August 29, 2013
Biggest, Strongest, Fastest
by Steve Jenkins
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
If you’ve ever dealt with a preschooler, you know they are all about superlatives. Who is smartest . . . fastest . . . loudest . . . the list goes on and on. Biggest, Strongest, Fastest was born of this fascination.
What animal is the biggest? On land, it is the African elephant. In the water, the blue whale. In fact, no land animal, including the biggest dinosaur has ever been bigger than the blue whale.
But details of size and speed can be lost if your reader doesn’t fully grasp what you are saying. To solve this problem, Jenkins compares the various animals to people. In addition to the main illustration, there is a silhouette on each page comparing the animal in question to a person. The African elephant is clearly taller than a man, the Etruscan shrew is about the size of a person’s thumb, and the bird spider is somewhat larger than a hand spread wide open.
Known for his collage illustrations, Jenkins doesn’t disappoint. From the color to the texture to the multiple layers needed to capture just the right effect, all of the animals from the tall giraffe to the teeny, tiny flea is depicted in astonishing detail. Occasional found object, such as a feather, are incorporated into the illustrations.
Although the book is designed, for the most part using two page spreads (facing pages devoted to a single illustration and the accompanying text), this pattern is occasionally broken when a tiny animal, such as a bee hummingbird, is a given only one page while the following animal, in this case the sun jellyfish, begins on the facing page and is continued after the page turn.
In addition to the animals themselves, this book would make an excellent jumping off point for discussions on superlatives and other words used to compare one thing to another.
As always, Jenkins’ book pulls in a wealth of variety and detail. Not only does he discuss size but also speed, strength and means of acquiring food. The animals themselves vary greatly including land and aquatic animals as well as creatures from all over the world.
If you aren’t familiar with Jenkins work, pick up one of his books today. You won’t regret it.
August 27, 2013
Thin Wood Walls
by David Patneaude
Joe Hanada is just a typical kid — he walks to school with his best friend, Ray, plays basketball and is looking forward to Christmas. Then the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Bad enough for an American, but even worse if you are an American of Japanese descent. The next day at school, some of the kids are already treating him differently. Granted, it isn’t everyone, but someone did leave a racist cartoon on his desk. If only everyone was a good as Ray and his parents.
Because this is based on history, I don’t feel like its a spoiler to tell you that because Joe and his family live on the West Coast, they face times that are more than difficult. His father is arrested because of he is a leader in the Japanese American community. He is still gone with Joe and the rest of the family, including Joe’s grandmother, are forced into a relocation camp. Not surprisingly, the Hanada do not believe it is for their safety especially when someone living at the camp is shot by one of the guards.
I’m not going to discuss any more about the plot because Patneaude has pulled together a winner. Although the story is from Joe’s point of view, we are well aware of the struggles faced by each member of the family, from his brother, to his mother and even his aged Grandmother.
Bad things happen but this is a middle grade novel so the worst of it happens “off screen.” That said, the emotions are real and young readers will respond to the injustice faced by Hanada’s and others held at Tule Lake.
This isn’t a new book, it was published in 2004, but it deals with several timely topics. Although Joe has never been to Japan, he is hated because of the actions of Japanese soldiers and his family’s loyalty is questioned. I probably don’t need to point out the parallels between his story and that of various segments of our own population post 9/11.
Politics aside, Joe faces bullies at school and in the camp. The book also deals with themes of loyalty and family.
If you’ve ever read one of Patneaude’s books, you know that he doesn’t portray any group of people with a broad brush. The Hanada’s face prejudice from some neighbors but not all. Joe and his family are befriended by a young soldier at Tule Lake. Patneaude has created a realistically complex blend of characters sure to engage young readers.
This book is a must read not only for the history but also because it speaks so eloquently about the world will live in even today.
August 22, 2013
By Michael Ian Black
Illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Simon and Schuester
Simply put, the narrator of Black’s tale is . . . bored. This isn’t your average ho hum bored either, this is the overwhelming kind that makes you tired and super, duper cranky. Especially when the most exciting thing you can find is a potato.
But then Black adds insult to injury. Not only does the potato thump the narrator on the head, it tells her just what is wrong. The potato, apparently, is bored.
The narrator then launches into a long list of the many fun and exciting things that they could be doing. No matter, the potato is still bored. If only there was a flamingo. The potato, it seems, likes flamingos very much.
I’m not going to spoil the twist ending but it’s the sort of thing that will have your young reader howling or rolling his eyes.
The bold black lines of Ohi’s illustrations compliment the simple straight forward nature of this story. Light blue background compliment the vivid bold colors of the narrator’s imagination.
Adults will get the narrator’s frustration as she tries to amuse the surly potato. Young readers will understand both the joys of wild imaginings and the annoyance of trying to amuse a playmate who simply refuses to get with the program.
A fun, fast read, perfect for story time and a lead in for imaginative play.
August 19, 2013
by Pam Munoz Ryan
illustrated by Peter Sis
I am so glad that I saw a recommendation on this book. Ryan has created a fictionalized tale based on the childhood and adolescence of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
Think this doesn’t sound like a topic with great kid appeal? Think again. Neruda as a child is definitely someone that a lot of children will identify with, because:
- He was very small.
- He was interested in things that his father thought were ridiculous.
- He very much wanted to be loved and to love his father.
- He noticed things that went completely unseen by the adults around him.
- He spent a lot of time in his imagination.
Neruda loved to observe the outdoors — the flash of beetles, the soaring flight of birds, the roar of the ocean. He took care of a wounded swan, collected every little thing from the natural world that he could lay his hands on, and connected deeply with his uncle the editor of a militant newspaper (they supported Native rights).
This book will appeal to reluctant readers if they can get past its size — 372 pages. Yes, that’s long. But the font size is huge for a book for this audience and it has illustrations between chapters.
Neruda was an avid reader, which might put reluctant readers off, but they will love how at odds he was with many of the adults in his life and often with his older brother.
Young poets will love the samplings of his poems and anyone who reads this will find themselves going to the library catalog to request some of his work.
Share this with the young reader in your life. If you make it a read aloud experience, they’ll know you are more like Neruda’s step mother and, coming from a book-loving Mom, that’s a good thing since she was a book lover too.
Take a chance on a book that might be outside of what you are familiar with because you won’t regret it.
August 15, 2013
The Caged Graves
by Dianne K. Salerni
The year is 1867 and Verity Boone is full of hope when the train pulls into the station at Catawissa, Pennsylvania.
Catawissa may be the town where she was born and lived for several years, but she has no memories of living there. The farm town she sees through the rain is very different from the city of Worchester, Massachusetts where she was raised by her aunt. At 17, Verity is coming home to get married. She and Nate have been writing each other and she’s still surprised that she agreed to marry someone she’s never even met. She can hardly wait to meet him.
But Nate doesn’t meet her at the train station. The only person there to greet her is her father and he doesn’t seem certain he’s happy with this new arrangement.
When Nate comes by the house to meet her the next day, the two go for a walk past the church with its cemetery. Curious at the sight of two graves covered by elaborate iron cages, Verity doesn’t initially notice how nervous Nate has gotten, not until she sees the name on the first grave. Sarah Ann. Why was her mother buried outside the cemetery wall in a caged grave?
Those who know aren’t willing to answer Verity’s questions but she quickly realizes that there are plenty of people who aren’t happy that she’s returned. Some of the women and their daughters are angry that she’s snagged the most eligible young man in town. Others whisper about her mother. Verity is determined to discover the truth.
Salerni has constructed a deliciously complicated novel. It is set in the period immediately following the Civil War. Unlike every other novel I’ve read from this time period, the North vs the South is never mentioned nor is slavery. In this novel, war related tensions revolve around money — who had to go fight and who had enough gold to pay someone to fight for them. And where could a farmer get that kind of money anyway?
There is also a strong romantic element. Verity may be returning to Catawissa to marry Nate but she soon attracts the attention of a young doctor’s apprentice. This doesn’t escape Nate’s notice and only adds to the tension swirling through the community.
While there are hints toward a paranormal element to the story (keeping the dead in the ground, etc.), anyone who picks this book up expected vampires or zombies will be sorely disappointed. This is a historical novel although it does deal with prejudice, fear and superstition.
One warning: Do not give this to your young reader if you are going to then expect her to do chores, etc. This book grabs the reader who is forced to keep turning pages so that they can find out what happens next.
August 12, 2013
A Funny Little Bird
by Jennifer Yerkes
“Once upon a time, there was a little bird. Most of the time it was as if he was invisible. . .”
With these opening lines, you might assume this was going to be a morose, mopey story at least until you look at the illustrations. With abundance white space and intense colors, Yerkes artwork appears to almost pop off the page. Of course, this illusion is aided by the textured artwork on the cover of the book. (I have to admit that my fingers never quit tracing these raised areas, even when I was reading.)
Spare text and vibrant illustration pair together to tell the story of a little bird who is teased by the other birds on the rare moments that they notice him. He decides that all of his problems would be solved if he could only make others notice him. To that end he picks up all manner of feathers and leaves, becoming more and more visible all the while. Eventually he discovers that high visibility isn’t always a good thing.
Although this is a solid story about self-esteem and being yourself, it is truly the illustrations that make it such a wonder. Never before have I seen a character depicted for the most part by what you cannot see. The most that you ever see of little bird himself is his beak, one eye and his legs.
Children will love the spare but bright illustrations and will likely be tempted to create their own. They will also identify with a tiny creature who often feels overlooked and, when he isn’t, wishes he could go back to being comfortably anonymous vs. being put on the spot.
Share this innovative book with the young reader in your life.
August 8, 2013
Handbook for Dragon Slayers
by Merrie Haskell
More than anything, Princess Tilda, short for Matilda, longs to write a book. She gets to do some copy work and other clerical tasks for Alder Brook, their holding, but parchment is dear. She’ll never find enough for her dream to come true, even if she can find the time, but with her mother traveling someone has to see to the business of Alder Brook even if that someone is a Princess with a lame foot, a Princess that her people do not love.
Most days Tilda would be content if they just liked her. But when she hobbles by on her crutch she sees people making signs to ward off evil. How can she ever lead them?
Her only friends are Judith, her maid servant, and Parz, a handsome young squire who is learning to be a dragon slayer. He loves her for her library. When they catch some time together, she tells him all she has read about dragons for Parz is training to become a dragon slayer.
When Tilda receives word that her mother has been injured and will not be returning home any time soon, she is worried but suspects nothing until she too is kidnapped by her cousin. He is determined to rob the two women of their home and only has to keep them away for several weeks to be successful. He’s not counting on the resourceful princess and her two friends.
I can’t say much more about the plot without giving the entire thing away. Fantasy readers will love the details about the dragons and the spirits of the Wild Hunt as well as the ability of certain people to take on other shapes, even the shapes of dragons.
Before the story is over, a maidservant has managed to teach a princess and a squire about loyalty and determination, a squire has taught a princess what it takes to connect with her people, and a princess teaches her two friends, would-be-dragon-slayers that not all dragons are a problem to be solved with sword and shield, which is also the topic of her very own book.
In my opinion this is Haskell’s best book yet.
August 5, 2013
One City, Two Brothers
by Chris Smith
illustrated by Aurelia Fronty
When someone mentions the wisdom of King Solomon, you might think of the two mothers arguing over the baby. Here is another story, this one allegedly told by Solomon to two brothers, arguing over their late father’s property.
Long ago, two brothers lived in a valley that was perfect for farming. Although they lived in separate villages, together they formed their late father’s land, splitting the crop evenly between them. One brother married. He and his wife had children and, blessed by the crops from this farm, they had a home and enough to eat. The other brother never married but was happy with his quiet life.
One year, they had an especially good crop. After they split up the bags of grain, each brother began to wonder about the fairness of how the grain was divided. The married brother knew that his children would care for him when he was an old man but his brother had no children. He felt sorry for his brother and decided to secretly give him some of his own grain. The unmarried brother knew that his brother had a family that counted on him for food. He wanted to make his brother’s life easier and decided to secretly give him some of his own grain.
DO NOT READ ON IF IT WILL BOTHER YOU TO KNOW THE ENDING OF THE STORY
As the two brother’s worked to secretly held each other out, they bumped into each other. The place where they met and each realized what the other brother had been trying to do for him is where the Temple was later built.
Solomon has always been one of my favorite Biblical figures and I’m happy to know another Solomon tale. The fact that this is a story Solomon told vs a story about Solomon seems highly appropriate. Solomon was a wise and caring leader. Surely he had many stories and parables that he used when trying to get through to people.
I had to smile when I read the note at the end of this book because this is a Muslim folk tale. Perhaps we can all take a lesson from it and, in generously caring for each other, create a Holy place.
August 1, 2013
Kyle Keeley has two older brothers — a brain and a jock. With competition like that, Kyle has to be willing to do anything to win. A lucky dice roll or drawing just the right card from the deck can give you what you need to win if you are willing to take advantage of it although it may mean bending the rules just a bit. Of course, when bending the rules results in a broken window, Kyle looses a big chunk of his allowance and gets grounded on top of it.
Kyle’s town is about to get something new — a library. They had a library at one time but it closed before Kyle was born. He doesn’t quite get the excitement so he dashes of his essay in just seconds. His teacher refuses to enter it in the competition.
But then his friends start talking it up. In addition to winning a place at a special preview sleep over party, winners also get a gift card for Lemoncello games. Mr. Lemoncello grew up in their town and credits his success as a game maker to the library. Because of this, he has built a whole new library for the town. Kyle is much more interested in the games than the library so he goes home and writes another essay, a real essay. He find’s Mr. Lemoncello’s e-mail address and sends the inventor the essay himself, since his teacher will no longer do it. It isn’t exactly within the rules but you can’t win if you don’t try.
When Kyle wins a place a at the party only to discover that this is more than a sleepover at the library. Winners have to compete to find a way back out of the library. They have the resources of the library itself at their disposal and Kyle quickly teams up with his best friend who was also at the party. No, the rules didn’t say you could team up, but they didn’t say you couldn’t. Kyle quickly discovers how much fun it is to play a game with other players on your side.
Kyle has to figure out just which rules are okay to push and which ones are too important to break.
I’ll admit that I had some trouble getting into this book. Mr. Lemoncello reminded me too much of Willy Wonka. There were also several lines of dialogue that reminded me of Harry Potter. Being something of a reader, it finally hit me that the references were intentional. Not only is this book a celebration of games and libraries, it is also a celebration of the wide variety of books that can open the world to young minds.
As much as I like to read, I’m a little slow sometimes.
Unlike some books that contain games, Grabenstein gives readers all they need to solve the puzzle problems along side the characters. The book even contains one puzzle that the characters never solve. Readers are encouraged to solve it themselves and e-mail their answers to Grabenstein.
What about you? Are you game to try?