Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Making Letter “A” Happy

Imagine if you were a hard working letter "A". You have to start every ABC book. There IS no ABC book without you. It must get very wearying to be on call for every single time somebody decides to write a “new” alphabet book. Besides, how many ABC books does the world need?

ONCE UPON AN ALPHABET, Short Stories for all the Letters, by Oliver Jeffers, Philomel Books, 2014

The sub-title pretty well says what this book is about, but it doesn’t tell you what the stories are about, and that’s where the reader becomes entertained and each hard working letter smiles because now he has his very own story. Isn’t it about time? (I can hear the author thinking that.)

The introduction, which looks as if a child wrote it in black crayon, says, “If words make up stories, and letters make up words, then stories are made of letters. In this menagerie we have stories, made of words, made FOR all the letters.” (On further reflection, the author must have written that because I can’t imagine a young reader using the word “menagerie.”)

And so all the stories, made of words, made of letters, begin.  Stories from A to Z. Stories about an inventor in disguise, a forgetful king, and a parsnip that could use a tutor. And more. Because as everybody knows, there are 26 letters in the alphabet. Thus, 26 stories. If you were paying attention, I mentioned only three. No spoiler alerts here!

The author/illustrator, who was born in Australia and grew up in Belfast, has set so many tales spinning, that it’s pretty obvious his mind can’t sit still. It has to dance. (That’s what I think.)  His book titles The Incredible Book Eating Boy and This Moose Belongs to Me will capture the curiosity of almost anyone. (Unless that person is in a bad mood and late for dinner.)

Oliver Jeffers says his favorite letter is O because it is his first initial, he was born in October, and there are two O’s in Brooklyn where he now lives. 

Upon careful consideration and many page turnings, back and forth, my favorite letter is J because it’s my first initial and because Author Jeffers might like it, too, (it is his second initial) and because he wrote a story for “J” about an invention I’d love to have: a jelly door. If he could Just make it work.

That’s all I’m going to say. What is your favorite letter and why?

Oh, one more thing—to challenge your own creativity, go to www.oliverjeffersworld.com

That really IS all I’m going to say. Today.

Friday, October 24, 2014

We Need Diverse Books!

Recently, at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles, I learned about a group organized to promote diversity in books In my view, diversity is anything new and different from my own life. Cultures, countries, past, present, yes, even future.  The list is endless. All fascinate me.   

SALT, A Story of Friendship in a Time of War,  by Helen Frost, Frances Foster Books, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013

This well researched novel in verse is set in the Indiana Territory in late summer of 1812. It is told from the point of view of two twelve year old boys who are like many boys their age today, content to spend their time hunting, fishing, and exploring the forest around their homes.

Anikwa’s ancestors have lived in the Miami village of Kekionga for centuries.  James is the son of a trader who sells supplies to both the Native American community and the soldiers and their families who live inside the fort known as Fort Wayne. Salt is one of the most prized commodities for both sides of the stockade.

Such a peaceful picture changes when the British and Americans lay claim to the land of Anikwa’s forefathers.  Warring factions assemble. James’s father must close his trading post and move his family inside the fort.  The supply of salt ends abruptly for the Miami tribe.

The boys, who are fictional, tell their stories in a distinct verse form. The author tells us Anikwa’s poems are “shaped like patterns of Miami ribbon work,” James’s poems began as an image of the stripes on an American flag. In the author’s words, “As I discovered the two voices, the pulse-like shape of Anikwa’s poems wove through the horizontal lines of James’s poems, and the two voices created something new that held the story as it opened out.” Here and there, as if to bring out the flavor of the boys’ friendship and surroundings, the author places poems about salt, how the deer leads man to find it, how man uses it, and how it tastes in the tears of those impacted by war.

Helen Frost is the award winning author of  Keesha’s House, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and Diamond Willow which won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. She lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
A glossary of Miami (Myaamia) words is included and the author gives credit and thanks to the Myaamia Center  a rich source of maps, language, and historical and cultural information located at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

This is a diverse book. I think we need more. What do you think?



Thursday, October 9, 2014


Some stories melt your heart.

HALLEY, by Faye Gibbons, NewSouth Books, 2014

Halley is 14. She was born at the wrong time in the wrong place, during the depths of the Depression in a struggling mountain community in north Georgia. That’s just the setting for this gritty novel.

As if the times are not punishing enough, when Halley’s beloved father dies suddenly, she and her mother and younger brother Robbie are forced to move in with her hell fire and brimstone preacher grandfather, Franklin. Franklin never liked Halley’s father and takes that dislike out on his daughter and her children. He thumps his Bible and quotes Scripture to suit his own purposes, and those purposes turn the women of his family into powerless servants.

Whatever Halley prizes, her grandfather seems determined to hold hostage or take away from her. Halley believes an education will give her control over her own life and be a salvation for her family.  Her wily grandfather knows the power of education which is the very reason he stands in her way like a mile high wall of bricks. Women of today will applaud Halley’s stubbornness—or so it was considered then.    

This book offers so many springboards for discussion, I hardly know where to begin.
Gender roles. Respect for elders. Faith issues. Forgiveness. Readers at your house will be thinking, discussing, and tapping into some surprising wells of emotion inside themselves.   

Author Faye Gibbons is a master story teller. It will be a long time before you forget Halley.       


Monday, October 6, 2014

Tough Times, Tough Characters

Legendary writer Sid Fleischman said a strong villain is the writer’s best friend. The main character must become stronger to overcome the monstrous villain. A stronger villain and a stronger main character make the story stronger. The same could be said for obstacles.

EVERY DAY AFTER by Laura Golden, Delacorte Press, 2013

Author Golden has created conniving, bad-tempered villains and painful obstacles to challenge her main character, 11 year old Lizzie. The year is 1929, harsh for everyone. Her father leaves, abandoning his wife and Lizzie. This pushes her mother into leaving, too, mentally and emotionally.  

Lizzie is not an orphan. Or is she? Dad could return. Lizzie is sure he will be back in time for her 12th birthday.  Mom could get well. If she doesn’t, it won’t be because Lizzie didn’t try—hard.

One of Lizzie’s classmates wants to see her shipped off to an orphanage. This gal is so jealous of Lizzie, she bleeds green. The reader will wonder what sets this villain off.

The bank wants to take the house. Lizzie’s grades, a source of pride for her father, begin to drop.

There are good characters willing to help but they don’t know Lizzie needs help. To let them know would, in Lizzie’s eyes, be letting down her father.

Lizzie writes in her journal, looks at her father’s face in the heirloom locket he left her, and wonders why he left and what will happen if he doesn’t come home. These are tough times for everyone in Bittersweet, AL, but Lizzie also suffers from isolation, keeping out those who could do something to make her life better. The reader, pulling harder and harder, page by page, for Lizzie to triumph, wonders when Lizzie will realize that her father has let his family down.

Every Day After is author Golden’s first novel but it won’t be her last. Her inspiration for this one was her paternal grandmother who lost her mother at the age of 12. She was left with a strict father in circumstances similar to the ones Lizzie endures.

Historical fiction helps us see how far we’ve come. If you are trying to train your tweens to sort and wash dirty clothes at your house, Lizzie’s laundry chores will make everyone thankful for your washer and dryer. They might even help you cheerfully.  




Friday, October 3, 2014

Ode to the Office Water Cooler

Some picture books appeal to children of all ages. That includes parents and grandparents who are in touch with their own inner child.

DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST and Other Poems  from the Water Hole, by Irene Latham, illustrated by Anna Wadham, Millbrook Press, 2014

Day begins. Illustrator Wadham wakes up the book, the reader, and an assortment of animals with the warm colors of morning. It’s a time to meet, greet and gather the news of the day.

Poet Latham, in the first of 15 engaging poems, extends an invitation: “To all the beasts who enter here.”

While the illustrator uses backgrounds to advance the day, the writer plays with a variety of poetic devices to bring each animal to life as it meets daily needs for food, shelter, and safety.
Pacing is prime when author Latham describes the impala, the picture of grace. The meerkat is bright eyed and disciplined and so are its stanzas. A snake slithers across the painted page while letters drape and sounds delight.

A change of pace allows a break for a commercial, an ad for the efficient cleaning service run by the enterprising oxpeckers.  “Oxpecker Cleaning Service.” Clean is guaranteed!

When day comes to a close, it’s time for a bath. Be careful how you handle “Dust bath at dusk” if you decide to read this poem to an imaginative child. You might have to explain why a dust bath is not an option for a non-elephant, a.k.a. the child in your lap.

“What Rhino Knows” is about your typical loner. You may have one in your family, the one your mother’s sisters are always trying to marry off.  Rhinos are not friendly to other rhinos. If one crowds another at the watering hole, the protestor could charge, kick up dust, or, worst of all, simply ignore the other. But, between rhinos, being ignored may not matter.
Second and third grade readers will lap up the fact filled sections. Call these blocks of sprightly text another type of watering hole. A glossary and other books add breadth to knowledge.

Irene Latham  has written 3 collections of poetry for grown-ups and two novels for kids, Leaving Gee’s Bend and Don’t Feed the Boy.

Illustrator  Anna Wadham lives in England in a flat with a rooftop view.

While you read Dear Wandering Wildebeest dozens of times to your eager little listener, recall the office water cooler. Which co-worker is which animal? Which animal are you?   




Monday, September 22, 2014

Conversation’s Comeback (Maybe)

Dinner time. The phone rings.  Another political recording. Maybe, instead of gritting my teeth , which I do, I should start a conversation with the real people around me about the importance of voting. A new book categorized as young adult (YA) nonfiction could launch a new meal time activity: talking to each other.

A WOMAN IN THE HOUSE (AND SENATE): How Women came to the United States Congress, Broke Down Barriers, and Changed the Country, by Ilene Cooper, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. Foreword by Former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014

Through a curious set of circumstances, at the same time this book captured my attention, I was also reading A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren and Tough Choices by Hilary Rodham Clinton. What an interesting trio of books!

If you’d like a tip about which one to read first, I’d recommend the YA because it is a good summary and grounding for the other two.  In her acknowledgements, the author, an editor for Booklist whose first book was Susan B. Anthony, says lack of space prevented her from profiling many other women. She encourages readers to look at Women in Congress 1917-2006. I did.

Information from this book is available on the website:

This site is definitely well worth the time if your curiosity and courage are heightened by reading author Cooper’s book. Mine were.

The three books on my reading table related well. Both Elizabeth Warren and Hilary Clinton are profiled in author Cooper’s lively and well researched book which includes an appendix, bibliography, and an index which is on its way to being well-thumbed at my house.  Maybe yours, too.

Go ahead. Start a conversation.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

What Every 5th Grader Needs

Too old for a babysitter. Not old enough to stay home alone. Just “almost.” That’s Albie’s dilemma. Until he gets a new nanny.

ABSOLUTELY ALMOST by Lisa Graff, Philomel Books, 2014

Calista tunes in right away. She tells Albie she isn’t a baby sitter. They will just hang out.

Entering a new 5th grade is hard enough. When you are always “almost” and never “most”, as Albie sees himself, life is tough. Add a few bullies, which seem to populate every 5th grade story, and you know fairly soon what Albie is up against. Then Calista arrives. She helps him see life and himself differently.

Calista is like a bridge between Albie and the adults in his life—parents, teachers, neighbors in his New York apartment building-- and between Albie and his friends and classmates who may or may not be the same people.
Complications rush in like a run-away subway train when the family of his best friend Erlan, who Albie suspects may be his only friend, is selected to allow TV cameras into their home. Suddenly Erlan lives in the middle of a successful reality show. The boys try to work around it, but it’s almost--that word again--impossible to have a private best friend talk with a camera leaning in.  

If, as a parent, you read this book before you place it somewhere to be discovered, think of it as a guide for crossing the bridge between parent and pre-teen experiences. You will see all sides of these developing relationships. No one will be right all the time. Good news for you, because you will be thinking in the not too distant future that surely no one could be wrong all the time.

 A former children’s book editor, Lisa Graff has written other books, too, among them A Tangle of Knots and Sophie Simon Solves Them All.  I can't help but wonder if she didn't have a bit of Calista's savvy when she was a teen.   



Sunday, August 31, 2014


Megan Sovern owes me a Saturday afternoon. That’s what I lost because I had to take a nap because I was up half the night reading her debut novel.

THE MEANING OF MAGGIE by Megan Jean Sovern, Chronicle Books, 2014

I learned a long time ago I can’t pull an all-nighter the way I used to. That knowledge didn’t stop me from wanting to see how Maggie’s life turned out when it began with her dad in the hospital and ended in the same place except…

It’s the "except" part that kept me reading. Maggie is sprightly, fun, bright, too bright some would say, but smart girls should be IN not left OUT of things, especially when you have Maggie’s temperament, are the future president of the United States of America and own stock in Coca-Cola. She loves, especially her family, cares, especially about other people, is spunky, and thinks her dad and mom are the top guys on the planet. Mom and Dad may be pushing that last part, however as Maggie gets older and begins to realize her older sisters aren’t all bad and maybe Mom and Dad aren’t all perfect.

Maggie is about to turn 11 or as the book jacket puts it, “one year closer to college. One year closer to voting. And one year closer to getting a tattoo. *” Footnotes throughout the book tell us what Maggie thinks, and the tattoo footnote tells us Maggie thinks tattoos are terrifying.  It’s just nice to know she is one year closer to getting one if she wants to.

As care-free as Maggie seems, she is super worried about her cool dude dad whose legs have fallen asleep. She tries hard to honor the family motto, “Pull up your bootstraps.” Not easy. Author Sovern’s insights into how each member of the family handles Dad’s increasing disability turn Maggie’s family into the reader’s family, too.

If you lose a night of sleep reading this book, it’s not my fault. Tell the author. She lives in Atlanta. Probably hangs out in coffee shops with a notepad and pencil. Or a laptop. Maybe a tablet. Smart phone? Happy hunting.


Saturday, August 23, 2014


You may not be anywhere near the Birmingham Museum of Art. You may not be able to enjoy its current exhibit, Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor. That won’t stop the readers at your house from getting caught up in the action of a debut novel that combined this ancient art with our American love of baseball. Speaking of which, I am hooked on Little League these days. Anybody else watching the World Series with me?

SAMURAI SHORTSHOP by Alan Gratz, Dial Books, 2006

As noted, this was a debut novel. The author did not stop there. In addition to his obvious penchant for thorough research, he delights in combining and twisting unrelated topics: Bushido--the Samurai code--and baseball. Shakespeare and pulp mystery fiction. He makes disparity work. Gratz's latest middle grade series is being launched as I write this. It combines steam punk and the 1870’s.  

First Samurai Shortstop: Toyo is 16. The year is 1890. When the mighty Shoguns were overturned twenty years earlier, Japan’s isolation ended. Toyo is born into a country opening its eyes to the rest of the world. However, his father and uncle belong to the traditional world of bushido, the way of the warrior.
When Toyo’s uncle commits ritual suicide to avoid modernization, Toyo agonizes that his father may do the same thing.

Toyo’s traditional samurai training at the prestigious Ichiko Japanese boarding school and his clash with the spirit of Ichiko law lands him squarely in the same dilemma faced by teens today: how do you fit in and still stand up for yourself?

Alan Gratz figured this out and young readers casting about for one last absorbing story before summer ends will find the ending as satisfying as a baseball game when your team wins.

Now is the time to check out the author’s web site and see what other twists he has in store.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


If you’re headed to the Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor exhibit  at the Birmingham Museum of Art, this book will whet the appetite of your middle grade boy readers. Girls, too.  It’ a riveting book, museum trip or not.

WHITE CRAIN by Sandy Fussell, illustrated by Rhian Nest James, Candlewick Press, 2010.
Niya Moto, narrator, is a 14 year old boy whose father was a samurai. However, Niya can’t attend his father’s school for training because he has only one leg.

Along with five fellow students who have their own obstacles to overcome, Niya studies with sensei Ki-Yaga, an ancient but legendary warrior. Ki-Yaga teaches them not only physical skills, but mental and spiritual ones.

The humor is sly and subtle. Chapter titles like “Bad Breath and Big Feet” are gigglers.

The learning process is deep and gentle. A glossary of useful words and the 7 virtues of Bushido (samurai code) ground the story.

The kids are well defined personalities and even though they encounter great cruelties because of their lack of physical perfection, disability is only a small part of what tags each one. Sensei leads, guides, prods them into greater perspectives. Their spirit totems reveal character while friendship, loyalty, and using one’s head to think a problem through create triumphant outcomes.

This is Sandy Fussell’s debut novel. Illustrator Rhian Nest James has illustrated more than 60 children’s books. Both live in Australia.  



Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Summer is wrapping up and you want to give the kids a bit of culture, maybe a trip to a museum. Hard to sell? A new exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art (through September 21, 2014), is titled, Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor. No need to mention museums…yet. Just leave a novel or two about these warriors in traditional Japan lying around. Take it from there.

HEART OF A SAMURAI by Margi Preus, Abrams, 2010

Every author has a story in her heart that just begs to be told. Some carry that story for years before it bursts forth on the page. Author Margi Preus stumbled across this story of “a courageous boy who nurtured friendship and understanding between two previously antagonistic countries.” She traveled to the boy’s hometown, hardly a trek next door, and her journey resulted in introducing the young reader, maybe even a reluctant reader boy, to Manjiro.

While his four companions whine and complain and make the harrowing experiences of their 1841shipwreck personal, Manjiro looks for a way to survive. He tries to make the situation better for everyone, but when he reveals during their long, lonely vigil, scanning the horizon for a rescue ship, that his ambition is to be a samurai, they laugh, knowing full well that he was not born to be one. They are finally rescued by an American whaler. Another adventure begins as Manjiro learns a new language, new laws, and sometimes the confusing customs of America, a foreign land inhabited, as his friends believe, by devils that will gobble them up. Manjiro realizes upon his return to Japan that everyone in his country believes that about Americans. Japan had been isolated for 250 years. The Japanese people had no way of knowing anything about America.

Admiral Perry arrives and insists the Japanese open their ports to him. Manjiro is able to translate. Although he does not speak directly with the Americans, he does advise the shogun.  

Manjiro is a fine role model for boys of any century. In his longing, he brings the samurai code to life and makes it his. Spoiler alert: He is made a samurai by the shogun. “Unprecedented for a person not born of a samurai family and of such low rank to be elevated to such status.” 

In the epilogue, we learn that Manjiro wrote the first English book for Japanese people, A Shortcut to English Conversation, started the whaling industry in Japan and joined the first Japanese Embassy to the United States as an interpreter. Believed to be the first Japanese person to set foot in America, he has been called “the boy who discovered America.”

The book is enriched by a number of illustrations, including pencil drawings by Manjiro who became known as John Mung.

I plan to share a couple more samurai books. Circle a date for that museum trip.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Hitch in Summer Plans?

You’re stuck at the beach and it’s raining. Or the plans for a fun day at home fell through and your house has an echo: “There’s nothing to do, nothing to do, nothing to do.”  Your kids aren’t teenagers yet. They’re too young to sound so old. If only your reluctant readers liked to read.

That’s not just boredom talking; it’s opportunity knocking. Hide this book where it’s sure to be discovered.

A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT by Jim Averbeck, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014

Chapter one, sentence one: “No body meant no casket,…” Here begins Jack’s tale of woe, guaranteed to make any bored pre-teen realize life could be worse.  11 year old Jack never knew his dad and now his mom has driven off a pier. Jack is sitting in the funeral home looking at his mother's head shot and all the props supplied by her acting troop for a Hollywood funeral. By the end of the chapter, Jack and his buddy Schultzie have wiggled through a basement window in the funeral home. Jack has decided to seek answers. What they find is two sheet covered bodies that have no answers for them, but Jack decides not to take no, or no response, as final.

Then his Aunt Edith arrives to take charge. Boo, hiss! Things get worse and, if there were such a word, worser.

One would think that when Aunt Edith is kidnapped, life would be better for Jack. It’s really hard for the reader to feel sad about this turn of events. Why not say, “Good riddance!” or “Who cares?”

But Jack cares. Remember, he never knew his father, has lost his mom to a tragic accident, and except for Aunt Edith, he is a Boy Alone, a whole orphan with no family. 

Then he meets Alfred Hitchcock. THE Alfred Hitchcock.

The first page of each chapter features a panel of drawings, cartoon style, by Nick Bertozzi. How appealing for any reader who has been confronted with a writing assignment in school and made to tell his story in words, not pictures. I suspect the author may relate.

Each chapter is a title of a Hitchcock movie. At the back of the book, the author has provided a list of these movies with famous scenes and where to see those…look for it…Hitchcock cameo appearances. Parents may be inspired to start a series of summer movie nights. There are 35 chapters and 35 Hitchcock films to enjoy.

I don’t want to spoil any surprises. With lots of action and Hitchcockian suspense, readers will be eagerly turning pages to get to the end which they won’t see coming. I didn’t.

Parents will enjoy reading about the author’s interesting life. Their kids will be too busy reading the book.

It's hard to predict when you will realize the book you so cleverly tucked away has disappeared. Your reluctant reader has disappeared, too. Find one and you will find the other.


Saturday, June 28, 2014


When diversity is the subject, it’s not uncommon to hear the sentence,  “If only there were more books like…” completed by this title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. How about a hundred?

CODE TALKER by Joseph Bruchac, Dial Books, 2005

Many of the 100 books by author Joseph Bruchac draw on his Native American heritage. Code Talker is only one, but I chose it because it honors a brave, heroic service to our country that couldn’t be talked about for more than twenty years.

Main character Ned Begay is fictional, but he becomes very real to the reader as he joins the Marines in WWII and serves in the Pacific, from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima.

Ned is young. He lies about his age so he can enlist in the Marines, and because he is a Navajo, he is assigned to a top secret task, performed only by Navajos: code talker.
The Navajo language is vital in the conflict with the Japanese because it is an unbreakable code. The courage and skill of the code talkers during some of the heaviest fighting of the war saved countless lives, but what they did and how they did it was so secret that when the war ended, not even their families on the reservation were told.

Only after the service of the code talkers is no longer classified does Ned begin his story: “Grandchildren, you asked me about this medal of mine. There is much to be said about it. This small piece of metal holds a story that I was not allowed to speak of for many winters. It is the true story of how Navajo Marines helped America win a great war.”
The work of prolific author Bruchac has won many awards including the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for The Heart of a Chief.

Start with Sherman Alexie on your bookshelf and add the works of Joseph Bruchac. I hope your bookcase is large.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


You can turn your kids loose with this book, boys or girls.
SCREAMING AT THE UMP by Audrey Vernick, Clarion Books, 2014

Casey is twelve, wants to be a sports journalist, and lives with his dad and grandfather who run an umpire school, Behind the Plate. Casey probably knows as much--maybe more--about baseball as anyone who hangs out at the ballpark all spring, summer, and fall.  

What about that other season? Casey hears a rumor that his dad might move the school to Florida so they can train umpires all year long. It’s hard to play baseball in the winter in New Jersey. Move? His journalist’s antennae zing to life. His personal life could take a bad bounce just when he think he knows the score.

That’s not the most sensational story Casey pursues, however. He discovers the importance of considering all the angles before he makes a call. 

Characters are honest and stick up for each other when they should. Conflicts are handled with good sense and kid humor. Villains and bullies do not crowd the plate here. Thank goodness, There are lots of those books out there. It’s nice to have an honest to goodness baseball book with real home runs.

This Casey doesn’t strike out.

The author lives in New Jersey, but you can visit her at her website.


Friday, May 9, 2014

Rock-a-Bye, Baby

…in the tree top. That gently  swaying tree you planted when your first child was born can be more than an imaginative cradle for each baby as your family grows.  It could be the first child’s friend, too. (Speaking imaginatively, that is.)

MAPLE by Lori Nichols, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014

My parents planted trees for special occasions. So do I. The flowering cherry tree in my front yard was planted on one of my birthdays. I won’t tell you when it was planted or how old it is today, but it blooms in time for my birthday every year.

Maple, the sweet-faced little girl in Lori Nichol’s debut picture book, grows along with her special tree. She sings to her tree, dances in rhythm with its graceful branches, and sometimes even pretends SHE is a tree. She believes the tree loves her back. (I think it does, too.) She can be as loud as she wants, and the tree doesn’t mind at all. To a little girl, that’s unconditional love.

Through the seasons of falling leaves, winter cold, and melting snowmen , Maple worries about her tree friend. Then one spring day she spots a seedling sprouting beneath her tree. Maple also becomes a big sister.
It’s hard to make a crying baby happy. As Maple observes, it seems all of them cry sometimes, even the happiest ones.  Maple, who is a really good big sister, works out the answer. Her tree helps. Can you guess the new baby’s name? 

The book jacket announces that Maple is an “enchanting” debut. It’s true. For more about this emerging writer/illustrator visit her on the web.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Hello. My Name is Bernice. I’m a Squash.

Actually, this book is not about a talking squash. But it comes close.

SOPHIE’S SQUASH by Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf (illustrator), Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013

I can relate to characters who are only children. I was one once. Only children or not, if we spend each day without any short people looking us in the eye while we make up songs and plays, we make up our friends, too. I had an invisible friend. Her name was Lucy.

My parents were understanding.  They accepted Lucy as if she were theirs, too. Mom would set a place at the table for Lucy. Dad would prompt her, gently, “Lucy, put your hand in your lap. Elbows off the table.”  Or, “See what a nice job Joan is doing cutting her cooked carrots? Try to be more like her.” Dad knew how to work with what he had.

Bernice has big round eyes and she is yellow, but not sick. That’s just the way she is. She’s a squash, after all. Oh, but how she is loved by Sophie! Sophie’s parents are not quite as understanding as mine were. But then, Lucy wasn’t going to get mushy and smell bad. Sophie’s mother tries to nip this problem in the bud, squash blossom, if you will. She suggests baking Bernice with marshmallows. Ooh! You can probably guess Sophie’s reaction to that!

Time goes by. Bernice softens. Sophie’s parents call Sophie names like “Sugar Beet and Sweet Pea.” This does not soften Sophie’s will.

The story is based on the author’s young daughter, Sonia, who once loved a squash, too. I don’t know how Sonia’s mother handled this, but Sophie’s mother manages just fine and all ends well. Visit the real life mom/author here.
Sophie is a good squash mom. Illustrator Wilsdorf captures the many tender expressions of a doting mother and the defensive posture of a mother who is convinced her child is the best and brightest of them all.

Plant a spring garden with your young listeners. Plant fruits, vegetables, or ideas. Be careful, though.  What will you do if they befriend the breakfast cantaloupe? 


Saturday, April 12, 2014

On Passover

What was it like to be a child in Biblical times? Did you ever wonder? Does your child?

The Longest Night, a Passover Story by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Catia Chien, Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013

The author wondered, too. She wrote this book for the curious girl she was. When her family honored the tradition of reading Exodus every year at Passover, she wondered about the real people in the story. Who were they? What did their families do on ordinary days?  What did the children do? 

A young slave girl tells this story, and her ordinary day begins “in the heat and blowing sand.”

Children do not play. They must work.

Then the world changed.  “Life unraveled, rearranged.” Plagues arrived. Exodus tells us about the leaders and rulers and how this impacted them. This author lets us feel the impact on the families in the streets.

Parents and grandparents waited. The young main character wondered, worried, but didn’t ask. She just watched.

The night her father marked the doorpost with blood was a night filled with terrible cries of anguish. Everyone rushed into the square. They gathered their belongings and ran. “Running from, but also to.”

The illustrator carries the reader from the silence of a grey and grim setting, punctuated with hopeful skies and free-flying birds, grants a reason to look up into a world that turns brown with the prospects of greater hunger and more wounded lives. Swirling blues of a mighty Red Sea roll to surprising bursts of color as the people celebrate their escape and a grand arrival where, “As we found in open air—All our voices, everywhere.”

Together, the writer and illustrator have created an imaginative treatment of this majestic event.

For your child or your inner child, whether your family observes Passover or not, here is a book for all who enter this season…and wonder.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Do You Hear What I Hear?

It’s a new year, a good time to listen more fully, think more deeply, and expect good things to result in the coming months.

THE MAN WITH THE VIOLIN, by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Dusan Petricic, Annick Press, 2013. Postscript by Joshua Bell.

Joshua Bell is a violin virtuoso. Concertgoers around the world are willing to pay $100 per ticket to hear him play.

However, as an experiment seven years ago, a Washington D. C. newspaper asked him to dress like a street musician and play his priceless Stradivarius in the subway. Bell did this for 43 minutes.

Over a thousand people walked by. Only seven stopped to listen for more than a minute. No one applauded the music or the musician. At the end of the performance a grand total of $32.17 lay in the violin case at his feet. Apparently, all passersby thought they saw or heard was a simple street musician playing for pennies.

When children’s author Kathy Stinson heard this story, she began to wonder, as all writers do, “what if…” and The Man with the Violin began to grow upon the page.

As the inside cover says, “Dylan was someone who noticed things. His mom was someone who didn’t.”

Dylan’s mom pulls him through the subway. While she hurries, men with briefcases and lunch boxes, women pushing baby carriages and carrying flowers and bundles, teens, couples, and workmen rush around Dylan. Trains roar. Dylan begs to stop, yearns to listen to the man with the violin.

Expressive artwork by renowned illustrator Dusan Petricic keeps the focus on Dylan, his mom, and the man with the violin. The artist imbues the characters in the subway with enough detail that the reader knows each one has a story to tell. But he renders these characters in black and white. This isn’t their story. It’s Dylan’s.

Music, like a multi-colored ribbon, weaves its way through the black and white scene. Dylan struggles to hear the music, but it is swallowed up by the roar of the subway. Still, the music stays in Dylan’s head.

Later Dylan asks his Mom if "that man" will still be there. Mom responds, “What man?”

At this point I put the book down and stopped reading to a group of senior citizens. We talked about the difference in hearing, listening, and paying attention to the music in our lives.

Author Stinson continues her story about the fictitious Dylan, and her story has a happy ending.

The seniors, however, wanted to know if the arts are still taught in elementary school. Would today’s children appreciate the value of the Stradivarius or even know it is a violin? 

What about your children?


Hillview School Library