January 24, 2011
by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
A Neal Porter Book: Roaring Brook Press, 2010
Martha Graham. If you’ve ever danced, you know the name but I knew very little about Graham and her work.
But this isn’t Graham’s story. This is the story of Appalachian Spring and how the ballet was born from the combined talents of dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, composer Aaron Copeland and artist and set designer Isamu Noguchi. Dance. Music. Set. Graham may have had the initial idea but all three were essential to a successful ballet and that meant working with other equally powerful artists.
The text is simple straight-forward prose reminiscent of Graham’s work itself — clean, sometimes spare, but always moving. It tells about each artist and how he or she came to be the leaders in their fields. Perhaps more importantly it tells about how these artists, all equally demanding of themselves but also of each other, worked to meld their ideas into one final piece.
Do not believe reviewers who complain about a lack of tension. Maybe they skimmed the text. Maybe they didn’t pay attention to the art work. Who knows because I sure don’t. There is tension when Aaron Copeland sends her ideas back for revision. There is tension when the set arrives and the dancers have to learn to move through the limitations and unforgiving angles of this physical space. And there is tension when the dancers try things one way and then another and still Graham has a tantrum, mulishly refusing to back down until she figures out how to solve the problem.
This is more than a book about ballet. It is a book about the creative process — the birth of an idea and the evolution of that idea through necessary collaboration.
The beauty of this is the picture books themselves are wondrous acts of collaboration in this case bringing together two authors and an illustrator. Brian Floca’s black line and watercolor is a perfect match for this story, showing both the power of the dancers as well as their seemingly effortless grace.
But anyone who reads this book will know that effortless is something that ballet, art and collaboration are not.
January 18, 2011
by Greg van Eekhout
Bloomsbury Books, 2010
Thatcher Hill can’t believe his rotten luck. His parents are in Asia, touring squirt gun factories, but Thatcher couldn’t go because he’d been exposed to a kangaroo rat virus and can’t leave the country. Instead, he has so spend the summer with his weird Uncle Griswald at a seaside museum. There, his chores include watering the plants, feeding Sinbad (the cat) and dusting the shrunken heads.
The museum houses a collection of odd-ball items like an octopus in tennis shoes, a tiny headless “mermaid” that looks like it was created from half a monkey.
But that’s not all that’s strange in Los Huesos. One day the boardwalk community is a ghost town, and the next it is full of people, both tourists and oddly pushy workers.
Then someone breaks into the museum and steals the “What’s-It” — a box with a window that may or may not have a head inside. That’s when things really start to get weird.
Soon Thatcher is running the board walk with a princess from Atlantis (the thief) and a hard core detective (the only other ‘normal’ kid who lives on the board walk), trying to catch a witch and stop a curse before they can be captured by giant lobster men, a squid with human eyes, or the kelp men.
This book is seriously laugh-out-loud funny, from the array of twisted creatures to the dialog. Description comes on the fly as Thatcher and his friends tear across the land scape or down cluttered hallways, just enough to get you from one action packed scene to another. For character description, you’ll have to rely on what they do and what they say because no time is spent on narrative in this fast moving story.
With three main characters (one boy and two girls) this story has a certain appeal to both boys and girls but the humor is a bit gross at times so if you have a squeamish kid on your hands you might want to pick another book (hint: the What’s-It is actually a head in a box although she’s still alive even if she’s not kicking).
Every kid who has seen this book in my car or on the coffee table has commented on it and my son has requested that I not turn it back in until he’s had a chance to read it. Why not see if it can get someone in your house to start turning pages?
January 13, 2011
by Dori Chaconas
illustrated by Lisa McCue
Cork and Fuzz may be best friends but in many ways they are as different as different can be. Cork is a critter, specifically a muskrat, who finds things. Imagine the child who brings home 3/4 of the natural world after any walk — feathers, sticks, stones. Fuzz is a possum who keeps things. Sometimes these things are his. Sometimes they belong to someone else.
The problem comes when Cork loses his fabulous new shiny green stone. Predictably, Fuzz finds it. What isn’t so predictable is what happens next when they investigate a chittering pile of leaves in Fuzz’s yard.
Don’t worry that at least in the beginning this story is a bit predictable. As an adult, you have more experience in the world than the intended reader — a child in grades 1 to 3 who is just reading alone. Because this book is a beginning reader, meant for the newly minted reader to follow without adult intervention. The text is straightforward and the illustrations add to it in a way that will help the reader decipher any single word that may be a little hard.
Often, I don’t care for beginning readers. I know that they’re really hard to write but the stories just feel ho hum. Not so with this one. Both characters are likable and young readers will readily identify with both as well.
This is a fun story about friends as well as finders keepers and even the childhood chorus of “but I want to keep him as a pet.” Bring this home for your newly independent reader today.
January 6, 2011
by Barbara O’Connor
Frances Foster Books
I have to admit that the first thing that caught my attention with this particular book was the cover — two kids in a mini-sub pursuing a swimming frog. Incidentally, that would have been me on the left (in awe but apprehensive) while my husband (the one thinking “oh cool!”) is on the right.
But more about these similarities later.
Owen Jester is in a bit of a mood. His father has lost his job so he and his family have had to move in with his grandfather. This means that he no longer lives next door to one best friend and across the street from the other. In fact, he now lives next door to Viola, the peskiest most know-it-all girl ever to pester a boy. The good news is that there is a barn full of old stuff begging to be gone through, train tracks, a big ol’ pond with a dock and lots and lots of woods to explore which Owen does, tracking a good bit of it all across the kitchen floor.
He’s managed to catch the biggest bullfrog ever but Viola insists the frog is sad and should be set free. Owen is certain that Tooley, what else would you name a frog, is perfectly fine but as the frog jumps less and refuses to croak or eat, he begins to wonder. Can a frog be sad? Should he be let go?
One night Owen is lying in bed listening to the train clatter down the tracks when he hears a wooden crash. Something has fallen off the train and Owen is determined to find out what. Now he just has to figure out how to include his best friends, leave out Viola and stay, more or less, out of trouble.
Owen is, as I am learning, every boy. He has his own agenda, which only on rare occasion overlaps with that of one or more adults. He hates it when someone knows more than he does, will make things up just to have something to say, but is also in awe of someone who can get things done, even if that someone happens to be a know-it-all allergy- ridden girl.
The one thing that truly bothered me about this book was that the know-it-all be-spectacled pest is a girl. It seemed 2-dimensional and a wee bit stereotypic mostly because it hit a little too close to home. Yes, in an earlier time I could have easily been mistaken for Viola. Very easily. But then I live with Owen the Shorter and Owen the Taller. So maybe the characters aren’t stereotypic as much as they are uncomfortably realistic. Ahem.
I don’t remember ever seeing how old Owen is but he strikes me as pretty much your typical 5th grader. Busy. Messy. Determined. At only 168 pages, this book wouldn’t overwhelm a less-confident reader.
A girl would enjoy the fact that the one who figures out practically everything is a girl.
The book also had a bit of an old time feel. These kids are outside, building and doing. They aren’t texting or e-mailing and I remember next to nothing about the phone.
My son came in and wanted to know what I was doing. After I read him the review and we chatted about the book, he took it with him for his next read.