May 26, 2016
Beard in a Box
by Bill Cotter
Alfred A. Knopf
What is it that makes Dad so cool? The narrator has done a scientific analysis and come up with the answer — Dad’s coolness level correlates to the length of his beard. It follows that to be as cool as Dad the narrator too needs a beard and does his best to fake it. He uses markers, borrowed car hair and chocolate syrup but none of them work. Then he sees an ad on tv for Beard in a Box from SCAM-O. What could be easier.
It takes 6-8 weeks for the kit to arrive and our narrator immediately gets to work. He applies the beard seeds, waters them well and sets about doing the facial exercises. Only then does he see Step #5 (you have to read the book to see what it is) and he realizes he’s been had. The story does have a happy ending but, again, you’ve got to read it to find out what it is.
I love the illustrations in this book. They are cartoony and fun and extremely expressive. The facial exercises cracked me up! My favorite illustration is probably the one I think of as “the beard catalogue,” 16 styles of facial hair from mustache to beard.
But I also loved the message in the book. I picked it up because my husband has a beard. He had a beard before they were hipster cool. He has a beard in spite of the flack that he’s gotten for it. I was excited to see a pro-beard picture book. The best thing is that the book is more than pro-beard. The message is clear — having a beard isn’t what makes Dad cool and the narrator also can be cool, with or without a beard.
The humor is going to appeal to both the child reader and the adults. Children will love the narrators early attempts at a beard and will probably have a few ideas of their own. Adults? SCAM-O and beard seeds? Can you say “chia beard”?
This picture book would make great quiet time reading but it would also be a great Father’s Day gift. Share it with the young reader in your life today.
May 25, 2016
Fairest (The Lunar Chronicles)
by Marissa Meyer
“Come here, baby sister…”
The haunting refrain comes again and again. Is it a nightmare? A memory? Or the voices in Levana’s head?
I have to admit that I’m not an enormous fan of books in which the villain is the main character. I want to like a character that I’m going to spend a great deal of time with and that just isn’t possible with a true villain.
Marissa Meyer almost pulled it off. Fairest gives readers a clear view of the Lunar Court and all of the intrigue and back stabbing that take place there. Behind it all is something very sinister . . . Where did the scars come from that Levana is so desperate to hide. Was she born imperfect or did something happen to her? “Come here, baby sister…”
Many tween girls develop crushes so it isn’t surprising when Levana becomes fixated on Sir Evret Hayle, one of the palace guards. He’s tall and handsome and ever-present. But then she discovers something awful. The object of her affections is . . . married.
So begins a dance that is every bit as complicated as any other piece of court intrigue. Lavana has always used her glamour to hide her appearance. It is something most capable Lunars do even if they are perfectly attractive, but Luna is a young woman with a mission — to win the heart and hand of Evret Hayle. Soon she is using her glamour to entice Evret and she’s also using her gift to create thoughts and feelings he wouldn’t otherwise have and even to force his behavior.
Throughout this story threads the other great story of Levana’s life — her path to the throne. When her older sister is crowned, Levana is added to the Council and soon realizes what an inept ruler her sister truly is. Even as it becomes clear that Levana is mad, it is also made clear that she is brilliant and wants what is best for her people. Like any great ruler, she is willing to do whatever it takes to reach these goals.
Levana will never be a character that I enjoy spending time with but I definitely appreciate her now that I’ve gotten to know her story. This is an excellent fantasy and also a good choice for readers who like anti-heroes. A quick read for the coming summer months.
May 20, 2016
I Lay My Stitches Down
Poems of American Slavery
by Cynthia Grady
illustrated by Michele Wood
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
There’s been a lot of back and forth concerning whether or not slaves stitched maps to freedom in the quilts. If you’re looking for more of that, look elsewhere. Poet Cynthia Grady sticks with what we know — slave women were skilled quilters, the slaves were often religious, and the pains and perils of slavery.
Each poem in the collection is ten lines long, ten syllables per line. Grady chose this form to mimic quilt squares. In addition each poem contains three references: one that is Biblical or spiritual, one that is musical, and one that has to do with sewing or fiber. Using these layers she has created a collection of poems that are as multi-layers and complex as the lives of the slaves.
Each poem in the collection is named for a quilt block including log cabin, cotton boll, and traditional fish. Following the poem itself is a sidebar that expands on the poem giving a bit more information on the topic. Within each illustration is a depiction of that quilt block.
The subjects covered in the poems range from the friendships often struck up between enslaved children, children in the master’s family, and children from the surrounding tribes to the importance of blacksmiths (anvil being a quilt square) in West African cultures and on the plantations.
The painted illustrations depict the quilt squares as well as the lives of the slaves. The colors are as rich as those found in the quilts themselves. The acrylic paintings are complex and mimic the patterns of the quilt blocks, using repetition and color to tell the story.
Because the poems are short, this book would be a good choice for reluctant readers and restless listeners alike. My concern is that it will be labeled “black history” instead of becoming a part of our collective history.
May 17, 2016
Poems about Sharks
by Skila Brown
illustrated by Bob Kolar
Mention sharks and it is usually the Great White shark that comes to mind. That’s no wonder since it is big and dramatic and oh so very deadly to the seals that it hunts. But there are 400 different types of sharks on the planet and this book contains a series of poems about fourteen of them.
I was happy to see that some of my favorites were there including the hammerhead and the whale shark. But there were also sharks that I had never heard of including the wobbegong and the blue shark.
Each shark gets a spread (two facing pages) and a poem. The poems include a poem for two voices (hammerhead and angelfish), a concrete poem (great white shark and again for the cookie cookie-cutter shark) and more. I do wish that there had been an author’s note about the types of poems but maybe that’s something that Brown will add to her author’s site.
Her site does include a teaching guide. It coaches young readers to think about the poems and how word play gives information that isn’t explicitly stated in the poem. There is also some discussion about the types of poems. There are also activities for young readers to do including writing poems of their own.
The artwork for this book was created digitally. I’m seldom a fan of digital art work because it so often look flat but that is far from the case with Kolar’s work. Here the crisp lines work to add to the sharpness and danger of the topic. There is also a richness of color that I very much appreciated.
This book would be great on the classroom bookshelf whether you are discussing poetry, sharks or the ocean. Although it wouldn’t make a great bed time book, it would be an excellent choice for one-on-one reading with the shark-nut in your life.
May 13, 2016
A Year of Borrowed Men
by Michelle Barker
illustrated by Renne Benoit
Gerda knows that her family is lucky to live on a farm – they have enough to eat and a roof over their heads. But it is still hard when Papi has been sent to war. Her teenage brother, Franz, does his best but there is a lot of work for one teenage boy, his mother and four younger sisters. Then they are allowed to borrow three men.
The three are French soldiers, POWs, and Gerda’s family is expected to use them as labor and treat them as prisoners. But its hard to be cruel to someone you see every day, who works alongside you, and, in spite of being a prisoner, treats you kindly. But when Gerda’s mother allows the men to come in out of the cold for one meal, she is reported. Do it again, and you will be sent to prison.
Still the family doesn’t use this as an excuse to be unkind. They are simply more stealthy in their kindness.
With so many World War II stories around, it is hard to come up with one that is unique but this one truly is. This is a family story, something that happened to the author’s mother although some details have been changed in creating a fictional tale.
Renne Benoit’s illustrations are created with water colors, colored pencil and pastels. They caught my attention because they are the colors of my grandmother’s Hummel figurines and give the story an old feel.
The one thing that I would have appreciated is a bit more differentiation between the three prisoners. They are given names but, in spite of being called friends, feel somewhat distant. This is probably, in part, a product of the form. Picture books are short and allow for only so much story development.
Still, this is something that should be widely read. It is a great jumping off point for discussions not only on World War II but in how we interact with others and what truly makes someone our enemy.
May 10, 2016
Forest of Wonder
Book 1 in the Wing and Claw series
by Linda Sue Park
Raffa Santana is studying to be an apothecary like his mother, his father, his uncle and his cousin Garith. Garith is more like a brother than a cousin and the two do most everything together. This includes journeying into the Forest of Wonder.
There are all kinds of stories about the Forest. As with most places that people rarely visit, most of the stories are exaggeration but there is a kernel of truth. After all, the Forest does change from visit to visit as does any wild place. But the Forest changes more than most and that’s before a mysterious group of people decides to ignore the law.
The forest has always been wild but someone has hacked their way in and set up camp. Preservation makes sense because so many plants that the apothecaries use come from the forest. The two boys have no idea who set up camp or where they’ve gone but before they have a chance to find out, Raffa’s family is summoned to the city of Gilden.
This is where I quit talking about the plot. Like many fantasy stories, it is so complex that the only way to thoroughly describe it is to reiterate it. Honestly, you want to read it for yourself.
As is always the case with Park’s writing, the voice is amazing. It is truly unique without being over-the-top and will be accessible to middle grade readers.
Her characters are also well-rounded and believable. Raffa is gifted and doesn’t mean to make others, especially his cousin, feel less but it happens. When he heals a bat and accidentally grants it the ability to speak, at first he doesn’t see a problem. After all, the bat quickly becomes his friend. But soon he learns that changing an animal also changes what you expect and these altered expectations can have unexpected consequences.
I would definitely recommend this for young fantasy fans as well as fans of Park’s other novels as well as kids who love animals. Share it with the young reader in your life today.
May 5, 2016
Now You See Them, Now You Don’t: Poems about Creatures that Hide by David Harrison, illustrated by Giles Laroche
Now You See Them, Now You Don’t:
Poems about Creatures that Hide
by David Harrison
illustrated by Giles Laroche
When I picked this up, I thought it was a book about camouflage — animals that use specialized coloration to hide. It is about camouflage but it is about more including animals that hide in their dens to seek safety from predators.
This isn’t a straight narrative text. Harrison also writes poetry and this book is a fun, informative collection of poems. Some rhyme, some don’t. They all teach but they do so in a way that makes it fun.
Some of the animals in the book rely on camouflage — the polar bear, the tiger and the copperhead. Others, such as the bumblebee moth, are mimics disguising themselves as a more threatening animal. Others, namely the hawk, rely on keen eyesight to spot their prey from afar. The hawk can see the mouse but does the mouse even realize that the hawk is there.
Laroche’s cut paper artwork gives texture and color to illustrations that could easily be flat and lifeless. But his art and Harrison’s words combine to create spreads that draw the reader in to explore the world of these animals.
I think my favorite poem in the book is “Copperhead.” My family spends a great deal of time in Southern Missouri. If the area had a representative snake, it would definitely be the copperhead, bold, brassy and master of remaining hidden from sight.
This would be a fun story time book as well as an inspirational text for students learning about animals or habitat as well as those who might want to try their hand at collage. Harrison’s books always have multiple layers and, in part because of this, are an excellent addition to the classroom bookcase. Use this book to teach about the natural world or writing poetry.
May 2, 2016
Lowriders in Space
by Cathy Camper
illustrated by Raul the Third
Book One in this series introduces young readers to Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack the Octopus, and Elirio Malaria, a trio of anthropomorphic characters who are passionate about lowriders and dream of having their own garage. When they hear about a car contest, they see their chance to make it happen. After all, the prize is a gold steering wheel and a car load of cash.
Spotting an opportunity only solves one problem. First they have to find a car and they locate a junker but need to find the parts to fix it up. Fortunately, they find some unclaimed boxes at an abandoned rocket factory and get to work on their lowrider. Fixing up the car is just the beginning.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw the title. Obviously, lowriders feature but in such a way that readers who don’t know what a lowrider is will still be pulled into the story.
I was thrilled at the amount of Mexican-American culture and the fact that the illustrator grew up in El Paso-Juarez. Readers will want to spend some serious time with his art work which is colored pencil and marker. His use of full page spreads and panels of various sizes and shapes keeps the story moving along.
In addition to the cultural aspect, the story is also strongly flavored with astronomy terms as the characters blast into space in their rockets enhanced low rider. The story is vaguely “Magic School Bus” although it isn’t nearly as sciency as the original.
I would definitely recommend this for middle schoolers whether or not they are into going bajito y suavecito (low and slow).
April 28, 2016
by Darrin Lunde
illustrated by Adam Gustavson
It probably come as no secret to you — many people hate rats. They try to trap them, poison them and generally do them harm.
For those of you who are willing to learn a thing or twelve about rats, this is an excellent book. Lunde talks about the different types of rats found all over the world including the long-tailed marmoset rat which, like the well-known and much adored panda, eats only bamboo. He also wrote about the bushy-tailed cloud rat which actually has a fluffy tail. If you had just shown me a photo, I would have guessed porcupine. These “little” guys are cute! One of the wild rats he covered is my favorite, the kangaroo rat. Yes, I have a favorite rat.
Lunde also wrote about the many ways that rats are good. He discussed lab rats (poor rats!) and the fact that rats are a vital part of the food chain.
The backmatter included more types of rats. I do wish that the African giant pouched rat had made it into the main text. They’re pretty fantastic too. Also in the back matter was the crested rat which is toxic/poisonous because of a particular kind of plant sap that permeates their fur. Crazy!
I’m a bit of a casual rat nut. I say casual because I’ve never kept rats. My son’s godmother has rats and I know a thing or two thanks to her. I know that even rats who find food in garbage are not dirty. They spend a great deal of time grooming. I wish Lunde had pointed that particular fact out. But this is a picture book and because of the limited number of pages and limited number of words, there is only so much he can say. I get that.
Adam Gustavson’s paintings sometimes reminded me of Mark Teague’s work. I think it has something to do with the people’s faces. Teague illustrated the “How do Dinosaurs” books. Gustavson’s pictures aren’t encyclopedic but they are definitely realistic and his rats truly look like rats. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture one sniffing or scampering off the page.
I would definitely add this one to my bookshelf. It is a great jumping off point for discussions on diversity, urban wildlife and our misconceptions about same.
April 25, 2016
Louis I: King of the Sheep
by Olivier Tallec
Enchanged Lion Books
Louis is just an ordinary sheep until a paper crown blows onto this head. Then he is Louis I, King of the Sheep. As the King, he immediately starts making plans.
At first, his plans seem harmless enough. A king needs to be easy to recognize, so he needs a scepter. It should be easy for his people to see him when he speaks to them, so he should sit up high . . . and on and on it goes.
Soon he has plans for dignitaries and sheep marching. Before long, he’s thinking about all those sheep who don’t look like him and maybe should find someplace else to live.
And, then, fortunately for those around him, his crown blows away. And Louis is once again just a sheep.
I have to admit that in reading several of Tallec’s books, I like those best that he both writes and illustrates (this one and Who Done It?). His messages are fairly subtle and leave the reader space to mull things over and work things out. He doesn’t preach about power corrupting. He doesn’t say a word about tolerance or humility. He simply tells a story about Louis, a sheep.
Tallec’s art work isn’t particularly realistic but the cartoony nature of his paintings make them a little silly and fun – suitable for a book about the Sheep Who Would Be King. I love that when Louis is just a sheep, browns dominate. There are pastoral scenes full of green grass and blue skies but also palace scenes with rich, red draperies. But it isn’t just the use of color that makes his paintings worthwhile, there are also details in the art work that aren’t in the text and these details tell part of the story. Take note especially of the wordless final spread.
Add this book to your classroom shelf and use it as a jumping off point for discussions about privilege, authority and entitlement. Your students will definitely have quite a bit to say.