September 29, 2014
Top Secret Files: The Civil War
by Stephanie Bearce
Getting kids interested in history can be tough if they think it is about nothing more than dates and names and lists of tedious facts. Bearce, on the other hand, has written a book about history that kids will want to read. After all, who doesn’t want to get in on a good secret?
Bearce’s series is all about spies, their missions and the tools they used to get the job done. She writes about plots against Lincoln, slaves acting as spies, women disguised as men, submarines, secret codes and attempts to steal locomotives. Each book in this series has five sections: Secrets, Spies, Special Missions, Secret Weapons and Secret Forces.
Young readers will learn about the part played by the Pinkerton detectives, a woman who used laundry as a code to send messages to Union forces, spy balloons, and the importance of maps. Bright lights were even used as a weapon. That said, not everything Bearce discusses was successful which is fortunate since the Confederacy tried to use germ warfare against the Union.
My favorite section was the one on Ft. Davidson. The fort isn’t far from my home and I’ve seen for myself just how small it is. It is featured in Bearce’s book because the Union Forces stationed there won a decisive victory by sneaking away and blowing the place up.
I also liked the how-to pieces. Readers learn the Confederate Signal Corp alphabet, how to create a scytale and even how to make a working model of a hot air balloon.
With so much information in one place, it might be overwhelming but Bearce has broken each section into easily-digestible chunks. A reluctant reader can easy conquer a section of 2 or 4 pages while more eager readers cna devour much more.
Readers who are especially intrigued by the topic will find a list of resources in the back of the book.
This is a very well balanced look at the Civil War. Bearce shows that the Union and the Confederacy both had successes and failures. She also includes information about men, women and children, slave and free. It isn’t a comprehensive look at the Civil War but it does give young readers information that they aren’t going to find in other books on the topic. Bearce is a former teacher and she knows both how to hook her readers and how to deliver the facts.
Pick this one up for history buffs, those who aren’t sure and even adult enthusiasts. Each will find something knew in this book.
September 25, 2014
The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art
by Barb Rosenstock
illustrated by Mary Grandpre
Alfred A. Knopf
As a boy, Vasya Kandinsky led a very proper life. He studied books full of math, books full of science and books full of history. The regular tic-tic-tac of the metronome guided his practice of piano scales. Dinner was a dress-up affair where he sat compelled to keep a straight spine as the grown-ups talked on and on.
And then, his aunt gave him a box of watercolors. His aunt showed him how to mix colors on the pallette. When he opened the box himself, he hear a hiss and a trill. When he tried to describe the noises to his parents, they shushed him and told him not to be silly.
Vasya wasn’t being silly. He took his work very seriously as he painted the sounds of the colors. A yellow circle. A navy rectangle. Slashes of crimson and so much more.
His family sent Vasya to art class. There he learned to make drawings that looked just like everyone else’s drawings. This wasn’t the art that Vasya loved.
He finished his studies and becames a lawyer but he still noticed the colors and sounds that swirled around him. After attending the opera, he was so inspired that he once again took up his paints.
You’re going to have to read the book to get the rest of the story.
I have to admit that before I read this, I wouldn’t even have recognized Kandinsky’s name. I know I’ve seen his paintings but his name? Not even on the tip of my tongue.
After reading about what inspired him and how he made a place for his own art — unique, vibrant and new — in the art world and in the world in general.
This book isn’t nonfiction because the author created the dailogue herself. This means that although the events in the book are true, she could not find the word-for-word dialgue in the source material.
Her author’s note is a treasure trove of what is fact and what is fiction in The Noisy Paint Box. As I read the story, the idea that sounds had colors seemed familiar. Rosenstock explains that Kandinsky probably had the genetic disorder synesthesia. People with synesthesia process sensory input differently from the rest of us and report hearing colors, seeing music and tasting words. Amazing that something considered abnormal gaves us Kandinsky’s work.
Mary Grandpre, the illustrator of this book, uses a combination of paper collage and acryllic paint to bring Kandinsky’s world and his art to life for the reader.
This book would be a marvelous introduction to a unit on modern art or an inspiration for a young artist whose work may not meet with the complete approval of his teachers.
September 22, 2014
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
by Holly Black
There are predators and there are prey. Turn cold and you are somewhere in between.
Tana lives in a world very like our own. “Reality” shows on television and the internet portray anything but reality. Teens, convinced that what they have seen is true, make life altering decisions based on these facts.
Casper Morales was a vampire who, instead of draining his victims, let them life. He thought he was being merciful, but those he had fed on all carried the virus. As the infection grew within them, they became colder and colder. Soon they were overcome by a thirst for warmth and for blood. People thought they could quarantine their loved ones, keeping them and everyone else safe until the virus no longer coursed through their veins. That’s how Tana came to be bit the first time.
When she wakes up in a bathtub, it takes a few moments to realize why she is there. A party. She came to the farmhouse for a sundown party. In an attempt to avoid her ex-boyfriend, she took refuge in the bathroom and fell into a drunken slumber. The sun is high in the sky as she slowly realizes that someone should have awoken her hours ago in a bid to use the shower. Why is the house deathly quiet?
Soon she finds herself on a drive to the nearest Coldtown. With her in the car are her ex-boyfriend, going cold, a vampire hiding from the sun in the trunk, and, potentially, a virus growing within her veins, a virus that infected her when she was scraped by a vampire’s fangs as she escaped out the window. Tana wonders just how cold and hungry she will be by the time she reaches Coldtown.
I am NOT a fan of vampire books. That’s in caps because it really can’t be emphasized enough. I honestly don’t think that I’ve read 10 in the last 3 years and given the number of books I read, that says a lot.
But I really love Black’s writing. She has a deliciously sarcastic sense of humor and has much to say about our plugged in global society. When a site I read recommended this, I gave in and gave it a chance.
Yes, it is a paranormal romance in that she is human(ish) and he is vampire. But she is not helpless, he is not trying to turn her, and just what a vampire is is called into question in the course of this novel. Are they truly damned and posessed by a supernatural evil that makes them something other than their human selves? Or are they infected by a virus, the symptoms of which drive them to do things they would never contemplate as humans? Or is answer something else? Something less comfortable? Perhaps they are simply removed from the rules and ethics that keep our true selves from shining through.
As always, Black’s characters are wonderfully drawn. Tana, our heroine, is delightfully snarky and doesn’t take anything from anyone — including her ex. Aidan is the bad-boy, or at least the troublesome player, that you just can’t help but love. He’s adorable and irritating and everyone has known a boy just like him, darn it all. Gavriel, the vampire in the trunk, is clever and endearing and crazy – or is he.
Pick this one up for the fast moving plot and keep reading it for the characters, the humor and the social commentary.
September 18, 2014
Lincoln’s Grave Robbers
by Steve Sheinkin
I tend to read before swim meets and when I’m waiting to pick swimmers up from practice. Moms and dads and siblings and I all discuss our books. The funny thing is that everyone saw this cover, read this title and assumed I had to be reading fiction.
Nope. A group of counterfeiters set out to steal Lincoln’s remains on Election night, 1876.
Why? Another counterfeiter, probably the king of them all, had been caught and jailed. Without his work engraving plates, the supply of quality counterfeit was dwindling. Quality goods are necessary so that you don’t get caught. If they didn’t get more of his work soon, they’d all have to find other work. They planned to steal and hide Lincoln’s remains. The brains of the outfit would then “find” the body and return it to the feds. I’m not certain why he tought that this wouldn’t scream “ransom demand” but that was their plan.
And stealing the body shouldn’t have been all that hard. Two doors stood between Lincoln’s sarcophagus and the public. Anyone who could cut through a padlock could gain entrance.
I’m not going to tell you anything more about the story because this is a true crime story and half of the beauty of this type of story well told is the suspense.
For those of you who know Sheinkin’s work, you know that this is going to be one of those stories that is just too crazy to be true . . . but it is. Everything in the book from the setting to the characters to the story to the dialogue has been researched by Sheinkin. The trick in this type of book is puzzling out what really happened. Who is telling the truth and who is making things up?
For the middle grade reader who doesn’t want to read a story that is made up, the fan of true crime and detective stories.
September 15, 2014
by Ann Ingalls
I picked this one up for two reasons – I know Ingalls who is an amazing writer and we used to have a piranha. Would this book be able to teach me anything?
There are 30 species of piranha. I knew there was more than one but I never guessed that there were 30.
In spite of their deadly reputation, they very seldom attack large prey or people. Some species eat only plants; I’ve seen pictures of these plant eaters and just going by their detention you’d never guess their diet. The red bellied piranha is most often actually a scavenger, feeding on animals that have died in the water. So when is a frightening feeding frenzy most likely to happen? During the dry season when water levels drop and piranha may get trapped in low lying pools or other areas where they quickly run out of their preferred prey.
At only 48 pages, this book packed in a lot of piranha facts. You read about their physiology, their life birth to death, the Amazon River and their role in it as well as how they are often prey. Their most dangerous predator? People!
I was glad to see that Ingalls touched on piranhas as pets and the problems caused when people who tire of their exotic, toothy friend dump the fish in a nearby body of water. Piranha are cold blooded and draw warmth from the water around them. In colder climates, they may survive the summer but almost always die in winter, doing damage to the habitat in the meanwhile.
This book would be a sure draw for boys hoping to read about ill-fated cattle, people and capybara. Because this is an ABDO book, it is also an excellent choice for the classroom or library. Chapters end with quotes — one from Roosevelt who witnessed piranha attacking a cow and one from a scientific journal. Students are asked to read these passages and then reflect on the main idea as well as how the message might be rewritten for a different audience.
Hats off to Ann Ingalls for teaching me so much about Rex (who is no longer amond us) and his cousins.
September 11, 2014
In a Glass Grimmly
by Adam Gidwitz
Dutton Children’s Books
How do you bring together Jack and Jill, The Princess and the Frog, Jack and the Beanstalk, and much, much more? You turn author Adam Gidwitz loose in fairy-tale land.
Gidwitz pulls together multiple Jack stories (Jack and Jill, the Beanstalk and the Giant Killer) and gives them a twist. Jack and Jill are cousins with uniquely aweful lives. Uniquely aweful in fairy tales. Their problems are all too common today. Jack has to deal with a pack of bullies while Jill’s mother is so mirror obsessed that a traveling merchant manages to clothe Jill in glorious silk that only the discerning eye can see.
Jill marches out of the castle starkers.
The pair end up adventuring together on a quest for a magic mirror that is worth more than any other treasure in the world. The price if they don’t find it? Their lives.
Just to keep things lively, they are accompanied on their adventures by a talking frog. Yep. The talking frog. Or Frog as they call him. He may not be the bravest amphibian in the world and their adventures would be much less amazing if they listened to his MANY warnings but he definitely adds a worthwhile comic note.
In the end, the glass doesn’t work quite the way everyone expects but Jack and Jill manage to come out of it all with a new understanding of the world and their place in it. They may not have what they thought they wanted at the beginning, but they have a self-awareness that is what they needed all along.
For those of you who haven’t read A Tale Dark and Grimm, Gidwitz has a barbed humor and writes in a chatty sarcastic style that may remind you of A Tale of Unfortunate Events. Don’t expect strict adherence to the original tales. Gidwitz plays free and loose with everything he pulls into this story but does so in a way that weaves it into a funny, slightly disgusting whole.
Although I read this book, I suspect it would make an excellent audio book for a family car trip as long as everyone has a tolerance for off beat often disgusting humor. Yes, there’s guts and gore and barf . . .but it’s funny. I promise.
September 8, 2014
Ice Cream Soup
by Ann Ingalls
Penguin Young Readers
What do you get when you combine various kinds of ice cream, sprinkles, candies and syrup in one big pan? The character in this early reader is trying to make an ice cream cake but by the time he’s done scooping, sprinkling, patting into place and pouring, he has a gloopy mess. Fortunately, this can do kid makes it work, renaming his dessert creation.
With controlled vocabularies and short sentences, early readers are tough to write. How do you include syrup, sprinkles and all kinds of additions? Those words, syrup in particular, aren’t easy to read. The author solves it by having the character add “this and that.” This keeps the reading level low enough for a new reader and the specifics come through in the illustrations.
Any parent or grandparent whose ever watched a messy ice cream concoction come together knows just how realistic this story is. Young readers will enjoy the punchy text and the sense of accomplishment that they get when they read the book cover to cover with only minimal help.
This reader is level 1. This means that:
- the vocabulary is simple
- words repeat
- there are clues in the pictures
- sentence structure is simple and predictable
- ideas explored in the story are familiar
In spite of this simplicty, Ingalls upbeat language makes the story fun including rhyme and a quick rhythm. Richard Watson’s cartoony illustrations add to the fun, increasing the sillyness factor tenfold as the mess grows and the kittens come check things out.
Pick this one up for your new reader and help him gain confidence in his new skills.
September 4, 2014
Doug Unplugs on the Farm
by Dan Yaccarino
Alfred A. Knopf
Doug and his parents are plugged in and on their way. Mom wants him to learn all that he can about farms before they reach the grandbots farm. Before they can get there, a herd of sheep runs across the road in front of them, unplugging the entire family and sending the car into a ditch.
Doug happily jets off to apply all that he has learned about farm life and give the farm girl chasing the sheep a hand. He ends up helping her with all of her chores and, not surprisingly, expanding his knowledge of farm life by taking part instead of just plugging in. They milk a cow, restack hay, pick apples, feed the ducks and even slop the hogs.
All the while, his parents are trying to get the car out of the ditch.
When it turns out that the tractor is out of gas, Doug combines his real world knowledge with his plugged-in knowledge to save the day. Yaccarino’s artwork combines blocks of color and simple black lines in a way that reminds me of some of the earliest picture books such as Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag. Reminds me, but does not duplicate because he uses a broader array of colors that look more contemporary than do the illustrations in Cats.
This is the sequel to Doug Unplugged and you may have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of a Dan Yaccarino kick (I also reviewed All the Way to America and The Fantastic Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau). I am attending the Missouri SCBWI Fall Conference for writers and Illustrators. Yacarino is one of the speakers.
I’m continually amazed at how he combines art work that looks a bit “retro” with stories that are timeless and applicable to the world of today in their themes. If you haven’t picked up any of his books, take a trip to your library or book store. Your young reader will thank you!