March 28, 2013
by A. E. Cannon,
illustrated by Lee White
When Sophie asks Jake to watch her fish when she goes out of town, Jake doesn’t hesitate to say yes. After all, how hard can it be to take care of one little fish?
But as he waits for Sophie and her fish, Jake starts to worry. Do fish need special food, special bed time stories and special comfort? In short order, he’s not at all sure that he’s the man for the task. By the time Sophie shows up with her fish bowl in her wagon, Jake has worked himself into a frenzy. Fish are so small and fragile. What if he messes up?
Author A. E. Cannon and illustrator Lee White work together to take full advantage of the picture book format. The text is short — at only 370 words — yet we get a good look at who Jake and Sophie are. Jake wants to help other people, but, like a lot of us, he isn’t 100% secure. White’s illustrations, which seem to involve collage, build on this picture of Jake by giving us a small boy with big glasses who has a tendency to look surprised and more than a bit pensive, and that’s on a good day.
You’re going to have to read this to get the full perspective on Sophie’s personality because there’s no way I can give you a clue who what kind of kid she is without also giving away the twist that ends this book. Suffice it to say — Funny stuffy!
This one would make a good read aloud for one child or a group. You could also use it as a talking point for discussions on responsibility, friendship and even worry.
Share this one with the young reader in your life today!
March 25, 2013
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Ari is cruising through summer vacation, just kicking back and taking things easy. He wishes Mom would get off his back but she’s worried that he doesn’t have any close friends. He decides to make her happy, and cool off from the desert heat, by going to the pool. If someone speaks to Ari, he responds but he generally doesn’t seek out other people. He likes his own company and has taught himself the basics of swimming — how to stay afloat and move from place to place. Then another fifteen year-old who offers to teach him how to swim and soon he has a friend, Dante.
Both of them are Mexican American, growing up in El Paso, Texas in the late 1980s. But neither one of them feels truly Mexican. They speak the language — a little. They like the food and some of the art. But their names? Aristotle and Dante? Neither one is even remotely Mexican. Dante is an artist, who loves to draw, who is also a top notch swimmer. Ari is just kind of drifting through life. He has three older siblings although all he knows about his older brother is that he is in prison. His parents and twin older sister clam up whenever he asks any questions.
With Dante, he has finally discovered someone he can laugh with, hang around with and just be himself. Sure, sometimes he annoys Dante, but Dante annoys him too. Still, they get over it. Isn’t that what friends do?
Then a storm comes and hail covers the ground. Before Dante can move out of the street, a car careens around the corner. The last thing Ari remembers before waking up in the hospital is yelling Dante’s name.
I have to admit that I’m worried about already giving away too much of the plot in this amazing book. You know its going to be relevant to where we as a society are now. How do you know that? It won the American Book Award and the winners of that particular award always deal with topics straight from today’s headline news. It is also the 2013 winner of the Pura Belpre Award which is given each year by the American Library Association to a Latin American author who has created a work that depicts that Latino experience.
Don’t let the reading level fool you. This is not a book for the grade school set. Not that it is gory or graphic, but it probably wouldn’t interest an 8 or 9 year-old. These characters are teens and this is, after all, their story.
Whether or not you are Latino, or even Latina, pick up this book. Admittedly, I was hooked by the setting. It isn’t every day that you find a book set in El Paso, Texas. But this is a story about identity and family and secrets and growing into ourselves and being comfortable in our own skins. It is about living and laughing and loving.
Share this book with the young reader in your life. Give it the opportunity to spark an amazing discussions about the universe and our place in it.
March 21, 2013
The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom
by Christopher Healy
Walden Pond Press
Everyone knows that Prince Charming is tall, astonishingly handsome, tenderly romantic, and in control of absolutely every situation.
Except for those times when he’s not.
Sometimes Prince Charming is a clothes horse whose afraid of his own shadow. Other times, he’s the dopey little guy who would follow a bunny off a cliff, assuming of course that the bunny was that dim. Then there are those days where he’s big, bad tempered and more than a tiny bit sarcastic.
Then there are those days where the hero isn’t even male and the princess saves herself.
Apparently, the bards aren’t particularly good at getting the details right. They just want to put together a catchy number that will get everyone singing and tapping their toes, and that’s what starts the whole problem.
Four different princes feature in four different ballads but they are all astonished that the girls get top billing. Perhaps most astonished of all is Prince Liam who rescued Sleeping Beauty. She may be a sight to behold but she’s got a tongue that could cut diamonds. Everyone knows about her and her infamous temper but they still believe all the awful things she says about him.
Think of this book as a buddy movie set in a fantasy kingdom with giants, dragons, trolls and a very wicked witch. The four heroes want to prove to everyone, including themselves and the ladies in question, that they really do have what it takes to be heroes. Unfortunately, this is going to require working together which takes a few tries to get right.
There isn’t much I can say about the plot without giving something away. Suffice it to say, with these four goof balls adventuring together, there was bound to be funny and Healy delivers.
Pick this one up expecting humor and adventure in equal portions. It might be a bit daunting for a reluctant reader given that there are so many characters but it is a fun, fast-paced read. Middle graders will identify with the characters who can’t be everything that is expected of them, no matter how hard they try.
March 18, 2013
Noah Webster and His Words
by Jeri Chase Ferris,
illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
“Noah Webster always knew he was right, and he never got tired of saying so (even if, sometimes, he wasn’t).”
So begins Ferris’ picture book biography of Noah Webster of dictionary fame.
Because I “know” Ferris through an online writer’s community, I’d heard about this one long before it came out, and I wondered. How on earth could you hook children and make them want to read about the guy who wrote the dictionary?
Well, like that apparently. And what better way to start? Every kid on earth knows someone like this. Sometimes the person is another kid. Embarrassingly often, it is an adult. And just to make good ol’ Noah Webster seem a bit more like a swelled head, that ‘s how illustrator Vincent X. Kirsch depicts him on the very first page, as a guy with an enormous head. In fact, this head takes up so much space that the words actually appear on Noah’s face.
This probably wouldn’t be enough to hold a reader for long and Ferris moves on to even more Webster facts with which a child could identify. He did not like working on the farm and he’s rather be doing his own thing. Not every child lives on a farm, but they know what its like to want to do one thing while Mom or Dad wants you to do another.
The dictionary wasn’t Webster’s first accomplishment. As a teacher, he wished that there were American school books for his students to use. Before he published anything else, he wrote the “blue-backed speller,” a speller bound in blue. He is responsible for spelling “plow” vs the English “plough” and helping Americans settle on one spelling for the ever-confusing mosquito. Then he wrote a grammar book and a reading book, and six more school books before working on the dictionary that would take him to Europe to visit the great libraries of Cambridge, London and Paris. He wanted to pull in not only American words like tomahawk but also words from other texts which required him to read in Welsh, Italian and even Arabic.
Kirsch’s illustrations combine ink, water color and pencil. The illustrations include numerous loopy squiggles (see the books in the cover above) that look a lot like writing but others also include words in a similar loopy hand. Ferris adds to the fun word play by incorporating dictionary-like definitions into the text. Throughout the book, Ferris also emphasizes how Webster’s work helped knit the United States together as a nation.
This wouldn’t be the picture book for younger readers but share it with the elementary school book lover in your own life, or even an author or teacher with a patriotic spirit.
March 14, 2013
This Child, Every Child: A Book about the World’s Children by David J. Smith, illustrated by Shelagh Armstrong
This Child, Every Child:
A Book about the World’s Children
by David J. Smith, illustrated by Shelagh Armstrong
Kids Can Press
Human rights. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Kids hear these terms all the time – in school, in movies and from the adults around them. But what rights do you have as a child?
In This Child, Every Child, author David J. Smith discusses just that. Each spread focuses on the way that children live throughout the world including information on what makes up a family, what types of homes they live in, how they get from place to place, school and much more. Because there is such diversity in the world, multiple examples are given for each topic as Smith seeks to give readers an understanding of the range of human cultures.
Also presented throughout this book is information on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This document is a UN treaty on child rights including such things as the right to live with your family as long as you can do so safely, you have the right to an education, you have the right to play and rest and, if you must work, you have the right to be safe. Smith notes that this treaty has been ratified by every member nation except Somalia and, embarrassingly enough, the U.S.A. I did some reading on the topic and could find no evidence that the U.S. has signed the treaty since this book’s publication.
Like If the World were a Village, this is an excellent book for teaching and discussion, more so than a cuddle up and read kind of book. That said, children will be especially interested in this book as well as discussing their rights. You should probably be ready for a few pointed comments about how adults are failing to grant these rights to children and what more should be done.
As you can see by the cover, Shelagh Armstrong’s artwork for this book is less abstract than what she painted for either If the World were a Village or If America were a Village. For this book, her acrylic paintings have been rendered with digital textures that help children see the richness and variety of how we on this planet live.
This book is another title in the CitizenKid series, dedicated to help children learn more about the world in which they live while also becoming better global citizens. In light of that, it isn’t surprising that sales of this book benefit ONEXONE, an organization that focuses on helping children have access to clean water, health care, play and enough food to not only survive but thrive.
Pick up this book and make life richer not only for the children in your life but those in other parts of the world as well.
March 11, 2013
If the World Were a Village
by David J. Smith,
illustrated by Shelagh Armstrong
Kids Can Press
The fact of the matter is that a lot of realities are hard to visualize and this is especially true in any discussion that involves large numbers. People just can’t wrap their minds around the reality of what they are hearing.
To make this easier, at least in terms of various situations concerning the people of the world, Smith has created a global village of 100. Using this global village as an example, he discusses:
- How many people live in the various geographic regions from Africa to the Americas.
- What languages the people of the world speak.
- How old we are.
- What religions we celebrate.
- And much, much more.
Not every picture books makes for a great bed time story and this is definitely one of those books. It is meant for older readers, to be used as a teaching tool to make various facts about the people who live in this world more understandable. How do we use our energy? How much food is there and who eats what? What resources do we each have access to?
As a teaching tool, this book is invaluable for how it breaks down a vast amount of data into an understandable form.
Shelagh Armstrong’s illustrations show the groupings of various peoples as well as the few isolated souls out there on their own. Her acrylic paintings bring the ideas to life but are abstract enough to keep people thinking and wondering just a bit.
This book is part of the CitizenKid series which is designed to help children learn more about the world in which they live while also becoming better global citizens. Pick up this book and consider sharing the ideas in it with the young reader in your life today.
March 7, 2013
The Prairie Thief
by Melissa Wiley
Margaret K. McElderry
Louisa Brody knows her papa is no thief. She knows it for a fact.
But she can’t deny that their neighbor’s hatchet, pocket watch and china doll were found in the abandoned dugout on their farm either. And that’s all it takes to get the sheriff to haul Papa off to jail. Louisa can’t stay on the isolated farm by herself (Mama died when Louisa was hardly more than a baby) so she’s taken in by Mr. Smirch, the very man who sent for the sheriff.
Their little cabin might not have been perfect, but Louisa soon learns that not every family is a loving place to grow up. Mr. Smirch is kind enough, in a gruff way, but he doesn’t interfer when his wife thunks Louisa on top of the head with a metal ladle. Their little boys are no better, constantly telling Louisa that they know her Papa is going to hang. Louisa knows they are just repeating their mama’s words but she doesn’t understand why the woman is so mean.
The only bright spot at the Smirch home is Jessamine, a cousin who was forced to move in with the family when her own parents and brother died. She and Louisa quickly become friends and allies even as they search for the wee little man that Jessamine saw disappearing into the hazel grove.
On a brief trip back to her family cabin, Louisa discovers that several items are missing. She knows this should be enough evidence to save Papa but how will she make it to town, 13 miles away, across the prairie?
Fleeing from Mrs. Smirch one dark night, Louisa finds out who has taken everything and why he has hidden it in the dugout. The only problem is that like her Mama, she has promised to keep his existence a secret. Will she find a way to prove Papa is innocent without breaking her promise?
Wiley has created a fun story full of old world magic and charm. I loved the way the old stories come to life amid a new world of tricksters (coyotes) and fleet footed prong horn.
If the story seems a bit slow initially, be patient. As soon as Louisa decided to escape from the Smirch’s things start moving at a much faster pace.
In Louisa, Wiley has created a character that young girls will love. She’s smart, she’s compassionate and she’s up for the adventure of a life time. This story combines mystery, fantasy and a satisfying story of family and friendship.
Why not share it aloud with the young book lover in your life?
March 4, 2013
Jane Yolen grew up believing that her father had been born in the United States, in New Haven. It wasn’t until Yolen herself was in her 70s that she saw his “Declaration of Intent,” a piece of paperwork that he had been required to sign as a 7 year-old when passing into the United States through Ellis Island. He had, in fact, been born in Ekaterinoslav, a small Jewish town in the Russian Ukraine. Thus began Yolen’s quest to find out a bit more about her family and how they came to New England.
She learned about Ekaterinoslav where her grandfather made a living for his family selling bottled kerosene and her grandmother looked more like a Ukrainian peasant than a Jew. She learned about Cossack raids and soldiers and families simply trying to live their lives in spite of the turmoil being whipped up all around them.
These same families faced hard choices. Should they venture to the United States and maybe find a land of hope? Or should they stay in the Ukraine where, if not easy, life was at least predictable? Some would stay and some would go but the decision was never simple.
Yolen didn’t have a juvenile audience in mind when she wrote this book as evidenced by one poem, Furrows, in which she speculates what the teenage girls may have been thinking whenever they encountered handsome Russian soldiers. That said, the single reference is much less explicit than what is found in many young adult novels.
Teens who are preparing to leave one home to make another would make an excellent audience for this story of a family doing much the same thing. Young poets will find the work especially intriguing as Yolen uses various poetic forms to tell a larger story. A slim 53 pages, the book gives the reader food for thought on many different levels.