Thursday, December 22, 2011

And Now a Ghazel

Intrigued? I was. Haiku has fascinated me for years and now comes another poetry form, the ghazel (say guzzle and you’ll be close). Of course, it’s not new—except to me. This poetic structure dates back to the 7th century (at least) and is Arabic. The challenge in this rhymed couplet lies in each word that is next to the last. As it rhymes with the next to the last word in the line before it, it carries the story forward. What better way to introduce it than by experiencing it in the hands of a master story teller.

NAAMAH AND THE ARK AT NIGHT by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Holly Meade, Candlewick Press, 2011.

We know about Noah and his faithfulness. We know he built the Ark in spite of the derision of his neighbors. We know he rescued the animals two by two and set sail on a storm tossed sea. What then? What was it like when it got dark aboard the ship? Were Noah’s sons and their wives afraid? And what do we know of Noah’s wife?

Her name was Naamah (say Na-ah-mah or Nay-ah-mah). Scholars think she was a pleasant woman because that is one interpretation of her name. I have to wonder whether anyone of lesser temperament could have survived that crammed existence on a violent sea.

Another interpretation of the name Naamah is “great singer.” Author Bartoletti postulates, “Perhaps she sang.”… to Noah and their sons and the wives of their sons. While Bartoletti imagines Naamah into being, the reader relaxes, feeling the warmth of Naamah’s courage and confidence. Naamah, too, had great faith, just like Noah.

The poetic structure with its smooth, rolling lines creates a mood of peace. So, too, does the sweep of the art, the light and dark, enveloping, revealing. Here is a lullaby story that begs to be read aloud and a young reader will insist that it be read many times. Naamah’s song will bring calm to your stressful day, too. It’s already on my gift list for several friends, of different ages.

Both author and illustrator have won awards for their work. More importantly, they have won the hearts of young readers.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Water, Water, Anywhere?

Except for times of drought when we’re asked to water our lawns before and after 10 o’clock on set days of the week, we take water for granted.

In the mid-1800’s our ancestors didn’t have that luxury. They couldn’t pretend they were opera stars singing in daily hot showers or gulp a glass of cool water from the kitchen sink. If they wanted water to keep their cattle, crops, and themselves alive, they had to hire a dowser, a person with the gift of finding water.

Not everyone had this gift. It seems to me that a dowser must have been as necessary to his community as a doctor. A dowser would have his future planned and his security assured. Wouldn’t he? But what if the dowser was determined to escape the reach of his gift and do something else?

THE WATER SEEKER by Kimberly Willis Holt, Christy Ottaviano Books, 2010

Dowser and trapper Jake Kinkaid uses a forked branch to make his living. He’s saving his money so he can stop dowsing and do what he wants. The plan is simple. Jake’s life gets complicated.

A wild, red-headed woman named Delilah runs to Jake’s cabin to escape her abusive father. In very short order, they marry, produce a son, and Delilah dies, leaving Jake to raise his son, Amos, alone. Amos inherits his mother’s artistic talents and his father’s gift of dowsing, but, as the reader learns, Amos is not entirely alone. Other women who love and care for Delilah’s boy, sometimes see a wild, red-haired apparition who seems more approving than threatening.

Jake’s gift of dowsing doesn’t make him happy. He longs to spend all his time hunting and trapping. As a scout for a wagon train going west, he is injured trying to rescue another man on a treacherous river crossing and his leg must be amputated. By now Amos is 14. He knows that he, too, has the gift of dowsing, but he keeps it to himself because he knows how unhappy his father is about his own gift. Instead, he tries to help his disabled father dowse and struggles to keep him from falling into a deep depression.

Amos’s life parallels the expansion of our country during the middle part of the 18th century. This is historical fiction at its best. As the author follows Amos from his birth in 1833 to the birth of Amos’s son in 1859, the reader absorbs how the early pioneers learned to work together, take care of each other, share, grow, settle, and branch out with their own families.

Author Holt won the National Book Award for When Zachary Beaver Came To Town, and her book My Louisiana Sky was made into a movie. She was launched on her quest for information for The Water Seeker when her own husband mentioned that his father was a dowser. Mentioned? What a happy discovery! There is more on her website:

This book should travel well in the days ahead. Tuck it into your tween’s carry-on. A book can stay open after the captain orders all electronic devices shut down.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Today’s tweens and teens might think the word firestorm refers to political rhetoric. No one who is of interest to the media can say much or tweet much without drawing a barrage of withering comments—a firestorm. When I looked up the word in a dictionary, it wasn’t there. Another dictionary, same year as the first, defined it as a fire driven by a violent wind. Yes, lots of hot air. I like the middle grade novel by the same name much better than the storms raging on radio and tv talk shows.

FIRESTORM! by Joan Hiatt Harlow, Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010

Poppy’s mother leaves her in a Chicago alley where the little girl is picked up by Ma Brennan, a female Fagin, who teaches girls to steal. Ma has 2 biological daughters whom she favors, but Poppy becomes a skilled pick pocket, and this is what keeps her alive and gives her a place to sleep.

Justin Butterworth is 13 and privileged. His father is Chicago’s most important jeweler. Poppy and Justin meet, and thanks to a pet goat named Tick Tock, they begin to see each other as people, not stereotypes. They become friends. Poppy meets Justin’s sister Claire who tells her she is like a geode. Inside is a sparkly crystal of goodness. This reaches deep inside Poppy, getting underneath all the hurt she has suffered. Poppy doesn’t want to steal anymore. She wants to belong to a real family.

Ma is not willing to give up her star thief, however. She manipulates Poppy by threatening to turn Tick Tock into goat stew, and the plot thickens.

The characters interact, grow, and deepen against the historical background of the Chicago fire which was NOT started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Only the Butterworth family, Poppy, and the girls and Ma Brennan are fictional, although there was a Mary Brennan who taught girls to steal. Other famous people are mentioned but they are in place historically and accurately portrayed. Author Harlow skillfully weaves in bits of history to enlarge the reader’s knowledge of this tragic event. Publication of this novel was timely, during the 150th year observation of the fire.

This is definitely a middle grade novel which girls especially will enjoy. Sensory details are so engaging one can taste the smoke, hear the fire alarms and trucks rushing to respond, feel grit in eyes and nose. A dramatic arc swings wide from tangled relationships to a frantic escape from the raging fire to the resolution of the characters’ complicated problems. In spite of a burned and blackened landscape, this ends well.

Kudos to the author. She’s written other books for this age group and you can find them at her website.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Covered in Cobwebs

It’s that time again. Carve the pumpkin, or purchase one that has a permanent grin. I still have the coated cardboard jack-o-lantern (my guess as to what it’s made of) I carried as a child, thanks to my mother and an attic with magical stretching powers. That space above the pull down stairs always had room for one more box of treasures. Even creepy ones with eerie smiles.

THE GARGOYLE ON THE ROOF by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Peter Sis, Greenwillow Books, 1999.

If this book is in your attic or buried in the stacks on your bookshelves, drag it out and dust it off. Poetry and pictures in the hands of these talented legends is never out of style.

This book of clever poems has longevity. Moms and dads can read it to their younger kids and dramatize as much as the youngest listener can handle. Older kids will enjoy doing their own dramatizing. One can almost hear the illustrator chuckling to himself as he creates the gruesome characters soaring, diving, and gliding across the pages. Other characters react in fright, shock, surprise, and a few smiles, but these are not the smiles one trusts.

My favorites: the plight of the Vampire who can’t see his image in the mirror,and the social problems of the Headless Horseman and the lonely Troll. It isn’t too difficult to see middle school students identifying with some of these characters.

Without any magic at all, today’s young readers will be tomorrow’s older kids. Here are two Halloween books reviewed on Book Log last year. The links either won't work on reviews that far back or the gremlins are haunting my computer. You can, however, find them by going to the archives
at left and clicking on 2010.

Trick or Treat, Old Armadillo by Larry Dane Brimner, featured October 26, 2010.

On a Windy Night by Nancy Raines Day, reviewed October 22, 2010.

They are still scary good fun!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Reader—A.K.A. Writer

I’ve been away from my blog, but not away from my books. Time to share.

THE CASE OF THE CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY by Mac Barnett, with illustrations by Adam Rex, Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2009

If you’ve been searching for a book for a reluctant reader boy, here’s one that just might grab his interest. Does he like playing detective and solving crimes? Being a hero? How about his ego? Can it stand a good natured tumble or two?

He’d relate well to 12 year old Steve Brixton, the main character of this fun to read adventure. Steve is a fan of the Bailey Brothers detective novels and he is so good at solving crimes that he’s mistaken for a real detective. The chase is on. While he searches for a missing quilt containing coded information, he must elude librarians, police, and the mysterious Mr. E. Along the way, he learns to laugh at himself when his ego is trounced and keep his focus on the crime at hand.

Girls will enjoy this book, too, even though there are no girls in it, just two chums. That word is an inside joke. Read the book to get it. However, this is not one of those books you need read first to understand why your reader is chuckling. Just be glad he’s reading.

References to the Bailey Brothers detective novels does not slow the action. If the Bailey Brothers series is real, this book builds on them. If the idea of such a series was created only for this stand alone title, someone should write it. A readership awaits.

This was a finalist in the juvenile division of the Edgar awards given by the Mystery Writers of America.

I have a hunch the author’s website is fun.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Good-Bye, Irene

The rains fell, the winds blew. An introduction to Hurricane Irene thundered on the tin roof of my cabin in the Poconos where I recently spent a week in the company of other writers. Nothing like a good book to take one’s mind off a threatening storm. While Irene tossed her wet and shaggy locks like a quick-tempered drama queen, I sailed the Polar Sea with Captain Mac.

CAPTAIN MAC: The Life of Donald Baxter MacMillan, Arctic Explorer, by Mary Morton Cowan, Calkins Creek, 2010

The son of a seaman, Donald Baxter MacMillan was an orphan by the time he was twelve. He faced and overcame many hardships, but at the end of a long and adventurous life, he could look back on a career of Arctic exploration that lasted almost 50 years.

Author Mary Morton Cowan combed notebooks, diaries, and ship’s logs to craft this fully researched text that reads like a novel. She takes the reader out to sea with Captain Mac to endure homesickness, cold, isolation, and darkness for months at a time. 5 of Captain Mac’s 25 sailing expeditions, the last in 1954, lasted longer than a year. On some expeditions, the crew was forced to subsist on seal, walrus, polar bear meat -- or starve. Excellent maps and photos are well-placed to expand the reader’s understanding of the action in the Polar North.

Bowdoin College figures prominently in Captain Mac’s life. He worked diligently to pay his way and graduate with a degree in geology in spite of financial and health problems. His schooner, which he captained for 18 expeditions, was named the Bowdoin. In 1918 Bowdoin College awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science degree. The Peary-Macmillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College, dedicated in June 1967, houses stuffed, mounted polar bears, Mac’s camera, the watch Commander Robert Peary gave Mac that he took every time he sailed north and the letter he took on every expedition: “To be opened when everything’s gone dead wrong.”

There is so much more to know about Captain Mac. His sense of fairness. His sense of humor. Cowan lightens dark moments with anecdotes about the man himself.

The bear cub he rescues and names Bowdoin causes mayhem, becomes playful and somewhat trainable, but eventually leaves. It’s a bittersweet good-bye.

Mac learns to choose his crew with these criteria: to sign on, a scientist must be or become a sailor and a hunter. He must also be personable. Who would want to be stuck in the dark and cold for months with a man who complains all the time? Cranky men need not apply! (Interpretation mine.)

And then there are the college students, “Mac’s boys,” that Mac and his wife Miriam treat like family. Additionally, their care and concern for the Inuit children and the Inughuit culture becomes a legacy.

The author provides a time line of expeditions, a list of awards and major recognitions, chapter notes, an index, and a selected bibliography as well as suggestions for further reading. For more, see the author’s website.

Author Cowan weaves a tantalizing tale. Readers ten and up and their parents will find this information packed adventure story accessible and enjoyable.

Irene may have turned off the lights, shut off the water, and closed down all the airports offering me a ride home, but I was equipped with a small clip-on book light, a Christmas present from my son. That book light goes where I go. Take note, you East and Gulf Coast weather watchers. Another hurricane or two is spinning toward us. Along with fresh batteries and a supply of bottled water, you might want to have a copy of Captain Mac on hand.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

40 Years of SCBWI

Fatigue has faded. Euphoria has not. Last week I was among the 1,342 lucky writers, illustrators, and other publishing professionals who journeyed to Los Angeles to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The founders, Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser, are still young. Writing for children creates one’s own private Fountain of Youth. Most of us are the age of the main character in our WIP (work in progress.)

Judy Blume, Gary Paulsen, Ben Small, Bruce Coville, Henry Winker (“The Fonz”), Ellen Hopkins, Jerry Pinkney, and Richard Peck were just a few of the many mesmerizing speakers. I will focus on three: Jo S. Kittinger, Rukhsana Kahn, and Laurie Halse Anderson.

Jo S. Kittinger, author of 22 books, led a workshop titled, “Digging for Gold: Nuggets That Make Your Nonfiction Books Shine.” Shine is something Jo knows about. Her most recent nonfiction book, Rosa’s Bus, blogged here, won a Crystal Kite, an SCBWI peer award given for the first time this year. Jo is also the Co-Regional Advisor of Southern Breeze,a region of SCBWI composed of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. In October Lin Oliver will travel to Birmingham to present the Crystal Kite award to Jo at the Southern Breeze Writing and Illustrating for Kids annual conference.

Rukhsana Kahn won a Golden Kite for her book The Big Red Lollipop blogged here. Her acceptance speech showcased her storytelling talents. A flutter of hands, a sly gleam, and a mischievous smile transported us to those moments in her life that inspired this award winning tale about sisters. Sibling rivalry is universal. Rukhsana admitted the real life ending and the ending in her book are different. Wouldn’t we all like to relive a part of our lives and write a different ending?

Laurie Halse Anderson was the final speaker. She spoke as though she had been perched on the front row, listening to each speaker, soaking up every word. Her summary, quoting speakers, emphasizing concepts and challenges, reminded us of the extraordinary task we have as creators of materials for children. For her body of work which includes the well known novels Speak, Chains, and Forge, blogged here. Laurie received the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award given by YALSA, a division of the American Library Association for “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.“

While Laurie quoted others in her stirring summary, I raced to take notes in order to share her her quotes:
“The job of the artist is to disturb the universe.”
“We are dreamers who dare to create.”
“To write is to terrorize yourself.”
“Our children need us to tell the truth.”
“In children’s literature, we are not competitors, we are co-conspirators.”

And, finally, “Go forth and disturb the universe.”

Monday, August 1, 2011

Too Little, Too Much

Weather is a news maker. Floods. Droughts. These are the calm sisters of the bullies, tornadoes and hurricanes. Yet, they are just as damaging, maybe more so. Too much water and people lose their homes in overwhelming floods. Too little water and drought kills crops. People suffer from famine or prices so high in the supermarket that dinner tables are often bare. We know the role water plays in the way we live. Do our children? Do they know how water works? Do they know where it comes from and where it goes?

ALL THE WATER IN THE WORLD by George Ella Lyon and Katherine Tillotson, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2011

Where does water come from and where does it go? Did you know it goes on a round trip?

An acclaimed poet and a skilled artist combine talents to take us around the world while our growing understanding of the importance of water hitch hikes on a drop, slides down a gutter, bounces on a sidewalk, or just dries up. We can see it, hear it, taste it, and wake up in the middle of the night hoping someone will bring us a glass of it.

The author is also a novelist and an activist wielding a pen. She won the Jane Addams Award given to books that further the cause of peace and justice for You and Me and Home Sweet Home. . Visit her online here

Illustrator Tillotson loves jumping in puddles and pours her energy into a number of books. See her webpagehere.

Do you hear the rumble of thunder in the distance? Time to make a lap and hold your toddler in place with a book that will make the storm a memory. A good memory.

All the Water in the World ties generations,cultures,and countries together.

Monday, July 11, 2011

What a Revolution Looks Like

Tweens and Teens who watch the news see revolutions all around the globe, in the Middle East and Africa, especially. Those countries seem far away. However, their grandparents will remember a revolution in the 1960's that happened only 90 miles away.

90 MILES TO HAVANA by Enrique Flores-Galbis, Roaring Book Press, 2010

This is about the Pedro Pan operation in 1961 during the Cuban Revolution. 14,000 children were sent from Cuba in a mass exodus. Parents were prevented from leaving, so the children sailed to new homes alone. Told in first person, present tense by Julian, youngest son of a well to do family, the story pulls the reader in with Julian’s mother’s command, “Don’t look away boys...I don’t want you to ever forget what a revolution looks like.”

Julian loves family and wants to please, save, help, take care of each member. His loyalty is steadfast. He makes friends from whom he can learn. His observations and developing skills build to his maturity and usefulness. An artist at heart, Julian expresses himself differently, with insights that surprise. This is a coming of age story, but it has so many layers of meaning and richness within that story.

Any revolution can be better understood by how it looks on a personal level. Bullies in power beget bullies at each level below them. Julian sees bullies in his Cuban neighborhood, at his school, and in America in the camp where he and his brothers are first to learn about America. The bully at the American camp, who was a classmate of his brothers in Cuba, becomes an even meaner bully in the United States, demonstrating how a bully’s inner fears drive his need to intimidate others.

Each character is well fleshed out. There are several casts of characters, from home, to camp, to small communities outside the camp, to Miami, to the school and new home in Connecticut. Trust issues arise. Misery results when misunderstandings occur.

I tried to figure out how old Julian is. He can work math problems that sound as if he could be in the 4th or 5th grade making him, maybe 10 or 11. However, when you are the youngest of 3 boys, it may not matter what your age is, you are still the youngest of 3 boys.

One of Julian’s brothers (Gordo) comes close to being a bully. The middle brother (Alquilino) has more sense and a greater interest in keeping peace, thinking first, acting afterward, weighing the potential. In a reverie near the end of the book, Julian says, “maybe my brothers were making too much noise for me to hear my own thoughts.” To me, that voice seems 9-11, that revelation closer to 11. At this point it’s clear that Julian understands how to make choices for the right reasons.

The author is an artist and lecturer and lives in Forest Hills, New York with his family. He was 9 when his life was changed by Operation Pedro Pan. He and his two older brothers spent months in a refugee camp in southern Florida and this novel is directly inspired by that experience.
Flores-Galbis dedicated this book “To my parents who were brave enough to let go, and my older brothers Anibal and Fernando: tormentors, teachers, and titans whom I will always look up to and love.”

Earlier this year, I blogged about Pedro Pan from a girl’s point of view Under the Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez. Entry here. 90 Miles to Havana is told from a boy’s perspective. Both books will be of absorbing interest to boy or girl readers.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Who’s in Your Photo Album?

Here’s a great way to prepare for a family reunion, real or imagined.

FINDING FAMILY by Tonya Bolden, Bloomsbury, 2010

Being twelve can be boring. Delana’s homelife is especially bland, considering she’s being raised by her grandfather and her Aunt Tilley who tell her tales about family members she’s never met. Unknown faces stare into space from the family’s many photos, photos on the walls, the tables, and stuffed into albums. Each photo has a story Aunt Tilley loves to tell. Delana isn’t fond of listening. Then Aunt Tilley dies and life turns from boring stories to shocking tales.

Delana finds out her grandfather bought his own freedom and then tried to relocate the many members of his family that had been sold and scattered. His hard exterior gives Delana the idea that he doesn’t love her, but she discovers how much love this man has for family. His life is bound up in finding and protecting family. Delana learns who she is and who her people were, an overwhelming experience in this coming of age tale set in the early 1900's in Charleston, West Virginia.

The author has written more than 20 books for children and young adults, and counts a Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award among them. In her author’s note, she confesses to collecting photos because the expressions on the faces made her wonder about the people and their lives.
The black and white photos illustrating the pages of Finding Family give witness to how well this works.

Many people today store their photos online. Boxes and albums of pictures may be the legacy of past generations only, just as my mother left me stacks of boxes and albums. I have countless pictures of groups, all lined up and smiling, individuals posing with small children in their arms, and many other scenes peopled with vacationers and a variety of state line signs in the background. No information on the back. I have no idea who these people were or why they were important to someone on my family tree. However, author Bolden inspires me to give a second life to these photos, to imagine who they were and make up stories about them. My mother's stacks of photos of unknown people is now a writer's treasure trove of ideas.

Still, I wish somebody had written on the back of my ancestors’ photos Names? Dates? Events?

Memo to self: be sure the photos I’ve taken carry identifying information. Whose feet are those?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Family Ties

What threads tie one generation to another? In this tribute to family, it is a shovel. Not a huge, earth moving shovel that spades garden plots or digs post holes. A little shovel. But it tells a mighty story.

ALL THE WAY TO AMERICA, The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel, by Dan Yaccarino, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

“Work hard.”
“Remember to enjoy life.”
“Never forget family.”

Wise words.

Oh, but there is so much more to the big Italian family that author Dan Yaccarino shares with us.

He begins with his great-grandfather’s little shovel, the one his ancestor was given so he could help tend the zucchini, tomatoes, and strawberries in his father’s garden.

Then this talented great-grandson mines the family stories and follows the little shovel as it travels with his great-grandfather from his birthplace in Sorrento, Italy all the way to America.

In a touching fare-well scene, the reader sees great-grandfather receiving from his father the little shovel and the first two lines of advice above. Mom added, “Never forget family.” She gave him photos and tomato sauce. The parting works on several emotional levels. Then the story kicks into high gear.

Great-grandfather changes his name and loves America, but he doesn’t forget family. He uses the little shovel in a bakery, measuring flour and sugar. He marries Adeline, has 5 children, lives in “Little Italy,” and teaches his children, “work hard, enjoy life, love family.”

The line of industrious bread winners and bread bakers continues, brightly illustrated by the author to show the little shovel in all its uses, with its greatest use being the witness it bears to the legacy of a loving family. It is, indeed a big Italian family, so big the family dinners grow too large for anyone’s home. Only a family owned restaurant will hold them all.

The last pages are about the author, Dan. He grows up in the suburbs but moves back to the city and becomes an author/illustrator. He marries Sue. Their son and daughter work on their New York City terrace with the small shovel. They grow zucchini, tomatoes, and strawberries. Dan teaches the family philosophy: work hard, enjoy life, and love family.

Explore the author’s website and visit the two trailers for this book. One is inspiring and the other is stirring. (Which is which? Personal opinion. What do you think?) Both will be the envy of authors who want to create trailers for their books. Either trailer will encourage you to water the soil of your own family tree.

What ties your family together?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Great Escape

What is better than a porch swing on an afternoon in June, a frosty pitcher of lemonade at hand, and a great book to escape into?

A TRUE PRINCESS by Diane Zahler, Harper, 2011

There are re-told fairy tales and re-imagined ones. This one is both plus a delightful “what if” creation from an author who knows how to make a good story even better.

Do you remember those lumpy mattresses at summer camp? You probably thought about the “Princess and the Pea” and were certain you were of royal blood. In the Zahler version of the tale, the candidates for bride had obviously not heard the lumpy mattress story, so they slept, even snored away the night and left the next day in tears, having no idea why the Prince rejected them.

However, flash back to long before this mandatory slumber party: a sleeping toddler in a basket is fished out of an icy, swiftly flowing river. The fisherman who plucks her from this predicament takes her home where ten years pass in relative calm. The fisherman’s wife is a surly sort, not caring for the fisherman’s two motherless children and certainly not happy with another mouth to feed. She makes a servant of the newcomer, called Lilia, the little girl with lilac eyes.

Not allowed to eat at the same table or sleep in the farmhouse with the family, Lilia is not a superior servant. Far from it. Her daydreams cost her dearly. Broken dishes. Lumpy porridge. When she hears the fisherman’s wife scheming to sell her to the wretched miller to become his servant, she gathers her wits and not much else and runs away. What she didn’t expect is that the fisherman’s own two children, Kai, who has become Lilia’s best friend, and his sister, Karina, would follow her.

The three unite and travel deep into the dark woods, only to find themselves lost in the sinister Bitra Forest and facing the evil Elf King. Throughout the spells, threats of spells, and un-raveling of spells, runs the thread of Lilia’s lineage. Who is she? Who put her in the basket and set her adrift? Someone who was saving her or someone bent on getting rid of her?

Kai falls under the spell of the Elf King’s daughter and the only way Lilia can save him is to find a jewel hidden in a castle and....the castle is the scene of many comings and goings of hopeful young women, desirous of becoming the prince’s bride. Now we’re getting to the lumpy mattress.

I’m going to stop here and say no more. You wouldn’t hear me anyway. You are already too deeply held in the spell of a really good book, the only kind a girl wants on a warm summer afternoon, lemonade at hand.

Diane Zahler is also the author of The Thirteenth Princess blogged here which expanded on the fairly tale the "The Dancing Princesses." You can visit her

Monday, June 13, 2011

Up to Speed

Things have been really slow at my desk these days. My computer would make snail races look like NASCAR. Three technicians have come to scratch their heads and offer advice. I hope the situation is changed. Seems a little faster today. I might be able to update my blog before the summer ends. :0)

Moving right along, momentum is something you won’t want your boy readers to lose. School is out and they might think books can be put away for weeks. However, the weather is beastly hot and moms are hoping kids will find something to do in the shade. Here’s a great boy book that just might keep those reluctant readers turning pages.

THE STRANGE CASE OF ORIGAMI YODA by Tom Angleberger, Abrams, 2010

Question: Is Origami Yoda for real?

In the introductory chapter, Tommy explains that he needs to know if Origami Yoda is real so he can decide if he should follow the advice asked and given.

Tommy wants scientific evidence and sets out to get it this way: Each classmate is asked to relate in writing a story of an experience with Origami Yoda and then Harvey, an avowed non-believer, adds a comment. Then Tommy comments again. Kellen contributes comic art or caricatures or just plain doodles to this growing case file. Art blends with text to create the look of a 6th grade boy’s creation, a journal of sorts. Pages look worn as if the notebook has been passed around.

Harvey, the non-believer, thinks Origami Yoda is a green paper wad. His sharp commentary adds balance to the experiences shared by those who want to believe IF the advice is what they want to hear even though it takes some pondering to figure out what the advice actually means.

The reason for all the doubt is that the green paper wad is a creation of Dwight, a rather unusual classmate, referred to and thought of as a geek, dork, weirdo, misfit, or just plain strange. Dwight produces Origami Yoda, a finger puppet, usually during lunch, when status is indicated by who is sitting where and with whom–or not. When Origami Yoda appears, he makes wise pronouncements in a voice quite unlike Dwight’s.

More questions:
How can Origami Yoda be so wise when Dwight is, well, Dwight?

On the other hand,what if Origami Yoda is for real? His wisdom works out to seem right often enough to keep the kids from thinking it’s all a bid for attention from Dwight.

If your question is whether the boys wonder about girls, remember this is a book about sixth grade boys. You probably don’t have to ask Origami Yoda.

This book speaks boy from cover to cover, page to page, words to doodles.

Instructions at the back of the book aid the reader in making his own origami puppet. Who knows? Maybe the wisdom of another generation of origami heroes will direct a reluctant reader to try another book, and another. It’s worth a try.

Here's what Origami Yoda has to say for

Monday, May 30, 2011

Books Matter

Books educate, elevate, entertain, rescue, distract, divert, and ...what did I leave out? Books mean many things to many different kinds of people in a variety of stages of their lives. For the past month I’ve been away from my desk (weddings, graduations, trips, power outages, technical problems) but never far from books. Even if I decide to go all high tech, I’ll keep close at hand books with paper pages, a legal pad, and a pencil that still writes, even if it’s lost its point. A flock of messenger pigeons might not be a bad idea, either.

Summer begins officially four weeks from tomorrow, but the minute school is out, it feels like summer. One sure sign is the number of cars circling the parking lot at our library. If you’re one of those loading up for quiet times (you hope) ahead, here’s something to make you look twice. A square cat.

SQUARE CAT by Elisabeth Schoonmaker, Aladdin, 2011

How do you fit in when you are a square cat living in a round world? That’s Eula’s problem.

Of course, she wants to be round like her friends, Patsy and Maude.

Have you considered what it would be like if you wanted to chase a mouse into a hole or wear circle skirts, or how you’d get up if you tipped over? Well, have you? Being a square cat is definitely not the cat’s meow.

Luckily, Patsy and Maude, who are blue and yellow cats, want to help. (Note: Eula might be orange, but I’d call her terra cotta. Oh, well.)

Patsy and Maude decorate Eula with round things, hoop earrings and rouge spots on her cheeks. They hold their mouths in O’s and dance in circles, eating doughnuts. Even the sprinkles look round on these vividly illustrated pages.

It almost works–until Eula tips over.

Well, maybe it would be easier for Patsy and Maude to become square cats instead of changing Eula into a round cat.

They all tip over.

These three cats learn there are advantages to being who you are. Other cats will learn from them. If you are round or square, why would you want to be any other cat?

This is Elizabeth Schoonmaker’s first picture book for young children. She holds a Master of Arts degree from the University at Albany, and her work has been exhibited in Chicago and New York.

Maybe author/illustrator Schoonmaker was inspired by her daughters to teach colors, shapes, and self esteem in this romp of a book. Or maybe it was her cat, Stanleigh, who is neither round nor square, just gray.

I hope you like this book. It is destined to be the one your toddler will clamor for at least 1,365 times. This summer.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

After the Tornado

On April 27 a deadly swath of tornadoes changed lives forever across our entire region.

What about the children?

In times of tragedy like these, the plight of children weighs especially heavy on everyone. In this morning’s paper I saw the picture of an NFL player holding the child of a friend as he stood in the midst of rubble, a former neighborhood, one he had come home to help.

A hug seems small. It is huge.

We all want to help. Everyone can. We can’t all be first responders. But we can respond as we find needs that our own resources can meet.

DeEtte Currie, a teacher and mother of two young girls shared this
link for “Boxes of Hope.” This is a person to person, child to child, expression of love and caring. Organizers are working toward a deadline of May 16, so I urge you to read through this timely site now and decide whether it’s the fit you’ve been seeking for your own need to help.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mama's Right, Again!

Ever hear these words: “He followed me home, Mom. Please? Please, Mom, can I keep him? Please?” Here's a clever twist. To the rescue!

CHILDREN MAKE TERRIBLE PETS by Peter Brown, Little, Brown and Company, 2010

Lucy, a little girl bear, finds a small boy lost in the woods. She thinks he is the most adorable critter in the forest, takes him home and begs her mother to let her keep him.

Mother says what all us mothers say with the added caveat that children make terrible pets. The worst.

Finally, Lucy wins Mother over, promising to take full responsibility for her new pet. She names him Squeaker because, well, that’s the only noise he makes. Squeak!

All goes well at first. But of course, that can’t last, can it? It turns out that Mother was right. Squeaker is hard to train. There are mishaps. What’s a nice bear family to do? Then Squeaker disappears. How Lucy finds him and how she makes a very tough decision will have pre-schoolers offering their own philosophies.

This is a fine way to start or end that discussion about pets. What are the best kinds of pets? Why? Who is ready to share one's home with a pet? These are your questions to pursue.

Only one question remains for me. Just where was author/illustrator Peter Brown when I needed this book for my own pre-schoolers?

Friday, April 22, 2011

What Rhymes with Earth?

Today is Earth Day. April is National Poetry Month. Here’s a book that’s a happy combination of both.

GRANDPA LOVES by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Illustrated by Kathryn Brown, HarperCollins, 2005

On Earth Day we talk a lot about preserving our planet. That’s worthy of this day of special notice and it’s increasingly necessary that we think, plan, and implement. But what makes our earth so special? What do we enjoy about it the most?

Grandpa Loves is about greening trees in spring, buzzing bees and beaches, sloshing seas, snowy hills. This earth provides a grandpa and his grandchild a huge playground for making memories all year long, not Earth Day alone.

What kinds of memories do they make? I read through several times trying to choose my favorite. Flipping pancakes. Picnics. Naps. Stomping through puddles. Finally, I decided. My favorite most of the time is reading books under a blanket beside a fire. All these things Grandpa loves. And his grandchild will remember forever.

Other books by this gifted poet: Lemonade Sun, In the Spin of Things, Poetry of Motion, Mama Loves, What Is Science? And many more.

Share the beauty of the earth or the beauty of poetry, or both. What Grandpa loves, you will love, too.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

National Bookmobile Day

On this special day of National Library Week, we honor those who drive bookmobiles and connect the farthest flung of our citizens to library materials we urban dwellers take for granted. I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the dedication of these heroic librarians than by sharing a book about them with young readers.

DOWN CUT SHIN CREEK: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky by Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer, Harper Collins, 2001.

Spend a day with a pack horse librarian and your appreciation for your neighborhood library will soar. Authors Appelt and Schmitzer, who is a librarian and webmaster of “Pack Horse Library,” open their thoroughly researched chronology of the Kentucky Pack Horse Library with a chapter titled, “An Ordinary Day. The Way it Might Have Been.”

These talented authors take you there. Feel the cold seeping through thin clothing, the sting of sleet against your face, the hunger gnawing at you as you make your rounds and deliver the prized and welcomed but already worn books and magazines, donated for you to deliver to eager readers on your route. You are one of these people. You live in these hollows. For your pre-dawn to dark deliver route, you are paid the grand sum of $28/month. This job feeds your family. It feeds minds too.

Pack horse libraries were considered one of the most well-liked rural outreach services. The librarians not only introduced many to books, they inspired a love of reading.

It’s possible that a pack horse librarian inspired a young Kentucky teacher who in turn played a part in making our library system what it is today. In 1956 United States Representative Carl D. Perkins from Kentucky sponsored the Library Services Act. This act made the first federal appropriations for library service and helped provide funds “to establish new libraries, build branch libraries, purchase bookmobiles, buy library collections, and hire new librarians.”

Now is a good time to contact your congressional and legislative representatives and ask them to continue what Mr. Perkins started. Hurry! Support library funding.

Here’s a phone number to get you started: Capitol Switchboard: 202-224-3121

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Honoring the Human Spirit

Several writer friends talked for days about a forthcoming book with a strong message. However, although the publiction date had arrived, no one could find the book available for purchase yet. Before I post a review, I always make sure readers can order or pick up a copy at the nearest library or independent bookstore. I kept checking. The book was on order. It was in transit. It arrived! Everything else in my day went on hold so I could read. Here’s a first novel you will want to read, too.

BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys, Philomel books, 2011.

The first sentence caught me and held on tight. “They took me in my nightgown.”

It’s 1941. This is the brutal Stalin era. 15 year old Lina, her ten year old brother Jonas, and her mother–her father has already been taken away–are given only minutes to pack before the Soviet guards gather them, neighbors, townspeople, some they know and some they don’t, and throw them into a train car meant for cattle and marked for “thieves and prostitutes.” They endure a long, torturous trip from their homes in Lithuania to Siberia where they struggle with hunger, cold, and pure evil displayed daily by their captors.

I was appreciative that the author chose to deliver this story in short chapters. The drama, the human tragedy, the bitterness, the burden of emotion, are all so heavy that a reader needs time to breathe.

The author, whose mother was a Lithuanian refugee, sets out to give voice to a group nearly forgotten in the rush of historical events. Stalin’s reign of terror crushed the Baltic states before the United States joined the allies in WWII. What did we know about these horrible events that occurred before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor? We didn't have nightly newcasts with embedded journalists.

It was a long time before Hitler’s life and influences were chronicled in our books for young people. Now we are learning, in books like Hitler Youth and The Boy Who Dared, both by
Susan Campbell Bartoletti. Her books and others are eye-openers about how youth can be used and abused by tyrants who march in, kill leaders and educated people, eradicate language, overwhelm, intimidate, starve, maim, threaten, kill. Surely, we can learn from this. Can’t we?

Some reviewers are saying this book is for more than kids. It’s their way of saying adults will find this story just as gripping as young adults and older tweens who are avid readers. Each will bring a different level of understanding to the story.

The triumph here is of the human spirit. When the human spirit refuses to become what the brutes have become, there is hope for a future, even if those who so valiantly struggle against the despots die in the attempt. They leave their courage behind as a legacy. They leave others inspired to hold out for another day, and another.

And years later, an author determined to tell their story does so. Brilliantly.

That’s why so many are raving about this book. It has staying power. Its characters will live in your heart of hearts.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another Break Book

I don’t want to leave the girls out in my quest for a fun book to take on spring break.

ONLY THE GOOD SPY YOUNG by Ally Carter, Hyperion, 2010

This is the 4th in a series of New York Times best-sellers known as the Gallagher Girls series.

Ally Morgan is a junior at the Gallagher Academy. Her goal is to be a spy, but she didn’t expect her life of dangerous sleuthing to begin so soon. Who knew she’d be facing an ancient terrorist organization out to kidnap her.

Code name Cammie “the Chameleon” and her close allies must lie, steal, hack, and spy their way to finding answers to many puzzle parts. The search is further complicated when Ally discovers that one of her most trusted associates is a rogue double agent. Of course, there is a love interest. Can she trust him?

Underwater turns out to be a place of caves and covert places to meet or hide. Hidden chambers and secret passageways abound. Nothing that looks like what it seems to be is really what it becomes when a code is used or a lever or some other means of accessing the secret places. It’s like watching a James Bond movie with teen players.

Enough romance to keep the girls happy. Enough action that guys won’t get antsy. A lucky reader can pack all four books, read long hours into the night, and sleep late. After all, it’s break time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Books for Breaks

Spring Break. Summer Break. Whatever qualifies as a break from the routine, whatever takes the family to a beach house or a mountain cabin, or the backyard hammock, parents are always on the look-out for a book or an author that will grab the interest of reluctant readers. The book reviewed here might do that. So might the author. He's considered by many to be a “rising star” among science fiction writers. This, his first novel for young adults, took top awards and honors this past year.

SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi, Little, Brown, and Co., 2010

This is not a book one puts down willingly. Every page has someone dangling into the uncertainty of another encounter with a villain or a dangerous turn of events.

No gender biases. In this dystopian world, boys and girls pull their own weight and are fairly equally matched.

Instead of werewolves and vampires, our characters interact with a mixed breed of humanity, tigers, and dogs, called half-men. This is a sinister warrior creature, bred to serve. Most are fierce, almost invincible, and nearly always loyal to the death. That’s right, “almost” and “nearly.” Some half-men have ideas of their own, skewing the action and increasing the terror.

The setting is the Gulf Coast region. Teenaged Nailer works on a crew of “ship breakers,” breaking down grounded oil tankers for parts. After a city killer storm (called hurricanes in earlier years when they weren’t as frequent), he finds a beached clipper ship. It’s elegant, expensive, and could make a huge difference in his day to day struggle to stay alive. He also discovers a survivor aboard, a wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life. Maybe. Does he opt for riches or rescue?

Class warfare, environmental hazards, religious conflicts, all rumble beneath the surface of a boy escaping an abusive father and a girl trying not to place her powerful, but vulnerable father (he loves his daughter), in an untenable position. Deep discussions may or may not develop, but the drive of a first reading is to find out how it ends and if the unlikely duo will make it to the last page alive. After closing the book and catching up on breathing, readers will hope for a sequel.

Ship Breaker was a National Book Award finalist and won the Prinz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature given by the American Library Association. It just might win the interest of your reluctant reader, too.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Drum Roll, Please

March is Women’s History Month. I still remember the first book I read that fit neatly into this category.

It was a biography of Abigail Adams. Wow! How amazing! Until that day, those first chapters, I thought our country was founded and shaped by George Washington and his soldiers. I also thought mothers were people who let their children back into the house after a long, boring day at school.

But not Abigail! At the same time she was a wife and mother of many children, she was a letter writer whose ideas and opinions influenced our country. (I discovered post-Abigail that my mother was a quite a letter writer,too, but I'll save that for another time.)

Since that enlightening day years ago, I've found many other books on women who achieved, prospered, broke barriers, and changed the world for the better. One I reviewed on Book Log is SHE SANG PROMISE by Jan Godown Annino about the amazing Betty Mae Jumper, Seminole Tribal leader. That was last March, and I’m still thinking about Betty Mae's courage and determination. The review is here.

Of course it helps that I keep up with the author, Jan Godown. A friend, mentor, and sister writer, Jan is observing women’s history month on her Bookseed Studio blog.

It was on Jan's blog that I picked up this link to Kidlit Celebrates Women’s History.

If only we had time to read all the books written about us!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Stories of St. Patrick

Myths and mayhem, gypsies and goblins. Intrigued? Before this St. Patrick’s Day celebration fades from memory, place this well spun tale near a comfortable chair. Once you open this book, you'll be seated for hours.

TYGER TYGER by Kersten Hamilton, Clarion Books, 2010

Although the author has published many books for children, this is her first novel for young adults. Her new and older fan club of readers will be glad this is a “first”–and that it launches a series dubbed the Goblin Wars.

Author Hamilton says the Goblin Wars are based on a re-imagining of Celtic pre-history and mythology. She “borrowed stories of St. Patrick and St. Drogo, and the life of Myrddin Wyllt, the Welsh bard who became Merlin of legend, as well as the modes and manners of Ireland’s gypsies, the Irish Travelers, in order to fasten this story securely in our world.”

16 year old Teagan Wylltson communicates with chimps. A young Jane Goodall? Maybe. She works at the zoo, studying and training chimps, using sign language.

This dedication is interrupted by the arrival of Finn, a character the author based on the young Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the great Celtic hunter/warrior of myth, a paragon of Irish character. Finn is both complicated and magnetic, or maybe he’s magnetic because he’s complicated. My prediction: readers who loved Twilight will be as drawn to Finn as they were to Edward.

The chemistry simmers and other events befall Tea’s family, consisting of her mother, a free thinking painter, and her father who seems dazed and confused. Could he be under a spell? Tea’s younger brother surprises with his own set of unusual abilities.

When Dad disappears, Tea, her brother, and the mysterious Finn set out to find him. The characters they meet are stranger still, and before long, everyone is at risk. Tea’s best friend Abby could be in danger, too, but since Abby’s father is into the Mob, it’s hard to worry about her. The reader gets the feeling that if it comes to Goblins vs. Mob, the Mob would win. Maybe.

That’s for another book.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Any RRB’s at Your House?

Parents of reluctant reader boys have a tough time finding something to compete with boy-friendly action video games. Here’s a book that offers plenty of page turning.

THE LAST LOON by Rebecca Upjohn, Orca Young Readers, 2010

The first thing going for this book is that it doesn’t look intimidating. It’s not long. Set in Canada, it has wilderness and adventure seeping out from behind the inviting cover.

Evan is 11 and makes choices that are not always wise. A city boy, he feels dumped by his family when he’s sent to spend Christmas holidays with an aunt he hardly knows in her lake cabin--a way too desolate place for Evan's taste. The lake is freezing, literally, and one loon has not left with the others. Evan fights the impulse, but the plight of the loon and its likely death leads Evan to risk his own life.

Evan makes a friend, Cedar, who is a little better than Evan at following directions from the well-meaning, concerned adults. But then, Cedar has to live there after Evan goes home. He might be concerned about being grounded forever.

The boys’ voices are authentic and their actions are believable.
The author lives in Toronto with her sons. The cover and first 14 pages of this book are displayed on her web page, a great introduction to Evan and his dilemma.

I wonder if the author has experienced similar escapades with her own teens? If not, my hunch is she knows parents who have.

I know I do.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Does the Universe Know?

Schools are under stress. Redistricting. Closing. City schools. County schools. What about a one room school house on an island? Can you keep it open by letting the universe know?

TOUCH BLUE by Cynthia Lord, Scholastic Press, 2010

When ll year old Tess’s best friend Amy moves out of town, that lowers the student number in the local school and throws the town educational plan–and Tess–into chaos. The town is an island community and the school is a one room school with one teacher, Tess's mother. The state of Maine will close the school due to dwindling enrollment and Tess and her family will be forced to move to the mainland, UNLESS the school population increases. Therein lies a plan.

The town has one plan; Tess and her friends have several others. Islander families are encouraged to take in foster children to increase the school enrollment number. This works well within some families and not others. It also brings out the usual bullies, the ones who look for any weakness or sadness to exploit.

Tess has a normal family, a pleasant change from many of today’s novels. Mom is a teacher and Dad is a fisherman, a nice guy, one who listens. They become foster parents to Aaron, a trumpet playing youngster who has seen many types of foster homes and could easily head down the wrong road. Tess misses her best friend and fears losing the only home she’s ever known. Common bonds are difficult to forge, but similarities do bring the two closer together. Of course, there is a typical little sister, ready with comments Tess doesn’t want announced. I said the family was normal, remember?

Aaron wants to leave the island to search for his mother, to find out why she left him. That could mean the school would close. Tess has every reason to keep Aaron on the island. What if she finds Aaron’s mother and brings her to their home?

Every chapter begins with a superstition, how to get or keep good luck or how to get rid of bad luck. Tess wishes and spins around three times when needed and asks the plaintive question, "Why take chances? Especially when it’s so easy to let the universe know what you want by touching blue or turning around 3 times or crossing your fingers?”

Tess needs all the luck she can get when she takes matters into her own hands and gets in big trouble. How does she get out of her self-created pickle? I’ll save that for the reader to discover.

This is a warm and humorous book written by a Newbery Honor winner. If you’ve been wishing for a book like this for your middle grade readers, luck is on your side.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Little Boy Blue, Go Blow Your Horn

Everyone has a book of nursery rhymes. Pat-a-cake, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Jack and Jill. You can recite most of them. Jack Sprat Could Eat No Fat, See Saw Margery Daw, Little Miss Muffett. No need for a book. Yes? No. You haven’t seen this book.

POCKETFUL OF POSIES: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes by Salley Mavor, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010

If this book hadn’t won a Golden Kite, awarded by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I wouldn’t have known about it. Now that I do know, I plan to buy several for gift giving as well as one for myself.

Salley Mavor is an artist with a needle, fabric, and when needed, buttons, beads, and outdoor discoveries of acorns, driftwood, stones and shells. She collected these nursery rhymes and then set about illustrating them--intricately. One of my writer friends said every page could be an “I spy game.” Indeed, every page of this amazing book is a work of art.

The artist is the daughter of an artist. She recalls having art supplies which included not only crayons and paper but time to create and one would also think the support of both parents since she dedicated this book to the memory of “my remarkable parents, Mary and Jim Mavor.” Her unique artistic gifts and talents were further encouraged at the Rhode Island School of Design.

The jacket cover boasts, “This will be a book to be pored over again and again and passed down from generation to generation.”

I agree.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Writer’s Best Friend

Where do you get your ideas? A writer hears that question more than any other. Maybe the person to ask is the writer's best childhood friend.

ZORA AND ME by Victoria Bond & T. R. Simon, Candlewick Press, 2010

This middle grade novel is a fictionalized account of the childhood of author Zora Neale Hurston. A debut for both writers, Bond and Simon, this is the only project endorsed by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust that was not written by Hurston herself.

Hurston’s best known work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is considered the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in African American literature. Praised as a tribute to the strength of black women, it raises the question in the mind of the reader, “Where did she get her ideas?”

That, in turn, takes us back to Hurston’s childhood in Eatonville, Florida, an all black township incorporated by 27 African-American men soon after the Emancipation Proclamation. Hurston and family moved there when she was a toddler and it’s in this community that her writer’s heart was nourished.

Eatonville is also the setting for this story about solid friendships, the difference between lies and storytelling, and how life and death and pretending are tangled up together in the world of the adolescent.

Zora’s best friend, Carrie, is the narrator. Her own insights and observations lend a surprising depth to this well-told story. Sometimes a sentence is so profound, it takes several readings to explore it, let it sink in, and wonder if the authors planted it there for parents or kids. Their Eyes Were Watching God is on high school reading lists. If I’d read Zora and Me first, I’d have a better understanding of the adult book. (I'd also be younger.)

Sadly, Hurston’s writing career didn’t bring her fortune. She received little for her work and died destitute. Her burial was in an unmarked grave. When Alice Walker was a young writer, she found the grave and made sure that a monument was placed to honor the life and achievements of this brilliant author.

Bond and Simon included an annotated bibliography of Hurston’s works as well as their own sources. A short biography of Hurston and a timeline of important events in her life are helpful references. more

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Escaping Into Art

How many times have you heard, “Reading saved me” Or “Writing saved me”? The arts have power. Music, dance, painting, sculpture. Art can take us away. Poetry. Pottery. No matter what holds us captive, escape is built into the art that calls us away, nurtures us, rests us, and allows us to breathe free.

DAVE THE POTTER: Artist, Poet, Slave, by Laban Carrick Hill, Illustrated by Bryan Collier, Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

Author Hill calls Dave, a slave who lived about 200 years ago in South Carolina, “An important American artist.” We have no idea how Dave learned to read and write. It may not have been safe for him to write on his pottery, but this is how we know about him, from the inscribed pottery he left behind.

The story follows the potter’s hands as clay is dug from the earth and carried, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, to Dave’s spinning potter’s wheel. The sight of Dave’s hands, covered in the dusty wet clay, shaping and pulling the pot into being, is made even more dramatic by a triple spread fold out. The intensity on Dave’s face as he works makes the reader feel the pull in his fingers as he works against the pull of the wet clay, pinching and squeezing the resistant mass.

Then it all comes together. Dave stands proud, beholding the clay pot, the shape he "saw" before he began to pull the pot from the earth.

The next step is to turn wood ash and sand into a glasslike brown glaze, the outer covering that would extend the pot’s life “to withstand time.”

Still Dave isn’t finished. Before the clay hardens, he picks up a stick and scratches a poem of his own imagining into the clay.

The luminous illustrations, awarded a Caldecott Honor, were done in watercolor collage by an artist who began painting at the age of 15 and earned a BFA with honors from Pratt Institute in New York. Bryan Collier is no stranger to the field of outstanding children’s books. He is the illustrator of over 20 picture books including Martin’s Big Words (also a Caldecott Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book) and Rosa (which won the Coretta Scott King Award.) He lives in Harlem, where he directs mural programs throughout the city for any child who wants to paint.

I wanted to see more paintings by this talented artist, scrolled through the web page gallery of Bryan Collier and picked favorites,“Circle of Daddy’s Arms” and “Blessings are Free.”

Award winning author Laban Hill was inspired to delve further into the artist’s life by reading one of Dave’s poems. He needed to know. Who was this talented man? We need to know, too. How did Dave soar above the bonds of his slavery? Somewhere, in his art, lies the answer.

To begin your quest, see the online biography of Dave.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Blistered Feet and Itchy Clothes

What is war like? TV, movie, and video game thrills and chills are one thing. The real thing is quite another.

FORGE by Laurie Halse Anderson, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

Following the success of her best seller Chains, which received the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2009, acclaimed author Anderson continues the story of Curzon and Isabel.

In the first book, the pair escaped slavery. At the opening of the second book, the two are separated and 15 year old Curzon is a free man serving in the Continental Army at Valley Forge. Where is Isabel? Is she still alive?

A descendent of soldiers who fought in the American Revolution, the author carried her research beyond a plethora of primary sources. She walked barefoot in the snow, cooked over open fires, wrote by candlelight, and split wood, grinding into her writing bones the cold and hunger the soldiers suffered.

Anderson’s characters forge bonds of friendship in spite of the chains forged to defeat Curzon and Isabel. The settings are believable enough for adults but not so harsh that young readers will recoil. Shelter, clothes, shoes, blankets, and tools were scarce and sometimes nonexistent. The soldiers ate firecake, squirrel, and opossum. What they had in great supply was determination and indomitable spirits. Their pluck adds depth to the meaning of Freedom.

Quotes from real people add authenticity. Each chapter is headlined by a quote from a diary, letter, speech, and newspapers of the day.

My favorite: “‘I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in the province. It allways appeard (sic) a most iniquitous Scheme to me-fight ourselfs for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have. You know my mind upon this subject.’–Abigail Adams, whose father owned slaves, writing to her husband, John.”

My favorite quote from a character is Curzon’s: “For all the talk of battles and gun fire, soldiering was mostly about blistered feet and itchy clothes.”

To read more about the author, follow her

on twitter

or her blog

For readers ages 8 and up, Chains and Forge bring American history to life. They fit perfectly on any list of books to read during Black History Month.

Looking for more titles for Black History Month? Here's an excellent blog I follow

Monday, February 14, 2011

Something Sweet

Here’s a treat for young listeners that won’t take its toll on teeth. Read a sweet book.

BIG RED LOLLIPOP by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, Viking, 2010

This is for all those first children who wish they’d enjoyed a different birth order. Speaking as one of them, I know what it’s like to carry high expectations on one’s shoulders, when inside your head, your best instincts are battling with the green-eyed monster’s let’s-get-even
child instincts. Add a culture that your parents bring to their new country, but you, the new kid in class, don’t. I can’t speak for that experience, but Rubina can.

Rubina has, at wonderful long last!, been invited to a birthday party by a classmate. It’s a feeling of acceptance, belonging, all those kid needs that are separate from any adult understanding. Mother, Ami,thinks it’s wonderful, too. She’s thinking from a grown-up mother standpoint.

Rubina’s little sister, Sana, speaks up, “I want to go, too!” Ami agrees. Rubina must feel like grinding her teeth. It isn’t, simply is NOT done this way in America. Sana insists. Ami does not relent. Off they go, Rubina and Sana.

Of course, as any first grader could predict, this is a disaster waiting to happen. It does.

The sweet twist comes much later. Sana is invited to a birthday party. Oh, great joy at last! And her little sister, Maryam, wants to go. Ami thinks that’s just fine. Sana must feel like grinding her teeth, (Sound familiar?) But what does Rubina think? Say?

This is a book for great discussions. I don’t know about you, but I was proud of Rubina.

Author Khan moved to Canada from her birthplace in Pakiston when she was three. This well told story comes from her own childhood. Guess which sister she was? Illustrator Blackall is originally from Australia.Not sure about her childhood parties, but she says one of the worst things about being a grown-up is not being offered a goody bag at the end of a party.

Take a look at their websites:



For all of you out there attending parties today, may your little candy hearts have uplifting messages.

Even if the only valentine you can think of is your fluffy cat.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Flu Season Friends

Statistically speaking, February is flu month. Although flu can strike during other months, on a bar graph of numbers of reported cases each month, February wins the chicken soup trophy. What children dislike most about flu, besides feeling terrible, is missing their friends. Here is a prescription for housebound snifflers.

A SICK DAY FOR AMOS McGEE by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead, Roaring Brook Press, 2010

Amos is a kindly zookeeper who talks to his sugar bowl and counts as his friends the elephant, tortoise, rhinoceros, penguin, and owl.

One day Amos is too sick to go to work. He is missed. The animals decide to visit Amos. They even ride the #5 bus, the very same bus Amos rides to visit them.

I loved sharing this with a couple of bright pre-school classes. They identified with what it’s like to be sick. They thought it was the right thing to do for friends to come visit and bring a red balloon. (The cover clearly shows the penguin carrying a red balloon.)

As I read, the children sneezed (covering their sneezes with crisp white tissues, of course) along with the allergic rhino and poor sniffling Amos, and made sympathetic and friendly hooting sounds when Owl’s name was mentioned. Poor Owl. We knew his secret: he’s afraid of the dark.

The children quickly made friends with the little elephant puppet who came along to help me read the story. (After all, the elephant’s picture is on the cover.) In the meantime, grown ups in the room wondered how that red balloon managed to survive the trip. Ah, the beauty of fiction!

These tiny students were well coached. They knew, as one little girl said, the illustrator is the one who “colors the pictures.”

Although she has undoubtedly colored a lot of pictures, this is the first children’s book Erin Stead has illustrated (her husband wrote the text) and it won the Caldecott. Now the pressure is on. What will she do next?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Think Spring!

The groundhog gurus have decided. Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania says spring is around the corner. That's welcome news to Pennsylvania residents who are digging out from the last snow and looking skyward for the next one. Down south, Birmingham Bill in Alabama says six more weeks of winter. Garden enthusiasts there are already seeing buds on early bloomers. More winter? More cold with deceptive patches of ice? Yuck. Let’s honor the state of Pennsylvania today and hope Phil is the critter with the correct inside information.

BALLET FOR MARTHA: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca.

How do you translate movement and music into words? This book is about collaboration.

First came Martha Graham, the godmother of modern dance. She wanted to create a ballet, “A legend of American living” set in the hills of western Pennsylvania on the wedding day of a young farmer and his bride.

Then Aaron Copland, the composer, responded to Martha’s invitation to create music for her ballet.

Add the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, one of the world’s most revered artists. As the musical progressed, he collaborated with Martha Graham on over twenty sets which came together to produce Appalachian Spring.

This is only part of the story. Behind the scenes of the book itself are three more creative talents. Authors
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have worked together before. If you enjoy this book, you will want to look up the stunning picture book Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Through the Gates and Beyond. Acclaimed as a pair, Greenberg and Jordan teamed with illustrator Brian Floca who is also accomplished and award winning. None of this has anything to do with awards, however. These three artists are like the three they bring to life on the page. Determined. Detailed. Thorough.

The illustrator captures the most subtle movement of the dancers, put there by Martha to deliver the most power. The writers embrace the energy, the swirling, twirling, strutting, leaping, contrasted with a sudden stillness, quiet, rest, as contemplative as rocking a baby. Art and text stitch a tapestry of life and love.

Even as the players move toward the stage lights to take the final bow, it’s obvious that this classic will be performed for generations to come by generations of dancers and musicians, set builders, actors, and producers. A link from past to future.

Martha Graham found the words "Appalachian Spring" in a poem and liked the sound of it. So do I. Hurry, spring!

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Place Called Timbuktu

In my family somebody was always going to Timbuktu. It’s where you went for a difficult to find item on your shopping list or if you had to drive car pool to an out of town game and got lost after dark or if your teen daughter’s lost or borrowed possessions were scattered all over town at friends’ houses. Then you had to go from here to there and all the way to Timbuktu. The journey led by writer Christina Kessler to the real town called Timbuktu has been much more interesting, and a lot less wear and tear on my nerves.

TROUBLE IN TIMBUKTU by Cristina Kessler, Philomel Books, 2009

Ayisha and Ahmed are 12 year old twins living in changing times. They are of the Bella people and until slavery was outlawed in 1976, their people were slaves of the Taureg. Although the twins themselves were not slaves, Ayisha observes that the Bellas’ knowledge of the desert and their survival skills made life after slavery easier for the Bella than for their Tuareg masters. Yes, this observation is going to matter.

When the story begins, Ayisha is neither rich nor poor. Her father earns a comfortable living, that is he is able to support his family, as a blacksmith. Bold and bright, Ayisha must live within a set of restrictions different from slave and master, the customary place of women in Timbuktu society. Girls do not go to college or have careers, but that is exactly what Ayisha hopes to do.

Ayisha is close to realizing this dream of receiving permission to further her formal schooling when she and her brother are swept into protecting their country’s national treasure from the toubabs (meaning, tourists). Somehow the word suits this pair of scheming foreigners, but I will leave the reader to decide this and follow Ayisha and Ahmed on their adventure. If you watched recent newscasts of Egyptian citizens locking arms and surrounding their museums to protect their priceless artifacts, you will have an idea of the passion driving Ayisha and her brother.

Award winning author Kessler lived in Africa for 19 years, and this is where her books are set. She now lives with her husband Joe on St. John, in the U. S. Virgin Islands.

It’s clear the author knows the setting intimately and has a love for the land and the people. She plunges the reader into the raucous sounds of the marketplace, the cries of the merchants, the bellowing of camels. Cahaaaaaarh, cahaaaaarh.

Fast forward to the revelry of a wedding. Fabrics rich in color clothe the women who tell stories with their faces and hands as they dance. The men stamp to the drum beat. The women ululate. Aiyaiayaiyaiyaiyai.

While the twins protect their country’s ancient treasure, they slide like shadows into a family mystery. All this against the burning beauty of desert sands and sunsets.

The author thoughtfully provided glossaries in French, Tamashek, and Arabic. I wish she’d also included a key to pronunciation. Languages matter in this carefully crafted book, as the reader will appreciate.

And what does Timbuktu mean? This is the legend: 11 centuries ago Buktu was left to guard a tim--the word for well in the Tuareg language of Tamashek.

Guarding a well in the desert was no small duty. Nor is having to go to Timbuktu when you are a car pooling mom.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

From Cuba to Nebraska

America is a land of opportunity, freedom, and safety. Most of us–or our ancestors--came here from someplace else, different times, different reasons. Our stories are our treasure.

THE RED UMBRELLA by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Knopf, 2010

Lucia is 14, a typical teen with a best friend, a social life about to blossom, and a crush on a boy her best friend thinks might feel the same way. Does he?

It’s 1961, two years after the Communist revolution. Not much in Lucia’s life has changed. Yet. Then soldiers arrive in her town. Freedoms disappear along with some of her neighbors. Her friends are changing, too. Then comes the creepy realization that her family is being watched.

Fearing that the new regime might take their children away to indoctrinate them, Lucia’s parents do what they must. Fearfully and bravely, they make arrangements for Lucia and her brother to travel to America alone. Ultimately, the children arrive in Nebraska and a life with a family, neighbors, schools, classmates, and customs very different from the land and home they remember and miss.

Most histories are written from the perspective of adults. It’s their letters, diaries, and journals that writers delight in discovering. Author Gonzalez based The Red Umbrella, her first novel, on the experiences of her parents and the children who came to the United States to escape Castro’s regime. The program was called Operation Pedro Pan and 14,000 unaccompanied minors were participants.

Young teens will relate well to Lucia and her struggle to fit in as a teenager in a new country. They will note that teen attitudes are much the same, however. Most of all, they will want to befriend her.

To ground the reader, each chapter is introduced with a headline from a major United States newspaper reporting on the revolution. A list of Spanish words and English translations adds authenticity.

Read more about the author at her website.

My thanks to two Book Log readers who sent links to lists of books and authors that expand on the immigration experience in general and Latin-American roots in particular. Some of the listed authors also write books for children, so if you decide to focus on a culture, as our home schooling readers do, I hope these links will give you much to explore.

Erin Lenderts sent a link
to “20 Essential Works of Latin American Literature”

Julia Watson sent a link to “50 Greatest Works of Immigration Literature”


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Another Winner

Birmingham Sunday by Larry Dane Brimner was recently named an Orbis Pictus Honor Book by the National Council of Teachers of English.

The Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children is an annual award for promoting and recognizing excellence in the writing of nonfiction for children The winner this year was Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca.

Birmingham Sunday was one of four honor books.

Among other awards won by Birmingham Sunday:

Notable Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies awarded by the National Council for Social Studies/Children's Book Council.

Teachers’ Choice Award

Moonbeam Silver Medal
The Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards are presented by publishing services company Jenkins Group, Inc.

National Parenting Publications Awards: Gold Award and "Top Pick"
More here

EUREKA! Gold Award (California Reading Association)

Kirkus “Best Book” List for 2010

Chicago Public Library “Best of the Best” Book

Kansas Reading Circle “Best of the Best” Book

For more about the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award
see website.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Honoring Sacrifice with Service

Yesterday many observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a day “on,” not a day “off.” Acts of service took place in communities across the country. A book which sums up the challenge, the courage, and the continuing march forward was published two years ago. I discovered it recently and am so glad I did. Its message is timeless.

OUR CHILDREN CAN SOAR: A Celebration of Rosa, Barack, and the Pioneers of Change, by Michelle Cook, Bloomsbury, 2009

The sweep of history and the flow of this meticulously executed book are enhanced by these gifted artists, some of the most celebrated illustrators in the children’s field: E. B. Lewis, James Ransome, Eric Velasquez, Pat Cummings, Leo and Diane Dillon, Cozbi A. Cabrera, R. Gregory Christie, Bryan Collier, AG Ford, Frank Morrison, Charlotte Riley-Webb, and Shadra Strickland

Inspired by phrases that appeared at rallies, on blogs, and in text messages during the 2008 presidential campaign, author and editor Michelle Cook collaborated with Bloomsbury on developing the text. Bringing the interpretations of major talents together could so easily have resulted in a choppy effect. It works! The synergy of the parts and the power of the whole make a strong impression on readers, no matter their ages.

Each double page spread leads to the next, just as the courage and accomplishments of each generation lay a foundation for the children to come. As the jacket announces, this is a story for everyone, “for it is on the backs of our ancestors that every child is raised.”

Ancestors singled out here are George Washington Carver, Jesse Owen, Hattie McDaniel, Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Barack Obama. Short biographical sketches of both historical figures and illustrators are included.

This book doesn’t lead to a conclusion. It does point to a future. The title is repeated in the last lines, the final spread, illustrated by E. B. Lewis:. “so our children can soar! And higher and faster and stronger they go.”

May this always be true: higher, faster, stronger.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Everybody Wins!

Focusing a spotlight on “the best of the best” as the American Library Association calls its awards presentation at its annual mid-winter conference benefits everyone. The awards announcement brings to the fore books a committee of thoughtful, bleary eyed–from all that reading--librarians judge to be quality, literary books. Before and after the awards are announced Newbery “buzz” inspires discussion among writers, teachers, librarians, parents, avid readers of children’s books, and authors, the ones who won, the ones who were considered on the short list, and the ones who look to the winners as models for making their own work better. Young readers become the ultimate winners because the bar for quality literature is kept high.

For a complete list of winners announced this past Monday see the website for the American Library Association!

Happily, I reviewed a number of those honor and medal winners, and they are linked here. Others that I haven’t read are now on my to-read list so I'll know what everybody else is talking about.

Coretta Scott (Author)Book Award recognizing an African American author of outstanding books for children and young adults
Winner: One Crazy Summer by
Rita Williams-Garcia

YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist:They Called Themselves the K.K.K.:The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Literature Written for Young Adults honor book: Stolen by
Lucy Christopher

Pura Belpre (Author) Award honoring a Latina writer whose books best portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience.
Winner: The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan,Illustrated by Peter Sis

Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picturebook for children
Honor Book:
Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children's literature
Honor Books:
Dark Empire by Joyce Sidman
One Crazy Summer by
Rita Williams-Garcia
Heart of a Samurai by Marji Pieres (Read weeks ago and to be blogged along with several books relating to Samurai warriors and their code of honor.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Night Noises and Newbery Buzz

Poetry explodes across the imagination like fireworks across a dark summer sky. Fireworks fade. Poetry changes lives.

DARK EMPEROR & Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen, Houghton Mifflin, 2010

Here’s a book that’s perfect for reading on a summer night, whether you are reading to yourself or aloud to a young listener, or even sharing each page, like a piece of hoarded dark chocolate, with your entire family. Your setting for this read-aloud should be a porch swing or a screened porch, so all the sounds of the night can accompany your voice. Why am I blogging about this book now when so much of the country is digging out from holiday snows? The
Newbery discussion is on. When asked to name favorites for this prize that will be awarded on January 10, Dark Emperor comes up, again and again.

Young people are discovering poetry, the pace and rhythm of words and phrases, syllables that slide, slither, or soar. Both boys and girls are filled with questions. Always. Pair poetry with information and add illustrations that match the depths of the text. Voila! You have Dark Emperor and a whole community of readers is abuzz with discussion.

Poet Joyce Sidman says she has always loved the concept of nighttime. ...”there are all sorts of creatures that prefer the night and thrive in the dark. Why? And how?” Dark Emperor is her exploration of those questions.

Poetic introductions to unsung critters that often sing tunes of their own are accompanied by sidebars that add eye-popping information. Who knew baby porcupines are called porcupettes? Or that Mama Porcupine keeps her babies happy with treats of raspberry leaves?

Sidman’s books have already won Caldecott Honors, including Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems and Red Sings From Treetops.March 25 Book Log!

See Sidman’s website and
enjoy the night sounds on the trailer for Dark Emperor.

For more information about the Newbery, see the website for the American Library Association!

Do you have favorites in this year's Newbery hunt?

Hillview School Library