February 27, 2014
Papa’s Mechanical Fish
by Candace Fleming
illustrated by Boris Kulikov
Margaret Ferguson Books/Farrar Straus Giroux
Papa’s workshop behind the house is a place of clanking and banging and industry. Papa is an inventor.
Sometimes he works on helpful things. Other times he works on unusual things. Still other times he labors over playful things. The one thing they all have in common is that no matter what Papa is inventing, nothing seems to work perfectly.
One day, when no new ideas are coming, he takes his family down to Lake Michigan to go fishing.
“Papa . . . have you every wondered what it’s like to be a fish?” Daughter Virena asks the question innocently enough but it launches Papa on his next obsession and he takes off for his workshop right that minute.
The Whitefish is propelled by a pole sticking out of the bottom of the capsule. Things don’t work out quite right.
The Whitefish II has a propeller turned by peddling a bicycle. It sinks below the surface.
Again and again Papa makes changes and tries new things until he succeeds with the Whitefish IV. This version holds 7 people and Papa takes the whole family for a tour of Lake Michigan.
The story as a whole may be fiction but it is inspired by the submarine built by Lodner Phillips. Like the inventor in the story, Phillips took his wife and children for an excursion beneath the waves. No one knows exactly what happened to this real Whitefish.
Boris Kulikov’s artwork varies from technical looking line drawings that bring to mind the sketches of many an inventor to brightly colored paintings of the workshop, underwater fish and surprised children.
Quite probably not the best choice for bedtime reading as it is sure to generate enthusiastic discussion about what Papa should have done or what the young inventors in your audience would do differently. Yes, this would make a top-notch read aloud and would easily lead into discussions on perseverance. Share this with the young reader in your life who needs a nudge to keep trying.
February 24, 2014
Left to Tell
by Immaculee Ilibagiza
Immaculee Ilibagiza grew up in Rwanda. Her mother taught most of the children in their village. Her father was always there to lend a helping hand to anyone who needed it. People regularly visited her home to ask her parents for advice. Immaculee didn’t even know about the ethnic tensions in her country until she went to middle school. She didn’t even know what ethnic group she belonged to and that might have been okay if she was Hutu.
But Immaculee and her family were Tutsi. She learned this when a Hutu teacher shamed her for not knowing, but she still didn’t understand. Why would anyone hate her family for being Tutsi?
When the killing started, Immaculee was home from college visiting her parents. She found shelter in the home of a local pastor where she remained hidden in a tiny bathroom with a group of other Tutsi women. They stayed hidden for several months, emerging into a completely different world, a world in which most of their families were missing.
I have to admit that the copy of this book I read has been around the block a few times, but that’s okay. It is just that kind of book. You finish it and you want to press it into someone’s hand and say, “You need to read this.”
That’s what I’m telling you — if you are a teen or older. This isn’t a children’s book but it is one that teens really should read. Why? For the same reason that we teach the Jewish Holocaust in our schools. The similarities between that and the Rwandan Holocaust, including the hands-off approach taken by other countries, are alarming.
Still, this is an amazing story of hope and faith because in spite of everything that she went through, Immaculee emerged from this ordeal with her faith not only intact but stronger than ever. She continues to put this faith to work every day.
This is more than a story of hatred and horror. It is, most of all, a story about faith that can overcome even the greatest obstacles.
February 21, 2014
The Market Bowl
by Jim Averbeck
In the nation of Cameroon, Yoyo and Mama Cécile make their living selling bitterleaf stew in the marketplace. Each step in making the stew is important and Mama Cécile sings a song to keep everything on track.
“Slice the bitterleaf thin as a whisper.
Wash it in water, cleaning it well.
Grind the egusi (pumpkin seeds). Add a knuckle of njanga (dried shrimp).
Simmer some time for a fine stew to sell.”
The problem for Yoyo is that it takes so long to make bitterleaf stew Mama Cécile’s way. Wouldn’t it be better to hurry things along and get to the market earlier? Not surprisingly, Yoyo’s stew is lumpy and unappetizing, a face Averbeck emphasizes with circling flies.
When their last customer offers Yoyo much less for her stew than Mama Cécile always makes, Yoyo refuses his coins, thus cursing their market bowl. Because the market operates on a barter system, any fair price is accepted. Refuse a fair price and the people believe that Brother Coin will no longer bless their market bowl, the bowl in which buyers drop their coins.
Yoyo takes responsibility for what she has done and sets out to restore the blessing to Mama Cécile’s bowl. When she finds Brother Coin, he is a in a fowl mood and announces that he will grant no wishes that day. How can Yoyo trick him into restorying the luck to her Mama’s bowl?
Averbeck worked as a Peace Corp volunteer in Cameroon and his experiences obviously color this tale, bringing life in the market into clear focus for young readers. In the back of the book, he even gives a recipe for the stew, subtituting spinach or kale for the bitterleaf, also known as ironweed. Because the stew is tricky to make well, an accomplished cook would be able to make a fair amount in the market place.
This story is complex enough to engage slightly older readers but would also make a fun story time book. Just be ready for plenty of discussion on how your listeners would try to fool Brother Coin.
February 17, 2014
Oh No, Little Dragon!
written and illustrated by Jim Averbeck
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
“Little Dragon had a spark in his heart” and it is because of this spark that he can flame. Not surprisingly, Little Dragon loves exercising this skill, flying through the air, shooting flame through smoke rings, flame-written hearts and more. Flying and flaming leave Little Dragon covered in soot so Mama sends him to take a bath with his toy boat.
Where many children would run their boats through the waves and maybe sink one or two, the fact that this boat is made out of wood should clue young readers in on how Little Dragon plays even in the tub. It is while playing and laughing that Little Dragon takes a huge gulp of water, putting out his flame.
This is where the real trouble begins. Flame comes from the spark inside to Little Dragon tries to warm up one way after another.
And, as sometimes, happens, I’m going to make you read to the book to find out how Little Dragon solves his problem.
It isn’t often that I review a preschool picture book, generally because they are just too sweet for me. Don’t get me wrong, Little Dragon is sweet but he’s also a dragon who reminds me very much of several toddlers that I know. He’s fiesty and he’s fiery and he’s got a way of doing things that is all his own.
The illustrations for this book remind me of those in David Shannon’s No, David! That isn’t to say that Averbeck mimics Shannon in anway but the style that he uses in this book (like No, David!) reminds me a child’s art work without looking exactly like a child’s art work.
You may have to see the book to understand what I mean but get it and share it with the toddler or preschooler in your life.
February 13, 2014
Three Times Lucky
by Sheila Turnage
Mo Lobeau may be only 11-years-old but there’s a ton of personality packed into this particular package. Mo lives in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, a town so small that everyone knows your business. Mo’s business is finding her “upstream mother,” the woman who must have lost her when a hurricane flooded the countryside. That’s why Mo was found adrift on a piece of a bill board — thus her name, Moses. Everyone in town is in on the search for her mother and whenever they head out of town they take one of the bottles that she launches into the river, hoping that someone who knows something will find it.
Mo’s search is interupted when a lawman comes to town to solve a murder. The murder didn’t happen in Tupelo Landing but the clues have led him here, and one of those clues points to the Colonel, Mo’s adopted daddy. Soon, the lawman has more than a handful of clues and an actual murder right in town. Then Mo’s own adoptive parents go missing. Clearly this lawman can’t find a thing on his own and Mo drafts both friend and foe to solve things before she looses another set of parents.
This book is 1/4 mystery and 3/4 character cast and I don’t really want to take the time or space to introduce you to them all because you need to meet them for yourself. There’s Mo’s best friend, Dale, who may not do a lot of good in school but has more than enough sense to sort the good guys from the bad. There are both the Colonel, who may or may not be an Army man. It’s hard to tell since he washed into town the same time she did but without a memory to his name. There’s Miss Lana with her cast of wigs and themed days for the diner; Lavender, Dale’s older brother and a race car driver; Grandma Miss Lacy who shows up when help, and a big heart, are needed with a basket full of fried chicken and a secret stash of her special coconut cake. The list goes on and on.
Share Mo Lobeau with the young reader in your life and don’t be surprised when you hear her laughing out loud, when she isn’t mad enough (at the bad guys) to spit.
February 10, 2014
The Tyrant’s Daughter:
by J. C. Carleson
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Sure, Laila was a girl in a Muslim country, but she never thought of her life as restricted. After all, she lived like royalty. Before she came here and read the newspapers, she thought her father was actually King just like his father before him. It wasn’t until her father was killed in a coup and her uncle came to power that she began to question things.
The first question — do I want to go home? The answer isn’t an easy one.
She had never had much freedom of movement but she hadn’t always been afraid, but that was before her driver was fired for swerving around the bundle of rags in the street that turned out to be a man. That was before the gunfire became constant. It was before a man her father trusted shot him dead.
Now, Laila has friends. Granted, she doesn’t have many but she has a few which is more than she would have had at home. First is Emmy, the girl assigned to help her adjust to her new school. How can a girl be comfortable walking around in so little clothing?
Then there is Ian, the boy she kisses when he is teaching her to drive. She has more in common with this missionarie’s son than she first thought but she would never have been allowed to know him at home.
And last, if you can even call him a friend is Amir. She’s not even sure she considers him a friend. At home, his family would be considered course and common. They are often fighting against her own family but now that her uncle has had her father killed alliances are shifting.
It is through these friends that she comes to see her father for the tyrant he was to the rest of the world, she learned what he allowed to happen to people like Amir, and what is still going on, but through her mother’s manipulations she also learns that women are not as defenseless as they may seem and, given the right motivation, Laila herself can take charge of more than a little.
I have to admit that as I read this book, I kept waiting for some detail to tell me where in the Muslim world it takes place. In the author’s note, Carleson explains why she didn’t name a specific country. As a former CIA operative, Carleson writes this book from experience and first hand knowledge. She also gives us a lot to think about in terms of how we percieve reality, both here and abroad, how we choose our allies and just who is really in power.
It is a definitely a thought provoking book that will lead to a great deal of discussion for those who are willing to take the time to get to know this girl who, through the course of the book, is also getting to know herself and what she is capable of doing.
February 6, 2014
Mr. Zinger’s Hat
by Cary Fagan
illustrated by Dusan Petricic
Every day after school, Leo takes his ball out into the courtyard. Every day, he bounces it off the high brick wall, playing catch with himself. Every day, he sees Mr. Zinger, walking quietly around the courtyard, head bent in thought. Leo is under mother’s orders to leave Mr. Zinger alone because Mr. Zinger is a writer and he’s busy thinking up new stories.
One day, Leo throws his ball higher than ever before. It bounces off the wall, over his head, and knocks off Mr. Zinger’s big black hat. The wind catches the hat and Leo chases it around and around, stopping only when the hat lands on his own head.
Mr. Zinger wonders aloud what made his hat take off like that. Maybe it has a new story inside? He encourages Leo to draw out this new tale about a boy who lives in a castle. It takes a minute, and some encouragement from Mr. Zinger before Leo’s realizes that this wasn’t Mr. Zinger’s story. It was his.
When Mr. Zinger goes inside to write, Leo goes back to his ball game. Again, the ball sails over his head but this time it is caught by a girl. Together they play catch, they run and they share a snack. Then Leo shows her his baseball cap. It seems to have a story inside.
But whose story is it? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
As always, I love Petricic’s creative art work, especially the difference styles he uses to depict Leo and Mr. Zinger vs the world of Leo’s story. Then, he comes up with a slightly different look for the final story. It is only one frame but it is enough to encourage a young story teller to continue the tale.
This wasn’t a hilarious romp of a tale and I’m not sure how well it would work for story time. That said, it would be an excellent lap read for any adult who wants to encourage a creative young mind. This is a gentle, quiet story but also a story with a certain quiet power.
February 3, 2014
Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein
Verity and Maddie are best friends. Ironically, they would never have met if it wasn’t for WWII. Verity is Scottish, schooled in Switzerland. Maddie’s grandfather sells and repairs motorcycles. She learns the trade from him and it is this knowledge of engines that earns her an opportunity to fly.
The two meet when a lost German pilot nears their British airfield. Maddie may be a radio operator but it is Verity who uses her knowledge of German to lure him in. The two quickly gain a reputation as an amazing team.
Unfortunately, it is also the War the seperates the pair. Maddie is the pilot flying Julie and her radio into Nazi occupied Germany when their plane takes a hit and is too damaged to land. Verity makes it into town but is captured by the Gestapo. I’m not going to discuss much more about the plot because I don’t want to give away any of the twists or turns.
This is an astonishingly complex novel. We have two narrators, Verity and Maddie. Both claim to the tell the truth, but their truths sometimes contradict each other. The reader is led to suspect that reality is in there somewhere but it is up to them to tease it out.
There’s no doubt in my mind why this book one the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Young Adult Novel. Clearly, these girls had a mission but just what it was remains a mystery until at least mid-way through the book. Then there is the way that fact is interwoven with necessary falsehood.
This isn’t an easy book. The Gestapo wasn’t gentle in their attempts to extract information. For the most part, very few details are given. It is never particuarly graphic. That said, it does deal with some harsh realities. Personally, I’ve heard some people say they don’t think this book is appropriate for teens. In all honesty, high school students are almost old enough enter the military. That means they are almost old enough to experience what happens in this book.
I think that part of the problem is that this is a hardcore adventure novel with female characters. If male characters experienced these things, there would be much less fuss. But these are girls. Girls should be protected and sheltered which is, ironically, one of the themes in the book.
Still, if you aren’t sure, read it for yourself before handing it to your teen. You may find yourself having some interesting discussions on bravery and valor and just who is capable of what.