Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Young readers will enjoy this creatively written story about Mark Twain as much as any story by Mark Twain.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lincoln and His Boys by Rosemary Wells

I don't think Lincoln and His Boys offers too much new or relatively unknown information about Abraham Lincoln, but it does offer a perspective I haven't seen before. Readers meet President Lincoln through the eyes of his youngest sons, Willie and Tad. The book is divided into three sections: Willie 1859, Willie and Tad 1861, and Tad 1862-1865.

Willie, the older of the two brothers, relates the events leading up to his father's election. There's not a lot of historical facts - it's not a history book disguised as a children's book. Yes, it's the events before the election, but not debates and politics. It's a trip to the tailor and a special trip to Chicago with his father. It's keeping a promise to mother to go see Miss Jenny Lind, the best lady singer in the world, for Willie's edification. But it's also about a father who makes time to take his son to see the Chinese acrobats and jugglers at Metropolitan Hall.

The second section is again narrated by Willie, but tells of the family's travels to Washington on the train after Lincoln is elected and the events of their first year in Washington. The kids build a fort on the White House roof, complete with log artillery, mostly pointed south. The boys bust into Cabinet meetings and are the only cause of laughter for the president.

Tad picks up the narration after the fever that struck both he and Willie leaves his brother dead. His part continues to the end of the war, closing with the two most powerful events - a trip to Richmond immediately after the war's end and the president's command that the army band play Dixie in Washington.

Take time to look at the pictures. Study them. Look at the joy on Lincoln's face when he is with his boys. Notice the glares on the faces of Lincoln's Cabinet members at the same time. P. J. Lynch's illustrations deserve recognition in any review of Rosemary Wells' wonderful book.

Friday, February 13, 2009

iWants and WiiNeeds

New column today. I should have dedicated this one to all the parents who fondly remember Pong and their first 8-Tracks.

COLUMN: WiiOnes caught up in world of video games, electronics or here's the printable version.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stinky by Eleanor Davis

Stinky enjoys his stinky yet simple life. His cave has bats and bugs and a pet toad named Wartbelly. He has an abundant supply of pickled bananas, pickled eggs, and pickled onions. The moment he leaves his cave, his neighbors call him by name. "Hi, Stinky," says the squirrel and dragonfly. "Good morning, Stinky," says the bird and the porcupine. Even the turtle, frogs, and alligator greet Stinky.

His swamp has mushy, mucky mud and a bottomless pit and an onion patch and wonderfully stinky smell. Best of all, it’s all his. Ah…home smelly home.

Stinky must be careful, however, because on the other side of the swamp is a town. “Towns have kids,” Stinky explains, “and kids don’t like swamps. They like to take baths!” How could a monster befriend anyone who doesn’t like mud or slugs or smelly monsters like him? “I stay away from them,” he declares.

Stinky does all he can to avoid kids, but what can he do when a kid wanders onto his territory? A kid! In his swamp! Stinky tries to get rid of the boy. He tries to stink him out with Wartbelly. He steals his hammer and tries scaring him with a ghost costume. Nothing works. Stinky’s final plan? Give up.

In his frustration Stinky gets himself into quite a predicament – trapped at the bottom of the bottomless pit! (“Well, maybe not a bottomless pit!” Stinky realizes. “But it’s very deep.”) And who is the only person in the swamp to hear his cries? Yep, it’s the boy, Nick.

Now Stinky’s only hope is something he has always tried to avoid. A kid! More specifically, the boy he tried so desperately to run out of his swamp.

Eleanor Davis’ book is a great addition to the Toon Book library, and a great addition to any classroom library with emerging readers, especially readers whose likes and dislikes include mushy, mucky mud, slimy slugs, and stinky smells.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman

Is he gonna get to keep the toy factory? I'll bet he's gonna win the whole toy factory. The old owner's probably got some secret hidden in his will or a code written in the toy packaging or something. Yep. Kid’s getting the toy factory.

Those were the thoughts, or some variation thereof, going through my mind as I read Jody Feldman’s The Gollywhopper Games. The similarities to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are numerous, and after reading Jody Feldman’s acknowledgements, it’s easy to see why. A student asked for a book like Roald Dahl’s classic one day when she was volunteering in the school library, and neither she nor the teacher could find one to his satisfaction. The Gollywhopper Games was born.

I was wrong. Nobody wins the Golly Toy and Game Company. And, different from Charlie, the children know they are involved in a competition. There are 25,000 chances to win. That’s 500 instant winner tickets in Golly products, 20,000 randomly selected winners, and the first 4,500 kids in line at University Stadium. Gil Goodson’s plan is wait it out in line.

Once inside, players are eliminated through stadium-wide multiple choice questions, then cut to ten finalists through a lengthy math question involving Golly toy products and company history, a nursery rhyme, and board games. Gil makes the cut.

Day two begins with the ten finalists split into two teams to compete against each other. When Gil grabs the immunity idol, he’s safe from that night’s vote, but the alliance he’s formed with…nah, just seeing if you’re paying attention. But there are two teams of five. One team is eliminated, leaving five individuals competing to win.

The contest goes throughout the Golly toy factory. There are blinking arrows on the walls and life-sized stuffed animals around every corner. There’s the Kaleidoscope room, eight stories tall, dancing with color. There are funhouse mirrors and palm trees and hot-air balloons and dancing skeletons and floating panda bears and random showers of gold confetti. Think Willie Wonka, toy maker.

The competition is a 50th anniversary celebration for the Golly Toy and Game Company with prizes including a college scholarship, Golly products, “plus other stupendous prizes and experiences too fabulous and too numerous to name!”

But it’s more for Gil. Winning will allow his family to escape Orchard Heights, his and Golly’s hometown. His father, a former employee, was arrested and charged with embezzlement just under a year prior. With no job and no income, Gil’s family is stuck in a town that loves the Golly Toy and Game Company, a town that followed Gil’s family like the Playskool Paparazzi during the trial, a town that still harbors ill will to the Goodson family despite Mr. Goodson’s acquittal.

Kids will cheer for Gil, hoping he will succeed, but they’ll do it because Gil is a great character, the contest is so engaging, and the book is simply fun. Codes, puzzles, physical challenges, memory, races … all in what seems to be the world’s coolest toy factory and all designed for reader interaction. That’s what will get and keep kids’ attention.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz

In my initial reactions to the Newbery medal and ALA Youth Media Award winners, I said I was waiting for a copy of How I Learned Geography and asked, "Did I read right, though? A family flees war and finds poverty?" Lesson learned: Don't judge a book solely upon any three sentence blurb found on Amazon.

Yes, this autobiographical book is about Uri Shulevitz as a young boy of four or five fleeing Warsaw, Poland after the Warsaw blitz in 1939. Yes, the book is about how they fled east, settling in the city of Turkestan in the Soviet Union, what is now Kazakhstan, living in one room with barely enough to eat. But there's more. It's also the book of how a father's spur of the moment decision and the author's childhood imagination helped him escape nevertheless.

That wasn't clearly stated in that bit I rushed to read on Amazon.

All of the details listed above are from the Author's Note at the end. The story itself is much simpler. One day Father went to the bazaar to buy food, but didn't return until late. When he arrived, he announced, "I bought a map." No bread. No food. Only a gigantic map that, when displayed, filled an entire wall. After the boy gets over his initial disappointment and frustration, he learns...well, the book is called How I Learned Geography, isn't it?

The boy travels the world via the map. He studies the fascinating names and creates a rhyming verse out of them, sort of a magic chant that transports him around the world. He travels to deserts, beaches, and mountains. He sees palm trees, fruit trees, and birds of all colors. He visits a rain forest and a temple and a large metropolitan city. All through the map.

Yes, the story starts with war and poverty, but ultimately the story is about the power of a boy's imagination, and how it allows him to escape his difficult life, if just for a while. "And so I spent enchanted hours," he says, "far, far from our hunger and misery."

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle

The events of The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom span 50 years, from the childhood of Rosa and Lieutenant Death to the end of the War for Independence. Rosa is a child who learns the healing powers of the plants of the forest. Lieutenant Death is the son of a slave catcher who learns from his father how to hunt escaped slaves. These two characters share the narration, all told in verse, in Part One (1850-1851).

Part Two tells the events of the Ten Years' War (1868-1878), again with Rosa and Lieutenant Death (now adults) sharing narrative duties, adding Jose, Rosa's husband, and two pages from a Lieutenant-General from Spain. Rosa tells of healing the sick and the injured. Lieutenant Death continues his father's job of hunting slaves.

Parts Three and Four continue through the the Little War (1878-1880) and the War of Independence (1895-1898). Silvia, a young girl who lost her entire family in a reconcentration camp, is added to the narrative mix, expressing her desires to learn the art of healing from Rosa, now a Cuban legend.

Part Five (1898-1899) closes with the events after the War of Independence, telling of Spain's exit, and the United States' involvement and subsequent occupation. Characters are still left with a desire for freedom, feeling they have only exchanged one "foreign tyrant" for another.

It's a book about war. All the events you'd think should be in there are there: atrocities, death, murder, revenge, betrayal. There's also Rosa's desire to do good, always good, healing everyone, both friend and enemy, and never accepting payment, for healing comes from God. Events are told in only enough detail so the imagination will fill in the rest, often times with the most gruesome details. I'm not big on filling in gruesome details of war with my imagination.

Whether or not The Surrender Tree is a Newbery-quality distinguished book is a debate I'll leave to others. Regardless of the results of their debate, I don't see this book flying off classroom library shelves or being passed student to student.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A River of Words by Jen Bryant

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams is a hard book to classify. Is it a poetry book with additional background information about the poet for older readers? Is it a story book for younger readers featuring an introduction to poetry? Or should we just give it to the art teachers?

In a word, yes.

The endpapers feature some famous Williams poems. There's The Red Wheelbarrow we've all come to know and love and This is Just to Say, recently featured in a picture book of the same name. Older readers, once familiar with the poems, may enjoy learning about the author, and no doubt will appreciate the simpler text after tackling poetry in class.

Younger readers will enjoy learning about the young man who enjoyed playing outside and staying outside. They'll like the boy who raced everywhere, always in a hurry, but would slow down to enjoy the sound and rhythm of the poetry read aloud by his teacher, while images played across his imagination. How that boy decided he could write poetry too, all about ordinary things in his life. (And why can't you?) How that boy, now a young man, became a doctor, but no matter what, continued writing poetry.

Art teachers will find plenty (and pardon my artistic ignorance if it is glaringly obvious). There are watercolor illustrations of Williams throughout his life. There are also collages, many of them featuring words and lines from poems, and many containing objects from the poet's life at the time. There are pages from medical books, notebook paper, the spine of an art textbook, newspapers, pages from a spelling book, and a report card all included in the pictures. Art teachers, are there some potential lessons there?

Jen Bryant's book and Melissa Sweet's illustrations fit in many categories, but instead of trying to find all the proper classifications, it's nice to have this simple one: Caldecott Books.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Postcard by Tony Abbott

When Jason’s grandmother dies, he travels from Boston to St. Petersburg, Florida to help his father do whatever needs to be done. Funeral arrangements, house cleaning, house fix-ups, and eventually, house sale. Grandma’s death only heightens the stress between his father and mother, a relationship Jason fears is crumbling.

As Jason learns more about his grandmother, whom he never really got to know, he also learns more about his father’s history. The absent father. The hospitals. The fortune? How could these things not affect his father, and how could they not affect his parents’ relationship?

When Jason receives a mysterious phone call asking, “How smart are you?” and directing him to his grandmother’s desk, he discovers a postcard. It features the Hotel DeSoto, which his great-grandfather supposedly once owned. It’s blank, but upon further investigation, Jason notices some cryptic markings. Then Jason discovers an old magazine featuring a story by Emerson Beale. The story features a … postcard. And a woman named Marnie. His grandmother’s name was Agnes, but someone called her Marnie at the funeral.

Deciding it’s too much to be coincidence, Jason sneaks into the soon to be demolished Hotel DeSoto, following the clues left on the postcard, to find chapter 2 of Emerson Beal’s story. Soon the trail of clues leads to more story chapters, more family history, and more connections between the two.

The Postcard is a bit tidy the way all the clues and Jason’s good fortune seem to fall together, but Jason’s willingness to follow the clues makes it seem that his bold actions create his good fortune. A detective never gets any breaks if he doesn’t follow any leads in the first place, right?

Jason gets help with his family and literary mystery from Dia, a new friend from his grandmother’s neighborhood, who accompanies him on much of his search. When Jason gets frustrated, she encourages him to continue, sometimes simply through her eagerness and excitement.

Emerson Beal’s story is written in the book, so as Jason reads each chapter, so do readers. Jason discovers the first chapter in Bizarre Mysteries, a magazine from October 1944. The stories “were about kidnapping and murder, robbery and murder, robbery and kidnapping and murder, murder and murder, and just plain murder. And they were all written in rugged, tough-guy language.” I’m not an expert on the genre, but Tony Abbott does a good job of recreating it. I can see why kids of the 1940’s would be drawn to it, and why it probably would have caused the teachers and librarians of the time to make a face like they’d just smelt something disagreeable wafting from the mystery section. Readers will anticipate Emerson Beal’s next chapter as much as Jason does.

On A Personal Note:
What are the chances of this? Emerson Beal mentions “The Secret Order of Oobarab.” That name, coupled with descriptions of the more interesting members of the Order, led me to immediately predict what it took the characters 261 pages and Google to figure out. Of course, they didn’t have the fourth grade field trip experience that I’ve had here in central Wisconsin. Okay, that’s all I’ll say, but man, do I want to give it away. It seems nuts, but kids in Wisconsin may have a distinct advantage solving a piece of this mystery about a kid from Boston, Mass and his family in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson

After The House in the Night won the Caldecott Medal, and having just finished a student-selected mock Caldecott with my fourth graders, I read the book aloud to my class. Their response? Shifty sideways glances. A few unintelligible mumbles. Mostly just awkward silence. Finally one brave girl slowly raised her hand and said, "Well, it was kinda boring."

Fair enough, I thought. This is the bunch that overwhelmingly favored A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever and Beware of the Frog in our mock election. Plenty of humor, bold pictures, and enough text to keep the ten year old mind interested. One student described The House in the Night as a lullaby (a great observation), gold is the only color, and it has fewer then ten words per page.

To be fair, they appreciated it more after we discussed how the pictures were created using scratchboard. Some students pointed out that the bird in the girl's book seemed to grow larger each page until the outline of the bird was incorporated into the other illustrations, then got smaller until it was back in its book. Some saw it, some didn't, but good art does that to the observer, doesn't it?

Our art teacher, however, had a different opinion. I showed her the book, and she refused to return it. (It's not even my copy! I got it at the public library.) I saw it the next day, open and upright on a table in the art room, as sixth graders studied the pictures before beginning their own scratchboard projects. They were captivated by the detail and accuracy of the etchings.

The House in the Night had found a home in the art room. That shows the Caldecott worthiness of Beth Krommes' illustrations. It also will be at home in the bedroom, just before lights out, as little ones curl up on a parent’s lap to share the girl’s teddy bear, her story, her goodnight kiss, and her good night’s sleep. And that proves the kid worthiness of Susan Marie Swanson's story.