Thursday, December 30, 2010

Positively Resolved, Maybe

Have you made your New Year’s resolutions yet? Are you giving up something or starting new projects? Or are you just giving up on resolutions?

SQUIRREL’S NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION by Pat Miller, illustrated by Kathi Ember, Albert Whitman & Co, 2010

All of Squirrel’s friends have new year’s resolutions. Squirrel is the only one who doesn’t. Searching for help, Squirrel goes to a great place to find it, the Lonewood Library. There the wise and helpful Bear defines the word. That's certainly a good start.

Squirrel's next stop is to visit Skunk who is sick but even so has resolved to learn to read. Squirrel plays games with Skunk hoping to help her feel better, and indeed, she does. Skunk is laughing out loud when Dr. Owl comes by and pronounces his patient much improved and ready to begin working on her resolution. Half the day is over by now and it’s time for lunch at the Hidey Hole Diner.

Of course, the journey and the list of Squirrel’s deeds lead the reader to a discovery. The book ends with a chorus of her animal friends shouting, “Hurray for Squirrel!”

Do your children wonder what resolutions are all about? Adults seem to have trouble with this concept, too. Maybe reading this book to your young listeners should be your first resolution.

Author Miller is a writer, teacher, and school librarian. wonder what she's resolved to do in 2011?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The True Meaning of Kwanzaa

Coming together to help others. That’s the true meaning of Kwanzaa. But what if you are too little?

LI’L RABBIT’S KWANZAA, by Donna L. Washington, illustrated by Shane W. Evans, Katherine Tegen Books, 2010.

Li’l Rabbit could recite a litany of what’s wrong with being the littlest rabbit in the family. For starters, he’s always in the way. Then guilt sits on his small shoulders like a rock when he’s upset because his grandmother is too ill to be the guiding force behind the family’s Kwanzaa preparations.

Grandmother is too ill to take part in the dinner, his favorite, a feast called Karamu, and his mother is too busy taking care of Granna Rabbit to cook all the traditional foods. Then Li’l Rabbit thinks about the meaning of Kwanzaa. He decides to take Granna Rabbit a special treat for Karamu. How hard is that?

First Li’l Rabbit learns that Mamma Oriole, Groundhog, the frogs, Momma Field Mouse, and Poppa Squirrel don’t know anything about Kwanzaa or Karamu. What they do know is all the kind and helpful deeds Granna Rabbit has done for them. Shows you don’t have to understand or know much about a person’s beliefs or traditions as long as you know that person’s heart.

What the animals do and how they surprise Li’l Rabbit–not realizing their actions are examples of Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, results in Granna Rabbit teaching everyone a new word: Harambee! It means, “Let’s Pull Together.”

Even though Li’l Rabbit has a great celebration with his friends, dancing, singing, and eating, he is still sad that he didn’t bring Granna Rabbit something special. Young readers will be quick to catch on to what he really did, and Granna Rabbit snuggles him up and tells him, too.

If you have faith, there’s always hope. Granna has faith in Li’l Rabbit. She also thinks this was the best Karamu ever, probably because the whole community got involved.

No matter what your holiday traditions, Harambee!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Serious About Series

Kids love series, or so they tell us. “They” are an impressive lot of book professionals, but none more impressive than the readers themselves, the kids who read series.

When is the best time to pick up on a series? Do you start from the one that suddenly captured everyone’s interest, not always the first in a series, or read the latest first, or wait until all are out, as in a predicted trilogy? Then what? Do you read from start to finish, bidding your family and friends good-bye for a week of binge reading?

I read the Twilight series from the middle out in each direction. Confusing at times. A friend waited until Mockingjay came out before she began Hunger Games. Such discipline! She planned to read Catching Fire next and figured by the time she got through these two, her name would rise to the top of the waiting list at the library and she could sacrifice another night’s sleep to the third and final book in this Suzanne Collins trilogy.

The following is a Newbery Honor book which won other awards, too. As you can see from the publication date, I waited long enough that when I read the last page, the next book was ready to pick up. And the next and...

THE THIEF by Megan Whalen Turner, Greenwillow 1996

Gen is a master of many talents. One of them is stealing. His boast, “I can steal anything,” lands him in the king’s prison and sets off a string of events. The king’s advisor wants Gen to steal a treasure from another land, a land not so likely to welcome them. Some of their party die, some live. Who and why?

Threaded throughout the adventure is the imagined history of countries and the gods they hold responsible for their fortunes and misfortunes. These stories are surprisingly interesting. Don't ask. I won't even hint how this turns out. The conclusion came as a complete surprise to me. It should be that way for you, too.

The lucky reader who begins to read this series now, as I did, will be eager to dive headlong into another cauldron of characters and quests seasoned and stirred by story chef Turner in The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia. The latest novel, A Conspiracy of Kings, is generating Newbery buzz this year.

Boys and girls from ages ten and up will get lost in these novels. You might, too.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sequel, Trilogy, Series?

In this third middle grade novel set in the North Carolina mountains in the nineteen sixties, Livy Two continues to give us a front row seat at the Weems family gatherings where all sorts of plans and dreams and schemes are afoot. Daddy’s recovery from his automobile accident is not going as smoothly as hoped. He hears radio songs in his head and seems to remember only one of his children, the one who moved away.

LOUISIANA’S SONG by Kerry Madden, Viking 2007

Now we meet another strong Weems woman, Louise, the painter. She’d rather paint than talk and besides, she can always turn to her sister Livy Two for the talking. It takes quite a sales job on Livy Two’s part to convince Louise that she should sell street-side charcoal sketches of passersby to tourists in Waynesville.

Considering the dire state of finances in the Weems family and that Grandma Horace continues to pressure the family to move to Enka-Stinka (as Livy Two calls the town) so Mama can get a job with Champion Paper or American Enka which will pay regular and give benefits and, well, the reader can see that everyone needs to get a job and help out.

Mama knits sweaters and baby blankets for sale. Emmett has already gone off to work at Ghost Town in the Sky, promising to send money home, but Livy Two isn’t satisfied with how he makes good on this promise. She gets a job in the bookmobile. Becksie gets a job in the Pancake House.

With people and bills coming and going, Livy Two struggles to love the dad who taught her to sing. A talented songwriter and singer who has yet to reap monetary rewards, Livy Two uses her music to cope. She writes a new song, “...and I sing like I’ll never quit, because it’s only when I’m singing that I can quit hurting for Daddy and start loving him again the way I used to.”

Songs are scattered throughout the prose, and the family’s stories will sing in the reader’s heart long after the last page is turned.

What’s next? Will the family have to move to Grandma Horace’s home in Enka, start a new school, give up the wild freedom of their mountain home? Will the radio in Daddy’s head ever be quieted? Will he remember all of his children?

Do you suppose the author could be persuaded to write another novel or two? When does a sequel become a series?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Another Madden Maggie Valley Novel

If you read Gentle’s Holler, you may be like me, ready to slide your feet under the supper table at the home of the Weems family just up the mountain from Maggie Valley, North Carolina. From Livy Two to Gentle to Grandma Horace, to Uncle Hazard, the family dog, these warm and irresistible characters will capture your heart and have you cheering for them.

I’m glad I won’t have to wait to see what happens next. The sequel is already on the book shelves.

JESSIE’S MOUNTAIN, by Kerry Madden, Viking, 2008

It’s 1963. Winter is harsh in the mountains, but even the bitter cold can’t suck the heat out of Livy Two’s enthusiasm for traveling to Nashville to sell her songs and save the family future. Daddy isn’t well enough to work and Grandma Horace is pressuring her daughter, Jessie, to move the family to her home in Enka.

Livy Two has other plans. She thinks selling her songs to pay the back rent and other debts will be just the miracle she needs.

Grandma Horace gives Livy Two her mother’s long forgotten diary, and this plays a part in the outcome of the third novel, but I won’t spoil it for you. Privacy issues among the generations loom large.

This, in my opinion, is the best of the three Maggie Valley novels as it mirrors the stronger, sassier growth and development of Livy Two. Mothers looking for “wholesome” novels for their middle grade daughters, ages 10 and up, will be thrilled with these books–but I don’t want to ruin their appeal by calling them wholesome. They are fun, busy, delightful, warm hearted, with realistic relationships. The kids treat each other like real human beings, bantering, arguing, fussing, but cuddling and standing behind each other, no matter what, proving once again that real riches have nothing to do with dollars.

And lucky us, we have a third novel to enjoy.

Monday: Louisiana’s Song

Friday, December 17, 2010

Taking Time to Read

If you’re going to write about books, you need to read them. And that’s where I’ve been: reading, reading, reading. Ever since I met the author, I’ve wanted to read three books set in one of my favorite parts of the country, the Lake Junaluska area, near Maggie Valley, North Carolina. The bonus in discovering these books a few years after publication is that I got to read all three right away and didn’t have to wait and wonder and wish.

GENTLE’S HOLLER by Kerry Madden, Viking, 2005

This is about strong women. Grandma Horace wants to help, but she’s so mean I wanted to tell her to go home. Mama is Grandma Horace’s determined daughter. (Hmm. Wonder where that determination came from?) Livy Two, who tells this charming and warm-hearted story, is just as hard-headed as her mother and grandmother.

Livy Two Weems has never been outside the North Carolina hills, not in her whole twelve years, but she knows her songs will take her to far away places–some day. In the meantime, her daddy’s trying to write a banjo hit, little sister Gentle needs to be seen by an eye doctor that costs money the family doesn’t have, Mama is busy with a new baby, and the rest of the eight brothers and sisters keep Livy Two scrambling, as any big sister can understand.

It’s the early sixties. The rest of the world leaks in now and then. The family knows about civil rights protests. They are shocked and saddened by the assassination of President Kennedy. But this is not their everyday life. Here, in their home at the end of a bumpy road, the Weems siblings hold secret meetings in sun dappled glens and listen to the music of a singing creek. Money may be a problem, but they are wealthy in all the ways that count.

My favorite quote: “Do you know how much folks need to hope?” This is Livy Two’s father encouraging her to sing her songs.

And she does, in the next two books.

Tomorrow: Jesse’s Mountain

Friday, December 10, 2010

Boy Has Book Feeever!

Once upon a time, an 8 year old boy named Charlie McGlurg wanted a bookstore in his hometown of Dalton, GA. 8 year olds have energy. Lots of it. Charlie started a letter writing campaign among his peers and targeted the CEO of a large book store chain.

Last week CEO Clyde Anderson surprised Charlie’s classroom at Westwood Elementary School with a visit and an armload of kids’ books. Then the BIG news(BIG being a classmate’s description). Anderson announced that Books-A-Million would open a 5,500 square foot bookstore in the city’s mall before Christmas.

“Charlie’s Army” was made up of 500 young readers. One classmate described herself as “breathless” over hearing the news. Charlie said he has “Book Feever!”

500 exuberant, letter writing, book loving young readers.

Parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers, and children’s writers should stand up and cheeeer!

Charlie and his friends are not the only ones who love books.

DOG LOVES BOOKS by Louise Yates, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

Dog opened his own bookstore. Then he waited for customers. And waited. What does a reader do when he’s waiting? He reads, of course.

Books carry Dog to prehistoric times, from adventure to adventure, to cheer on knights of old, to trek through the jungle, to zoom into the future. Dog is off to “somewhere else” when he hears the jingle of the bell. It’s a customer! Dog knows the right book and where it is for each of the customers who follow. Maybe he just read that book and re-shelved it.

Dog loves books, but most of all he loves to share them–exactly what book lovers do, be they book store owners, librarians, or US.

Do share! What’s your favorite children’s book today?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How to Spell Charming

What a delight to discover an author who writes the kind of books I loved to find under the tree on Christmas morning!

THE THIRTEENTH PRINCESS by Diane Zahler, Harper Collins, 2010

Spunky Zita, about to turn twelve and nearing the awe-inspiring age of young womanhood, longs for love: love of family, love of parents, love for a boyfriend, but, of course, that’s way off in the future. How delighted she is to find out she is the sister of the twelve princesses who live in the castle!

But why is she working in the kitchen? When she discovers everyone knows she is the 13th princess, she grows even more curious. Wouldn’t you?

Readers will be caught up in the enchantment. They will puzzle over the good witch and the bad witch and try to figure out which witch is which. Of course, there are good guys. And then there’s a hidden message about things not being as they appear. Love and loyalty ring true.

Author Zahler was inspired by the Grimm fairy tale, “The Dancing Princesses” or as it is also called, “The Worn Out Dancing Shoes,” and added a character. Her descriptions are vivid. Building on the original, she creates scenes that are Disney-esque.

Zita, the 13th princess, is the author’s addition to the tale and she is both perky and modest, humble, sweet, daring, courageous, sincere, determined, faithful, yet definitely not of super strength. She has her own weaknesses, a few flaws here and there, enough to humanize her.

How could her father not love her? He is surely under some kind of spell! Well, is he? You’ll have to ask your daughter to read this and find out.

The author has always loved fairy tales and promises us more. Her home is “an old farmhouse held together by magic spells and duct tape.” In such idyllic surroundings, she has turned her lively imagination on “The Princess and the Pea” next. It’s coming out in February as The True Princess. I plan to share as soon as I get my hands on a copy.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hanukkah Book Ideas

I asked for suggestions for children's books about Hanukkah, and I was delighted to hear from author Jan Godown Annino:

"I loved reading and the kiddos enjoyed hearing and seeing Patricia Polacco's The Trees of the Dancing Goats one December on this common ground topic.

Jan continues:
A wide-ranging list of recommended Hanukkah picture books is from the Kansas City Public Library found

I followed Jan's advice and found an extensive, excellent list.

Thanks, Jan!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

At Sundown

How do you explain Hanukkah to a child? In our diverse lives today, children of all faiths wonder about the celebrations and observances of their friends and neighbors as well as their own. Children’s books create bridges to understanding by showing relevance.

THE HANUKKAH TRIKE by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by Kathryn Mitter, Albert Whitman & Co., 2010

Hanukkah is an exciting time for Gabi Greenberg. All year she looks forward to the 8-day celebration of the Feast of Lights. She loves lighting the menorah. She loves helping to make crisp latkes. But it’s the stories about the brave Maccabees she loves the most. The Maccabees never gave up. Adults know they had to fight for the right to worship their God, celebrate their holidays, speak Hebrew, and restore and rededicate their Temple in Jerusalem. What does it all mean to a young child?

This year Gabi’s parents give her a Hanukkah gift, a tricycle which she promptly names, “Hanukkah.” Gabi plans to ride it everywhere, but her first try doesn’t turn out very well. She falls off. Riding a trike is a lot harder than she thought it would be.

This is when the story about the Maccabees becomes relevant. Now Gabi gets it. Not giving up is about trying again and again. Even when you think you can’t.

There are many excellent children’s books about Hanukkah. Cathy Goldberg Fishman’s book On Hanukkah is one I've enjoyed sharing. Do you have one to recommend?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Santa, We Lost the Tree

We may still be eating leftovers from our Thanksgiving feast, but during a quick drive through our neighborhood, we spotted half a dozen Christmas trees already decorated and twinkling their holiday greetings. It’s the perfect intro for a picture book about how two best friends, a giant and an elf, met a challenge that has familiar overtones.

THE CHRISTMAS GIANT by Steve Light, Candlewick Press, 2010

Best friends Humphrey the Giant and Leetree the Elf live at the North Pole and help Santa. They make the wrapping paper for all Santa’s gifts, happily and joyfully. They work so enthusiastically that they finish this task ahead of schedule. So Santa gives them another, to grow a Christmas tree for Christmastown. Again, they are delighted. They plant, water, snip, prune, and finally wrap the tree and set off to deliver it to Santa. Along the way, the two friends must rest. While they sleep, the tree floats away on a chunk of ice. Now what?

Humphrey the Giant has a small idea and Leetree the Elf develops a huge plan. I won’t spoil the surprise but it’s thought that no one in Christmastown will ever forget. This could be the first step toward a crafty gifts session at your house. Be sure you have plenty of glue.

The author/illustrator is also a preschool art teacher and a story teller. His ambition was to be Santa when he grew up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

For the Smallest Pilgrim

Thanksgiving books usually make an appearance once a year, but this one could work for a child starting school or moving, getting ready for a holiday, or whenever a change is coming and a young child wants to help but hears a constant refrain: “You’re too little.”

THE LITTLEST PILGRIM by Brandi Dougherty, illustrated by Kirsten Richards, Scholastic, 2008.

The littlest pilgrim is too little to help with the village chores like stacking wood. Her big brother does that. At home, Big Sis mends and Mama bakes. Dad hunts in the forest, but he takes time to suggest that his little daughter pick berries.

After a few more distractions and reminders of just how little she is, the littlest pilgrim bends to the task of picking berries. That’s when she spots a little figure peeping at her from the woods, a young Indian girl just her size. The littlest pilgrim tries to talk to the littlest Indian, but there is a language barrier. The littlest pilgrim holds out the berries in her hands and the two girls smile. A friendship begins.

A bright young listener will get this. Smiling and making friends is something anyone can do, no matter the size or age. What better time to think about this than Thanksgiving when there is so much to do and so much of it is the territory of older siblings and adults?

Purists will have trouble with the Pilgrim dress as depicted here. However, making a friend is never out of style or out of sync with the historians. And it works for any holiday, too.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Congratulations, Kathryn Erskine!

The winner of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature is

MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine, Philomel Books, 2010.

On August 5, I reviewed Mockingbird on Book Log. The review is reprinted below. If you want to read the comments made by followers at the time, go to the bar on the left and click on August. You'll have to scroll through the month of August, but it's like walking into the bookstore to browse. You might find another book that interests you, too. Joan

From Book Log: August 5, 2010

How Our Lives Might Be Different

Violence makes the news. We can’t escape it. When the media was limited to sources our parents could control, we were shielded. Not true today. School was once a place of safety. Also not true today. We are unable to give our kids the childhood we enjoyed.

Author Kathryn Erskine was devastated by the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. As she struggled to deal with this violent event that happened in her home state, she wondered how community and family–-particularly families with special needs children-–would cope with this tragedy. How, she wondered, might our lives be different if we understood each other better?

During the days after the shooting at Virginia Tech, following the story on television, watching the families gather on the campus and cling to each other for support, I wondered how they would survive the sadness of the days and nights to come after these bright, shining lives were taken from their midst so senselessly. Of course, children with special needs would suffer trauma, but all children, siblings of those shot, and all parents, relatives, and friends would never come to complete closure without a great deal of emotional work.

MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine, Philomel Books, 2010.

Caitlin is a 10 year old who has Asperger’s Syndrome. In her world, everything is black and white, and anything in between is confused and confusing. At home, it’s just Caitlin, her dad, and her brother, Devon, who is good at explaining things to Caitlin. Devon understands Caitlin’s way of thinking. He’s her rock. And then a school shooting takes him away.

Chapter One is titled: The Day Our Life Fell Apart

Caitlin’s father cries a lot. Caitlin wants to help, but she doesn’t know how. When she hears that all the families who suffered loss are seeking closure, she looks up the definition of closure in the dictionary and decides her family needs some, too.

In some ways, Caitlin’s syndrome is like a protective cover. She is trying to learn the skills of relating to others. Her way of expressing herself seems rude and insensitive, but when the author takes us inside Caitlin’s head, it’s much easier to understand why she reacts the way she does. Language, for one, is filled with double meanings. Literal meanings can be most confusing, even when you turn to a dictionary, as Caitlin does.

Caitlin’s coping mechanisms are based a lot on what Devon told her. "Stuffed animaling" is the way she takes her mind away from stressful situations. She gets a recess feeling in her tummy when she feels as if something bad is about to happen.

After the school shooting, Caitlin meets first grader Michael whose mother was shot and she shares a school with Josh, whose cousin was the shooter at the middle school Caitlin will attend next year. How does she get along with these people as everyone is trying to come to closure?

Caitlin’s counselor is very real, not perfect, but human and trying hard to be patient with the special needs children she counsels. The reader sees progress in action when these children recognize and react appropriately to a hurtful comment made by the PE teacher.

It’s almost as if the school shooting brought emotions to the surface. School personnel take this chance to develop understanding and kindness. If only all fifth graders could be well grounded in how to care about the feelings of others by the time they are launched into the outer space of middle school.

Caitlin’s story will enlighten those of you who wonder what Asperger’s Syndrome is. Chances are, you already know someone with Asperger’s, maybe several people. They will come to mind as you read Mockingbird. You will want to read this with your children and talk about it together.

Caitlin is caught up in reading To Kill a Mockingbird which just celebrated 50 years of making us think. Caitlin will make you think, too.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Nutcracker Tradition

Are tiny ballerinas pointing toes and pirouetting at your house? Let me guess. There is a performance of The Nutcracker on your holiday calendar. I found a book this week that makes a perfect introduction to the story before the curtain lifts on the scene of Clara’s home and the busy, laughing, swirling party goers. After the curtain falls on the final act, add this book to your children’s bedtime library. The music will swell once again, the flowers will waltz, and small eyelids will droop while visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince take over their dreams.

THE NUTCRACKER by Alison Jay, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2010

Based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffman (retold by AnnMarie Anderson) and the Balanchine ballet, this classic tale comes to life in Alison Jay’s distinctive “crackle varnish” art. This technique is a perfect match for the Victorian setting and creates the look of an antique story book, the kind we love to discover deep in the shelves of a musty, mysterious bookshop.

Ask anyone who's seen one or twenty performances of this holiday delight, “What do you like best?” Answers tumble out: the dazzling Christmas tree that grows tall and taller and surely will touch the sky before it stops, the Land of the Sweets, the music that stays in your head long after the holidays end, the waltzing flowers, spinning snowflakes, bouncing acrobats, stowaway children under Mother Ginger’s skirts.

Who are their favorite characters? Again, every cast member has its fans My favorite is Fritz, the trouble maker who breaks the nutcracker in the opening scene. Without him, there would be no conflict, no story.

And that would be a shame.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Surviving Escape

A kidnapped child is rescued or escapes and returns home. How does a person who changed in order to survive cope with the re-entry? How different is the child? How different is the world?

STOLEN by Lucy Christopher, Scholastic, 2010.

16 year old Gemma is abducted while she’s traveling on vacation with her parents. Gemma is British, a city girl. One with street smarts. Or so she thinks. After a brief flirtation with a stranger who buys her a soda, she wakes up in the Australian Outback

This is the debut novel of an author who grew up in Australia. Christopher’s familiarity with the Outback plunges the reader into a full understanding of the setting. We flick ants away, dodge spider webs, feel blisters rise in the unrelenting daytime heat, shiver when the sun drops out of sight. How could anyone held here against her will hope, dream, or dare, to escape?

Days roll by and Gemma becomes desperate for control. She writes to her captor, opening her inner self to the reader, making her struggles deeply personal, as though we are thinking Gemma’s thoughts before she writes them down. Her letter to her captor becomes her emotional bridge back to the world she left.

This is one of those books a reader might be tempted to put down after the first hundred pages. It moves slowly. Then the action picks up and it’s hard to put the book down for short breaks. The story will stay with you long after you’ve read the final pages.

If you are the parent of a teen, I can’t urge you strongly enough to read this. How easy it is to target and abduct a teenager! At an age when young people think they are most capable, parents think they are well informed and savvy–and they might be–they could also be most vulnerable to strangers who are skilled at breaking down barriers. One turn of the head, one quick action of the wrist, and a drink is drugged. A simple soda can be the first step to a dangerous destination.

Stockholm Syndrome? It’s creepy. It creeps in and takes over the victim. Mid-way through the story, I began to think the title was a reference to how Gemma’s original world was stealing away her ability to be her own person. Stuffy society? Overbearing parents? Sound like a common teen complaint? I began to think Gemma had been rescued by her abductor. The skill of the author was turning the reader into a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, too.

Whatever your family dynamic, however you manage to discuss tough topics with your teens, not sermonizing, not sounding like a worry wart, not turning young people off to reading in general and parents in particular, this book will give you much to ponder and much reason to start a discussion.

If you are lucky enough that your teen reads this book the same time you do, you won’t have to plan an introduction to the topic. A plain old, “What did you think of this book?” will be just fine.

And what did you think? I’d really like to know.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What Do Your Instincts Say?

Today John Walsh appeared on Good Morning, America and lauded the courage of Elizabeth Smart. In court these past few days, Elizabeth has bravely faced down the horrors she endured when kidnapped from her home and held captive as she grew from child to woman. She refuses to be a victim. Her strength is an inspiration.

Also in court was a young detective who came close to rescuing her, but didn’t. He says he is haunted by that. Doubtless, we all wonder if we might have seen a missing child. Or were we just imagining it?

STOLEN CHILDREN by Peg Kehret, Dutton’s Children’s Books, 2008

Have you ever looked at the pictures of the most wanted on the post office wall or the missing child on a milk carton and later the same day convinced yourself that you didn’t really see that person in the 7-11 or making a quick stop at the gas station? Throughout this thriller, the kidnappers and their young charges almost get recognized, but the good, fine citizen, decides no, these things don’t happen to me.

Amy probably thought that, too, when she discovered that the child she is babysitting on short notice and for the first time has disappeared from the nursery. Kendra, the sweet 3 year old who was so easy to tuck in for a nap just a short time ago, couldn’t be missing, really missing. Such a thing wouldn’t happen to Amy. Toddler Kendra must be playing hide and seek in the house.

Except she wasn’t.

Backyard? Pool? Front yard? That’s where Amy found Kendra’s always present friend Tubby, a grubby looking stuffed cat that Kendra talks through. When Kendra wants something, she announces that Tubby wants it. Therein lies the story. If the kidnappers hadn’t gotten upset over Kendra’s stubborn (as only a three year old can be) insistence that she have Tubby, they wouldn’t have returned to her home. Amy wouldn’t have encountered them. They wouldn’t have had to take Amy, too.

When you were babysitting, did you ever think you were fully prepared? Or that your own babysitter could handle any and all emergencies, as long as she could reach you by phone? How confident should you be?

Amy’s babysitting course taught the basics. It didn’t cover what to do when two strangers break in and steal the baby. To her credit, Amy never stops thinking. While keeping Kendra calm and cared for, she looks for opportunities to escape or send clues. She comes close, but she fails. When her world, the one she wants to escape, intersects briefly with the world you and I live in, she sends signals, but we don’t get them. Anything awkward, out of place, strange? Well, we probably imagined it.

How much should we trust our instincts?

Baby sitting courses are a great idea for middle grade students, and so is this book. It’s a suspenseful thriller crafted by an award winning author. Amy’s resourcefulness and her dedication to her young charge will make any baby sitter proud.

While your ten or twelve year old is reading this absorbing page turner, you might want to pay a little more attention to that “missing” picture displayed at the check out.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book For a Gloomy Day

Want to brighten things up? This is the true story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors.

THE DAY-GLO BROTHERS by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persian. Charlesbridge, 2009.

Day-glo colors are those brilliant flashes of color that catch your eye and make you stop and pay attention. They helped win WWII, gave new drama to advertising, made hula hoops look hip, and in general, brightened up every day life. The Switzers got rich while our lives got richer in glowing color.

The brothers’ goal was to find something that would glow in both daylight and ultraviolet light. When they figured this out, they created showy reds, dazzling yellows and greens, and more. Their invention was a timely one, useful when needed in WWII.

In the beginning, when they were still very young and looking ahead, wondering what they would do or who they would be, one brother wanted to save lives and the other wanted to amaze crowds. How they did both is a story kids will love, especially those inventor types who look at ordinary things and wonder, "what if?" A quote from Joe Switzer will inspire them:
“If just one experiment out of a thousand succeeds, then you’re ahead of the game.”

After your kids read this book, they’ll be ready for a new type of “I Spy.” Who can spot the most day-glo colors?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Inside, Outside–Halloween is Everywhere!

It’s almost Halloween 2010. While you struggle with the decision of whether to celebrate on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, here is a haunting book to read to the most timid reveler. The desert setting and language are Southwestern and add spice to this celebration of ghosts and goblins out on the scary town (with parents bearing flashlights standing by in the shadows.)

TRICK OR TREAT, OLD ARMADILLO by Larry Dane Brimner, illustrated by Dominic Catalano, Boyds Mills Press, 2010

Inside: Warm and cozy as the hot chocolate in Old Armadillo’s mug.

Outside: As surprising as Roadrunner, Peccary, Coyote, Snake, Tortoise, Bear, and Raccoon, wibbling, wobbling, tumbling, toddling, creeping, swooping, swaggering, shimmying, and shaking in the dusk surrounding Old Armadillo’s casita.

Inside, Old Armadillo reads a book of ghost stories.
Outside, his costumed friends plan treats.

Inside. Outside. Your little listener will giggle at the friends on both sides of the door, because he is in on all the surprises, almost.

As they did for Merry Christmas, Old Armadillo, author and illustrator team up to set scenes to engage and intrigue both reader and listener. How many voices can you create?

Larry Dane Brimner is the author of more than 150 books, including Birmingham Sunday which just won a few more honors, so many in fact, that I’ve decided to do a separate blog on honors and awards.

In the meantime, iQuiero Halloween!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Don’t Look Back!

Just in time to set the scene for Halloween, here is a book to engage young trick or treaters multiple times.

ON A WINDY NIGHT by Nancy Raines Day, illustrated by George Bates, Abrams BFYR 2010

This rhyming picture book captures attention on many levels.

Art and text combine to keep the mood somber, dark, and spooky, BUT cloud pictures in the sky also provide a good counterpoint to the spookiness.

The refrain grows louder with each recitation and soon the listeners are chanting along. Totally engaging!

"Clicklety-clack, bones in a sack. They could be yours--if you look back."

Scary, but not too much.
This is like riding a roller coaster while holding Dad’s hand. Your heart races, but you know, deep down, you will survive to beg, “Read it again!”

The author has surely read zillions of books to children, including her daughter who grew up to become a children’s librarian. On her website,, the author lists tips to make Halloween less scary here.

I can’t wait to share On a Windy Night with a group of wiggly pre-schoolers.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rescuing Halloween

You may not know Halloween needs rescuing. Contrast your own Trick or Treat days with today. Did you spend hours pondering, deciding, and creating your own costume? Did you and your friends scurry the length and breadth of your neighborhood loading down your decorated grocery bags with all sorts of chocolate and caramel rewards for your scavenging?

You might miss the creativity or the freedom, or maybe your own childhood. It’s enough to make a person put up posters: Missing! Halloween!

CALLIE’S RULES by Naomi Zucker, Egmont, 2009.

“Only Callie can save Halloween...if she can figure out the rules.” shouts the blurb on the cover of this introspective middle grade novel. Callie (Calliope Jones)is in 6th grade. Although the cover leads the reader to think this is a Halloween book, and it is, it is really about middle school relationships and conformity and thinking for one’s self

Callie’s mother is a free spirit, an artist who welds metal sculptures. Her dad is a lawyer. There are 7 kids in the lively household. Callie is beyond bright and is exempt from the pre-tests the other students must take. She has extra time to read and her current choice is Jane Eyre, a novel which provides Callie with a few well timed references. At the end of each chapter Callie summarizes her observations as rules. She grows, the plot advances, and the conclusion is both chaotic and warm hearted.

Did Callie save Halloween? Your 4th-6th grade readers have time to find out before the 31st.

Memo to parents and kids: This is a treat.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Building Sturdy Kids

Bullying hurts. ALL bullying hurts. Sticks, stones, and words hurt. Some experts say words hurt the most. Scars are deep and hidden. What can parents do? How do you arm a child against a bully without turning him into one? Where can you begin? Is it ever too early? A picture book I read last year keeps coming to mind. It’s a great family book, lending itself to discussion on several levels.

LOOKING LIKE ME by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher Myers. Egmont.

Have you ever made an “I Am” list?

Who you are, who you are becoming, and especially who you are to others, pulses through this energy filled picture book.

This is a build-up book or a motivational book for kids. Sometimes hearing a book read to a young child catches the attention of others who benefit, too. Read this book to young listeners in the presence of anyone starting out, starting over, feeling blue or in danger of giving in to a battered ego, and who knows what positive thinking will result?

Picture books are not for babies only.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Just Plain Fun

All teens are not wallowing in angst. I know at least one who is not. OK, so he’s a main character in a novel, but that’s not the point. He’s a teen boy who gets caught up in mishap after mishap while tripping over his own feet. The reader pulls for him because the reader could be that boy. He’s my nomination for Everyboy.

AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH by Lynne Rae Perkins, Greenwillow Books, 2010

Who among us had not tried to find the best place for cell phone reception when traveling in the boonies? Ry is 15 and on a train headed to a new summer camp when he discovers by reading mail he saved to read on the train that the camp closed before it opened.

Ry is a responsible kid. He knows he should get in touch with his parents who just left to sail on the Caribbean, or his grandfather who has come to stay with their dogs in the home they just moved into. The train pulls into a small station surrounded by nothing. No town. No houses. Just vast space. Ry is under the impression that he has plenty of time to climb a distant hill where he can get a cell signal. His impression is wrong. The train pulls out without him–but his belongings for the summer are still on board. Thus is the adventure launched.

One thing leads to another, not only for Ry, but for the grown-ups in his life, too. They are off on parallel adventures, even the dogs. Add the characters Ry meets along the way: Del (who must fix everything), Yulia whom Del loves but can’t apologize to for some long ago spat, Carl, an old codger who rescues Ry and Del from the side of the road in a car which, it turns out, isn’t his. And more.

The author’s name may be familiar. Her novel, Criss Cross, won the Newbery. It was full of interesting characters, too, but I didn’t warm up to them they way I do to Ry and his friends.

Author Perkins is also an artist. She illustrates the dogs' adventures in black and white cartoon style art. Threaded throughout the people stories, they are lively and timely.

I won't try to categorize this as young adult or middle grade. Rollicking along like the wheels of the train Ry missed to begin his comic laden travels, the writing is unburdened with language or themes that might offend. Yes,lessons are learned, but they are there for the readers to discover on their own.

Long before the satisfying ending, I was rooting for absolutely everybody and that includes the dogs. This unfolds like a movie. I hope it will become one. It’s definitely one the whole family will enjoy.

Whether teen and tween readers are boys or girls, they'll be wondering, right along with me, what accidents will befall Ry when he gets his driver's license and begins his junior year in high school. Will there be another book?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

From A to Zzzzz

Do you have a plan for your day, but something interrupts? Are you ever in the middle of telling a really good joke when someone interrupts with the punch line? If anyone interrupts you when you read the following bedtime story, you'll identify with Papa. Maybe you ARE Papa.

INTERRUPTING CHICKEN by David Ezra Stein, Candlewick Press, 2010

Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Chicken Little. Ever tell them to your kids as bedtime stories? Little Red Chicken’s Papa has a full repertoire of fairy tales, but he’s told them so often that now when he gets to the scary part, Little Red Chicken rushes in and warns the characters away from the danger they face.

Papa has had enough. He vows not to tell any more stories until Little Red Chicken promises not to interrupt. The poor little chick just can’t help it. How the two resolve this threat to bedtime will have you smiling when you fall asleep tonight.

I listened to an 8 year old read this picture book to her 5 year old brother. What did they like best, the pictures or the story? They both turned every page again, thinking this one through.

"All the stories," the older reader said. Not just the big story about the father and son, but the beginning of the fairy tales. She didn't mind that the author left it to her to finish telling the well known but interrupted tales. After all, (spoiler alert!)Little Red Chicken becomes the story teller before the book ends.

Her brother liked the pictures and he liked the story, but he liked them best "together."

Author/illustrator Stein has many books to his credit. Leaves won an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award. It's easy to see why his books are young readers' favorites.

Feathers aside, who are you in this book, Papa or the child? When you know trouble awaits on the other side of the door in a TV re-run, do you speak up: "Don't open that door. Run!"

I do.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Wheels of History

This is the biography of a bus. #2857. Why a bus and why this bus? It’s thought to be the one Rosa Parks rode when she refused to move so a white man could sit. Her arrest set off the Civil Rights Movement. It happened December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, AL.

ROSA’S BUS: The Ride to Civil Rights by Jo S. Kittinger, illustrated by Steven Walker, Calkins Creek, 2010.

Readers hear the jingle of coins as bus riders climb aboard #2857 and pay their fare. The coins jingle alike. But the sameness ends here. Black bus riders must get off and hurry the length of the bus to the back door where they board and sit behind a moveable sign marked “Colored.” A refrain tells readers, surely protesting by this point, “That’s just the way things were.”

As the bus rolls toward its date with destiny, a bit of history is provided so young readers get a sense of the time and how events developed. This is a gentle way to introduce the civil rights movement to young readers without giving them nightmares over the brutal aspects of this battle against Jim Crow laws.

The bus is replicated in different ways in a number of civil rights displays and museums, including the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery. #2857 is much more than a replica. It’s considered to be the actual bus and has been restored as it was when Rosa Parks rode it, right down to the Alabama red clay on the wheels. On permanent display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, Rosa’s bus is a silent witness to one woman’s courage.

Author Jo Kittinger was born the year the Montgomery bus protest began. She grew up in public schools in the South during this turbulent time. Illustrator Steven Walker is a fine artist whose paintings have been exhibited at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. As a team, they bring Rosa’s bus to the attention of young readers and remind all of us that “that’s just the way things were” is never a good reason for disrespecting others.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where History Leads Us

This week I’m writing about recently published books ideally suited to time travel, that is, historical novels and biographies. While you’re turning pages, you’ll be “there.” When you finish the book, you’ll be glad to return home, glad you live now and not then, and glad your feet are not actually blistered from walking in the shoes of the main character. Best of all, you’ll want to know more. Warning: history is addictive.

WOODS RUNNER, by Gary Paulsen, Wendy Lamb Books, 2010

The time is 1776. Rumors that Americans are fighting the English in eastern towns and cities seem far removed from the Pennsylvania homestead where 13 year old Samuel lives with his gentle, book loving parents. Then war arrives in their midst with savage brutality. Samuel returns from a hunting trip deep in his beloved woods to discover that British soldiers and Iroquois Indians have attacked and slaughtered his neighbors, leaving their mutilated bodies beside their smoldering cabins. Samuel’s home has been burned, too and his parents have been taken prisoner. Incredulous that his parents weren’t killed and wondering why they were taken instead, Samuel uses his woodsman’s skills to track the captors. His chances of finding them alive, indeed his chances of staying alive to find them, are slim. Yet he meets allies, makes friends, survives, and arrives ready to rescue the people he loves most in the world.

Gary Paulsen is a highly awarded author and a skilled story teller. In a spare 161 pages, the story unfolds about one family caught up in this horrendous war which the author says, from extensive research, “lasted for eight long slaughtering years. Over two hundred thousand men between the ages of 16 and 25 answered the call in the War for Independence and stood to.” He adds, “stood to when that often meant death.”

This is not a rewritten history of the Revolutionary War. The author is very clear that this is not what he intended to write. “All combat is outrageous.” He makes the point. The reader will take Samuel and his family into his heart and the War will “stick” in his memory. This is a job well done.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Yesterday’s Reality Show

What happens to you today is history tomorrow. Whether anybody else cares or wants to write a book about your life may depend on what else is happening. Cataclysmic events make history. What helps us remember history more than 50, 300 or 2000 years ago is a real or imagined person we can identify with. Ah, yes, we know what it is like to...The more skillful the author, the more likely we are to get blisters on our feet walking in the shoes of that character.

CLEOPATRA RULES! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen, by Vicky Alvear Shecter. Boyds Mills Press, 2010

How do you make history interesting to teens? Make it relevant.

Get out of your head which may want to impress with vast knowledge gathered over years of study, and get into their heads. Author Vicky Shecter has done just that. She’s found a way to preserve the flow of history in words that relate to the readers, lacing her recital of fascinating facts with humor a teen will find difficult to resist. Latin can’t be considered a dead language when this author infuses its world with such spirit. One can almost hear Mark Antony walking into the palace he shares with Cleopatra and calling out, “Honey, I’m home. ‘Zup?”

Readers who enjoy puzzles and codes will delight in the jokes in hieroglyphics, just waiting to be de-mystified. Yes, that’s right. Jokes.

Let’s be serious for a minute. What did the rich and famous of their day give each other as gifts? To agree to marriage, Cleopatra asked for certain Roman ruled territories. The one thing Mark Antony held back on was Judea, ruled by King Herod. Yes,“that" King Herod. For a wedding present, Mark Antony gave Cleopatra books (undoubtedly scrolls) instead of jewels. The presents Cleopatra gave her children: a temple, a country, and probably some jewels here and there. And we think we have a difficult time figuring out what to give someone who has everything.

As the clever author puts it, Cleo was Queen of the Nile, not queen of denial. This lady was a shrewd politician. Her goal was to make Egypt bigger and stronger. The many power struggles detailed are familiar and reminiscent of present day. To me, the biggest difference is that our senators wear suits, not togas.

Cleopatra is considered the last pharaoh of Egypt. Certainly, she was a woman of secrecy. Neither her writings nor her tomb have been found.

The author has thoughtfully included a time line, glossary, bibliography, and picture sources at the end of the book when the reader is hooked. It’s OK to impress with all those years of study when the reader has been wowed and is ready to be awed. Shecter does all these things, with a little help from Cleopatra. Somebody had to live this amazing life so we could read about it.

A docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University in Atlanta, the author also applied her love of scholarship mixed with a flair for the comedic to her first book, Alexander the Great Rocks the World.

Vicky Shecter makes ancient history addictive.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Bully and the Bystander

Recently, I heard a child psychologist say there are three parties to the bullying scenario: the bully, the victim, and the bystander. While the bully is beating up the victim, what are the bystanders doing, thinking, feeling? Children’s authors are asking these questions, too, and their books for kids offer great discussion opportunities for families, whether the families be a classroom "family" or a group of friends in middle school, or the traditional family eating dinner together.

SECRET SATURDAYS, by Torrey Maldonado, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010.

Justin’s best friend Sean has started keeping secrets from him. What worries Justin the most is where Sean goes on certain Saturdays and why he lies about these times spent out of the neighborhood, one of the roughest neighborhoods in New York City. Justin begins to question what it means to be a friend.

Until now, the two sixth graders used words to settle problems, not fists. However, Justin notices that Sean’s words are becoming sharp weapons, much more hurtful than fists could ever be. This, too, worries Justin. Should he speak up? Or let it go? Move on? Or show Sean that friends don’t give up on each other?

The boys are strong characters, the neighborhood is real, and the every day conversation which will seem like another language to some, is authentic. The boys turn to rap to express their feelings and here their emotions spill over and win over the reader.

In this debut novel, the author, who grew up in the setting, credits his mother for encouragement, support, and the sacrifices she made to help her son succeed. This points up the huge importance of mothers in a neighborhood where fathers have gone missing for whatever reason. These single mothers work at low paying jobs and struggle to make rent and buy food. At the same time they have the burden of worry about where their kids are and whether they are preparing for class the next day or preparing to do time before they turn 16. The neighborhood is tough, and so is the life. The author is to be congratulated for being a role model.

Let’s hope SECRET SATURDAYS causes an outbreak of courage and compassion in middle schools everywhere.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Interview in Cyberspace

My cyberspace studio is whatever I imagine it to be, so today I’m interviewing Connie Fleming (AKA C. M. Fleming) beside a creek with a slight gurgle.

C. M. Fleming, author of FINDER’S MAGIC, Onstage, 2008

We’re sitting on a quilt, pieced and hand-sewn by my grandmother. Connie has brought along her knitting. We’re munching on molasses cookies. (No ants in cyberspace!) Connie bakes and shares these tasty crunchies at bookstores when she signs FINDER’S MAGIC, her historical novel reviewed on Booklog Wednesday.

Since our setting today is imagined, the interview was conducted by email.

Joan: Welcome, Connie, and let’s get started by explaining how a gal raised in the Southwest came to write a book set on the other side of the country. What led you to write FINDER’S MAGIC?

Connie: “When we moved to Georgia, I became intrigued with the history of Atlanta, both the good and bad history. There is a lot of both. Then a friend told me about a vivid dream she’d had that she couldn’t get out of her head.”

Connie couldn’t forget that dream, either, and it became the opening chapter of her book.
“I HAD to put it on paper. I didn’t own a computer at the time. I borrowed a typewriter and began to write.”

Connie targeted the reluctant reader 4th and 5th grader boy, and describes her novel as one with language that is uncomplicated, “the danger is extreme, and the good guys win.” Two young boys are accidental witnesses to the murder of a textile mill worker. The murderers are determined the boys won't live to tell. Hank, the main character, and Calvin who becomes his unwitting ally, must use all their wits and muster up a great deal of courage to avoid becoming victims, too. While the reader is racing through page after page to keep up with the action, he’s absorbing the history of a volatile and exciting time in Atlanta.

Joan: And who is the Finder? Why does the Finder get title recognition?
Connie: “She’s an ancient African-American mystic. Her magic, Hank comes to realize, is her wisdom.”

Joan: And what about Calvin? What a spunky character!
Connie: “Calvin Yates, an orphaned African-American boy is street-wise, courageous, and has a chip on his shoulder the size of Stone Mountain. I’d love to write a story with Calvin as the main character.”

That brings us to talk of current projects. I asked Connie if she’d share.
“My current work, the one I just finished, is a contemporary Sci-Fi young adult novel. It takes place in my homeland, the Southwest.”

Connie’s husband, Dwain, known affectionately by the children in their neighborhood and at their church as “The Dude,” is also from the Southwest. Both he and Connie were raised in Arizona. A cowboy and rodeo rider in his western days, Dwain has served as an in-house consultant for Connie’s just completed novel. “He is my #1 proofreader and my biggest fan.”

When that novel comes out, I’ll interview Connie and maybe Dwain, too. My cyberspace studio will be a ranch in New Mexico. Yee-haw!

In the meantime, I’d like another molasses cookie.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Magic of Wisdom

Written in language authentic for the time and a voice made pitch perfect by the author’s attention to how struggling mill town inhabitants would express themselves, this story pushes each chapter to a cliff hanger and dares the reader to put it down.

FINDER’S MAGIC by C. M. Fleming (Onstage Publishing) 2008

An 11 year old boy witnesses the murder of his best friend and he’s soon on the run to save his own life. Set in an Atlanta mill town in 1911, the story of Hank McCord’s life is already harsh. He thinks it’s his fault his Papa is dead and it’s now his job to take care of Mama–tough to do when you can’t go home. He needs an ally and one arrives in the nick of time. Of course! Meet Calvin who is no stranger to hiding out and escaping bullies. Calvin takes Hank to the Finder who can work all kinds of magic. The murderers hunt for Hank and the KKK goes looking for Calvin. It’s only two weeks until Hank turns 12. Will he make it?

The finder’s magic may seem elusive, but it’s a wisdom Hank and Calvin discover on their own. Readers will, too.

Quote from book: page 20: Calvin said, “Don’t look down.”
Too late! My eyes focused on the muddy river a long way below. Little dots of light winked here and there on the surface while the dark water whispered threats as it tumbled downstream.

Would you keep reading?

This is a good choice for a reluctant reader boy–but don’t be surprised if his sister reads it, too.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Terrorists Among Us

It’s been a long sad weekend remembering the tragedy of 9/11. Discussions continue to spring up about terrorists, who they are and where they are. We’re reminded of the danger every time we pass through a security point in a courthouse, airport, and even some schools. Enter the term “home grown terrorist.” It’s not just “those” who are “over there.” Actually, this is not new. Home grown terrorists have lived among us for decades.

THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE K.K.K.: The birth of an American terrorist group, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Houghton Mifflin, 2010

The Ku Klux Klan dates from 1866 when six men decided to form a club. They raided the linen closet of a friend’s mansion and, hooded and draped, paraded through the streets of Pulaski, TN. Many current-day residents wish to disavow themselves from this history.

Why? The six grew from a fraternity-like organization with initiations, handshakes and passwords into the “Invisible Empire” with secret dens spread across the South. The group evolved into sinister night riders who intimidated, terrified, brutalized, and murdered former slaves who dared exercise their freedom as American citizens to vote, own land, go to school, or worship as they pleased.

Author Bartoletti has won numerous awards for her meticulously researched nonfiction. She wrote Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, winner of Newbery, Robert F. Sibert, and NCTE Orbis Pictus honors, so young people could understand the vulnerability of youth to dangerous manipulation. She traveled to Germany and taught herself to read the language well enough to save precious time. Her current achievement casts light closer to home.

For this book, the author worked her way through 2300 slave narratives and 8000 pages of congressional testimony called the Ku Klux Klan report. Add to this diaries, memoirs, and newspapers of that time.

Bartoletti followed her research into the field and attended a Klan Congress. In her source notes she describes that meeting. The setting was rural and at a gate marked by a large American flag, she entered the Soldiers of the Cross Bible Camp, attended by families with children. To conclude a weekend of fiery rhetoric condemning public schools and taxes and stirring up fear of other races and religions, a 25 foot cross was burned in the midst of men and women in white robes. What struck the author was how ordinary these people were. “If I had met them at another time, in another place, if I didn’t know their beliefs and their politics, I could see myself swapping recipes and stories about our children.”


When Bartoletti began her research, she asked where she could find plaques, statues, or any other markers recognizing or remembering the victims of Klan violence. She didn’t find any. But she has given those victims a voice.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Striving for Normal

Keeping loved ones safe has been a priority since the Cave Man fended off a wild beast at the mouth of his cave. If we think we are the first to worry about terrorist threats, history will show us that we must be a pretty hardy bunch or we wouldn’t still be here.

COUNTDOWN by Deborah Wiles, Scholastic Press, 2010

This is called a documentary novel because the story is interspersed with news clips from 1962. Viet Nam. Civil Rights. Castro and Cuba.

In the meantime, beyond those news clips, college graduates signed up for the military or attended interviews for jobs, young people said “I do” in large numbers, babies arrived on their own schedule, usually, and life was lived despite the ever present fear that “an atomic bomb could ruin your day.” (Bumper sticker this writer followed for several hours on a traffic clogged highway under construction.)

At home, the threat of an atomic bomb sent families scurrying to their basements to build bomb shelters. At school, children practiced duck and cover drills in the hallways.

Set against this background, the lives of 11 year old Franny Chapman and her family and friends unfold. The physical setting is Camp Springs, Maryland near Washington D.C. Personnel from Andrews Air Force Base lived there and did their best to create a semblance of normal life.

The characters are fictional, but the author has personal ties to the time and place. Rich details from her own life informed the story. Aprons. Headbands that stretched out of shape. (Always.) TV trays. 45 rpm records. Cloakroom. Chalkboards. Women smoking, one way to stake a claim for equality of the sexes. Franny struggles to communicate telepathically, a problem now solved by incessant texting.

This is Book 1 of the Sixties Trilogy, and it’s written for the peacemakers. That’s all Franny wants. Peace with her friends, peace with her mother, peace with the boy across the street who left for a year and came back as every girl’s crush but seems to be a genuine friend to Franny.

Peace is relative when you are eleven. And that’s the way it should be.


Monday, September 6, 2010

A Boy’s Worst Nightmare–Maybe

The night before a new school year begins is always fraught with grave “what if’s.”

“What if I don’t know anyone?”

“What if all my friends are in the other kindergarten?” Or first grade. Everyone wants someone they can sit by. At least on the first day.

“What if all the kids are friends with each other but don’t want any new friends?”

Of course, the list is endless.

What could be the worst?
“What if I’m the only boy in a class of zillions of girls?”

19 GIRLS AND ME, by Darcy Pattison, illustrated by Steven Salerno, Philomel books, 2006

This is the first day of John Hercules Po’s first week in kindergarten. He’s brave enough to walk through the door, but what a shocking discovery: he is the only boy in a class with, count them, 19 girls.

His brother, a big second grader, taunts him that those girls will turn him into a sissy. John Hercules has another idea. Why not turn all those girls into tomboys?

Each day, a new adventure. From climbing Mount Everest to digging to China to battling alligators in the Amazon River, John Hercules Po and his merry band conquer the world, limited only by their imaginations, which means, no limits at all.

A strange chemistry takes place. The girls don’t turn John Hercules into a sissy. John Hercules doesn’t turn them into tomboys.

This book is for boys, girls, and friends.

Illustrator Steven Salerno can boast of being a student under the legendary Maurice Sendak, but I suspect he spent his earliest student days drawing pictures of his classmates. How else could he capture the energy of 20 high spirited kids? Author Darcy Pattison is well known for her novel revision classes which she conducts all across the country. Here’s proof she knows a thing or two about picture books, too.

You’ll stake your claim on this book, even if you are the only parent in a room full of kindergartners.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ahoy, Boys!

No romance in this book–unless you count the romance of the high seas. Pre-teen boys especially will find this seafaring adventure to their liking.

SEA OF THE DEAD by Julia Durango, Simon & Shuster For Young Readers, 2009

Kehl is 13, the 5th son of the Warrior Prince Amatec. His father’s domain is all that he knows.

When Kehl is kidnaped by the Fallen King, he wakes up aboard ship. Soon after he is befriended by Xipi. Somewhere it is surely written in stone that a boy book must always include a dog. The dog in this book is also on board and his name is Sholla.

Forced by the Fallen King to map the entire Carillon Empire, Kehl discovers there is more to the world than his father has told him. A tug of war begins between Kehl’s heart and mind as his knowledge grows and his feelings struggle to keep up. This is about growing up, discovering what lies outside your own small circle, and learning to respect what you find instead of fearing or condemning it.

This book is not long. The action keeps pages turning so fast, some readers will pick it up after breakfast and finish it before lunch. All readers will want to unravel the secret that drives Kehl to make a life changing decision.

You'll smell the sea, feel the roll of the waves under your feet--and you won't have to leave the comforts of home.

Good books really do take you away.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mixing it Up in a Novel

This novel is a mix of many things. According to the dust cover: “Part tall tale rich in lore, part thriller, and part gripping historical fiction, this is an artful one-of-a-kind creation from debut graphic novelist Matt Phelan.” All true.

THE STORM IN THE BARN by Matt Phelan, Candlewick Press, 2009

Jack was 7 when the rain stopped.“When the rain went away, it took away your chance to grow up.” This is a wise observation from Jack’s sister who is confined to bed with an illness believed to be dust pneumonia. As the story begins, Jack is 11 and he and his family, friends, and neighbors, are dealing with the effects of the Dust Bowl in 1937 Kansas.

The years of drought changed everything about the farm. Jack couldn’t show his father what a help he could and would be. How could he be in training to run a farm that might never be a working farm again? Add to that Jack’s father’s fear that Jack might have dust dementia. The gap between father and son grows into a chasm.

Dialogue is spare and used only when the pictures can be assisted by it to advance this grim story. Much of the reader’s grasp of the characters’ emotions will come from the expressions on the faces of the main character, the bullies who torment him, his family members, his friend behind the counter, and others who populate this young boy’s world.

I’d want to be present when a young reader reaches the jackrabbit scenes which are quite violent. In fact, it might be wise for concerned parents to read this first and be prepared.

The author/illustrator is considered a graphic novelist even though this is his first graphic novel. He also illustrated the Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron.

The Storm in the Barn won the Scott O’Dell award for historical fiction.

Monday, August 30, 2010

What if it Rains?

Who among us has not sat in a cabin or motel room with a variety of ages and stages of kids gathered around us–and watched it rain? A steady, unrelenting, here for the day, maybe the whole weekend, rain.

Prepared parents (ah, what a compliment!) will find in that book bag filled with carefully selected titles for different family members, paper, scissors (don’t forget the lefties), and books like the following that might engage the whole family.

THE ORIGAMI MASTER by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer, Illustrated by Aki Sogabe, Albert Whitman & Company, 2008

While you are listening to it rain and the kids are getting more and more restless, you might envy Shima, the Origami Master, whose company is beautiful origami animals. They don’t complain, fight over the TV, or pout. They just spring from Shima’s talented fingers and look lovely.

However, and of course, there is a BUT or this wouldn’t be a story, Shima is being observed. A mystery develops. What happens next?

Illustrator Sogabe selected the ancient art of Japanese paper-cutting to bring author Lachenmeyer's simple but powerful story to life. Art and story mesh with striking authenticity.

The last two pages are instructions and drawings: “Make Your own Origami Bird,” diagrammed by John Montroll.

You might forget it’s raining.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Another Book for Labor Day

While you are tossing books into your bag for a 3 day weekend of reading, here’s one for the middle grader who is sometimes ambivalent about his reading tastes. As an author in schools, I’ve had 5th grade boys tell me they wish authors would write about something other than sports for boys in their age group. They haven’t given up on reading–yet--but they are looking for reasons to abandon the book. Here’s one I read when it first came out and after a second reading, I still like it. No sports, promise.

MASTERPIECE by Elise Broach, illustrated by Kelly Murphy, Christy Ottaviano Books, 2008

James worries about all sorts of things, much the same way many 11 year old boys worry. His parents are divorced and he has a new step-dad and a new baby brother. Add to this mix the kids his age that his mother insists be his friends because they are children of her clients or those whom she wants to be her clients.

Marvin is a sweet little beetle who has a code of honor and parents who expect him to be on time for dinner. Sometimes this is a little hard to pull off when you are busy saving your human friend and solving an art heist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Marvin is also a brave little beetle as readers will discover. And, oh, yes, he is a talented artist.

The two lives parallel each other until a special connection is made between James and Marvin.

Be honest. At some time in your life, haven’t you wished a friendly little beetle would rescue you?

And to think, this all started when the author lost her contact lense down the bathroom drain.

Author’s website:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Planning a Labor Day Getaway?

If you’re off to the beach or the mountains for a Labor Day break, you’ll want a just right book to read.

I pack a bag of books for reading on a sun warmed rock outside a mountain cabin we love or on the screen porch of a favorite beach house with a view of the Gulf. Usually, all of the books turn out to be “just right,” keeping me spellbound until the last page. Many are mysteries, a genre I enjoy as long as it isn’t gory. I’ll share a few titles in the next week leading up to the holiday and maybe you’ll want to tuck a copy or two in your reading bag.

My first choice is a book teens and parents, too, can read with pleasure. Not too heavy. Not too light. Just right.

BLOOD BROTHERS by s.a. harazin, Delacorte Press, 2007

This novel was an Edgar finalist. Considering how many young adult mystery novels are published every year, rising to the top is an indication of the quality of the writing and the heart pumping power of the plot.

17 year old Clay is a medical technician with a driving desire to be a doctor. This ambition will have to be achieved by his own will because he has no connections, no money, and bumps in the road both literally and philosophically.

While Clay’s classmates, young people of privilege, plan parties and futures, Clay’s life revolves around a work schedule at the hospital. His job pays little and contributes little to his savings since his dad makes him pay rent and other expenses. As for transportation, and the miles add up, Clay must ride his bike everywhere–a major complication.

Joey is Clay’s best friend. They are blood brothers. Then something goes horribly wrong.

What happened to Joey? How did he come to be on life support? Did he overdose on drugs on purpose? Was someone else responsible? Is it Clay’s fault? Can Clay save Joey? Can anyone help Clay?

The reader will remember Clay long after the last page and will be pulling for him to find a way to earn that MD diploma. A sequel would be nice. Let's hope the author is working on that.

Friday, August 20, 2010

First Day Jitters

Has anyone at your house NOT started school yet? Is anyone worried about the first day of school? Take the pressure off.

IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN? By Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Daniel Jennewein, Balzer + Bray, Harper Collins 2010

For those parents concerned about having their children ready for school, here’s a quick thought. It could be even more daunting. What if you had to get your buffalo ready for school instead? What if your buffalo is shy and worried that he may be the only one with horns? The best part of kindergarten is that everyone’s special in his own way.

This book is supposed to be for 4 and 5 year olds, but it will come as quite a relief to first time parents. Concentrate most on what is special, not what is different.

Easy, there, dear first time parent. You’ll make it through the first day. If a buffalo can, so can you.

P.S. Sage kindergartners will find this book chuckle-worthy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

It’s Not Easy to Eat Your Words

Food is basic. We get defensive about the foods we grew up with, the foods that define our very lives. My uncle, the droll historian, used to say the Civil War in this country was started over cornbread. One side said sugar was a necessary ingredient. The other side said, "Absolutely not!" I forget which.

That’s the thing about a food war, maybe all wars. It’s hard to remember who started it.

THE SANDWICH SWAP, by Her Majesty Queen Rania Ali Abdullah, with Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Tricia Tusa, Hyperion, 2010

In this book, the “war” starts over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a hummus and pita sandwich

Salma and Lily were best friends until each criticized the lunch sandwich of the other. All the things these little girls did together did not prepare them for handling the differences in their lunches.

Salma and Lily watched each other at lunchtime for a long time before they reacted.

Then one said, “Ew. Yuck.”
The other said, ”Ew. Gross.”

Once these words were out, they were hard to take back. A wedge was driven.

And then there was a food fight.

Kids will love the illustrator’s vivid and active pictures. (Moms might not. Hopefully, they will be on hand to say their own “ew” and “gross” about the clean-up to come.)

How the girls resolved this will inspire young readers to think about how to bring conflicts to a delicious end. You can probably guess what they did, but read the book anyhow and ask your young reader what he or she thinks.

The Queen of Jordan says this cultural conflict actually happened to her. As UNICEF’s Eminent Advocate for Children, she is “dedicated to defending the welfare of children around the world.” She’s also recognized as a champion of cross-cultural tolerance and a campaigner for global education. Her Majesty collaborates with international organizations and grassroots projects in these areas.

Kids in school will warm to the idea of a cross-cultural classroom swap of sandwiches. How about us? Maybe it’s time for us to share a meal with a neighbor whose background is different.

Do you put sugar in your cornbread? Or not?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Congratulations, Sarah Campbell!

Sarah Campbell's first children's book, Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator just keeps on winning awards. Its latest is the Mississippi Library Association's Children's Book Award.

Sarah's second book, Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature was reviewed on Book Log on July 3, 2010.

See Sarah's blog to read more about this award and keep on scrolling. Her husband, Richard, has added some stunning photographs of the outdoors we love but have to hike or climb to find. His pictures take you there. No need for insect repellant or sunscreen.

Authors, Authors, Everywhere!

When a children's author comes to town, fellow authors gather to cheer her on!

Kathryn Erskine and her daughter, Fiona, put Birmingham on Kathryn's book tour for Mockingbird, her latest book,(Book Log August 3, 2010) and her hostess, Irene Latham (Leaving Gee's Bend--Book Log March 18, 2010) handed her camera to a willing picture taker. You can see the result on Irene's web page,

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Humorous Abe

Here’s a new side to Abraham Lincoln, one you might not know even if your book shelves are like mine and groan from the weight of books about our 16th president.

LINCOLN TELLS A JOKE: How laughter Saved the President (and the Country) by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer, illustrated by Stacy Innerst, Harcourt Children’s Books, 2010

There’s always a new way to interest young readers in history, especially if a creative parent, teacher, or writer will spend time and effort to search for it and delight us with the results.

Kathleen Krull has that kind of creativity, sure to tickle your funny bone while history sneaks up on you. Her series, Lives of...(the Musicians, Writers, others) and What the Neighbors Thought is like that. Kids love the inside jokes and don’t realize they are absorbing the outside facts at the same time. She’s applied her talents to our venerable president, too.

Krull’s husband and co-writer, Paul Brewer, surely added mirth to the mix. He’s an avid joke collector and has written volumes of jokes and puzzles for kids.

Illustrator Stacy Innerst’s painting of the Lincoln Memorial will tempt tourists to go back for a second look. Is Lincoln reading a book of jests? Is he smiling?

It’s National Smile Week. Honest Abe couldn’t resist joining in.

Monday, August 9, 2010

National Smile Week

All across our country kids are going back to school this week. It’s also National Smile Week. We’ll leave it to you to decide who is smiling the most. If you are trying to get clothes, books, pencils, backpacks, water bottles, lunches, all those school “musts” organized, you’ll have great sympathy for Mr. Tuggle.

MR. TUGGLE’S TROUBLES by LeeAnn Blankenship, illustrated by Karen Dugan, Boyds Mills Press, 2005

It’s Monday morning. All seems serene. Mr. Tuggle and the cats sprawled across his bed yawn and open their eyes to a bright sunny day. If they knew what was ahead, they’d crawl under the bed and keep sleeping.

Are you hunting for your child’s shoes when the school bus pulls to a stop at the corner? Well, Mr. Tuggle finds his shoes. He just can’t find his hat. So he goes without it, but that soon proves to be a disaster in the making. So he improvises.

The next day Mr. Tuggle can’t find his shoes. So he improvises again.

The week continues and young readers relate. Giggles grow at each page turn.

The artist dedicates this book “To all the Mr. Tuggles of the world (and you know who we are).” Clearly, she had fun bringing the author’s clever story to the cluttered page. The word clutter is meant as a compliment. The youngest reader will return again and again to see Mr. Tuggle’s world, from home to bus, to office, and back. The park bench scene will elicit shrieks. Each face in the ordinary places of Mr. Tuggle’s bus, at his bus stop, and on the elevator registers surprise and amazement at the discovery that there is nothing ordinary about Mr. Tuggle.

The last page rates belly laughs.

The talents of author and artist mesh perfectly for a picture book worthy of launching National Smile Week. Or any time the daily hustle becomes a hassle.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cold Front

Along with the rest of our country, my city has experienced the tumble of heat records this year. 101 has come to visit and stayed longer than we’d like. When reading Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, my thirst became so great, I wanted to get a drink of water, but that would mean a break in reading. I couldn’t stop. Not for a minute. I wondered, was there ever a book that made me feel cold. Numb, even? I offer the following as my attempt to bring down the temperatures. Have a sweater handy.

THE WHITE DARKNESS by Geraldine McCaughrean, HarperTempest, 2005

14 year old Symone’s confidante is Captain Titus Oates who was aboard a doomed expedition to the South Pole–-90 years ago. As Sym puts it, “I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now–-which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way, in ninety years I’ll be dead, too, and the age difference won’t matter.”

That’s the thing about Sym. She has her own way of looking at things. Good thing. It saves her sanity when her Uncle Victor, obsessed with seeking Symme’s Hole, an opening that may lead to the center of the Earth, takes her on an adventure in the bleak, unyielding, unrelenting Antarctic wilderness. The entire undertaking becomes a nightmare. Is it cold? Try freezing.

The author thoughtfully provides a brief account of the doomed expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott who set out for the South Pole in 1911, a second and final attempt. For Titus Oates, given charge of Captain Scott’s horses, this contemporary novel could grant him a second chance to set a few things straight.

The White Darkness was singled out for the Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature by the American Library Association. Author McCaughrean has won many other awards for her lengthy list of credits, including the Carnegie Medal, England’s most prestigious children’s book award, and the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. She was the first to win the latter award three times.

Reviews on the back cover are, of course, favorable. They wouldn’t be there otherwise. However, The Guardian (UK) spoke for me: “A rip-roaring adventure yarn...with any luck it’ll be read by everyone, whatever their age. No one’s going to forget it in a hurry.”

I haven’t.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

How Our Lives Might Be Different

Violence makes the news. We can’t escape it. When the media was limited to sources our parents could control, we were shielded. Not true today. School was once a place of safety. Also not true today. We are unable to give our kids the childhood we enjoyed.

Author Kathryn Erskine was devastated by the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. As she struggled to deal with this violent event that happened in her home state, she wondered how community and family–-particularly families with special needs children-–would cope with this tragedy. How, she wondered, might our lives be different if we understood each other better?

During the days after the shooting at Virginia Tech, following the story on television, watching the families gather on the campus and cling to each other for support, I wondered how they would survive the sadness of the days and nights to come after these bright, shining lives were taken from their midst so senselessly. Of course, children with special needs would suffer trauma, but all children, siblings of those shot, and all parents, relatives, and friends would never come to complete closure without a great deal of emotional work.

MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine, Philomel Books, 2010.

Caitlin is a 10 year old who has Asperger’s Syndrome. In her world, everything is black and white, and anything in between is confused and confusing. At home, it’s just Caitlin, her dad, and her brother, Devon, who is good at explaining things to Caitlin. Devon understands Caitlin’s way of thinking. He’s her rock. And then a school shooting takes him away.

Chapter One is titled: The Day Our Life Fell Apart

Caitlin’s father cries a lot. Caitlin wants to help, but she doesn’t know how. When she hears that all the families who suffered loss are seeking closure, she looks up the definition of closure in the dictionary and decides her family needs some, too.

In some ways, Caitlin’s syndrome is like a protective cover. She is trying to learn the skills of relating to others. Her way of expressing herself seems rude and insensitive, but when the author takes us inside Caitlin’s head, it’s much easier to understand why she reacts the way she does. Language, for one, is filled with double meanings. Literal meanings can be most confusing, even when you turn to a dictionary, as Caitlin does.

Caitlin’s coping mechanisms are based a lot on what Devon told her. "Stuffed animaling" is the way she takes her mind away from stressful situations. She gets a recess feeling in her tummy when she feels as if something bad is about to happen.

After the school shooting, Caitlin meets first grader Michael whose mother was shot and she shares a school with Josh, whose cousin was the shooter at the middle school Caitlin will attend next year. How does she get along with these people as everyone is trying to come to closure?

Caitlin’s counselor is very real, not perfect, but human and trying hard to be patient with the special needs children she counsels. The reader sees progress in action when these children recognize and react appropriately to a hurtful comment made by the PE teacher.

It’s almost as if the school shooting brought emotions to the surface. School personnel take this chance to develop understanding and kindness. If only all fifth graders could be well grounded in how to care about the feelings of others by the time they are launched into the outer space of middle school.

Caitlin’s story will enlighten those of you who wonder what Asperger’s Syndrome is. Chances are, you already know someone with Asperger’s, maybe several people. They will come to mind as you read Mockingbird. You will want to read this with your children and talk about it together.

Caitlin is caught up in reading To Kill a Mockingbird which just celebrated 50 years of making us think. Caitlin will make you think, too.

Monday, August 2, 2010

For School Sleuths

The title gives a shout out to girl readers. Those middle graders who reach for mysteries when left to choose their own books, will want to read this one.

THE RED BLAZER GIRLS by Michael D. Bell, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009

You know you’re in for a bit of mind bending when the copyright page is printed in mirror writing.

This contemporary novel is set in Manhattan in a girls’ Catholic day school. Four seventh grade girls who have a variety of talents and skills band together to help a colorful senior citizen solve a puzzle her own father left to her estranged daughter 20 years ago. Is there a reconciliation? I won’t say. Are there villains? Oh, yes.

The girls notice boys, but giggling about them is not the main way they spend their time. When they become absorbed in the mystery, they don’t hesitate to use their French and Latin, math, and writing skills to tease out the clues that lead to a solution.

The girls collaborate on a skit–-based on Great Expectations–which they act out while the plot thickens all around them. Several pages of math puzzles explained by one of the characters could stop a reader if it occurred early in the book, but by the time this happens, the reader belongs to the group.

Author Bell captures the voices of the girls so well that if he and his wife have teen daughters, he could be a “cool” dad because he understands them. Or they could fuss at him for eaves-dropping.

Is this the beginning of a series? Readers will hope so.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Edge of Chair Edgar Finalist

The book jacket of this YA spy-in-training mystery promises that the reader will be guessing until the last page. True!

THE MORGUE AND ME by John C. Ford, Viking, 2009.

How nice to read a novel that concentrates on the mystery and doesn’t focus on the gore and grime of crime. OK, there is a body almost from the beginning, but the focus remains on why he was killed and who did it.

Christopher, the main character, just graduated from high school and has a love of photography–just like the author. He doesn’t make dumb mistakes the reader could see coming for a mile. Circumstances trip him up, but not his own feet. He isn’t arrogant and doesn’t get a comeuppance.

Considering all the CSI shows and spin-offs, a high school student taking a job as a morgue assistant doesn’t seem like a strange choice of summer jobs. If a guy plans to be a spy, what better place to start?

It must have been a challenge to keep Christopher’s ten year old brother from stealing the whole show. Maybe author Ford will center a book on Daniel someday.

For kids who love summer because it gives them time to read for pleasure, this book could be one last treat before having to tackle reading assignments for school.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is There a Fair in Your Future?

Popcorn, cotton candy, and hotdogs, sideshow barkers, lights, rides, games–-it's more than enough for an entire alphabet.

A FABULOUS FAIR ALPHABET by Debra Frasier, Beach Lane Books, 2010

Wow! I got dizzy the first time through this book. A second trip helped me remember the fairs I’ve enjoyed and realize that the sights, sounds, and smells of a real fair are, in fact, dizzying. The author/illustrator captures all the reasons we go to fairs in bright colors and vivid scenes.

Young readers will want to look at each picture on each page. Your own memories of the fair will keep you recalling family stories or childhood memories.

I liked the full spread of C (cotton candy) and the full spread of L (large lemonade); R (roller coaster) races across another double spread. Lest you think I just enjoyed the double spreads, wait until you get to W (win). You’ll have to pick up a copy of the book to find out what the illustrator chose for D.

Read this to your young listener a number of times before you go to a fair. He or she will be eager to go. And so will you.

To “meet” the creative artist and find fun activities see

Friday, July 23, 2010

Making Sense of the News–maybe

We hear about Afghanistan on network news every night. Putting a face to the news might help us understand why we are committing ourselves to sacrifices beyond imagining.

NASREEN’S SECRET SCHOOL: A True Story From Afghanistan, by Jeanette Winter, Beach Lane Books, 2009

Nasreen’s parents disappear. In sorrow and great distress, this young girl becomes mute. Her grandmother watches her suffer until she feels driven to take action. She risks everything to enroll Nasreen in a secret school for girls. In this place of warmth and friendship, healing begins. The books Nasreen learns to read and love open windows on the world.

How this secret school changes Nasreen’s life also gives the reader a glimpse–but only a glimpse--into how girls and women are treated in Afghanistan and why the Taliban is such a dreaded foe. The award winning author has written and illustrated many books for young readers based on true-life stories. She writes with sensitivity.

The risk Nasreen’s grandmother takes for her will stay with the reader. The young reader will know that when she hears about the war in Afghanistan, a little girl named Nasreen, about her age, is going to a secret school and enjoying books the same way she is. Maybe they are even reading the same books.

Children’s books are always a good way to make sense out of the world. Even better, they bring hope at the end.

May it always be so.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sleepy or Creepy?

The choice is this: go to sleep at a decent hour and finish the book tomorrow, or keep turning pages until the villain is uncovered or caught or the mystery is solved or the things that go bump are explained. Usually, in my arguments with myself, creepy wins. I have to know how it ends. NOW.

SHADOWED SUMMER by Saundra Mitchell, Delacorte Press, 2009

Here is the summary from the book jacket: In the small town of Ondine, LA, 14 year old Iris uncovers family secrets when she conjures up the ghost of a boy missing for decades and decides to solve the mystery of his disappearance.

Yes, there is conjuring and not everyone is comfortable with the effects of dabbling in the dark arts. So be advised. However, the voices of the main character and her best friend are authentic and their boredom in the small town, which they vow to leave as soon as they get their drivers’ licenses, will resonate with a teen reader.

The author is a screenwriter, and it shows. Imagine what ghostly antics can do for a muggy summer in a town of 349 people that’s not more than a supper stop between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. This was a finalist for the Edgar for Young Adult novels. It’s easy to see why.

It’s likely that girls rather than guys will opt to lose sleep over this one.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Different Underwater Picture

Oil in the Gulf of Mexico, sharks at the Jersey Shore, our beautiful beaches and wetlands under threat...let’s visit better times.

Do you remember that lovely book by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From the Sea? My daughter, Carolyn, gave me a copy when she graduated from college with this inscription: “Mom, I hope you love this author." I did. Still do.

Here’s another gift linking us to the sea, and this one can be loved by your young readers, a picture book biography of Jacques Cousteau. When he was young, Jacques Cousteau was given a pair of goggles so he could see underwater. This gift changed his life forever.

The Fantastic Undersea Life of JACQUES COUSTEAU, by Dan Yaccarino, Alfred A.Knopf, 2009.

Writer/illustrator Yaccarino heard Cousteau’s words, “The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish.” He stirs words and art together in a magical mix, pulling the reader deeper and deeper under the sea with Cousteau.

Cousteau’s tv series, The Undersea World of Jacques Costeau, brought sea creatures like whales and dolphins right into people’s living rooms. Yaccarino has accomplished the same feeling for the reader, as if he is standing in an aquarium, but instead of the reader moving from exhibit to exhibit, the exhibits move to him. The placement of double spreads, the vibrant art with blocks of text on one page and circles of quotes from Cousteau on the opposite page, all move together.

Cousteau, who produced 50 books, two encyclopedias, and dozens of documentary films, shot The Silent World, the first full-length, full-color underwater film ever made, in the Mediterranean Sea. His dream was to live and work underwater in labs and actually colonize the ocean. His diving Saucer could descend 350 meters to the Sea Flea which could take scientists another 500 meters. However, the problem, yet to be solved, is this: since people need sunlight to live, how could they actually live underwater?

Your young readers will be transfixed–and maybe take Cousteau’s work to the next level. Or should I say depth?

Be sure to see the trailer:

Enjoy the sea breeze!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nothing Quiet About Sojourner

Some people seem destined for greatness, from the very first sound they make when they arrive in the world. That was Sojourner Truth.

SOJOURNER TRUTH’S STEP-STOMP STRIDE by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, Disney Jump at the Sun Books, 2009.

I can hear a group of youngsters step-stomping around the room in imitation of the famous person they’ll meet via this lively picture book. Some books are meant to be read before a nap. Not this one. After you finish sharing this brief burst of history, get the children up and moving.

Both author and illustrator have won numerous awards. They’ve combined talents to breathe life into a period of history when injustice threatened nearly everyone and overwhelmed the good intentions of most.

Larger than life, Sojourner Truth step-stomped her size twelve feet through a swamp of trouble until at long last she tasted the sweetness of freedom. Did she use her freedom to help others? Of course she did.

That was Sojourner Truth.

Your young readers won’t forget her.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Even Dust Bunnies Have Heart

If your kids are bored with summer and you’re bored with hearing how bored they are, help is at hand.

HERE COMES THE BIG, MEAN, DUST BUNNY! By Jan Thomas, Beach Lane Books, 2009

Ed, Ted, Ned, and Bob say they rhyme all the time. (Bob?) Enter the monstrous dust bunny and a game is on. Knowing that sat and splat rhyme might make you wonder how this one will turn out. Not to worry. Even on the run, a pun is fun.

A mom might wonder if it’s her kitchen pantry or laundry room where Jan Thomas hides to do her writing. I wondered. Will you?

Hillview School Library