Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jazzmatazz!

Calmenson, Stephanie. 2008. Jazzmatazz! Ill. by Bruce Degan. Harper Collins.

A bright and breezy, rhyming romp through a jazzy household. A piano-playing mouse livens up the house with a refrain of "Doo-dat, diddy-dat, Diddy-dat, doo!" The mouse dances upon the piano keys,

"Doo-dat, diddy-dat, Diddy-dat, doo!
I plink, plink, plink. How about you?
Mouse points to Dog,
With his bones and bowl.
"I play my drum with
My heart and soul!"

Cat plays the fiddle, Bird sings, Fish bubbles, and Baby, Mom and Dad all tap. A few of the rhymes do not flow easily, but for the most part, this book with its joyful and colorful illustrations by Bruce Degan works.

This would be fun for storytime with Lisa Wheeler and R. Gregory Christie's 2008 Theodore Seuss Geisel award winner, Jazz Baby, Leo and Diane Dillon's, Jazz on a Saturday Night, or 2008 Odyssey Award winner, Jazz by Walter Dean Myers. There seems to be no shortage of jazzy books this year!

Jellaby

Soo, Kean. 2008. Jellaby. Hyperion.

As near as I can tell, Jellaby began as a serial comic, published online @ The Secret Friend Society. http://www.secretfriendsociety.com/about.php Jellaby, the large purple creature, has had a presence online since 2005. Now for the first time, he has arrived in print in graphic novel format.

The story line follows Portia, her Asian friend, Jason, and Jellaby – the secret friend. The kids appear to be middle-school aged. Portia lives with her mother – there is some amount of mystery as to her father’s whereabouts and disposition. Jason’s parents are referenced throughout the story, but are largely absent from his daily routine and upbringing. He is the frequent target of school bullies. Jellaby is a comfort to them both, offering courage and purpose to their unhappy lives. The story is completely without resolution, much in the style of a serial comic strip.

With few exceptions, the artwork is a monochromatic purple. Jellaby might be considered a cute and expressive creature. The humans have vacant eyes and are simply drawn, though capable of moderate expression.

I am not normally a fan of non-fiction graphic novels, so my opinion should be taken only for what it’s worth. The monochromatic scheme, while powerful in the non-fiction graphic tales of Persepolis and Maus, is simply boring in this J Fiction saga. Additionally, the lack of closure on any aspect of the storyline leaves the reader feeling empty. The exploits of Portia, Jason and Jellaby did not interest me enough to seek out their continuing adventures, which are scheduled to arrive in March 2008.

Another librarian, more familiar with the genre, mentioned that some graphic novels have merchandising as their primary goal, with literature second, at best. Perhaps that explains the cute Jellaby and the drab humans – Jellaby may make for a better plush keychain.

A postscript - I realized after posting this, that I am a fan of the Babymouse books, another monochromatic J Fiction series. Perhaps I just don't understand the genre. I'll keep trying.

Eleven

Giff, Patricia Reilly. 2008. Eleven. New York: Wendy Lamb Books.

Sam, is haunted by the number 11. His birthday in on the 11th, he will be turning 11, he dreams of number 11. When he finds an old newspaper clipping about himself in the attic, the mystery of 11 grows. Unable to read well, the only words he can decipher are his own name and “Missing.” Is he missing? Where is he missing from? Where does he belong? Is 11 the key to the mystery? With the help of Caroline, the new girl in school, Sam is about to find out.

In this new mystery by Newbery Honor-winning Patricia Reilly Giff, Sam learns about friendship, identity, family and perseverance. His new friend and loving “family,” including Mack, who may or may not be related, Onji, the deli owner, and Anima, the Indian restaurant owner and Night Cat, help him unravel the mystery with kindness and compassion.

The tale unfolds as a narrative, interspersed with short dream sequences written in free verse. The sense of mystery is immediate and while this will not likely be a Newbery candidate, I found the mystery compelling enough to finish the book in short order. Interestingly, my 12-year-old daughter did not finish the book, although she is a fan of Patricia Reilly Giff.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Wednesday Wars

Schmidt, Gary D. 2007. The Wednesday Wars. New York: Clarion.

I’m behind in my posting, so this will be brief. I thoroughly enjoyed The Wednesday Wars, a humorous and touching book about Holling Hoodhood, the 7th grade son of an up an coming architect in 1967. The story derives its name from the afternoons that Holling must spend alone with his teacher, Mrs. Baker. Being the only Presbyterian in the class, Holling is the only student that does not have Hebrew school or CCD on Wednesdays.

Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and household strife between his “hippie” sister and establishment father, the gruff and business-like Mrs. Baker, imparts a love of Shakespeare to a confused Holling.

While some of the events seem far-fetched, (e.g., 7th grade Holling rescuing his sister from a disastrous road trip west, the many escapades of the rats living in the ceiling tiles) they did not detract from the overall story. Holling’s first person account of his 1967 school year had me laughing out loud and crying as well. An added bonus - I'd be surprised if anyone reading this book did not have an urge to reread Shakespeare's greatest plays. I may have to check out Hamlet myself. A great book.

PS - This is another YA title that I think would easily fit a J audience - perhaps the protagonist's age prompted the YA cataloging.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me

Grifalconi, Ann. 2007. Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me. Ill. by Jerry Pinkney. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 13 9780786818570.

PLOT SUMMARY
In Ain’t Nobody a Stranger to Me, loosely based on historical persons, a Grandfather shares with his young granddaughter his tale of escape from Southern slavery with his wife and baby. He recalls the helpfulness of strangers on the Underground Railroad, including Quaker James Stanton. His sense of gratitude has shaped his belief that “ain’t nobody a stranger.” The story appears to be set in the 1930s.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me is a story of fortitude, gratitude, forgiveness, and a spirit of optimism. As a slave, Gran'pa collected apple seeds in hope of a day that he might be free to plant them on his own land as a free man. He tells of his flight to freedom and the generosity of strangers. Grifalconi tells this story in a manner appropriate to introduce this heartbreaking topic to young children. The text expresses Gran'pa's belief in the goodness of mankind and his faith in God. "We had to put our trust in the Good Lord. We'd set our hearts right, and along the way help came when we needed it."

The darker aspects of slavery and the dangers of the Underground Railroad are expressed not in words, but in Jerry Pinkney's line and watercolor paintings. The harrowing escape of Gran'pa his wife and baby, and their subsequent struggle to survive as free people are depicted in sepia tones of browns and greys, evoking dark moments of the past. The expressive eyes of the grandfather and his wife in these scenes are alternately fearful, wary, and weary.

In contrast, the scenes of Gran'pa with his granddaughter are joyful colors and expressions of tenderness and love. In a colorful and heartwarming ending, Gran'pa and the young girl eat apples in the orchard he planted as a freed man. The apple blossoms are a riot of cheerful pink, and the young girl plants a new seed and promises to remember.

Grifalconi's story is a solid, age-appropriate (5-9) introduction to the Underground Railroad, however her choice of story delivery is awkward at times. Grandfather's story is told within the confines of the girl's first person account, and the girl often speaks in language styles that are conflicting or unusual for a young girl (Black or White) in the 1930s or any time period. In quoted passages, she speaks in a voice more typical of a Black child from the South in the 1930s. "They be from our stone cellar, Grandpa?" and "...could I one day plant me a seed of memory here, too?" In other passages, she speaks as an educated adult, "He grinned happily down at me" and "Soon, the spring air began to carry the fresh, sweet smell of apple blossoms to us." The frequent switching of dialect and narrator may be confusing to readers.

Jerry Pinkey's credentials as an African American illustrator are numerous and impressive. The jacket notes that he has "illustrated more than one hundred books for children" and is the recipient of Caldecott Honors, Coretta Scott King Awards, and more. His artwork for this story sets the period (a horse-drawn ice wagon, long-skirted women with hats and boots) and sets the tone (the darkness of hiding, the green grass of freedom).

Kirkus Rewiews refers to an "author's note" explaining the attribution of the title phrase, "Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me." The book, however, does not contain any author's notes. The dust jacket only explains that the phrase was inspired by former slave, Orleans Finger.

Overall, this book can be recommended on the basis of Pinkney's expressive artwork and Grifalconi's presentation of a difficult picture book topic.


CONNECTIONS
This is a picture book that can be used to introduce older students (3rd and 4th grades) to the Underground Railroad experience. A follow-up to the story can be an exploration of the excellent National Geographic site that allows for a guided, interactive journey from slavery to freedom on the Underground Railroad. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/features/99/railroad/

Pair this book with Caldecott Honor Book, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherfield, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

Doña Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Lady with a Great Big Heart

Mora, Pat. 2005. Doña Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Lady with a Big Heart. Ill.by Raúl Colon. New York: Knopf. ISBN 13: 9780375823374.

PLOT SUMMARY
Doña Flor is the epitome of the gentle-giant. With a house "as big as a mountain" and hands as "wide as plates," she has a heart to match, inspiring the love and respect of the people in her Southwest village. When a fearsome noise frightens the villagers, Doña Flor comes, as always, to the rescue. Raúl Colon won the 2006 Pura Belpré Illustrator Medal for his contribution to this fresh and inventive tall tale.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Pat Mora's, Doña Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Lady with a Big Heart, has the hallmarks of a classic tall tale, a multi-faceted heroine and rich details. Despite her overarching kindness, Dona Flor can be tired - as when the wind keeps her from sleep, angry - as she stomps off to find the puma that annoys the village, and indulgent - as she takes a "long, hot bubble bath," the smell of roses rising from the chimney. Her size and kindness are communicated expressively. "When she worked, Flor sang, and birds came and built nests in her hair."
"She gave the school band her hollyhocks to use as trumpets. The music smelled like spring."

Mora introduces multiple Spanish words in Doña Flor with varying techniques and effect. Literal translations are clear to the reader, but interrupt the story flow. "'¿Dónde estás? Where are you?' called her worried neighbors." Nonliteral translations include "Everyone called her Doña Flor because they respected her." and ""Mi casa es su casa," she said...so they knew they were always welcome." Most pleasing are the untranslated words, "Are you the chico who's causing all the trouble?" "Why, you're just a kitten to me, Pumito." These passages allow a smooth rhythm to the story with unfamiliar words fitting contextually into the sentence.

In addition to Spanish words, Doña Flor contains many textual references to the story's Southwest setting. Tortillas are prominently featured in the story; Flor makes tortillas with her huge "plate-sized" hands. The children use them as rafts and villagers use them as roofs for their homes. The village or pueblo is filled with adobe homes and is located near a tall mesa. Pumas, rattlers and coyotes inhabit the village.

Raúl Colon's award winning illustrations are a "combination of watercolor washes, etching, and colored and litho pencils." The muted, yet varied colors, evoke the Southwest atmosphere - dry and serene, yet not without life. Dona Flor herself has skin the color of the Southwestern soil, lips the color of adobe walls, and luxurious long dark hair - wrapped in a braided bun for the day's work and flying loose in the starlight sky at night. She appears to be a child of the Southwest earth itself. Her benevolent brown eye peers in the doorway of a village family. The home is adorned with a woven rug, a clay pot, and a sombrero; and although her eye fills much of the doorway, it does not inspire fear. Her giant tortillas provide rafts for the children, and in the evening, she envelops herself in a woven blanket, cradling the village creatures in her arms. Next to Doña Flor, the sky is the prominent feature in most of Doña Flor's illustrations portraying the vastness of the Southwest; dwarfing the whitewashed adobe homes and tiny villagers dressed in long skirts, serapes, and sombreros.

Doña Flor is an inventive tall tale, beautifully illustrated and told with rich details. When the sun shines upon the giant tortilla roofs of the villagers, the reader can almost smell the corn baking. "Mmmm, the houses smelled corn-good when the sun was hot." It also is a story with deep connections to the earth. Flor's mother sings to her in a voice as "sweet as river music," and in the evening, Flor makes her bed, filling her arms "with clouds smelling of flowery breezes." This is not a retelling or variation of a traditional tale. Readers will enjoy the fresh plot and it's surprising ending, as Flor finds the littlest mountain lion making the biggest of noises.

CONNECTIONS
Read the Doña Flor audience-participation poems on Pat Mora's website. http://www.patmora.com/ideas_dona.htm This is suitable for very young children and public library storytime as well.

Read this story with other "tall-tale heroine" books -
Thunder Rose, by Jerdine Nolan and Ill. by Kadidr Nelson and Sitka Rose by Shelley Gill and Ill. by Shannon Cartwright.

Compare these to the classic tale of Paul Bunyan.

The Birchbark House

Erdrich, Louise. 1999. The Birchbark House. Ill. by Louise Erdrich. New York: Hyperion. ISBN: 0786822414.

PLOT SUMMARY
Louise Erdrich’s, The Birchbark House, is a tale of love, loss, and growing up, for Omakayas, a 19th century Objibwa, or Anishinabe girl living near Lake Superior. It is also a recounting of the ways of the Anishinabeg at the dawn of Western expansion. The adventures of Omakyas, her family and her people will delight middle school age readers who will identify with Omakayas and her family.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Erdrich’s The Birchbark House is a beautiful weaving of the literary and the historical, following the life of 7-year-old, Omakayas in the year 1847. The details of OmakayasAnishinabeg lifestyle never interfere with the story; instead, they provide a rich backdrop providing interest as well as information. Native American cultural markers are numerous, authentic, and integral to this affecting story.

Omakayas lives a life familiar to many children. She has an older sister whom she envies for her beauty and grace, a younger brother whom she despises for his selfishness and greed, and a baby brother whom she adores for his sweetness and innocence. Her mother is firm, yet loving. Her grandmother, or nokomis, is kind and wise. Her father is often away on business, trapping to provide skins for the White traders. She loathes certain of her chores, particularly the scraping of hides to make leather, she looks after her brothers. These connections render Omakayas accessible to 21st century children. It is through this connection that cultural details are channeled.

Respect for elders is shown throughout the book, from a simple line regarding Grandma, “the dappled light of tiny new leaves moved on Grandma’s beautiful, softly lined face,” to Omakayas' behavior around the strong-willed elder, Old Tallow, “She wished the old woman good health, and called her “Auntie” because it was a sign of affection, though Omakayas was not really sure exactly what she felt. After she’d spoken, she stood politely, waiting.” A reverence for one’s elders is consistently apparent.

The Ojibwa people are portrayed realistically in Birchbark House- not always serious, not always good (especially in the case of Omakays’ brother known as Pinch!), and not always mystical and “all-seeing.” Omakayas’ father, Deydey has a wry sense of humor. Although dreams are taken seriously in the Anishinabe culture, he is not above poking fun at his friend’s sillier dreams. “’Last night I dreamed my head got stuck in a kettle,’ (LaPautre) revealed his voice low and troubled. ‘It must have been a very big kettle’ Deydey said, solemnly, for LaPautre had a big round head and a full moon face.” In another scene, Deydey again teases LaPautre for his dream about lice, while Omakayas and her sister, hiding in the brush “clapped hands over their mouths to stifle their glee.” Light hearted moments are interspersed throughout the book, as they are in life.

Another trait common to Native American people is a willingness to welcome strangers. This is exemplified, though disastrously so, when Omakayas’ people welcome a traveler with smallpox to their lodge.

Birchbark House also evokes the theme of the circle or cycle, common to many Native Americans. The chapters are grouped into books, each named for one of the Anishinabe seasons. The family travels from their winter quarters where they ice fish and survive the harsh winter, to the sap harvest when the maple trees thaw, to the rice harvesting grounds, and to birchbark house where they hunt, gather berries, prepare hides, and prepare foods for winter storage. The story spans a year in Omakaya’s life, beginning and ending at the birchbark house that her family builds anew each spring; and though the clan has suffered loss, there is also joy, the return of one lost, and the renewal of the spring season.

Ojibwa, or Anishinabe words are placed throughout the story, both with English translations and with contextual clues. An author’s note explains the Ojibwa language, and a glossary and pronunciation guide follows the story. Some words, such as the greeting, ahneen, are used often enough to remember. Other words and phrases will have the reader flipping frequently to the glossary. Welcome additions to the text are three “stand-alone” stories told by Omakayas’ relatives. The stories illustrate the inventiveness and purposefulness of Native folktales. “Deydey’s Ghost Story” is especially enjoyable, featuring cleverness in the face of fear.

Small pencil drawings by the author dot the story, adding interest, illuminating Omakayas’ encounters with bears, her parents’ makazins, members of her family and more. The drawings are crisp and clean with just enough detail. The faces are varied but distinctly Native in shape and coloring. The depictions of clothing, tools, and living quarters is reflective of the narrative's description.

An interesting facet of The Birchbark House is its varied perspective on Western expansion. Though the story is told via the young Ojibwa girl, it is clear that her family is not completely opposed to the Whites, or chimookoman. Omakayas’ father is part White. He regularly trades with the Whites and takes pride in his prowess at chess, the White man's game. The clan’s Old Tallow has a disdain for the Whites, yet she too has adapted somewhat to the White ways, living as Omakayas’ family, in a cabin during the winter. Mother sews metal thimbles to her daughter’s dress; father buys calico, velvet and beads from the fur traders. They harbor no ill will against the missionaries, and note that they were helpful in caring for Ojibwa with smallpox. At the same time, they note the European Americans' insatiable hunger for land and the eventual conflict that will arise from the incessant push Westward. This multi-faceted view adds to the richness and realism of the book.

The Birchbark House
is an exemplary example of a book depicting a Native American culture in a realistic and engaging manner. The historical and narrative qualities are equally first rate and the author’s own artwork adds to Birchbark’s authenticity. Highly recommended.

REVIEW EXCERPTS
Erdrich's "attention to historical detail perfectly balances the compelling story."

2004. "The Birchbark House (Book)." Book Links 13, no. 6: 24-24. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 8, 2007).

"Edrich's novel succeeds best in its efforts to present events with historical and cultural accuracy, while providing enough textual apparatus and insight into the inner life of her main character to draw young readers."

Rice, David. 2002. "Birchbark House/Muskrat Will Be Swimming/Rain is Not My Indian Name (Book)." MELUS 27, no. 2: 246. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 8, 2007).


CONNECTIONS
Suggest reading Louise Edrich's The Game of Silence (2005), which continues the story of Omakayas in the year 1850.

Share poems from Lee Francis' When the Rain Sings: Poems by Young Native Americans. (1999)

Suggest Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition by Sally M. Hunter. This book is recommended by Native American author Cynthia Leitich Smith and shows the cycle of the corn planting as practiced by a modern 12-year old, Winnebago or Hochunk boy.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Underground

Ferris, Jean. 2007. Underground. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Underground is the story of slaves that, through varying paths, find themselves working at the Mammoth Cave Hotel in 1839. The hotel houses visitors stopping to see Kentucky’s natural wonder, Mammoth Cave.

Life for Charlotte and the other slaves is comparatively good at Mammoth Cave Hotel, but Charlotte knows of a worse life as a slave in the Deep South. Stephen is content with his limited autonomy as an underground guide. Brothers, Nick and Mat, are thankful for regular meals and little trouble from their master. Mittie, the elder slave of the group, is quiet and serious and keeps her opinions to herself.

Thh slaves' lives are changed when a “runner” from the south appears on the hotel property. Now Charlotte must make a choice about the "underground," both literally and figuratively, that will affect them all, as Mammoth Cave and the Underground Railroad become entwined.

Although Mammoth Caves was not likely a stop on the Underground Railroad, most of the characters in this story were real persons. Charlotte and Stephen’s names are still scratched or smoked onto the walls of the caves. An Author’s Note explains which occurrences in the story actually happened. Ferris also reveals the fates of the four young slaves.

Historical fiction fans should enjoy this book. It is cataloged as a YA book, but seems more appropriate as J Fic. Discussions of the slaves' parentage may have prompted the YA label. Several brief references are made to masters fathering children with unwilling slaves.

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

Gerstein, Mordecai. 2008. How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird. Ill. by Mordecai Gerstein. Translated from the original poem by Jacques Prevert. New York: Roaring Book Press.


This book is simply beautiful. It deserves a longer post than I have time to make now, so I may come back to it, but for now, to say that How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird is beautiful, joyful, inspirational, and serene will have to suffice. I loved it.

Up Close books

Just received four new books - Fire Engines Up Close, Fighter Planes Up Close, Heavy Equipment Up Close, and Submarines Up Close. All are by Andra Serlin Abramson (Highlights for Children) and published by Sterling in 2007.

Wow! What kid would not want to look at these?! They are 15' tall, almost 1' across and they include multiple double fold-out photography pages. Each book contains at least one "full-size" photo - a fighter plane ejection button, the gauges on a nuclear sub, gears on a forestry vehicle, the levers on a pumper truck.

Short paragraphs with bold headlines break up the text into readable segments, but it's the photos that take center stage in these books. Very cool!

Heroes for Civil Rights

Adler, David A. 2008. Heroes for Civil Rights. Ill. by Bill Farnsworth. Holiday House.

This is a compilation of short, one-page bios of many people involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Heroes includes well-known figures (MLK, Rosa Parks), as well as lesser-known figures (Fannie Lou Hamer who helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party). One notable difference in this book from others of the same genre, is the inclusion of many Whites that also helped the Civil Rights cause (LBJ, Chief Justice Earl Warren). One of my favorite American heroes, Thurgood Marshall is also profiled.

Each bio is accompanied by a full-page colored painting of the subject in the foreground and a related event from Civil Rights history in the background. (e.g., The Greensboro Four with a background of picketers outside F.W. Woolworth Co.) Direct quotes from each of the subjects is also included. A Chronology, Source Notes, and a Bibliography coomplete this short, 32-page book.

Heroes for Civil Rights can serve as a great subject introduction, or the bios can be read individually, as needed, in conjunction with Black History month programs. Easy-to-read text makes it possible for younger readers to use this book for simple biography assignments.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Waking Beauty

Wilcox, Leah. 2008. Waking Beauty. Ill. by Lydia Monks. New York: Putnam.

A preschooler just came in thinking that today was storytime. I didn't want to send her home disappointed, so I pulled out Waking Beauty, a rhyming, fractured fairy tale. We all know that the princess needs a kiss, but Prince Charming has a hard time figuring it out.

"The fairies all began to hiss,
'She'll only wake to True Love's --'

'Wait!' Prince Charming waved his hand.
'Don't worry, girls, I understand.'

And stooping o'er her snoring snout,
he dumped a water pitcher out."

The prince tries several methods, including shooting Beauty out of a cannon, before he figures out what is truly required.

"He poked her muddy, matted curls.
'I've heard that there are germs on girls.'"

The surprise ending is funny as well. Very cute!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Miss Potter

Miss Potter (2007) with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor is not children's lit, but it's worthy of mention here. It's a delightful family movie based on the life of celebrated children's author, Beatrix Potter. The movie is rated PG for "brief mild language," but I think it is a wonderful family movie and can't even recall what language might have been offensive. If you're not a fan of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, you will be after watching this enchanting movie.

As I watched it, I kept thinking how wonderful it is that the Disney Company has not acquired the rights to these charming and artistically perfect characters and changed them in the way that A.A. Milne's, Winnie the Pooh characters have been irrevocably changed.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Big Chickens Fly the Coop

Helaskoski, Leslie. 2008. Big Chickens Fly the Coop. Penguin.

This is a follow-up book to Big Chickens. I'll have to put that one on my reading list. This is a funny tale of four fearful chickens that overcome several obstacles, including a tractor, the wrath of the barnyard animals, and the doghouse, in their quest to reach the "far away" farmhouse. The double-spread illustrations by Henry Cole are bright and amusing. The chickens are very expressive!

The story's conclusion might be slightly unclear to young listeners - the chicken coop turns out to be right next door to the farmhouse, but all in all, this book is good fun!

One Little Chicken: Counting Book

Elliot, David. 2007. One Little Chicken. Holiday House.

A rhyming, chicken-themed counting book. The rhymes are forced and the colors are dreary. I don't recommend this one.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fever 1793

Anderson, Laurie Halse. 2000. Fever 1793. Listening Library. Performed by Emily Bergl.

I finally finished listening to this great book. I accidentally downloaded only 4 of 5 parts and didn't realize it until my MP3 downloaded book had been "returned" to the library. I had to wait 2 weeks until the download was available for checkout again. That is one of the drawbacks of downloaded library books. Depending on your library's provider (ours is a regional consortium), books may not be available for multi-user use.

In any case, I was sufficiently engrossed in the riveting story of Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic of 1793, that I could not wait to get the last of the 5 parts. Each part is about an hour long and they can be downloaded separately if your player has limited memory.

Fever 1793 is a fictional account of the deadly epidemic that hit the new nation's capital in 1793. The story follows young Matilda Cook, the daughter of a coffee shop proprietress as her friend, her mother and her grandfather fall ill. Maddie herself finally succumbs to illness as well. The chaos, panic and lawlessness of Philadelphia as the epidemic worsens is vividly portrayed through descriptions of mass graves, tolling death bells, death carts, and dreadful instances of bleedings.

Maddie learns self-sufficiency, self-determination, and compassion as she struggles to take care of family and strangers alike. Fever also tells the story of the generous and courageous work of the Free African Society and the Mayor's Committee - the only offical groups that remained in the city and functioned in an organized and effective manner.

The Appendix, read in its entirety after the story, pointed out the historical facts included in Fever, as well as other important historical notes from the time period. George Washington left the city and traveled south, laying the cornerstone of the new capital in DC as the old capital boiled in chaos. Dolly Payne, the future wife of president James Madison, lost her first husband and a son in the epidemic.

I enjoyed the book, but preferred the non-fiction, Newbery Honor Book by Jim Murphy, An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793.

Fans of historical fiction and strong-willed female protagonists will enjoy this riveting story. Emily Bergl is an engaging reader. A haunting version of the Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts accompanies the story's conclusion.

The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-tale Detectives

Buckley, Michael. 2005. The Sisters Grimm: The fairy-tale detectives. New York: Amulet. ISBN: 9780810959255.

This is an older book, but it has recently been reissued. It is NJ's choice for One Book NJ 2008 for children. I had reviewed it previously and posted it to a wiki, but I will add it here. I am trying to keep everything in one place. (although I am a big LibraryThing fan and keep my books there as well)

Daphne, age 7, and Sabrina, almost 12, have been shuffled from one dismal foster home to another since their parents disappeared almost a year ago. Now that they have been claimed by a grandmother they thought was dead, Daphne is delighted to have found a real home. Sabrina, however, is not so sure. There’s something peculiar about Granny Grimm and her home in Ferryport, New York. She cooks black spaghetti with bright orange sauce and green meatballs. She talks to her house and secures it like a fortress. She has a mysterious locked room from which voices can be heard, and a steadfast companion, the creepy, Mr. Canis.

Granny Relda Grimm, and the girls themselves, it appears, are descendants of the famous Brothers Grimm – destined to keep order in a world inhabited by fairy tale characters. Daphne swallows the whole story – along with the green meatballs, but Sabrina remains skeptical – that is, until Granny Grimm and Mr. Canis are whisked away by a giant! Now the girls must rely on themselves, fairy tale books, and the “Everafters” themselves (Jack, Prince Charming, Puck, pixies, the three little pigs and more!) to sort out this fairy-tale detective story.

This first in a series of The Sisters Grimm: Fairy-Tale Detectives, is delightfully, though sparsely, illustrated in black and white sketches by Peter Ferguson. The action is swift and the story moves along rapidly. The foreshadowing is a bit too obvious at times - the three little pigs appear to have an unusual dislike for Mr. Canis, the mayor’s name is Charming and he’s planning a ball. Younger children, however, will likely enjoy figuring out the “clues.”

Dialogue is plentiful and appropriate for two young sisters, however, it sometimes reads like a vocabulary lesson when Daphne stops the conversation to have a word explained. “Daphne was poring over a large book entitled Anatomy of a Giant. ‘I don’t know what this word is,’ she said. ‘How is it spelled?’ ‘A-L-L-I-A-N-C-E-S.’ ‘It’s alliances, it means to team up or join a group,’ Sabrina explained.”

An overwhelming number of “everafters” make an appearance in the story. Many will be familiar to young readers, Glinda the Good Witch, the Queen of Hearts, Momma Bear, King Arthur, Prince Charming. Many of them, however, will not – Puck, Morgan Le Fay, Frau Pfefferkuchenhaus. In any case, The Sisters Grimm offers young readers a glimpse into part of our cultural heritage in a thoroughly modern and entertaining manner.
Review Excerpts:

The October 2005, issue of Kirkus Reviews, notes " this tongue-in-cheek frolic features both a pair of memorable young sleuths and a madcap plot with plenty of leads into future episodes."

Charles De Lint writes, “…older readers will get a kick out of seeing the characters in new guises, but the writing, characterization, and plot are definitely aimed at the younger reader. …It’s fast-paced and fun, simple, but not simplistic.” (Fantasy & Science Fiction Sep 2006)

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Belly Book

Harris, Joe. 2008. The Belly Book. Random House.

Reminiscent of The Foot Book, "Bellies come in many types: Soft belly, Hard belly, Bunny belly, Funny belly," The Belly Book looks at bellies of all shapes and sizes. What makes this book more than just a fun easy reader is the health message it conveys to the reader. "But bellies aren't great when you can't read your weight or get close enough to hug your mate." (Imagine an elephant on a bathroom scale and two giant pandas trying to hug!) Cute!

I am Marc Chagall

Landmann, Bimba. 2006. I am Marc Chagall. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

I enjoy Marc Chagall's work and I enjoyed this picture book biography for older readers. Written as a pseudo first-person account, the book details the life and work and travels of Marc Chagall. He interprets his work through the context of his life as a Jewish artists amidst the backdrop of two world wars.

The illustrations are photographs of 3-dimensional artistic representations of Chagall's life and his work. The use of color is effusive and uplifting. A celebratory look at Chagall. Timeline included.

Harvey Moon, Museum Boy

Cummings, Pat. 2008. Harvey Moon, Museum Boy. Harper Collins.

A co-worker suggested this new picture book for storytime, so I checked it out. It is a rhyming account of a boy's night spent in a museum (sound familiar?) after he is separated from his class field trip.

The verse is sometimes amusing,

'"Pay close attention to Ms. Tasumi.
Don't fuss. Don't fight. Don't run.
Don't yell. Don't point. Don't dare tease the girls.
Harvey groaned as she added, "Have fun."'

and sometimes forced,

"He came upon statues raiding pictures of food,
Swiping cheeses and bread. Then, as one,
Marble cheeks creaked as their marble heads turned.
They spied Harvey. He started to run."

The surprise ending is funny and it might work for storytime, but I would not recommend Harvey Moon, Museum Boy. On an unrelated note, this is the first time that I've noticed "Manufactured in China" on the copyright page. I wonder if this is the new norm. I'm going to have to take more notice.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Coraline

Gaiman, Neil. 2002. Coraline. Harper Collins.


I read Coraline yesterday while waiting for my daughters to finish piano lessons. Written in 2002, it was a Garden State Teen Book Award winner in 2005, and remains popular. Now I know why. You can't put it down. It's eerie and unsettling, but stops short of horrific.

When Coraline complains of rainy day boredom, her father suggests that she explore their new flat. "Count all the doors and windows. List everything blue. Mount an expedition to discover the hot water tank. And leave me alone to work." Among her other discoveries, Coraline finds thirteen doors that open and shut; one that does not.

In the first chapter, the reader has already met all the characters - at least the ones residing on this side of the drawing room door. There's Coraline, her mother and father, the cat who knows life on both sides of the door, the spinsters, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible who were once famous actresses, and the crazy old man upstairs. "'One day, little Caroline, when they are all ready, everyone in the whole world will see the wonders of my mouse circus. You ask me why you cannot see it now. Is that what you asked me?' 'No,' said Coraline quietly, 'I asked you not to call me Caroline. It's Coraline.' "

The narrator's matter-of-fact delivery suits Coraline's no-nonsense personality. She is the perfect level-headed foil for the creepy denizens residing behind the drawing room door. She is brave in the same manner that her father once showed her. "When you're scared but you still do it anyway, that's brave," explains Coraline, not when you act with courage because it's the only thing you can do.

It is Coraline's bravery in facing the eerie, button-eyed ghosts of the other world, that keeps the reader from becoming completely frightened. With a clear sense of purpose, to rescue her parents, Coraline passes into the dark world and keeps her wits about her as she tries to puzzle out the riddle of this sinister, mirror-image of her world.

There is a background message of "there's no place like home," but the true message of this book lies in the foreword, a simple quote of G.K. Chesterton.

"Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

Coraline is a heroine that will stay with you.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

I had to return my copy of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court without finishing it. Other customers were waiting for my copy, so I skipped to the last chapter and returned it only a few days overdue. My schedule is too busy to permit me to finish this weighty work within the confines of a library lending period.

Jeffrey Toobin’s book is meticulously researched and documented. It’s a fascinating look at our relatively unknown branch of government. The day-to-day workings of the Court and the interactions between its members are an intriguing topic that I truly enjoyed.

I was however, not disappointed to return the book early and skip the many chapters devoted to the tortuous process that was the 2000 presidential election. In fact, much of The Nine points out the very partisan and political nature of our judicial branch. If you harbor any illusions that the Supreme Court is somehow above the political wrangling of the executive and legislative branches, The Nine will relieve you of them. In that respect, the book was disappointing – not in its writing, but in its message, which is sadly and unfortunately true. That the imposing steps leading to the Supreme Court will soon be closed to the public that they were built to welcome is just another sad commentary on our state of affairs.

Back to children’s literature….

Monday, February 4, 2008

Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods that Make My Day

I just finished Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods that Make My Day by Jamie Lee Curtis. In spite of my suspicion of celebrity authored children’s books, I liked this one. The rhyming text flows nicely and reflects the interests and concerns of a young school-aged child, “Today my mood’s great, it’s the absolute best. I rode a two-wheeler and passed my math test. I played soccer at recess and we won the game. I sang in the show and my parents both came.”

The illustrations by Laura Cornell are bright, busy and reflective of the protagonist’s many moods. Interestingly, Booklist notes “The wild, vibrant watercolors occasionally overwhelm the text and aren't as successful in reflecting the emotions as the words are,” while Publishers Weekly notes the opposite, “…the repetitive, driving rhythm doesn't allow the words to soar the way the illustrations do.”

In any case, this book is in the spirit of Dr. Seuss’, My Many Colored Days, but aimed at 4-8 year olds. The cardboard mood wheel at the end will surely delight young readers.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation

A very comprehensive, yet comprehensible version of The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The graphic novel format makes this important document accessible to a wider section of the American public by crystallizing the facts and pairing them with realistic drawings that accurately depict the somber and serious subject matter and convey the mood of key figures. A foreward by 9/11 Commission Chair, Thomas H. Kean, commends this version for its "close adherence to the findings, recommendations, spirit, and tone of the original commission report."

I highly recommend The 9/11 Report: A graphic adaptation by Sid Jacobsen.

Friday, February 1, 2008

A Crooked Kind of Perfect

Ten-year-old Zoe’s dad rarely leaves the house. Instead he attends Living Room University, earning an endless stream of mail order diplomas in subjects such as "Roger, Wilco, Over and Cash! Learn to Fly Like the Pros," and "Scuba –Dooba-Do." Her mother is the busy and efficient, Michigan State Controller.

And Zoe? Well, Zoe dreams of playing a grand piano at Carnegie Hall. The problem? Zoe’s Dad, a huge fan of UPS home delivery, has instead purchased her the Perfectone D-60, an oversized organ complete with rhythm section, rumba beat, free lessons and more! Instead of evoking the fabulous Vladimir Horowitz, she’s practicing TV Land theme songs for the brusque, Miss Person, who is fond of colorful pianistic phrases, "Mozart's postman!"


Worse yet, her best friend has deserted her, she’s scheduled to compete in the Perfectone Perform-O-Rama, and school bad boy, Wheeler Digs has taken to hanging out with her dad baking cream puffs! On the bright side, Wheeler Diggs announces that Colton Shell is smitten with her. "'Garbage pickup is a clear indicator of smittenhood,’ says Dad." Zoe thinks "... it might actually be kind of good to have somebody smittening me."


Life doesn't always work out as planned, but somehow it works. Perhaps Dad can find his way to the Perform-O-Rama. Perhaps Colton Shell is not the prize he appears. Perhaps there is more to Mom than meets the eye. Perhaps there are some redeeming features in Miss Person and the Perfectone D-60.

Perhaps in a crooked kind of way, Zoe Elias’ life is perfect.


Linda Urban’s first novel, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, is funny and touching, offering the possibility that what we have may be just what we need.