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.   

Hillview School Library