Saturday, April 12, 2014

On Passover

What was it like to be a child in Biblical times? Did you ever wonder? Does your child?

The Longest Night, a Passover Story by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Catia Chien, Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013

The author wondered, too. She wrote this book for the curious girl she was. When her family honored the tradition of reading Exodus every year at Passover, she wondered about the real people in the story. Who were they? What did their families do on ordinary days?  What did the children do? 

A young slave girl tells this story, and her ordinary day begins “in the heat and blowing sand.”

Children do not play. They must work.

Then the world changed.  “Life unraveled, rearranged.” Plagues arrived. Exodus tells us about the leaders and rulers and how this impacted them. This author lets us feel the impact on the families in the streets.

Parents and grandparents waited. The young main character wondered, worried, but didn’t ask. She just watched.

The night her father marked the doorpost with blood was a night filled with terrible cries of anguish. Everyone rushed into the square. They gathered their belongings and ran. “Running from, but also to.”

The illustrator carries the reader from the silence of a grey and grim setting, punctuated with hopeful skies and free-flying birds, grants a reason to look up into a world that turns brown with the prospects of greater hunger and more wounded lives. Swirling blues of a mighty Red Sea roll to surprising bursts of color as the people celebrate their escape and a grand arrival where, “As we found in open air—All our voices, everywhere.”

Together, the writer and illustrator have created an imaginative treatment of this majestic event.

For your child or your inner child, whether your family observes Passover or not, here is a book for all who enter this season…and wonder.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Do You Hear What I Hear?

It’s a new year, a good time to listen more fully, think more deeply, and expect good things to result in the coming months.

THE MAN WITH THE VIOLIN, by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Dusan Petricic, Annick Press, 2013. Postscript by Joshua Bell.

Joshua Bell is a violin virtuoso. Concertgoers around the world are willing to pay $100 per ticket to hear him play.

However, as an experiment seven years ago, a Washington D. C. newspaper asked him to dress like a street musician and play his priceless Stradivarius in the subway. Bell did this for 43 minutes.

Over a thousand people walked by. Only seven stopped to listen for more than a minute. No one applauded the music or the musician. At the end of the performance a grand total of $32.17 lay in the violin case at his feet. Apparently, all passersby thought they saw or heard was a simple street musician playing for pennies.

When children’s author Kathy Stinson heard this story, she began to wonder, as all writers do, “what if…” and The Man with the Violin began to grow upon the page.

As the inside cover says, “Dylan was someone who noticed things. His mom was someone who didn’t.”

Dylan’s mom pulls him through the subway. While she hurries, men with briefcases and lunch boxes, women pushing baby carriages and carrying flowers and bundles, teens, couples, and workmen rush around Dylan. Trains roar. Dylan begs to stop, yearns to listen to the man with the violin.

Expressive artwork by renowned illustrator Dusan Petricic keeps the focus on Dylan, his mom, and the man with the violin. The artist imbues the characters in the subway with enough detail that the reader knows each one has a story to tell. But he renders these characters in black and white. This isn’t their story. It’s Dylan’s.

Music, like a multi-colored ribbon, weaves its way through the black and white scene. Dylan struggles to hear the music, but it is swallowed up by the roar of the subway. Still, the music stays in Dylan’s head.

Later Dylan asks his Mom if "that man" will still be there. Mom responds, “What man?”

At this point I put the book down and stopped reading to a group of senior citizens. We talked about the difference in hearing, listening, and paying attention to the music in our lives.

Author Stinson continues her story about the fictitious Dylan, and her story has a happy ending.

The seniors, however, wanted to know if the arts are still taught in elementary school. Would today’s children appreciate the value of the Stradivarius or even know it is a violin? 

What about your children?


Saturday, November 16, 2013


Nobody writes a better swamp story than Kathi Appelt, author of Newbury Honor book, The Underneath.


This is the summary from the front of the book: Twelve year old Chap Brayburn, ancient Sugar Man, and his raccoon-brother Swamp Scouts Bingo and J’miah, try to save Bayou Tourterelle from feral pigs Clydine and Buzzie, greedy Sunny Boy Beaucoup, and world-class alligator wrestler and would-be land developer Jaeger Stitch.

Yup. That says a lot.

But there is so much more.

It’s easy to see why this book is one of five nominated for the National Book Awards, young people’s category. Winners will be announced next week. Events connected with this prestigious award ceremony are listed on the website.

Back to the story. Let’s begin with Chap. His mom bakes sugar pies from cane break sugar and runs the Paradise Pies CafĂ© which is about to lose its lease from Sonny Boy Beaucoup. (Boo. Hiss.) Her dad, Audie, set all of this in motion when he befriended the Sugar Man. In the more than 60 years since Audie signed a lease with the Beaucoup Corporation, they haven’t had a lot of customers, but they’ve had enough.

When Audie Brayburn died, Sonny Boy decided to go against this generations old agreement. To stave off foreclosure, he wanted a boatload of cash (which might or might not have been enough) and that was precisely what Chap and his mom didn’t have.

Sonny Boy brought in land developers, rubbed his hands in greedy anticipation of turning the swamp into Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park in partnership with Jaeger Stitch--World Champion Gator Wrestler of the Northern Hemisphere--and cared not one bit about the residents of the swamp, human or otherwise.

The setting for this fast approaching clash of good and evil is the Bayou Tourterelle, a slow moving stream that runs through the Sugar Man Swamp. Fluttering just above it, so rare that one has to wonder whether it ever existed at all, is a great and glorious ivory-billed woodpecker. 

In between, disturbed by ominous noises and lulled by soothing lullabies, snuggled in their home, a 1949 Sportsman DeSoto, loveable raccoon brothers Bingo and Jeremiah, the True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, stand ready to do the right thing.

Considering they are about to face alligators, a snake named Geraldine, and the ferocious and feral Hogs, Buzzie and Clydine, it might make the struggle shaping up between Chap and Sonny Boy seem tame. Don’t you believe it.

When things get really dire, meaning too dreadful to imagine without a good old fashioned shivering, it’s up to Bingo and J’miah to wake the awesome Sugar Man who is as mythical as Barmanou, Sasquatch, or the Yeti. Did we say awesome? Think quake in your boots terrifying. The Sugar Man will save the day and the swamp, too. Everybody knows that and has known that since the beginning of the swamp. One catch. First Bingo and J’miah must find him. Well, maybe two catches. The Sugar Man doesn't like being awakened.

This is the kind of tall tale you can turn your ten year-old loose to enjoy without giving it a parental reading first. Oh, but why would you want to miss it? This is a perfect book for families to read together. And laugh together.

Picture your family gathering together before bedtime, reading a few pages. The chapters are so short you will want to read just one more and then another and then… Different age groups will find different reasons to giggle. However, there are more than 300 pages so a single sitting will make it hard to get kids up the next day.

For added fun, visit the author’s website and download the activities. Give each of your true blue scouts a membership card. Bake a few of those sugar pies (the recipe is on the website) and make this a true blue experience.

P. S. Nobody writes a better tall tale than Kathi Appelt. Nosireebob.


Monday, October 7, 2013


Here’s good advice for all of us. A child robot is my inspiration.

DOUG UNPLUGGED by Dan Yaccarino, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

Doug is a robot. His parents want him to be the smartest robot ever.
Every day when Mom and Dad, also robots, pick up their briefcases and head out the door, they wish Doug, “Happy downloading,” and plug him in.  Facts about cities are filling Doug’s files when he sees a pigeon at his window. He has just learned there are 500 million pigeons in his city and this one starts him wondering if…off he goes, out the window, to see what he can see. In short, Doug unplugs.

What does Doug learn? How does he use what he already knows? What does he discover? Is the ending a happy one? I’ll answer that last question: YES! You’ll have to read the book to answer the others. Whether you read this with or without a toddler on your lap, there is a lesson here. I’ll leave it to you to find it.

Once again author/illustrator Dan Yaccarino breaks down the greatest complications of life into a story that’s not only fresh and compelling but carries a message straight to the heart, bypassing the inner critic that takes delight in spoiling fun. 

When you visit—and you must!—click on books. Doug is in the upper left hand corner, holding a plug in his hand. You’ll tap your feet to the music in his trailer every time you watch.    

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How? And Another Why?

This is an anniversary year for Birmingham Alabama, memorializing the sacrifices and struggles of the civil rights movement fifty years ago. Birmingham's role became a catalyst for change far beyond its own streets. This year city leaders are giving special honor to the heroes, those living and dead, those known and unknown, all whose contributions were significant. The city is also looking fifty years forward.

A struggle must have opposing forces, and young readers, perhaps their parents, too, might wonder how Birmingham came to a brink that caused caring people around the world to gasp in disbelief. Why are events that happened fifty years ago receiving so much attention today?

BLACK AND WHITE: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor, by Larry Dane Brimner, Calkins Creek, 2011

The book jacket promises: “Black and White is the unforgettable story of Fred Shuttlesworth’s courageous stand against Bull Connor.”  That promise is met as the story leads the reader into the center of the battle for justice and equality.
Bull Connor championed the ways of the Old South, especially segregation of the races. He often resorted to violence to enforce his tenets.

Reverend Shuttlesworth’s mission was equal rights.  Although his preaching style was considered “fiery”, he practiced nonviolent direct action. 

Both text and archival photographs highlight the dramatic confrontations between the two men. The  power on both sides is intense.
Reverend Shuttlesworth emerges as the stronger of these two forces, only partly because we know how the story turns out. We have had the benefit of time and the judgment of a nation’s conscience.
More is known about Reverend Shuttlesworth. It is doubtful that much would be known about Bull Connor if he and the preacher had not tangled and wrangled and stood firm against each other. Author Brimner points out the similarities between the two men such as their humble backgrounds but notes that their greatest similarity may be their "doggedness."   

Both men have died, but author Brimner was able to visit with Reverend Shuttlesworth during his last days. For that time together he expresses gratitude to Reverend Shuttlesworth and his widow, Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth, “for opening their hearts and sharing their time and thoughts with me so that Fred’s story could be told.”

Brimner’s research took him to dusty collections of FBI files, court records, archived newspapers, and other primary court documents as well as modern archives like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  Black and White includes a bibliography, index, and an author’s note which lends itself to a “what happened next?” feeling.  Additionally, you can read an insightful interview with the author here explaining how and why he wrote this book.

A word about quality nonfiction books written for children. They will be meticulously researched and skillfully written to engage the most critical audience, your children. 

If you, the parent, read these books together or separately, the benefit is great. You may be inspired to read further and you may find yourself well prepared for a spirited discussion, too.
It takes a writer to document the events and landmark decisions that resulted and weigh which ones will best serve as an historical foundation for the reader. It takes a writer to show how slow the pace to cause some major changes but present them in such a way that the reader does not tune out. It takes a writer to motivate the reader to maintain what is good and continue working to change that which is still not. Larry Dane Brimner is a writer like that.

Why is Birmingham's role in civil rights important today? Great discussions begin with well written, well researched books.


Saturday, September 7, 2013


This month Birmingham, Alabama is much in the news as it remembers four little girls who were killed in the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. It happened 50 years ago, but the pain is still sharp and will undoubtedly remain so. It will take many books to explain the civil rights movement, how it began, what propelled it, and where it is today. Here is one of my picks to help your young readers navigate the events.

BIRMINGHAM, 1963, by Carole Boston Weatherford, Wordsong, 2007
For ages 9-12. An award winning poet employs free verse and a fictional child to give voice to her tribute to the four little girls killed when members of the Ku Klux Klan put 19 sticks of dynamite under the back steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL on September 15, 1963.

This fictional character is like every child who is nine and looking forward to her tenth birthday. On her long-awaited day, she enjoys a family breakfast of biscuits and red-eye gravy. Her pigtails are tugged by her rascally little brother. She’s practiced This Little Light of Mine countless times, and she can hardly wait to stand up in church and sing her heart out. The reader follows her to church and gets a glimpse of four other girls, a little older, heading down the hall. Our character wishes she could join them. If only they’d let her. Maybe next week—when she’s ten.  
However, moments later, her tenth birthday is shattered. The lives of the four little girls giggling in the hallway, heading for the girls’ room, are stilled forever.  As the author says, ”Someone…lit the fuse of hate.”  That someone snuffed out the promise of the lives of these four little girls.

Who were these little girls, Addie Mae, Cynthia, Denise, and Carole? The author focuses on each child and what made her special. Who might she have become?  

The author’s note is brief but covers the turbulence surrounding all children growing up on Birmingham’s streets in 1963. Parents unaware or far removed from that era will find this book is a helpful introduction to how real families suffered and survived.

For further background, if you are following the Civil Rights Trail or paying heed to respected travel guide Fodor’s which places Birmingham, Alabama in the top five of its list of cities to visit this fall, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute offers a full calendar  of events and displays. Guides who were foot soldiers offer personal experiences to mesmerized listeners.  The BCRI presents extensive human rights coverage from both a local and a global perspective all year long.
For older readers, including adults, Birmingham Sunday, by acclaimed author Larry Dane Brimner, is reviewed here.  You will want to view his moving trailer and click on the link in the sidebar to hear Joan Baez singing "Birmingham Sunday."

With both of these books in hand, parents will be prepared to help their young readers grasp the significance of this fifty year commemoration.  

To quote Carole Weatherford’s dedication in Birmingham, 1963, “The struggle continues.”


Saturday, August 24, 2013

#1 on Summer’s List

Raise your hand if you ever missed going to the zoo during summer vacation. OK, I’m looking, but I don’t see any hands out there.

For my brothers and me, it was a pack a picnic lunch, spend the day occasion. The event usually included at least two or three aunts and several cousins. During winter months I wrote letters to Suzy the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo (which I never mailed). When I grew up, I took my own kids, chaperoned classes and troops, even hosted a birthday party at the Louisville Zoo. I remember looking back over my shoulder at the cleanup crew hosing out our party room, washing away ice cream and chocolate cake and trampled party streamers and thinking that was the ONLY way to celebrate a birthday. What took me so long to learn this?

Did I ever want to live at the zoo? No, but what if I had? Author Irene Latham could be a kindred spirit.

DON’T FEED THE BOY by Irene Latham, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin, Roaring Book Press, 2012

Whit, eleven, has lived his whole life at the Meadowbrook Zoo. Dad is head elephant keeper and Mom is a veterinarian and zoo director. Ms. Connie is his kind, understanding, home-school teacher who has always been there for him.

Wherever one lives, a few well thought-out rules make life run more smoothly. Here are the rules Whit’s parents expect him to follow:

1) Don’t feed the animals.

2) Schoolwork comes first.

3) Don’t leave the zoo property for any reason.

Now that Whit is approaching middle school, these rules are beginning to feel confining, like a skin that’s growing too tight. He looks at life, his life in particular, and wonders what it would be like to fit into a world of people. Little does he know that is exactly what other middle school kids are wondering, too. They just do their wondering at a public school while Whit is fulfilling Ms. Connie’s assignments and bemoaning his predictable routine at the zoo. In some of his moodiest moments, he even thinks his parents care more for the animals than they do for him.

And then Whit notices a girl who looks to be about his age and who appears at the zoo every day. She settles into the same spot and draws pictures of the birds. He christens her “Bird Girl” and wonders why she is always alone. It takes some time, but he finally works up enough courage to talk to her. His courage is rewarded. They become friends.   

Surely there is an ancient saying somewhere that says one should always see home through another’s eyes to truly appreciate it. Whit thinks his ability to recite all the keepers’ public performances for the public--like every word the keeper says at feeding time at Pelican Plaza-- shows just how dull and boring his life is. However, Stella’s eyes grow round with surprise and admiration at each recitation. As Whit points out small things that only an everyday person could see or observe or understand, he realizes how much he loves his home.  

When Whit gets to see what Stella’s home life is like, his theories about families and the lives other people surely must enjoy more than he enjoys his, come to a screeching halt.  Stella needs help. Whit is determined to provide that help. As Stella and Whit try to solve some adult-sized problems, the carousel and train figure into a variety of plot twists and turns.  

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say parents will applaud and kid readers will be happy for both Whit and Stella. (No, Whit’s parents do not adopt her.) 

Illustrations capture the characters and their emotions as if a photographer followed this engaging pair and offered them a package of photos at the end of their zoo trip to be a souvenir of their vacation. In her acknowledgements, Author Latham addresses illustrator Stephanie Graegin:  ”You’ve charmed Whit and the Bird Girl to tender life.” Tender is a fitting word. They are like tender shoots of the flowers they will become.

For more about Irene, see her webpage and be sure to visit her blog and read happy news about Don’t Feed the Boy.  


Hillview School Library