Wednesday, August 13, 2014


If you’re headed to the Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor exhibit  at the Birmingham Museum of Art, this book will whet the appetite of your middle grade boy readers. Girls, too.  It’ a riveting book, museum trip or not.

WHITE CRAIN by Sandy Fussell, illustrated by Rhian Nest James, Candlewick Press, 2010.
Niya Moto, narrator, is a 14 year old boy whose father was a samurai. However, Niya can’t attend his father’s school for training because he has only one leg.

Along with five fellow students who have their own obstacles to overcome, Niya studies with sensei Ki-Yaga, an ancient but legendary warrior. Ki-Yaga teaches them not only physical skills, but mental and spiritual ones.

The humor is sly and subtle. Chapter titles like “Bad Breath and Big Feet” are gigglers.

The learning process is deep and gentle. A glossary of useful words and the 7 virtues of Bushido (samurai code) ground the story.

The kids are well defined personalities and even though they encounter great cruelties because of their lack of physical perfection, disability is only a small part of what tags each one. Sensei leads, guides, prods them into greater perspectives. Their spirit totems reveal character while friendship, loyalty, and using one’s head to think a problem through create triumphant outcomes.

This is Sandy Fussell’s debut novel. Illustrator Rhian Nest James has illustrated more than 60 children’s books. Both live in Australia.  



Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Summer is wrapping up and you want to give the kids a bit of culture, maybe a trip to a museum. Hard to sell? A new exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art (through September 21, 2014), is titled, Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor. No need to mention museums…yet. Just leave a novel or two about these warriors in traditional Japan lying around. Take it from there.

HEART OF A SAMURAI by Margi Preus, Abrams, 2010

Every author has a story in her heart that just begs to be told. Some carry that story for years before it bursts forth on the page. Author Margi Preus stumbled across this story of “a courageous boy who nurtured friendship and understanding between two previously antagonistic countries.” She traveled to the boy’s hometown, hardly a trek next door, and her journey resulted in introducing the young reader, maybe even a reluctant reader boy, to Manjiro.

While his four companions whine and complain and make the harrowing experiences of their 1841shipwreck personal, Manjiro looks for a way to survive. He tries to make the situation better for everyone, but when he reveals during their long, lonely vigil, scanning the horizon for a rescue ship, that his ambition is to be a samurai, they laugh, knowing full well that he was not born to be one. They are finally rescued by an American whaler. Another adventure begins as Manjiro learns a new language, new laws, and sometimes the confusing customs of America, a foreign land inhabited, as his friends believe, by devils that will gobble them up. Manjiro realizes upon his return to Japan that everyone in his country believes that about Americans. Japan had been isolated for 250 years. The Japanese people had no way of knowing anything about America.

Admiral Perry arrives and insists the Japanese open their ports to him. Manjiro is able to translate. Although he does not speak directly with the Americans, he does advise the shogun.  

Manjiro is a fine role model for boys of any century. In his longing, he brings the samurai code to life and makes it his. Spoiler alert: He is made a samurai by the shogun. “Unprecedented for a person not born of a samurai family and of such low rank to be elevated to such status.” 

In the epilogue, we learn that Manjiro wrote the first English book for Japanese people, A Shortcut to English Conversation, started the whaling industry in Japan and joined the first Japanese Embassy to the United States as an interpreter. Believed to be the first Japanese person to set foot in America, he has been called “the boy who discovered America.”

The book is enriched by a number of illustrations, including pencil drawings by Manjiro who became known as John Mung.

I plan to share a couple more samurai books. Circle a date for that museum trip.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Hitch in Summer Plans?

You’re stuck at the beach and it’s raining. Or the plans for a fun day at home fell through and your house has an echo: “There’s nothing to do, nothing to do, nothing to do.”  Your kids aren’t teenagers yet. They’re too young to sound so old. If only your reluctant readers liked to read.

That’s not just boredom talking; it’s opportunity knocking. Hide this book where it’s sure to be discovered.

A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT by Jim Averbeck, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014

Chapter one, sentence one: “No body meant no casket,…” Here begins Jack’s tale of woe, guaranteed to make any bored pre-teen realize life could be worse.  11 year old Jack never knew his dad and now his mom has driven off a pier. Jack is sitting in the funeral home looking at his mother's head shot and all the props supplied by her acting troop for a Hollywood funeral. By the end of the chapter, Jack and his buddy Schultzie have wiggled through a basement window in the funeral home. Jack has decided to seek answers. What they find is two sheet covered bodies that have no answers for them, but Jack decides not to take no, or no response, as final.

Then his Aunt Edith arrives to take charge. Boo, hiss! Things get worse and, if there were such a word, worser.

One would think that when Aunt Edith is kidnapped, life would be better for Jack. It’s really hard for the reader to feel sad about this turn of events. Why not say, “Good riddance!” or “Who cares?”

But Jack cares. Remember, he never knew his father, has lost his mom to a tragic accident, and except for Aunt Edith, he is a Boy Alone, a whole orphan with no family. 

Then he meets Alfred Hitchcock. THE Alfred Hitchcock.

The first page of each chapter features a panel of drawings, cartoon style, by Nick Bertozzi. How appealing for any reader who has been confronted with a writing assignment in school and made to tell his story in words, not pictures. I suspect the author may relate.

Each chapter is a title of a Hitchcock movie. At the back of the book, the author has provided a list of these movies with famous scenes and where to see those…look for it…Hitchcock cameo appearances. Parents may be inspired to start a series of summer movie nights. There are 35 chapters and 35 Hitchcock films to enjoy.

I don’t want to spoil any surprises. With lots of action and Hitchcockian suspense, readers will be eagerly turning pages to get to the end which they won’t see coming. I didn’t.

Parents will enjoy reading about the author’s interesting life. Their kids will be too busy reading the book.

It's hard to predict when you will realize the book you so cleverly tucked away has disappeared. Your reluctant reader has disappeared, too. Find one and you will find the other.


Saturday, June 28, 2014


When diversity is the subject, it’s not uncommon to hear the sentence,  “If only there were more books like…” completed by this title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. How about a hundred?

CODE TALKER by Joseph Bruchac, Dial Books, 2005

Many of the 100 books by author Joseph Bruchac draw on his Native American heritage. Code Talker is only one, but I chose it because it honors a brave, heroic service to our country that couldn’t be talked about for more than twenty years.

Main character Ned Begay is fictional, but he becomes very real to the reader as he joins the Marines in WWII and serves in the Pacific, from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima.

Ned is young. He lies about his age so he can enlist in the Marines, and because he is a Navajo, he is assigned to a top secret task, performed only by Navajos: code talker.
The Navajo language is vital in the conflict with the Japanese because it is an unbreakable code. The courage and skill of the code talkers during some of the heaviest fighting of the war saved countless lives, but what they did and how they did it was so secret that when the war ended, not even their families on the reservation were told.

Only after the service of the code talkers is no longer classified does Ned begin his story: “Grandchildren, you asked me about this medal of mine. There is much to be said about it. This small piece of metal holds a story that I was not allowed to speak of for many winters. It is the true story of how Navajo Marines helped America win a great war.”
The work of prolific author Bruchac has won many awards including the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for The Heart of a Chief.

Start with Sherman Alexie on your bookshelf and add the works of Joseph Bruchac. I hope your bookcase is large.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


You can turn your kids loose with this book, boys or girls.
SCREAMING AT THE UMP by Audrey Vernick, Clarion Books, 2014

Casey is twelve, wants to be a sports journalist, and lives with his dad and grandfather who run an umpire school, Behind the Plate. Casey probably knows as much--maybe more--about baseball as anyone who hangs out at the ballpark all spring, summer, and fall.  

What about that other season? Casey hears a rumor that his dad might move the school to Florida so they can train umpires all year long. It’s hard to play baseball in the winter in New Jersey. Move? His journalist’s antennae zing to life. His personal life could take a bad bounce just when he think he knows the score.

That’s not the most sensational story Casey pursues, however. He discovers the importance of considering all the angles before he makes a call. 

Characters are honest and stick up for each other when they should. Conflicts are handled with good sense and kid humor. Villains and bullies do not crowd the plate here. Thank goodness, There are lots of those books out there. It’s nice to have an honest to goodness baseball book with real home runs.

This Casey doesn’t strike out.

The author lives in New Jersey, but you can visit her at her website.


Friday, May 9, 2014

Rock-a-Bye, Baby

…in the tree top. That gently  swaying tree you planted when your first child was born can be more than an imaginative cradle for each baby as your family grows.  It could be the first child’s friend, too. (Speaking imaginatively, that is.)

MAPLE by Lori Nichols, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014

My parents planted trees for special occasions. So do I. The flowering cherry tree in my front yard was planted on one of my birthdays. I won’t tell you when it was planted or how old it is today, but it blooms in time for my birthday every year.

Maple, the sweet-faced little girl in Lori Nichol’s debut picture book, grows along with her special tree. She sings to her tree, dances in rhythm with its graceful branches, and sometimes even pretends SHE is a tree. She believes the tree loves her back. (I think it does, too.) She can be as loud as she wants, and the tree doesn’t mind at all. To a little girl, that’s unconditional love.

Through the seasons of falling leaves, winter cold, and melting snowmen , Maple worries about her tree friend. Then one spring day she spots a seedling sprouting beneath her tree. Maple also becomes a big sister.
It’s hard to make a crying baby happy. As Maple observes, it seems all of them cry sometimes, even the happiest ones.  Maple, who is a really good big sister, works out the answer. Her tree helps. Can you guess the new baby’s name? 

The book jacket announces that Maple is an “enchanting” debut. It’s true. For more about this emerging writer/illustrator visit her on the web.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Hello. My Name is Bernice. I’m a Squash.

Actually, this book is not about a talking squash. But it comes close.

SOPHIE’S SQUASH by Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf (illustrator), Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013

I can relate to characters who are only children. I was one once. Only children or not, if we spend each day without any short people looking us in the eye while we make up songs and plays, we make up our friends, too. I had an invisible friend. Her name was Lucy.

My parents were understanding.  They accepted Lucy as if she were theirs, too. Mom would set a place at the table for Lucy. Dad would prompt her, gently, “Lucy, put your hand in your lap. Elbows off the table.”  Or, “See what a nice job Joan is doing cutting her cooked carrots? Try to be more like her.” Dad knew how to work with what he had.

Bernice has big round eyes and she is yellow, but not sick. That’s just the way she is. She’s a squash, after all. Oh, but how she is loved by Sophie! Sophie’s parents are not quite as understanding as mine were. But then, Lucy wasn’t going to get mushy and smell bad. Sophie’s mother tries to nip this problem in the bud, squash blossom, if you will. She suggests baking Bernice with marshmallows. Ooh! You can probably guess Sophie’s reaction to that!

Time goes by. Bernice softens. Sophie’s parents call Sophie names like “Sugar Beet and Sweet Pea.” This does not soften Sophie’s will.

The story is based on the author’s young daughter, Sonia, who once loved a squash, too. I don’t know how Sonia’s mother handled this, but Sophie’s mother manages just fine and all ends well. Visit the real life mom/author here.
Sophie is a good squash mom. Illustrator Wilsdorf captures the many tender expressions of a doting mother and the defensive posture of a mother who is convinced her child is the best and brightest of them all.

Plant a spring garden with your young listeners. Plant fruits, vegetables, or ideas. Be careful, though.  What will you do if they befriend the breakfast cantaloupe? 


Hillview School Library