April 25, 2017
No two people look at a book, or the world, in quite the same way. That said, it isn’t surprising that Stephen T. Johnson’s work was brought to my attention by an illustrator because this book, like several others he has created, is wordless.
That’s right. It is an alphabet book without words.
Where many alphabet book rely first on text, Johnson’s Alphabet School is all about the graphic element. In fact, it was inspired by an image. One day his daughter brought home her lunch sack complete with partially eaten lunch. Inside was a PBJ that now looked exactly like the letter G which inspired the whole book.
Flip through the pages and you find every letter of the alphabet from A to Z rendered as photographs of various things found in and around your typical school. The cover shows a ladder forming the letter A. B is the shadow on a bus. Sometimes the letter is formed by or on something that begins with that letter, such as the flags on a flagpole that create the F, but more often than not the letter is strictly visual. Look at the photograph and you will find it.
It makes the whole experience a lot more like a hidden picture book than your typical alphabet book. Be ready to have your young reader (graphic art appreciator?) combing their classroom, school, library and home for representations of various letters. You could even create a scavenger hunt out of the experience.
The images are digitized prints that have a print photographic feel because of the grainy quality of the images themselves. It helps give the book a dreamy, surreal quality as does the fact that this is a school without students, teachers are staff.
Use this book as a jumping off point for working with the alphabet, creating a graphic alphabet with your class or discussing schools and the things in them. Encourage your young artists to be as creative in their vision as Johnson was when we started seeking out the letters needed to complete the alphabet his daughter started.
April 19, 2017
Once each year, the youngest baby in the Protectorate is taken into the woods. The people loathe this practice and parents mourn but it is the only way to keep the witch in the woods from destroying them all.
Xan, coincidentally, is a witch and she lives in the far side of the wood. She doesn’t understand why these sad, sad people keep leaving babies in the woods, but each year she is hiding nearby to save the child. She feeds the baby goats milk and starlight until she can reach a distant city where the children are always taken in and loved.
One year Xan accidentally feeds the baby moonlight along with the star light. She has imbued the child with magic and magic is a trick thing. Knowing that only she can teach the tiny girl how to control her gift, Xan takes her home and raises her as her own granddaughter.
The Elders and the Head Sister know the truth. The youngest elder to take the child into the woods is only a boy when the tiny girl is left behind. He can’t get the horror of what he has done out of his mind and leaves the Elders only to grow up and become a father. A father who one day has the youngest child in the village.
I’m not going to say any more about the plot because I don’t want to give everything away. This is such a timely story. It is about people who sow misery and feed on the people’s sorrow. It is about using grief, fear and agony to distract people from what is going on.
Sounds gloomy, doesn’t it? But the book isn’t. It is also a story about resilience and not giving up. There are dragons (good dragons) and humor and lots of love.
Younger readers, grade 3 or 4 and up, who love fantasy will enjoy this story with a young heroine, Luna, who has to learn who she is, a boy who grows into a man who is determined to end the sorrow, and a funny, delusional dragon. Most of us have had the grave misfortune to have a sorry eater in our lives and it is a moment of power when, reading this book, that fact clicks and we begin both to see and to understand.
April 12, 2017
Cavern of Secrets (Book #2 in the Wing and Claw series)
by Linda Sue Park
If you haven’t read Forest of Wonders, the first book in the series yet, I’d suggest that you pick it up. Not that you won’t understand Cavern of Secrets without it, but it is such an amazing book. And series books are just that much better when you read them in order, don’t you agree?
Raffa and his friends have spent the winter hiding in the Sudden Mountains. Winter is bad enough but they are all still adjusting to the fact that Garith is deaf. Raffa does all that he can to make Garith’s life easier but his cousin always seems to be mad at him.
Then one night Garith disappears. Raffa wants to go after his cousin — what if he can’t hear danger approaching? What if he gets in trouble? But Kuma convinces him that he has no choice but to let the other boy go. Like all of them, Garith has to choose his own path.
Besides, Raffa has other worries. Echo, his bat who has eaten a plant that allows him to talk, is growing sicker and sicker. When Echo flies away, he leads them to a hidden cave system in which Raffa finds a glowing plant with healing properties. Can Raffa use it to cure-all of the animals that have been given the vine that lets them speak so that they can once again be wild? And if he can should he also cure Echo?
I’m not going to write any more about the plot because I don’t want to give too much away. Like the first book in the series, these characters are marvelously complicated. No one is completely good or completely bad and it makes for a wonderfully complex story.
The story touches on many themes including loyalty and responsibility. Linda Sue Park has created a rich world of magic and science (apothecary), generosity and greed. It is a place your young reader will want to visit if he or she loves fantasy or adventure.
April 3, 2017
Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson
“Pete Seeger was born in 1919, with music in his bones.”
From the first, this story about Pete Seeger and folk music pulled me in. Not that I grew up with Seeger. My folks were Peter, Paul and Mary fans and astonishingly loyal. One folk group to a household, thank you. But singing along with them, I learned the power of folk music and its a power that comes through in Reich’s story of Seeger’s life.
Seeger may have grown up going to boarding school but he also grew up spending summers on his grandparent’s farm where he lived with his father and brothers in the barn. During the Great Depression, his father may have had troubles paying the bills but they were better off than many. Still, his father made sure that Pete knew the stories of those people. Stories of lost jobs and inequality. As a young man he traveled with Woodie Guthrie and learned the power of music to share ideas while also defusing tension.
Reich pulls together Seeger’s work with Martin Luther King Jr., songs about the Vietnam War and building a sloop to bring attention to issues of water and ecology. By the time I finished the book, I was looking for someone to hear my favorite parts, especially this quote from Seeger:
“When one person taps out a beat . . . [or] three people discover a harmony . . . or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.”
Yes, I was hooked by this story because of the folk music connection, but will it pull in young readers? Folk music is central to the story but there is much more to the book just as there was much more to Seeger’s life. There is social justice and environmentalism, there is a can-do attitude, a spirit of working together and most of all . . . hope.
Gustavson’s multi-media illustrations have the charm and depth of a Norman Rockwell illustration, paired with the rich color needed to contribute to the down-to-earth complexity of the story. I must for the library shelf whether classroom or family so that another group of young readers and song lovers can learn about the joy and hope Seeger and those like him have brought to the world.