July 29, 2016
The Blackthorn Key
by Kevin Sands
“Tell no one what I’ve given you.”
For an orphan, Christopher Rowe leads a pretty good life. As an apothecary’s apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn, Christopher studies how to read recipes, blend ingredients, and how to listen. He has to listen to what ails their customers as well as the directions his master gives him.
That sounds easier than it truly is because Master Blackthorn is teaching Christopher all about codes and puzzles. Sometimes they are in English. Sometimes they are in Latin. Figuring out which language it is can be half the puzzle.
In addition to days spent learning, Christopher has a best friend. Tom is a baker’s apprentice, working with his hot-tempered father. Together the two get up to all kinds of mischief even making the gunpowder they need for a small cannon.
But someone is killing apothecaries. One by one the men are found gutted in their homes and their workshops. Rumors fly thought out the city of London as to who is behind these killings and why they haven’t been caught.
Then one day Christopher’s kind master strikes him. Christopher runs from the shop only to find that his master has been killed. Christopher has to find the killer without falling victim to him while also discovering what his master was researching that attracted the killer in the first place.
This is an excellent book for young readers who love science, history or codes. The science is chemistry but it isn’t the chemistry that we know today. This is the chemistry of the apothecary which if often a matter of trial and error, and error can be deadly. The setting is London in the 1600s, a time of plague, religious wars and intrigue. The codes are many and involve both substitution codes for the letters themselves but also knowledge of the elements and the tools of the apothecary.
Warning: Because of the codes I would not recommend listening to this as an audio book. You want to be able to see the codes on the page, not listen to them being read, line after line.
I’ve seen some people describe this book as young adult but truly it is middle grade. Yes, with the killings and various apothecary-based accidents things can and do get ick but the emotional level of the book is pure middle grade. That said, this is definitely a book that older readers would enjoy.
Share it with the history loving science nerd in your life. The codes alone will keep him or her puzzling as they try to figure out what is going on and who is behind it all.
July 27, 2016
Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes
by Jeanette Winters
Beach Lane Books
Joseph Cornell roamed his Queens neighborhood looking for a wide variety of found objects — marbles and figurines, scraps of paper and boxes. He took them home where he cared for his brother who had cerebral palsey.
When he wasn’t taking care of his brother he spent hours and hours dreaming, remembering and journaling. Working in his shop in the cellar he assembled a unique type of art. He wasn’t a painter. He wasn’t a sculptor. He created shadow boxes. Many of them depicted things that he remembered seeing as a boy — games in penny arcades, water slide in Coney Island, dancers, soap bubbles and more.
He was a quiet man but he enjoyed sharing his artwork with the children in the neighborhood. He would put together an art show of dream boxes and invite the children. The children would gaze into the boxes, sipping cherry cola and munching on brownies. Hopefully a few of them were inspired to do something that Mr. Cornell loved to do — to dream.
Jeanette Winter’s text is as dreamy as Mr. Cornell and her digital illustrations pull young readers into the story. I love the parallels that she creates between what he remembered from his early life and the art work that he later created. The one thing that I wish had been done differently is that I would have loved to have seen some of the shadow boxes throughout the text. Photographs of a few of them appear in the backmatter but I would love to have had a photographic sidebar running along side the text describing it.
I love that this book is more about dreaming than it is about art. Add to this the fact that it doesn’t make art out to be only sculpture or painting or photography. It honors the shadow box and the man who created so many to share with children.
Share it with your own dreamers, perhaps before a family trip. And then each member of the family could create a shadow box of what they enjoyed most.
July 21, 2016
by Jeanette Winter
Beach Lane Books
I picked up Henri’s Scissors because I’ve always been vaguely fascinated by Matisse’s cut paper art work. I say vaguely because I’ve seen numerous pictures of it and thought “Wow, cool.” But I never knew much about him or why he created art in this particular way.
Before he created immense works of cut paper, Matisse was a painter. But long before that, he was a little boy who grew up in France watching his mother paint china. Although he drew pictures constantly in the margins of his text books and whenever he took notes, he didn’t initially study art. Instead, he became a lawyer.
Then when he developed appendicitis as a young man and was stuck recuperating in bed that his mother gave him a box of paints. He painted while he healed. Henri decided to leave law and he became a painter, moving to Paris and making art that drew people in and left them happy.
As an old man, he once again grew sick. He was so sick that he couldn’t paint, but he still dreamt of making art. He grew strong enough to draw but not to paint. Soon, he began making artwork out of cut paper.
I don’t want to tell any more of the story because I want young artists to discover him for themselves. Henri’s story is sure to be inspiring for anyone who struggles to make their dreams come true.
Jeanette Winters is both the writer and the illustrator. As she does so often, she has created colorful acrylic paintings to bring Henri Matisse to life for young readers, but she has done something more. Her artwork for this book includes cut paper as well as depictions of Henri Matisse’s own work.
If you have a young artist who struggles to create or any other young reader who is working to find the best way to express themselves, pick up this book and share it today. But don’t be surprised if they ask you for large sheets of brightly colored paper and a pair of scissors.
July 15, 2016
The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
The Extraordinary Mark Twain
(According to Susy)
by Barbara Kerley
illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
It’s easy to see why people thought they knew a lot about Mark Twain. After all, the papers were also writing about him and quoting him. People read his books and essays too. But Susy Twain realized that they didn’t know him at all so she decided to write a book and set the story straight.
At first, Susy wrote the book in secret. She watched her Papa closely and wrote about his quirks and the things that made him unique. She told about his boyhood, his public life and how he worked late into the night. One day, Mama found the book and showed it to Papa. Susy’s secret was out! But that didn’t stop her from writing.
The difference was that now Papa sometimes said and did things just so that Susy would put them in her book. Susy wrote and wrote and she didn’t write about just the good things. Papa approved because Susy was giving a picture of the whole man. In the end Susy wrote 130 pages about her Papa.
Kerley’s text weaves a story of this very complicated man, discussing not only Twain but Twain as portrayed by Susy. Susy’s words are presented throughout the text as mini journals, inviting the reader to open the cover (lift the flap) and sample Susy’s words.
Fotheringham’s digital illustrations often resemble pen and ink. I especially enjoyed the deep colors used throughout.
My father has always been a Twain enthusiast and I enjoyed this portrayal of Twain and his daughter, Susy. Not only does the reader learn a lot about Twain but also about the love and respect he and his daughter had for each other. Special thanks to my Dad for sharing his love of Twain with me.
July 12, 2016
Anna Dressed in Blood
by Kendare Blake
Let me preface this with a simple disclaimer — I’m not usually a fan of horror. Tension, I love. Horror? Not so much because, as far as I’m concerned, gore for the sake of gore? No thank you.
But Anna Dressed in Blood? Couldn’t put it down.
Cas Lowood is from a long line of ghost hunters. But he’s not trying to prove that they exist. He puts them to rest using an athame, a knife passed down to him by his father.
Most people don’t realize how truly deadly ghosts can be. Cas follows stories. He doesn’t want to hear about things in that go bump in the night or rattle chains unless they also snatch unwary travelers and leave nothing but a dead body behind. Cas can tell from a story is it is just talk or if there is a deadly spirit behind it.
When he hears about Anna Dressed in Blood, he knows from the stories that she’s the real deal. Certain details give it away. What he doesn’t expect is a spirit more powerful than anything he’s ever encountered. This isn’t a normal ghost and Cas realizes he has to know her story before he can lay her to rest. Newspaper accounts of the killing were vague so he’s going to have to get the story from Anna herself.
I can’t tell much more about this without giving the plot away and I just can’t do that. Why? Because you don’t want to know what is coming when you read this because it is so much more than a gory book. This is a book about friendship and discovering who you are and where you strength is truly rooted.
All his life, Cas has moved from place to place as first his father and then Cas himself follow the stories of ghosts. Cas has never had friends, keeping people at a distance. But this time a relative stranger saves Cas’ life and Cas finds himself doing the unheard of — making friends. He’s always thought that friends would be a burden, people he would have to leave behind but they turn out to be a strength.
This is the first book in a series and this is also why I love coming into it rather late. Book #2 is already out. An excellent choice for teens who like horror.
July 7, 2016
Mikis and the Donkey
by Bibi Dumon Tak
illustrated by Philip Hopman
Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers
When Mikis’ grandfather buys a donkey, the first thing Mikis does is give her a name. He knows better than to give her a name without consulting her so he watches carefully as he lists off every girl’s name that he knows. The only time she blinks is when he says Tsaki. Just to be sure, because it isn’t even a real name, he says it twice and she blinks both times.
Mikis helps Grandpa and Tsaki bring loads of wood down the mountain. The path is steep and narrow and Tsaki worries that Grandpa piles too much wood in the baskets. But Grandpa just compares the donkey with a truck and a tractor and adds more wood. One Sunday when Mikis and Tsaki have the day off, Mikis is alarmed to find a bloody wound on Tsaki’s side.
With Elena, a friend from school, Mikis takes Tsaki to the doctor. The vet is several villages away so they take her to the people doctor. The doctor kindly gives them some salve and a prescription. Less wood in the baskets and the donkey gets a full week off work.
The plot to this story wanders here and there as Mikis works to give Tsaki a good life. It means that he and Grandfather butt heads a few times but soon the two are working together on a new stable for the donkey. Before long Tsaki has a foal and Mikis has a reputation as the boy who takes care of the island’s donkeys.
Tsaki’s life isn’t always easy but this story still has a slow-moving, gentle quality. Somehow it seems to fit well with village life. The story was originally published in The Netherlands and Tak spent time on a Greek island. She had been invited to spend two weeks at a donkey refuge and to write a story about the donkeys.
This book received the Batchelder award for books in translation. Share this story, an early middle grade novel with some illustrations, with both those young readers who like to read about other lands as well as those who love animals.
July 4, 2016
by Peter Golenbock
illustrated by Paul Bacon
HMH Books for Young Readers
Early in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers traveled to Ohio to play the Cincinnati Reds. The Dodgers had one black baseball player, Jackie Robinson.
The Dodger’s manager wanted to bring Brooklyn baseball fans the best possible baseball. To do this, he scouted the best players, even those who played in the Negro Leagues. That was where they found Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play on a major league team.
Not everyone was happy to see Robinson. They didn’t see a talented first baseman. They saw a black man where no black man had been before. Robinson put up with taunts, threats and hostility from not only fans but some of his teammates as well. When some of the players circulated a petition to throw Robinson off the team, they expected short stop Pee Wee Reese to sign it. After all, Robinson had been a short stop on his previous team. What if he took the job away from Reese?
Reese had something to say. “I don’t care if this man is black, blue or striped. He can play and he can help us win. That’s what counts.” He has already decided that if Robinson was good enough to take his job, than that’s the way it should be. He wasn’t going to act out of hate or fear.
When fans in Cincinnati shouted hateful things at Robinson, Reese had had enough. He walked from his place on the field to first base. He hated hearing what these people were shouting because he had ground up in the South and knew that these people could have been his friends and neighbors. He walked up to Robinson and smiled. Then he put his arm around Robinson’s shoulders. The two stood together for all to see.
The illustrations in this book combine historic black and white photos of the Dodgers with art work by Bacon. The text and illustrations work well together to tell this historic story. That said, there were two things that I would have liked. First, in the team photo of the Dodgers, I would like to have had the players labeled — Robinson is easy enough to pick out but Reese is not. Second, I would love to have had an author’s note or other back matter telling more about the background including the Negro Leagues and Major League baseball at that time.
Share this with young sports lovers as well as any reader curious about social justice. This book, originally published in 1990, tells a story that will still resonate with readers today.
July 1, 2016
Fur, Fins and Feathers: Abraham Dee Bartlett and the Invention of the Modern Zoo by Cassandre Maxwell
Fur, Fins and Feathers:
Abraham Dee Bartlett and the Invention of the Modern Zoo
by Cassandre Maxwell
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
Even when Abraham Bartlett was a boy, he loved animals. A friend of his father’s owned a menagerie, a collection of giraffes, zebras and tigers. The animals lived in bare cages while people paraded past. The man let Abraham take young animals out of the cages. Abraham watched them closely while he played with them, but he hated having to put them back. He knew that some of the keepers were mean, the animals didn’t always eat well, and had no way to ammuse themselves. He wanted them to lead better lives.
He read every book he could find on animals and dreamed of the day he would be able to work with them. But there were very few jobs with living animals. He found a job as a taxidermist, preparing animal “specimans,” animal skins, for display. His lifelike displays caught the attention of the London Zoological Society. After talking to him, they invited him to be their next superintendent.
“Papa” Bartlett changed the way that zoo animals lived but he also changed the way that the public learned about them. You’ll want to read the book to get all of the details of this man’s career.
Maxwell is both the author and illustrator of this book. Her cut paper and media collages bring Bartlett and the animals to life. I’m not sure but I think my favorite illustration may be Bartlett with the elephant, Jumbo. The author has also included additional information in the back matter including a detailed timeline.
This is a must have for animal lovers and history lovers alike. This would make a good story time selection for ages 8 and 9. Share it to launch discussions about changes in science and animal care as well as history. But expect to spend plenty of time with the illustrations. They may very well inspire some cut paper work, so be prepared.