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.
March 29, 2017
The cover said “counting book” so I was expecting one brick, two bricks, etc. That’s not what I got at all.
Look at ll the bricks!
Red and rough, hard and tough.
Whether counting in twos or tens, there is always a pattern to the numbers even if it isn’t one, two, three.
But this isn’t just a numbers book. It is also all about bricks, from how they are made to the variety if building projects that take shape when bricks are stacked or laid side by side.
The rhyming text makes the book a great read aloud while the illustrations are going to appeal to Lego makers and kids who love patterns. The structures start out simple but grow increasingly complex. But there’s more to spot in the illustrations than that. Readers are also encouraged to look closely at the people involved in the construction. On each spread, a boy in a hard hat, a pony-tailed woman, and a man in green overalls take part in the hard work involved in constructing a city.
Just as bricks build on one another in the structures, so the illustrations and text build this carefully conceived story about bricks and building, numbers and hard work.
This book will work well at story time, followed by clay play or block building. Discussing cities with your class? Then share this book as part of the classroom experience. Or share it with your own young reader who loves the play of rhythm and rhyme. Simple enough for younger readers but with a layered experience that will hold the attention of slightly older book lovers, this is a book with kid appeal.
March 23, 2017
Little Louie isn’t really such a little kid. It isn’t like he needs his Mom every single second of the day. But when he comes down with a head cold it sure would be nice to be able to call her. Unfortunately, with his stopped up nose, instead of calling for Mom, he ends up calling for Bob.
For some people this might not be a big issue. You call out Bob and your Mom, knowing your head is stopped up, would check on you. Unfortunately, Little Louie has a dog named Bob. Every time he calls for his mom, along comes slobbery, overly-enthusiastic Bob.
His sister looks at him likes he’s loosing his mind when along comes Bob and Louie points out that he wants “Bob, not Bob.” Before long, Little Louie is still sick but he’s also frustrated. But so is Bob (he keeps coming like a good dog but Louie is super crabby) and Mom (what’s with this kid and this dog?).
Fortunately Mom knows that a cuddle can solve all manner of problems and soon Mom, Louie and even Bob have settled in for a nice nap.
Pretty soon Louie is feeling fit and when he can call Mom or Bob and get the one that he wants. The problem is that now when he calls Bob, he ends up with his mother too.
The subtitle for this book says it all. “To be read as though you have the worst cold ever!”
Anyone who has ever had a cold knows the problem — you try to speak oh so clearly only to have your stopped up nose botch something so badly that no one can understand you. Reading this book aloud to a group turns it into a fun game so be ready for your class to chip in with carefully mispronounced words that make it sound like dare hed id all topped up.
The story is silly (and something both parents and kids will identify with) and Matthew Cordell’s illustrations just notch it up. Bob (the dog, not the parent) is goofy and energetic and just as expressive as little Louie.
Share this book with your young reader today!
March 21, 2017
Cammie O’Reilly doesn’t get it. How can she miss someone she doesn’t even remember? But her mother died when Cammie was just a baby. That’s bad enough but she died pushing the baby buggy from in front of a milk truck. Twelve-year-old Cammie knows she doesn’t remember it but the rattle of milk bottles still bothers her.
The fact that Cammie doesn’t have a mother is only the first thing that sets her off from the other kids at school. She’s also the only kid living at the prison. No, she isn’t a convict. She’s the warden’s daughter and they live in an apartment where she can look out and see the women’s yard. It limits your prospects when you’re trying to find a new mom.
Cammie’s life revolves around the prison so much that she’s convinced that she’s good for the inmates. After reading an article about letting inmates have pets, she talks her father into letting her enter the women’s yard every morning throughout summer vacation.
Cammie’s access to the inmates boosts her status with her classmates but it puts her at odds with her best friend. Reggie wants the autograph of a notorious killer who murdered a girl from their very own town. She not only wants that signature, she wants Cammie to get it for her. Cammie doesn’t get it. This isn’t someone who shoplifted or set a fire like the women she knows. This is someone who killed a girl. A girl whose mother still misses her.
I’m not going to go into anything else as far as the plot goes. I want you to experience the twists and turns for yourself.
This wasn’t an easy book to read. Cammie is so angry that there are times I had troubles sympathising with her. But that’s okay. I wasn’t this kid and as a Mom it was hard to read. But there are kids who are going to need to experience Cammie’s story and see that it really is okay to be angry. Things can still work out.
March 15, 2017
Pour me a cup.
Water is water
So begins Water is Water, a most excellent picture book about the water cycle. It seems like such a complicated subject would require a complicated text but Paul’s text is poetic and brief, perfect for reading aloud. Drinking water, steam, clouds, fog, rain, snow and ice, flowing streams and more all have a place in this amazing complex book.
Jason Chin’s watercolor and gouache paintings expand on the story as we follow a pair of siblings through the school year and back into summer break. His art provides a glorious setting for this story, subtly emphasizing the importance and wonders of water without turning it into a sermon. His art will also be of interest to suburban and urban students who may not have seen a house above a lake, surrounded by gardens and orchards and the natural world. His work is soft and watery and oh so perfect for this tale.
Chin’s artwork also adds a subtle note of diversity with a biracial siblings as the main characters. Again, this is done so subtly that it doesn’t come across as “a valuable lesson” but it will help a wider range of readers see themselves in children’s literature.
Because although the text is brief, it covers all four seasons as well as the many forms that water can take in the natural world. Back matter offers more complete information for an older learner or the adult teacher. My favorite thing in the back matter? What percentage of a turtle is water vs a cat. Yeah, I’m a number geek that way.
Share this with your students who are studying water, the water cycle and the natural world.
March 10, 2017
Panda isn’t going to let it rest. He wants a pair of pants to wear and nothing Papa Panda says is going to dissuade him. It doesn’t matter that panda don’t need pants because they have fur. Pants might be itchy? Who cares! Panda is going to be the first.
So when they come upon a garden complete with a pants wearing scarecrow, Panda puts the pants on and sets off once again after his father.
Spoiler Alert!! The next line is going to give away the climax!
Throughout their conversation, Panda and papa have been trailed by a leopard, its tail visible as it stalks them through the bamboo and tall grasses. When it pounces, Panda uses the pants to save the day. That done, the pants are no longer interesting. Why can’t he have shoes?
This is one of those books where the animals are stand-ins for people. Every parent has had this conversation as their child begs and begs for something that is of no use to them whatsoever. So what! They want it more than anything else in the world. And once they get it? Pfft. Who cares? Their mind-bending fascination has moved on to something new.
That’s the part that is going to keep a parent going reading this book. But what about the young reader?
These pandas are too cute to bear. Sydney Hanson’s mixed-media illustration have yielded pandas that look soft, fluffy and cuddly and also very expressive. Young readers will also love the fact that they see the leopard’s tail when even Papa Panda is oblivious. Another selling point for an animal loving kid are the various animals that really would live near each other. In addition to the giant panda and leopard (clouded or snow?) are a red panda and a pangolin.
This book would be a fun choice for story time with your young reader. Don’t be surprised when you spend as much time looking for the leopard as reading the story. And you’re going to have some fun conversations too — why wouldn’t his father get him the pants he wanted, Mom!?
March 6, 2017
by Jacob Grant
Feiwel and Friends
“Cat and Girl has always been good friends.”
“One day, Girl brought home a colorful new guest.
His name was yarn.”
So opens Cat Knit. The text may seem simple but the story is many-layered. On the surface it is a story about a very expressive cat who has scads of fun playing with the ball of yarn that Girl brings home. At least fun is had until she knits yarn into a clingy, itchy sweater.
That’s the surface interpretation. Then there is the underlying story about change and perhaps even growth. From the outset Cat is unhappy about the changes in Yarn. Yarn is all wrong and Cat pulls off the new sweater only then realizing just how cold the snow is. He grudgingly admits that “warming up” to something new takes time.
All of this comes through the story without Grant preaching about the benefits of change and growth and giving new things a chance. Instead, it all comes through organically.
Grant initially drew the illustrations with charcoal and crayon before coloring them digitally. Like the text, the illustrations are deceptively simple. They look cartoony but both Cat’s facial features and gestures are wonderfully expressive and communicate a world of emotion.
Because the text is so brief, this would make an excellent read aloud. That said, young boys who aren’t familiar with knitting men may not be willing to give the story a chance. Yes, I see that as a problem but not necessarily one that you can address in the middle of story time.
Fortunately the book would also be top-notch for one-on-one reading or early reading. Finding good books for new readers can be tough and this story is well-developed without vocabulary that feels like it has been kept too simple.
Share this with the young reader in your life and be ready for a varied and far-ranging discussion that may encompass change and growth as well as unwanted and unwelcome gifts.