January 28, 2016
Don’t Throw It to Mo!
by David Adler
illustrated by Sam Ricks
Penguin Young Readers
No one loves football more than Mo. Mom even wakes him up each morning by throwing a football and calling out, “It’s a long throw.” Mo plays on an afterschool team called the Robins. Because Mo is younger and smaller than the other players, he doesn’t get much game time but that’s okay. He sits on the bench with Coach Steve.
Coach Steve knows how important it is for Mo to be able to catch the ball . . . any ball. Because of this Coach Steve butters a ball to make it extra slippery and throws it for Mo to try to catch.
The Jays watch watch and have a good laugh. They aren’t at all worried when the Robin’s coach puts a butter-fingers player into the game. Truthfully, at first they don’t have anything to worry about.
For two plays, Coach tells the other Robins not to throw the ball to Mo. On the third play, Coach tells Mo to go long and Mo is ready.
Each year, the American Library Association gives an award to an outstanding easy reader. This year the 2015 Geisel Award went to Don’t Throw It to Mo!
Some critical adults clearly don’t get it. Why do we need another book about the victory of the small? If you agree with them, you’re reading this as an adult. Kids get what it is to be underestimated because of their size, age, etc. They want Mo to win. And when he does, they will understand that they missed the clues that, really and truly, Mo can catch. When they read this book a second and third time, they’ll look at those clues and think “I’m in on the joke. I’m on the winning side.”
There were two other things that I loved about this book. One was the diversity message. But it isn’t a diversity message that hits you over the head. The author doesn’t say “Mo played on a diverse team called the Robins. Nope. You simply see a wide variety of players in the illustrations, including a brunette with pig tails.
Second, Mo’s mom doesn’t question when the Coach doesn’t put Mo into the game. Mo doesn’t bicker or whine. Coach does his job and no one complains. (Clearly this is fantasy.)
Beginning readers that deal with sports and athleticism are few and far between. Pick this one up for your classroom shelf or for your own sports-minded young reader.
January 26, 2016
Last Stop on Market Street
by Matt de la Peña
illustrated by Christian Robinson
G. P. Putnams Sons
Every week after church CJ and Nana take the bus down to the soup kitchen where they volunteer. Nine Sundays out of ten, that might be fine but today CJ just isn’t in the mood.
He wants to know why they have to wait in the wet for the bus. Why don’t his friends have to do this? Why don’t he and Nana have a car? The list goes on and on.
Nana never tires of the litany but her answers are never 100% direct. Instead of telling him that they help because they are blessed, she points out what is positive and the beauty in the world around them. The best part about Nana? Her attitude isn’t she and CJ against the world. As the story goes on she draws other passengers into what is wonderful.
This book recently won the Newbery award (see my post here). This is the award given by the American Library Association for an inspirational and exceptionally crafted story. My joy at this was two-fold. First things first, it was amazing to see the award go to a picture book. Sometimes it feels like we forget that in a picture book the story needs to be as awesome as the art.
The other reason I was thrilled about this award? Some time ago, I got to hear the author speak. Wow. It was easy to see why his books are such a hit with young readers. He is just so real. That said, his reality may thrill young readers but it will put off some adults. As I read about this book online, not surprisingly, I saw some criticisms. Some people didn’t like that the book is grammatically incorrect. The problem with this phrase is that it sets up a dichotomy. Incorrect vs correct. While that may not seem like a problem, it is not only a judgement about the grammar itself but also the people who speak that way. We are kind and accepting and love you just the way you are as long as you sound just . . . like . . . us.
No, this book wouldn’t work as a grammar text but that’s not the point. The grammar is part of the voice of the story. Change the grammar and you change the voice and you make it less real.
I would definitely recommend picking this book up and sharing it with your young readers. It is both overtly and covertly a marvelous story of inclusion and acceptance.
January 21, 2016
The Sword of Summer
Book 1 in Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard
by Rick Riordan
Life isn’t easy on the streets but Magnus has been homeless for two years. He knows who will give him food, where to find a mostly safe place to sleep and how to avoid the cops. Then one of his friends hands him a missing person flier. Magnus can’t believe it. After two years, his uncle is looking for him.
Magnus spies on his uncle and his cousin Annabeth but his mother told him to avoid her brothers. He doesn’t really know why but he decides that he needs to know what is going on and breaks into his uncle’s house.
Uncle Randolph catches him in the house and starts to tell him about their family’s history. They are descended from Vikings. There is a missing sword. The only one who can find it is Magnus and, fortunately, the sword is in the Boston area, just a few blocks away.
Soon Magnus finds himself on a bridge holding a corroded piece of metal. His uncle claims it is an ancient sword and it is all Magnus has to fend off the deadly fire giant that is standing right in front of him. When his attempt to dice up the giant fails, Magnus’ soul is snatched up by a Valkeyrie who takes him to Asgard. If he can prove he is a hero, he will have a place there. If not . . . he doesn’t even want to consider the alternative.
If this sounds a lot like Percy Jackson, don’t be shocked. Riordan has found his niche and young readers love him for it. Although Percy Jackson is all about the Greek gods and Magnus Chase is about the Norse, the two worlds overlap. Annabeth, Magnus’ cousin, is Annabeth daughter of Athena from Percy Jackson. If you’re expecting the book to be 100% original, you might be disappointed. Instead, go into it understanding that the two series overlap.
As always, the story is full of Riordan’s quirky brand of humor. His secondary characters especially seem to be designed to make us laugh. My favorite? Half Born the Beserker. Or maybe Loki. His Loki is very bit the amazing trickster that I expected — alluring, coniving and just a little scary. Riordan has done an admirable job in creating a full range of characters so that both boys and girls will be drawn into the story. Share it with the young fantasy lover in your life.
January 19, 2016
I am Yoga
by Susan Verde
illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Abrams Books for Young Readers
I have to admit that I picked this up because I am practicing yoga. I’ve noodled over a couple of ideas for “yoga stories” and wanted to see what Verde and Reynolds had accomplished.
This is the story of a girl who practices yoga whenever she feels small or like she doesn’t belong. She stills her body, quiets her mind and slows her breathing. She is yoga.
“I can sail with the sea.
I go with the flow.”
Within the main “story,” each page features paired lines of text and an amazing illustration by Peter Reynold. In this case it is a black line drawing of the girl doing a boat position or navasana. The illustration is colored in soothing blues and greens.
Admittedly, there isn’t a lot of story in this book. And it isn’t a how-to book. A child who picks this up to learn yoga isn’t going to find much that is terribly helpful. Yes, the poses are explained and described in the back matter but it still isn’t meant to be highly instructional. One detail that I loved — in the backmatter, each pose is explained and there is an illustration but it is not the same illustration as in the book. Each pose, or asana, is done by a different boy or girl. It clearly gets across the idea that yoga is for all kinds of people.
That said, the book accurately depicts the calming effects of yoga. I can see an adult or teen who practices yoga sharing this book with a younger reader who wants to know more about what their counter-part is doing. It would also be an excellent choice to encorporate into a section on fitness simply because it is so different from sports. There is no competition. It isn’t about winning. It is simply about being, all of which is depicted within the combination of text and art.
The text and the art both are simple but creative, soothing yet somehow highly epressive. I would definitely recommend this book to any yoga practioner who is having a hard time explaining yoga and why they do it.
January 14, 2016
A Child’s Story of the Holocaust
by Loic Dauvillier
illustrated by Marc Lizano
When Else wakes in the night, she discovers that her grandmother is also awake. When Else asks if Grandmother has had a nightmare, the older woman explains that that is one way to look at it. Around her are a scattering of old photos and letters.
Soon she is telling Else of her childhood in Paris and the day that she came home from school to find that her family would now be wearing sherrif’s stars. She isn’t sure why this is, since there are no sherriffs in Paris, but the next day the teachers and even her best friend are mean to her. When she fails to understand what is going on, her teacher asks if she needs to explain it in another language.
Eventually, another student explains that it isn’t a sheriff’s star but a Star of David. Eventually Dounia quits going to school and her parents teach her in their apartment which they almost never leave. When the police pound on the door in the middle of the night, her parents hide her in the base of a wardrobe. When the cabinet is tipped, Dounia is trapped until the downstairs neighbor pulls her out. I’m not going to discuss the plot any more because I don’t want to give away the twists and turns.
So many books set in World War II are set in Germany so it was interesting to read about France. This graphic novel was first published in French and the language is retained in the illustrations.
The book is for ages 6 to 10. I’m not sure my son would have been interested at 6 but I don’t think it is too harsh or graphic. It isn’t that kind of graphic novel. Although the author discusses the camps it is simply done in terms of “so-and-so was in X camp” and Dounia looks at lists of people who have returned from the camps. Dauvillier never describes or explains the camps but Dounia does state at one point in the story that it is obvious something bad goes on there and the image shows someone from a camp.
This book wouldn’t be right for every 6 year old but as stories about the Holocaust go it isn’t harsh or graphic. If you have a young child in your life who is asking questions, this book would make an excellent, thoughtful introduction. It shows that the war affected many people but doesn’t specifically show the violence or tortures of the camps.
January 11, 2016
by Nicholas Gannon
Archer B Helmsley has grown up in a home that many people would mistake for a museum full of tribal masks, artifacts of all kinds, and a wide variety of taxidermied animals from a polar bear to an ostrich. From floor to floor and wall to wall, it has been filled with items his grandparents, a well-known pair of explorers, collected on their journeys.
Archer has all of this but what he doesn’t have are adventures. The problem is that his mother sees his imagination and identifies it as a tendency far too like those of his grandparents. When they disappear on an iceberg while exploring the Antarctic, Archer’s freedom is strictly curtailed. No longer allowed outside, he leaves the house only to go to school. How is he supposed to find friends and adventure like that?
Fortunately adventure finds him when a classmate careens right into Archer. It turns out that Oliver and Archer are next-door neighbors and soon the two boys strike up a friendship, using a series of ladders, and a few jumps, to travel from one house to another without being detected by Archer’s mother (his father isn’t in on it but he is very observant).
Soon the two friends become three when they befriend the new girl in the neighborhood. Adelaide has a wooden leg and tells her classmates that she was attacked by a crocodile which is much more exciting than the truth that a bakery truck hit a lamp-post that fell into Adelaide who used to be a ballerina. The boys, mostly Archer, reason that the survivor of a crocodile attack is just the person you want a long on an adventure and soon the friends are cooking up a plan to reach Antarctica and rescue Archer’s grandparents.
I’m not going to reveal anything more about the plot but suffice it to say that things do NOT go as planned. The result is more than a bit slap stick and really hilarious if you know 12 year olds. “But it went really well” stated loudly and often as the dust settles.
This one was a bit of a slow start but as I got deeper into it, I understood why. This is a book about dreamers and their friends. Thus the pace is dreamy and relaxed. The characters, especially the secondary characters, reminded me a bit of those in A Series of Unfortunate Events. The illustrations that Gannon has created for the book aren’t sepia prints but somehow have a similar “old-time” feel.
Pick this one up for young the dreamer in your life.
January 7, 2016
My Father’s Arms Are a Boat
by Stein Erik Lunde
illustrated by Oyvind Torseter
Enchanted Lion Books
“My dad isn’t listening to the radio.
He’s sitting in the living room, where
the only sound is the crackling of the fire.”
“When I was there with him, I saw the tongues of fire lick his face.
I went over and put my hand on his arm, and he patted my hand.
Then I went into my room and got into bed.”
But our young narrator can’t go to sleep. He’s worried about the red birds out in the snow. What if they bread that they left for the birds is gone by the time the birds get there. Granny says that red birds are dead people.
Yes, I know it sounds a little strange but it isn’t as much strange as it is dreamlike and quiet and more than a little somber. In the course of the book, we learn that mom has died and that the narrator and dad are learning to go on without her. Dad assures the young narrator that everything will be all right.
Part of the reason for the unfamiliar feel of this book is that it wasn’t originally published in English, but Norwegian. I haven’t read a ton of Norwegian books so I don’t know if this is typical for a book in that culture or not but it isn’t entirely typical for the fast-paced humor of US picture books. It isn’t that nothing happens but it is definitely a book of emotion and mood and the somber feel is entirely appropriate.
The illustrations are cut paper, ink and three-dimensional paper sculpture all worked together and photographed. I would definitely recommend it for a family coping with a loss if you can handle the honest, moody nature of the book. There are no candy sprinkles and whiz-bang endings. No empty promises or sparkling, neon lit tomorrows. Just dark and quiet and people loving each other as they work through until tomorrow.
January 4, 2016
Mr. Putter and Tabby Smell the Roses
by Cynthia Rylant
illustrated by Arthur Howard
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Mr. Putter wants to do something special for Mrs. Teaberry’s birthday. He knows that he could get her ice cream and cake and balloons, but he does that every year and he wants this year to be different. So he thinks about the things that Mrs. Teaberry likes and recalls how often she tells him about her maple trees and her roses. Clearly she likes plants. The best place to experience fantastic plants? The Conservatory.
On Mrs. Teaberry’s birthday, she and Mr. Putter dress extra nice. He drives them, and her good dog Zeke and his fine cat Tabby, to the Conservatory. He explains to Zeke that if he can be a good dog, Mr. Putter will give him a surprise. The group stroles around enjoying the smells of damp earth and fresh flowers. They enjoy the sunlight streaming in through the tall windows.
Zeke manages to be good for 5 whole minutes. Then he spots something that he just knows must the his surprise and he goes after it for all he’s worth.
I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but suffice it to say that Zeke has not spotted his surprise. What he has spotted, as usual, causes trouble, and soon the group is being ushered out the door. Don’t worry! The good news is that there is more celebrating to be had.
I have to admit that I was a little reluctant to pick up this book in January. Do people want to read spring time stories in the cold of winter? For some the answer is yes because they don’t like the snow. But this isn’t a spring time story. We don’t really know what time of year it takes place because the setting is indoors.
Check out this fun book for your new reader. Each chapter contains a complete, albeit short, story. Added together, your reader will get a satisfying story all about friendship and mistakes and making the best of things without dwelling on what hasn’t gone as planned.