Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Path of Pebbles

Have you ever followed a trail of shiny stones, one more lovely than the other, until you found yourself deep in the woods of wondering…?

STEPPING STONES: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr, Orca Book Publishers, 2016
First I read an article in Bookbird,  A Journal of International Children’s Literature. The article was written by Margriet Ruurs, an award winning author of more than 30 books for children.  She, too, was following a path of pebbles, first showing up on Facebook. She saw the artwork of a Syrian sculptor from Ugarit, now living and working in Lattakia, Syria. He simply arranges rocks on the ground or on a rectangle of plywood – except it’s not so simple. His images tell deeply emotional stories.

Author Ruurs had to find this artist, had to ask him about his life and work. Her article in Bookbird details her determination to find him and her inspiration to write a book about a refugee family’s journey to find a peaceful life. She wanted Nizar Ali Badr to tell this eloquent story in stones undergirded by his own intriguing story: a gifted artist managing to create in spite of a multitude of deprivations.

I had to follow the trail to her book, too, as reader. I had to know how her search ended, as well as more about the artist himself.

Ruurs’ story follows a young girl who is forced to flee her home when war comes to her Syrian village and “Life in our village changed. Nothing was as it had been.” The pebble people who are her family say good-bye to the rooster and the goat and go to the end of the earth where they must cross a vast sea. The physical burdens of the pebble family’s belongings bow the adults’ bodies, but the weight of loss is a burden the sculptor conveys in all the bodies, young and elderly.

This family created by author Ruurs survives the sea, but other refugees do not. On land once more, the family stops. “Mama and Papa planted seeds to grow flowers to remember those who did not reach freedom.” It’s a tender scene. Love, care, hope. All told in stones that have become real people to the reader.

Badr has not left his homeland. In the foreword, author Ruurs notes that sometimes the artist does not have money to buy the glue that would make his art permanent. It becomes one of those “meant to be” moments that made it possible for the artist and author to create this book for a publisher willing to consider challenging circumstances. Badr says his ancestors left “a signature in my genes to create and share my work with honesty and modesty.” Ruurs hopes she can raise awareness of the plight of those who must flee the horrors of war.

This is a beautiful book.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Bull Named Ugly

What happens when the older brother you idolize, the one all the girls in the small town of Salt Lick, Nevada fall for, the bull riding champion everybody brags about, goes to Iraq and steps on an IED?  (An Improvised Explosive Device also known as a street bomb.)

BULL RIDER by Suzanne Morgan Williams, Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2009

It may be his brother Ben struggling with a traumatic brain injury and life-altering physical injuries but 14 year old Cam who prefers riding a skateboard to clinging to a grouchy fire snorting bull also crashes headlong into change. Author Williams brings the world’s problems to Cam’s ranch and everyone in this warm, loving family must adjust to roles outside their expectations.

The other members of Cam’s family are well thought out to provide just enough poignancy with a good balance of family fun. The adults have adult challenges, but the author keeps the focus on Cam and how he relates to his brother’s shifting moods contrasted with the unsettling discussion about patriotism, love of country and the willingness to sacrifice. A bull named Ugly plays a major part, too, but that’s all I’m going to tell you.

Suzanne Morgan Williams has a solid background in nonfiction for young people. She researches deeply with extensive acknowledgements. Through her craft Bull Rider comes to life, receiving the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Award for Outstanding Juvenile Book of 2009.

If you missed this novel when it first came out, read it now. It’s timely today. Movies are being made about our war vets, but do any of them get inside the heads of their younger brothers and sisters? This book will motivate you to thank a veteran for his or her service -- and the vet's family, too.

Visit the author at suzannemorganwilliams.com

Monday, September 25, 2017

Read This Book!

We are in the midst of the 35th annual Banned Books Week which began on September 24th.
I read banned books. Do you?

BAN THIS BOOK by Alan Gratz, Tor/Starscape, 2017

"How can you put into words how a book slips inside of you and becomes a part of you so much that your life feels empty without it?" These are the words of 4th grader Amy Anne Ollinger when she finds out her favorite book, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, has been removed from her school library book shelves. Note: "not banned, but removed" is the explanation when Amy Anne asks. To Amy Anne it's all the same.

How did this happen? An influential parent has protested the book -- and several others  -- as inappropriate.

Amy Anne does a lot of protesting inside her head until the injustice of it all empowers her. A leader, an organizer, an advocate, a champion. All of these are unleashed as one little girl digs in and learns what our country and our rights are all about.

This is a PPR book. Parents, Please Read! You need to know what is going on inside your child's head that isn't being said out loud.  Thanks to Alan Gratz for making this topic accessible to all ages.

A Reader's Guide is included in the book. All curriculum guidelines are met.

Any mistakes in this review are mine. The book was due at my library and had to be returned because there is a waiting list. I could not double check and re-read and write more as I usually do. The copies I buy will probably not stay in my house long because I will give them away to someone who gets as energized by the topic as I do.

Every title mentioned in BAN THIS BOOK has been banned somewhere sometime. Can you find your favorites? I discovered I've been reading banned books my whole life --  I just didn't know it.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Can a Story Save the Kingdom?

If your kids are into saving kingdoms this year, here is a holiday book to give them some options.

THE STORY BOOK KNIGHT by Helen Docherty and Thomas Docherty, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2016

Leo was a gentle knight. So begins this gentle tale. He likes to read. However, his parents succumb to the way it is always done, and when they pronounce, “Knights must FIGHT,” Leo is puzzled.

However, not only is Leo a gentle knight, he is a dutiful son. And so he sets off to tame a dragon, armed with gifts from his parents, a new shield and sword. (He also packs sandwiches and a stack of books.)  

Along the way to find the elusive dragon, Leo encounters a griffin, (he knows it is a griffin because he has read about one), a troll, and finally, in a village where the people are in hiding, an ENORMOUS and cranky from a nap, DRAGON. 

The cover copy asks, “…can a story be as mighty as a sword?” Read this to your four year old and discover a happy ending and a delightful answer.

This book’s creators live in Wales with their two daughters. I’m guessing lots of stories are told in their home.

My suggestion: after you have read this to your young listener half a dozen times or so, suggest he or she read it to the baby or a doll, or even the dog or cat.  Like Leo, you will be left in peace to read.  It’s your turn to read to YOU.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Happy Launch Day!

When the debut novel of a dear friend is released and available for book shelves in libraries, bookstores, and your house, it's a cause for celebration. Drum roll, please!


With a twin sister like Hazel, Cl’rnce doesn’t need any enemies. On the other hand, he’s done a pretty good job of making enemies all by himself.  Cl’rnce is a prankster.  Hazel is a spoiler.

A spoiler is a role I do not wish to play, so I will say as little as possible about what really happens in this delightful fantasy about dragons and wizards (which you could figure out from the title, yes?) and a race to see who will be Primus, ruler of all the Dr’gon Nations.

First, Cl’rence needs a Wizard Partner. He doesn’t want one.

Meanwhile, back at her desk, the author is creating Moire Ain, a perfect WP, except first she has to escape from the Hedge-Witch.

And then, there is the Whisper Stone. It’s a treasure sought by lots of evil-doers, or evil doer wannabes.

Those who have endured sibling torment will gravitate to Cl’rnce’s corner even as they giggle at Hazel’s insults. He has been suffering from Hazel’s rants for 420 years. No wonder all Cl’rnce wants to do is nap. That alone would make a dr’gon tired, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, thinking up mischief is tiring, too. And Cl’rnce is gifted at that. It’s carrying out all those great chuckle-worthy plans that lands him in trouble.

The readers won’t nap. From giggling 3rd graders to page turning 4th and 5th graders, this tale is filled with magick and kindness, heroes and villains, witches and dragons and ….well there’s no end to the enchantment.   

And I can’t leave out Raspberries! He’s a guard bird. At least that’s what I’d call him.

Another drum roll, please.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Building Confidence

Is there anything more endearing--especially for parents--than watching happy kids rush toward school, eager to learn?

THIS IS NOT A CAT! By David Larochelle, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka, Sterling Children’s Books, 2016

At the Sunny Hills Mice School, the first lesson will be about DANGER. Or CATS.

Note: on the first page, one little mouse doesn’t look all that happy and the “something” peering around the tree at two skipping mice and one mouse dragging his feet is licking its lips. That creature does not look like a cat. Hmmm. Anyhow, turn the page to see the teacher introducing the lesson of the day: How to recognize danger.  Glowering from the easel is a large picture of a CAT.

To the mice kids’ delight, the teacher shows them pictures of a bunny, a butterfly, an ice cream cone—none of these is a cat. And then, a huge cat appears.

After that, the action is wild, zany, and chaotic. The child on your lap or in the reading circle in pre-K, is laughing so hard, you might need to take a breathing break. I will not spoil the ending.

David Larochelle is a former teacher, and Mike Wohnoutka has illustrated over 20 children’s books and written and illustrated 3 picture books. The pair also collaborated on an award winning book, Moo!  I can imagine them in a brain storming session. Again, there must be a time-out to breathe. Oh, do visit their websites.

Now, why did I call this book a confidence builder? All the words in the book are written using only the words in the title. Young children will be reading this one on their own before you can say, "SCAT!"

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Time To Talk

My first child valued her library card. When the time came that the books she checked out were of her own choosing, not mine or a teacher’s, I discovered that books open doors to discussion. That’s especially helpful when the discussion is not easy.

Bullying is always a concern, but as school bells announced the end of summer this year, at least one news source reported that the group most vulnerable to bullies in academic settings is the LGBTQ community.  If you want to begin a discussion with your kids, here are a couple of books that might open a door. One is for parents, the other for teens.

PLAYING A PART by Daria Wilke, Translated by Marian Schwartz, Arthur Levine Books, imprint of Scholastic, 2012.

Grishka’s mother and father are actors in a puppet theatre in Russia. This is Grishka’s whole world. His friend, Sam, a talented young adult actor and puppeteer, has announced he will leave the theatre soon and go to Holland to escape the risks of homophobic persecution in Russia.  A number of subplots involving family and friends lend themselves to the coming of age moments Grishka experiences, including standing up to his grandfather who is homophobic.

I saw the Jester puppet as a metaphor for Grishka’s personality and growth. How and why do people play the part of the Jester? What made them be that way? What happens when the role of Jester doesn’t work?

Author Daria Wilke was born in Moscow and grew up surrounded by the art and craft of puppetry.  Marian Schwartz is an award-winning translator of Russian literature.

This is a beautifully written thought-provoking book, and the translation preserves its quality.

CROOKED LETTER i: Coming Out in the South, edited by Connie Griffin, NewSouth Books, 2015

The contributors to this enlightening collection of first-person narratives are professional writers who are Southerners. They are also gay, lesbian, or transgendered. Readers will applaud their courage to share some of their most painful growing up experiences.

The thread that caught this children’s writer’s eye was not the Southern connection, but the childhood experiences of each writer.  Parents who simply didn’t understand what they were doing tried to do the right thing. In most cases this turned out to be the very worst thing to do to their much loved children. The same thing could be said for the community, teachers, pastors, many who thought their actions were helpful when in fact, they were hurtful and their impact destructive.

In reading this book a second and third time, which I often do before I review a book here, I kept returning to the essay by Merril Mushroom, “The Gay Kids and the Johns Committee” for a sense of history in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Were others being persecuted? Yes, the McCarthy hearings were in progress. And then there was Brown vs. Board of Education. Whatever the term “civil rights” means to you, capitalized or not, the circle of those who should have them and don’t is wide.

The essays can be read out of order. If you are looking for a shorter essay that ends with hope and acceptance, “Coming Home,” by Logan Knight is a good choice.  It is the second essay in the book, but it would also be a good one to read last as a way to remember the book. Hope and acceptance between generations is always a positive sign.

May you find doors to walk through to discussions that will keep leading you and yours forward together.

Hillview School Library