Monday, December 26, 2011

Frances Books

I have had people ask me why I refer to my daughters as Frances and Gloria on my blog.  This is especially confusing to people who know my children in real life, as these are not their real names.  So I had pulled the Frances books by Russell Hoban to create a blog post on these beloved books, but it was far down on the pile of potential bog posts.  After all, I am still posting  on Cybils titles.  Then I heard that Russell Hoban (the author of the Frances books) had died, and this post moved up.  Not only did he write these books, but he wrote some of my other favorites, too - The Mouse and His Child, Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, and one of my particular favorites,  Harvey's Hideout

But I'm here to celebrate the Frances books in particular.  There are six books about Frances, the badger, published between 1960 and 1970.  There is also a companion books of Frances' "songs" called Egg Thoughts and other Frances Songs (1972).  These books continue to resonate with children today.  As I gathered information to write this post, the pile of books kept moving as my girls took them off to their room to read.  I think there are several things about these stories that are universal and makes the books still enjoyable today.  The delicious food, the poetic songs Frances creates and most of all the comforting dynamic are all strong themes throughout the series.

The first book Hoban wrote about Frances was Bedtime for Frances (1960).  This book is about the universal problem for preschoolers - falling asleep.  Frances can't fall asleep, and she keeps coming out to pester her parents.  In this first book, Frances is already exhibiting some of her constant personality traits.  She insists on having all her stuffed animals, a tricycle and a sled piled up next to her bed.  She sings herself an alphabet song to soothe herself "A is for apple pie/B is for bear/C is for crocodile, combing his hair."  And like any other child in this situation, her imagination runs wild - a crack on the ceiling has spiders climbing out of it, a robe hanging over a chair is a giant.  Through it all, her parents display admirable calm, restraint and patience.  That is, until Frances wakes up her father by standing next to his bed, staring at him very quietly (I'd be grumpy too!).  He tells Frances that everyone has a job, and that hers is to go to sleep.  If he doesn't go to work, he tells Frances, he will be out of a job.  "'And if you do not go to sleep now, do you know what will happen to you?' 'I will be out of a job?' said Frances.  'No,' said Father. 'I will get a spanking?' said Frances.  'Right!' said Father.  'Good night!' said Frances, and she went back to her room."  Sometimes clear consequences do the trick, and their matter of fact way of handling even this situation is one of my favorite things about this series.  We read this book every couple of months when there are sleep problems in our household, and with all the Christmas excitement, it's time for a re-reading.

A Baby Sister for Frances (1964) is the next book chronologically.  And as is evident from the title, there is someone else sharing her parents' attention.  After some perceived slights (a dress isn't ironed, Frances is asked to be quiet), Frances decides to run away from home...under the dining room table.  While she sits and eats prunes, her parents mention aloud how much they miss Frances.  They particularly miss her songs, but they also note how sad Gloria is without her older sister.  Mother says "a girl looks up to an older sister.  You know that."  This is all said in their trademark gentle style.  Frances' parents never get too angry, but just deal with things as they come along.  Mother says later "Babies are very nice.  Goodness knows I like babies, but a baby is not a family."  Father chimes in "A family is everybody all together."  Frances does indeed return home to everyone's relief.  And the issue of change in the family is dealt with in a reassuring way.  Frances is still important to her parents and her place as older sister is defined.  This book is the one my particular Frances requests most often.  I'm not sure what she likes best about it, but I suspect it is not the prunes!

While there has been food sprinkled throughout the first two books, Hoban really ups the ante in Bread and Jam for Frances (1964).  Gloria is now a toddler, and Frances has decided that what she would prefer to eat at every meal is bread and jam.  So her mother, calmly and without a lot of fanfare, begins to serve Frances bread and jam exclusively.  Her friend Albert, making his first appearance, has a lunch that puts Frances' bread and jam to shame.  Indeed, the description of Albert's lunch takes up almost an entire page of text.  It is lovingly described, and you can feel Frances' envy growing as he relates the contents.  When he begins to eat, Frances watches as "He took a bite of sandwich, a bite of pickle, a bite of hard-boiled egg, and a drink of milk.  Then he sprinkledmore salt on the egg and went around again."  When Frances begins to cry in desperation after being served bread and jam again, she wails to her mother "How doyou know what I'll like if you won't even try me?"  All's well that ends well, though - the next day at lunch Frances unpacks an entire picnic basket of food, including a thermos of soup, a lobster-salad sandwich and vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles, among other things. Yum!

Sadly, it isn't Frances' birthday in A Birthday for Frances (1968).  It's Gloria's birthday.  And that makes life a lot harder for Frances.  After all, it's very difficult to celebrate a sibling's birthday.  Frances feels guilty about not wantng to give Gloria a present, and finally decides to spend some of her allowance on Gloria.  It's the right thing to do, but that doesn't make it any easier to give up the candy she's purchased.  Once again, this book shows off some of the hallmarks of this series.  Her parents handle Frances' struggles with calm demeanor.  They affirm her feelings without much comment on them.  They love Frances no matter what, but encourage her to come to the right decision.  There are perfect moments in this book, such as when Frances is walking home from the candy store, she puts two of the four gumballs into her mouth and starts chewing "without noticing it".  Later, Father asks her "'Is there something in your mouth?' 'I think maybe there is bubble gum,' said Frances, 'but I don't remember how it got there.'"  Or when Frances insists on singing Happy Birthday to Gloria again, since she didn't really mean it the first time.  Gloria is more of a little sister in this volume.  She has her own friend, but clearly adores Frances.  This is a popular choice in our house - after all, it is hard to celebrate a birthday that isn't yours.

Gloria really comes into her own in Best Friends for Frances (1969).  Albert, who is Frances' best friend, doesn't want to play with Frances, and would rather do stuff alone or with other boys.  He takes an impressive picnic lunch with him on his wanderings, the first discussion of food in this one.  Frances goes home feeling dejected, and it is Gloria who steps in.  She asks Frances if she can be her friend.  She and Frances plan their own outing, complete with a sign that reads "BEST FRIENDS OUTING NO BOYS".  So of course Albert wants to come.  He is especially intrigued by the picnic hamper, which is so laden with food it requires a wagon.  I couldn't possibly quote the page and a half description of what's inside the hamper, but I will tell you that Frances ends that description with "And there are salt and pepper shakers and napkins and a checked tablecloth, which is the way girls do it."  It turns out that Gloria forms a bridge between Frances' hurt feelings and Albert so that they can become friends again.  And in turn, when Gloria feels left out, Albert and Frances come together to include Gloria.  It is particularly in this book that my Gloria reminds me of Hoban's Gloria.  She loves doing things with her sister, but is a little more rough and tumble than her sister (in the book, Gloria wants Albert to teach her to catch snakes).  She doesn't want to be left out, but wants to be included on her own terms.

Now we come to the last (but my favorite) of the Frances books, A Bargain for Frances (1970).  In this book, Frances has a new friend, Thelma (I suspect Hoban had a fondness for Albert and didn't want him to be the bad guy, but that's just a guess).  Frances' mother warns Frances to be careful and says "Because when you play with Thelma, you always get the worst of it."  But Frances blithely goes to Thelma's house where she announces she's saving her allowances for a real china tea set.  Thelma quietly schemes to get Frances to buy her cheap plastic set, and hurries off to buy the china set for herself.  When Frances discovers what Thelma has done, she manipulates Thelma right back, tricking her into taking back the tea set (and after Thelma had told Frances 'no backsies' too!).  It is a genius move, and shows some real spunk on Frances' part.  My girls are just beginning to experience other children trying to get what they want at all costs.  A Bargain for Frances has opened their eyes to the ways you can get your own back when you think the bargain wasn't made equally.  I'll always remember the description of the real china tea set, with paintings on each piece in blue.

I've waxed on and on about these books, but there's still more to be said.  I haven't even touched on Lillian Hoban and Garth Williams' illustrations, or Egg Thoughts and other Frances songs or the ubiquitious cardboard salt shakers, or the fact that all the titles start with a B, or...well, you get the idea.  These are classics, well worth visiting again and again.  Russell Hoban lives on in these stories.

Bedtime for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Garth Williams. Scholastic, 1960.
A Baby Sister for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban.  HarperCollins, 1964, 1993.
Bread and Jam for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban.  HarperCollins, 1964, 1993.
A Birthday for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban.  HarperCollins, 1968, 1995.
Best Friends for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban.  HarperCollins, 1969, 1994.
A Bargain for Frances.  Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban.  Harper & Row, 1970.

All books borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library, except Bargain which I borrowed from Helena School District.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mary Engelbreit's Nutcracker

I am a Christmas book junkie.  I have Christmas stories from my childhood and books that I have collected over the years from book sales and library donations.  Every year I give each of my daughters a new Christmas title (this year I found a favorite from my library storytime days called A New Suit for Santa for Gloria and Strega Nona's Gift for Frances).  We have so many Christmas books that every year I wrap 25 Christmas stories and we open and read one each day and we still have plenty left to enjoy at other times.  Yes, say it with me: I am a Christmas book junkie.

So when HarperCollins sent me Mary Engelbreit's Nutcracker to review, the girls and I were excited.  We have several great versions of The Nutcracker at home, and I wondered how this one would stack up against some of our favorites.  I actually really like this version, but I am not surprised.  If you don't know Mary Engelbreit, she is a designer who dabbles in many artistic endeavors.  She has created greeting cards, fabric, home decorating books, a magazine and many other things based on her darling, vintage illustrative style.  Now in the past few years Engelbreit has begun issuing her own versions of some famous children's stories (Mary Engelbreit's Fairy Tales, Mary Engelbreit's Mother Goose) as well as writing her own original stories (at our house, The Queen of Halloween is a favorite).

Engelbreit has an amazing knack for distilling the plot into a storyline easy for readers to follow.  The Nutcracker can be confusing.  After all, there are two distinct sets of events - Marie meeting the Nutcracker and battling with the Mouse King, and then the trip to Toyland.  But here, with just a few lines of text on each page, Engelbreit keeps what's important and focuses it.  Her version isn't long (it probably took us ten minutes to read aloud), but it has all the elements we love - magic, fantasy, action and even some romance.  And instead of seeing all the action swirling across a stage in a ballet performance, where there are often many things going on, Engelbreit keeps everything told through Marie's perspective.  It allows children to really identify with Marie, with her love for the ugly Nutcracker, her anger at Fritz, her bravery, her awe.  Readers see it all through Marie's wide eyes.

This is a retelling of the original version, created by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816 as The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. As such, there is no mention of ballet in this version, which may serve as a contrast with other versions.  Having experienced the ballet both with Frances and on my own, I know the storyline can sometimes be forgotten in the face of glorious ballet performances and swirling costumes.  But there is still dance in this story, especially in Toyland.  Engelbreit has paid homage to the movements and dance of the characters subtly throughout.  This works because so much of this story is experienced through its illustrations.

Mary Engelbreit's illustrative style evokes the illustrations of old, and this book is no exception.  On the jacket flap of this book, Engelbreit explains that she is influenced by old picture books, and you can definitely see it here.  It's in Herr Drosselmeyer's top hat, the style of houses, the cars and the toys pictured throughout.  For those who are aficionados of Engelbreit's work, many of her regular motifs and characters appear here as well.  The old-fashioned look of the book is also tied to the old-fashioned candy scattered throughout many pages.  There are peppermints, lollipops, gumdrops and ribbon candy encircling Marie and the Nutcracker on the cover.  As the book goes on, candy sprawls everywhere - it overlaps frames, spills onto streets and of course pops out of presents.  It adds a lush feeling to the story, and one that many children will delight in.  Adults, too, will enjoy seeing the old-fashioned details that make this book unique.

Engelbreit uses multiple frames to help tell the story.  Pages often have several different illustrations to pore over.  On the page where Marie and the Prince enjoy the dancing in Toyland, there is a framed illustration in the middle of the page with Marie and the Prince guessed it, candy.  There are spot illustrations of more food and international dancer fill the rest of the page.  Your eye moves from spot to spot following the line of dancers across the page.  Even though Engelbreit puts a lot on each page, the illustrations do not feel busy.  Instead they convey interest and movement.  This can subtly evoke the whirling dance of the ballet. 

There is one page where there seems to be on odd choice in the illustrations.  During the battle between the mice and soldiers, the text mentions that "Marie was so frightened she fell and bumped her knee."  Yet the illustration focuses on the mouse army.  At the bottom of the page is Marie's head, oversized, peeping from the edge of the page.  There's no evidence of her fall.  In a book where there is limited text and every word counts, either that fact should have been eliminated or it should have been shown to make the fight even more dramatic.  But this is just one small misstep from a veteran illustrator.

I hope you still have room under your tree for one more Christmas title.  This one is fun for young and old readers alike.  Mary Engelbreit's Nutcracker reminds me of Christmas candy - sweet, nostalgic and full of flavor.  Enjoy and Merry Christmas!

Mary Engelbreit's Nutcracker.  Mary Engelbreit.  HarperCollins, 2011.

This book was sent to me in galley form by the publisher in hopes I would review it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Energy Island

One of the things I like best about being on the Nonfiction Picture Books panel is the sheer diversity of books we've read.  I've read about subjects like safety for children, howler monkeys and prehistoric life.  Many of these are books I wouldn't have picked up on my own, but I have learned about so many things through these books.  This definitely includes Energy Island.

Energy Island is a small island off the coast of Denmark, which is more properly named Samsø Island.  The islanders had always gotten their energy sources from the mainland - electricity through underwater cables, oil by tanker across the ocean.  I've lived on an island, and although Drummond doesn't mention it here, I know that relying on energy sources being brought to the island can be inconsistent and expensive.  So it should have been a great thing when Samsø Island was chosen as the first Danish community to become energy independent.  The plan was to harness the ever-present wind and use it to create renewable energy.
  Drummond uses a young girl as the narrator of the story.  It is a strong narrative choice because she is relatable to other children.  She also helps bring a younger focus to a story which is populated with the adults of the community.  He uses two types of text to bring Samsø to life.  There is the overarching narrative, which the young girl carries.  This choice brings the information to life, and helps kids get why this is such a unique project.  The narrative also helps a project which is very far away seem more universal.  After all, we all waste energy in various ways and many people don't realize or care about renewable energy sources.  Then there are sidebars with more technical information on various environmental topics that tie in with the narrative.  These sidebars are clearly not part of the story - they are colored green, contrasting with the colors of the illustration, and have a different voice to them.

This book isn't just about energy and the island of Samsø, though.  One of the things that I think this book does best is show the way the community works to build consensus.  At the beginning of the project, all of the adults have reasons why they can't move towards energy independence or don't want to change their ways.  As one or two families agree to try it, then the winds begin to pick up speed, so to speak.  Drummond recounts a storm when everyone on the island loses power, except for the couple of islanders who have wind turbines.  Slowly, people begin to open their minds and experiment with alternative forms of energy.  I think this is a great idea for children to observe - that adults can be stubborn about change, and that their ideas aren't always right.  And it's valuable to see that the leader of the project, a teacher named Søren Hermansen, doesn't give up when the community doesn't want to change.  He keeps working at it and momentum begins to build slowly but surely.

One of the other interesting things about this book is Drummond's illustrative choices.  There is a huge diversity of illustration sizes in this book, and this adds energy (!) to the book.  Many pages have horizontal panel illustrations interspersed with lines of text.  There are also full-page illustrations, spot illustrations and vertical panels.  It keeps your eye moving across the page.  The variety of sizes also allows Drummond to show a lot of information without it becoming overwhelming.

There are a few problematic items in this book for me.  They are minor, but worth discussing.  I am really looking at back matter for the nonfiction titles I read this fall, and this book only has a single website as reference.  When I went to look at the website, I found that the link no longer works.  This is a real problem in a book that was just published this year.  And the concept of an island that is totally energy-independent is so interesting that I can't understand why there aren't more connections for interested young readers.

Drummond does include an author's note with a New Yorker article cited.  But an article in the New Yorker isn't appropriate for most children, so it is only helpful as his own starting point.  Drummond also notes in his author's note that he has compressed events to fit it all in the timeline he had set up.  I appreciate that he has brought this to light so that we are aware that his narrative isn't totally true to life.  One last criticism is that the book gives no specific dates.  Everything takes place "a few years ago"  or things take "several years".  While I understand that exact dates might not have fit into his narrative style, it gives you an unmoored feeling - does it take place in the 90's? the 70's?  Readers have no idea.  This book may have benefited from an extra informational page on Samsø or perhaps a sidebar with additional information.

All in all, though, this book gave me a look at a place I had no idea existed.  Energy Island is fascinating, and it's a great story to inspire readers to change their ways.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.
Energy Island: How One Community Harnessed the Wind and Changed Their World.  Allan Drummond.  Frances Foster Books: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark library

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Julian Hector Lovefest

I first heard about The Gentleman Bug from John Schu.  When I tweeted that I had read it and loved it after his recommendation, John (I hope it's okay that I call him by his first name, but I feel like I know him!) tweeted back his agreement and included the author on the tweet, Julian Hector.  Then a few weeks later, I read about Arthur Levine's new picture book, Monday is One Day.  When I checked it out from the library, guess who the illustrator is?  That's right, Julian Hector!  So I'm taking a little break from all of the Nonfiction Picture Books to enjoy a Julian Hector lovefest - his illustrative style is so appealing, I know you'll love him too!

When I read (again, on Twitter!) about Monday is One Day, it seemed like it would something my girls and I would really connect with.  As a working mother of two young girls, I have a hard time during the week.  Each day is packed full with work, daycare, driving, eating, errands, baths and reading.  We run from thing to thing all day.  As hard as it is on me, it is doubly hard on the girls.  Life can seem like an endless stream of "have-to's" for them.  Clearly Levine has seen the same thing happen in his own home because the daily grind for children is what this book is about.
Levine starts with the soothing reassurance "The hardest part of going to work is being apart from you."  And then the speaker and their child count the days of the work week until they are free on the weekend.  They start with Monday and Levine combines several techniques successfully here. The book goes through the days of the week both by name and by the day's number.  Monday is one day, and so there is one hug that goes with Monday.  As the week goes on (and the exhaustion of the daily grind increases), there are more and more hugs and kisses.  What is remarkable is that Levine creates a space of peace and togetherness in our hectic lives.  It's a reminder to give our children what they sorely need - love and time together.  The book serves as reassurance to the child, and as an important reminder to parents to slow down and enjoy our children daily.

The illustrations bring Levine's text to life.  The colors are bright, primary color washes.  There is an enormous diversity of families shown in this book, so a child will be able to recognize themselves and their own family here.  That in itself is a comfort - to be able to see so many kinds of families all doing the same thing - going to work and returning to show love.  But Hector also shows love in every picture.  A grandmother and grandfather hug a little boy on a tractor while wind-up dinosaurs stomp around them.  The grandparents' faces are lit up, their bodies turned towards the boy.  They are telling him he is the most important thing in their worlds with every part of their bodies.  Work is simply the thing we all have to do.  But Levine and Hector make sure children understand that as parents we spend every moment wishing we were with our children.  It is a book filled with love, and exactly what we needed in our house right now.  I hate to return it to the library.

The Gentleman Bug is totally different and equally lovable.  The Gentleman Bug is a teacher and a reader who is content with who he is.  He isn't the most dapper bug in The Garden, he isn't the most suave bug, but he loves his books and his students.  That is, until a new Lady Bug comes to town.  He tries to attract her attention, but she always seems to be looking the other way.  So he becomes more of a Gentleman Bug (emphasis on the gentleman), but that doesn't make him comfortable either.  The ending is so sweet and perfect that I won't ruin it here.  But it suits them both perfectly and makes the reader smile.

This book is set in a bug version of Victorian England.  Hector has included a winning map on the endpapers of The Garden where this book takes place.  There are such locations as Bugadilly Circus and HoneyHive Palace.  The endpapers also include labeled cameos of other characters in the story.  This is a beautiful added touch - a way to extend the experience beyond the first reading of the plot.  Readers can go back and follow these characters on their own journey.

The colors in this book are more muted, as fits the period setting.  The colors are gentle, just like the Gentleman Bug.  And I hate to say it, but these bugs are all cute!  Even the tick is friendly, with his legs waving around.  I've seen ticks, and they don't look so affable in real life!  You want to just hug the Gentleman Bug and reassure him as he worries.  There are also small details to pore over on every page.  Hector includes texture everywhere to keep readers' eyes moving.  This is a lush book, with a lot of big houses, towering flowers and an oversized queen.  And yet it is a book about bugs, which immediately shrinks your perspective.  But it is so, so winning and sweet.  I already have a copy on my wishlist for Santa!

I can hardly wait to see what Julian Hector creates next.  Count me in as one of his fans.  Check these books out, and you'll be a fan too!

The Gentleman Bug.  Julian Hector.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.
Monday is One Day.  Arthur A. Levine; illustrated by Julian Hector.  Scholastic Press: Scholastic, 2011.

Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thunder Birds

I vividly remember the first bald eagle I ever saw in nature.  Like many of us, I grew up in a time when the bald eagle was endangered (it became endangered in 1967), so I never expected I would see one in the wild.  About ten years ago, a friend was driving along the highway here in Montana, and I was in the passenger seat.  She said "Look there!" and pointed out my window, just as the eagle took flight.  I will never forget that amazing and majestic sight.  It took me by surprise as the eagle soared above us, riding a wind current.  It was an experience I will never forget.

Thunder Birds focuses on nature's flying predators, as the subtitle of this book calls them.  Beginning on the very first page, Arnosky explains how he sought out these birds in wildlife parks, reserves and sanctuaries across the United States.  Just like my experience with that bald eagle, Jim Arnosky loves the birds of prey.  You can hear it in the reverence and respect in his tone as he describes their habits . 

This book feels very personal to me.  While Arnosky has written about his research strategies and his family's involvement in his research in books such as Monster Hunt, Arnosky's introduction begins with his wife, Deanna.  They have traveled together to find all these birds and paint them.  The book is broken up into sections, and almost every section has a personal experience included.  His heart is clearly in this.  Arnoksy tells readers about the time he held a wild eagle by its strong feet so it wouldn't attack while a biologist mended its wing.  He also recounts time spent in the Everglades, monitoring the carcass of an alligator that Black Vultures fed on for a week.  These stories bring the birds to life for young readers, who will definitely be fascinated by Arnosky's experiences.

This book is written with young readers in mind.  Each section includes a narrative page on the group of birds featured, which might include owls, herons and egrets, vultures and others.  The narrative section includes Arnosky's compelling recollections as well as additional information about the group in general.  For instance, on the page about owls, he describes their feathers, and how they allow owls to take prey without any sound.  Then he remembers an owl swooping down on him from behind, without him ever hearing it coming.  It allows readers to envision how they would feel as the owl's prey.

There are four fold-out pages with life-size paintings of different groups.  Each of these fold-out pages includes specific information about the different types of birds within that group.  Each type is identified ("Great Gray Owl") and then Arnosky lists their length, wingspan and their habitat in the United States.  The way the information on the fold-out pages dovetails with the information on the narrative pages is impeccable.  There are small bites of facts for readers who will want to know the nitty-gritty about a particular bird.  There are also facts presented in the longer text to give readers a more overall picture of the group.  It's perfect for readers of any interest level.

The pictures in this book are incredible too.  As I've mentioned, the fold-out pages are almost all life-size birds.  Arnosky makes a point of mentioning if the bird is a different size so readers will be able to envision them correctly (the bald eagle is painted at half-size, for instance).  They are close-up and amazingly realistic.  I was amazed at how real these birds seem.  He has also painted them in their own surroundings - you see the Black Vulture standing possessively on that dead alligator, although there is no gore.  But Arnosky also includes spot illustrations with smaller details of each group, done in pencil.  The loon is shown diving under the water to catch a fish, and on the same page there is a closer look at the loon's sturdy foot.  Notes about these smaller pictures are done in Arnosky's writing, making these look as if they were taken from his sketchbook.  There are also very interesting shadowed looks at different birds' wingspans and how they might look from below.  I think these help make these birds identifiable for children, who will be scanning the skies after reading this.

All of this makes for a very strong book.  It is beautifully illustrated, and the diversity of both the illustrations and the information will make this appealing to readers across the spectrum.  I can see preschoolers looking agape at the enormous birds while older siblings and parents learn more from the text.  Arnosky has included some unusual back matter.  The author's note has a comprehensive list of sites he visited for the book, encouraging readers to visit the birds of prey.  There is a bibliography (with two more of Arnosky's titles included) and then a conversion chart to the metric system for the lengths and wingspans.  This is the perfect book to whet a reader's appetite for the thunder birds.  Hopefully, after reading it, their interest will take flight.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.

Thunder Birds: Nature's Flying Predators.  Sterling, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Friday, November 25, 2011

Star of the Sea

I'll bet you haven't really thought about sea stars.  Have you really thought about how perilous a simple meal can be for them?  How life ebbs and flows with the tides?  Okay, maybe that's a little philosophical.  But Janet Halfmann reveals a whole new world of information about the ochre sea star in this gorgeous book.  This is one of the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book nominees this year, which is why I picked it up.  However, I am impressed with how this appeals to the youngest readers and listeners. 

First of all, a note about why we are talking sea stars and not starfish.  In her notes at the back of the book, Halfmann writes that the name sea stars suits this family better because they are not fish at all.  They are related to the sand dollar, the sea urchin...sea animals with spiny skin.  But that's just a note.  I know I wondered as soon as I opened the book if sea stars and starfish were the same creature.  Halfmann does the right thing here by both referring to the creature by its correct name (in this case, we are learning about the ochre sea star) and explaining the differences further in the back matter.

So here is Sea Star, the ochre sea star we are watching throughout this book.  Her daily trip takes her from coastal rocks to the shore to feed, riding in with the tide.  Then after a day-long struggle to find accessible food, she goes back out with the tide, or she tries to.  Halfmann has a very relatable style.  She explains both Sea Star's daily life and her special features to readers in fairly simple text.  The text is easy for even the youngest listener to understand.  While my three year old couldn't tell you exactly how a sea star moved, she could tell you that she uses her feet to pry open the mussel, like a tug-of-war.

What I like about the way Halfmann has chosen to create this book is that it is full of information, but there aren't a lot of complicated facts to weigh down the plot.  For instance, there are no facts about how far a sea star can travel, or how often they need to eat.  But each page is packed with contextual information about the sea star's habits and survival skills.  This information is included very naturally within the text, and because the information is couched in the story, children learn it all easily.  There is also suspense in this sea star's day.  She is nibbled on by a fish and almost gulped by a gull.  In both instances she has to use her survival skills (like losing a ray) to escape.  The sea star is definitely made real by this text.  We know it is a female, and we root for her to get enough food, to make it through the day successfully.  But on the other hand, Halfmann does not personify Sea Star with cute features - she is very real and acts appropriately.

Paley's illustrations help make the connection between fact and story stronger for young readers.  The illustrations are created out of hand-painted papers to make the collaged double-page spreads.  They are richly colored, and Paley uses this technique to its fullest.  Readers can see the grains of sand, almost feel the rough rocks the sea star clings to.  Paley does one large double-page spread and then includes a detail in a pop-out square for readers to examine more closely.  One criticism is that sometimes that closer look isn't at Sea Star with her unique characteristics.  For instance, on a page where the text is talking about the eyespots on the tips of the sea star's rays, the closeups are of the mussels she's heading towards.  This isn't what I thought was most interesting about that page of text.

But this is a minor quibble with what are really amazing illustrations.  The watercolor blends and textures Paley creates give a real sense of movement to the ocean and to Sea Star herself.  On a page where Halfmann describes Sea Star flipping over "like a circus acrobat", Paley takes insets and cantilevers them.  You can see the sea star has flipped over from square to square, but the cantilevering gives a sense of the actual movement.  These illustrations are so realistic as well - there is a sense of being down at the beach, staring at the sea star in a tide pool.

There is quite a bit of back matter to support this book.  This includes information about ray regeneration, the aforementioned explanation about sea stars and starfish and some diagrams of the sea star.  I can't help but wish for a map of the ochre sea star's habitat (the Pacific Ocean) even though Halfmann describes it.  There is also a bibliography of other age-appropriate books as well as a few websites and a brief glossary.  This is well done marine biology that even a preschooler can enjoy.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.
Star of the Sea: A Day in the Life of a Starfish.  Janet Halfmann; illustrated by Joan Paley.  Christy Ottaviano Books: Henry Holt & Co., 2011.

Borrowed from Helena School District

Sunday, November 20, 2011

All About Alice

As you already know, I've been reading the Alice series for the past year or so.  I really believed that I had read a good portion of the series previously, and that many of these would be re-reads.  So far I've read seven books for this goal, and I hadn't read any of those before!  Here's the latest one in the series - new to me (and to you!) - All But Alice.

Alice's mother died seven years ago, when Alice was only five years old.  She doesn't remember much about her mother, and in fact she often gets memories of her mother and her Aunt Sally confused.  But even though she didn't really get to know her mother, her mother's death still affects her life every day.  This year (seventh grade is just starting at the beginning of the novel) Alice feels the loss of her mother very strongly.  She has felt for the past couple of books that the embarassing mistakes that she makes are mostly due to not having a mother or another strong female presence in her life.  But she does realize that there are lots of women, young and old, around her.  So to take advantage of all their wisdom and experience, Alice decides to join the Worldwide Sisterhood.

That sounds comforting and empowering, doesn't it?  Alice thinks she'll be safest following the sisterhood's lead.  But really the Universal Sisterhood isn't everything it seems.  For instance, Alice believes that sisters should put each other first.  So how can she balance the three women who are all in love with Alice's older brother Lester?  She knows Marilyn and Crystal, the two girlfriends Lester has alternated between, the best.  Alice likes them both for different reasons.  Then there's Loretta, who works at the music store Alice's dad manages.  Loretta seems older and more worldly than the other two, and Alice thinks that has its advantages, too.  "I felt as though I'd been admitted to the Secret Society of Sisters or something.  Whatever Loretta knew about life, she'd share with me, I was sure." (p. 25)  Who's a girl to support?

One of the other problems that Alice is trying to solve is the problem of popularity.  When several other girls in the seventh grade, including her best friend Pamela, decide to get their ears pierced, Alice wants hers done too.  After all, one of the best things about the sisterhood to Alice is solidarity.  This means, Alice believes, doing everything the same, looking the same, to show how strong they are together.  The girls become popular together, including spending most of their free time together, trying to decide what they will wear and how to coordinate their clothes with their new earrings.  But in becoming popular, Alice excludes one of her long-time best friends, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth has decided not to pierce her ears, and doesn't become popular.  At first, Alice doesn't even notice.  She is too busy feeling loved and comforted by her young sisterhood.  Alice needs help getting her first pair of earrings in, and her group is there to help her.  "After that, I felt terrific just thinking about the way the girls had fussed over me there in the restroom, the way they'd helped and encouraged me.  I'd been surrounded with Sisters..." (p.49)

So what does being a Sister really mean?  Alice has to come to terms with the fact that being in the sisterhood doesn't mean being a pod person.  This means valuing herself and her friendships, both with boys and girls.  Alice is an original, and that's what great about her character.  She's not perfect, and her mistakes in life are just as genuine as her desire to do the right thing for her sisterhood.  Alice is scattered, but excited about life and what's ahead for her.  At the beginning of the book, she muses "Only a day or so ago, I'd been thinking bulletin boards and now I was thinking pierced ears.  What would I be thinking about the day after tomorrow?  Being twelve, almost thirteen, meant all kinds of wonderful surprises..." (p. 16).  Alice keeps us guessing.  What will happen next to Alice?  We'll have to keep reading in this series to find out!

All But Alice.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1992, 2011.

my own copy

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Nation's Hope

There are some books we hear about all year long because they've been written by a famous author or illustrator.  There are some books we hear about all year long because they are quirky or are just plain enjoyable.  And there are some books that are mentioned all year long because they are just plain fabulous.  And A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis is just plain fabulous.  As an example of its fabulosity, it was just this week named one of the New York Times' Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2011.  It is also a Cybils Non-Fiction Picture Book Nominee, which is why I am reviewing it here.

Full disclosure:  I looked for A Nation's Hope at my public library this summer after hearing its buzz.  The book's status was checked in, but after I put it on hold the library quickly determined that it was lost.  I tweeted about my frustration, and Matt de la Pena did tweet back that he would hunt down the thief for me!  Also, there is a San Diego connection between de la Pena, Nelson and myself - we all at least attended high school there, and Kadir lives there now.  Just some fun facts before I dive into my review...I love how connected we can be with social media!

De la Pena opens this story at Yankee Stadium in 1938.  It is in the middle of the action - the crowd is buzzing and full of excitement.  The crowd is waiting for Joe Louis to fight German Max Schmeling, as we learn in subsequent pages.  This could be confusing for readers who don't know much about Joe Louis and his history.  But it works in this case because de la Pena helps readers cue in to the high energy and excitement.  This sucks readers into this moment in time.  We want to read on and find out why everyone is waiting for this fight to start.  De la Pena balances the tension of the fight (which is billed as the United States against the Nazis) with the story of Joe Louis' life.
There is a lot of weight on Louis' shoulders as he waits to fight - the "weight of history", the weight of the nation's need for him to win, to show Germany their power, the weight of the underdog, the weight of being black in America.  As we examine Joe Louis' life, we see that he also staggered under the weight of other people's expectations (his mother expected him to be a musician) and he also worked through the weight of defeat - working harder and harder every time he lost as an amateur.  What Joe Louis carried on his shoulders was the weight of learning - he learned from every experience and came out of it a better fighter.
De la Pena uses a free verse style to draw readers through the dual stories.  In this style he can give the important facts, the important feelings of the fight without getting weighed down.  He creates a successful mix of sportswriting, biography, poetry and informational text.  Readers will get the historical context while feeling like they are there, waiting for the bell to ring.
There is a good reason why this was named one of the New York Times' 2011 Best Illustrated Children's Books.  Nelson's oils on wood are simply amazing.  One of the most spectacular things he does in this book is his work on black backgrounds.  You would think that the black background would be unmanageable, that it would be difficult to paint light images onto the dark background, but in fact the opposite is true.  The darkness of the background just serves to emphasize the light in the rest of the painting.  One double-page spread is a closeup of Louis' arms and hands in boxing gloves.  His arms glow with sweat and hard work, veins and muscles delineated.  The black background only makes the light source warmer.  The same is true for a painting at the beginning of the fight.  Nelson does the unbelievable, making the lights (which are also black, but give off warm yellow light) stand out from the rest of the dark shadows of the stadium.  Most paintings where Louis is featured are from a perspective slightly below him.  This always makes him look like the hero he was and is.  The art is astonishing.
Now that's not to say that I think this is a perfect book, but it's pretty darn close.  I really missed the back matter for this title.  Because de la Pena's text is so spare and taut, I think that there could have been a bibliography of other recommended titles or source notes.  I would have liked to see notes from the author and illustrator, describing their process or maybe the sources they used to create this portrait of Joe Louis.  I would have even liked to see some other biographical information about Louis - his fight record or when he retired.  All of these, I believe, would help students use this book as a springboard for more research.  But these things don't stand in the way of a great piece of sportswriting at a perilous time in history.  Please take a look at it.  I know you'll be moved by this powerful story.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my ideas and thoughts.
 A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis. Matt de la Pena; illustrated by Kadir Nelson.  Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011.

borrowed from Helena School District

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Can We Save the Tiger?

I couldn't wait to read this one.  People had been talking about it since the spring and it sounded intriguing.  I had been waiting for it all summer at my local public library, but it was never ordered.  I had given up on seeing it, but two events happened at the same time - it was nominated for a Cybil in the Nonfiction Picture Book category and we finally went back to our favorite school library to visit after the summer.  It was there on the shelf (actually several of our local school libraries had bought it), and I now had the perfect excuse to review it!

I find this book a really fascinating combination of nonfiction and picture book.  First, the nonfiction.  The book is about endangered species and wildlife conservation.  Jenkins looks at animals who are extinct or endangered and breaks them into several groups.  There are animals who are already extinct, species who are endangered because humans have introduced predators, species who are running out of room, species who are accidentally killed off by human actions or disease.  Jenkins also includes a more optimistic group - the animals that were once in danger but have now rebounded. 

Jenkins has two ways of giving young readers information.  The main text is written in a more narrative style.  Facts are mentioned in a general way - writing about the American bison, Jenkins "A few hundred years ago, there were millions of them roaming the prairies and woodlands."  Jenkins is concentrating on telling the story of these endangered species, rather than throwing facts at the reader.  But he does this in an easy-to-read style, with a clear line of reasoning.  In explaining why tigers are in danger of becoming extinct, he tells readers "So if you were a poor farmer trying to make a living with a couple of cows and a few goats, you might not be happy if you found there was a hungry tiger nearby."  He helps us as readers clearly envision how our world has gotten into this predicament.

Jenkins also works hard at making the various problems affecting animals very clear to us.  This is actually one of the clearest books on wildlife conservation I've read.  As I mentioned, Jenkins takes groups of animals who have become or are becoming extinct and talks about the problems facing those groups.  He takes one focal animal, like the tiger, and uses that animal to represent the group.  But after the narrative section where he tells the story of their problem, there is a double-page spread with facts and illustrations of the other members of that group.  This is where Jenkins uses actual facts about the animals , including their location and the problem facing them.  Jenkins combines nonfiction techniques, making it appeal to both kinds of nonfiction readers - those who like the information and those who like the story.

But there is something else that will help this book appeal to readers and that is the illustrations.  The illustrations are done primarily in pencil, but they are amazingly realistic.  White's shading techniques bring light to the gray graphite color and there is amazing texture on these animals.  White uses oil paint (primarily a golden brown) to draw readers' eyes to some of the smallest details.  My favorite is the broad-faced potoroo (a small mouse-like creature) which is on a double-paged spread with several large animals.  White uses a touch of that brown on the potoroo's ears and paws to bring readers to the corner of the page.  It just highlights the ears and paws, but he just glows.  So do other animals where she uses the paint to cover the animal - the tiger just smolders regally.  It's amazing.  The book was created on creamy paper, which sets off the pencil and oil paint perfectly.  It is just a gorgeously drawn book.  Especially in the beginning of the book, where Jenkins is discussing species that are extinct, White brings these species to life.

Finally Jenkins and White show off what may be my favorite species on the brink of extinction - the kakapo.  If you remember, I wrote about last year's Siebert winner, Kakapo Rescue, here.  Here's hoping that this year's Siebert winner also brings attention to this precious bird.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my ideas and thoughts.

Can We Save the Tiger?  Martin Jenkins; illustrated by Vicky White.  Candlewick, 2011.

borrowed from Helena School District library

Monday, October 31, 2011

Follow Me!

I've been reading a lot of picture books lately.  This year, since I was a stay at home mother for most of the year, I swore I would have read most of the award winners when their names are called in January.  I've kept up with blogs (A Fuse #8 Production, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast), with Mock Caldecott Lists (Glendale Public Library, Allen County Public Library) and my own library browsing.  I don't keep track of how many picture books I read, but it's well into the two hundreds, at least.  I feel like I've been fairly comprehensive, but of course you can't predict how the committee's collective mind works.  I can only hope they will see things my way and consider choosing Follow Me.

Tricia Tusa isn't a new artist by any means, but the art in Follow Me is some of the most striking art I've seen from her.  I'm going to break from my own tradition and talk about the art first in this case.  Usually I talk plot/story first and then move on to art, but in making the case for a Caldecott nod, I have to say the art is jaw-droppingly beautiful.  Tusa has used what is cited in the front of the book as "an etching process with monoprinted color" to create the illustrations in this book.  What stands out the most to me is the monoprinted color.  Tusa's color choices are strong yet soft.  The colors are luminous - the book glows in your hands.  The backgrounds are simply crystal clear colors, but there is also a chalky texture to them.  These choices are truly unique.  What is also striking about this book is that the backgrounds are in many ways the focus of the book.  These pages are simple, without a lot of extraneous detail to clutter up the backgrounds.  It just makes the colors stand out.

Now let me go back and talk about the plot so you can see how well the words and illustrations fit together.  A young girl talks about soaring through colors as she admires them in the natural world around her.  She is gleeful, she is joyful, she is exuberant with the beauty around her.  And while she talks about emotionally soaring, she is physically soaring as well.  Her braid flies behind her as she rides on a tree swing - the old-fashioned kind with just a plank of wood and knotted ropes.  As she is enveloped in color, she shoots off the swing, soaring yet again through the sky.  The girl skims the leaves and flowers as she bumps gently to the ground.  The text is poetic without fitting a particular rhyme scheme.  It's dreamy and luminous, just like the colors Tusa chose.  And finally the little girl comes back down to Earth, finding her way back home.

The girl in the illustrations is not particularly old-fashioned but I would say this whole book has a timeless feel to it.  This girl is a child who is allowed the freedom and physical space to revel in her imagination.  She soars up into the limitless sky, lands in fields of flowers without a honking car or busy street to jar her out of her dreamy state.  It reminds us as parents, caregivers and educators how important it is to try and give our children this space to dream.  Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast gives this her Flight of Fancy award (I would link to the specific post, but I can't find it!) and it truly deserves that.  Not only is the book full of both flight and fancy, but it is full of nature.  And when the little girl lands and returns home, she is much richer for the experience.  There is a bounce in her step as she enters her front yard and goes up the steps.  The text is very simple, but it is the kind of book that invites the reader's own interpretation and imagination.  This is yet another reason why I think the text and the soothing, dreamy colors work so well together.

This was a spring picture book, and those can sometimes get overshadowed by the newest fall publications come award time.  Here's my love letter to this book, in hopes it won't be forgotten.

Follow Me.  Tricia Tusa.  Harcourt Children's Books: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

borrowed from the Lewis and Clark library

Sunday, October 23, 2011

While the Giant is Sleeping

Living here in Montana, there are many local features that we admire.  This is a mountain range known as "the Sleeping Giant" - see his face and chest in the photo to the left (from Google Images)?  This is unfortunately pretty abstract for young children to see and recognize.  The name sounds so appealing, but they have to look closely and carefully to actually see him.  I know when we would mention the Sleeping Giant to Frances and Gloria, they would get excited: "What?  Where's the Sleeping Giant?  I don't see him!  I want to see him!"  But in order to recognize him, children have to be able to know what a giant looks like, and then take time to match that up with the landform.  It usually just ended in frustration for the girls.

We were introduced to a book this spring that really made an impact on Frances and Gloria that talks about this local wonder.  Frances & Gloria's aunt is a school librarian at a local elementary school, and we spend quite a bit of time there.  She told us that a local author and illustrator were coming to do a presentation, and invited us to tag along.  The author, Alycia Holston, read the book and talked about why she created it.  Then the illustrator also talked about her creative process, including how she took many, many photos of the Sleeping Giant in all seasons.

This book is unusual in many ways.  It really helps personify this landform for children.  And when I use the word personify, I don't mean that children will think that this giant is alive and talking during the book.  The author and illustrator just help match the features of the mountain to a giant's body through this book.  There are just three or four lines of text on each double-page spread, always beginning with "While the giant is sleeping...".  Each page ties the mythical giant to the real, natural world around him.  The sun shines in his eyes, deer graze near his belly, the town below him includes schoolchildren who keep a watch over the Sleeping Giant.  There are pages for each season, too, as snow covers him like a blanket or rain pours down on his head.  It is told in a soothing, almost folktale style.  After all, this is a sleeping giant.  But Holston takes care to tie this sleeping giant to the land - he isn't going to wake up any time soon.

The illustrations (chalk pastels) are also very realistic.  The giant is reproduced exactly as he looks off in the distance from our house.  In reality, the Sleeping Giant is surrounded by open land, and Stranahan does a great job of showing the wide open spaces around the giant.  His features are very discernible without being over-emphasized.  Children can really see the giant's face, chest and stomach.  He definitely looks like a mountain, though - he isn't going to sit up and wink at you.  This realistic illustrative style is perfectly suited to Holston's text.  Both the text and the illustrations give you the majesty of Montana's wildlife and this wonder. 

Frances and Gloria haven't met many authors or illustrators, so for them, even at their young age, this program was very impactful.  Not only were the author and illustrator here, in Helena, to talk to them, but this author and illustrator were talking about a book written about their town!  And seeing the pictures close up meant that the girls were able to identify the Sleeping Giant for possibly the first time since we moved here.  Usually the Sleeping Giant had been pointed out to them in the distance, or as we whiz past it on the highway.  This book really delineated the Giant for them.  Now whenever we are driving, even Gloria calls out "There's the Sleeping Giant!"  This book has helped connect them to their local landscape in a new way.

If you are a planning a trip to Montana, I definitely recommend finding this book.  Even though it is specifically about Helena, Helena is the state capital.  Many of the wild animals and birds captured in these illustrations are seen throughout the state.  This book was published by a small press, but it is available locally and even on Amazon.  A sweet, soothing book.

While the Giant is Alycia Holston; illustrated by Suzi Stranahan.  CrossRiverkids, 2011.

borrowed from the Lewis and Clark library

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Old Penn Station

I recently found an old email recommending several good picture books from 2007.  While I was familiar with the authors of all three books, I wasn't familiar with the books themselves, so I interlibrary-loaned them.  The one that I loved the most of this set was Old Penn Station by William Low.  Perhaps it struck a chord because of its format - it is definitely a nonfiction picture book.  Nonfiction picture books are more important to me these days because of my current work as a Cybils panelist.  But whatever the reason. I want to share it with you.

Low includes an author's note at the beginning of the book, explaining why he was so interested in Old Penn Station.  He began to create the paintings for this book as part of a thesis project.  Low had always loved New York City and its history, and Old Penn Station is evocative of both of these.

Low takes the history of this station and distills it into sentences that are easily accessible for even kindergarten students.  There are only one or two sentences per page, but they give you the feel of the station as it was built, and, eventually, torn down.  For those of you who may not be familiar with it (like me), the Pennsylvania Railroad Company created the original Penn Station to have a station presence in New York.  It was designed to make a grand statement, and no expense was spared in its creation.  Eventually, however, as commuting changed, people were not using trains and the gorgeous Penn Station was torn down.  It was replaced by the current underground station.

Low used oil paintings to depict the station in all its facets.  One of the things that Low mentions about his own work on his website and in a video located on the website about the making of this book) is his love of light.  He looks for places to include light sources, and in this book the use of light is amazing.  Light and shadows are everywhere - making you realize how truly beautiful the old station was.  The most jaw-dropping picture to me is the title page painting.  Workers pose in front of a stone sculpture at the station, and half the painting (and half the group) is in shadow, the other half bathed in warm light.  It's almost as if a drop cloth is being pulled off a sculpture or painting, exposing it to the light.  It is a magical effect.

One of the themes Low emphasizes in this book is work and the pride workers took in what they had created.  There were many, many people who toiled to create this station.  There were tunnel workers who burrowed under the Hudson River, stone masons who carved sculptures and hundreds of construction workers involved.  Once the station was built, there were still many workers involved in a traveler's experience within Penn Station.  Low highlights these workers as well - the shoeshine man, the porter, the wait staff, the conductors.  The expressions on their faces show their pride, their dedication to their work.  You can see how much they love working in the station.  It is not only a history of the station, but also a history of work as many of these jobs are no longer as prevalent.
Another thing Low does in this book is make the concept of historical preservation understandable for very young readers.  We see many of the stone sculptures that stone masons carved throughout the book.  But Low focuses on one of the stone maidens throughout the destruction of Penn Station.  As the text describes the Pennsylvania Railroad Company's belief that the old Penn Station needed to be torn down in order to modernize it, you see the stone maiden over and over again.  Readers admire her luminosity and grace in the beginning of the book, along with admiration for the hard work of the stone mason.  Then as the stone maiden is hauled away to rest unceremoniously in a dump, readers become aware of the loss and sadness in this process.  You feel palpable sorrow as the maiden is hoisted off the building.  Low talks in his video about his anger at the destruction, but there is also grief in the paintings.  Low goes on to describe the founding of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and its importance in protecting the rest of the city's historical landmarks.  I think this is a perfect place for teachers to draw connections between New York City and their own towns,  It is so important to preserve history and to make children aware of what history can teach us.

Low includes a bibliography at the end of this history, so teachers can extrapolate more information to use with their students.  Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of these sources are adult books, but there are always ways to use the photos and other primary sources.

This book has come from Low's heart, and it is especially rich for all of his emotion about Penn Station.  I hope you will take time to admire this glorious book and honor this part of New York City's history.

Old Penn Station.  William Low.  Henry Holt & Co., 2007.

borrowed on interlibrary loan

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred

Seems like I have quite a few picture books to blog about - get ready for some posts on great books, both old and new!  And in the pipeline is another Alice book blog and some nonfiction picture books too, so there's a lot to look forward to this fall!

I think you can tell by now that I have a fondness for Hispanic authors and stories (If you haven't thought about that before, there's reviews here and here.  I've lived in San Diego and the Phoenix area, so I am definitely interested in talking about these books and seeing them succeed.  So I'm here to introduce you to one of the books that has already been mentioned as an outstanding picture book this year.  I'm hopeful it will at least win a Pura Belpre award, if not a Caldecott, too!

The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred is set up in a cumulative rhyme pattern.  I know preschool and primary grade teachers salivate when they hear that a new book is written in a cumulative pattern.  At my old library, we put together themed boxes of books for teachers.  We dreaded seeing "cumulative books" on the request slip.  There is no easy way to search for these books since there isn't really a subject heading.  You would have to rely on web bibliographies or your own memory to find these books.  For those of you who might not know what a cumulative book is, it's a book that is constructed like the nursery rhyme "The House that Jack Built", where things are added on with each stanza, but the stanza is primarily a retelling of everything that's come before.  It's always worth mentioning when a book works successfully in this pattern.

It begins, of course, with the farm maiden, who is leaping on the title page as she begins the stirring.  Each page introduces both an animal and the ingredient they are adding to the pot in English (the majority of the text is in English).  On subsequent pages, the animal and the ingredient are incorporated into the text in Spanish.  Vamos uses the text itself to emphasize the Spanish words - each noun is at the end of a line, formatted in bold, larger text.  It draws your attention to the Spanish vocabulary.  For non-Spanish speakers, there is a certain amount of comfort in the fact that they have already seen the word in English.  That way parent can point to the animal or ingredient when it is repeated in Spanish.  Also included for non-Spanish speakers is a glossary with pronunciations located at the end of the story.
Speaking of the end of the story, once all of the animals (and a farmer) have added their ingredients to the farm maiden's pot, they have made a traditional Hispanic dish, arroz con leche.  All the animals, farm maiden and farmer enjoy it together in what the jacket flap calls "a bilingual celebration of community and food".  It truly is a celebration, and all of them have given their time and work to make this delicious dish.  Vamos has also included a recipe for arroz con leche (good to know for schools or families who like to present a book and then cook together).

But as much fun as the rhyme is, the illustrations take its exuberance to a higher level.  Lopez chose warm yellows, browns, oranges and reds that evoke a desert landscape.  There is so much to look at in these illustrations for viewers.  There are animals everywhere, interacting with each other in funny ways.  The goat wears a large chef's hat as the cow gives him instructions as the farm maiden milks her.  As the arroz con leche cooks to its finale, all the animals peer longingly into the pot.  The farmer and farm maiden's clothing and home add to the rustic feel of this book.  Everyone is happy to work together and equally happy to eat up their hard work.  Texture is drawn into the illustrations with swirls, dashes and dots.  However, Lopez also uses the background texture of the grained wood he created his paintings on to good effect.  He is expert at evoking smell, movement and emotion in his art.
This book is luscious and highly recommended.  I only hope the committees appreciate this as much as I do!

The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred.  Samantha R. Vamos; illustrated by Rafael Lopez.  Charlesbridge, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark library