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: www.elisebroach.com

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.

Hillview School Library