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?

Hillview School Library