Saturday, December 1, 2012

Honor in all Seasons

“Yes, I remember those red poppies!” Eyes bright with recognition, an elderly friend reached for my book and eagerly turned the pages.  Soon others in the lobby of the assisted living center joined her. They had stepped back in time to greet a woman who turned a simple red flower into a tribute of thanks.

THE POPPY LADY: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans by Barbara Elizabeth Walsh, paintings by Layne Johnson, Calkins Creek, 2012

Moina Belle Michael was a determined woman. In WWI women were limited in what they could do for the war effort, but Moina helped wherever she could. She knitted socks and sweaters, rolled bandages, and gave enlisted friends and students who were going overseas little remembrances to take with them. 

That was not enough. Moina delivered books, candy, and magazines to the nearby camps, invited boys home to dinner, and saw them off at the train station.

Moina wouldn't stop there. She trained to be a canteen worker for the YMCA. At the completion of her training, she was told she was too old to go overseas. Her age? 49.

Moina would never be classified as a quitter. If she couldn’t go with the soldiers, she would help them before they left.  She set up a comfortable gathering place in the basement of Columbia’s Hamilton Hall for soldiers, sailors, marines, and secretaries to rest and relax during their free time.  Moina decorated the space with fresh flowers, became a good listener to those who wanted to talk about home, and wrote notes and letters to their families and sweethearts.

Still, Moina wanted to do more. A poem by a physician who served in the war but could not save everyone on the battlefields of Flanders inspired her. Then she saw a picture of the field of red poppies covering the graves. No names on the cross markers. No way to know who slept beneath the red poppies at Flanders Fields.

When she set her mind to something, Moina Belle Michael did it. She made her own pledge, to always wear the “poppy red”  “in honor of our dead,” the “poppies of Flanders Fields.”

Veteran’s Day and Memorial Days are set aside for us to remember those who put their lives on hold or gave them up entirely so the rest of us can live in freedom. We can honor these brave men and women on other holidays in other seasons, too. 

Some who have seen the trailer for The Poppy Lady, or read a review, or held an actual copy in hand, see this as an opportunity to tell their children of the sacrifices made to keep them safe today. As a Thanksgiving  memorial, what better way to show our thanks than to present a book like The Poppy Lady  to a children’s school library? It’s a lasting gift that will serve teachers who plan Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day events.

The trenchant paintings of illustrator Layne Johnson lead the reader into the midst of each crowd, whether it be soldiers on a train, in the heat of the battle, or relaxing in the room Moina prepared for them. His cross marked battlefield of red poppies is absorbing, a time for reflection. Johnson is also the creator of the stirring trailer on the author’s web page.
The play of expressions across Moina’s face, a tribute to the illustrator’s talent, captures the reader’s imagination. What was it like to sit across from this woman and tell her of home?

Author, Barbara Elizabeth Walsh, discovered the answer to this question
when she was ten years old and found a postcard written to her mother and signed “Pat’s Poppy Lady.” Who was this lady? Why was this note, written during WWII on behalf of her father, so important to her mother? Walsh was determined to find out. This fascinating story is related in a video featuring  the author, Moina Belle Michael’s two great nieces, and the author’s father, Pat Antrilli, still remembering fondly fifty years later the kindness of the Poppy Lady. 

As the author researched and came to know this incredible woman, her admiration grew. Those who visit the author's web page will see a recent addition to the page. The author's home in Mantoloking, NJ incurred a great deal of storm damage from Hurricane Sandy.  Her comments will inspire anyone unable to escape the wrath of a natural disaster. It is as if the courage of Moina Belle Michael has come to the aid of her biographer. Like Moina, author Walsh is not a quitter. Readers could choose either woman--or both--as role models.       
Families who don’t know what to give grandparents or great-grandparents who seem to have everything, take note. The Poppy Lady is a warm reminder that a grateful nation remembers. Senior citizens’communities and assisted living centers usually have libraries, too.  Vivid art and the larger type of a children’s picture book are easy on aging eyes.

One senior whose eyes lit up at sight of this book recalled seeing poppies sold on every street corner when she was a little girl. Her parents told her the money was used to benefit veterans. It delighted her to know that the author of The Poppy Lady has directed that a portion of this book’s proceeds will support Operation Purple, a program of the National Military Family Association, which benefits children of the U. S. military.

The red poppy remains a strong symbol. The story behind it, its meaning, and the young woman whose motto was “Whatsoever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.” is well crafted in this moving biography.  


Thursday, October 18, 2012

She Called Him Papa

We often celebrate the accomplishments of single mothers, and so we should. Their roles are difficult. The paths of single dads are also rocky and steep.

FISHERMAN’S DAUGHTER, Patricia Nikolina Clark, Bridgeline Books, 2012

This is not a contemporary story, but it rings with the truth of family bonds that bind generations.

The year is 1922. 11 year old Katia longs for a life much different from the life of her mother who died four years ago. Katia wants to stay in school, to read, to write poetry, to become a teacher. Her papa has decided she should stay home and care for the family which includes five year Annie who, until recently, lived with relatives.

Although the rugged setting for this novel is harsh, it is filled with promise. In the early 1900s hardy immigrants from Yugoslavia (now Croatia) settled in California on the coast north of San Francisco. They came for the same reason so many came during those years, to build a better life for their families. Inspired by her mother’s life in the richly described coastal area now preserved as the Point Reyes National Seashore, the author drew upon details from lives like her own grandfather who pioneered commercial fishing in Tomales Bay, in a string of sandy coves remembered as “Little Yugoslavia.” Armed with firm religious beliefs and fishing skills, these pioneers adapted, survived, raised families, created homes and took root in an isolated area readers will enjoy discovering.

Parents who choose this book for their tweens and young teens will appreciate the relationships and interactions within this brave family. Katia’s siblings, Papa’s brothers, a distant maternal aunt and her scheming husband, and the impact made by the new school teacher keep the plot spinning but it is the interactions that keep the reader wondering how it will all turn out.

Katia’s struggles as she makes a number of major decisions beyond her ability are authentic. The courage with which she handles each set back reflects the “good stock” from which she has come.

Papa is tough, not rigid. Honest. Caring. In one of her poems, Katia relates the many names by which her father is known in this new land:  Immigrant. Fisherman. Widower. Captain. Hero. She concludes that no name is better for capturing her father’s goodness than the one she calls him, “I called him Papa.”

Patricia Nikolina Clark has been writing for children for more than 20 years. In Fisherman’s Daughter she shares evocative photos from her family albums and pays tribute to the love, faith, and determination that kept the families of her ancestors strong.

I could easily have chosen this book by its cover. Picture me on a sidewalk with a littering of gold and crimson leaves. It’s fall in a small town, any small town which still has an inviting little bookstore and a tinkling bell to announce me. “Just looking,” I say to the owner who pokes his head above a glass case filled with treasures. I amble down the rows of bookshelves and lose myself. When I find Fisherman’s Daughter, the cover alone makes me want to bring it home.

Happily, the promise of the cover is kept by the author and her story. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Nation of Immigrants

What does it mean when we hear political ads and campaign speeches calling our country a nation of immigrants?
HOPE AND TEARS, Ellis Island Voices, by Gwenyth Swain, Calkins Creek, 2012

Voices mixed in essays, stories, poetry, prose poems, and plays trace the chronology of Ellis Island, entry to the land of opportunity for so many of our ancestors.  One quarter of all Americans have an ancestral link to Ellis Island which was open from 1892-1954.  Peak years were 1903-04 when it’s thought five-thousand men, women, and children may have passed through each day.

Those who served the immigrants faced interesting challenges. Cooks struggled to feed people from diverse backgrounds. Religion or culture or lack of familiarity with available foods made it difficult to plan menus everyone could or would eat. Imagine seeing a bowl of spaghetti for the first time and thinking it’s a bowl of white worms!

Inspectors didn’t speak the many languages they heard from the throngs of people they had to process.  One inspector suggested a smile can be helpful in any language.
Nurses wanted to kiss babies to comfort them but were told not to, for fear of picking up a contagious disease. (Some did it anyway, when they thought no one was looking.)

The author visited Ellis Island to research and write the stories and to gather historical images and take photographs. You can visit, too at excellent library and history web sites. The bibliography includes books for young readers.

As one would expect from both author Swain and imprint, Calkins Creek, the material is well researched and documented with a reader-friendly index.

Ellis Island is no longer an immigration point, but a museum with a library and an oral history collection. As the book draws to a close, “Lisa”, a National Park Service Employee, wonders as the museum  closes for the day, whether there might be spirits in the shadows. Would anyone want to spend the night there? Probably not.

After you listen to the voices on each page, revisit the faces. They will stay with you a long time. Are they frightened? Are those tears from exhaustion or from mourning what was left behind? What are they thinking? What are they hoping? Here’s food for thought at your next family dinner table.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Guess Who’s Writing For Kids Now?

TV stars, members of the royal family, first ladies, and many other celebrities have added “children’s author” to their resume’s. It must be important work or so many famous people wouldn’t be willing to pursue it when they are already successful in their own fields. And now, rabbits are writing.

MR. AND MRS. BUNNY—DETECTIVES EXTRAORDINAIRE! By Mrs. Bunny, Translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012

I love this book! It’s a family read-aloud. Before you object that this would never take place in your family of different ages and stages (“What? You want us to read together a book about rabbits?”), picture yourselves crammed into a stuffy motel room during a rainstorm at the beach. A desperate situation requires desperate measures. Try it. Read the first chapter or two aloud to your family, and see what happens. I’m writing as fast as I can to nominate this hilarious mystery for your games and book bag.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny find middle schooler Madeline sitting glumly in the middle of the road pondering her next move in order to find her missing parents. What luck!  Mr. and Mrs. Bunny (“for so they are called,” Mr. Bunny says, often) have just decided to become detectives. A deal is struck and off they go. It’s during this exchange that Madeline realizes she is speaking Rabbit. This comes in handy as you might imagine.

Madeline’s hippie parents who want to be called Flo and Mildred instead of Mom and Dad have been kidnapped by foxes, led by the cruel and chilling titan of industry, the Grand Poobah. The Grand Poobah and fellow foxes learned about humans by studying TV sitcoms.  They speak English because they think humans are too stupid to learn how to speak Fox. After all, humans have not figured out who the owners of Fox Television really are.             

The foxes want a code cracked and so does everyone else. The plot depends upon it. The most likely code cracker is Madeline’s loopy Uncle Runyan, but he slips into a coma on purpose because he says this always helps plots on TV.

Meanwhile, nurturing Mrs. Bunny thinks all human children are orphans because in the children’s books she reads, the parents have died. She doesn’t come right out and say this, but the reader will sense that Mrs. Bunny would adopt Madeline if she could. Problem: Madeline doesn’t fit inside their lovely hutch with light blue shutters and a light blue door. Even so, Mrs. Bunny finds that advising a young teen is not quite the same as raising rabbit children.

Parents will laugh out loud at the human interactions between Mr. and Mrs. Bunny.  (Has someone bugged our kitchens and listened in on us?) Paragraph after paragraph has a subtle underlying meaning for someone. Can you imagine what message this sends to children when they see their parents enjoying a book that belongs to kids? Reading is more than fundamental. Reading is fun.

Obviously, it takes a talented writer to master the art of translating from the Rabbit. Polly Horvath, has done this well. She’s already a National Book Award winner (The Canning Season), and her book Everything On a Waffle, won a Newbery Honor. Illustrator Sophie Blackall is no stranger to honors, either, having illustrated the Golden Kite winner, The Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan. Surely, she speaks Rabbit body language (along with Fox, Marmot, and English.) Marmot? You’ll have to read Mrs. Bunny’s account. Be glad Polly Horvath made this book available to the rest of us.    

Oh—and you don’t have to wait for a rainy day at the beach. Read this rib-tickling story on your own. Family members and co-workers will hear you laughing out loud. Of course, they’ll ask why. Before you know it, Mrs. Bunny’s debut novel will be a best seller.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Surrounded by Sound

You’re comfortably settled in a hammock at the beach enjoying musical alphabeasts (see previous post) with your youngest readers and you wish you had something just as engaging to part the sea of boredom sloshing around your young teen(s). Here’s help in the form of sounds for them, too. And it has nothing to do with ear buds.

SOUND BENDER by Lin Oliver and Theo Baker, Scholastic, 2011.

Leo Lomax is a good kid. Life has turned on him, however. He’s 13, his parents have disappeared in a plane crash in Antarctica, and he and his younger brother Hollis are sent to live with an uncle who makes weird look normal. The setting is New York City, but the Lomax apartment and the creepy Uncle Crane’s Brooklyn warehouse (did I tell you that uncle is creepy?) are worlds apart.

Then Leo discovers his power. He is a sound bender. Objects have memory. That memory is relayed to Leo when he touches the object. For all those tourists who wander around antebellum houses opining, “If only these walls could speak,” Leo would be an ideal travel guide. He could tell them what those walls have to say.

Leo and Hollis do not have to change schools when they relocate, and this keeps them grounded in old friendships. Leo’s side-kick and best friend, Trevor, borders on genius. Leo depends on Trevor’s smarts and his compassion, too, as the plot thickens, and the scene shifts to the Pacific tropics. Not to be overlooked is that special place Leo “goes” when objects “speak” to him. Lots of DayGlo colors there!

The villain is sinister and his henchmen may be evil, but the reader will wonder just how evil they really are. They seem to show up and give Leo a helping hand or a tiny bit of affirmation, just when he needs it the most.

Vivid, action-packed perfectly paced scenes have roots in the movie production background of author Lin Oliver. Pitch and timing are part of her craft. She understands how they work together.

Co-author Theo Baker is Oliver’s son. His fascination with sounds from childhood inspired this novel which will engage and intrigue boy or girl readers. Reluctant reader boys especially will be happy somebody pointed them toward this book.

Lots of threads cross and criss-cross in Sound Bender. Some threads still dangle. Leo’s parents’ bodies were never found. Aha! Could a sequel be simmering on the authors’ back burners? Readers will hope so. This one does.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Summer Among the Alphabeasts

Somewhere near you, on this hot and sweltering day, an alphabeast is lurking and rehearsing.

A IS FOR ALLIGUITAR by Nancy Raines Day, illustrated by Herb Leonhard, Pelican Publishing Company, 2012

What, exactly, are alphabeasts?  According to Nancy Raines Day, it’s a creative mix of animals and musical instruments.  

The author revved up her imagination and created a jamboree of jacosity. I can be imaginative, too. I made that word up. But it seemed to fit this fun-filled book.

Picture books, including the ever-popular alphabet books, should always work on several levels, and of course, this one does. Light, happy A-Z rhymes, animals, musical instruments, and an imagination on the loose make this one of those books you’ll be handed by your toddler over and over again. Get ready to read.

To keep yourself sane, think of all those animals and musical instruments YOU could merge. Older children will be only too happy to get in on the madness.  

All the animals, no matter where illustrator Leonhard shows them rehearsing, have a destination. Is it Carnegie Hall? (Only the author knows this!)

The contrababoon serenades a fairly interested looking family of gorillas while the monkey in the apartment next door is not as happy with his similar looking simian, the drumonkey. Wonder why?

Where the sand is hot and cacti offer little shade, the llamaracas hoof it up. Ask your little listeners if they can hear them coming.

Meanwhile back on city streets, the tromboa is all wrapped up in his work. Ask a five year old to tell you the tale of that tail.

The illustrations are wild and wacky. Like the imaginative verse, the artwork will inspire your budding artist to sketch and color his creations, too.

Then strike up the band. On the last page all the alphabeasts come together on a stage under the direction of an exuberant conductor who looks like a penguin. Author Day has not provided him with a verse. Maybe she’s challenging her legion of readers. That’s you. Challenge or not, the author promises, “They make music together like you’ve never heard.”

Now, isn’t it exhilarating to do something besides point and click?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Think Cool!

If your tween or young teen is miserable and moping due to the climbing summer temperatures, here’s a popsicle in book or e-reader form.  This story will transport her far away from the heat and humidity no matter which delivery system she chooses.

SUGAR AND ICE by Kate Messner, Walker & Co., 2010

Claire is a normal 12 year old who loves her life on the farm in Mojimuk Falls, NY. She goes maple sugaring with her parents, swaps made up stories with her kindly grandpa, and creates story lines and plays with her two rambunctious younger brothers.  Not only is she a talented skater, but she enjoys the distinction of being the youngest coach in the Northern Lights Skating Club.  The youngest coach is in charge of the smallest skaters.  Claire spends many happy hours at the skating club with her best friend, Natalie, who, by contrast, is a devoted beekeeper.  

Then Claire is offered a scholarship with Russian skating coach Andrei Groshev. It’s a chance to train with elite skaters in Lake Placid which is an hour and a half away from her home. She agrees and then learns how demanding this can be. For starters, she’s expected to practice in Lake Placid three times a week. Even the full support of family and friends doesn’t stop her wondering if the real competition isn’t between her farm life and her performing life. How can she manage her life and keep the best of both worlds?

And those other skaters?  The “elites”? A working title for this book could have been Mean Girls on Ice.

In spite of the intense personal competition, Claire makes at least three good friends in the skating world. One, Luke, is as excited about math as Claire is. He regales her with his Fibonacci jokes.  Another conflict looms. Claire would love to participate in the MathCounts competition, but skating continues to expand to fill her time.

As Claire spins and twirls on the ice, she’s lifted by the music of her routines, Vivaldi’s Autumn, and the theme song from Raiders of the Lost Ark. When the music stops, her mind is still spinning. It’s difficult to be twelve and have so many choices and so many pressures. Home? Friends? Talents?

Moms don’t have to worry about reading this first.  It could be a good springboard to discussion about the kinds of choices that make people happy.

The author decided to write this book when she took her daughter for a basic skills skating camp at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid. When she saw how intensely competitive sports can be, she also became interested in sports psychology, which runs throughout Sugar and Ice, too.

It's hard to stop with one popsicle. That’s also true of writing a book—or reading one. One always leads to another.

Learn more at the author’s website.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Keep the New in Newbery

For months after a book wins the Newbery, it enjoys great attention. Publishers print more copies. Sales increase. The title is issued in paperback. Maybe a movie is optioned. Then the book goes to a special shelf marked “Newbery Winners.”  It has a permanent home. A Newbery winner will always be a part of that great honorable body of literature. I usually don’t blog a Newbery winner, after the fact, because that year it has found its audience. But after that? Just in case you didn’t have time for this one the year it first appeared…  

 MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool, Delecorte Press, 2010

This Newbery winner, a debut novel, came from the author’s family roots.  Drawing on stories she heard as a child, she followed leads in town newspapers, yearbooks, and graveyards, and based Manifest, a fictional town, on the real southeastern Kansas town of Frontenac, home of both her maternal grandparents.  It’s a subtle blend of fact with fiction.

The year is 1936. Family money problems then and now have an eerie similarity.  Abilene is 12 and wishes she knew more about her father, a quiet “drifter.”  Abilene’s voice is sweet and pure, but plenty strong. She has a code of ethics and is nobody’s pushover.  When her father sends her to stay with an old friend in Manifest, Kansas, where he grew up, part of her is reluctant but her quest for information is off and running.

Manifest may seem tired and frayed at the edges, but Abilene and her new friends, Ruthanne and Lettie, uncover secrets and investigate with all the determination of a detective agency for girls only. They find mysterious letters, go on a spy hunt, and meet reclusive Miss Sadie, a diviner whose stories are rich with tales of the past.  As the narrative alternates between stories about a couple of boys Abilene and her friends discover and the adventures of the girls themselves, Abilene finds the thread that weaves her life into the town’s fabric.

Start your own mother/daughter summer book club with this one. Make it new to you.   

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Best Part of Summer

A good book and time to read it—that’s my description of a perfect plan for a summer day. Some books need to be rediscovered. Others are new and shouldn’t be missed the first time around. I never seem to have enough time to share about the books I’ve read, but somehow I always find time to read. Hmm. Note to self: blog more. Here’s a book I’ll be returning to the library today so another lucky reader can check it out.  

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein, Hyperion, 2012

This is a Scheherazade story.

For Julia, a British agent arrested by the Gestapo during World War II, as long as she can write her story, she can live. It’s supposed to be a confession. Is it? What is truth and what is an intricately woven web of deceit? Is her best friend, the pilot Maddie whose friendship is tested to the limit, dead or alive? What or who will Julia betray? Will it matter?

I don’t want to spoil this story by giving away a single thread of a dark and blood stained tapestry of events. The story is so filled with tension and edge of chair suspense, that it should be read on a summer night when no serious tasks or decision making await before noon the next day. Read it at a gallop and then go back and re-read to see if you got it right the first time.

Then thank your lucky stars that WWII is over.  

Code Name Verity will hold the attention of teens, young adults, and older readers. Be aware there are unspeakable cruelties lurking in the dark prison cells.      

The author is also a pilot.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Remembering the “Ring of Fire”

Across the country on May 20, stadiums and backyards filled with lunar enthusiasts of all ages who gathered to see the moon move between the sun and earth at the right distance to look as if the moon wore a fiery crown, giving it the dramatic name, “Ring of Fire.”  

The difference between a ring of fire and a solar eclipse is the distance of the moon from the earth when the moon is between the earth and the sun. For many people, this is exciting, entertaining maybe, but not something their lives revolve around, pardon the pun. But what if it did?

EVERY SOUL A STAR by Wendy Mass, Little Brown and Company, 2008

As this perfect for summer reading odyssey begins, thousands have gathered at a remote campground named Moon Shadow to catch a glimpse of a rare sight: a total eclipse of the sun. This brings together three teens who would never have become friends in any other setting. They tell their stories in alternating points of view.

Ally has grown up at Moon Shadow. It’s her home. She can’t imagine life being anything else but  stargazing and comet hunting. This is her orbit, but it’s all about to change.   

Bree is a future beauty queen and this is not just her own opinion. However, the reader can’t help but wonder if Bree is in eclipse. When will the real Bree peek out?

Jack is overweight and awkward. He likes his own company as well as one can when he is pretty limited in the company of others. He gets a chance to break free of this involuntary comfort zone and when he does, he surprises himself.

All of this is revealed against the background of the coming eclipse as the three characters wear different hats and experience different roles with other age groups, from frightened children to senior citizens. This book is all about broadening horizons, coming of age, stretching, and growing a little in preparation for growing a lot.

Author Wendy Mass understands the plight of those who struggle to find their own individual places in the universe. Both boys and girls will find this multi-layered story as insightful as it is interesting.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Brave Little Book

Proving one can’t judge a book by its thickness, here is a brave little book, slight in pages, but powerful in how and what it exposes. The message is a challenge to us today to confront fear and stand up to bullies, at the core of every dictator’s hold on his people. 

BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE by Eugene Velchin, Henry Holt and Company, 2011

This moving story takes place over two days, during the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union, but it offers the breadth and depth of a lifetime. As events unfold, ten year old Sasha’s devotion to his father, a Communist, and Stalin, their leader, remains steadfast no matter what he is told. Sasha’s closeness to his father is established with warm, quiet scenes but this ends abruptly when the police, “State Security,” barge in during the night and haul his father away.

In a country suffering from a regime where everyone is watching everybody else, no one is really safe from being “reported.” Sasha’s father was reported by another man living in their communal apartment house. That man and his family move into the disgraced father’s apartment before Sasha can rub the sleep from his eyes, ejecting Sasha into the hallway and leaving him homeless. Seems Sasha and his father enjoyed a little more space in their apartment than others. Communists may believe that everyone should share equally, but woe unto those who seem to have even a little more. Envy causes grief.  

Sasha’s lonely experiences peel away his innocence in layers a child can understand. Life settles upon his shoulders like a blanket that is too heavy. Even so, the book ends on a note of hope. Good people still exist.

The author, who left the Soviet Union when he was 27, has written and illustrated several children’s books. He dedicated this book to his father who “survived the Great Terror.”

In his author’s note, Eugene Velchin relates that during Stalin’s reign, 1923-1953, over 20 million people were executed, imprisoned, or exiled. Many crimes were fictitious and punishment was carried out in secret. This secrecy continued after Stalin’s death. Fear was handed down from generation to generation. Older generations still do not want to talk about this.

This book could be a launching pad for discussion no matter the age of the readers living in your house. Courageous people in parts of our world today face persecution and death for making choices about what they believe to be right.  How fortunate we are that we can talk about anything.

For more, see the author’s website:

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Can’t Get Enough Dystopia?

If you or your teen is hungering for more novels set in the future, here’s one for all those appetites awakened by Suzanne Collins’ bestselling book and blockbuster movie,  The Hunger Games.

BLOOD RED ROAD, by Moira Young, Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2011

Women and girls of the future will definitely be strong willed warriors. Get ready!

18 year old Saba and her twin brother Lugh live in Silverlake, arid wasteland visited far too often by dust storms. One of those dust storms deposits a sinister band of villains that kidnaps Lugh and sets Saba and her younger sister, 9 year old Emmi, off on a quest that will keep readers postponing whatever it was they planned to do.  

The outside world is ugly, lawless, and filled with unscrupulous and greedy me-first characters. The good news is that there are well-intentioned courageous people, too. Saba, who has always had Lugh to guide her, is relentless in her drive to rescue her twin, but along the way she must learn how to trust others and work as part of a team.

Isolated from “real world” most of her life, Saba’s manners (what manners?) need work and it isn’t always easy to follow the dialogue which is written without quotation marks. Who cares about speech credits anyhow when Saba and her companions are busy aiming lighted torches at eyeholes and avoiding the claws of hellwurms? We’ll figure out who said what later. The 459 pages fly by, thanks to the division into short, spare blocks of text. It’s as if the divisions are there to help the reader remember to breathe.

Nancy Farmer, a favorite writer of mine, (A Girl Named Disaster, The House of the Scorpion, and many others) is quoted on the cover, “The pace never lets up. No situation is so bad that it can’t get worse in the next couple of pages.” See if you don’t agree with us.

Saba and Emmi grow from self-centeredness to solid responsibility that is both gritty and bitter-sweet. Other developing characters help move this story forward and show potential to set off on new adventures, perhaps with Saba, perhaps not.

Billed as “Dustlands, Book One,” this debut novel is evidently the first of several to come. I won’t be the only reader eager to find out, “what happens next?”

Monday, March 19, 2012

LOL! It’s Spring!

What could be better than the sound of four and five year olds doubled over in a good-old-fashioned belly laugh?

BETTY BUNNY LOVES CHOCOLATE CAKE by Michael B. Kaplan, illustrated by Stephane Jorisch, Dial BFYR, 2011

I’m a chocoholic, so when Betty Bunny says she loves chocolate cake so much  that when she grows up, she’s going to marry it, I smile. I get it. So do young readers. Betty can’t wait for her next taste of this delicious dessert. I get that, too.  Her strategies to short cut the much too long wait don’t turn out as she hopes however, and by the last page turn, the giggles have run away with the reader.

The author is a TV writer who has written for Rosanne and Frasier and now co-creates and executive produces I’m in the Band for Disney XD. Illustrator Jorisch includes New Year at the Pier by April Halprin Wayland among his picture book credits.

I wonder how much chocolate cake this talented duo consumed while bringing Betty Bunny to life. Neither will gain weight.  Laughter is great exercise.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wanted: Food Taster for Royal Family

Food tasters didn’t last very long in Cleopatra’s day. Food tasters were slaves. They didn’t apply or volunteer for the job. Sibling rivalry and family feuds added to the need for food tasters and a high turnover among them. Someone stirring soup in the kitchen or a servant bearing a tray of goblets, or even a guest at the banquet table was always trying out a new poison in order to take over a country or an empire. It’s a wonder Cleopatra’s children ever enjoyed dessert. That makes the life of Selene, Cleopatra’s only daughter, all the more remarkable.

CLEOPATRA’S MOON by Vicky Alvear Shecter, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011

Thirteen year old Selene is the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. In this history enriched first novel, Selene relates how she survived them all, parents, brothers, and a cast of rivals, anyone who didn’t like her or considered her a threat to their power. That seemed to be almost everyone since Selene’s ambition was to be a great and powerful queen, just like her deceased mom. Friend or foe? Hard to tell. Selene had to do some fast thinking.

The author credits a friend and bookseller for insisting she write this story about Cleopatra’s only daughter and only surviving child. Readers will be glad she listened.

Shecter brings these ancient characters to life and makes them feel contemporary with enough romance and adventure to keep all readers turning pages and enough history to amaze us at how much we enjoy classical times. Just when the reader begins to wonder what time it is, the author thoughtfully grounds her with a chapter or section heading noting the year of Cleopatra’s reign and the age of the narrator, the voice of Selene telling us what time it is, and what time it would be if her mother still reigned. A character list (oh, thank you!), author’s note, and a factual explanation make fascinating reading.  

Author Shecter delights in what she has discovered from this period and shares it enthusiastically as a museum docent, author in schools, and writer. She has also written two nonfiction books, Alexander the Great Rocks the World and Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen.

Be prepared. Your approach to mealtime is going to change. You’ll thank your lucky stars you won’t need a food taster.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Celebrate the Ten Year Old

Ten year olds are at a good place in life. They still think of parents and other trusted adults as being somewhat sensible and intelligent. They are open to new ideas but not so confident that they strike out on adventures sure to get them in serious trouble. This is why reading about ten year olds who dare to take on unfairness and injustice and participate in making the outcome a happy, successful one, are empowering, but safe. A ten year old can live in the character’s skin but put the book down and hurry to the table for dinner with his family. Hopefully, it’s there that he can ask the questions generated by his character’s conflicts.

 ESCAPE BY NIGHT: A Civil War Adventure, by Laurie Myers, illustrated by Amy June Bates, Henry Holt and Company, 2011

A mysterious notebook sets the events of this Civil War adventure in motion. It leads ten year old Tommy to discover a Yankee in hiding in his southern city of Augusta, Georgia.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Tommy lives across the street from his father’s church which has been turned into a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers. Tommy witnesses a grim wagon heaped high with wounded men rolling into town. He sees a notebook fall from the hand of a man who may or may not be dead. Tommy and his greyhound, Samson, retrieve the notebook and vow to return it to its owner whom they find inside the church turned hospital still clinging to life. 

The mysterious notebook gives a clue to what the wounded soldier is thinking and leads to Tommy’s discovery that this man is a Yankee. Horrors! He doesn’t “look” like a Yankee. The stranger treats Tommy with respect and answers him honestly even though he seems fully aware that Tommy could give him away. By the time Tommy makes several decisions centering around the Yankee and his beliefs, the reader will be ready to step in and help. But then there is Annie, the little sister who could turn all the plans into failure. What will she do?

Samson plays a major role. The author knows how important dogs are to stories. She collaborated with writers Betsy Duffey and Betsy Byars, the author’s sister and mom, to write My Dog, My Hero. It’s clear the illustrator has connected with Samson as well. The reader might not be surprised if Samson steps out of his picture and responds with a southern accent to the concerns Tommy expresses to his canine confidante.

For more about the author and illustrator, see their websites.

This is an excellent book for readers and parents to talk about. It’s not long and not daunting to reluctant readers or parents with little time who want to read it first and leave it where it’s most likely to be picked up. Escape at Night. How could anyone resist that title?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What Did the Children Think?

During early 19th century presidential discussions, political tongues wagged about Thomas Jefferson’s rumored relationship with Sally Hemings. Sally was a slave. Was she also the mother of several of Jefferson’s children? And what about those children? What did they think? How did they feel?

JEFFERSON’S SONS: A Founding Father’s Secret Children, by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley, Dial Books For Young Readers, 2011

What did Thomas Jefferson’s secret children know? What did they think about the man whom “everyone” knew fathered them, but a man their mother strictly forbade them from calling “Papa” or any other familial name.

Authors of historical fiction don’t make up the history. They read widely and research deeply. Usually an author’s note tells the reader what is real and what is not. Author Bradley studied Jefferson, his house, his family, and visited Monticello several times, picking the brains of historians there. She invites readers to explore the Monticello kid-friendly website. Her own website ­­is also helpful.

That being said, since slaves were prohibited from reading and writing, a written account of thoughts and feelings would be rare. While we probably won’t ever know what Jefferson’s children really thought and felt, Bradley’s fictionalized characters, based on Sally’s children, surely come close. Readers will understand the deep sadness expressed by one son at the gulf between his mother’s children and their biological father. This boy, who receives better care, better clothes, even better work, with never an outward explanation for this favoritism, still wishes he were the child of the blacksmith, a slave who has a warm, loving relationship with his child. 

Sally is a very strong character, keeping her children in line and thereby keeping them safe. She has endured and survived and she is determined that her children will also endure and survive. Although Thomas Jefferson promised her that each child will be set free when he or she turns 21, Sally believes it is better to pass for white than be freed. Freed slaves must carry papers subject to loss or destruction. They always remain at risk, at the mercy of greedy, unscrupulous slave catchers.

Instead, Sally works to send Beverly and Harriet, her light skinned children, into the world with new identities, but bearing the heavy burden of keeping their past a secret. She is adamant that their own children will have a much better future because they will never know--and must never know--they were born to former slaves passing as white.

Jefferson’s Sons is told from three points of view, two boys who are sons and one who is a close
friend. All three are slaves. Their lives and their liberty or their lack of liberty give rise to the question: just what did Thomas Jefferson mean when he wrote, “all men are created equal”?

And what do your children think?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Sky's the Limit

In the great city of New York, I hear a parade is planned today. Something about a football game. However, my mind is on another event in the Big Apple, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. This annual festive celebration is made possible by one man’s quest to make things move.

BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY, the True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, by Melissa Sweet, Houghton Mifflin, 2011

For Tony Sarg it may have started when he was six years old and didn’t want to get out of bed to feed the chickens. He analyzed the problem, made a plan, and rigged up a pulley system that worked so well Tony stayed in his warm bed, the chickens were well fed, and reportedly, his amazed father never asked him to do another chore.

From London to New York to Broadway where Tony Sarg’s Marionettes performed, to Macy’s holiday windows where Tony entertained hordes of jostling shoppers with his mechanical marionettes, to a parade of street carnivals from around the world, Tony Sarg was always looking for the next step toward making his puppets look and move like actors on a stage.

Author/illustrator Sweet also loves to figure out how to make things move. Her characters on the page of this charming book have a light airy movement of their own. Sweet's well researched text flows easily along a timeline that is easy for young readers to grasp. This is a biography of Tony Sarg and a brief mini-biography of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The first Thanksgiving Day parade was held in 1924, from Harlem to Harold Square. Do you suppose Tony Sarg ever dreamed his creative genius would result in today’s annual extravaganza watched by thousands on the streets and hundreds of thousands more on TV?

In the recent frenzy of award ceremonies, this charming, fun biography of Tony Sarg which is also a mini-biography of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade won both the Sibert Award and the Orbis Pictus Award. As a result, there may be a waiting list at your library or the book may be back ordered at your favorite independent book store. It’s worth the wait.

In the meantime, for more about these whimsical puppets, take a look at the author’s web site. This could open up a new path of expression for your young readers.

Or you.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Go Ahead—Be a Kid Again

Here’s a picture book that can shake up your day, literally. I’ve read other reviews of this delightful concept book and, frankly, didn’t get it. I’ve spent a lot of time with a toddler and a picture book on my lap asking questions about each page and enjoying the fresh insights of a two or three year old, untarnished by the ho-hum thinking of us adults. How could that be improved upon?

PRESS HERE by Herve Tullet, Chronicle Books, 2011

Colors, shapes, numbers, and a wonderful feeling of accomplishment pour out of this hard cover book that feels like a board book, but it’s more like a small size picture book with pages that are thinner than a board book but feel sturdier than a lap size picture book. Confused yet? Add motion. Shake, shake, shake.

I shared PRESS HERE with a friend who directs a pre-school and after she read, shook, laughed, and re-read the book again, she pulled out a pencil and notepad and jotted down the title and author. “Twisted,” she said. “The kids will love this.” The next time I’m in her office, I’ll look for this book on her “to read” shelf for her giggly, wiggly students.

Translated from the French, PRESS HERE first appeared in 2010 published by Bayard Editions under the title “Un Livre.” It’s more than un livre. It’s an invitation to enter a toddler’s world, and how many times are we that fortunate?

You’ll have to read this book for yourselves. I’m glad I did. And yes, “twisted” is the perfect word. Let me know what you think.

Hillview School Library