Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night begins with “Welcome to the Night,” an invitation in verse “To all of you who crawl and creep, who buzz and chirp and hoot and peep.”  It’s an evening summons to the animals that wake at dusk to go about their nighttime business, enjoying the cool, damp shadows.  

Poet Joyce Sidman then introduces readers to woodland snails, the primrose moth, raccoons, porcupines, the red eft, and even the Dark Emperor himself, the great horned owl.  Among other animals, there are also poems that mark the coming of the mushrooms and the silent strength of the oak tree.  The book closes with “Moon’s Lament,” where our lunar friend reflects on the night’s events, questions where everyone has gone, and mourns the dawning of a new day.

Dark Emperor could well stand on its own as a book of poems, but the addition of short paragraphs of nonfiction coupled with each poem pushes it to a new level.  Each poem appears on the left of the two page spread with a small illustration.  The right side features a larger illustration (all stunning, I might add, and giving the book an appearance traditionally associated with Caldecott winners rather than Newberys) and the descriptive text.

Readers not only are given a lyrical tour of the nighttime forest, but also learn more details about the poems’ subjects.  Did you know snails have teeth on their tongues?  Did you know that while trees produce food during the day, they use the hours of darkness to make repairs and take in extra water?  Did you know that baby porcupines are called porcupettes, that cricket sounds peak around midnight, or that one mushroom can produce two billion spores?  Hmmm?

Me neither.  Until now.  Just like Sidman’s previous books, Red Sings From Treetops and This Is Just to Say, Dark Emperor will come alive in a teacher’s classroom.  In one book teachers and students will hold in their hands lessons in rhyme and rhythm, imagery and word choice as well as facts about the creatures, both big and small, quiet and loud, of the night.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Simply, Moon Over Manifest is the story of 12-year-old Abilene Tucker moving to Manifest, Kansas during the summer of 1936.  Abilene has been living on the road with her father, Gideon, riding the rails during the Great Depression.  Now Gideon has decided that it would be better for her to live a more stable life, even if it means being away from him, back in his hometown while he works a railroad job in Des Moines.  

But Moon Over Manifest cannot be described in one simple paragraph.  One story is layered upon another until author Clare Vanderpool has spun enough yarn to keep readers busy trying to connect the seemingly loose ends.  Consider this:
  • While in Manifest, Abilene tries to learn the story of her father’s younger days growing up in town.
  • Abilene discovers a box of treasures containing several trinkets (a fishing lure, silver dollar, skeleton key, cork) and a number of letters.  Another story develops within those letters.
  • Another story is told by Miss Sadie, a diviner, as Abilene comes to work for her during the summer.  Abilene is introduced to Jinx and Ned, two residents of 1918 Manifest.
  • Abilene and two friends, Lettie and Ruthanne discover and investigate the Rattler, a Manifest legend, ignoring the warning that appears in the tree house, Fort Treeconderoga.
  • The story of Manifest’s history is given in part by Miss Sadie in addition to Hattie Mae Harper’s newspaper articles.
And I’m not even sure that’s it.  Honestly.  Moon Over Manifest demands a second read.  Just looking back to double check facts I’ve already noticed two or three clues laid out in early chapters.  

Remember how Holes had Stanley’s story at Camp Green Lake, Stanley’s personal history, the story of Madam Zeroni and Stanley’s no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather, and the doomed romance of schoolteacher Katherine Barlow and Sam the Onion Man?  Remember how they all come together seamlessly at the end?  (Sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.)

Or remember Walk Two Moons?  There was Sal’s journey across America with her grandparents, Sal’s family history in Kentucky, and the story Phoebe Winterbottom, Margaret Cadaver, and the potential lunatic.  Again, three yarns knit seamlessly into one story tapestry with no loose ends.

Books like these with multiple story lines are some of my favorites, and Moon Over Manifest ranks right up there.  Readers will be kept guessing, at times sure they’ve got it figured out while a chapter later re-evaluating their previously drawn conclusions.  In the end readers will want to race forward to see the spectacular conclusion.

Then readers can turn back to page one and slowly savor the story a second time.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

The cover of Interrupting Chicken pretty much explains the story.  Papa is ready to read the little red chicken a bedtime story, yet even on the book’s cover, the little red chicken doesn’t allow readers to get to author David Ezra Stein’s name before interrupting.

Even though she promises Papa that she won’t interrupt that evening’s stories - “Oh no, Papa.  I’ll be good.” - the little red chicken just can’t resist.  Papa’s first story is Hansel and Gretel.  After the children find the house made of candy and the old woman invites them to come inside, just before they follow her ...

“Out jumped a little red chicken, and she said, ‘DON’T GO IN!  SHE’S A WITCH!’  So Hansel and Gretel didn’t.  THE END!”

Whoops.  Papa reminds little red chicken not to get so involved in the story, to relax so she can fall asleep.  The next story is Little Red Riding Hood.  Just as Red is about to respond to the stranger she meets in the woods on the path to Grandma’s house … well, you can guess what happens.  Papa tries Chicken Little, again with predictable results.  The little red chicken prevents a sky-is-falling panic by announcing it was only an acorn.

And with that, Papa is out of stories.  He suggests that the little red chicken tell him a bedtime story instead.

She agrees and chooses one of her own stories, Bedtime for Papa by CHiKn.  Then, wouldn’t you know it, just as the story gets rolling, another interruption.  This time it’s Papa doing the interrupting, but for a totally different reason.

Interrupting Chicken won a 2011 Caldecott Honor for its illustrations.  I’m not much of an art critic - enough of one, maybe, to say that these are bold illustrations and that I like the added touches of candy spilling out from beneath the pages of Hansel and Gretel and the crayon artwork of the little red chicken’s story - so I’m not really qualified to comment on pictures.  But I do feel comfortable recommending the book for young readers.  It’s laugh-out-loud funny, especially when the reader puts the proper excitement into the little red chicken’s interruptions.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Snow! Let's Go Outside to Play!

We're at the height of winter here in Wisconsin.  There's been snow on the ground for two months and three more months of snow are still coming ... and it's snowing right now as I type this introduction.  It's getting to that point of the school year when students and teachers start thinking about the possibility of a snow day.  I ain't sayin'.  I'm just sayin'.

And that means going outside to play.  To everyone who lives in a similar climate, my latest newspaper column will be preaching to the choir.  But for those of you who live where sandals never get stored away and dressing warm means taking a sweatshirt "just in case," this might be an educational article.

Either way, I hope you enjoy it.  Here's the original on the newspaper's site, and here's the printable version.

Getting ready to play outside in the winter is a unique childhood event.  Yes, grown-ups still play outside, but to adults, getting ready is just a necessary step.  To kids, getting ready is an experience unto itself.
Every generation shares this experience, but today’s collection of pint-sized Arctic explorers benefits from twenty-first century technological advancements.
Have you seen the equipment kids are wearing outside these days?  It’s more than plain old winter clothes.  This stuff is micro-fleeced, moisture-wicking, overlapping, synthetic creations from genius designers who remember, as children, sacrificing personal warmth at the altar of frozen fun.
In my day jackets were purchased to fit.  “Stand up,” Mom would say.  “Put your arms down.  Stand normal.  Let me check those sleeves.  Yes, good.  Right where they need to be.”  Gloves, or mittens more accurately, were knit by Grandma to fit.  Cover the hand, cuff at the wrist, good to go.
Then the moment you started digging in the snow, the sleeves slipped up, the mittens slipped down, and your exposed wrists entered the first stages of frostbite.
Today kids are wearing gloves that nearly reach their elbows with snow-stopping buckles and Velcro straps.  Jacket sleeves have an under layer designed to go inside the glove complete with a thumb hole to keep it from riding up.  We had shirts with long sleeves.  You’d bunch the cuff in your hand then try to put on your jacket with clenched fists.
Today’s kids have boots with super-grip soles and elastic ties and laces and more Velcro straps.  They’re slip-proof, cold-proof, snow-proof and water-proof.  
My boots weren’t slip-proof as much as they were slip-ready.  You’d zoom across any patch of ice, snow or wet pavement.  Their insulation was called another pair of socks.  And because, like the jacket, the boots were purchased to fit, extra socks packed your toes tighter than then snow in Frosty’s bottom layer.  Water proofing came from empty bread bags around each foot.  Not exactly moisture-wicking.
Today’s snow pants also have two layers, one inside the boot to the ankle and a second over the boot to the heel.  No way snow gets inside.  My snow pants welcomed snow like Vegas welcomes tourists.  Boots never stayed tucked, and the exposed inch of skin above the boot quickly matched your frostbitten wrists.  
Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same.  The equipment may be updated, but the process remains tried and true.
Sit down.  Put on boots.
Stand up.  Put on jacket.  Grab snow pants.
Sit down. Take off boots.  Start to put on snow pants.
Stand up.  Take off jacket.  Buckle shoulder straps of snow pants.
Sit down.  Put on boots.
Stand up.  Put on jacket.  Zip.
Put on gloves.  Grab hat.
Take off gloves.  Put on hat.
Put on gloves.  Find Mom.  Ask her to tuck the gloves under the jacket sleeves.
(Alternatively, some children prefer to put on gloves before jacket resulting in perfectly tucked gloves.  These children still need Mom to zip.)
And hey, would you look at that?  It’s snowing.  Time to go outside aqznmd p;l.asjyuh.
Right.  Sorry.  Got a little excited there.  I need to finish the article before I put on my mittens.
Then it’ll be time to go outside and play.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead

Amos McGee is a responsible man, rising early every morning.  He always wears a fresh-pressed uniform, eats his sensible breakfast, and takes the 6 a.m. bus to work at the zoo.  Amos McGee appears to be a man content with his life as well.  Even as the city has grown up around him, he continues to live in the same modest house, now sandwiched between high rise apartments.

Every day at work Amos McGee makes time for his friends.  He plays chess with the elephant, who is very thoughtful.  He races the tortoise, a tough competitor.  The penguin is shy, but Amos sits with him.  He always has a hanky for rhinoceros’s runny nose.  And at the end of the day he shares a storybook with owl, who doesn’t like the dark.

So what happens when the routine changes?  “One day Amos awoke with the sniffles, and the sneezes, and the chills.”  What happens if all the animals wait for their friend, Amos, but he never arrives?  They do what friends do, of course.

They go to him.  There are games and runny noses and quiet visits and contests and stories and even a pot of tea.  
All on A Sick Day for Amos McGee.
The 2011 Caldecott Medal winner was illustrated by Erin E. Stead using woodblock printing and pencil.  Minimal color is used creating a look and mood to match the quiet, contemplative story.  The story, while featuring an older gentleman and zoo animals, could easily be used in classrooms to discuss friendship.  Despite their differences Amos McGee and the animals not only share time together as friends, but they do for one another as friends do.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

2011 Geisel Award - Some Initial Thoughts

The Newbery and Caldecott Awards might get the lion's share of the attention when ALA announces its awards, but the Geisel Award for "the most distinguished American book for beginning readers" is one that Help Readers Love Reading anticipates just as much each year.  And in 2011 the Geisel Medal and Honor books are...

Geisel Honor Books

We Are In a Book by Mo Willems - This is the only Elephant and Piggie book not in my personal collection. This will soon be rectified.  It's not that I didn't think it was worthy of inclusion in the collection or anything, I just ... well ... ah, heck.  I forgot.  By the way, how long should an author dominate an award (see here and here) before his name is added to the award?  That's 3 of 4 years!  The Mo Geisel Award?  The Geisel Mo-mento?

Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin - A Newbery Honor in 2010 and a Geisel Honor in 2011 for Grace Lin.  If Ling and Ting is as good as Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, then this award is well deserved. 

Geisel Medal Winner

Bink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Allison McGee - Can't wait to announce this one to the second and third graders who heard Bink and Gollie read aloud earlier this year.  They loved it and will be thrilled to know that the grown-ups loved it too.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

2011 Caldecott Medal and Honor Books - Some Initial Thoughts

Yesterday the ALA announced the winners of the Randalph Caldecott Award, given to "the most distinguished American picture book for children."  I offered some initial thoughts on the Newbery winners, and here are my first reactions to the 2011 Caldecott Medal winner and Honor Books.

Caldecott Honor Books

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein - In a word, "Woo-Hoo!"  Unless that's two words.  Either way the Help Readers Love Reading household, especially the resident eight-year-old, was thrilled when Interrupting Chicken was announced.  A funny bedtime story where the wrong character ends up in dreamland.

Dave, The Potter by Laban Carrick Hill - I'm unfamiliar with this book, but from the little I've seen online, Bryan Collier's illustrations look deep, rich, and deserving of recognition.  I'm excited to see the whole thing.

Caldecott Medal Winner

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip Christian Stead - I've seen this one tossed around in various mock discussions, but I haven't read it.  The cover features an elephant, penguin, old man in pajamas, and a mouse holding a helium balloon, all playing cards.  What's not to like?  Kindly please hurry up, library processing system, so's I can read it myself.  Thanks.

Monday, January 10, 2011

2011 Newbery Medal and Honor Books - Some Initial Thoughts

The 2011 Newbery Medal was awarded this morning along with four Honor books.  Here are this year's most distinguished contributions to American literature for children and, after digging up some details online, here are my initial reactions.

Newbery Honor Books

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm - I'm all for any book set in Key West as well as books with "smart and tough" girl main characters who hang out with "ragtag boy cousins."  I'm looking forward to reading this one.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia - The initial description of sisters sent to live with the mother who abandoned them doesn't make me overly eager to read it.  Reviews say funny (+1), heartbreaking (-1), and unforgettable (+1).  That's a +1 overall, with an added "Crazy" in the title, so I guess I'll read it. 

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus - An American ship rescues the crew of a shipwrecked Japanese fishing boat.  The main character learns American culture, pans for gold in California, and returns to Japan unwelcome as an outsider.  Seems like plenty of action.

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman - Sidman's book Red Sings From Treetops won a Caldecott Honor last year, and this year she wins a Newbery Honor, but my favorite is still This Is Just to Say.

Newbery Medal Winner

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool - From "Abilene and her friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, embark on an honest to goodness spyhunt that ends up with someone leaving a note on their treehouse cautioning them to Leave Well Enough Alone.  But Abilene sets caution aside when she ventures down the mysterious Path to Perdition and ends up at Miss Sadie's Divining Parlor."  Best of all, it seems to be a Newbery surprise.  I hope both my Amazon order and library hold were placed quick enough to get the book shortly.

I haven't read any of them, but then again, this year I hadn't made much of an effort to do so.  (Although One Crazy Summer is on my to-be-read pile.)  I did follow the pre-award buzz online and noticed that a number of titles receiving a lot of attention were left off the list.  Maybe there were some snubs, maybe not, but I do know I like surprises.  

And based on my recollection, Moon Over Manifest qualifies as a surprise.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee

To young couples considering starting a family, it might be a warning.  To expectant parents, it could be a frank look at imminent family changes.  To already-been-there parents, it’s preaching to the choir.  To grandparents, it’ll bring about giggles.  And to kids it will cause laughter and demands for rereads.  

But no matter the reader, The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee will definitely be enjoyed.

Make no mistake, the moment the baby arrives at the house, he immediately becomes the boss.  Mom and Dad are put on a round the clock schedule, demands are made, expectations are set, and if certain adults don’t toe the line, watch out.  The boss has a fit.  And believe it or not, words are never spoken.  No verbal directions are ever given, but that doesn’t prevent the baby from getting what he wants.  Always.  Until...

One day, suddenly, “his staff did not respond.”  The boss had worked Mom and Dad to their limit, and none of his usual methods for getting what he wanted could rouse them from their midday slumber.  A new tactic was necessary.  Some out-of-the-box thinking was needed from company leadership, and the idea he settled upon produces amazing results.

The Boss Baby takes a unique look the effect a new member can have on the family.  Everything mentioned is exactly right.  Babies make demands, everyone’s schedule becomes the baby’s schedule, and baby supplies take over the house.  But when the new baby is wearing a suit and tie, it becomes ever more apparent who the boss actually is.

Subsequent readings and closer analysis of Marla Frazee’s illustrations will bring even more appreciation of the book.  Think about a boss of a major company.  Bosses have their own lounge, spa, executive gym, made to order drinks, and a private jet.  So does the baby in his own baby way.  The plastic tub in the sink is the spa.  Play sets become the executive gym.  The private jet swings through and open doorway and is connected to the frame.  No perk is excluded for this boss.

No matter who the reader, The Boss Baby (both the book and actual babies snuggled up for reading time) will be loved.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown

Ah, kids.  If ever anyone starts to think they know what they’re talking about when it comes to children, be sure to test that knowledge with real, live, actual children.  The little rascals will put you squarely back in your place.

I’ve been a fan of Peter Brown’s books for a while and have reviewed several here: Chowder, The Fabulous Bouncing Chowder, and The Curious Garden.  My first impression of Children Make Terrible Pets was cute and creative, unique pictures, nice switcheroo on a well known childhood theme, but not on the same level as the previously mentioned books.

Then I read the story of Lucy, the pink tutu-wearing bear who finds a critter in the woods, names him Squeaker, and takes him home to her mom begging to keep him as a pet aloud to a group of second and third graders.  Laughter.  Roars!  Pointing fingers and “Look at that!”  Groans and “Ooohhh noooo!” at the surprise ending - sort of like when the Pigeon sees a semi at the end of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

A new Peter Brown book not on the same level as his other books?  Bah!  Foolish grown-up, trusting his own wisdom.

When Lucy finds “the cutest little critter” in the woods, she takes the young, rosy-cheeked boy home and begs to keep him as a pet. And as many parents do, her mom hesitantly agrees, but only on one condition: “Squeaker is YOUR responsibility.  I will not take care of him for you.”

Lucy played with Squeaker.  They ate together, napped together, did everything together.  However, Squeaker was impossible to potty train, destroyed his share of the furniture, and threw food at tea parties.  When Lucy thinks it can’t get any worse, it does.  Squeaker disappears.  

When Squeaker’s hiding place is discovered, Lucy also discovers that what she thinks is best for her - having an awesome pet - may not be the best for the pet.  Lucy is forced to make a tough decision based on what’s best for Squeaker.

So can I change my opinion?  Can I say that I loved the book from the start and knew it would be a hit with kids?  No?  Then I’ll just share my new-found appreciation of the book now that I know how much kids like it, acknowledge that first impressions ain’t always right, keep the beginning of this review honest, and give the book a well deserved recommendation.