September 18, 2014
Lincoln’s Grave Robbers
by Steve Sheinkin
I tend to read before swim meets and when I’m waiting to pick swimmers up from practice. Moms and dads and siblings and I all discuss our books. The funny thing is that everyone saw this cover, read this title and assumed I had to be reading fiction.
Nope. A group of counterfeiters set out to steal Lincoln’s remains on Election night, 1876.
Why? Another counterfeiter, probably the king of them all, had been caught and jailed. Without his work engraving plates, the supply of quality counterfeit was dwindling. Quality goods are necessary so that you don’t get caught. If they didn’t get more of his work soon, they’d all have to find other work. They planned to steal and hide Lincoln’s remains. The brains of the outfit would then “find” the body and return it to the feds. I’m not certain why he tought that this wouldn’t scream “ransom demand” but that was their plan.
And stealing the body shouldn’t have been all that hard. Two doors stood between Lincoln’s sarcophagus and the public. Anyone who could cut through a padlock could gain entrance.
I’m not going to tell you anything more about the story because this is a true crime story and half of the beauty of this type of story well told is the suspense.
For those of you who know Sheinkin’s work, you know that this is going to be one of those stories that is just too crazy to be true . . . but it is. Everything in the book from the setting to the characters to the story to the dialogue has been researched by Sheinkin. The trick in this type of book is puzzling out what really happened. Who is telling the truth and who is making things up?
For the middle grade reader who doesn’t want to read a story that is made up, the fan of true crime and detective stories.
September 15, 2014
by Ann Ingalls
I picked this one up for two reasons – I know Ingalls who is an amazing writer and we used to have a piranha. Would this book be able to teach me anything?
There are 30 species of piranha. I knew there was more than one but I never guessed that there were 30.
In spite of their deadly reputation, they very seldom attack large prey or people. Some species eat only plants; I’ve seen pictures of these plant eaters and just going by their detention you’d never guess their diet. The red bellied piranha is most often actually a scavenger, feeding on animals that have died in the water. So when is a frightening feeding frenzy most likely to happen? During the dry season when water levels drop and piranha may get trapped in low lying pools or other areas where they quickly run out of their preferred prey.
At only 48 pages, this book packed in a lot of piranha facts. You read about their physiology, their life birth to death, the Amazon River and their role in it as well as how they are often prey. Their most dangerous predator? People!
I was glad to see that Ingalls touched on piranhas as pets and the problems caused when people who tire of their exotic, toothy friend dump the fish in a nearby body of water. Piranha are cold blooded and draw warmth from the water around them. In colder climates, they may survive the summer but almost always die in winter, doing damage to the habitat in the meanwhile.
This book would be a sure draw for boys hoping to read about ill-fated cattle, people and capybara. Because this is an ABDO book, it is also an excellent choice for the classroom or library. Chapters end with quotes — one from Roosevelt who witnessed piranha attacking a cow and one from a scientific journal. Students are asked to read these passages and then reflect on the main idea as well as how the message might be rewritten for a different audience.
Hats off to Ann Ingalls for teaching me so much about Rex (who is no longer amond us) and his cousins.
September 11, 2014
In a Glass Grimmly
by Adam Gidwitz
Dutton Children’s Books
How do you bring together Jack and Jill, The Princess and the Frog, Jack and the Beanstalk, and much, much more? You turn author Adam Gidwitz loose in fairy-tale land.
Gidwitz pulls together multiple Jack stories (Jack and Jill, the Beanstalk and the Giant Killer) and gives them a twist. Jack and Jill are cousins with uniquely aweful lives. Uniquely aweful in fairy tales. Their problems are all too common today. Jack has to deal with a pack of bullies while Jill’s mother is so mirror obsessed that a traveling merchant manages to clothe Jill in glorious silk that only the discerning eye can see.
Jill marches out of the castle starkers.
The pair end up adventuring together on a quest for a magic mirror that is worth more than any other treasure in the world. The price if they don’t find it? Their lives.
Just to keep things lively, they are accompanied on their adventures by a talking frog. Yep. The talking frog. Or Frog as they call him. He may not be the bravest amphibian in the world and their adventures would be much less amazing if they listened to his MANY warnings but he definitely adds a worthwhile comic note.
In the end, the glass doesn’t work quite the way everyone expects but Jack and Jill manage to come out of it all with a new understanding of the world and their place in it. They may not have what they thought they wanted at the beginning, but they have a self-awareness that is what they needed all along.
For those of you who haven’t read A Tale Dark and Grimm, Gidwitz has a barbed humor and writes in a chatty sarcastic style that may remind you of A Tale of Unfortunate Events. Don’t expect strict adherence to the original tales. Gidwitz plays free and loose with everything he pulls into this story but does so in a way that weaves it into a funny, slightly disgusting whole.
Although I read this book, I suspect it would make an excellent audio book for a family car trip as long as everyone has a tolerance for off beat often disgusting humor. Yes, there’s guts and gore and barf . . .but it’s funny. I promise.
September 8, 2014
Ice Cream Soup
by Ann Ingalls
Penguin Young Readers
What do you get when you combine various kinds of ice cream, sprinkles, candies and syrup in one big pan? The character in this early reader is trying to make an ice cream cake but by the time he’s done scooping, sprinkling, patting into place and pouring, he has a gloopy mess. Fortunately, this can do kid makes it work, renaming his dessert creation.
With controlled vocabularies and short sentences, early readers are tough to write. How do you include syrup, sprinkles and all kinds of additions? Those words, syrup in particular, aren’t easy to read. The author solves it by having the character add “this and that.” This keeps the reading level low enough for a new reader and the specifics come through in the illustrations.
Any parent or grandparent whose ever watched a messy ice cream concoction come together knows just how realistic this story is. Young readers will enjoy the punchy text and the sense of accomplishment that they get when they read the book cover to cover with only minimal help.
This reader is level 1. This means that:
- the vocabulary is simple
- words repeat
- there are clues in the pictures
- sentence structure is simple and predictable
- ideas explored in the story are familiar
In spite of this simplicty, Ingalls upbeat language makes the story fun including rhyme and a quick rhythm. Richard Watson’s cartoony illustrations add to the fun, increasing the sillyness factor tenfold as the mess grows and the kittens come check things out.
Pick this one up for your new reader and help him gain confidence in his new skills.
September 4, 2014
Doug Unplugs on the Farm
by Dan Yaccarino
Alfred A. Knopf
Doug and his parents are plugged in and on their way. Mom wants him to learn all that he can about farms before they reach the grandbots farm. Before they can get there, a herd of sheep runs across the road in front of them, unplugging the entire family and sending the car into a ditch.
Doug happily jets off to apply all that he has learned about farm life and give the farm girl chasing the sheep a hand. He ends up helping her with all of her chores and, not surprisingly, expanding his knowledge of farm life by taking part instead of just plugging in. They milk a cow, restack hay, pick apples, feed the ducks and even slop the hogs.
All the while, his parents are trying to get the car out of the ditch.
When it turns out that the tractor is out of gas, Doug combines his real world knowledge with his plugged-in knowledge to save the day. Yaccarino’s artwork combines blocks of color and simple black lines in a way that reminds me of some of the earliest picture books such as Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag. Reminds me, but does not duplicate because he uses a broader array of colors that look more contemporary than do the illustrations in Cats.
This is the sequel to Doug Unplugged and you may have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of a Dan Yaccarino kick (I also reviewed All the Way to America and The Fantastic Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau). I am attending the Missouri SCBWI Fall Conference for writers and Illustrators. Yacarino is one of the speakers.
I’m continually amazed at how he combines art work that looks a bit “retro” with stories that are timeless and applicable to the world of today in their themes. If you haven’t picked up any of his books, take a trip to your library or book store. Your young reader will thank you!
August 28, 2014
The Fantastic Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau
by Dan Yaccarino
Alfred A. Knopf
How did Jacques Cousteau end up devoting his life to the sea? Doctors orders.
It all started when he was a small boy, small and sick. The doctor told him to swim to build his strength. Jacques found that he loved the water. He also loved tinkering with gadgets and building things.
As a young man, he was in a serious car accident. Doctors said he would have to wear arm braces throughout his life. Jacques returned to the sea and swam every day, growing stronger and stronger. Looking through a pair of swim goggles, he discovered the life teaming in the Mediterranean.
He could only see so much from the surface but underwater suits were clumsy. Jacques invented the first tanks and was soon swimming under water seeing what he could see.
From the Meditarranean, Jacques explored the oceans of the world. When he made his way make to the Mediterranean, he was horrified by the polution and the damage that he saw all around him. No longer a simple explorer, Jacques was now an advocate for the sea, pushing people to conserve and preserve this amazing resource.
Bold bright illustrations make this book a marvelous read aloud for a group. Students will learn about early ocean science and conservation as well as just how much one man can accomplish. Notes in the back of the book give additional information about Cousteau and also provide resources for additional study.
As always Yaccarino’s paintings bring life and vigor to the subject.
This book would make a great gift for fans of Cousteau or anyone interested in the sea or conservation. Consider giving it as a gift to any adults who grew up watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
August 25, 2014
All the Way to America:
The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel
by Dan Yaccarino
Alfred A. Knopf
Michele Iaccrino grew up on a farm in Sorrento. His father gave him a small shovel and he used to to tend zucchini, tomatoes and strawberries. As he grew up, he learned to put in a good effort and to love his family. When he journeyed to America, he brought the little shovel with him.
The shovel passes from father to son. It is used on the farm to dig in the soil, in a bakery to scoop flour, on a pushcart to measure fruits and nuts, at a barber shop to scoop salt in the winter, on and on. The family, called the Yaccarinos since Michele entered this country, and the shovel make their way from New York City into the countryside and back into the city.
But wherever they are, they are a family working together. Husband and wife. Parents and children. Together they make a life to share with each other.
You don’t have to be from a big Italian family to love this book. It is a story of family and traditions and how both adapt through time and place. They aren’t a unit because they pass a trade from person to person, but they do pass down a set of values which adapt and change to fit each person’s circumstances.
Yaccarino’s paintings are bright and slightly cartoony and help give the story a contemporary feel although it stretches back over 100 years. Need a book on tradition that doesn’t center on the holidays? Use this story as a jumping off point to discuss tradition, family, immigration, and history.
August 21, 2014
At Her Majesty’s Request
by Walter Dean Myers
She was only a small child when almost everyone in her village was killed by women warriors. They took the princess and several other people back to their king, Gezo. He told the girl she would be safe. The people who took care of her told her tales of human sacrifice. Two years later, she was brought out to be part of a very special blood sacrifice. The Dahomans honored their ancestors through sacrifice. This sacrifice was also designed to show a British military officer the might of the Dahomey. He was there to put a stop to slavery but even the might British empire couldn’t stop King Gezo whether he chose to sacrifice these people or sell them.
Fortunately, Commander Forbes was determined not to let this child die. He made it clear that Queen Victoria would never kill an innocent child. Furthermore, she would never respect a ruler who did. The girl, named by the commander Sarah Forbes Bonetta, was given to Forbes as a gift for Queen Victoria.
Queen Victoria took a special interest in the girl’s life, paying for her education. When she returned to Africa, she was better educated than the missionary women who thought that Africans were not capable of teaching their own children.
As is always the case with a historic figure, there are gaps in this somewhat sparse story but it doesn’t make Sarah’s life any less fascinating. Here is a girl who escaped both slaver and human sacrifice, only to have almost no control over her own life. In part, this was because she was upper class in Victorian England. Where a poor woman might support herself, an educated woman had to marry. But Sarah may have had even less control than other upper class women, not because of her race but because she had attracted the attention of the Queen. When Victoria decided you should move from England to Sierra Leone and back again, it wasn’t an item for discussion. Happy with the decision or angry, you packed up and moved.
I’m not sure how I missed this book when it came out in 1999. I recently learned about it when Walter Dean Myers died. I wanted to sample his work but through a wholy unfamilear book. I’m not sure this book is still in print but it is worth finding. I requested it from my local library.
August 18, 2014
by Dan Yaccarino
Alfred A. Knopf
Every day, a young bot named Doug is plugged in by his parents. They plug him to fill him up with facts. On the day he learns about the city, he learns about the number of people, trash cans, man holes, pigeons and more. As these facts flow into his brain, something grabs Doug’s attention…
He instantly recognizes the bird on the windowsill as a pigeon but no where in the download did Doug hear the funny noise the pigeon makes. What else is he missing?
With that question in mind, Doug unplugs.
On the surface, this is a fun story about a boy who ventures out into the city and makes a friend, learns more about the city than ever before and even learns a bit about a whole new topic — family.
On a deeper level, this is a story about the modern age, a time when we can learn more than ever before without ever interacting with another human being or feeling the sun on our faces. We can learn a lot, but we fail to learn just as much.
Yaccarino’s illustrations are, appropriately enough, composed with a brush and ink as well as finishing touches on Photoshop. Bold bright colors give a cartoon-feel to a topic that could easily become to weighty and serious. The vintage 1960s look of the artwork compliments the “here-and-now” feel of the story.
At only 555 words, this is a quick read. It has a cozy enough feel for a bed time story. The topic lends itself to discussion, but it doesn’t have the lively chorus of many story time books. That said, it would make a good lead into a talk about learning, technology or experience.
Plug into this one with the young reader in your life.